Afro-Pedagogy: Reading Abolition, Then and Now

I’m trying to take the best parts of my Jane Austen Seminar from last fall into this new school year.

I loved that class.

It saved me from slipping into a dangerous ennui that was mucking up the vibe in my classes. I took advantage of the structure and the topic, and it worked beautifully. It wasn’t perfect (that was never the goal), but it was pretty damn good.

Given the nature of a seminar (a small group of highly motivated students) and the subject (the Jane Austen canon is perfect for a semester course), I was able to ask students to do four things before the semester started:

  • Imagine their own assignments based on what they wanted to learn about Austen and the skills they wanted to work on over the course of the semester
  • Think about the kind of readings they wanted to do with the texts (mostly theory or mostly context essays)
  • Develop course policies (because I am tired of keeping track of the comings and goings of grown-ass people)
  • Daydream about the kind of “culminating” project they wanted to complete at the end of the semester.

My only rule was that they had to come up with the kind of work I could defend should somebody who thought the could have an opinion about my teaching ask us what we were doing while we ate cookies and talked about Austen on Tuesdays and Thursdays. We spent the first day of class brainstorming about the semester, and I asked them to submit work proposals and then met with them individually to make sure they had what they needed from me to work independently.

The students really surprised me.* They came up with ambitious projects (all of which required more research than I would have asked of them), they challenged themselves (I will love forever the incredibly shy student who said she wanted to work on speaking and public and designed two presentations on Austen in adaptation, including discussion questions that she distributed to the class before her presentation so they could have a productive conversation when she was done), and they were more creative than I could ever have imagined (for his final project, the musician in the course played music Austen’s characters would have heard on a keyboard he dragged to class while giving us a lecture on how music composition shifted in Austen’s time). One student wanted to learn how to write book reviews, and he did. It was pretty remarkable to see the transition, a process he reflected on in essays and conferences with me during the semester. Another student wanted to write about Austen the readers of her blog while another put herself in charge of being our guide to the customs of Austen’s readers. We had a student auditing the course who would write these pithy responses to our class discussions, and students shared resources they found on Blackboard.

*The class voted unanimously that i could talk about our work.

It was the best teaching experience of my 15+ years in higher education. I actually looked forward to reading student writing. I wanted to mark and comment on their work.

Let’s all just sit with that for a minute.

In lieu of a syllabus, I sent the class regular memos. There were students who wanted traditional instruction and more direction, and, of course, I was happy to provide that. Everyone got “grades” but more than that I wrote them letters about their work. Sometimes they wrote back. Students who were transferring in from community colleges were especially good about seeing me for help understanding the kind of analytical writing expected of them.

They kept me on my toes, challenging notions about Austen I hadn’t reconsidered in a long time, and asking for more time if they felt I was rushing them through a novel. Best of all, they supported one another in and out of class. They cheered one another on, gave advice and feedback for those who were writing in public, and took on extra-curricular projects together. When things got too stressful, we took a break so everyone could catch up on the readings. And they did.


abolition lit art

I can’t replicate everything about that seminar, but for a class I’m teaching next semester called “Writing in the Major” I plan to take a similar approach by helping students design a series of assignments that feel interesting and meaningful to them. I don’t really know what the course is actually supposed to do, “Writing in the Major” means, but I’m using it as an opportunity to let students experiment with how to use the reading we do in class to focus on a modern political question. The class will focus on British abolitionist literature—primarily poems, novels, and essays published between 1789-1830—but I’m asking students to think of a policy or practice that has been abolished or one that they would like to see abolished and to start thinking of how writers shape and reflect those movements.

We’re forever telling students that being an English major means they can “do anything” and that literary study develops their “critical thinking skills” (I said this in a class a year or so ago and every single student groaned and/or rolled their eyes), so I want this class to be an experiment in what that means in real time.

My working theory is that the reason we so often hear politicians and other rhetorical beings claiming King’s “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” is because movements tend to follow similar patterns, and I’m going to work with my students to help them recognize those patterns. They want so much to “relate” to what we’re reading and this class seems like a good place to let them do that in some sustained and nuanced way. What I hope some of them will do is find literature that reflects and/or contributes to a modern political movement and then discuss their readings in a series of writing assignments we’ll develop together.

More than wanting them to complete a concrete set of tasks, I’d like them to think about the kind of reading and writing they might want to do beyond the classroom. I’m even toying with not requiring them to read everything on the reading calendar but to see the readings as an introduction to the kinds of writing that shapes a social movement. Maybe a student will read the poetry on the syllabus and then do a comparative study of poems written by GLBT writers seeking equal rights in the twenty-first century. Or a student will read about sugar in the eighteenth and nineteenth century and learn about what modern commodities we take for granted rely on slave labor. White women in the early nineteenth century co-opted the issue of slavery for their own political goals (I’m looking at you Wollstonecraft), and I suspect that my students will notice this pattern in modern political movements.

I’m lucky to work closely with faculty who can help me point students down most any path they want to follow. I suspect I’ll be asking my academic twitter community for help.

I’m not sure how this will work, but I’m trusting that my students will be curious enough to work out what they want to do with me as guide and coach. And I’m trusting that whatever my reputation for being “hard” and “intimidating,” students who have worked with me know I’m open to all reasonable revisions to the syllabus. They’ll ask me enough questions to work out the details. I’ll also have the option of traditional assignments, but I really want students to leave class with a reading list for the future.

Like most tenured faculty, my classes tend to be a mix of students who have taken other classes with me and those who probably just took my classes because they are required and/or fit in with their schedule. I know from experience that some of them will jump at the chance to play with what we’re doing in this class while others will feel anxious with the “weight of too much liberty.”

I’ve taught graduate seminars and as a sophomore survey on British abolitionist literature (and published on the topic), so I’m conversant enough in it to let the class experiment with how to use the texts I’ve selected for us. I want us to be all over the place and want to create a space where students are rewarded for reading outside of the classroom and connecting that to the larger questions we’ll consider over the course of the semester.

We’ll write quite a bit, but I don’t know how much grading I’ll do. Instead, I think I’ll consult with students on writing projects and then let them submit work when they feel it’s ready for me to grade. What I found in the Austen seminar and in the Intro to Theory course I teach is that my English majors respond best to short writing assignments that require them to focus tightly on an argument. Longer essays just invite plot summaries and vague prose. Most students hate those longer essays and will never write in that form again, so I’d rather help students figure out how writing fits into their lives and then work with them to do that writing critically, with great care.

Productive chaos in the classroom is my very favorite thing (that and eating excellent cookies with my students), so I’d like to develop an atmosphere while still leaving room for students who actually want and need structure. My Austen seminar made clear how much I can trust students to seek out the most from their course work with a lighter guiding hand, leaving me more time to work with students who need more attention and who are trying to find their way into literary analysis.

In my Romanticism course, I make my students slog through A Defence of Poetry. They kind of hate it, but we linger over this moment:

But poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers, who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world which is called religion.

With this class, we’ll try to figure out how those who trade in language changed the world in their time and ours.



“The Subtlety” with Friends

with love to Jennifer, Kim, Janet, and Sam

“A Subtlety or the Marvelous Sugar Baby an Homage to the unpaid and overworked Artisans who have refined our Sweet tastes from the cane fields to the Kitchens of the New World on the Occasion of the demolition of the Domino Sugar Refining Plant” is my third encounter with Kara Walker (also my fourth, fifth, and sixth).   This time around, I a) knew who she was b) knew a little more about what to expect from her work, and c) was eager to see this homage to workers past and present.   My mother is reading The Cost of Sugar and we are both, in our own way, processing our January visit to Suriname and our brief stop at Onoribo, the plantation we’re tied to. She wouldn’t use the word “process” and I probably shouldn’t either. That suggests something deliberate. I just know that its existence hovers over me with an inchoate sense of connection that I’m curious to see develop, perhaps into something more concrete. I really don’t know.

