Here’s a trick: Find a person you love and offer them something no one has ever seen, that no one will ever see again. Admire their astonishment. Then, produce a peanut. It could be anything in a shell—an oyster, say, but that’s messier to share. Crack it open, and each eat one of the nuts. Now you have a secret, a little conspiracy locked forever between the two of you.
Lies make secrets too. And every secret doubles the world. Something shared, something hidden. It works the same even when you are alone. Just crack the peanut and keep it for yourself. No matter if that lie is horrid, helpful, harmless, or forgotten. Something told, something held back. Large features of our lives, fantasies and shames and unbidden memories, remain secret only because no one ever asked. In that case what gets doubled is loneliness turned on itself. But spoken or held all alone, a lie becomes a twin, an image of truth, or a shadow, like a ghost. A phantom.
(This is Part 5 in an ongoing essay on Mad Men. For Part 1, see here: Everything’s Exactly the Same. If you missed part 4, see here: Which Was What Was Wanted. Yes, there will be spoilers about earlier seasons, if that sort of thing bothers you.)
Another way to view doubling is with opposites, not simply the inverted mirror image but as a kind of negative correspondence, like a photographic negative: black and white, light and dark. Unfortunately, these binary distinctions have a frequency of getting falsely applied and disastrously abused in our cultural language of metaphor.
From naturally available complements we make outrageous leaps. This valueless negativity, this essential balance, becomes an imaginary struggle of polarities. We assume challenge, competition. A pair becomes a rivalry, copies overthrow authenticity. A passing resemblance makes an evil twin.
This is foolishness, but it runs deep. In 778 an army of Frankish Christians retreating through the Pyrenees from its attempted conquest of Spain was ambushed at Roncesvalles Pass. In the fighting, Charlemagne’s chief knight Roland got killed by the attackers, a group of Christian Basques native to the region. But Spain at the time was not a nation, just a peninsula, was in fact 700 years from becoming unified (and violently purged of Jews and Africans) under Ferdinand and Isabella, and much territory in Spain had been lately controlled by Moors, Muslims from Morocco.
Four centuries later, the encounter was revived as a piece of anti-Muslim propaganda instigating Europeans onto the first Crusades, and this Song of Roland remains as one of the earliest lasting pieces of medieval Western literature. In this telling, at the epic frontier between Christianity and Islam, the Basques are changed to Moors, and Roland looks out into the gap between them, “sees those misbegotten men/that unbelieving race, who are more black than ink is on the pen/with no part white, only their teeth except.” Abisme, the Moorish hero who kills Roland, has a name meaning basically “black hole*.” Abisme is described like this: “Black is that man, black as molten pitch that seethes” and “stained with the marks of his crimes and great treasons/he fears not God, the Son of Saint Mary.” So Abisme is not just extremely dark skinned; his color is attributed as a blemish from his bad deeds, a signature of his infidelity.
There are two things horribly wrong here, even if we accept as poetic license the error about the Basques.
For one, Moors didn’t look anything like that. Then as now, North Africans were both natively diverse and broadly cosmopolitan, with complexions ranging from blondish Nordic Vandals and post-Roman Carthaginians to somewhat darker Berber nomads and Coptic and Nubian Egyptians (as well as Greek Egyptians), in addition to the recent Arab newcomers, who were themselves a variety of Semitic tribes and Aryan Persians, plus Jews all around. Since the Ummayad recruited slaves as soldiers, Moor armies in Spain may have had access to Kanembu slaves from Chad, as well as some East Africans—but also Slavs, Syrians and Turks (not yet in Turkey, which was still quasi-Greek and Roman, but, extending throughout Northern China and to Chechnya and to the Indus River, also fabulously diverse). More likely they just used the available population in Spain, including conquered Jews and newly-Catholic Goths. The narrative itself lists “Negroes” as just one of “30 columns” of fictional Moorish troops, hardly the sea of blackness it elsewhere portrays. So chances are any Frank infantryman (“Black was his hair and somewhat brown his face” also according to Roland’s latter-day lyricist) was, even allowing a few hypothetical Abismes with sub-Saharan tones, near the same color as the typical Saracen adversary across the battlefield.
