|In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M.Turnbull, by Roy Richard Grinker, St. Martin’s Press, 2000.
Reviewed by Mark Mardon, Assistant Editor,
Bay Area Reporter.
The search for truth takes constant vigilance and reworking of ideas. Sometimes those who search get lost in details, only to recover their bearings, stepping back to consider the whole picture, and coming to a conception of what is true that is far grander than anything they’d considered at the outset. Roy Richard Grinker, anthropologist, set out in the mid-1980s to seek truth among the Ituri Forest Pygmies of the Congo, following in the footsteps of his famous predecessor, Colin Turnbull, one of the world’s most renowned and influential anthropologists, whose name ranks right alongside Margaret Mead’s in professional and popular stature. But the truth Grinker found was a far cry from what he had expected. It had only partly to do with the nature of the Pygmies, much to do with the nature of anthropology as a professional and academic discipline, and everything to do with the nature of love, in particular, gay interracial love.
The story of how Grinker came to the truth and resolved to present it to the world in the form of a biography, In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin M. Turnbull (St. Martin’s Press; 2000), is quite a remarkable journey in itself. As a seeker after the truth of human nature, Grinker has struck a vein of gold.
Grinker seems an unlikely candidate for writing what must be one of the most powerful descriptions of a gay relationship ever written. He set out originally to bury Turnbull, not to praise him. He sought to debunk Turnbull, decrying his work as shoddy, aiming to present what he considered a more grounded, less fanciful description of Pygmy culture. Yet Grinker ended up writing a book transcending his own limitations as a straight, white male. He dived into the true story of Turnbull and his deep, abiding love for an African American man, Joe Towles, and came up with a story that anyone gay – especially anyone open to interracial love – could find relevant to their own lives.
While the Pygmies themselves play only supporting roles in this book, their spirit galvanized three anthropologists who lived and worked among the Pygmies. Turnbull; his lover of 30 years, Towles; and their biographer, Grinker leading in a very roundabout way to this book, which could well come to be recognized as one of the most important works of gay anthropology ever produced. Our contemporary gay culture owes a debt to Turnbull, Towles and Grinker, three men with a passion for the truth, who in their very different ways came to embody and disseminate what they all saw as the beautiful, relatively harmonious spirit of Pygmy culture.
It’s also fair to say that this book, once it gets pored over by scholars and ordinary folks, will generate a fair amount of controversy. The portrayal of the love between the brilliant, passionate Turnbull and the beautiful, stubborn Towles was not without conflicts of all sorts. In detailing these troubles, Grinker plops himself into the thick of myriad social and cultural issues. That he brazens his way through, trying his best to make sense of it all, is a credit to his diligence as a scholar. Whether or not his portrayal of the two men, Turnbull and Towles, characterizes them as they would have characterized themselves remains for posterity to decide. And as we well now, posterity is full of harsh critics.
The likeliest criticism will focus on Grinker’s portrayal of the professional and intellectual stature of Towles relative to his partner/patron, Turnbull. In this portrayal, Towles comes off as a lightweight intellectually, far from the keen mind everyone agrees was Turnbull’s. Towles seems difficult, erratic, pompous, yet at the same time immensely down to earth, perhaps far more so than Turnbull, who only got his grounding late in life, becoming a Buddhist monk after Towles’ death from AIDS in 1988.
In Grinker’s view, Towles would have amounted to little except for Turnbull, who with a zeal bordering on obsessiveness sought to remake his lover in his own image. As Grinker portrays it, Towles became an anthropologist only because Turnbull pushed him to do so. Turnbull so loved Towles that he wanted to give him the world, and the best way to do that was to make him a fellow anthropologist. Turnbull pushed his career with a fervor that made universities cringe. Any department that wanted to capture Turnbull and his huge cachet had to accept (always in a lesser position) Towles as a fellow teacher. The two came as a package. The universities almost always bowed to Turnbull and his whims. They knew Towles was Turnbull’s lover, utterly inseparable. Turnbull insisted the relationship be known and openly acknowledged. Because Towles was African American and Turnbull of Anglo origin, their partnership was all that much more problematic for the universities. But it was Turnbull, after all, so what could they do?
Was Towles anywhere near as brilliant as Turnbull declared him to be? No, he wasn’t brilliant, says Grinker, speaking with a reporter at Cafe Flore, following his recent reading at A Different Light Bookstore. He was a nice guy who collapsed under the burden of having to be something he couldn’t be. The story of Towles’ falling apart, of how dementia overtook him and led to torment in the final years of the couple’s often tempestuous relationship, is one of the most harrowing, heart-rending stories I’ve read in the annals of AIDS reporting, or for that matter, in the annals of love. The way the story resolves is equally powerful for its beauty and humanity. Whether Grinker is right that Turnbull was a shabby excuse for an anthropologist, but a great humanitarian, is a question academics and the reading public must sort out. There’s almost an imperative contained in this book, for other scholars to take up the mantle and figure out the complexities of this beautiful, earth-shaking marriage of a white man with a black man, both of whom had developed their conception of love among the most loving people on Earth.
Yet the mere fact that Grinker has taken up Turnbull’s torch and elevated Towle’s name into public consciousness speaks volumes about the righteousness of Grinker’s quest. He, like Turnbull, with whom he shares many traits (both went to elite prep schools, went on to become anthropologists, studied the Pygmies, lectured at the same university, and played keyboards as a pastime), came to recognize that ultimately what matters in Turnbull’s life is not his professional work, but his love for Joe Towles. That is what Turnbull came to consider his most important achievement. Whatever he learned among the Pygmies, it was only relevant insofar as it influenced his passion for Towles. That is what Turnbull wanted the world to know. And now, thanks to Grinker, the world has a chance to receive that message, and appreciate why Joe Towles mattered so much to Turnbull.