Thursday, April 30, 2015


After Ferguson, syllabi popped up online to help educators and others teach students about what was occurring. In light of the events in Baltimore, I would like to provide a similar space. A lot of the syllabi I see incoproate news articles and historical perspectives. I have not found ones that have a large "literature" representation. I would like for this syllabus to provide that aspect. There are numerous texts that illuminate what is currently going on in our society. With that in mind, I want this post to be malleable. If you have a suggestion, go to the Baltimore Syllabus on Google Docs and put in your suggestions. I will add them here periodically.

We all know the names Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Freddie Gray. What we don't know are the millions upon millions people who encounter systematic oppression (I can't call it anything else) that remain nameless. They do not have vigils, news coverage, or receive widespread sympathy (or vitriolic hate) for their experiences; instead, they either go about their lives, end up in jail, or reside in a permanent sleep under ground.

Today, I want to take the time to discuss how we can talk about these things with students. The classroom, we hope, is a safe place for topics to be discussed, but when it comes to issues of race, especially in the current climate, carrying on a conversation with students may become contentious. That conversation, though, needs to occur. If we continue to sweep it under the rug ("It won't happen here." "I'm not a racist.") then nothing will ever get solved. What we need to realize, and get our students to see, is that the things we witness today are nothing new.

With all of this in mind, I just want to take the time to share with you a sample syllabus that was constructed using #baltimoresyllabus. Marcia Chatelain did this with Ferguson using #fergusonsyllabus.

Frederick Douglass Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845)

Frederick Douglass The Heroic Slave (1853)

John A Williams The Man Who Cried I Am (1967) Presents the fictionalized King Alfred Plan, a plan developed by the CIA to eliminate people of African descent. 

Amiri Baraka Dutchman (1964) and The Slave (1964)

Roland S. Jefferson The School on 103rd Street: A Novel (1976)

Mitchell S. Jackson The Residue Years (2014)

Iceberg Slim Mama Black Widow (1969) Takes place during Chicago Riots that followed the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. As well, the protagonist is an African American homosexual. It corresponds to this story from the Washington Post about a death in the transgender community in Baltimore at the hands of the police.

Ernest J. Gaines A Lesson before Dying (1993)

Essays and Commentary: 

Chris Rock “Chris Rock Discusses Blacks in Baseball” This is here because of the decision to cancel then reschedule two Baltimore Orioles home games, to have one game played to an empty stadium, and to move three to St. Petersburg, FL. Rock's comments are important as well because of Major League Baseball's push to get more African American youth excited about baseball and in light of Jackie Robinson West Little League team.

Toya Graham, "A Black Mother's Love (Or What Love Looks Like in Public)" and Patrica Hill Collin's Black Feminist Thought provide insight into what Graham does to protect her son.

Visual Art:

NAACP’s 1935 art exhibit An Art Commentary on Lynching

From the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s blog: “The exhibition and writing worked to counteract the dominant white lynch narrative by providing a voice, name, face, and life to the victim.”



Brother Ali “Only Life I Know

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

100th Blog Post! Conversation with Dr. Keith Clark

The next two posts will be something a little different. Last May, I began this blog with the intention of making it a place for scholars, educators, students, and the public to find information about Ernest J. Gaines and his work. I am proud to say that today and next Tuesday we will be celebrating our 100th and 101st posts respectively. For our 50th blog post, our graduate assistant and myself produced a video highlighting a couple of items from the collection, including an excerpt from Gaines reading "Just Like A Tree" in the late 1960s. For the next two posts, I conducted conversations with Dr. Keith Clark and Dr. Valerie Babb on Gaines's importance and how they teach him in their classrooms.