I had no idea I would visit “A Subtlety” so many times, and I didn’t know how protective I would end up feeling about it, particularly the sticky, haunting statues of children that greet visitors as they enter the factory and hang out in their own little spaces on the path to the Sphinx. I didn’t intend to write about the exhibit because I didn’t know how much it would spark echoes in me in pretty much all of the things I’m working on right now, mostly a lecture I’m preparing for Spring 2015, a chapter of my book on the history of the novel, and the course I’m teaching next semester on British Abolitionist literature. I didn’t expect it to remind me of “Belle” or “Saturday Night Live” or that it would confirm that I’ve been working out my third book project without knowing it. I thought I was just going to see what Walker was doing now, in a space a half-hour walk from my apartment in Bed-Stuy.

My first encounter with Walker’s work was at a keynote address at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Narrative. I can’t remember the year or even what paper I gave (I’m sure it had something pithy with “narrating” in the title and a colon and then some theory-heavy prose), and I only have a vague memory of being one of the only people of color in a room full of white academics discussing images that I found fascinating and provocative. I’d never even heard of her before that conference. It was before I’d visited the plantation worked by mother’s people and before I understood as fully as I do now the uniquely horribly way that white academics can treat their black peers. I was too taken by the images to pay attention to the argument. Because I encountered Walker in this white, heavily theorized space, I didn’t know that her work offended some black people. It hadn’t occurred to me that it would. This is, in part, because I grew up several times removed from the immediate impacts of American racism. My mother is from Suriname and a devoted citizen of Holland. She grew up knowing American racism was located in two places: Little Rock, Arkansas and Biloxi, Mississippi. She knew the lowest (slavery) and highest (Tubman, Parks, and King) moments in American history, but the structures of racism that weigh heavily on many African-Americans was not her burden, and I wasn’t raised to know that it was mine. My father is American but grew up in a pocket of New York populated by a rising black middle class (his childhood church was, and still is, on a block in Harlem called “Strivers’ Row”). As I got older, I heard stories of the bigotry he faced, but growing up as an Air-Force brat I lived in this odd cultural bubble that was, by design, integrated. I’m also on the lighter end of the color spectrum, and like all light-skinned (or, rather, light skinneded) people I have enjoyed an invisible privilege that has made it structurally easier for me to navigate predominately white spaces. What this has meant as an adult is that when I saw Walker’s images, I saw them as depictions of the past that happened to other black people and so engaged with them intellectually, primarily from a theoretical distance.

My second encounter with her work was in a completely different context. When I moved to Brooklyn, without realizing it or planning it, fell into a group of readers, writers, and artists. And so I ended up a guest of a guest at a dinner party out on Sag Harbor and the hosts were avid art collectors. Their summer home was so full of different pieces, in different rooms that it took me several hours to realize that I had been sitting next to and staring at a Kara Walker. It’s one of the few times I’ve experienced what Benjamin talks about as the aura of the original work in “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The truth of it was that I didn’t know I was in art collector’s home until I recognized the Walker piece and the effect of it—both the piece and her reputation—helped me see what I had mistaken for old posters and old chairs as a rather fascinating collection of art and art objects. Even still, I was more “oh how cool!” than reflective about the piece. I don’t know how I would have felt if the owners of the piece had been white (they’re African-American), and I still considered the work removed from the history it offers. It has taken me a few years to appreciate the juxtaposition of seeing a Walker piece, in an enclave of black privilege, while socially shucking corn and chatting with a woman who I later learned was a person of some consequence (I’ve since forgotten who she was). As exciting as it was to have been in this personal space with her work, it didn’t have much of an impact on me personally but was one of a string of accidental encounters I had with art and artists when I first moved to New York and bounced from cultural event to art opening as sport and leisure more than anything else.

This time with Walker was different.

I saw her work with Jennifer Williams. I wasn’t sure that I would get to see it with Jen (she’s a busy woman), but I knew I wanted to. She writes about Walker in a serious, sustained way, and I was lucky enough to hear her give a paper at the College Language Association conference earlier this year where she discussed Walker and Corregidora by Gayl Jones. The only time I’ve seen Walker in person I was with Jennifer. She’d taken me to an art event where people were eating caviar off of a naked woman and Walker showed up.

We wanted to see the exhibit as early as possible, so we walked from my apartment to a part of Williamsburg neither of us was very familiar with.

photo-87 It was early May, and I’d just seen “Belle” and seen the Leslie Jones performance on “Saturday Night Live” that hurt me deep in my bones to watch. I hadn’t really connected the two, but by the time I left the Subtlety, they were linked to one another and my recent reading about Sarah Baartman brought them all together. I ended up seeing these three modern representations of black womanhood on a continuum that reduces brown female bodies and makes spectacles of us. The “us” here is important because whatever gap there has been between me and the images I first saw in Walker more than ten years ago has shrunk in ways I’m still figuring out. Here’s what I jotted down in my writing notebook after my first trip to the exhibit: In each of these moments—the small t.v. screen, the independent movie screen, and the almost cavernous space of the Domino Sugar Factory—a moment that honors and celebrates also forces us to confront the spectacle of exocticized black women’s bodies.

I was thinking of just how perfect and respectable Belle is in the movie. There’s a scene where she and her white cousin are both playing piano for a group of potential suitors. Her cousin’s performance is perfectly fine, but, even before she starts playing, you know Belle’s will be sublime and that it will prove to her detractors that she is not only just as good as they are but better. She has to be in order to prove her worth. And it still won’t be enough. She knows this and when she sits in her room alone, staring at herself in the mirror I see her coping with the same question Leslie Jones does in her “Saturday Night Live” debut about what it takes to be truly desired. It took me three or four times to get through that Leslie Jones sketch. I wasn’t as offended about the slavery rape joke as other people were. I could hear that it was offensive, but I didn’t feel offended by it; it’s possible that I couldn’t feel offended because I could only feel pained by the cost of admission Jones paid to write for “Saturday Night Live.” Tressie describes what Jones is doing as she tries to find a place for herself as desirable:

…she transitions into tropes about the value of big, tall, black female bodies like hers as valuable during slavery. By a different beauty measure, i.e. utility, Jones is saying she can hold her own against white beauty norms and the equally unattainable black exceptions that are made about once every popular culture generation (Lena Horne, Diana Ross, Diahann Carol, Pam Grier, Beyonce, Lupita, etc.). The punchline is that with her big bodied utility to white slave-owners she would have been guaranteed to have a man back in the olden days (emphasis mine).

…or, the horrific attentions of a white one. Dido Elizabeth Belle is a product of rape and no amount of nineteenth-century female accomplishment can erase that. The story goes that the historical Belle was the daughter of a navel officer and a slave. This is the same backstory that sets the events of the movie in motion. Her body is the path to inheritance for impoverished white men, but her skin is the obstacle that keeps her from being desirable. I don’t know if the screenwriter read A Woman of Colour; A Tale, originally published in 1808, but the story of a bi-racial woman, the daughter of a slave and her owner has a similar set of themes to those in the movie: marriage, inheritance, and nineteenth-century notions of ideal womanhood. In the novel, Olivia Fairfield (get it FAIRfield) negotiates the same terrain that “Belle” does in the movie and faces the same crude comments, questions, and exoticization. They are objects of fascination and disgust, and, to my mind, live on the same spectrum as Sarah Baartman. They bring the the spirit of the exhibit of Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, into English parlors and courtship culture. Walker puts that culture right in your face.

I’m talking, of course, about the Sphinx’s vulva.

Roberta Smith’s review of the installation is the best one out there (even better than Hilton Als’), but it was important to me not to have anyone else in my head when I went to see it, so I didn’t read it until after I got home. It’s also why I went on the first day and Jennifer and I were among the first public group to see the exhibit. It’s why I didn’t know about the vulva.   I should have known, of course. This is Walker we’re talking about after all, but Jennifer and I wandered around the factory taking it all in, slowly making our way towards the Sphinx. I was instantly enthralled and more interested in what I call the sugar babies, those little boys carrying baskets, with round brown cheeks similar to the ones I see on black folks everywhere. At the first one, I was very interested in the mini-lecture a white woman gave to explain what precisely “ a subtlety” was and how the desire for sugar contributed to slavery. Except she didn’t say “slavery” or “slaves” but used the word “servant” in its place. She lost me completely after that and I thought, “servant? bitch, please. ‘SLAVES’ is what they were!” I’m pretty sure that phrase appeared in a bubble above my head as I listened to her because folks started eyeing me warily.

I’d seen pictures of the Sphinx, though they could in no way capture the sheer size and aura of her, but the sugar babies were the most surprising thing to me.