But there is no mistake why foreign skin is in these rhymes styled in shades of “ink” and “pitch.” No 12th-century European had any way of knowing the global phylogeny of the Moors, while the only “Africans” or “Muslims” most of this bard’s audience had ever seen were the token black figments used to exoticize “Three Kings” pageants, “morris dances” and other stage shows featuring white actors literally rubbed with tar or soot—centuries before American blackface minstrelsy. These traditions used the same contrast, the same artificial darkening, to represent devils. And it’s this terrible, false association of blackness with wickedness and immorality, the charred blackening of hell, the opposite of heaven’s supposed light or goodness, together with its convenience for Empire, which rationalized white Europe’s flattening of homogenous “blackness” onto every other part of the world, and its fear and subjugation of darker people for the next thousand years.
Let me be clear: It doesn’t change the travesty of this labeling either that many real folks do appear quite darker than historical Moors. In nature, in optics, darkness is not a substance or force trying to overthrow light. They are both faces of the same universal phenomenon. Your eyes are adjusted to recognize and differentiate within a limited band. Even absolute darkness does not mean an absence of virtue or a cloaking of truth. Everything holds its same meaning under light or dark. The difference is your own struggle to see. Yet in the language of exclusive oppositions, where white equals purity, any treading along the gradient of shades protracts to this outlandish corruption. That’s why Christopher Walken’s Sicilian American gangster in True Romance gets angry enough to skip his planned interrogation when Dennis Hopper, because North Africans also dominated Sicily beginning in the 9th century, tells him, “You’re part eggplant.”
Lots of people take due pride, obviously, in African heritage and dark features. Or whatever complexion—we are all descended from Africans, no matter what, and almost everyone Charlemagne too. In African Americans, the interference of Europeans during slavery, plus countless examples of intercourse since, rendered genetic variety surpassing possibly Mediterranean Africa’s. “Ancient black life rooted upon its base with all the fascinating new layers of brown,” Claude McKay celebrates in his 1928 novel Home to Harlem. “Low-brown, high-brown, nut-brown, lemon, maroon, olive, mauve, gold. Yellow balancing between black and white. Black reaching out beyond yellow. Almost white on the brink of a change. Sucked back down into the current of black by the terribly sweet rhythm of black blood.”
But by the time of Mad Men, in the 1960s, common broadcast media reinforced this old reducing polarity—television and newsprint showed only black and white. So ancient habits of mind conspired with new technologies to further flatten whiteness as well. Except that just as in Middle Ages Europe whiteness got the long end of the bargain, as the standard model of unaltered humanity.
Even though America was not Europe, was the land of immigrants, of upward mobility, generic whiteness was so everywhere represented, and so well translated on TV, members of this congealed collective like Don Draper could jump from nowhere into any station with the right manners and perhaps a change of clothes. White recognizes white. Everyone else? Black, Jewish, Sicilian—including female!—required adjectives, and exaggeration, to affect “representation” in visible places like the screen, and still much more rarely in the rosters of social elites, in high offices or even office staffs. In 1963 the Urban League publicized Madison Avenue advertising agencies’ poor record of hiring blacks and other minorities, 25 out of 20,000 professional-level employees. By 1967, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was suing top executives because of these shabby figures and other discriminations.
So the color television show Mad Men, from our own era when we expect more current displays from our media but also trying to illustrate faithfully the period, most especially the faults in its upper economic class, reflects this failure. It also, sometimes, challenges it. In Season 5 we see executives from Young & Rubicam caught dropping bags of water on black demonstrators in the street. Sterling Cooper takes out an ad teasing its competitors for this public relations blunder, but when dozens of black men and women subsequently show up at reception expecting job interviews the agency hires just one, Dawn Chambers, as a secretary, and only to save face.
Dawn’s addition to the cast is a breakthrough of a sort, the first featured African American character after scarce recurring speaking parts: Hollis the elevator operator, Carla the maid, Paul Kinsey’s fleeting girlfriend Sheila—herself picked by the white man, we are led to construe, only for the scandal and “authenticity” she provides him. Shamefully for us watching, Sheila, a grocery cashier in New Jersey, indeed solely stands in for trending “difference” outside the show’s realm—interracial coupling and civil rights marches—much like the tarred figments in Medieval pageants (significantly, her last name is White). Dawn offers more than that to the fiction of the series, but remains little enough utilized that two seasons later many still complain she serves likewise as the token black performer on yet another white production made for white audiences.
These are legitimate critiques, but Mad Men has another stake in black American social culture, seldom mentioned if ever noticed, but everywhere, endlessly integrated into its drama. Mad Men, very much concerned with signifying and appearances, is however not a show about proud, openly visible and recognized representation; Mad Men is a show about subversive representation, about concealed secrets. Mad Men is a show about passing.
