Lucille Clifton, Memory, and Remembering: A Reflection

The Network for Responsible Policy invited me to join a panel to talk about “gender.” Their goal is to bring experts together to talk to their community about politics, policy, and culture. Last night’s event was co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters. I was the only humanities person on the panel, so I decided to talk about poetry. And since this was a panel on gender, and I will take any excuse to discuss Lucille Clifton, I did. She always gives me a spot of hope. After the talk, audience members wanted to read my prepared comments so here they are…

Remembering, Memory, and Intersectional Feminism in the Long Age of Trump:

The African-American poet Lucille Clifton has a very short poem titled “why some people be mad at me sometimes.” Here it is:

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering
mine

Clifton is the favored poet of almost every black feminist thinker I know. She captures our triumphs, challenges, and bodies. In one of her poems called “wishes for sons,” she imagines a world where a man finds himself in a strange city, with an unexpected period, a single tampon, and no idea where to find a convenience store. She writes about the material precarity of black women in poem’s like “miss Rosie, and she celebrates our bodies in poems like “homage to my hips” with the line, “these hips are big hips/they need space to move around in.” And my favorite line “they don’t fit into little/petty places.” For so many, her poem “won’t you celebrate with me” is an invitation and an anthem. I teach nineteenth-century British literature, but I still share it with students all the time. Here it is:

won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.

It’s a lovely poem, unflinching, clear, and celebratory. Clifton is like that, but I’ve been thinking a lot about this short poem, “why some people be mad at me sometimes” as we wrestle with memories, memory making, making history and whose history matters when. I’ve been thinking about what it means to remember and how memory has a particular valence in this current moment. This is a moment when men are forced to remember past encounters from a different position, and when politicians conveniently forget what the president said a day after they heard it.

This memory tug of war is not new, and sometimes it feels rather benign—the little-known fact about a memorial moment we take for granted. These are usually reminders of why we have Labor Day or why Memorial Day is in May. Sometimes, however, the push to shape memory feels more radical.

Every year, for example, when we remember Martin Luther King, Jr., someone steps forward to remind us that the King most people remember today is different than the King who was vilified, demonized, hounded, and unpopular during his lifetime, particularly in the 1960s when he started organizing for integrated housing in the north and was publicly opposed to the Vietnam War. Someone always asks us to remember which of the senators still serving today voted against making his birthday a federal holiday. And whenever anyone associated with the FBI tries to honor his memory (this year it was James Comey), someone else pops up and reminds the FBI of the letter sent to King encouraging him to kill himself. The pushback is to point out that celebrating one thing (King) does not erase a troubling past. This might seem self-righteous or pedantic (maybe those are the same thing) or like some empty exercise, but what we remember and what we choose to forget or not record is a political act.

The speaker in the Clifton poem explains what “they” want (without describing who that might be) and explains why they “be mad”– Here’s the poem again:

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering
mine

It’s worth noting here the declarative tone at the end “and I keep on remembering mine.” The speaker doesn’t try—just does. And it makes folks angry. It’s easy to imagine how that push back expresses itself. It comes in different forms. Sometimes it is incredibly simple “why don’t we have white history month” (and then someone explains how many basic facts about black history are missing from the curriculum and then a black person, usually me, jokes that we only get 28 days so everyone should just relax). Sometime it masks itself by pretending that the act of remembering is neutral “and is labeled politically correct” or, in the humanities, especially in the field of literary study it gets dismissed as “identity politics.” We say this one someone asks why we canonize some authors (almost all white, mostly male) and ignore others. I’m a specialist in nineteenth-century literature, specifically the history of the novel. I’m interested in the novels and novelists we don’t read (you can think of them as Jane Austen’s forgotten literary sisters). I do this work, in part, because I want to help people remember the cultural past as it looked to the many instead of to the few. It means reading novels we’ve forgotten and spotlighting cultural conversations many don’t know exist. For example, did you know that when Austen was writing the debate to end England’s participation in the slave trade was actually fashionable? In fact, it’s one of the first public causes middle and upper class middle women organized themselves around. That kind of remembering ruffles some feathers, but it doesn’t invite the kind of outrage that is sparked when other memories and histories are brought to the forefront.

