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July 11, 2009 / Infinite Tasks

Yrstruly and DFW on Race (and Tattoos)

Some controversy is ensuing (mostly here) about the lack of sophistication in DFW’s portrayal of race and non-white characters, particularly regarding the vernacular of yrstruly and Clenette [6 – in which I argue that yrstruly and Poor Tony are white]. Readers not interested in this discussion but who want to read about DFW’s problematic consideration of Tattoos can skip down to point (3) below. My first point (1) is that Black vernacular is not cognitively denigrating, and my second (2) is that yrstruly provides a deeply self-aware and cognitively rich narrative.

(1) The claim of some readers is that DFW’s use of Black vernacular (a partially invented one, for sure) denigrates Black cognitive and linguistic abilities, and further that these serve to represent the only Black people in the novel. But this depends on what one views as the significance of Black vernacular (or, urban vernacular). Black vernacular (which is not the same as Ebonics [7]) is a fascinating communicative alternative to so-called “white-speak”, and to the uninitiated it can be nearly indecipherable. My block in Oakland, CA has a lot of street-life, some of it a bit rough (we took a bullet through our window last February), and after five years I can sit on my porch and listen to the cauldron of voices without being able to distinguish more than 25% of the content. (But this is not true, for instance, of two white teens who grew up on this block.)

But does this mean I can’t have discussions with my neighbors? No – for the simple reason that speakers of this urban vernacular are multi-vocal, they can switch back and forth between the nearly indecipherable street talk and “plain-speak” (which is not quite white-speak) in order to communicate with uni-vocal folks like me. Here, the use of urban vernacular turns out to be closer to something like what philosophers Gloria Anzaldua or Maria Lugones describe as a special cognitive ability to “travel” between worlds, to understand more than one set of communicative norms and thus also to understand the variable formations of power that the use of those languages invokes. [8]

I have done quite a bit of prison advocacy and for about 6 years have been teaching college-level philosophy courses in San Quentin Prison. Much the same is true there that holds on my block: students can engage in “plain-speak” very well enough to produce engaging discussions of, e.g., Socrates, Descartes, DuBois, or Fanon, yet put a few of them together around a table during a break and I am quickly lost. This is not a cognitive question, nor an issue of race, but a sophisticated mechanism for private and meaningful communication such as develops in all marginalized caste-cultures.

(2) I think that a textual analysis of the yrstruly section (pp. 128-135) reveals a cognitive and narrative sophistication attributed to yrstruly that is impressive, even remarkable. His attention to the details of his surroundings and his intimate knowledge of all of the signs/meanings that comprise a city street and its residents is awe-inspiring. The section is given narrative tension via two arguments and a third that is significant for its absence. The first argument ensues over whether to elemonade the map of the Patty and to strip his ride – to murder the Irish robbery victim and part out his car at an illegal shop. Over C’s objections, they broke the Patty’s jaw as insentive not to eat no cheese – incentive not to rat them to the police. But yrstruly wonders what was the pernt of C taking off the Patty’s ear, which ends in a dumpster. (Foreshadow: C will follow that ear into the dumpster before the day is out.) Everywhere there is snow, coming off onnings – awnings – and then refreezing; this reflects the bitter internal cold of addiction settling in, as the temperature drops and the options start to dim.

A second argument ensues about whether to cop from Delphina or to Redline down to Chinatown to visit Dr. Wo at Hung Toys. Poor Tony is white – pale – for the second time, now, knowing that he is walking into a trap, having crewed on Wo in the past. While C and yrstruly wait, dope sick and trailing mucis out their nose, they notice Wo’s unusual behaviors, including eventually wishing Poor Tony prosparity and a thousand blisses.

The third argument is the key, the one that never comes. Poor Tony doesn’t try to tie off first, but waits to see if they’ve been given a bad bundle. Astonishingly, PT let yrstruly shoot up, too, without a word, but crafty ol’ yrstruly gets a cold super station – superstition – and waits long wnough for C to die in gruesome fashion, hipitch screaming, heels pouning and downhegoes flopping. This makes yrstruly angry enough to head back to Wo’s the next morning to eat cheese on PT (but Hung Toys is closed), and anyway, PT departed for green pastures and ate cheese, and yrstruly was left to kick in the hall outside his Mom’s apartment on Christmas morning.

(3) However, it is on the issue of tattoos (and especially prison tattoos) that I have had my first genuine irritation with DFW, and part of this is indeed about race. At pp. 205-211, DFW describes Tiny Ewell’s fixation on tattoos to compensate for “removal of the enslaving Substance” (p. 205). Ewell’s “dermo-taxonomy” includes only three categories: young boneheads and spiked-bracelet types without enough sense to regret; the stoic and self-conscious regretful types; and the “bikers” who are affect-less. To this point, I’m ok, since presumably this is Ewell’s dermo-taxonomy based more on the Ennet House population than any reasonable semblance of reality. The descriptions of the tattoos are a bit silly (e.g. Calvin Thrust’s Unit), but the reference to Jennifer Belbi’s four teardrop tattoos giving her “overall searing-regret honors” (p. 207) is unconvincing. That these were obtained during a night of “mescaline and adrenalized grief” suggests that they are mourning tattoos for loved ones killed rather than for murders she herself committed, and though mescaline might have produced the courage, there is no immediate reason to think she is of the searing-regret category.

