When Crystal B. Lake asked me to write something for The Ramblist, I thought I’d offer a list of books that take up the question of brownness, an idea I first encountered in Vijay Prashad’s The Karma of Brown Folk and have since followed across the writings of José Esteban Muñoz, Richard Rodriguez, Nitasha Tamar Sharma, and others. I meant to present these works as a kind of annotated bibliography of brownness, a reference guide for those who, like me, might be interested in why so many twenty-first century writers use “brown” to discuss what Kant would call die Mannigfaltigkeiten in der Menschengattung, “the manifold diversities within the human species,” as one translator renders the phrase, or what I think of as the manifold manifolds, the plurality of particular, marked human bodies that populate the planet. What the literature on brownness ultimately affirms, I think, is that we can never fully synthesize these manifold manifolds into a coherent whole––but that doesn’t seem to stop us from trying.
And we should keep trying, because one of the things that is clear about the otherwise murky category of brownness is that it is (or can be, or should be) politically useful, not to solidify, as it often has, a racial hierarchy that places white at the top and Black at the bottom, with brown somewhere in between. Rather, brown serves (or can serve, or should serve) as a way of establishing anti-racist solidarities, solidarities that resist those imperial institutions that have divided the globe along racial lines. I think, for example, of Muhammad Ali, who, when discussing his refusal to got to Vietnam in 1967, asked, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” “Brown people in Vietnam” rather than “Vietnamese people”: solidarity forged via an allusion to race, even when referring to, say, national or ethnic identity might lend itself to greater precision.
Like I said, I meant to offer a list of brown resources that would clarify how twenty-first century thinkers have tried to make meaning from manifolds. As I began to compile my list, though, it struck me that author and text may not be the most useful organizing principles to help us understand a brownness that is, as Muñoz puts is, “one opening among many, different circuits that are not there for the purposes of forming some grand assemblage.” So what follows reads, I think, less like a bibliography than a found poem, a set of provisional statements collected from books and articles written over the last twenty years that gesture toward a definition of brown and offer, I hope, a sense of what brownness makes (or can make, or should make) possible.
- Nitasha Tamar Sharma, “Brown” (in Keywords for Asian-American Studies)
- Joshua Javier Guzmán, “Brown” (in Keywords for Latino/a Studies)
- Kamal Al-Solaylee, Brown: What Being Brown Means in the World Today
- Richard Rodriguez, Brown: The Last Discovery of America
- Kevin Young, Brown: Poems
- Andrea Canaan, “Brownness” (in This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color)
- Hiram Pérez, The Taste for Brown Bodies
- José Esteban Muñoz, The Sense of Brown
1. Brown is a color, “one of the least preferred colours in the Western world” (Al-Solaylee). Goethe, in his 1810 Zur Farbenlehre, “associated brown, a color he did not necessarily enjoy, with seriousness and melancholy” (Guzmán), but the association with sadness goes farther back: “‘Brown’ is a term from 11th-century Old English (brun) and Middle English (broun) referring to a color meaning ‘duskiness, gloom’” (Sharma). (In the late 20th century, the relationship between feeling brown and feeling down would get taken up by Dr. Seuss, whose My Many Colored Days tells us “Some days, of course,/feel sort of Brown.//Then I feel slow/and/low,/low/down.” It’s the “of course” that gets me, the implied obviousness of brown as bleak.)
And yet brown glows: “In Old English, ‘brown’ connotes duskiness in color yet brightness in polish, the latter still being operative in the contemporary sense of ‘burnish.’” (Guzmán). If, as a color, brown gets folded into race by means of a slippage we call racism, which attributes an essential degradation to darker peoples, brown also becomes by means of a deliberate adjustment, a way of calling out the process by which certain people are degraded: “Brown is the colour of the five million Muslims in France, most of whom come from the former North African French colonies. Brown is the colour of the Pakistani and Indian immigrants to the United Kingdom who arrived as the Raj gave way to post-partition chaos and violence. Brown is the colour of the uprisings that have taken over the Arab world in the first half of this decade. It’s the colour of hundreds of thousands of Egyptians—young and old, illiterate and digitally savvy—saying ‘Enough’ to a life of poverty and political oppression.” (Al-Solaylee).
