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.

 

 

Americana

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.

“Esperanza.”

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