Category Archives: Race

Forthcoming

In case you missed the news, the anthology is coming out Fall 2016 and it has a new and improved title:

Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure.

It works, right?  Some of those hidden truths are depressing but other truths offer hope and promise. Pre-order via UNC Press.

Buy before June 30th and receive a 40% discount (code 01DAH40).

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“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.

photo-90

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.

 

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.

Suriname, Part the Third: Onoribo

On the way to visit an aunt who lives about an hour and a half outside of Paramaribo, my cousin casually mentioned that we should see Onoribo the plantation where our family is from. Her English is practically perfect, heavily accented to be sure but practically perfect. Still, I figured that “plantation” must mean something else because “the plantation where our family is from” simply did not compute. I was so puzzled that, for a moment, she doubted herself. I turned to look at my mother and asked, “does that mean the same thing in English that it does in Dutch?” She was as confused as I was but then there was the sign:
photo-59

Plantage Onoribo.

We drove across a road that was bright orange red because of the bauxite in the ground, and then there we were at a the head of what looked like a small compound.

I should stop here and describe my experience with plantations.  I’ve lived in Mississippi and Louisiana, so plantations are not new to me.  I remember taking a friend who grew up in New England to Natchitoches, Louisiana and showing him his first plantation.  He was shocked by the elegance of it. Slavery to him was an ugly thing and he said he was imagining something like Auschwitz.  We didn’t go on one of those awful plantation tours (I would never), but we were allowed to wander around the main house and to see the slave quarters in the back.  The experience had no real effect on me.  I might claim I’m Southern now because Louisiana is where I’ve lived the longest, but I’m not Southern; I might not be paying attention to my roots, but I know they’re not in the American South. Even knowing that my father’s family is from St. Kitts hasn’t solidified any sense of place for me. I have no desire to seek it out.  Knowing I’m the descendants of slaves has been enough (and with a great-grandmother who everyone else thought was white, I have a very clear sense of my roots). Understanding that my family has it own immigrant relationship to the United States has also been enough. When the couple I met outside of London (the Matthews) announced so cheerily that their family once owned my family I wasn’t shocked at the news but at the jolliness of their pronouncement.

I don’t mean to make this sound like a new claim for myself, as if I’ve found some new identity.  I’m too old and cynical for that. But it’s been two weeks, and I’m still gobsmacked to discover this very specific, living proof of my roots.  It’s been weird to be back in Brooklyn, which I’ve come to consider home (because being rootless makes it easier for me to call different places home), but to experience Suriname as a homecoming once removed.

It looks like a compound, and it’s not very big (in what I’ve read on-line thus far it’s always described as a “small plantation”). There is no big house or mansion but small houses spread around.  As we pulled into the grounds, my cousin explained that we’d probably have to stop and say hi because we’re related to everyone who lives there.  Again, I thought I must have misunderstood her (I don’t even know if she said this in English or Dutch). While I was trying to process this she pulled up to a monument, and carved in wood and stone I saw my family’s name—my mother’s maiden name Raatle. photo-60

Last year, the president of Suriname had a monument erected to honor…I don’t know what it’s honoring.  What is our connection to this place?  How far back does it go?  There’s a house there that one of my aunts built, and my mother remembers sending American dollars to set up the electricity. No one lives there now.  According to tourist site about Suriname a (or Surinam as they spell it):

In Surinam there are plantations like Republic, Four Children, Beseba, and Onoribo and many more than that have the possibility for recreation.  After the abolition the slaves who worked on the plantations became owner of these plantations. Until today the descendants of these plantations can claim a piece of land. The land will never be owned by them but at all times remain the property of the foundation that manages the plantation. There is also a policy for non descendants to buy a piece of land ( lot) bud (sic) again the ownership of the land remains in the hands of the foundation. The plantations are not only used for weekend and week recreation, descendants are still living on the plantation so respect their standards and values and keep the plantations clean.”