Because antiquated anxieties surrounding racial purity tended until the civil rights era to exclude anyone with known African heritage, no matter how diluted, from full legal protections and social privileges, many in the broad junction of color confusion but accordingly classed by some obscure fraction as “black”—or Negro, as the parlance then preferred—found in these restrictions rather equal and opposite incentive to pass as white. The reasons were manifold—love (interracial coupling was widely outlawed, specifically to prevent this identity slipperiness), money (better jobs), or combinations of both such as marrying into financial security—and manifest: freedom from dangers like lynching, harassment and the like. But so were the conflicts: cutting off family, self-denial, the risk of discovery and so forth. Not everyone managed it successfully. As such it made a rich subject for drama.
Of course many more who might have taken the opportunity instead embraced their black identity: Highly visible and influential black leaders who today would be comfortably considered white by appearance include Charles Chesnutt, James Weldon Johnson, Walter Francis White and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Since lots of people from mixed descent had been absorbed into the white majority all along, plenty of other folks never knew themselves as passing. White recognizes white? Almost white on the brink of a change. The practice was common enough to stoke white paranoia and rumors, including real publicized suspicion that an American president, Warren Harding, harbored secret black blood lines (another clue: Nate Dogg was his initial pick for running mate).
Ishmael Reed used the Harding “scandal” to spark his Harlem Renaissance-era voodoo-conspiracy farce Mumbo Jumbo, published in the 1970s. By then William Wells Brown, Chesnutt, Frances Harper, Weldon Johnson, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Jesse Redmon Faucet and many others had developed the passing-story genre into a foundational theme of African American literature for more than a century (Harper’s Iola Leroy and Faucet’s Plum Bun particularly famous examples). The nature of this deceptive act ironically exposed the hypocrisies of racial classification. It also sowed fertile ground for exploring issues of community solidarity, routes to freedom and power, prejudiced exclusion and economic stratification relevant to black readers—as well as universal questions about conflicting identity, self-determination and artifice in fiction that Mad Men takes up.
McKay’s Home to Harlem does not deal entirely with passing. But like Mad Men, it features a man, Jake Brown, deserter from war and adrift, charismatic and sexy. It uses Jake’s dislocated vantage, fresh from Europe, to vigorously foreground the visible differences among African Americans for better and worse, and break the external language of mere “blackness”. McKay introduces every character by his or her relative color and describes how they sort and segregate themselves, how these fixations on color definitions often govern the relations among them, their particular jealousies and strivings and shames—most anxiously at edge of passing whiteness, which Harlem calls, in the book’s street talk, “yellow” or “yaller”. Comfortable in his own dark color, Jake seeks a woman he lost track of who is “chocolate,” “chestnut,” brown; others are “bronze,” “paper brown,” “high yellow” or “crust-yellow.” One character summarizes the dynamics of the community by expanding the neighborhood of binaries: “white against white and black against white and yellow against black and brown.” One bitter woman named Suzy lives with a “yellow complex at the core of her heart,” writes McKay. “Suzy’s life of yellow complexity was surcharged with gin.”
Later writers such as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, Lorraine Hansberry followed this passing tradition with its analogy in Negro assimilation, the movement among or toward folks integrated in educated or moneyed life as a movement toward the white mainstream and actual proximity with whites and white ways—from which the narrator of Invisible Man breaks away to find a more literal mode of “enlightenment.” White American authors tried experiments in the genre too, like the swapped children in Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson or familial alienation and tragedy over a scant 1/16th of black blood for Charles Bon in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!
But the top of the form is Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel, simply called Passing. Throughout the examples of passing literature, we see what general outline Mad Men borrows even if it discards the explicit racial transformation: the intrigue of a secret origin, openings kept closed out of shame and insecurity, a fortunate accident enabling an escape, the restless double consciousness of maintaining private and public personas, temptations toward return and release, certainly the advantage-grabbing of social mobility. Poor, limited Dick Whitman’s move to replace Don Draper and then create a wealthy, freer one is in a sense a Rosa Parks refusal of predestination. Take the seat that opens up for you and not your designated place at the back. What Larsen’s work does especially well, like Mad Men, is show how these elements can be present already in lives we don’t typically consider disguised or doubled in the heightened way of Don Draper’s secrets or Clare Kendry’s hidden blackness.