Until I saw the vulva.

I was not part of that whole look-at-your-business-in-a-hand-mirror movement. Even when my dearest friend had the sex talk with me, the-real-unvarnished-sex talk, I never used the hand mirror she eventually mailed me. My favorite Angelou line might be, “I dance like I’ve got diamonds at the meeting of my thighs” and the truly fabulous poem mocking male poets for skipping over the “quim beneath a smock” in their poems praising female beauty used to be a staple in my “Man and Woman in Literature” class when I was a graduate student, but beyond making sure everything is working right, I was never much interested in pulling a Charlotte York and toppling over with a mirror in my hand.

Jennifer and I were shocked to see it, and my first thought was “oh, I get it! I can see what lesbians and straight men get so worked up about” and I thought it was beautiful. And then I remembered the poem “Cywydd to the Quim” that asks:

Why the sudden, boyish qualm
When it comes to praise the quim:
Beneath a smock, hairy splice
Split with a delicious slit?

People want to compare the Sphinx with Baartman (see here, here, here, here, and here). I can understand why; in fact, the working title of this blog post was “Hottentots and Sugar” (I realized the minute I walked past the gate that I would write about the exhibition at some point). Calling forth the spectre of the Hottentot Venus is the shorthand we often use when we see certain black female bodies on display, but I wonder how much of this is our unease with seeing those bodies outside of “respectable” spaces. The thing about the horrific exhibition of Baartman was that she was depicted as grotesque because her body type was different, viewed without her consent, prodded, dissected, and caricatured. Her bottom is depicted as disproportionate to the rest of her and her labia was reported and depicted as long and loose (called the “Hottentot Apron”) and those things are considered abnormal. The Sphinx evokes this but the difference are important. Yes she is prone and exposed but so large as to be invulnerable and impenetrable. She can be seen and photographed but not touched at all. The sheer size of her gives her agency Baartman could never have and far from grotesque I saw her oversized everything as beautiful, dignified, majestic. Seeing all of her toes so perfectly rendered and perfectly proportioned humanized her for me. They also made me giggle. There is something endearing about them.

I went back three more times after that. Jennifer went back too and we texted one another images of the changing exhibit.

photo-88My second visit was with Kim Hall, who is writing a book on women, race, labor, and the sugar trade. A lot of her work focuses on the seventeenth century, so my visit with her came with its own history lesson. The sugar babies (they are officially called “banana boys”) had started to decompose. In some instances they were falling apart. One little boy’s arm was broken and Kim explained how, when the slaves’ arms were caught in the machinery they would simply be cut off. The second time, because I knew the vulva was there, I wanted to see Kim’s reaction to it. Her eyes widened and then we were too distracted by the pictures people were taking to be much more than appalled and annoyed. Unable to touch the Sphynx, folks contented themselves with miming sexual acts. Kim noted the footprints in the sugar marking how close people tried to get to her.

When I spotted an Asian-American woman wearing a Creative Time badge I asked her what kind of pictures she saw folks taking. I’m embarrassed to say I only approached her because I assumed we would have some common, racialized response to these interactions with the installation. It was presumptuous of me to assume anything about her politics and, when I approached her with that knowing-black-lady-expression she was visibly annoyed and was quick to tell me that a whole black family took a picture posed at the rear of the Sphinx. I was incredulous and she admitted that they may have just “focused on the lower part.” She then went on to show me some great pictures about the prototype for the Sphinx and talked about how the exhibition was changing over time. She explained that brown sugar was being sprinkled on the banana boys and how some of them never made it to the exhibit. Kim being Kim meant that even in a part of Brooklyn she’d never been to she ran into friends and colleagues and between taking pictures of her own talked about the process with other academic types their for reasons similar to ours.

A brief word on irritating white folks being irritating and irritating me and every irritated black person I know

I said to Jennifer as we stood appalled at the sight and sound of white people treating the exhibit like a Disney World attraction, “this is the same reason they feel like they can touch our hair.” Not all of the white people I saw at the exhibit seemed blissfully unaware of the history that formed those images. The more I went, the more I learned about the exhibit and would talk about it with friends as we walked around, and there were always white folks nearby carefully listening. They were outnumbered by white folks in Tom’s shoes posing in ways you can easily find on the internet, but there were white people there who wanted some information about the exhibit, and they were happy listen to whatever knowledge I had. The space was mercifully uncurated. In other words, there was no docent there to talk to anybody about any of it. There were volunteers to answer questions and to keep people from touching the statues (and to warn people “step carefully, that sugar on the ground is very hard”). The title on the side of the building tells you what the piece is about and a directive not to touch but to take all of the pictures and to post those pictures on the internet is all the guidance we’re given.

It was foolish of me to expect people NOT to pretend to pinch the Sphinxes nipples or to make crude gestures about an oversized statue’s bottom. But it distracted me and my friends from our experience with this work.  I didn’t expect (or even want) somber silence, but, I don’t know…

My frustration is about the reaction to the exhibit, but it goes beyond that. I’m so tired of white people who don’t get it, tired of people wearing blackface on Halloween, Native customs on Thanksgiving, and appropriating language and movement from those who developed that language and movement as a way to survive.

Karl Steel, a medievalist I know via twitter gently offered a counternarrative to some pictures I posted on twitter to show how I’ve seen white people interact with the installation. He does not dismiss the idea that I’m offended but argues that people who behave like jackasses are proving at least one point that Walker is trying to make with her work. He writes:

Had they been more familiar with her work, they’d know that by pretending to pinch the sphinx’s nipples or to stick their tongues in her vagina, by pretending, in short, to assault this defenseless yet gigantic woman, they’re just behaving like the creeps and racists that rampage through Walker’s work. They complete Walker’s Sphinx, because without that assault, we don’t have the kind of art that Walker normally makesedit – what I mean to say here, because I want to make this as clear as possible, is that Walker, by design, has ensured that many of the visitors would make themselves living examples of exactly the kind of pervasive racism that her work rightly excoriates.

It’s an interesting view I hadn’t thought of, though my friend Ben tweeted the same idea to me at some point. I didn’t think of it in part because my engagement with Walker is limited to a conference and a dinner party but also because I wanted to engage with the work with a certain kind of audience.   We had a brief discussion about it on line made all the more interesting because it’s a tricky thing for a white man and a black woman to talk about a black woman’s feelings about a representation of black womanhood…on the internet…where everybody could see. It was the kind of dialogue I think I was hoping for. More specifically, I think I wanted to be in that space with a diverse group of people who could get the piece as I did, like going to a movie where everyone chuckles or sighs with you and then you argue afterwards about what it might all mean.  And I’m frustrated because even though I should no better, I know that’s not going to happen, even here in Brooklyn—perhaps especially here in Brooklyn where people are so sure of their liberal bonafides that they rarely consider how they perpetuate racism. After all, the whole purpose for the exhibit pays homage to a lack of integration in this hip and happening borough.

I would have been happy if there had been more of the kind of people I saw the exhibit with my third and fourth visits.

My third time I went with my favorite colleague Janet and her fabulous, wonderful husband Sam. I’ve known Janet for ten years (she co-chaired the committee that hired me), and when I first joined the English department, she would take me on these rambles and show me some part of New York I needed to know about and that was also fun. Of all the colleagues I have, she is the one who comes closest to what I hoped it would be like to be a professor. We are not limited to maddening department politics; in fact, we have visits when all we’ve talked about is make-up and movies. I still remember her taking me to her brother’s office so I could see an arerial view of The Gates in Central Park. Her real-world politics are inspiring. I’ve often said that there are white folks I know who would be sad (so sad with their fee-fees) I had to sit at the back of the bus and there are white folks I know who would burn the bus down until I could sit up front. Janet and Sam fall in the latter category. I wanted to see the exhibition with them because they are smart, fun, and interesting, but it was also way to show them a part of Brooklyn they don’t know so well. It was also a kind of thank you for introducing me to the City.

