In “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Jorge Lois Borges posits an imaginary country that snowballs out into real-time and, despite the fact that the place and its customs are complete fictions, begins to affect the world in which we live. It begins with a nightly conversation between Bioy Casares (a real person) and Borges. To punctuate a point he’s made, Casares quotes from a gnostic from the country of Uqbar; he found the quote in a copy of the Anglo-American Encyclopedia. Borges is skeptical—he’s never heard of Uqbar. Casares insists it exists and searches for it in his copy of the encyclopedia. He can’t find it, but insists that it was “a region either in Iraq or Asia Minor.”
The next day, though, Casares finds a copy of the encyclopedia volume with the “Uqbar” article and, indeed, with the quote. Casares’ volume (XLVI) appears to be the only copy printed with the “Uqbar” volume; despite countless searches, neither Casares nor Borges can find another copy of the volume featuring “Uqbar.” It’s not listed in the encyclopedia’s index. They can hardly find mention of the region in any libraries.
To compound matters, the few times in which Uqbar is mentioned, it’s made clear that the region’s peoples never wrote directly about the place. Instead, their histories and mythologies refer to a fictional world called Tlön but there’s (of course) no actual, extant copy of any works on Tlön. Through a series of circumstances involving a family friend, Borges ends up with Volume XI of A First Encyclopedia of Tlön. The number of the volume indicates that Tlön wasn’t just some mad whim but rather a fully realized, thoroughly imagined world with ethnicities, languages, climates, flora, fauna, history, and mythology. All of it, of course, is completely fictional.
But who created it? Borges and his team of scholars—almost all of whom, by the way, were real people, though employed for fictional services in this short story—quickly deduce that Tlön can’t be the work of a lone nutjob, but must have been created by committee, by an organized team over the course of a generation. That leads us, ultimately, to Orbis Tertius, a shadow conspiracy dedicated to promulgating the world of Tlön and, hell, maybe Uqbar as well.
Borges’ signature genius, beyond all the ideas that the 20-page story conjures up, is his tone. This obvious fiction is played as straight nonfiction, as pure scholarly text. Most of the characters involved in “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” are real people, more or less doing the things they did in real life, and many of the footnotes and asides are true and drawn from actual texts. Just as the fictional Uqbar seeps into reality, Borges’s 1941 story blends fact and fiction until it’s nearly impossible to tell the difference. As the story’s Wikipedia entry notes, “A fictional entry about Uqbar stood unchallenged for some time on Wikipedia.”
The story ends ominously:
Contact with Tlön and the ways of Tlön have disintegrated this world. Captivated by its discipline, humanity forgets and goes on forgetting that it is the discipline of chess players, not of angels. Now, the conjectural “primitive language” of Tlön has found its way into the schools. Now, the teaching of its harmonious history, full of stirring episodes, has obliterated the history which dominated my childhood. Now, in all memories, a fictitious past occupies the place of any other. We know nothing about it with any certainty, not even that it is false.
“Uqbar” is a malignant virus, a dangerous fiction that overtakes its host—the real world. Art tends to do this: Think of how much our perceptions of history are shaped by what we’ve seen in movies; how our understanding of, say, Marie Antoinette’s life is shaped more by a movie than anything we’ve read in a history book; how even the best historical fictions (Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Kathryn Davis’s Versailles) flatten and simplify our history, but how we know them better than we know the truth.
All of this leads me, of course, to what Kim McLarin hilariously dubs “Whiteygate.” If you’re (blessedly) unaware of this tempest in a thimble, here are the basics. For the past three or four months, rumors have floated, disseminated by right-wing media, that Michelle Obama once used the word “whitey” to refer to white people from the pulpit of Trinity United Church in Chicago. Oh, the horror. It’s gotten so bad that Barack Obama has had to publicly and repeatedly denounce the completely unsubstantiated rumor on the campaign trail.
The flap is further proof of Borges’ prescience regarding the spread of fictions, and how fictions overtake truth. (John Kerry learned the Argentine’s lesson the hard way during the “Swift Boat Affair.” The lies spread and became part of the public record and, as with Tlön, without a shred of evidence.)
“Whitey,” I think, is just another version of Uqbar; its disseminators a cabal of Orbis Tertius imitators. McLarin points out “the clearest and most obvious knockdown of Whiteygate. Namely this: When the hell was the last time you heard a black person call somebody ‘whitey?’”