Growing up Black in a country that wants desperately to diminish the depth and breadth of its slave history, the idea of some sort of reparations, the notion of monuments that attest to what slaves built has pulled me into a project to understand this space.  “Project” is too lofty a word—like language you use for fellowship applications or to convince deans and provosts that your “work” is “serious.” It’s not a “project” but a persistent tug at my imagination.  I know that I’ve been going to bed early with my laptop and scouring the internet for information and pestering my poor mother with questions.  I’m fascinated by the idea of ownership/not ownership and sickened by thought of these places as destinations for tourists at the same time that the idea of sitting in that space is very appealing to me.  I couldn’t tell why and still don’t know.  Was it the quiet and the feeling of being in this gorgeous wooded area isolated in all the best ways? Would I feel like I wanted to be there even if I didn’t know the place was part of my distant, distant past, or would I be repelled by its history?

Onoribo is by a creek.  I counted maybe four or five houses.  There’s a graveyard I didn’t go visit because it’s not a thing that’s done in that space. I wanted to know if we had people buried there, but even before my mother told me not to, I didn’t feel like I should walk across someone’s lawn to visit it.   There are massive old trees there I wanted to get close to, but my mother worried about snakes in the grass, and since we saw a dead poisonous one in the road, I listened to her pleas to stay close to the road.

I can describe a lot of things, but I don’t know how to describe walking around there.  It was very quiet. There were chickens in a pen, and a little playground, and a road that is under construction.  It’s tucked away from everything, so I suspect very soon Europeans will be biking out there to swing in hammocks.  Apparently, that’s already happening.  I’ve read on line that there’s talking of making it a recreational space, and the thought makes me sick to my stomach.  That’s not hyperbole.  When I read about plans to make it commercial, I had a physical reaction.  I’m not sure what to make of of my attachment to a place I never knew existed and only visited for 15 minutes. I know there’s theory to describe what I felt, but theory had no place there, in that moment.

I’ve just started researching* its history and it seems to have been around as far back as the eighteenth century.  There were skirmishes over it at some point.  I’m reading how slavery in Suriname was different than it was in the United States. Plantations like Onoribo were isolated, so slaves could easily escape, and they often did.

I didn’t want to leave, but we had an aunt to visit and then some missionaries my parents have been supporting since I was a teenager (I stood on their front porch and watched a small herd of cows amble down the dirt road in front of their house). My aunt lives about five minutes from Onoribo. That fascinates me almost as much as discovering this place with documented proof of my roots.

*Again, “research” is too strong a word. I’m just poking around a lot.

Afro-Pedagogy: The Poetry of Race and Privilege

You should know that this was not the “race unit” of the intro to theoretical reading (officially “The Pursuits of English”) course I co-teach. On the first day of class, I worked with students in my section to develop a more nuanced reading of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” that moved beyond a sexist/not sexist discussion of the lyrics. When we read Barthes’ “Death of the Author,” we used a poem by the bi-racial poet Ross Gay to think about how we read a poem called “Pulled Over in Short Hills, NJ 8:00 am” when we don’t know who the author is. In fact, we were actually talking about New Historicism for this unit, and our primary texts came from Lucille Clifton and Langston Hughes. This is not just true about race. We’ve been thinking about Queer Theory long before our unit on it that we’ll start next week with Kiss of the Spider Woman. We read Sedgewick with Sense and Sensibility and consider the Sapphic tension in Emily Dickinson’s poetry.

You should also know that as much as I loved“When Your (Brown) Body” and wanted my students to read it, I wasn’t sure if teaching it was actually a good idea. It’s not just that I happen to adore Tressie and so was worried about appearing biased towards her argument but that it’s such a provocative piece that I wasn’t sure it would be productive in the classroom.

In this instance, I’m the choir and Tressie is the preacher, but there’s a fine line between teaching critical analysis and proselytizing and I am loath to cross it.

But since the loose theme of the class is “the body” and we had already decided to teach Lucille Clifton, it actually made sense to at least consider adding her essay to our syllabus. In addition to its argument, it’s rhetorically interesting, and I thought my students might see in this essay a useful strategy they could adapt for their own writing. It’s difficult to build an argument with personal anecdotes, but this essay is a good example of how that can work.