Passing tells the story of Clare and also Irene Redfield, both fair featured women raised as black girls in the same building on the South Side of Chicago. Both married and comfortably upper-class as adults. But where Irene has married a darker man, a doctor in New York, Clare married a racist white international trader who does not know her beginnings. Irene bumps into Clare by chance, and though her love of stability and sensible conduct disapproves of this clandestine lifestyle, finds herself thrilled enough to visit Clare’s hotel room the next day. “She wished to find out about this hazardous business of ‘passing,’” Larsen says, “this breaking away from all that was familiar and friendly to take one’s chance in another environment, not entirely strange, perhaps, but certainly not entirely friendly. What, for example, one did about background, how one accounted for oneself.” What indeed. Don Draper, ever the marketing man, changes the conversation if he doesn’t like what people are saying, or someone starts inquiring too closely. Clare, just as practiced in her subterfuge, showcases a similar gift for dissembling speech after Irene scolds Clare for joking that a black acquaintance of theirs converted to Judaism for money rather than earnest devotion: “Clare began to talk, steering carefully away from anything that might lead towards race or other thorny subjects. It was the most brilliant exhibition of conversational weightlifting that Irene had ever seen. Her words swept over them in charming well-modulated streams. Her laughs tinkled and pealed. Her little stories sparkled.” Like Don says in Season 6, “The tambour of my voice is as important as the content.”
In the book, Clare tells Irene how easy passing is for her. “If one’s the type, all that’s needed is a little nerve.” By type, she means the right shade of color. But she might also mean this type—Don’s special type—of resourceful talking, this creative faculty of self-invention and, naturally, deception. Though Irene doesn’t so fully immerse herself in the lifestyle as Clare, we already know she resorts to passing when it suits her. She meets Clare initially while posing as white to get a drink at a fancy hotel. Irene departs from Clare planning never to muddy herself again with the other’s affair. But we soon see how Irene’s own private life is not so straightforward and rational as she likes to characterize. Irene worries constantly that her husband, Brian, shelters a secret desire to take the family out of the United States and its prejudice, to South America, which he apparently suggested years ago. Irene depends too much on consistency to countenance this, and her fear of his wish drives a rift between them that leaves Irene always trying to manage his happiness and satisfaction, scheming dialog and plans to change his temperament—and this determination to travel, she imagines, abroad. Brian reflexively conceals his opinions and occasional scorn behind a scrim of politeness, “cloak[s] his vexation.” They argue sometimes, but you get the impression they are both “passing” as pleased with the shared direction of their lives. Their marriage feels a lot like the repressed home life of Betty Draper. After Clare reappears years later seeking to reconnect with the company of black folks in Harlem, and charms her way into the admiration of Irene’s friends including, eventually, Brian (“It roused again that old suspicion that Clare was acting, not consciously, perhaps—that is, not too consciously—but, none the less, acting”)—she jumps to the conclusion the two must be sleeping together.
The book achieves a revolution in perspective, from its established implication that Clare’s rejection of her blackness contrasts with Irene’s wholesome security in her identity—to this flipped version where Clare is comfortable moving between worlds while Irene suffers from bitterness and jealousy about her relative status. “Wouldn’t you think that having got the thing, or things, they were after, and at such risk, they’d be satisfied?” Irene asks Brian early on. She had told Clare she had no desire to pass because she has everything she wants. Once more like Mad Men, the book is resplendent with troubles from wanting and the elusiveness of satisfaction.
Clare, who, like Don, was orphaned, enters into her double life too with the motive of fleeing poverty, even to the point that she feels cast out by her fellow blacks who are middle class: “I used almost to hate all of you. You had all the things I wanted and never had had.” The way Irene laments Clare’s “disregard of the convenience and desire of others” echoes Peggy Olson’s sister complaining on Mad Men how “she does whatever she feels like with no regard at all.” Clare admits it too. “To get the things I want badly enough I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really,” Clare says, “I’m not safe.” But this precise wording prefigures Irene’s own desperation by the end to have all that she wants that leads her to extremity (Passing ends the way each episode of Mad Men begins, with someone falling from a building). The device makes Clare and Irene two figures of the same woman, or at least two faces of the same grasping behavior, a double identity, like Don Draper.
Now, Passing (and other passing narratives) also presents a treacherous slope not climbed by the merely name-shifting likes of Don. Clare’s husband calls her “Nig,” ostensibly because she’s getting too tan for his taste, but he insists she couldn’t possibly be Negro (or “nigger” as he does say, repeatedly). This doublespeak is Mad Men enough, the ignorant joke together with the dramatic irony. But his hatred of “niggers” deepens the danger that Clare finds herself in, reflected for example in her fear that she might produce a dark-skinned baby. Don Draper could go to jail for his lies, sure, but any potential jeopardy he faces in discovery is, as a white man with wealth, not nearly so threatening as for any black person caught transgressing the law in the period of dominant racism, let alone a woman living with a man who so hates blacks. And Don remains more or less in control of his deception, with the ordinary lay of his life providing no equivalent telltale sign the way a child’s genetic expression might tip Clare’s position.
