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What’s My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals
Grant Farred
Minneapolis: University Press of Minnesota, 2003.
$18.95, 316 pages, ISBN 0-81663-317-7 (paperback).

Chris Bell
University of Illinois at Chicago

[N]ever underestimate the vernacular as a means of producing a subaltern or postcolonial voice that resists, subverts, disrupts, reconfigures, or impacts the dominant discourse […] It functions […] as a mode of linguistic expression, a repertoire or representation, a politics of being, particular to a racialized, ideologically marginalized constituency. [p. 17]

The stereotypical (and perhaps vaunted) image of the intellectual positions this individual in or at least near the academy, surrounded by and producing copious tomes of great merit. In What’s My Name?, Grant Farred troubles this limited conception. Riffing off of Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the organic intellectual, he presents the vernacular intellectual. Describing this individual, Farred writes:

The vernacular intellectual is distinguished from the Gramscian organic by a situatedness within the popular, frequently racialized experience of disempowered constituencies. While the organic is rooted in communities, the vernacular articulates an equivocal relationship to hegemony, a complex negotiation with the dominant group that is characterized by a self-conscious difference and defiance. The vernacular is defined by its immersion in the language of the popular, the particularities, idiosyncrasies, and distinctness of vernacular speech; the vernacular is marked by its ability to speak popular resistance and popular culture to power. [p. 12]

Farred’s choice of figures for his critique is simultaneously expected and surprising. While the ubiquitous postcolonial gurus Stuart Hall and C.L.R. James are present, so too are the usually unexamined (at least in a theoretical context) Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley. Explaining his inclusion of the latter two—as well as the text’s overarching premise—Farred writes, “What’s My Name? posits previously unrecognized localities, the music concert, the press conference, the boxing ring, the popular music lyric, as intellectual sites by and for cultural figures who speak as vernacular intellectuals” [p. 10].

The chapter on Muhammad Ali is by far the most interesting. In fact, the reader gets the impression that Farred initially conceived of this text having thought about Ali in a vernacular context. Farred positions Ali as the quintessential vernacular intellectual, observing, “Ali’s use of language as a cultural resource is in and of itself unique; no other boxer used it to indict his opponents morally and ideologically” [p. 50]. Ali’s use of language is of principal concern to Farred, providing both critic and subject their ideological thrust. Farred’s critique is a well-rendered one, providing a fresh perspective on Ali. It is interesting to (re)consider Ali from a vernacular perspective, that is how he might have been the erstwhile “poet laureate of black global oppression” [p. 54]. As Farred explains, Ali “is easily given to parable—he is, after all, the boxer who spoke in verse, even if it wasn’t iambic pentameter” [p. 67]. He provides a larger framework by noting:

Ali spectacularized boxing as a cultural event both through the magnificence of his athletic skills and his introduction of an identifiably black speech into forums dominated by a white aesthetic of reserve, an arena where blacks were objects of rather than producers of commentary. Ali converted boxing’s traditional venues from spaces that privileged the black body as mute spectacle into a platform for black physical and intellectual articulation. [p. 53]

By that light, it is of supreme significance that Ali, when fighting Ernie “The Octopus” Terrell, continually shouted, “What’s my name?!” As Ali clarifies, “I wasn’t just talking to Terrell […] I was talking to all those people who kept calling me Cassius Clay. They wouldn’t call Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Benny, Howard Cosell, or Edward G. Robinson by the old names they junked. Why do it to me? [p. 63] Such authoritative statements reinforce Farred’s conception of the vernacular intellectual, that figure who steps outside of conventional expectations, reasserting, reframing and reclaiming his ontology.

The chapter on C.L.R. James is the least interesting primarily because it meanders. There are large sections of text that neither mention nor allude to vernacularity or the Gramscian intellectual. Instead, the reader receives a primer on Caribbean cricket, James’s game of choice. In those rare instances when Farred addresses vernacularity, his meaning is not at all clear. Consider, for instance, this excerpt: “James had to produce a new [rhetoric] because he recognized the limitations of the ones available to him” [p. 137]. In lieu of explicating the uniqueness of this discourse, Farred lapses into an extended discussion of cricket. The obsessive focus on cricket obfuscates what could have been an intriguing discussion of a major postcolonial figure. Indeed, Farred primes the reader for such a discussion earlier when observing:

James imaginatively affiliated himself with several different contexts of struggle where his “eloquence” was put to the task of “persuading,” giving voice to the position (politically, ideologically, socioeconomically, culturally) of the community in which he situated himself; these articulations represented an engagement both with James’s community and their antagonists. [p. 107]

It is unfortunate that he does not follow through on this sentiment, opting instead to offer an irrelevant treatise on cricket.

The chapter on Hall is fairly incisive, if not somewhat repetitive. Noting that “Hall is the intellectual who became a vernacular postcolonial figure through discomfiture, through unlearning and reclaiming his Jamaican past,” Farred attempts to show how the Jamaican scholarship boy became one of the most influential thinkers of his time [p. 154]. The repetition is evinced in Farred’s explanations. Consider the following three statements:

The effects of postcolonialism in the metropolis on Hall were such that he had to develop from scratch a political vocabulary that could account for the experience of immigration and the transition from colonialism to postcolonialism. [p. 179]
Identity politics enabled Hall to renegotiate his own self-construction in a vocabulary that could accommodate an admixture of psychic contradiction and ideological linearity. [p. 182]
Transformed by the racial and ideological crises into a vernacular intellectual, Hall uses the language of identity—the personal as the profoundly, resonantly political—to explain his political career and personal decisions. [p. 184]

Is there any doubt that Farred is saying the exact same thing in different (and in the case of the second excerpt, convoluted) language?

