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Who could possibly be fooled by this? How?
Even now, I feel a blend of skepticism and perverse glee watching Krug’s poorly executed caricature; it’s as if Christopher Guest had turned his sardonic eye on my childhood. Her performance of a Black Nuyorican is especially disorienting for me: I was born in New York City and grew up between Times Square and East Harlem in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I still have family there. My best childhood friend for many years was Puerto Rican, and I spent countless days in his apartment — his mother’s Héctor Lavoe records often playing in the background.
Bandolera was my favorite. These past couple weeks, I’ve been amusing myself by inserting Krug’s alter ego into the chorus: ¡Aléjate Bombalera! Fittingly, Lavoe opens the song crooning, “Quien dice una mentira dice dos y dice cien.” Who lies once, lies twice, and lies 100 times.
Lauren Michele Jackson — a sharp and talented writer whose work I enjoy — unpacked Krug’s origin story, retracing her many deceits, in a recent piece for The New Yorker. In searching for the roots and motivating factors for Krug’s charade, Jackson lands on two culprits: “want of Blackness” on one side (or “affinity for Blackness as an instrument of authenticity,” as Jackson puts it) and colorism in the academy on the other (“gather us [scholars of Black studies] in a group,” she writes, “and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a tenure-track scholar darker than the proverbial paper bag”). Both of these things exist, and both certainly contributed to making Krug’s personal and professional minstrelsy a success for so long; neither, however, really gets to the heart of the matter. There’s something deeper going on here.
We actually get a glimpse of that something in the opening segment of Jackson’s piece. Therein, she details the recent social media fracas when Black Brits and Black Americans debated whether or not pop singer Adele’s Carnival getup — complete with Bantu knots in her hair and a Jamaican-flag bikini top — constituted appropriation of Jamaican culture (a debate that was equal parts maddening and informative to observe). At the center of the otherwise insipid Adele debate is a conflict over who gets to be the arbiter of Black authenticity, and what power that authenticity grants those who possess it: the power to judge, affirm, and rebuke all who are deemed to be inauthentic; the power to set the terms of grievance (Who gets to be aggrieved? For what? What license does that grievance grant them?).
Further down, Jackson also references the curious case of Black novelist and purported Cuban exile H.G. “Hache” Carrillo, who was posthumously unmasked as Herman Glenn Carroll from Detroit. The revelation of Carroll’s true identity plays a pivotal role in the timeline of events Jackson lays out in her piece: “Krug’s reckoning was finally set in motion,” she notes, “after another [George Washington University] professor, H.G. Carrillo, died, in April, at the age of 59, due to complications of the novel coronavirus.” And yet, how the complex deceptions of both Carroll (an African American man passing as Afro Cuban) and Krug (a white woman from Kansas City, Mo., passing as Afro “Boricua”) are part of the same twisted phenomenon is left largely uninterrogated.
Neither colorism in the academy nor want of Blackness (or rejection of Blackness and want of whiteness) adequately explains how and why Carroll was able to fool just about everyone, including his husband, into believing that he was “Hache” Carrillo. Even Krug’s case, for that matter, seems to me less about want of Blackness than aspiring to academic and cultural credibility and legitimizing the power that “authenticity,” so (hazily) defined, allowed her to wield as “La Bombalera.”
Both of these false identities were built on an inviolable grievance and an unquestioned (and unquestionable) pain — two characteristics that exempt those who claim them from culpability while arming them with righteous indignation that can be used to deflect scrutiny and bully adversaries. Krug attempted to craft an unassailable victimhood rooted in the violence of gentrification, white privilege, and (most macabre of all) the fictitious rape of her mother by a white man; Carroll adopted the ultimate dispossessed identity of exile. Whole books can — and probably will — be written about the complex personal and psychosocial reasons people like Krug and Carroll had for crafting their alternate lives/selves. Like Rachel Dolezal, each will become a curious case study unto themselves. But I think there’s something going on here that greatly exceeds each racial impostor’s unique story, something about identity formation and the performance of self in the 21st century, something about how we define and measure (and reward) authenticity in the academy, and in society writ large — something, that is, that implicates all of us.
There’s something going on here that exceeds each impostor’s story — something about the performance of self in the 21st century.