Janet teaches film, but brought up Blake’s “Chimney Sweeper” poems as we talked about the banana boys. With her and Sam, I got to engage with the work differently than I did with Jennifer and Kim. Jennifer and I were so awed by it, and Kim and I were there on a busy Friday with so many people that it was difficult to concentrate in any real way (we went to a café after and each did a bit of writing before we had dinner). In between being appalled by irritating white folks being irritating, Janet and I talked about how the decomposing sugar looked like blood (her observation), we talked about how the light hit the statues. We talked about the heartbreak of seeing the banana boys crumbling. Sam is a photographer, so he took pictures with Janet’s phone until the battery went out and then when with my phone. One of them, maybe Janet, explained that this same kind of disregard for history and suffering was on display when people visited concentration camps (that image left me speechless for a moment). Sam noted a woman having her friend take a picture as she bent over pretending to lick one of the banana boys as if he were a lollipop. He also noted a little black boy staring up into the face of another banana boy. It never occurred to me to take pictures of folks behaving badly, but I’m glad that Sam did. I don’t just mean that I’m glad I have the pictures because someone took them, but I’m glad that Sam is the someone who did. I don’t know why yet.

photo-89He took a lot of wonderful pictures, but this is my favorite.

While we were there two Latino men covered in tattoos strode in and one said loudly, “I wanna see the slit!” His friend looked around nervously. Perhaps because I was one of the only few black people there but, I suspect, because my disdain for this behavior was a palpable thing and he could feel my glare before he saw it. Oddly, enough however, I was the least offended by these two guys. At first I thought it was because they were men of color, but ultimately I think I was rather amused and pleased. The idea of two men standing for an hour or more in the hot sun to see a huge naked woman cracked me up. I imagined the conversation and the debate that must have happened while they waited to get in. 90 minutes in the middle of summer is a long time to wait to see a thing you can view in under a minute. You can see it on the internet, so why bother to wait in line to see it in real life? It made me wish I were a poet or a proper writer so I could pretend to get inside their heads. If I had been thinking more clearly, I would have found a way to talk to them, not to preach or scold but to have a conversation, a chat, about what they thought. I might have pulled up the whole poem that teases men for avoiding “the slit.” (I’ll only quote the beginning here):

Every boorish, dullard poet
Who knows how to drink and prate,
(I will never give them board
Knowing I am better bred),
Prattles on in plaintive praise
Of girls’ assets without pause,
All, by Christ, incompetent.
Day in, day out, incontinent
Crawlers out to cadge a girl
Praise her hair as if the Grail
Was tangled in it. Lower
Down they go, and now glower
Over her eyebrows: her frown
Is bliss. Thus to the breasts, round
Between the arms, fit to burst,
And her hands, folded and blest.

I hate that I didn’t get to talk with them.

My final visit was on the second-to-last-day of the exhibit. I went by myself. I hadn’t planned to go again, but I heard that Free University had organized to have writers and other artists in the space to offer a different engagement than the one that seemed to be dominating the exhibit. It was the longest I’ve had to wait to get in (almost an hour and a half), and I was less interested in the exhibit at this point and more about watching the people engage with it. The space that was empty when Jen and I were there the first day was crowded with people.


I was curious to see what would happen to the spaces with voices of color deliberately raised. Creative Time put space aside for the Free University and I stood and listened to Sofía Gallisá reading in Spanish part of Abelardo Díaz Alfaro’s 1947 story “Bagazo” I don’t speak Spanish, but hearing it there nudged me out of my myopia.  When Tracie Morris started with what was listed as “original sound poetry,” I’ll confess I moved away. I don’t have a lot of patience for spoken word poetry, by which I mean have no patience for it. I was also more interested in what would be like to be at the exhibit with so many black people. The other times I’ve been there the crowd had been overwhelming me white with pockets of black people here and there. Saturday it seemed like at least half of the people there were black. Parents brought their children, daughters were there with their mothers, and lovers were there holding hands. I saw black kids and families posing in front of the figures, and it didn’t bother me. Although I should know better by now, I’m sure I was projecting my own black experience onto the families, but mostly I couldn’t really concentrate on how other people were seeing the exhibit.  Morris’ voice was clear and strong and it carried through the space. When I ran into her later, at the back of the Sphinx, I thanked her and explained that even thought I couldn’t hear what she was saying precisely, I could hear her voice and people responding to her and it pushed out whatever offensive nonsense I’d heard and seen in my earlier visits. She had disrupted the irritating. I paid attention this time around to the smell of sugar. It had been growing stronger the more we got into summer, but this time I noticed specific spots where it was particularly strong, almost suffocatingly so. I tried to see why, looking for vents or spaces to explain the difference. I had to step carefully, the melting sugar babies made it dangerous to move around easily. In some instances, they had fallen in such a way and melted to such a degree that it was almost impossible to get close to them. That seemed fitting.

photo-92Part of me wishes I was important enough to go back one more time, when Walker is there to oversee the dismantling. I’ve grown attached to the space and its current occupants and I’d like to see them again. I suspect that seeing the installation taken down would just upset me and make me cry. I can see myself standing there in that sticky mess crying and making it all messier.

My mom told me the other day about reading The Cost of Sugar and recognizing the names in the book as places from her childhood. She’s affectionately amused at my curiosity about “our” plantation. I still have no idea what to do with information I wasn’t seeking in the first place. I know they grew sugar in Suriname, but I think our plantation might have been too small to grow it. Maybe they grew it in Commewijne a larger plantation where my cousin now lives. I really don’t know.


Suriname, Part the First: Roots

I don’t really think of myself as having “roots” and I don’t know that I’ve missed them. In theory, I know I have roots. Everyone does, don’t they? But I didn’t grow up thinking about them. It’s part of what comes with being a third-culture kid. You move around as much as I did (Tinker AFB, Amsterdam, Cheyenne, Guam, Minot, Abilene, Okinowa, Biloxi, Angeles City, Bossier City, Natchitoches, Amherst, Montclair, Brooklyn*) with a mother from a tiny country most people have never heard of and a father “from New York” and the overall feeling is more about being regularly uprooted or, rather, transplanted on a regular basis than having roots.

It’s not been an unpleasant life at all. I was an extrovert as a kid, so while leaving was never easy, new places meant fresh beginnings and opportunities to reimagine how I might move through the world. When I started high school in the Philippines, there was no one to remind me of some embarrassing thing I did in the sixth grade in Mississippi. And when I left the Philippines, I could invent an entire narrative about it for my college friends in Shreveport. Moving was so much a part of my life that after four and a half years of college, even though I had no plan, I thought I was supposed to leave Louisiana, to uproot myself, and move someplace else (Evanston/Chicago) because my average tour in any state or country was 18 to 24 months.

The other term for third-culture kids is global nomads, and I would say that this feels like a better fit for me but only because it describes my opposition to a nomadic life. Right now, my greatest desire is to stay in one place and read and then write about what I’m reading. I don’t even like to travel to Manhattan. I’m not kidding. I teach in New Jersey and the sense of relief I feel when I drive back to Brooklyn is not simply about putting space between me and the messiness of academic departments, and it’s not even about the growing need I have to write more and more. I think it’s that I feel rooted in Brooklyn. I’m not from here (I’m not from anywhere), but it’s home, and I feel myself rooting in here, in this borough with nomads that move in and out of my life.

When my mother announced last year that we should take a trip to Suriname, my ambivalence ran so deep that I forgot to tell people I speak with all the time that I was going away at all. In fact, until a few hours ago I didn’t even realize I was going to spend time in Trinidad (just a few hours) along the way. I’ve mocked myself as friends looked oddly at my flat announcement that I was leaving frigid Brooklyn for warm Paramaribo, but I’ve also admitted that, for the last few years, I’ve lost interest in traveling. I find it exhausting, and I feel like I’ve traveled enough for a lifetime. I meet these people who are excited about some trip, and I listen to them and ask questions and I’m very happy for them, but in my head I’m thinking “Good Lord, that sounds exhausting.”

I’ve been saying for the last few weeks that I’m stressed about this trip because January has traditionally been a good writing month for me, that I’m going up for promotion and have a file to get together, that I hate packing. But the truth of it is I’m tired and the more I write the less I want to move around other people. Pleasure for me right now means days of quiet with a book or three and a legal pad scratching out notes.

