Reversing the Gaze
– Injun Joe Meets Esperanza

By Sassetta Harford

I wrote this piece for a sem­i­nar called “Revers­ing the Gaze.” The idea was to write about dif­fer­ence and the chal­leng­ing of stereo­types, so I tried to incor­po­rate as many gazes as possible.

The char­ac­ters were cho­sen for their ambi­gu­i­ty. After our dis­cus­sions in class, Injun Joe seemed to be the per­fect anti-hero instead of a com­mon vil­lain with a racial slur. Esper­an­za – with her iden­ti­ty strug­gle con­cern­ing eth­nic issues, gen­der iden­ti­ty, social sta­tus, and her hints at the decon­struc­tion of stereo­typ­i­cal gen­der roles – was a char­ac­ter that I felt I could iden­ti­fy with.

Injun Joe
Ted Cas­sidy as Injun Joe in The New Adven­tures of Huck­le­ber­ry Finn (1969) | Pho­to cred­it: NBC tele­vi­sion (Pub­lic domain), via Wiki­me­dia Commons

The notion of being nei­ther here nor there, being in-between cul­tur­al­ly, is some­thing that I can relate to while rec­og­niz­ing what a priv­i­leged posi­tion this can be when one is not sub­ject­ed to dis­crim­i­na­tion. The numer­ous bor­ders the char­ac­ters have had to face are rem­i­nis­cent of fences around reser­va­tions or the bru­tal­i­ty of the Mex­i­can-Amer­i­can bor­der. More specif­i­cal­ly, it is about what hap­pens years, maybe decades, lat­er when the ances­tors have long crossed the bor­der, but the indi­vid­ual is still con­front­ed with divid­ing lines and is forced to make deci­sions as well as cre­ate his/her own iden­ti­ty, which is always cul­tur­al and political.




By Sas­set­ta Harford

I guess it’s kind of fun­ny, what with polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness and all. They just can’t seem to get it right when it comes to peo­ple like me. Half-breed, that’s what they used to call us, like a dirty mon­grel piss­ing on their white pick­et fence. Pre­cise­ly that makes me an Amer­i­can, more Amer­i­can even than George Bush or Wash­ing­ton him­self, and cer­tain­ly more Amer­i­can than their pre­cious Jesus.

And now they stut­ter and stam­mer and dis­cuss their high the­o­ries of what they should call ‘them’ or ‘us’ – those that are non-white. It’s great that we have these smart peo­ple trou­bling their brains for us, col­lege grad­u­ates who might nev­er have worked a 9 to 5 decid­ing what to call us.

If you’re for­tu­nate enough to have your mixed ances­try show, you’re prob­a­bly famil­iar with the prob­lems this can cre­ate for your peers (unless you’re John­ny Depp, lucky bas­tard). Squint­ing and frown­ing oh so dis­creet­ly at you, they fur­row their lips and their brows and final­ly exhale: ‘What are you?’

They gasp, try­ing to phrase it any way oth­er than that, hat­ing them­selves for their own curios­i­ty, and yet not man­ag­ing to con­tain them­selves in the face of this crea­ture before them.

This makes for a lot of bit­ter amuse­ment, let me tell you. White peo­ple are so hilar­i­ous when they try des­per­ate­ly to be bet­ter than their elders, sen­si­tive and all. Every­thing is cen­tered on prov­ing their own lib­er­al stance to them­selves and to oth­er white mid­dle-class goody two-shoes. But we must not take this indul­gence away from them. After all, what else do they have to wor­ry their pret­ty lit­tle flax­en-haired heads about? Jesus loves you, the rich get rich­er while the poor get babies, and we have more than enough guns for every­body to have a good time.

Some years back I was in search of a soci­ety that fit me, a soci­ety that set the bar so low that every reg­u­lar Joe could fit in, regard­less of his sto­ry. A place where no one cares whether or not you have stolen or lied or cheat­ed or killed. Instead of join­ing the Catholic Church, I chose the Jug­ga­los. They didn’t want my mon­ey or repen­tance; instead they were fine with crack­ing open a beer and lis­ten­ing to ICP. Man, there was some crazy stuff that went down there. Alas, I know my place, and even if I want­ed I could still nev­er be white trash, trash though I may be.

Peo­ple who meet me seem to rec­og­nize this imme­di­ate­ly. My tat­toos tell of my lit­tle stints in the pen­i­ten­tiary, and what should I cov­er myself up for? I got a bet­ter edu­ca­tion in there than at any com­mu­ni­ty col­lege. Let it scare some of them off. I don’t have any time to waste on their big­otry. If you want to make me a deal, fair enough, oth­er­wise you can fuck off back to your reser­va­tion or your sub­ur­ban TV dinner.

And there is always some­thing to do in my line of work. If some­body has some­thing they need done with­out get­ting their hands dirty, they know who to call. Good old Joe will take care of it. I go by the alias of John Smith now. That always gets a laugh. And it’s quite prac­ti­cal, too.