In other words, the tension between the “they” and “I” shifts depending on where we are in the hierarchy.

A woman stands up in congress and tells an inconvenient history that she wants on the record, parliamentary rules are put in force, and she is silenced (at least in one arena). In this case, a woman stands up to men who want to silence her. And that old phrase, “well behaved women rarely make history” is akin to the political act of remembering what one wants that Clifton refers to in the poem. That’s one kind of push and pull—between women and patriarchy.

The tension can shift when it’s black women (or latinx women or Asian-american women, or Muslim women) who want a different history than white women. Then they, then we, are reminded that we are all sisters and told that we are threatening and angry if we don’t comply. These differences, these memories might be considered minor by some (we’re stronger together fighting the same fight), but that approach can obscure some harsh economic truths. Every year, for example, we remember the wage gap and women’s organizations show what it means that women make 78 cents to every man’s dollar by explaining that, in actually, women start working for free in October. But that’s only for white women. Black women start working for free in August*. Hispanic women start working for free in July. Those months matters, that wage gap matters, and money shapes memories:

• Single black and Hispanic women have a median wealth of $100 and $120 respectively; the median for single white women is $41,500.

• While white women in the prime working years of ages 36-49 have a median wealth of $42,600, the median wealth for women of color is $5.

• Nearly half of all single black and Hispanic women have zero or negative wealth.

Here’s another fact from the study (called Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth and America’s Future).
I think the stakes are clearer, but here’s how that translates to the place where so many memories are made and: When it comes to home ownership, one of the major markers of financial stability and cultural maturity, here are the numbers about home ownership:

• 57% of single white women

• 33% of single black women

• 28% of single Hispanic women

Of course you can make memories without home ownership, but those memories feel different in the face of economic precarity.
Here are those lines from Clifton again:

they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
their memories
and i keep on remembering
mine
In this instance, let’s make the “they” in the poem those who record our history in real time, journalists, writers, pundits, and bloggers. Think of the language we use when we want to point out that something significant has happened. We say “this is unprecedented.” Inevitably, in the age of Google, someone, usually on Twitter says, “well, actually this happened before.” “They” just don’t remember or, probably, never new in the first place. This happened in the #MeToo moment if you remember. Alyssa Milano used the hashtag MeToo and because of who she is (beautiful, famous, heterosexual, and white), she was credited with “founding” it. That was in 2017, but Tarana Burke started that hashtag in 2006 and because of who she is and, more precisely, who she isn’t, it didn’t get the attention it should have. In fact, even when news outlets picked up on this fact, Burke was still a sidenote in the history. Time magazine names the women of the “me too” movement (the silence breakers they called them) their person of the year and left Burke off the cover. (I’ll note here that Alyssa Milano Milano was very quick to honor what Burke had done and wasn’t on the cover), and this is how the TIME story begins:
“Movie stars are supposedly nothing like you and me. They’re svelte, glamorous, self-possessed. They wear dresses we can’t afford and live in houses we can only dream of. Yet it turns out that—in the most painful and personal ways—movie stars are more like you and me than we ever knew.” Now, you could argue that this is news BECAUSE we pay more attention to famous and infamous people than your everyday woman or your everyday man. And that would make sense. As Rebecca Traister points out, it’s depressing to note but the attention to sexual harassment is as much because we pay attention to the powerful, rich, and famous as it is about what too many people, most of whom are women, have to endure.