2. Brown is not Black (although Black may be brown). There is, across the literature on brownness, a rather consistent acknowledgment that brown is not Black, just as it’s not white: “Brownness is not white, and it is not black either, yet it does not simply sit midway between them” (Muñoz); “my brown was not halfway between black and white” (Rodriguez); “we’re not white…[o]r black” (Al-Solaylee).
Less often discussed is the productive work of the common-enough rhetorical move whereby Blackness, via somatic approximation, is articulated in terms of brownness: “Brown is my color, the very shade of which colors my existence both inside the black community and outside of it” (Canaan). Or, as Ice Cube puts it: “Fuck the police comin’ straight from the underground / A young ***** got it bad ‘cause I’m brown.” “Brown / and not the other color,” the iconic lyric continues, attesting perhaps to the idea that “brown is…an identity that both complicates and preserves the binary opposition white/other” (Pérez).
Brown “complicates and preserves.” On this, see Kevin Young’s brilliant poetry collection, Brown. Read the whole thing, start to finish, but pay special attention to “A Brown Atlanta Boy Watches Basketball on West 4th. Meanwhile, Neo-Nazis March on Charlottesville, Virginia,” which begins “Here the pain / mostly goes away.” The brown boy of the title is briefly––just while he’s watching the game––spared the pain of being young and Black in an America that wants him dead, an America where “black // means guest, not home” (Young).
3. Although it “designates a kind of constitutive ambiguity within U.S. racial formations” (Pérez), brown is not a strictly American designation. “It is,” rather, “political and global” (Sharma), “the ontopoetic state of not only people who live in the United States under the sign of [L]atinidad, but of a majority of those who exist, strive, and flourish within the vast trajectory of multiple and intersecting regimes of colonial violence” (Muñoz). Brownness is global because colonial violence is global. Hence, “brown as a racial signifier is capacious enough in its reach to not only signal Latinas/os or Indigenous peoples within the United States, but also to move transnationally and mark what some call the ‘global South’” (Guzmán). This, of course, is nothing new: “At the turn of the 19th century, race scientists such as Johann Friedrich Blumenbach referred to people from Southeast Asia and the Pacific, including Filipinos, as belonging to the ‘Malay’ or ‘Brown’ race” (Sharma). Near the turn of the twentieth century, the colonial administrator Hugh Clifford––a friend of and influence upon Joseph Conrad––would likewise use “Malay” and “brown” interchangeably in his Studies in Brown Humanity: Being Scrawls and Smudges in Sepia, White, and Yellow. In the context of Clifford’s book, “brown humanity” is an oxymoron. In the twenty-first century, the work of brown writers seems to be to recalibrate the human so as to remove all contradiction from Clifford’s titular formulation.
4. Finally, Brown is. Brown is an ontological problem. Muñoz has probably done the most among the writers on my list to expose the onticization of brownness, that is, the persistent reduction of brownness to brown people: “the world is brown, albeit a brownness that has been obscured from us.” For Muñoz, performance offers a “path toward an attunement to the brownness of life and the world,” and I would suggest that the various utterances about brownness we encounter in criticism, memoir, and poetry––including the few I have compiled here––operate (can, should operate) as such paths. “Brown is time” (Rodriguez); “Brown is a verb” (Pérez). These and other sweeping, often lyrical gestures direct us toward a brownness that precedes, resides within, and outlives particular brown entities. Brown writers don’t exegete brownness so much as they make present the brownness that “we are in…and of” (Guzmán), the brownness that surrounds us and courses through us like the music from the stereo of a car outside the speaker’s home in Kevin Young’s poem “Bass.” The beat stirs the speaker’s son from sleep––“Brown boy,” the speaker urges, “head back & dream”––and so the speaker looks for the source of the disturbance: “I rise / & search the windows to see / if I might spot the sound– // still going, louder now, / its thin thunder / reaching me, everywhere, // even here” (Young).
Manu Samriti Chander is Associate Professor of English at Rutgers University-Newark and the author of Brown Romantics: Poetry and Nationalism in the Global Nineteenth Century [link: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9781611488234/Brown-Romantics-Poetry-and-Nationalism-in-the-Global-Nineteenth-Century]. He is currently working on The Collected Works of Egbert Martin, with the support of a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Grant, and developing a second monograph, Browntology, under contract with SUNY Press.