We’ve lived the sort of complicated, challenging lives familiar to those consigned to the societal scrapheap by circumstances beyond their control. Our collective family narrative spans multiple public-housing projects and homeless shelters, premature death, addiction, and AIDS. Some lives took tragic downturns, but my family members also became businesspeople, activists, a famous rapper, a boxer, policewomen, a professional baseball scout — even a professor. Like all human beings, our lives have been rich and layered. Each household had its own set of traditions, its own microculture within the larger familial body. Individually and collectively, we survived through ingenuity, fortitude, and the struggle for dignity. We cultivated a sense of the intense joy of life; we learned how to prioritize the life-affirming over the soul-draining. Our lived experience gave us what James Baldwin, in discussing the blues, described as double-edged understanding; grievance and pain informed our collective experience. It shaped our sense of who we are in this world, in these bodies, but it could never define us.
Last week in one of my classes we actually discussed Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind” in tandem with Ayana Mathis’s The Twelve Tribes of Hattie. One student presciently noted, “suffering is an insufficient foundation for community and identity.” So is grievance. Which raises the question: Why are so many Black thinkers and writers frequently willing to reduce Black identity to grievance and pain for consumption by a white audience?
To her credit, at the same time that she was performing and profiting from this identity forged in grievance, Krug’s peers and former students seem to agree she produced quality scholarship. Her minstrelsy, at the very least, didn’t appear to be a cynical ploy to mask mediocre thinking. But what do we make of the booming market for facile meditations that have been produced by this recent period of intense reckoning with American racism? A Black colleague recently referred to the dramatic uptick in performative Blackness and self-help books on anti-racism as “social-justice disaster capitalism.” The market has opened wide in the wake of crisis (killings by police, increasing economic inequity, the normalization of overt forms of racism we hoped were relegated to the past), and grifters and milquetoast scholars are rushing to exploit the demand — gettin’ while the gettin’s good. To quote my colleague again: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many poorly rendered books about race meet with so much success.”
In 1966, Joan Didion took stock of American delusion and pronounced “the dream was teaching the dreamers how to live.” In 2020 it strikes me that a distinctly white, capitalist gaze has taught Black people how to perform Blackness. Facile, uniform talking points dominate the discourse. Standardization within the clout economy has fostered a culture of boosterism rather than criticism; praise rather than scrutiny. I’m used to white people promoting mediocre Black thinkers and writers who regurgitate generic talking points to flatter their narrow understanding of Blackness; what I wasn’t prepared for was seeing Black people partake so willingly in such a routine.
The Black identity has become standardized: commodified, reproducible on an industrial scale, tailored and marketed to flatter the projection and needs of its white audience. Much as hip-hop has remained subversive in posture while its political core has shriveled, like rotting fruit, into a soundtrack for the crudest mainstream capitalist values, the mainstream iteration of Black identity has, likewise, become something to fill display windows — the artificially ripped and acid-washed trappings thrown on a faceless mannequin. The superficial markers of Black culture have been so successfully co-opted by mainstream culture that our very notion of Black identity has become flattened where it was once double-edged. There’s a sterility where once there was subversiveness; a goal to flatter the white audience where once there was the aim to provoke it.
Black identity has become standardized: tailored and marketed to flatter the projection and needs of its white audience.
If whiteness depends on willfully misunderstanding Blackness in support of the delusion of normalcy, then aspiration to flatter whiteness depends on a similar distortion. Jessica Krug figured out what many of her Black peers have and tried to exploit it similarly: Black authenticity in the main has been reduced to an accumulation of talking points and catchphrases that have their roots not in lived experience but in replicating a replication of lived experience. Social media provides the accessible language and concepts that water down Black authenticity and flatten Black identity into performed grievance. In such an environment — one that relies on Black people learning to be Black through an essentially artificial, voyeuristic, and white-adjacent gaze — it becomes easier for the Jessica Krugs of the world to find maneuvering room.
To whom does the performance of grievance appeal? Both those who are empowered by it, and those who are laid vulnerable by it. There’s a sadomasochistic aspect to the dynamic: White audiences want to absorb more and more grievance, which they misinterpret as a progressive and political act in itself rather than an ultimately self-centered one. Those who perform the grievance understand the point is to master the script — to learn the talking points and inflections of grievance and indignation, and weaponize it to be both victim and bully. The point of the show is not critical analysis, but the show itself.