Today, I would like share my conversation with Dr. Clark. He is a Professor of English and African and African American Studies at George Mason University. His publications include Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson (U. of Illinois Press, 2002) and The Radical Fiction of Ann Petry (LSU Press, 2013). During our talk, Dr. Clark and I speak about his first encounter with Gaines when he saw the 1974 film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Throughout, we speak to the continued relevance and universal nature of Gaines's works, even though they are set during the mid-twentieth century. If you would like to see more posts and videos like this, let us know in the comments below. As well, add your voice to the conversation. What was your first experience with the works of Ernest J. Gaines?

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Victor Séjour's “Le Mulâtre”

The March 1837 edition of Cyrille Bisette's La Revue des Colonies included one of the first pieces of fiction by an African American author, Victor Séjour's “Le Mulâtre” ("The Mulatto"). Séjour's story was not the first fiction written by an African American; that distinction, as far as I can tell, goes to the anonymous author S. who wrote "Theresa—A Haytien Tale" which appeared in four installments from January 18 through February 15, 1828, in John Russwurm and Samuel Cornish's Freedom's Journal. Today, I would just like to talk a little about Séjour's story. If you would like to read "Theresa" follow the links above the first and last installments. The middle installments can be found by following the Freedom's Journal link.

Born to a free man of color from Santo Domingo and a free mulatto woman of New Orleans in 1817, Séjour lived within a society where free people of color, like himself and his parents, could prosper. While they were able to prosper, they did not have all of the same rights as whites, but they also did not face all of the oppression that slaves did as well. Louisiana provided a unique space in the antebellum period. That space created the distinctions that we start to see in Gaines's works where there are four distinct groups of people: whites, blacks, Cajuns, and Creoles. Because of his parentage, Séjour received a good education, and like many other children of free people of color in the city, he left New Orleans at the age of nineteen to continue his education in Paris. There, he launched his literary career and ran in the same circles as Alexandre Dumas and Bisette. It was in Paris, at the age twenty, where Séjour's "The Mulatto" initially appeared. The story is extremely graphic for 1837, going much further in its descriptions of slavery and the liscenteous nature of slave owners towards female slaves than say Lydia Maria Child's "The Quadroons" (1843), Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), or even William Wells Brown's Clotel; or, The President's Daughter (1853). In fact, I can not think of anything as graphic in regards to slavery as "The Mulatto" until 1861 with the publication of Harriet Jacob's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Perhaps the graphic nature of the story can be attributed to the fact, as the writer of the head note in the Norton Anthology of African American Literature puts it, that Paris provided Séjour  with a space where he could be "unhampered by the racial proscriptions of the antebellum South" (286).

Taking place in Saint Domingue, "The Mulatto" tells the story of Georges and his life in slavery. His father, Alfred, is also his master. Alfred purchased Laïsa at a slave auction and later raped her, thus producing Georges. Laïsa never told Georges who his father was, and on her deathbed, she presented Georges with a pouch that contained his father's portrait. She also made Georges promise that he would not open the pouch until his twenty-fifth year. One night, thieves broke into Alfred's house and attempted to rob him. Alfred believed that Georges orchestrated the incident, but in fact Georges took a bullet in order to protect his master. Even with his protection of Alfred, Georges could not escape his master's predilections for his wife Zelia. When Zelia refused Alfred's advances and caused him to fall down stairs injuring himself, he condemned her to die, and even though Georges pleaded with Alfred to let her go, Zeila perished at the end of a rope. Zelia's death prompted Georges to seek revenge. He poisoned Alfred's wife before eventually beheading Alfred and killing himself soon afterwards. 

The above summary shows that Séjour's story can be grouped together with other tragic mulatto stories of the antebellum period. For me, what sets it apart is the descriptive nature of the narrative and also the psychological insight it provides to the slave-owner's mindset. Along with these aspects, the frame of the story is important. The story is set up with a frame story around the main narrative. The unnamed, white narrator sits down to listen to the story of his friend Georges from an "old negro" named Antoine. The entire narrative, except for the first few paragraphs, are completely told by Antoine. This method can be seen in later works of the nineteenth century such as Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories and Charles Chesnutt's The Conjure Woman (1899) where Uncle Remus and Uncle Julius provide the narration respectively. I do not want to talk about this aspect, but I did want to mention it. For more information about the framing, see the article by Ed Piacentio below.