The main thing, however, was this: As much as I love Hughes and Clifton and enjoy teaching them whenever I can, they keep race and bodies at a safe remove from how people of color move through the world. Hughes feels so historical and “canonical” at this point and Clifton uplifts, and while we know in theory this uplifting is born of pain, it’s all too easy to forget that poems like “homage to my hips” or “won’t you celebrate with me” reflect racist, sexist systems. Appiah and McMillan Cottom, I hoped, would provide a lens through which to read those works that demanded a more nuanced, analytical response to their poems.

My colleague suggested Appiah immediately and after thinking about it for a few months, I sent him Tressie’s piece and asked if he thought it would be useful. His reply was an immediate and decisive “yes!”
The unit ended up being:

Kwame Anthony Appiah—“Race”
Lucille Clifton—Selected Poems
Langston Hughes—Selected Poems
Audre Lorde—“On the Uses of Anger”
Tressie McMillan Cottom—“When Your (Brown) Body is a (White) Wonderland”

My colleague thoughts students needed background, so we posted these youtube links to give them some context for McMillan Cottom’s piece:

The Miley Cyrus VMA Performance (video removed)

Azz Everywhere: How Bounce Music Hit Big Time
http://www.fuse.tv/2013/10/big-freedia-bounce-music-history-twerking

Big Freedia The Queen Diva

We did not watch them in class.

We spent the first week on Appiah and Hughes and the second week on Clifton, Lorde, and McMillan Cottom.

I’m not going to talk specifically about my students’ work with these texts (even if I don’t name them, I don’t want them to feel they are the subject of this post as it might make them feel they need to perform something in the classroom), but the intersection of these texts demanded that I develop a new strategy to help my students think critically about all texts in general and texts that point to race and racism specifically. I had to think carefully about how to frame this as an exercise in literary criticism and not simply a consciousness-raising session. So I lead with the literature, returned to the literature, and asked my students to write their responses to the class discussion.

The thing is, you can’t talk about race and racism in a university classroom without raising something. I know this on some level, but initially I wasn’t paying too much attention to this truth. But the raising of something or other required something. I realized I needed to articulate some of what might hinder a careful consideration of a painful and complicated topic. On the final day of the unit, after having the class listen to and write short reflections on Clifton’s “what the mirror said,” I put up six points of clarification about privilege and then asked the class to consider the core question (#7 below) in the context of how we read Clifton. In other words, I wanted us to think about how we respond to all of these women of color.

Using Power Point (because that’s just how fancy I am), I put up the following:

1. You can benefit from the privilege that comes with your race/ethnicity, sexuality and class and still have a pretty difficult time of it. In other words, being white, middle or upper middle class and heterosexual, or a man (or all of these things at once!) doesn’t mean your life is a bed of thorn-free roses.

2. It’s a hard truth, but, as Appiah reminds us, race is used as a way to make hierarchies and hierarchies mean that some people are considered more valuable than others. It can be disconcerting to live with the fact that you benefit from a system you had no part in creating.

3. Benefiting from racism is not the same thing as wanting to benefit from racism.

4. We tend to think of racism in the broadest terms—dragging someone behind a truck, hurling racial epithets, Stand Your Ground laws. In reality, it permeates so many different parts of our culture that it’s difficult to avoid.

5.You can enjoy Miley Cyrus and still consider yourself a good person (but it does mean you probably have awful taste in music ☺)

6.Miley Cyrus ≠ All White Women

And then finally:

7. As an intellectual exercise, consider what the world is like if McMillan Cottom is 100% right. What does that mean for you and how you live in the world?

We talked for a little while about one through six and then we walked slowly through McMillan Cottom’s post, particularly the early part where she recounts how white women and men react to her body.

I asked the women in class to consider how many complicated social contracts were broken in those moments by saying that as much as we want to live in a society that respects women at all times, we know that, as women, being out with a man can protect us from unwanted advances. It’s a complicated, sexist truth, but it’s one most of us rely on from time to time.