In Mad Men, this difference gets addressed via Suzanne Farrell’s brother Danny, an epileptic who knows his condition will inevitably out itself and dash his chances at a stable job. Don tries to push him to think otherwise. Don expects freedom is everyone’s lot if they know how to manipulate and remake themselves like he has done, but he doesn’t recognize his privilege as a becoming white male—which as I said in a prejudiced society is the only form validated simply as human, without the qualification “black” or “female” or in Danny’s case “sick”—does not come so easily available.
Even so, Dick Whitman’s identity crafted to pass as Don Draper may not be actually hiding mixed racial heritage (that he knows about**; who can tell the full lineage of Don’s dead prostitute mother?) but the incidence of passing during that generation together with the mysteries in his timeline leaves open an interpretation by his society that it might be. Sure enough, when an older black woman burglarizes Don’s Manhattan apartment and there encounters his young children, she thinks on her feet (like Clare or Don would) to tell them she’s their grandmother. Since Don has given them no information about his past, certainly not his mother, they aren’t sure what to believe. “Are we Negroes?” asks Bobby. The woman lengthens the con by saying she’s going to make Don’s favorite, fried chicken. Her gamble works again by turning inside out the old racist joke. Of course Don would like fried chicken. Everyone likes fried chicken. “I bet you like it too! Your daddy mister Donald Draper or not?” She’s finally guessed wrong, but she doesn’t know that and neither do Sally and Bobby.
The series relishes in these allusions to Don’s implied négritude. When Dawn Chambers arrives on the scene she becomes a kind of double for Don, the consonance of their names generating confusion over who is who. Even when Don speaks directly to Dawn (especially on the telephone) it sounds like he’s talking to himself. But if Dawn is another Don, she is also an alternative to Don’s passing hyperreality, striving like anyone else in her own identity—one that as a black female actually offers competitive drawbacks in comparison to Don’s advantages over even Dick Whitman. She also, when asked by a drunk Peggy (trying to flatter) if she wants to be a copywriter too, denies she has any such (contextually threatening) ambition. Then again, like Don she was hired because of a mistake, and then later gets promoted to office manager after she tells a lie.
Dawn even has her own double on the series, the second black secretary hired at Sterling Cooper, Shirley. In one scene in Season 7, Dawn and Shirley deliberately greet and say goodbye to one another by the other’s name. In this conversation, Shirley details how her Valentine’s Day roses have been mistaken by Peggy as a gift sent for her. But the casual, ironic misappropriation of names signals these women are quite used to suffering mistaken identities within that office.
So is Mad Men, by adopting historically black themes from African American classics, so to speak usurping Shirley’s flowers? “The trouble with Clare,” as Irene says in Passing, “was, not only that she wanted to have her cake and eat it too, but that she wanted to nibble at the cakes of other folk as well.” But if you’re willing to take the figurative perspective that this genre play is trading on black art forms to begin with, it’s hard to see it that way.
Dramas about masking and disguise have a much longer history than the passing motif from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. And you might as well claim a debt to historically closeted lifestyles like homosexuality. (Robert Sylvester Kelly, ladies and gentleman.) But the series makes clear immediately, in the first scene of the first episode, that it’s cribbing from African Americans. Don is at a loss for fresh ideas to sell tobacco, so he tries to lure a black busser at a bar into an unpaid brainstorming session. The man shares little, concerned how outspoken contact might look to his supervisors—only that he smokes Old Golds. This seems to suggest what the show is doing is digging the most ancient resources of American creativity. The mining theme extends when Don makes a Lucky Strike by improvising a strategy on the spot in a meeting with the client later in that episode. The white executives and creatives at Sterling Cooper also continually make Hollis the elevator operator this kind of one-man focus group.
