by Marlon Riggs





mericans have always been more and at the same time less than what we pretended. With the quickening approach of the twenty-first century, greater numbers of us are giving testament to this inescapable fact, challenging the cozy myths by which America has been ritually defined. Who are we? Who are we becoming? Who and what have we been? In the next century, can we even continue to speak (could we ever?) of a collective "we"? For the longest, of course, these questions had simple answers.

America was white. America was male. America was heterosexual. America was Christian. America, above all, was a melting pot into which diverse cultural communities gleefully descended to achieve the social and ideological transformation necessary for inclusion within the American Dream. That many of us--marginalized and oftentimes invisible Americans of African, Asian, Latino and Native descent, as well as women and the working poor--never quite melted and metamorphosized according to this traditional prescription for social progress, hardly mattered. The great distance between the Dream and our actual lives was not due to any fault in the Dream: the defect was in us. The Dream thus survived intact, its seductive power sustained by America's stubborn refusal to look too closely at the hidden but terrible costs of "the good life" and at who actually could--much less wanted to--afford it.

The sixties, of course, spotlighted the complex oppressive regime of thought, politics and culture which underlay the myth of America. For the first time in U.S. history, the ideological fabric of white heterosexual patriarchy was exposed for the life-constricting straightjacket it had always been. Despite conservative attempts during subsequent years at repair, the old social fabric has been steadily unraveling. Thus we have arrived at this present moment, wherein a nation historically averse to serious introspection now exhibits--in its politics and popular media as well as its universities--an almost obsessive reflexive preoccupation with our national identity.

To be expected, much of the current debate is simply a re-hash of old opinion--an attempt to forcefully rebut and undercut the de-centering politics of radical multiculturalism (i.e., the kind of multiculturalism where difference actually makes a differ-ence). Bring back the melting pot. Restore "traditional values." Re-institute prayer in schools. Preserve the primacy of Western civilization (the only one that matters anyway). And not least, protect that critical bedrock of American greatness, "the American family": such pronouncements reveal an intense, even pathological desire to perpetuate a thoroughly obsolete myth of America, and through this, a repressively orthodox system of sociocultural entitlement.


hile the ideas of conservative/fundamentalist America are hardly new, the typically strident pitch with which such ideas are now being argued betrays how acutely anxious many conservatives have come to feel, due to both real and anticipitated loss of privilege and power. What is more, arch-conservative rhetoric--as should be evident to anyone watching our presidential elections for the past quarter century--has found a certain public resonance. Difference, in the traditionalist outlook, has been regressively equated with disunity; and disunity with profound social chaos and collapse. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so, it seems, do many Americans with regard to the social-political myths by which they organize and make sense of their lives. Even a fundamentally flawed, repressive, inequitable social order seems to many better than none at all. A clear imperative thus confronts American progressives--that intricate (and frequently fragile) web of communities comprised of people of color, feminists, gays and lesbians, the poor and working class, as well as ethnic whites who value ethnicity, indeed all who have been systematically disenfrancised and dehumanized under the once ascendant "traditional values" of pre-Civil Rights America.

It's no longer enough, if it ever was, to critique interlocking systems of oppression without offering affirming alternatives of how society should and can reconstitute itself. As we move into the inevitably more demanding multilingual, multicultural environment--both nationally and globally--of the next century, our greatest task will be an inversion of the commonly assumed equivalence between difference and disunity. We must re-write this equation, demonstrating again and again that unity does not require unanimity, that unity--that is, a sense of social cohesion, of community--can and does derive from the expression, comprehension, and active nurturing (and not merely tolerance or fetishization) of difference.

This is the new standard of civilized life that now demands our urgent labor, a new world order, if you will, that subverts traditional conceptions of social order: a standard which in effect subverts the meaning of the word "standard" itself. For the new order must be comprised of multiple standards: shifting, open-ended, dynamically transforming, so as to engender ways of thinking and living that privilege no one set of cultural differences over another but affirm virtue in all.

This perspective forms the key inspiration and overarching theme in STANDARDS. Page after page eloquently testifies to the commitment of a new generation of America's best and brightest to shaping a radically redefined vision of our future, where old repressive dualisms of race, class, sexuality, gender and nationality no longer reign--a future in which not merely some but all of us are free to explore and express our richest humanity.

Marlon Riggs
Oakland, 1992






MARLON T. RIGGS was a producer, director, and writer, who graduated with honors from Harvard in 1978, and received the MA from UC Berkeley, where he later taught Documentary Film in the Graduate School of Journalism. His films include Tongues Untied, the acclaimed account of Black gay male life; and Ethnic Notions, for which he was awarded the Emmy. Mr. Riggs' work has been published in the anthology Brother to Brother, as well as in arts and literary magazines, including High Performance, Black American Literature Forum, and Art Journal. A media activist, he testified before the U.S. Senate, and wrote extensively on the issue of censorship. Mr. Riggs was also on the policy committee of the national PBS, and served on various other panels, including the National Endowment for the Arts. Marlon T. Riggs died of AIDS-related complications in 1994. We remember him with deepest respect and admiration.

Riggs' final film, Black Is...Black Ain't, was shown across the nation, to much acclaim.
More information on the press release at this link.


 "Introduction to STANDARDS: V5N1" © 1992, 1995 by Marlon T. Riggs.

 Original Graphic Images ©1995 by Lenni J. Calipo



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