But this trip has me thinking about roots. I was last in Suriname when I was 11 or 12. I learned to drive that trip. I sold watermelons with my uncle to people riding by his house. I drank coconut milk through a straw right from the coconut, immediately after my uncle commandeered it out of a tree. I went to French Guyana with my uncle for the day, and I visited with my oma who spoke virtually no English (my first language was Dutch, but I lost it decades ago). Is that what it means to have roots? To have memories from childhood? I don’t feel Surinamese or Dutch. In fact, I remember an unfortunate chapter in my life when I kept insisting to my mother, loudly, “I am an AMERICAN.” I’m a military brat, and more than anything else I’ve been I’ve always been AMERICAN. I don’t really know what that means. I do know I’ve never even bothered to apply for dual citizenship, though I know that’s something I should care about.

Once, a very nice, elegant southern gentleman (the kind with a single letter in front of his second and third names) said to me, “Tell us, Tricia, who are your people?” I replied, “that’s kind of you to ask, but I don’t really have people.” I do, of course, more than I can count (my mother has six siblings all with kids and grandchildren, and my father has three with kids who also have kids), but we traveled so much I only knew them from infrequent visits and letters (I remember one year that one of my birthday gifts was a long-distance call from the Philippines to New York so I could speak to my grandmother).

But each time I’m with my cousins, my Dutch and/or American ones, I discover some common thing, and now I wonder was that a root?

My mother said casually last night that I would be seeing my Uncle Arthur, and for the first time it seemed worth packing up and trekking to the airport at ass o’clock in the morning (3:30 am, to be exact). I blurted “Oom Artur!” with a perfect Dutch accent. I haven’t seen him in over twenty years, but when my dad was sent to Vietnam, a month after I was born, my Uncle Arthur took care of my mom and me. I don’t remember much, but my mother said that, among other things, he used to hold me on one knee and his daughter on the other (apparently I fought the poor girl over him, insisting he was my father). I don’t remember what we ever did together (he is not the uncle who taught me to drive), but I do remember how I always felt around him (happy and at home), and I wonder if that’s a root.

For my first solo trip abroad, I went to London. It wasn’t such a great trip, though I was happy to spend the day in Canterbury and glad I got to visit Marx’s grave. I had plenty of surreal moments, including an encounter with a white couple from Oklahoma who, upon discovering that we had a similar last name (they spell it with an “s”), said cheerily, “Oh, that’s because our ancestors owned your ancestors!” They said this with an astonishing amount of joy. I know I’m supposed to think of that as a root. I’m black; someone once owned someone in my family.

Later that trip, I was kind of lost near some square or another. It was kind of foggy and/or misty, and a tall, dark man (obsidian came to my mind immediately) appeared and announced, “I am Nubian.” He sounded exactly the way you would think an obsidian man would sound, especially if he appeared out of nowhere. He said, “where are you from?” and I was suddenly so tired of having to give my usual, convoluted answer (it begins, “well, my dad was in the military, and my mother is from Suriname…”) that I simply said I was from Louisiana. He said again, “I am Nubian. Where are you from?” And then I knew what he meant and was relieved to have an answer I thought would satisfy him. “St. Kitts.” He nodded, and then he disappeared.* My lack of curiosity about this fact about St. Kitt, a fact that I only know because my godfather did our family tree years ago, has never bothered me. When you’re not from anywhere at all who has time to think about where you are from, to care about things like roots?

But I’m going to Suriname, where my mother has her roots. I have family there, and I have memories, and I’m just beginning to think that I might have roots there too—if I can figure out what the hell that means and how much I actually care about them.

*these are the places I’ve lived and not the places I’ve visited; I wouldn’t know where to begin with that list.

**I’m not just saying that to be clever; one minute he was there and then he wasn’t.

“The Skies Belong to Us” #4

Sometimes I talk to myself, sometimes “talking” means arguing and Tricia and Dr. Matthew don’t get along:
Still mopey it’s over?


It’s been over a week, you know.


Did you do that thing you always do? You know, that thing where you forget to check when the book actually ends and you think you have a good 15 pages left when you don’t?


So it kind of just ended for you.  All of a sudden.


Still pissed about Cathy Kerkow?


So, just with the one-word answers.

I hate her.


She gets away with too much.


Everyone else has to pay and she doesn’t.


Well, I know that’s not really the case. It’s so


I know, I know she loses things too. It’s just all too easy for her to


Sorry. What were you saying?

It’s all too easy for her to abandon an identity once it no longer suits her. And I know, she sticks around longer than I expected, but

This is really a thing with you, isn’t it?

A thing?

Yes, a thing. You started off comparing Kerkow to Piper in “Orange is the New Black” and talking about rites of passage (in that preachy tone of yours).

Well, I was right. Except she doesn’t have to because


Okay, okay. Here’s the thing: why does the rite-of-passage or the process to enlightenment have to go through the lives of the disenfranchised? It’s like this is a scarf or a jacket she put on and then took off when it started itching.

But isn’t that just the unfair truth—part of being a Cathy Kerkow is that you get to move around in ways that Holder doesn’t? (and “lives of the disenfranchised?” Puhleeze!). And why does it have to be a path to anything? Or a process?

Yes, but it’s not just her or Piper (that’s a name that should be mocked all day, by the way). It’s the whole eat-pray-love of it. It’s that white woman who became a Maasai Warrior and then wrote a book called Warrior Princess! IT’S MILEY CYRUS TWERKING!!!!

Hey now, that’s just silly. You’ve known this about her all along, and I saw those moments when you felt sorry for her. You’re just pissed because Brendan likes her so much.

So much. You could practically see the little hearts on the page.

But the end as a whole, you seemed to like it.

Oh I loved it! I read it at the bar of my favorite restaurant over red wine and chocolate cake (also very hard to get right, by the way).

I know, I heard you say “I see what you did there, Koerner!” (and everyone else did too, by the way)

I couldn’t help it. I was really happy for him! He pulled off this really hard caper, an almost impossible balancing act.  I mean, really, it’s an almost flawless book.

So it’s not the writing but the point-of-view you don’t like.

It’s the politics of it, romanticizing her.

You wanted him to say “bad little white girl!” didn’t you.

Sort of.

Even though you’ve praised the book for not being preachy, for not pointing at anyone’s behavior and leaving the reader to make her own choices and connections, for being thoughtful but

Yes–for being thoughtful and dispassionate at once.  It’s hard. I know, I know.

So you want him to judge her.

NO, I don’t want him to exactly judge her. Okay, maybe just a little bit. But does he have to like her in such an obvious way? I want him to

Judge her. You want him to judge her. Actually, you want to judge her.

There’s no “want” about it. I do judge her. I know it’s maybe irrational.

Maybe irrational?

Yeah, just maybe. This isn’t like being mad at Frankenstein or Darcy. They’re not real. She is, and plus I’m not wrong, you know. She’s a type a very specific type.

Isn’t Holder?

No, he’s a product, a compilation of tragedy, and the “tragedy” is not ennui and restlessness.Terrible, awful things happen to him, and this meant something to him. It wasn’t a lark. Yes, it was deluded, but

Funny, you have all this wrath for Kerkow but none for the hijackers who put so many people in harm’s way. She didn’t actually DO anything you know? And where is Holder’s agency in all this? (God, now you have me doing it…”agency” gag)? Lots of black men went to Vietnam and faced horrible racism and didn’t hijack a frickin’ plane.

Wait, do you hate Holder? Because that’s not okay. We like him. You don’t get not to like Holder (and what’s with the “frickin’?” your mom stopped reading this blog a long time ago). The thing is Koerner makes her this heroine. She’s not just a subject like the other people in the book but the alluring muse he imagines at the moment in the novel when I want him to

What? What do you want him to do? (and, it’s not a novel, Patricia)

Well, I’m not sure.

Have you ever, ever liked any ending of any novel written after 1845? Ever?

Right now, aren’t you already looking suspiciously at Americanah? And 1Q84

Listen, that book is a million pages.  I’m going to throw a party when I finish it. (and didn’t you just say Skies is not a novel?)

But don’t you usually use words like “flat” or “excessive” or “self-indulgent” to describe the end of perfectly good books? You have issues and can’t let go, can you, crazy-reader lady? Don’t you? Don’t you?

I’m waiting.

Still waiting

First, I’m not crazy.  Second, I can do two things at once. I can hate all endings like an irrational reader and still be legitimately pissed about how Cathy ends up. In fact, I think it’s a sign of

Oh shut up. Go see what Dominique thinks. She’ll know.