Since I invest­ed in a lit­tle surgery, life’s been look­ing up. You know how in Amer­i­ca everything’s pos­si­ble except for free health­care and edu­ca­tion? And how you can get away with mur­der if only your teeth are blind­ing­ly white? Well, thank God for that because I got myself a brand new face and haven’t had to pay for sex ever since.

They just can’t help them­selves when they see one of the last real bad boys. What they don’t know is that I am actu­al­ly a bad man, and that can make all the dif­fer­ence. Remem­ber those guys in Taran­ti­no films where you just know that something’s off, but you stay any­way, and when you real­ize what an idiot you’ve been it’s much too late?

But actu­al­ly, I’m not as much a vil­lain as I’m cut out to be. I’m def­i­nite­ly not say­ing this to warm your quaint, faint lit­tle hearts. No, it’s just anoth­er soci­etal expec­ta­tion that I’m not sure I can be both­ered to live up to.

Women used to shy away from me, as if I had some kind of dis­ease. The only thing that has dis­eased me is soci­ety itself. I’ve been giv­en noth­ing but crap since the day I was born. My moth­er hat­ed me so much that she would have killed me, had she dared. I get it. It’s not my fault she was raped by a white bas­tard of a man, but that’s how I grew up to be a half-white bas­tard. Half-white, not half-wit. I’ve grad­u­at­ed the school of life, so to speak. Noth­ing could have got me into one of their schools, you see.

“Are you done already?”

I can’t believe it. A wiry Lati­na girl has hoist­ed her­self onto the barstool next to me and elbowed me in the ribs. She’s tak­en one of my fries and chews it slow­ly, eye­ing me at the same time. When she’s not rolling her eyes at the bar­keep­er, that is.

“Nev­er seen you here before.” She speaks loud­ly, delib­er­ate­ly. Her hair is wild, dark tan­gles, and her eyes have a glint in them that I can’t quite place.

“You come to my water­ing hole, you intro­duce your­self, is that clear?”

“Yeah, well, I have some work to do in the area. Since when do lit­tle ladies like you tell me what to do?”

She rolls her eyes impa­tient­ly, flick­ing back her hair with long, red nails.

“Since you’ve been sit­ting here for a whole hour straight, telling poor old Jim­my your whole damn life sto­ry. Jeez Louise, think you’re the only one with mom­my issues? Give me a break.”

Has she been lis­ten­ing the whole time? Well, good. Then she knows what to expect. I should just reach out and slap her right now.

“What’s up, pret­ty boy? You turn­ing shy on me now?” She laughs, throw­ing back her head, pos­i­tive­ly buck­ing in amusement. 

“Got noth­ing to wor­ry about, stranger. I know them men of all col­ors and sizes, you’re not such a mys­tery to me!”

Patron­iz­ing doesn’t even begin to describe the way she’s talk­ing to me.

“Look here, chi­ca. Don’t you even start with me. You don’t want to get hurt now, do you missy?”

“Hurt? Mis­sy?” Now she’s in hys­ter­ics, clutch­ing her beer in one hand while claw­ing at the barstool with the oth­er. She’s vis­i­bly strug­gling to stop laughing.

“Oh no sweet­heart, you can’t scare me with your bull­shit. If we real­ly were in the Wild West right now – at least it looks like that’s what you’re play­ing at – you’d be dead already.”

I’ve been threat­ened, insult­ed and mocked count­less times in my past. Peo­ple wouldn’t dare now. Or care enough. So what is rid­ing this girl? I’ll grant her the sat­is­fac­tion of asking:

“How come, exact­ly?” She’s obvi­ous­ly been wait­ing for this.

“Easy. If you focus on drown­ing in self-pity you’re not going to get any­where, no one takes you seri­ous­ly, espe­cial­ly if you’re a guy. And why should they. You’ve got to be tough if you want to get respect. I bet you’ve nev­er thought about what it’s like to be a woman, have you? ‘Course you haven’t. I’d be run­ning this dump of a town by now if I’d been born with the right sex. If I have to start act­ing like a man to get any­where, what’s the point? And even then some idiot will come up to me and try to treat me like a piece of meat, or ask me if I need him to get me a damn Green Card. I’ve had it with your type, seri­ous­ly. You’ve got no idea…”

She stops her­self, flushed and at the brink of work­ing her­self up into a rage, and I swear I’ve nev­er seen any­one so irre­sistible. She’s sit­ting wide-legged but pout­ing, her whole body arranged in jaun­ty angles, try­ing to be too much – to be the femme fatale and the tough lover all at once. I think she might be able to help me. 

“Who are you?”

All cool again, she shrugs her answer.


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Sas­set­ta Har­ford stud­ies Cul­tur­al Stud­ies with an empha­sis on art and visu­al cul­ture at Leuphana Uni­ver­si­ty Lüneb­urg, Germany.