We pivoted from there to the video of Peggy McIntosh talking about how she came to write “Unpacking the Knapsack of Privilege.” It’s seems so old school to me that I was tempted to simply pass the essay out, but the video is even more compelling than simply reading the essay. She speaks so compassionately and honestly and the list rolls up so slowly that it demands careful attention. Watching rather than reading the essay shifted the dynamic in the classroom and lead to a thoughtful conversation.

In response to student questions about “what can I do!?!?” I thought it useful to show Jay Smooth’s now famous “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist” video. Knowing how to frame the conversation seemed a good place for those interested in doing so, and it’s also an amazing rhetorical feat (something several of my students noticed immediately). It’s also funny:

Class discussion then moved in and out of all the texts with students “relating” to all of the above and then, more importantly, thinking critically about how we read different representations of oppression.

I explained the Angel/Whore configuration of femininity that peaks in the Victorian period and argued that it gets raced in modern society with the Oprah/Precious configuration. I also talked about what I call “The Oprah Winfrey Syndrome”—one that makes it so that black women are most popular when they are inspiring figures that middle-class white women can look up to while feeling good that they like a black woman who is not sexually threatening. I returned to the question of what it means if McMillan Cottom is right and how we can think about what we seek in poems by authors of color.

Without going into details, I can say that students were engaged, critical (in the best ways), curious, and did a lot of writing on their own.

It’s tempting in a class like this to measure success by some ideological outcome, to hope that my students will run out and be bold activists and/or allies in the fight against racism. Maybe that will happen. Maybe I’ll get some e-mail message in a year or so telling me this. When I used fairy tales to teach theory several years ago (see Matthew, Patricia A. and Jonathan Greenberg. “The Ideology of the Mermaid: Children’s Literature in the Intro to Theory Course.” Pedagogy 9.2 (Spring 2009): 217-233. ), I would get e-mails that would send me over the moon about how reconsidering “The Little Mermaid” was life changing for students who now “read” the world as texts to be carefully considered. But I know that the work of the classroom is to model engaged, critical thinking, and I saw that happen in class this week.

And, for now, I call that success.

“The Skies Belong to Us” 4.1

I’m supposed to be grading papers, but Dom’s last post won’t get out of my head, so I’m taking a break.

We kind of thought we were done posting about the book and wondered if we wanted to ask Brendan questions (and Dom wondered if he would have questions for us), but it turns out my questions are for Dominique.  In explaining why she doesn’t like Kerkow anymore than I do, she wrote: “Further, as a Canadian, I was annoyed by Koerner’s final, loving, pages about Cathy, because I felt he was valorizing the kind of self-serving, hyper-individualistic behaviour that so many people from other countries ‘hate’ about Americans.”

In as much as I’m always interested to hear what Dom thinks about American behavior, I’m particularly interested in this critique of the book and, by extension, American culture that she offers.  I’ve just finished Sense and Sensibility with one of my classes and some literary critic (maybe Marilyn Butler) reads the novel as Austen’s critique of Marianne Dashwood’s hyper-individualistic behaviour.  Marianne is guided solely by her sensibilities and puts herself and her family’s reputation in harm’s way as a result, but her life also turns out okay (Colonel Brandon isn’t my type, but he’s a good catch for a woman who has lost some of her original charm and isn’t fit for anything more than playing the piano forte and having babies).   The conservative chattering classes of the nineteenth century had no use for the Marianne Dashwoods of their world, and I wonder if that model of woman exists in the twenty-first century English imagination or if she represents a stage in the nation’s development.  Austen is writing during what Eric Hobsbwam calls “The Age of Revolution,” at a time when part of maintaining England’s social structure depended on young women like Marianne Dashwood accepting their responsibility to the collective good instead of to their own desires and sensibilities. There was no “Lean In” in the nineteenth-century.