What does it say about academe when we substitute role play for critical race theory? What does it mean to inhabit universities that demonstrate minimal to nil progressive attitudes about race, yet are willing to be aggressively progressive in employing gender pronouns and acronyms like Bipoc in their official emails to faulty and students? The trend of substituting acronyms and self-help culture for measurable progress and enlightenment encourages the Jessica Krugs of society. The grift of black grievance — these self-help books that posit anti-racism as a skill and language for white people to master — is part credentialism, part self-care, and wholly cynical as well as capitalistic.
Of course, Black people didn’t invent this routine; usurping identity isn’t an aberrational act in academe, where so many professors espouse radical race and class politics disconnected from their upbringings as well as their immediate realities. And if so many of us are performing, at what point do we lose the ability to separate the performance from reality?
CV Vitolo-Haddad, a Ph.D. candidate at Jessica Krug’s alma mater, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, confessed, “I have let guesses about my ancestry become answers I wanted but couldn’t prove. I have let people make assumptions when I should have corrected them.” Vitolo-Haddad is not alone. I encounter peers and even former classmates online and find they provide nebulous bios that indicate a claim to marginalized identity while also providing plausible deniability to backtrack if pressed. Regardless of context of class status or personal narrative, they might describe themselves as “an immigrant writer of color” or they might “partially identify ethnically as …” Over the past couple of years, a friend has sent me a series of social-media posts in which the same academic claims a different identity in each: “As a Midwesterner… As a Southerner… As an Appalachian.” The claim to identity does as much work as, if not more work than, the scholarship; the implied experience reaches for the credibility lived experience should provide. There’s a legion of academic pseudo-celebs who have adopted the rhetoric and techniques of social-justice discourse without any of the moral underpinnings; they seek and seize the spotlight by contriving controversies within which they are centered as victimized experts or champions of progress in opposition to a foe or value designed to win them easy retweets and allies. It’s a very cheap and transparent brand of public intellectualism. Jessica Krug is not so sensational a story: She is everywhere.
There is no singular, authentic way to be Black. But while Black intellectuals are quick to assert that Blackness is not monolithic, I’ve observed many of them do so in duplicitous, self-serving way, as a rationalization that justifies a class monopoly on Black perspective — regardless of lived experience, many feel they are entitled to speak on the entirety of Black experience. The reality is some of them have such little respect for the lived experiences of Black people (unless they can usurp them) that they couldn’t possibly identify an interloper like Krug if they tried; they’re running a similar con.
The bulk of Black Americans have had experiences more similar to mine than most of the Black people I’ve encountered throughout undergraduate and graduate education, and certainly during my teaching: 37 percent of Black American households have a net worth of zero or worse; Black households have a median worth of one-tenth of their white counterparts. In my time among the educational “elite,” I’ve crossed paths with very few people who can speak directly to that experience. That doesn’t stop them from speaking authoritatively about it and even co-opting it. The examples are too numerous to recount, but there are two I revisit with consistent incredulity: a reading of an N-word filled nonfiction essay about — among other things — drive-by shootings, delivered by a distinctly upper-class Black man who was known to resist acknowledging other Black people in public, and a Pakistani author’s lecture comparing Rakim to Shakespeare despite his lack of familiarity with Rakim’s catalogue of music beyond the ubiquitous, global single “Paid in Full.” In each case the audience was essentially all white. Both writers spoke about experiences close to my own, but I was not the market.
While visiting my mother in early March, I stood in line at a new juice bar in her thoroughly gentrified neighborhood, where she is one of the rare Black holdovers. I noted the background music during my time in line: Main Source, Big Daddy Kane, Leaders of the New School. The vintage sound of New York City stood in stark contrast to the reality of modern Manhattan, and spoke to a desire for Black aesthetic and cool without Black people. It’s difficult not to reach a similar cynical conclusion about our neoliberal universities. I believe plenty of Blacks and Black-adjacent inhabitants of the academy have taken note and adapted.
Satchuel Paigelyn Cole — the latest in a string of white-women activists outed for pretending to be Black — confessed, “I have used Blackness when it was not mine to use.” This transgression has not been unique to white people. The academy encourages such performance of unearned Blackness — a Blackness built on contrived grievance and opposition. Institutions of higher learning favor grievance without the aggrieved; they want to hear the song of the marginalized without doing anything to ensure more of the marginalized ascend to the university’s gilded platforms to sing it.