This chapter, in contrast to the previous one on James, is worthwhile for its numerous references to Gramsci. Throughout the chapter, Farred shows how Hall, the vernacular intellectual, is different from—albeit inspired by—the organic intellectual. A good example of this is the suggestion that “Hall ha[d] to, in a critical sense, remake Gramsci in order to construct himself as a diasporic intellectual; Gramsci’s focus is too ‘narrow’” [p. 176]. Hall’s doffing of the Gramscian construct was a major component of his intellectual development and one that Farred examines in great detail.

The Marley chapter offers very little only because by the time the reader gets to it, he can pretty much predict what Farred is going to say. His explication of Marley’s lyrics come as little surprise; the fact that Marley codes his political meaning within his lyrics. As Farred writes:

[T]he Wailers’ leader very seldom allowed himself the luxury of full frontal attacks on the political institutions he opposed. Rather than engage in direct confrontation with the state, in its Babylonian (the Rastafarian metaphor for Western and colonial wickedness, immorality, and corruption) or postcolonial (though these distinctions did not always hold) manifestation, Marley’s critiques were more subversively coded. [p. 220]

He continues by showing how this coded meaning was a trademark of Marley’s, “almost always hidden beneath the anti-Babylonianism of his Rastafarian faith” [p. 222]. Admittedly, there is nothing disingenuous about this chapter; it is certainly more relevant than the one on James. The problem is that the reader knows Farred’s trajectory before he begins to read. To that end, Farred could have improved his critique by eliminating some details—does the reader really need to know that Marley’s favorite brand of knife was Okapi as explained on page 227?—and provided more details in other instances (Farred leaves unanalyzed this assertion: “Trenchtown was a more variegated community, composed of many more constituencies than [Marley’s song “No Woman, No Cry”] allows, including other religious groups who would not consider themselves morally lacking” [p. 234]).

What’s My Name? is a good text with the potential to be a better text. In reconsidering his trajectory, Farred might concentrate on the extant disconnects he has created. For instance, in one point, he speaks of a “strategic vernacularity,” causing the reader to wonder what kind of vernacularity is not strategic [p. 209]. Farred might also rethink his tendency to create binary comparisons between Hall/James and Ali/Marley. If the idea is to situate the latter two in the same intellectual realm as the former, then constantly separating the two works against his overarching argument. On this score, it is worth mentioning that the text lacks a conclusion, something to tie the previous pages together and also lead the reader into new directions. In lieu of a conclusion, Farred presents this hyperbolic statement about Ali and Marley (he has concluded by disentangling Ali and Marley from Hall and James): “While Ali may stand as the prototypical, most popular, and well-known vernacular intellectual, Marley is a uniquely, poetically potent vernacular intellectual who has no postcolonial equal. Especially not as a lyrical thinker” [p. 274]. The reader is confused by the overreaching nature of this statement; the need to position individuals in such an ultimate mode (Farred’s introduction concludes on a similar hyperbolic note: “The postcolonial, the work of James, Ali, Marley and Hall suggests, can be understood in its full complexity only through the vernacular” [p. 25; my emphasis]).

Where What’s My Name? really misses out is its choice of four thinkers. Initially, it must be noted that all four are men. Farred addresses this in a lengthy and thought-provoking statement in his introduction:

The largely-male dominated world of sport and popular music reveals how embedded the vernacular is in suppressing its own “female unconsciousness,” how the subaltern is in part constituted by its own oppressive treatment of women and gays as underclasses, how it is marked by its own silences. The vernacular’s history is, as regards the struggles of women or gays and lesbians, marked by incompletions. The vernacular provides only a partial accounting of resistance, a construction of the intellectual that is at once deeply oppositional and radical and yet bound by the patriarchal constraints of its historical modality. [p. 13]

This explanation, however, does not negate the choice (although it does galvanize the reader to consider how the vernacular of women and gays and lesbians continues to be overlooked). Additionally, What’s My Name? never addresses the fact that the passage of time has allowed Marley and Ali to become (re)conceptualized as thinkers. One need not theorize too hard about the potentiality of situating them as such. What would have made for a far more interesting text would have been the inclusion of more recent figures. A case in point would be the hip hop figure Snoop Doggy Dogg who, in his debut single, refashions Ali’s “What’s My Name?” into his own brand of bravado. While Ali has been ensconced into the cultural framework, Snoop remains on its fringes. His vernacularity—along with those of many other recent figures, e.g. Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and RuPaul—is seen as an exceptional one. Drawing on Farred’s supposition that “the vernacular is not the exceptional. It constitutes the normative and most efficacious political modality for all of these figures [p. 8],” it would have been interesting to see how a more contemporary figure (read: intellectual) deploys vernacular; that is, how recent vernacularity differs from that deployed just a few decades ago.


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