But here’s where it’s important to pay attention to Tarana Burke. Partly it’s respect for the person who got there first. It’s no small thing to coin a phrase, to put it in the atmosphere. Partly it’s because too often the contributions of everyday people who actually are pushing change forward is erased. It’s important for young people (girls, boys, and others who may not identify with a specific gender) to know that one needn’t look like Gwenyth Paltrow to make change. All of that is important but just on a practical matter it’s important to remember the memory that puts Burke at the start. She started working for social justice in this particular area in 2006. I’m imagining that she has a wealth of hard-earned lessons that would benefit everyone.

There’s a hashtag that always makes me chuckle, even though I think it’s not widely circulated, #ListenToBlackWomen. That might come off as arrogant, and I worry that it makes black women seem supernatural, but it makes sense because all too often it’s black women and women of color who have to learn to:
Make do with less
Develop strategies to succeed around oppressive structures
Build community to thrive
Develop the muscle of caring for everyone around them

That old adage that necessity is the mother of invention means that those who have less (like black women and women of color often) have to be creative and inventive. They have to be strategic. Their memories, what they remember, shouldn’t only matter to them but to everyone. We can actually be stronger together but only if we have a shared sense of what we all remember.

Things are bleak, I know. I have a lot of mixed feelings about how we are making memories, how quickly we are moving, especially around MeToo. I think these are difficult and confusing times, but I’m also hopeful because I see a multiplicity of voices in this particular movement. Intersectional feminism means that we don’t limit our focus. When Kimberely Crenshaw coined the term it was about how analyzing and discussing how oppression often intersects, creating unique and varied experiences of discrimination. In other words, it’s not just being a woman that matters—one’s class, sexual orientation, and physical abilities should matter too. I’m seeing intersectionality in the movement after #MeToo blew up. Those svelte, famous, beautiful, rich women bonded together to focus their energy on helping invisible workers—women in service industries who can’t hashtag their way to justice. That movement is evolving with everyone’s memories there to shape it. There’s always going to be a gap between the “they” and the “I” of Clifton’s poem, but it doesn’t have to mean there’s no progress.

I guess it’s the hope I hang my heart on—that honoring memories is the first step towards meaningful change.

*There are different rhetorical moves to show this gap. The months I noted in the talk were in Tweets a few years ago. Here is one source for that data.

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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.

 

Maya Angelou

Of all the things I remember about the time I met Maya Angelou, I don’t quite remember how we ended up shopping in Shreveport, Louisiana the day after she visited my college.  As college friends post memories on my Facebook page of her visit, I have been trying all day to remember exactly how we ended up shopping and how she came to buy me this scarf.

photo-77

I do remember that the process, the work of bringing her to campus taught me everything I needed to know about political maneuverings, regional pride, and, eventually, what is possible when an entire institution decides to do a thing right.

I got it into my head one summer that I should bring her to my small, private, mostly lily white, college in Northwest Louisiana. I’d read I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings in middle school in Biloxi, Mississippi when my father was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base.  The sexual violence alarmed me, but I remember deciding not to tell my mother about it for fear she’d want me not to read anymore. And I very much wanted to finish it and read what came next.  I didn’t really think of her again until I saw her in an interview with Bill Moyers.

It was the summer before my junior year.

Beyond all the uplifting rhetoric of her poems that informs how I hope to move through the world, the interview introduced me to her poem “The Mask” and the line “They say, but sugar, it was our submission that made your world go round” sounded like a call, felt like a directive to my 20-year old self. I wasn’t raised in the tradition of thinking of “the ancestors” or being beholden to anyone but God and my parents, but three years in Louisiana, at a campus that celebrated the War Between the States every year and had an all white choir because black voices “didn’t blend” left me open to what I heard in that poem. It animated the struggle and my obligation to those who waged it, and I thought the first step was to bring Maya Angelou to my school.

It never occurred to me that my peers would say no, that the Student Government Association that I’d criticized regularly when I was editor-in-chief of the campus paper would balk at spending what, at the time, seemed an incredible amount of money to bring a speaker to campus.  Especially a Black woman.  When I was a student at Centenary, the college’s flagship organization the Centenary Choir was still all white, and I remember marching out of a scholarship luncheon in protest when they started playing Dixie.  We referred to the impoverished neighborhood directly behind the opulent First Methodist Church as “The Bottoms” with no irony or sense of awareness.