“The Skies Belong to Us” #3

I can’t decide if The Skies Belongs to Us is like a good layer cake or a good lasagna.

It’s possible that I’m thinking about food metaphors because the school year has started (cries) and my mind is on teaching students how to organize compelling essays. Or maybe it’s because I read a good portion of Skies while eating the last pieces of my birthday cake (cries and weeps). Comparing it to cake might make it seem as if the book shouldn’t be taken seriously, that it’s more like dessert than something substantive. That isn’t the case. For all of the zaniness of the different hijacking plots, this is a book that invites us to think of how national crises manifest themselves in a country’s citizens—especially those citizens whose feelings of disenfranchisement chip away at their sense of moral duty. Still, I’m leaning towards cake over lasagna.

Dom wrote in her last post: “my incredulity has been tempered by compassion, and a bit of sadness.”
She’s is thinking about Holder (she refers to him by his first name):

On page 122, there’s an excerpt of the note that Roger had started to write to the captain of the plane, but which he gave up on when he couldn’t keep his thoughts straight. It’s completely incomprehensible; a word salad from someone who is clearly not in their right mind. Reading it broke my heart a little. Here was a man who had witnessed (and committed) unspeakable horrors, and yet, because of a mistake he made while trying to deal with that, he was sent back into the regular world with no help or support whatsoever.

I felt this way at a different moment. The mention of the other black guy on Holder’s flight made me sad and uncomfortable. As the crew and passengers try to figure out who among them is a threat, he is considered a suspect—for no other reason than a shared racial marker. He must have been as frightened and frustrated as the other passengers, and yet he had another burden to shoulder.

But back to the cake/lasagna that is this book.

Writing 101 teaches the structure of a good essay: the hook, the argument, the evidence, more evidence, some analysis, conclusions. You can see this in good writing everywhere. An op-ed, long non-fiction piece, or blog post begins with some anecdote that’s meant to stand in for the piece’s larger issue or theme. I do this in my literary criticism, start with some salient (or salacious) part of the text and then hang my argument on it. It’s a great model; think of it as the comfort food of writing. I thought Koerner was doing this and had sort of eased into the lasagna of his book: personal/historical/political,personal, historical/political, personal/historical/political. For roughly the first half of the book the personal focused primarily on the hijackers, either the motivation behind their attacks and/or what happened around the hijacking (NB: when parachuting out of a plane carrying your loot, don’t wear cowboy boots).

I liked that structure and the rhythm of it. It made the history feel more intimate and kept the focus on the people. I think it might be how Koerner avoids slipping into preaching (I’m fascinated by the absence of moralizing in the book thus far). But when we get to the Holder-Kerkow hijacking, Koerner starts mixing it up, adding layers within layers, and then it’s like an amazing novel, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next. Or, actually, I kind of know what’s going to happen next but I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I love that. As someone who grew up reading detective novels and who spends her time reading canonical British fiction, I’m pretty good at anticipating what’s going to happen next and, in some cases, how events will unfold. It means I’m usually reading for something else (patterns, rhetoric, ideology), and get distracted by what I want to say or write about what I’m reading.

That’s not the case here. At first I couldn’t put the book down because I was so surprised by its content; now I can’t put it down (even for my mandatory reading for school: Frankenstein, Northanger Abbey, the Romantic poets) because it’s crafted so well. Like a really amazing cake. A good lasagna is wonderful, but it’s actually really easy to make one. It’s almost fool proof. Oh sure, you can overcook the noodles, or not season the filling properly, or use store-bought mozzarella and bore yourself to death, but it’s basic and easy to learn. Cake, especially a layered cake takes skill.

Take my birthday cake for example: lemon cake with lemon curd and vanilla cream icing (it’s called Brooklyn Sunshine and you can get it from Heavenly Crumbs, but you have to order it a few days ahead). Perfectly layered with icing that didn’t leave an aftertaste or that slimy post-icing feeling in your mouth. Just when you were enjoying the cake, a bit of lemon curd would get in there and the icing is pretty and thick enough to let you know you’re eating cake for a special reason but not so thick as to overpower the cake the way the icing on those dry monstrosities that Magnolia Bakery calls cupcakes does. For me, the heart of this book is the national crisis, and Holder and Kerchow are the icing. I’m not quite sure why, so this analogy could fall apart at any moment, but I suspect it’s because they’re the shiny, compelling decoration that pulled me into the cake.

“The Skies Belong to Us” #2

I’m having a lot of fun wondering what prompted my mild-mannered friend to tweet a

Is it the sheer number of hijackers?
Is it the crude capitalism of the security debate?
Or is it the hijacker in the cowboy boots?
Is she thinking of our friend Amber the flight attendant?
Or maybe the new Almodovar movie with its Glee-like musical number?*

It’s hard to say what has my eyes wide open to the point where I want to nudge strangers on the train to share my incredulity. Is it the zaniness of the hijacking capers or the tug-of-war between the airlines and a government trying to protect a public that didn’t seem terribly bothered by side-trips to Havana? I’m in awe of the “What to Expect When you’re Hijacked” articles and the proto-Dr. Phil and his cray-cray theories about what makes a hijacker. The pissing contest between Cuba and the United States. I don’t even. WTF.

I know Holder and Ketchow are at the center of this story, but, right now at least, I’m not at all interested in them. I want to know more about the other hijackers, especially the hot Italian or the guy who hijacked a plane in order to propose (note to Dom: if a man went to those lengths to get me to marry him, I might seriously reconsider my “no wedding” policy). I credit my curiosity to the way Koerner tell us about the collection of the disillusioned and the delusional—one right after another. It’s like a slideshow you want to watch again.

Underneath the hijinks and breeziness (sorry), Koerner offers a history of the current security state we all currently live in. If Holder were getting on a plane today, a TSA agent would have the right to search his afro for explosives. Maybe “history” isn’t the right word. Maybe it’s a kind of prequel. Right now, he’s laying it out without making a lot of fuss about it. He is just telling the story and leaving it to the reader to make of it what she will. I hope it stays that way. It’s distracting when authors and/or their narrators do the work of interpretation for me. I don’t want or need anyone sitting on my shoulder and talking to me while I’m reading, unless I’m being mocked (see Jane Austen’s narrators).

Some free associations…

I’m with Dom when she reacts to politics that seem uniquely American**. I had to stop reading for a bit when Koerner describes the trauma of Holder’s youth. I also wonder if she has the same experience of being challenged about her blackness that Holder faced in his youth and I had to negotiate well into graduate school.

I’m noting how much the military industrial complex leaks into our daily lives and how the technology that begins there wends its way to civilian use.

I’m wondering if there is a connection between deregulating airlines and the current security model of the TSA. I was a kid when the airlines were deregulated and have no memory of it, but I keep seeing it as a crucial turn in public policy and our relationship to travel and, eventually, security.

I read Koerner, stop, and do other things, and I think about travel.

I remember The Flying Tigers airline that took my family from Mississippi to The Philippines. The flight attendants were extra kind to us. My Christian mother calls this God’s favor. The militant part of my black identity thinks it made them feel good to be extra gracious to this nice, squeaky clean black family. My father was handsome and sharp in his uniform, my mother was beautiful, and I was wide-eyed and well behaved. The flight attendants weren’t just nice to us on the plane. Even after we moved into our house, whenever they flew into Clark Air Base they would bring me presents—a shiny blue Flying Tigers jacket (in my size), a Flying Tiger pin, and, my favorite thing: real, whole milk. We couldn’t get that overseas, so we drank the powdered stuff (I actually only used it for my cereal or in hot chocolate). The flight attendants would bring me the milk that didn’t get used during the flight. Bliss.

Now, of course, the experience of flying overseas is exhausting and invasive.

On my way back from Amsterdam a few years ago the wand the security guard used to scan my body for explosives was triggered by the underwire in my bra. When it beeped, the flat-chested agent asked what was causing the beep. When I said it was most likely the underwire in my bra she was derisive: “why do you need underwire in your bra?” I looked at her breasts and then down at mine and then back at hers and then back at mine. I did that until she nodded curtly and let me go through.