I’ve lived as a black American for 31 long years, and I have never, not once, heard a black person refer to a white person as “whitey” or, for that matter, “honky.” I think I’ve heard the terms used ironically but, even then, it’s rare. More often than that, the ironic quippers are white, anyway. Hip-hop, a music that dominates American popular culture, is created primarily by black people. Quick thinking: Can you name a single rap song in which the words “whitey” or “honky” are used? While I suppose the words were used in the 1960s and 1970s, I’ve mostly heard them in movies from that period.
I mean, ‘Whitey?’
[Michelle Obama] has a law degree from Harvard, for crying out loud. If, for some reason, she was trying to rile up a congregation she could do much, much better than that. I have spent the afternoon trying—with all the honesty and courage and humble introspection that is called for in this historic moment, with America poised to finally cast off its original sin and move into the full realization of those ringing words in the Declaration of Independence—to think about the terms black folks use when talking among themselves about white people.
I could barely move my pencil tip. Probably because black folks spend a lot less time talking or even thinking about white people than most white, right-wing reactionaries and their black counterparts dream in their hot little dreams. I had trouble, and, after hours and hours, the best I could come up with was this:
White folks. Whites. White people. They.
If “whitey” was ever a common term outside of the Black Panther Party, and I’m not even sure about that, it’s certainly not now, and I doubt it’s part of the everyday language of a woman who was born when the term was about to go out of style. The rumor’s employment of this stale term reeks of right-wing paranoia and desperation. Only people who don’t come into regular contact with, you know, black people would ever think we spray “whitey” in public or at all.
But the “whitey” Tlön feeds into a larger Uqbar, which McLarin hints at: the fiction that white people are at the forefront of black consciousness at all times. My biggest problem with Paul Haggis’s execrable Crash and the equally misguided James Toback movie Black and White is that racial epithets are constantly at the tip of every character’s tongue, rubbing the surface of every personal conflict and character motivation. Maybe that’s true of white Americans—I doubt it—but it sure ain’t true for black folks. I think of white folks as consciously white only when the context requires it. Race gets mixed into all kinds of other things—sexual insecurity, class, alcohol—to cause fistfights and foul language. I’m always aware of white presence but awareness and obsession are two entirely different things.
Whether or not “whitey” was ever a real and lasting insult in black communities, it’s clear that it’s insinuated itself into popular culture and discourse. It’s a fiction made real through obsession. Whitey. Tlön. Honky. Uqbar. Again. It’s no more than this but, alas, also no less.
If there was ever a man who used “whitey” in the aforementioned contexts, it would be Washington, D.C.’s beloved, controversial Petey Greene. The radio host, talk-show personality, gadfly, and all-around contrarian took on all comers in his freewheeling commentary on race, sex, relationships, and politics. His idiosyncrasies—both good and bad, both community-building and self-aggrandizing—were toned down in Kasi Lemmons’ bland Hollywood biopic Talk to Me (another fiction eclipsing the real), but the man himself is incredible to behold in clips. He tweaks black and white perceptions, and was just as interested—maybe more interested—in critiquing African American life as he was in white life.
Case in point: Buppies—and I suppose I’m one at this point—have an, ahem, complicated relationship with eating watermelon. Like fried chicken and chitlins, it’s a food we’re long associated with liking, and the minstrel stereotypes associated with blacks and watermelons are strong enough to make some folks sidestep the fruit in public, even if we actually like it.
Until last week, I hadn’t touched watermelon in half a decade. That’s not entirely due to images like this and this, but they didn’t help. Why would I need to confirm in public what white people might think in private?
As Petey Greene might say, though, “why should you give a good goddamn what white people think, anyway?”
La Bella’s hosting a watermelon party at her place on Saturday, complete with a seed-splitting contest, watermelon margaritas, and a recipe that calls for the fruit in combination with feta cheese. In her honor, here’s Petey Greene showing how it’s done, and why black folks should be proud to chomp down.
UPDATE: More on "whitey" and the black folks who might–just might–use the term audaciously… In the Department of How Did I Miss This? (#5,373), Paul Beatty has a new novel out. I’ve foisted The White Boy Shuffle and Tuff onto at least three friends, and he’s come up on this site before. Anyway, Slumberland is the name, and it looks like a corker. Chris Abani reviews it for the Los Angeles Times and Alex Abramovich seems to like it, guardedly, at Bookforum. I’m headed to the bookstore after work.