As an Air Force brat I was, on one level, different—definitely not Southern—and, with a Surinamese mother, not even entirely American.  I was used to cordoning off my life (living one way “off base” and another way beyond the gates), so despite the college’s small size, I found a safe community in the English department with a close-knit group of professors who were teachers, mentors, critics, and cheerleaders all at the same time.  They thought it was a fine idea to bring Angelou to campus, but the SGA controlled the budget I needed as chair of the Forums Committee, and I needed to get their vote to spend it.

It didn’t go so well.

I made all the wrong arguments for that particular group.  I talked about the fact that she was an amazing writer and a Civil Rights icon.  They didn’t care.  I demanded a celebration of a woman of color at a school that still celebrated Old South day at the KA house.  They wouldn’t budge.  I spoke with people individually and tried to charm them. I wasn’t that charming.  In the end, I prepared a brief handout for a formal presentation at a meeting and showed them the video of her interview I’d asked my mother to record. What finally turned the tide was one SGA member realizing that Angelou claimed Arkansas as home. It was where she was from too, so she changed her mind. Place trumped race, the fee, and my personal failings as a lobbyist.

It turned out to be such an event that it ended up all the way in The New York Times .  I’d love to take credit for all of it, but I don’t remember things. I don’t remember how the members of the Centenary Women’s Quorum got it into their heads to buy copies of the novel for everyone on campus.  And I don’t remember who invited the Shreveport campus of the HBCU Southern University to my 94% white college to attend the reading.

I do remember going to Brown Chapel and counting the seats in each pew with my own bottom so I could get an accurate count of how many people would fit (800).  I remember standing in that same chapel by myself imagining introducing her to the community, wondering if anyone would actually show up. I also remember the director of the Meadows Museum offering to distribute the tickets and both of us being caught unaware when all 800 were gone almost as soon as the museum opened.

On the day of her visit, I started my period unexpectedly and had to change clothes, so instead of wearing my carefully planned outfit I was in a borrowed, ill-fitting skirt and a boring blouse.  I looked as if I hadn’t taken the time to prepare for her, but that wasn’t true.  I was mortified (and she looked concerned), but that evening I showed up looking like a raised right black girl, and she was pleased.

Her height meant she needed a large car, and a member of the Board of Trustees owned a funeral parlor.  He sent us a limousine with a driver for the day, and a bunch of us piled in the car and went and had a visit with her over drinks.  While there she asked me not to read the speech I had written, and I panicked a bit.  Mostly I was worried about the people I had to thank.  She urged me to thank who I needed to thank but then to just speak about what it was like for us to be together.  I forgot my bad outfit, my friends, and the 800 people who would be there.  And we just talked.

I’m trying to remember the speech.  I can’t really recall it.

The mayor was there that night, and so was my mother.  I wore a black skirt and a black blouse with a jewel neck. I wrapped a large beige sash around my waist and pulled my hair back into a bun.  We took a picture with the SGA president, and we all look pretty awful.

I missed the reception after, but she was there and when the roses showed up her assistant had been at her side long enough to know they came with thorns.  She was tired and getting ready to leave and she almost left without me, but I got into the car at the last minute and nestled up against her saying, “you read my favorite poem!” She replied, “I love it when I read someone else’s poem.”  I will never forget her voice or the fact that she called the house and told me she liked my father’s voice (he’s a tenor, and it’s lovely).

She didn’t actually need a limousine—just a big car.  My parents owned something we lovingly called The Queen Mary, so I used it to pick her up the next day.  My mother remembers that she wanted to get her hair done. I said something about looking for a barrette.  She thought I was mispronouncing beret.  And so we shopped.  And not just at one store.  We went to the Pier One on King’s Highway and then drove across town to the Dillard’s.  I rambled on and on, and she was kind and patient.   It struck me as only a little surreal to have this private time with her and her assistant. She asked about my family. I asked a million questions.