For me, Séjour's graphic descriptions of slavery are important because of the time that the story first appeared. When desribing the auction house, Antoine says that there are three groups in the one room of the building that "resembles a temple": one group "purchases negroes; that is, free men who have been torn from their country by ruse or by force, and who have become, by violence, the goods, the property of their fellow men" (288). This description does not appear much different than others of the period, and Antoine continues by describing the scene of families being torn apart. When twenty-one-year-old Alfred approaches a young Sengalese woman and starts to bid on her, the auctioneer "ran his shameless hands over the ample and half-naked form of the beautiful African" (288). Alfred then asks the auctioneer if the slave is "guaranteed," and the auctioneer responds with "As pure as the morning dew" (288). Georges mother has not been violated when Alfred purchases her.

Antoine tells his friend that "Alfred may have been a decent man, humane and loyal with his equals, but you can be certain he was a hard, cruel man toward his slaves. I won't tell you everything he did in order to possess Laïsa; for in the end she was virtually raped" (290). "Virtually raped" would not appear in Child's "The Quadroons," the conquest there is implied.  Séjour's story, however, blatantly lays out what Alfred does to Laïsa. After Laïsa dies, Georges marries Zelia, and Alfred tries to conquer Zelia while Georges recovers from the gunshot wound he receives while protecting his master. During his visits to Georges, Alfred "became enamored by Zelia," Georges young mulatto wife (292).  Zelia continually refuses Alfred's advances, and Alfred becomes so frustrated that he condemns her to hang. During Zelia's shunning of Alfred, images of women being part of a harem appear. This same type of imagery pops up in Child's "Slavery's Pleasant Homes" as well. Antoine says, Alfred thought of himself as "the despot, the Bey, the Sultan of the Antilles" (293). To Alfred, Zelia and Laïsa serve as nothing more than commodities for his own purposes. In many ways, this recalls Jimmy Caya discussions with Tee Bob over what he should do about Mary Agnes in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman

The story concludes with Georges getting revenge for his wife's death. Remember, Georges does not know that Alfred is his father. Georges first poisons Alfred's wife then proceeds to behead his own father. As he swings the ax forward, Alfred exclaims, "Strike executioner . . . strike  . . . after poisoning [my wife], you might as well kill your own fa--" (299). Alfred cannot finish the last syllable before the ax severs his head from his body: "The ax fell, and Alfred's head rolled across the floor, but, as it rolled, the head distinctly pronounced the final syllable, 'ther . . . '" (299). Piacentio makes an excellent point about Alfred's head being lopped off. He writes, The word "father" is severed, broken in two, a reminder that in a slave society normal paternal connections could not exist with slave children. Georges's action results in two children, one mulatto (his son) and the other white (Alfred and his wife's son), being orphaned. For both the slave boy and the free white boy of "The Mulatto," family is destroyed." The institution of slavery did not just destroy George's family, but it also destroyed Alfred's, not providing him with the opportunity to acknowledge his own son.

More could be said here, of course. If you would like more insight into Séjour and the story, see:

O'Neill, Charles Edward. Séjour: Parisian Playwright from Louisiana. Lafayette: UL Press, 1995. Print.
Piacentio, Ed. "Seeds of Rebellion in Plantation Fiction:Victor Séjour's 'The Mulatto.'" Southernscapes, 2007. Web. 
Séjour, Victor. "The Mulatto." The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New York: Norton, 1996. 286-299. Print.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