The first annoying problem comes with Don Gately’s deliberately misleading Ewell as to the source of jailhouse tattoos, presumably done with sewing needles dipped in ink and jabbed into the skin at different depths: “this is why jailhouse tatts always look like they were done by sadistic children on rainy afternoons” (p. 210). Does he really think that prisoners are given sewing needles?! These are totally contraband. Jailhouse tattoos are typically done with homemade (i.e. cell-made) electric tattoo guns, using wire or guitar string connected to a small motor (say, from a radio) and fed through a pen cartridge. Is this Gately simply toying with Ewell, or does DFW simply assume how most jail tatts are made?

There is one more strange – and maybe so far as ignorant? – comment from Ewell: that “Black people’s tattoos are rare, and for reasons Ewell regards as fairly obvious they tend to be just white outlines” (p. 208). Huh? Most readers have seen an N.B.A. basketball game, and won’t see any white outlines draping the outsized arms of Rasheed Wallace or, a fine example from the years of IJ‘s writing, Dennis Rodman. Or from any other Black man or woman, whose skin, as we all know, can take on many different hues of brown. This comment, and nothing having to do with yrstruly or Clenette, I find genuinely disturbing.


Leave a Comment
  1. kate / Jul 11 2009 3:37 pm

    very nice.

  2. klaus / Jul 11 2009 3:46 pm

    yeah, just to clarify: in plenty of films tattoos are made from pen: I don’t see this as any flaw from the author, honestly, it has total veracity if we are considering media, which adds to the Jest.

  3. jackd / Jul 12 2009 12:26 pm

    Not to question your expertise, but “a small motor (say, from a radio)”? I’ve never seen a radio with a motor.

    • infinitetasks / Jul 12 2009 2:08 pm

      You should probably say quote expertise unquote. I’m told that a walkman has an appropriate motor. If you check out the comments at, you’ll see that free-hand tats are still common, too, as Klaus points out above.

      • jackd / Jul 15 2009 7:20 am

        I see. Yes, a cassette or CD player would certainly have a motor. That’s some remarkable ingenuity, converting either to a tattoo gun.

  4. Professor Of Pop / Jul 13 2009 4:05 pm

    I have not and probably never will read IJ but this is fascinating stuff!

  5. mungo181 / Jul 14 2009 10:53 am

    w/r/t the tattoos on African Americans thing, and tattoos in general… remember IJ was begun in the 80s and finished in the early 90s. The tattoo crazy had not yet begun, and in many areas of the US were only seen on a certain class of white folk. In NYC tattooing was illegal until the mid-90s, and the underground tattoo artists didn’t have much experience with darker skin. Af-Am friends of mine were hot to get inked, but afraid of bad results.

    I also think yrstruly was white, for what it’s worth.

    • infinitetasks / Jul 14 2009 11:50 pm

      Good points, Mungo. Guess I hung with a lot of inked folks (biker-types and boneheads, mostly, none of the regretful stoics), though this was admittedly as late as B.S. ’87 when I got my first tattoo.

  6. ozma / Jul 14 2009 9:12 pm

    I didn’t get the jailhouse tats thing–there were kids in my school who tried to approximate jailhouse tats with regular blue ink from a pen and some kind of thin metal, but no electricity.

    I also had trouble with the comment about black people and tattoos…but when I think of it, every racial comment in that book posed a bit of an issue for me. Not an irresolvable issue but at least some questions.

    There are other comments of this kind. I can’t stand the references to ‘blue-black.’ These are not in character’s minds but in the narration.

    That might be a personal issue with me.

    In a footnote, there is a question about how well-meaning people screw up their kids and as part of the mystery, it is included that they are white people. The narrative voice here is a bit obscure to me.

    • infinitetasks / Jul 14 2009 11:46 pm

      Thanks, Ozma. I guess it’s a personal issue with me, too, as you say, a not irresolvable one. There’s so much creative use of severely limited materials in prison: I find the rigging of tattoo guns so awe-inspiring that to represent only the least interesting form of tattoos irked me.

      I think IJ presents a lot of “outs” for DFW, since the narration is not simply an omniscient third person, but rather more of a floating third that shifts according to the character and setting, so that it’s tough to tag him with a definitive responsibility for any misleading or overgeneralized statements. And mostly, I’m thrilled and amazed at each sentence, as are we all.

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