When we were leaving Dillard’s it started to rain.  We made it to the car just in time, but I looked back and saw an older black woman standing under the awning.  I ran back to walk her to her car.  I didn’t think about and wouldn’t remember all these years later, but when I got back to the car Dr. Angelou said, “You’ve moved me today” and gave me the scarf I assumed she’d bought for herself.

I never thought she would die.  I know that’s silly.  I guess I thought she’d live to be at least 100, at least.  And I’m surprised at the depth of my sadness.  It’s not as if she was an everyday presence in my imagination.  She’s not, say Lucille Clifton, or Alice Walker’s Meridian.  But at 10:20, ten minutes before my class was to begin, I saw the news and cried immediately.

There’s something about losing the great figures from those early years when you still believed that anything was possible and when your confidence was not dampened by experience and the cynicism it brings.

I remember one part of my introductory speech, I remember repeating “She just is.  She just is. Just is.”

And I remember standing in the amphitheater at my College, at a poetry reading and saying proudly:

Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave

I rise
I rise
I rise.

 

“Belle” in Context

If you’re me, and you’ve spent the last 15 years or so reading and writing about nineteenth-century British literature, the release of “Belle” does more than just provide a moment of personal joy. The cinematic rendering of a real figure from the 1800s represents a moment when the ivory (ahem) tower and popular culture intersect to produce a film that, even with its flaws, is set to change the way we read, understand, and, more importantly, imagine the period. I didn’t choose to study nineteenth-century British literature and culture in order to think about race and representation, but my work to understand the ideologies behind and underneath canon formation led me there, and in my book project that thinks about how women’s bodies function as the site for ideological debates, black women’s bodies have popped up so often that I decided they needed their own chapter—right there between a chapter about Jane Austen’s courtship novels and a chapter on Mary Shelley’s indictment of imperialism. In other words, I’ve been thinking and writing about all of those invisible Belles that do not yet have their own narratives. And, as someone who brings pop culture into her classes so often that terms like “highbrow” and “lowbrow” are practically useless, I’ve been particularly curious about why we had Zombie Austen before we had Black Austen.

BelleWhile “Belle” has not marketed itself as an Austen adaptation (Amma Asante describes it as a “Jane Austen-style period romance”), the film brings to mind Rozema’s 1999 adaptation of Mansfield Park. Asante’s film tells the story of a young woman who could easily have been Fanny Price’s doppelgänger. Dido Belle Lindsay is a young woman with ties to the wealthy and the landed and, like all of Austen’s heroines, is wending her way through the marriage market towards a suitable and companionate marriage. She’s beautiful, charming, and feisty. She’s also black or, more specifically, bi-racial—the daughter of a slave and a navy admiral, and in the film her very presence in the household of the Earl of Mansfield is the spark behind his ruling on the Zong Massacre. What this means is that in addition to selecting the right mate, she has to do so while walking a tightrope of race and gender and the respectability politics that prompted Kelli Goff (bless her heart) to forget that this is still at it’s heart a film that holds up white supremacy and patriarchy, even at the very end.

In the trailer for the film, we see the young Belle transported from a port town to a large estate in much the same way that Fanny Price is transported from Portsmouth (a slave port) to an English estate that relies on the products of the slave trade. Belle faces a stern benefactor, but Harold Pinter, who portrays Sir Thomas Bertram, the patriarch of Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” has been replaced with Tom Wilkinson, who Austen fans might recognize from his turn as a dying Mr. Dashwood at the beginning of Ang Lee’s “Sense and Sensibility.” The questions that Austen’s heroine Fanny faces about her place in the family (somewhere between servant and sister) are here in the film. Belle, like Fanny, has to choose between two men—a moral man with virtually no social or economic capital and a man whose view of her is, let’s just say, problematic.