I feel impossibly naïve to be so shocked by the degree to which all thoughts and policies about “security” are guided by commerce. I like to think I know how the world works, and as much as I attach the phrase “industrial complex” to any number of nouns (prison/education/wedding/mainstream feminist/Hollywood + see above) you’d think I know by now that Sally Bowles and the Master of Ceremonies are dead on right when they sing “money makes the world go round.”

I wonder if we will we ever buy our way back to that relative ease of travel. I know we’ll never be able to walk freely around airport and airplanes without intense scrutiny, but will the passenger’s comfort matter more than security the farther away we get from 9/11? Is there enough money in corporate travel to offset the billions earned by security?

My concerns about the writing have evaporated. I wondered at first if my first response was just me being a prickly, picky reader who was being super critical about a writer she doesn’t know, but I do think the writing gets better and smoother. I also am having a hard time putting the book down. But I am. As much as I want to know what happens next (of course, on some level I do know what happens), I’m slowing down to savor this book. I flew through Mat Johnson’s Pym a few summers ago and was bereft when it was over, wandered around like some lost puppy unsure about what to read next. Not this time.

I like what Dom says in her first thoughts about the book:

I have the sense that the “dots” in Roger’s and Cathy’s story can be easily connected from choice to choice, coincidence to coincidence, and consequence to consequence. Whether that is due to who they are, or to Koerner’s skill as a writer, remains to be seen.

*Dom is right about television. I was with her in Toronto for a week and only have some vague memory of a television somewhere in her apartment, and I don’t think it was ever on. I, steeped as I am in serialized fiction, love the whole process of falling in love with a show—especially dramas. I am very much looking forward to a well-done mini-series of this book, narrated by Samuel L. “Get these motherfucking hijackers off of this motherfucking plane” Jackson.

**I know, I know. I can’t help it.

The Week in Afro-Pedagogy: Handel, Hickman, and Mama Cass

I hadn’t really thought about how it would feel to share these songs with my students.  I’m enjoying myself, and I’m sensing a settling in feeling from the class as a whole.  But it’s also a bit strange to share something as personal as music with people I really don’t know. Thus far, I’m only choosing songs from my own library, so they all resonate with me in a personal way.  I can’t listen to “Ev’ry Valley” from Handel’s Messiah (paired with Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” because the runs in Handel are actually sublime) without thinking of my father.  I didn’t tell my students this, but the first gift I remember choosing and buying for my him was the score to Messiah.

We were living in Biloxi, Mississippi at the time, and my mom and I were at the mall.  I wandered into a music store. I was probably in the fifth or sixth grade*, and I don’t think I’d ever seen a music store before.   I don’t remember much about the store except seeing a wall of musical scores and honing in on the score to an oratorio I practically knew by heart.  It never occurred to me that one could buy such a thing.  But I knew immediately that my dad would love it.  I don’t remember how much I had to pay for it, but I do remember saving up and going to the store a few times. And if the older white man who ran the place thought it was weird that a black kid in Biloxi was into Handel he never let on.   My dad loved it and still has it (don’t be impressed: he also still has the same bathrobe from about the same era).

Whether my students like the selections or not (I don’t ask), songs I’ve listened to for decades are new again when I hear them in the classroom.

In my Novel to 1900 class we spent the last week of our Moll Flanders discussion thinking about femininity and criminality.  We used “Criminal Ms-Representation: Moll Flanders and Female Criminal Biography” by John Rietz for the discussion.  He argues:

Female criminals, then, are figured as being outside the social order, and their behavior is figured as somehow incompatible with their sexuality, crime being either a perversion of or a substitute for it.  These two factors complicate the representation of characters like Moll Flanders.  How does a writer effectively portray a character with the incompatible traits of femininity and criminality?–John Rietz

To kick that discussion off we listened to Sara Hickman’s “Take it Like A Man.”  I’ve been listening to Hickman almost non-stop since my college days, and this anthem is still pretty terrific.  I try not to stare at anyone during those first few minutes, but out of the corner of my eye I saw students nodding and smiling.  We ended the week wondering whether or not Moll repented or simply reinvented herself and rocked out (that’s the only word for it, sorry) to “Wild Women” by the great Mama Cass (she goes great with Sara Hickman!)

A writing drill centered around from John Richetti’s essay “Freedom and Necessity, Improvisation and Fate in Moll Flanders” followed.

And speaking of writing.  My Art of Poetry class on Thursday listened to “Avalon” by Harry Connick Jr.—the song I usually listen to at the start of my writing sessions.  I’ve been adapting my own writing strategies to help my students (undergraduate and graduate) get a handle on their writing struggles.  We have different motivations and different goals, of course, but the trials of writing only change in intensity.  The challenges remain the same.

Eva Cassidy’s “Fields of Gold” was probably too melancholy for Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” but we were moving from prose to poetry and we started the week with “Mont Blanc” and, well, there you have it.

This week we’re on to Evelina and Wordsworth and Thomas Gray, and I’m thinking that later in the semester Willoughby’s “I had always been expensive” might call for Natalie Cole’s cover of “Cry Me A River” (his theme song this term might just be Nina Simone’s “Buck” but I’m not sure he deserves Simone or that much genuine passion).  I’m chatting with everyone about my experiment.  Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to uses music in the classroom at some point in the term.  This doesn’t surprise me, of course, but I don’t know how much we think about what it means for critical analysis and writing.

Perhaps we should.

*And speaking of hair, mine was pressed at the time…in Biloxi, Mississippi.  This was before Jheri Curl’s set us all free (yes, I had one…don’t judge me; my head was not my own).

The week in Afro-Pedagogy: Nat King Cole, Wynton Marsalis, Gloria Gaynor and Cake

I’ve been trying not to overthink my choices for those first few minutes of class because, if I overthink them, I’ll worry too much about whether or not students are “getting” it when I really just want them to have a transitional moment. Worse, rather than simply listening with, perhaps, some moment of insight, they’ll feel as if they have to perform.

Vibe is everything.

For the final Frankenstein discussion I kept thinking about Gloria Gaynor’s classic “I Will Survive” and how Cake’s cover of the song gives it a different hue, especially with the guitar riffs and the male vocalist.  One assignment for the class asks students to either recite a poem of their choosing or adapt the structure of one of the poems to their own topic.  I hoped the Gaynor-Cake versions of the song might inspire them.  The only problem is that Gaynor’s disco tune is really only good for two things—dancing around in one’s apartment (usually while singing at the top of one’s lungs)  or dancing in a club (preferably with a group of friendly gay men).  If the point is to settle in, Gaynor’s not going to do it. But in order to get to Cake, I had to go through Gaynor.  We ended up listening to just the first few minutes of Gaynor (and it was a bit jarring), but the Cake cover seemed to pull most of the students into the work for the day. Of course, Frankenstein’s creature promises to do the exact opposite of survive (a funeral pyre seems to be in his immediate future), but I’m not necessarily going for a specific correlation with these moments.

It’s not so easy to experiment with music in the classroom, and I have to remind myself not to seek a specific reaction from anyone. It was affirming to see students tapping their fingers and feet to Cake, but music is such a personal medium (so often we listen to it in private spaces) that it’s difficult to share in the clinical space of a classroom.

I don’t particularly have the, the vocabulary to discuss music.  This is not necessarily a bad thing as it reminds me, again, how much of critical writing is knowing what language to use to describe what a reader feels about a text.  For all that I keep a list of terms that my students need in order to discuss literature, I sometimes forget just how much of that vocabulary is new to many of them. At this point, it’s not even second nature to me. It’s just how I talk, but that wasn’t always the case. This uneasiness with musical vocabulary keeps me mindful.

It’s difficult to decide how much needs to be done by way of introduction or discussion afterwards.  In my “Art of Poetry” class last week we read canonical Donne, “The Flea” and “A Valediction: Forbidding Morning.”  The second poem had me thinking of Wynton Marsalis playing Hayden and Mozart with the National Philharmonic.  Symphonic music with Donne felt like a cliché, but for the second class, when we discussed “The Flea,” Nat King’s Cole “If You Can’t Smile and Say Yes…” felt more in keeping with the spirit of whatever Afro-pedagogy might be.  But the song needed a bit of glossing.  I wanted students to note the line “squeeze me a squoze” and felt I needed to explain what “men are scarce as nylons” alluded to.  And that brings me back to my main concern.  How much do students really need to know about these songs?  I run the risk of overthinking, of being that nerd who ruins the moment with overbearing explanations.  Students don’t need to “get” everything anyway.