More on Tim Gautreaux and Education

In the previous post, I wrote about education in Tim Gautreaux's short story "Welding With Children." Today, I want to write about education as it appears in two of his stories from Welding With Children: "Misuse of Light" and "Resistance." Lengthy discussions of education do not appear in either one of these stories, but the mention does serve some importance. When asked about whether or not he thought education separates Cajuns from a traditional way of life, thus homogenizing them, Gautreaux responded:
Yeah, I think so. Because, and that’s the way with just about anybody who is raised [among] the lower-middle class or blue-collar people and becomes educated, begins making money, begins to prosper, begins to move in the popular culture. [You] begin to feel that your plainer beginnings are something you should leave behind. And I think that’s sad. You begin to lose all sense of history and all sense of the past, and then you lose the sense of the importance of present things. (69)
The separation from the values and practices of the past can be seen in Gaines's works, as I have stated multiple times. In "Misuse of Light" and "Resistance" "formal" education at the university level becomes something unobtainable and honestly not needed. Again, I wrote about this with "Welding With Children."

In "Misuse of Light," Mel DeSoto works in a camera store in New Orleans and develops film. One day, a young woman comes in trying to sell her grandfather's photography equipment. Mel purchases the equipment and eventually develops the film. He discovers images on the film that appear to be a mystery, and the story traces Mel's search for the true meaning behind the photographs.

At the beginning of the story, as Mel cleans the newly acquired camera, the narrator informs us that Mel attended Tulane for a short time, much like the grandfather did at LSU for a semester in "Welding With Children." Like the grandfather, Mel experienced resistance at Tulane: "his work was not promising, and his professor would write on his project, sometimes on the photographs themselves, 'Misuse of light'" (22). Mel's professor at Tulane did not see his potential, and even his boss, Mr. Weinstein, views Mel's predilection to develop old photos from cameras the shop buys as ludicrous and nosy. Mel, on the other hand, sees the photos as art. Eventually, the continual disapproval of him viewing the photos as art, or as a mystery that needs to be solved, gets to him and whenever Mel buys a camera at the shop that contains film he dumps the film in the trash without developing it.

In regards to education, the story presents arguments about what constitutes art. For Mel, the images that he develops can be viewed as "artistic," but Mr. Weinstein sees the smudged, blurry prints as Mel being nosy. Like his professor at Tulane, Mr. Weinstein questions whether or not Mel actually knows what he is talking about and whether or not he can actually learn anything about true "art." There is no resolution to this quandary in the story; instead, the focus becomes the story behind the photograph. In this instance, the "art" of the photo tells a true, realistic story. For me, this reminds me of the comment, I believe by Sterling Brown, that fiction (or art) is based in 98-99% reality. The photograph, even though it is a facsimile of reality, becomes an "artistic" representation of the reality and the story being portrayed. Mel recognizes the "artistic" quality of the picture he discovers, unlike Mr. Weinstein, and I would argue, his professor at Tulane. While he could have learned about "art" in an institutionalized university setting, he learns about "art" and what it means to him on his own.

Like Mel in "Misuse of Light," Alvin Boudreaux in "Resistance" can be seen as an example of education in the workforce instead of in the "hallowed" halls of academia. The story sees Alvin helping his next door neighbor's daughter Carmine with her science fair project. The girl's father rejects the assistance and provides resistance to Alvin's attempts to help. When Carmine begins to explain her idea for a project to Alvin, she starts to worry that Alvin, a retired factory worker, doesn't know anything that can be helpful to her. Alvin tells her that he started his working life as a "millwright at LeBlanc Sugar Mill" and ended up retiring as the "foreman over all the maintenance people" (125). After hearing this, Carmine asks Alvin, "Does that mean you don't know anything about electricity?" (126). Alvin tells her that he worked on motors, and Carmine moves closer and begins to explain in detail how her project will work, telling him about the electrons running through a big cylinder and how resistors will control the flow of electrons. When she is done, Alvin astonishes her by asking her if they have to basically do the "scientific method" to show how the project works.