This is not to suggest that “Belle” is simply a remake of Rozema’s adaptation or Austen’s novel. Misan Sagay’s screenplay is its own beautifully crafted narrative and Asante’s direction shows the kind of restraint necessary for a story that could so easily slip into the sentimental and overwrought. Seeing this movie was like watching an essay in moving images. More than considering it an Austen adaptation and/or a period film that paints by the numbers, I see it as a true palimpsest that reminds us of the Austen we know while inviting us to understand what she only hints at in her novels. It presents relationships between women of color and white women that are both tense and affectionate. It draws explicit connections between the marriage market and the slave trade, something Mary Wollstonecraft does in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. It offers a lesson in how inheritance laws trapped both women and men. It shows the limits of sentimental progressive politics. And it does so by placing the fate of a woman of color at the center of its narrative to reveal the limits of picture perfect perfection.

We’ve seen alternative narratives that shift the focus from white main characters to a person of color (Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargosso Sea, the prequel to Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and its multiple film adaptations come immediately to mind), but Austen’s world has remained white in the public imagination, even though, in Emma and Persuasion, the issue of the slave trade is not entirely invisible. When we do encounter people of color in Austen’s world they are in contemporary adaptations. The most popular are Amy Heckerling’s almost flawless “Clueless,” set in a modern high with a multi-racial student body, and Gurinder Chada’s much less successful Bollywood Adaptation “Bride and Prejudice” (full disclosure: In the bottom of some filing cabinet sits my own attempt at a modern adaptation of Austen I co-wrote while driving across the country one summer. It’s called “Emma Jones.” Everyone in it is black. It’s not very good. Let’s leave it at that). To even introduce race and slavery into Austen is such a tricky prospect that Rozema had to prepare audiences for her Mansfield Park by making explicit that her intention was interpretation not fidelity.

Those who defended her film from critiques and rants of Austen purists did so from a place of well-intentioned but historically inaccurate indulgence, accepting that Rozema is projecting late twentieth-century politics back onto the nineteenth. But an adaptation likes “Belle” makes clear that what we now know allows us to re-imagine a world that Austen would have known but that would not fit into the courtship rituals she always satirized and sometimes endorsed. The specter of a racialized body in Austen’s world of manners would change the social alchemy of her novels. If her goal was to satirize courtship rituals, slavery didn’t lend itself to a lady’s humor or wit. It’s worth remembering, however, that British white women wrote about slavery and abolition during Austen’s time. In fact, depicting the horrors that slavery visited upon women and children in particular became rather fashionable among women writers of the time. They weren’t poking fun at its practitioners and defenders; instead they either went towards the completely sentimental (see Hannah More) or the pragmatic (see the interracial marriage in the first edition of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda). We can count Mansfield Park as Austen’s contribution to that conversation and “Belle” might well complete it. As I often remind my students, Austen chose to make explicit what makes life at Mansfield Park possible.

Of course, people of color have been present in British prose from at least as early as the seventeenth century, but on college syllabi and in the public imagination they are far and few between: Othello (1604), Oroonoko (1688), Equiano (1797), and Miss Swartz in Vanity Fair (1848). In the twenty years since Edward Said’s focus on the “dead silence” in his post-colonial manifesto Culture and Imperialism  scholars and other storytellers are paying more attention to the presence of people in color in historical British narratives. In his new edition of the 1808 novel The Woman of Colour: A Tale Lyndon Dominique lists 50 long prose fiction and plays from 1605 to 1861 that include characters of color, roughly half of which were published during Austen’s time. We have been seeing new editions of some of those stories at a steady pace. The 1994 edition of Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda shows a black servant on the cover. Edited by Katherine Kirkpatrick for Oxford University Press, it presents the original novel with the interracial marriage of Juba an African servant and Lucy an English farm girl (Edgeworth was pressured to remove the marriage). In 1999, the same year of Rozema’s “Mansfield Park,” Oxford University Press released a new edition of Adeline Mowbray a novel published in 1804 which features a West Indian woman and her son as saviors and companions to the title character. In 2002, just before I finished my doctorate, the Broadview edition of Wuthering Heights issued. I was planning my history of the British novel class and when arrived it had a Moor on the cover; not the desolate landscape of my well-annotated Norton edition but an actual Moor and I remember writing a colleague: “When did we go from Laurence Olivier to Laurence Fishburn?” The cover of the 2008 edition of The Woman of Colour: A Tale (1808) is a detail from a painting in the collection of the Earl of Mansfield. The painting is titled “Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lady Elizabeth Murray”—the two young women in Asante’s adaption. In the novel, “Dido” is the name of the heroine’s black servant.