I’m thinking of Marx’s claim in The Communist Manifesto that nations, like people, go through developmental stages that can’t be skipped or repeated and wondering if this is a way to understand the time period Koerner explores as America’s colonizing/hyper-individualistic stage. It makes me wonder if Kerkow represents not so much a type (eat-pray-love-piper-twerking-warrior princess) but a stage in America’s development as a nation. I also wonder what our twenty-first century modes of rebellion look like.  Occupy Wall Street comes to mind, and it was a collective response against hyper-individualistic behavior, but I think we’re still too close to it to understand its impact. I wonder if the rise of gun deaths in the United States is a more apt comparison, particularly the “Stand Your Ground” culture enshrined in Florida law but part of the fabric of every state.  I feel like I need to have drinks with Dom, Brendan, and some history and political science professors.

Dom also wrote: “The processes of racialization and ‘gendering’ in our society, and the hierarchies of privilege that they create, are all over this book.”   I’m curious to know what this actually means (and why gendering is in quotation marks and racialization isn’t).  On one level, I get it (and on one level my question is a friendly challenge to the jargon I see here), but I’d love to hear more. Because if Dom is suggesting a taxonomy for these hijackers, I can forget about Kerkow. Taxonomies are my most favorite thing ever (really). More than that, I’d like to not get sucked into thinking this is a book about her.

I really, truly would.

Dom saying I went nuts about Koerner mooning over Kerkow is accurate.  In my last post, I wasn’t just pretending to talk to myself. That was, almost verbatim, a transcript of the the conversation I had with myself while I was working out in Fort Greene Park.  As much as I scold my students for seeking “justice” in narratives, I fall prey to that need from time to time.  There are literary characters I absolutely hate (Victor Frankenstein and John Knightly come to mind immediately), and Kerkow is/was a real person, so I’m a bit over-the-top about her.  So much so that when Dom pointed out that Koerner  “seems as […] just as enamoured* by the “feminine wiles” he described Cathy using to get what she wanted, and she wasn’t even there.”  I’m pretty sure I yelled something like “Oh, shit!  That’s so true!”

I was happily surprised when Koerner showed up near the end of the book. It’s like he anticipated all of the questions I had about how he put this story together, and, though I’m very much a member of the author-is-dead school of reading, having this author talk to the reader was just great.  I was so surprised that I was willing to forgive him his crush until he went all goofy about her.

It occurs to me, though, that one of the reasons why I hate Kerkow is because Koerner is unflinching in what he presents about her.  He has not offered a particularly flattering portrait of her; there aren’t hearts around every discussion about her in the story.  Further, given that he couldn’t interview her, it’s interesting how he interprets her choices.   And to be totally honest, this might be as much about just how cranky, hard-to-please I am as a reader.  It’s possible, even highly likely, that if Koerner had mooned over Holder in a similar way I would have accused him of fetishizing Black Radicalism.

Partly, it’s that I’m an impossibly picky reader with little patience for modern literature.  I don’t trust these living writers, and I’m always giving books the side-eye.  Just last night I narrowed my eyes at 1Q84, and if it hadn’t been for the beer and fried whiting sandwich I was eating at Marietta’s that always makes me extraordinarily happy to live in my neighborhood, I might have started muttering at the novel.

On the other hand, when I love a book I love it with all of my heart.  Chimanda Ngozi’s Adichie’s Americanah has me in raptures, I’ve lost count of how many people have gotten Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York (and Sag Harbor and Zone One, which I’ve never read because I’m a chicken and just hearing him read from it one time gave me a nightmare) as birthday/Christmas/it’s Thursday gifts from me.  And when I really think someone is a serious reader I’ll give her (or sometimes him) Mary Shelley’s second novel Valperga.

All of this is to say that I am intemperate about books. I LOVE a book or HATE it.  There’s very little middle ground.  And the more I love a book, the more I want to love a book, and I want the writer to have thought of every little thing I would have wanted to see.  This is an almost impossible task.

This is not to suggest that I am tempering my hatred of Kerkow, but now, after reading Dom’s post,  I am curious about the little hearts I see around Koerner’s introduction of Kerkow and where he places her at this story’s dénouement. Dom sees them too, so I know I’m not crazy, but I wonder just how deliberate their placement is in the novel book.   Is he really under her sway? Is this simply a narrative technique?  It is because we live in the age of movies, and this gives the book a Hollywood ending?    I’m curious to find out.