What matters more than how appropriated is this source material is how appropriately it’s used. Passing literature traditionally illustrates that to lie and seize benefit in the way that Don does, or even be complicit in the lie as Irene indirectly does by not speaking up at Clare’s husband’s racism, can be bravery but also a form of dangerous silence. To be ashamed and hide your identity is a personalized silence, but passing to silently escape injustice rather than protesting or resisting the injustice is to sidestep a problem, and in so doing reinforce that problem. It’s literally joining the other team. It’s a betrayal of those who lack voice, or have lost their voice from crying out. Don Draper’s silence and refusal to acknowledge his identity, after his brother confronts him in Season 1, betrays Adam—steeply signified when Adam, lost without this connection, hangs himself. However the reality of Clare’s risk also makes Irene’s silence an act of allegiance, protecting her position; even if passing itself is a betrayal to blacks it’s a form of blackness that Irene won’t yet expose to danger.
Mad Men, though not radically a show about race relations, does not remain silent. And I’m not talking about its moderating conscience winking at 1960s casual racism, sexism, homophobia, capitalist abuses, or even its more sensitive handling of other representative social tragedies. Though Mad Men is period fiction, its intersection with historical events occasionally leaps into a kind of televisual journalism as the later drafts of history.
After Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, in the sixth season in the timeline of the series, the episode “The Flood” does a subtle job showing how word spreading affects private scenes and gatherings of people in an older media time we hardly remember. Without cell phones and Twitter, even these watershed news moments experienced both a natural lag in transmission and sometimes actual embargoes of the information. When a man shouts out the news in a crowded banquet hall on Mad Men, it creates a murmur of disassociated disbelief and distaste, as if it were just a rude joke, until the master of ceremonies explains that the organizers intended to withhold the sad bulletin until after the festivities. “Man could talk,” Roger Sterling memorializes the civil rights martyr. “I really thought that would save him. You know, solve the whole thing.” (I’ll skip the implied comparison to Don Draper’s verbal talents.)
By contrast, when broadcast news plays brutal police violence live during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, nearly all the show’s characters gather around televisions and discuss the events on telephone while the camera lingers on blue-helmeted cops swinging blunt clubs at demonstrators. It’s footage many viewers of the series had probably never seen, certainly not in high definition. “This is directly in front of what advertised itself as the largest and friendliest hotel,” Harry Crane says in astonishment. But it’s also running without ads, directly in front of everyone watching, including us.
It’s impossible to imagine such raw and prolonged coverage live on TV now, and certainly not such singular attention. So Mad Men shows us more than our contemporary news media does. The decentralized digital streams we perceive today have their advantages for direct communication, circumventing monopolies and monoculture, but that’s distorting in its own way and never, ever carries such instant distribution so broadly. Never joins us in that way, mostly divides us by niche. And frequently allows us the extra option of hiding from us anything we don’t care to view, like that police violence so shocking in 1968. We describe such states of obscurity as information darkness. We name the Dark Ages the time during which learning and art contemporaneous in Mediterranean and Islamic civilization were not widely communicated, not much distributed to the cultures of Europe. A somewhat intellectual silence. And darkness brought on a fear of the dark.
White people lived as if blacked out.
Is that kind of writing clear enough for you? Do you see what I’m getting at? As Ralph Wiley puts it in “The Dark Side of Mencken” these terms are “just another added technique of repulsion for me since I have learned to be quite aware of any color description which signifies other human traits. Anyone attempting to prop up mores based on this kind of positive-negative color identification.”
So please when you talk about, say, Don Draper’s dark side, make sure you mean his hidden thoughts and activities, this sense of darkness dug from the true qualities of light and obscurity, not any morally ugly behavior. Not any stain of his infidelity or wickedness in his heart. Remember what makes darkness in information and what makes darkness in people. Don Draper has a dark side, sure, and he talks with bright and sparkling words. When you talk about black and white, and when you talk about gold, what does your face become?
*The advent of this story seems too early for the derivation of Abisme to be related to Abyssinia, as Ethiopia was called in Europe from the late middle ages, because the Aksumite Empire was only just giving way to the Habesha around the time the Song of Roland achieved popularity. Even if Abisme were supposed to be Ethiopian, Ethiopians with their classical connection to ancient Israel were and are generally lighter than other East Africans—although again this is a distinction probably lost on medieval Europe. And anyway, Ethiopia was Christian.
**His native name Whitman points to whiteness but we’ve seen that these classifications were never firm, especially in rural areas, plus should be also accustomed by now in Mad Men to the idea that names can divert from literal identification. Think again of Sheila White or the anti-lynching investigator and NAACP chair Walter Francis White.
Lars Russell lives in the middle ground between magic markers and permanent ones. He has written for SPIN, the Stranger, the Onion and Eyeshot. He is the editor of Beat Valley.