Austen adaptations have remained in a liminal space similar to the one Fanny occupies when she can’t return to the squalor of her home in Portsmouth but can no longer remain at Mansfield Park if it means adhering to her uncle’s wishes. They have stayed somewhere between the all-white period adaptations and the modern multi-racial ones—more Gwyneth than Lupita. But “Belle” marks an important change. It makes clear that while it’s certainly possible to go on pretending there were no black people, at least in the background, of Austen’s world it’s no longer interesting or even a nuanced representation of the time. The “dead silence” of Mansfield Park is filled with questions, speeches and declarations, and if you know the history of the abolitionist movement in England you know that beyond happily ever after, Belle’s presence represents concrete social change that echoes in a twenty-first century Britain that is paying more and more attention to its history of slavery. Much of this national self-reflection has been prompted by the fact that 2007 gave England a chance to think about the abolition of the slave trade. In 2006, The Church of England apologized for benefitting from the slave trade. The International Museum of Slavery opened in Liverpool in 2007. In 2013, The Independent reported the results of a study that showed in stark terms how much slaveowners were paid during and after the abolition of slavery. The arrival of the first black Marchioness in 2013 prompted a series of articles making clear that the peerage has a multi-racial legacy.

The storytellers are either catching up or leading the way. Despite Heathcliff being described as a “‘dark-skinned gypsy in aspect and a little lascar” he had always been cast as white in film versions of the novel until 2011 when he was portrayed by the black British actor James Howson. Then there’s Longbourn by Jo Baker . It turns its attention to the servants who make the lives of the gentry in Pride and Prejudice possible. In this representation of those beneath the stairs, Baker introduces the kinds of characters we might meet in “Belle,” and her portrait of those figures is compelling and clearly informed by a post-abolitionist reading of Austen and her world. To present social change as the work of a young woman of color, to have the body of a British woman of color as the fulcrum for legal pronouncements nudges us to reconsider race and gender in the nineteenth century and perhaps even in our own. I mean that literally. The first black marchioness who caused a bit of a stir last year? Her first name is Emma.

“The Skies Belong to Us” Post #1

For two people who don’t live in the same city, Dominique and I have done a lot together over the last eight years or so.   It goes too far to say we’re like sisters, but we are a lot alike.  In fact, when I showed up in Toronto in May to be part of her wedding, her father, after spending ten minutes watching us together, noted just how alike we are–not just mischievous, but mischievous in the exact same way (she refers to me as “smart ass” quite a bit).  We don’t have the same taste in television shows (mine is good and hers is, well, let’s just say it’s something other than good), but we like so many of the same books.  So many.  We recommend them to one another, agree that they’re great, and then go our separate reading ways.  But after we survived the death march of 2013 (otherwise known as 10 hours in three-inch heels and formal gowns) we agreed on two things: we need to take a trip together and we should read a book together…at the same time.

We’re reading The Skies Belong to Us.  It’s my choice because three smart folks recommended it and because it’s non-fiction and that’s what I want to read these days.  From the book’s website:

THE STORY
In an America torn apart by the Vietnam War and the demise of sixties idealism, airplane hijackings were astonishingly routine. Over a five-year period starting in 1968, the desperate and disillusioned seized commercial jets nearly once a week. Their criminal exploits mesmerized the country, never more so than when the young lovers at the heart of The Skies Belong to Us pulled off the longest-distance hijacking in American history.

