Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Purpose of Writing

In the last post, I spoke, briefly, about "white privilege" and society's "rules." Today, I would like to continue that conversation some, focusing more on why Gaines, and others, chose to write. During the same class period I spoke about last post, we read Judith Ortez Cofer's "Myth of the Latin Woman." Cofer speaks about her encounters with individuals in England and in the United States and how they project their stereotypical images of Latin women upon her. In one instance, a man confronts her on a bus and begins to sing a song from West Side Story, At a reading in Florida, a white woman sitting at a table "mistook" Cofer for a waitress and asked her for a cup of coffee. When Cofer took the stage and read, the white woman could only duck her head and avoid eye contact with Cofer; she ultimately raised her eyes, causing Cofer to says, "when I willed her to look up at me, it was my victory, and she graciously allowed me to punish her with my full attention." Cofer's desire, through her writing, is to call attention to the stereotypes that many hold about Latin women and to change those perceptions by reaching one individual at a time.

Cofer concludes the essay with a poignant paragraph that talks about her desires to counter the misrepresentations she faces everyday. She ultimately argues that education and her parents gave her the opportunity to face these stereotypes and "books and art have saved [her] from the harsher forms of ethnic and racial prejudice that many of [her] Hispanic companeras have had to endure." Cofer continues by simply stating, "My personal goal in my public life is to try to replace the old pervasive stereotypes and myths about Latinas with a much more interesting set of realities. Every time I give a reading, I hope the stories I tell, the dreams and the fears I examine in my work, can achieve some universal truth which will get my audience past the particulars of my skin color, my accent, or my clothes." Essentially, Cofer uses her writing to enlighten others about her life and the lives of Latinas.

Many authors write for the same reason, to counter stereotypes and confront "white privilege." As part of "The Power of the Word" post back in July, I quoted James Baldwin who said, "You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive." Books have the power to illuminate the realities of this world and to create empathy and understanding among readers. This is something that Gaines does in his writing as well. In 1986, he told Marcia Gaudet and Carl Wooton that is he was pressed to say who he writes for he would say, "I write for the black youth of the South. And if there were two groups, I'd say I write for the black and white youth of the South. Those are the people I would write for" (215). For the "black youth," he writes to show them that they are somebody, and for the white youth, he writes so that they can understand themselves and their neighbors. He concludes by intoning, "So that's what I'd want: the white kids to understand what the black kid is, and the black kid to understand who he is" (216). Essentially, Gaines wants to show the "universal truth" of human existence that Cofer voices in her essay.

Even looking at The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, we can see this drive in Gaines to write about those who may eventually be forgotten or who have be oppressed. When the teacher comes to speak with Miss Jane, Mary asks him why he wants to speak with Miss Jane. The unnamed editor tells her, "I teach history. . . . I'm sure her life's story can help explain things to my students" (v). Still confronting the teacher, Mary asks him what is wrong with the history books the students already have. He simply says, "Miss Jane is not in them" (v). He wants his students to see Miss Jane, her struggles and her joys, her survival. The on;y way to do this is for him to speak with her and transcribe what she says for his students to read. Her story will allow them to live together and see the "universal truth" of human existence.

In the short speech pictured above, Gaines ends by stating why someone should read about Miss Jane. He says:
 To anyone who might ask why should I read about someone who did not fight war, make laws, marry a great politician or Statesman or writer, or doctor, I would say read about Miss Jane because she survived with strength, dignity, love and respect for men, God, Nature, baseball, and vanilla ice cream, during the most demanding hundred years of American history.
There are numerous authors who espouse these same sentiments. In the comments below, tell me who some of the authors are that have inspired you to see the world in a different manner?  For a great piece on the power of books, see the video below of Malcom Mitchell, UGA wide receiver, and the book club he participates in.


Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.
Gaudet, Marcia and Carol Wooton. "An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 200-216. Print.

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