And really how is life not better for spending three minutes with Nat?  I mean really…

NB: As I was jotting down a few notes, I realized that the other, perhaps more present, inspiration for this experiment comes from my favorite blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates and his occasional Morning Coffee posts.

(Thanks to my friend A.S. for putting Cake’s cover of “I Will Survive” on a birthday mixed CD.)

Afro Pedagogy: An Introduction

Not really.

I mean I don’t even know what “Afro Pedagogy” would mean. I just know that I’ve been having a lot of fun with my new afro (my teeny weeny afro, to be exact), more fun than I thought was possible, and that fun has seeped into my teaching.

Here’s what happened.

In the middle of getting Written/Unwritten ready to run the publishing gauntlet, I decided that I couldn’t wait any longer to get rid of all the permed and/or weaved hair I’d been bored by for years. It was both the right and the wrong choice. Right because I promised myself to make the big chop this summer. Wrong because it distracted me from my work. The first day after I took my braids out I could barely concentrate as I could actually feel the coils of my hair unfurling. It felt like there was a party going on on top of my head while the brain inside my head was wrestling with trying to get the beast out the door. The combination of both events—-getting rid of the book (for now at least) and getting into my afro has me feeling playful…but in a serious way.

Because afros, when they are not being called things like teeny weeny, are also serious declarations, whether the wearer intends them to be or not. Women, especially older ones, have been coming up to me and talking about my liberation, my freedom, my declaration. No matter that I was bored and tired of shelling out all of the cash it takes to maintain processed hair. Apparently, I’ve been liberated. So I’m passing it on.

All of this is to say that I’ve been spending the first few minutes of each class easing my students into the day’s work by asking them to be playfully, or perhaps the better word is creatively, serious. The idea is one I got from a friend who has her students use meditation exercises to prepare them for class. I’m not really the meditating type, but I’ve noticed that there are certain songs that get my teaching brain started, and I wondered what would happen if I shared them with my students, if I gave them three or four minutes before class to focus on something that was interesting and important and that might connect them to their work but that required very little from them.

I started the first class on the first day by beginning my Art of Poetry class with Tribe Called Quest’s “Check the Rhime.”

It was interesting for me but not necessarily so for the students. We did some work with the lyrics, and I think it set the right tone, but I didn’t get the impression that students felt anything after listening to it.

My romanticism class started with Aretha Franklin singing “Skylark” (we’ll read Shelley’s poem by the same name later). It worked a bit better. The class is smaller (16 students instead of 33), some of the students already know me from other classes, and there’s something to be said for the fact that Franklin sets just the right tone:

For my final class of the day (Novel to 1900), I didn’t really have anything in mind for those first few minutes, so I started the class chatting with my students about what they’d read over the summer.  One brave student admitted to reading 50 Shades of Grey, and before I knew it she was reading a pithy, scathing review of it from Amazon’s website. By the time she got to

“The main male character is a billionaire (not a millionaire but a billionaire) who speaks fluent French, is basically a concert level pianist, is a fully trained pilot, is athletic, drop dead gorgeous, tall, built perfectly with an enormous penis, and the best lover on the planet. In addition, he’s not only self made but is using his money to combat world hunger. Oh yeah, and all of this at the ripe old age of 26!”

we were laughing too hard to let her finish.

I haven’t quite worked out what should happen after these moments, but I know what happens during them: Nothing. No roll taking, no passing out papers, no announcements. We all just sit and listen or read quietly.

Sometimes I make a direct link to the day’s work; sometimes I explain that what we are hearing or reading is loosely connected to some element and ask them why that might be. Last week, on both days, we started our work with Moll Flanders listening to Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child”, and a student said, “I’ve heard her voice before.” And maybe that’s all that really matters.

I don’t know that I’ll always choose popular Afro-American culture for these moments (we listened to Professor Snape read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets last week, and while he is certainly popular, there is nothing Afro about him), but the spirit behind it is somehow connected to what’s going on on top of as well as inside of my head.  And, in much the same way as my afro, I’d like those first few minutes to unfold as naturally, as organically as possible.

Speedy Romeo! Perfect, Perfect, Perfect

A pizza joint worth a review…

When it came to our goal of visiting twelve pizza joints in a single year, the intrepid Karen would have happily gone the last pizza mile, but Joan and I got too busy, and I didn’t think there was anything new to say about the pizza we were trying—primarily because we were going to places that were new to me but not new to anyone else but also because we agreed that thick crusts were out and that limited our choices.  It’s not that the nuances of the different pies we tried were lost on me (Fornino Williamsburg is superior to Fornino Park Slope), but it wasn’t particularly interesting writing about variations on a theme.

So I’ve continued my pizza journey solo without writing about it: Fornino Park Slope (better ambiance, inferior pie) Paulino’s on Bowery (and eating grilled octopus for the first time and learning the joys of chili sauce), Otto’s (with its amazing salads), and Motorino Williamsburg before it had to close because the building was sinking…literally sinking.  I also tried Graziella’s in Fort Greene. It might have been good at some point, but it needs to step up its game because there’s a new kid in town, and Speedy Romeo is not fooling around.

What I know about haute cuisine could fit on the back of a pizza joint napkin, but even I have heard of Jean Georges, and when I heard that one of its chefs (Justin Bazdarich) had opened a new place just a few blocks from my apartment, I thought I should try it out before it got too busy.

I waited too long.

And I knew it when I saw Bob Tuschman from the Food Network having dinner at a table by the door.

Speedy Romeo opened on Tuesday and the wait for a table its first Saturday night was already 45 minutes. In fact, my friend and I ended up sitting at the bar.  I’m glad we did as we got to see all of the restaurants offerings being prepared in the brick oven and on the grill, and the chefs behind the bar were happy to offer suggestions.  The restaurant offers pies made in a brick oven located behind the bar and also serves steaks, chops, chicken , and fish.

We started with the mozzarella salad.  I may not know from fancy food, but I’ve eaten enough fresh mozzarella to know when it’s good and when it’s gotten too old, and this was the good stuff.  The texture was perfect and all it needed was a drizzle of chili oil.  It was served with a side of grilled eggplant on toast and garnished with mint.

My friend ordered the Margherita. I’m glad we agreed to share because it was pretty close to perfect.    Too often restaurants don’t balance the sauce with the other ingredients, but they get it right here, and the addition of oregano was terrific.  One of the chefs behind the bar (the friendly and adorable Justin) suggested a pie named after his dad, and I’m glad I followed his advice.  The King Salami is covered with hot and sweet sopresatta, finocchiona, and red peppers, that manage to sit on the perfect crust without weighing it down.  I’m saying the crust is perfection. Seriously. It has just the right amount of salt, it’s firm without being chewy, and when you go back for your fourth piece (because, let’s face it, you’re gonna), it still tastes as good as it did when it came out of the oven

All of this is served with a side of pickled peppers, spicy and tangy and perfect on pretty much everything (I’m dying to try it on eggs).

The only reason I was able to stop eating my pie was because I wanted to save room for dessert.  They were out of lemon tart, so we shared a piece of the chocolate cake, which I was convinced would annoy me.  The menu describes it as having a marshmallow in it.  I know that the whole s’mores thing is all the rage these days, but I seriously have no interest in that flavor combination.  Like everything else at Speedy’s this marshmallow was amazing, more like a meringue than a gooey mess, and the cake was just moist enough to feel almost as smooth as its topping.  I politely offered the last bite to my friend who took me up on the offer before I could change my mind.

We shared a bottle of Montepulciano and the bill was still quite reasonable.

The only drawback to the place is that its ambiance feels out of place in mellow Clinton Hill.  I’ve become accustomed to low lighting, interesting but unobtrusive music, and the hum of a local crowd.  Speedy Romeo feels like a sports bar with its loud rock and roll and even louder crowd.  It’s jarring given how wonderful the food is, and I hope this changes.  I’m looking forward to going some weeknight with the hope that it will be quieter…and that they’ll have lemon tarts to end the evening.