It’s a fascinating story, and already I feel like I’m in the hands of a good storyteller and someone who has done his homework.  Given how many other things I should be reading right now, it’s nice to know that this vacation away from my other reading has an excellent guide.

Random first thoughts:
Koerner wants to attribute Cathy Kerkow’s attraction to the Black Panthers to the break up of her family saying her rebelliousness is “rooted in in the trauma of her family’s dissolution several years before.”  But I’ve started Skies right after watching “Orange is the New Black”–another story of a talented, privileged white girl who needs to sow her rebellious oats by visiting the world of the dangerous and/or the marginalized.  For Piper Chapman it’s lesbian drug dealers and for Kerkow it’s the Black Panthers.   So this grates a bit.  In general I’m not a fan of the this-is-why-people-do-bad-things approach to understanding a character (I’m looking at you “Mad Men”), but I certainly understand the impulse.  Further, this is not fiction, and the point of the book is to tell us who Kerkow and Roger Holder are and how they hooked up.  It just seems too easy.  Her choices might just be that…choices.  It makes me wonder how this story would read if told by a different author: a woman (black, white, or of any hue), a black man, a historian.

My father was in Vietnam in 1968, the first year of my life (he was sent over a month after I was born and came back a year later).  We never talk about it, and I don’t watch war movies, so it’s jarring to read what he must have seen over there while my mother and I were living in my aunt’s attic in Amsterdam.  I’ve always seen Vietnam as more of a metaphor than a lived historical event, so it’s hard to read about it, particularly when I remember stories my mom told me about how my dad’s absence affected her.  And, unlike movies where I can cover my eyes if I don’t like what’s on the screen, I have to read all of Koerner’s vivid descriptions. They’re harrowing. I don’t know how anyone recovers from those horrors, and Koerner puts those dots together so carefully that it’s easy to understand Holder’s choices.

I got the Prefontaine reference without looking it up–but only because I dated an economics professor in grad school who was a marathon runner.  He had a poster of him in his home office.

Dom, I’m curious to know how the references to American politics read to you.  The name Thomas Dodd might as well have been written in bold for me.  I didn’t know his story (I looked it up), but his son is Chris Dodd, who also went on to be a senator for the state of Connecticut and is now president of the Motion Picture Association of America. That last bit doesn’t really matter, but since I’m sure this book will be made into a movie (or maybe not because I’m not sure how mainstream America will feel about this interracial couple; how far has “Scandal” taken us?*) and it points out some eerie coincidences in the first few chapters, I’m going to note it.

The idea that America didn’t have a law about hijacking planes cracks me up.  Like no one thought to put up on of those “Please Don’t Take This Plane” signs.   I guess you can’t think of everything.

For the most part, I really like the writing.  It only bugs me when Koerner writes about Kerkow’s “abundant charms.”  It feels like he’s reaching and trying to be a “writer” when it’s clear he’s already a very good one.

That’s it for now…Dom will blog her thoughts at some point.

*As a black woman in America, I feel I have to go on record and say I have no problems with black men dating white women. Or black women dating white men (I’ve done it). Or people dating other people. The heart wants what the heart wants, and I don’t politicize or historicize that.
 

On the Nose: David Brooks

I cannot believe I am quoting David Brooks, but I think his bromance with Obama has been very good for him. In his column he reminds us of how little power those big, bad, right-wing blowhards actually have. The heart of the column:

So what is the theme of our history lesson? It is a story of remarkable volume and utter weakness. It is the story of media mavens who claim to represent a hidden majority but who in fact represent a mere niche — even in the Republican Party. It is a story as old as “The Wizard of Oz,” of grand illusions and small men behind the curtain.