We do not know how far Alvin went in school, and we do not know if he went to college like Mel either. We can assume that he did not go to college and that he learned what he knows about electricity and resistors at LeBlanc Sugar Mill. Carmine appears amazed that Alvin knows these things, especially considering he did not learn them in school. Unlike Mel, we do not get the impression that others detracted Alvin from his pursuits, and like Mel, we see that Alvin is astute and intelligent even though he did not attend a university.

Doctors and lawyers do not provide the only source of educated individuals in the world, an Gautreaux shows this through his descriptions of characters like Mel, Alvin, and the grandfather in "Welding With Children." The stories do not show the gaps that education produces between the characters and the community, but they do show that "formal" education is not the be-all-end-all when it comes to showing how much knowledge someone maintains in his or her head.

For more of Tim, Gautreaux, check out Margaret Bauer's interview with him at Southern Spaces. Again, what are your thoughts on this topic? Where else do you see education being portrayed in Gautreaux's work? What does that portrayal say about the community and the individual?

Gautreaux, Tim. "Misuse of Light." Welding With Children: Stories. New York: Picador, 1999. 21-38. Print. 
Gautreaux, Tim. "Resistance." Welding With Children: Stories. New York: Picador, 1999. 121-139. Print.
Hebert-Leiter, Maria. "An Interview With Tim Gautreaux." Carolina Quarterly 57.2 (2005): 66-74. Print. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Tim Gautreaux's "Welding With Children" and Education

Maria Hebert-Leiter begins her 2005 interview with Louisiana writer Tim Gautreaux with a question about his influences, specifically how William Faulkner and Ernest Gaines, who both write about their very particular "postage stamp of land," inspired him and his construction of Tiger island (Morgan City, LA). Gautreaux responds not by linking himself to Faulkner but by drawing his connections to Gaines, particularly in regards to the way that Gaines writes his dialogue and represents the language of the people he writes about. Gautreaux continues by discussing the fact that when Gaines left Louisiana for California he tried to write about things other than Louisiana, but he kept getting drawn back to Pointe Coupee. Likewise, Gautreaux speaks about every writer having "a certain literary territory. It's the place of his birth, where he grew up, the language that he listened to, the values that were implied, and the everyday commerce of his life" (66-67). Today, I want to talk about a thematic similarity between Gautreaux and Gaines that I saw while reading Welding With Children (1999), a collection of short stories by Gautreaux.

When asked about why he does not write about educated Cajuns such as doctors and lawyers, Gautreaux simply responds in a similar way that Gaines does. He says, "[It goes] back to my raising again, and my territory, because the people I knew were blue-collar people. They were rural people. They were fisherman. They were mechanics. They were dredge-boat operators and tug-boat captains and railroad engineers" (69). Like Gaines, Gautreaux writes about the people he knew growing up, the ones he encountered on a day to day basis. Even though he doesn't write about "educated" Cajun doctors and lawyers, education does appear in his works, and on initially reading Welding With Children, his treatment of education struck me. While reading the collection, I continually saw the role that education plays in the community. Gautreaux highlights the distance of education in relation to the lower-middle-class and/or blue-collar community that a person comes from. In Gaines, that distance is explored between those who go away for an education and return only to find themselves alienated from the community. In Gautreaux's stories, the achievable, yet unachievable, aspects of education take center stage.

The opening story, "Welding With Children," follows a man who takes care of his grandchildren on a Tuesday afternoon. Throughout, the narrator wonders about the children of his four daughters while watching them almost kill themselves by playing with an motor in the yard while he tries to weld. As he looks at his grandchildren in the yard. that narrator begins to think about his educational experiences at Louisiana State University (LSU). He attended LSU for a whole semester while "work[ing] overtime at a sawmill for a year to afford the tuition and show[ing] up in [his] work boots to be taught" (2-3). He thinks about the English 101 class where teachers would sit behind the desk and have the students write for their portfolios, never teaching them anything. He thinks about the algebra teacher who lectured to the ceiling, appearing to not even notice the students in the room. He thinks about the drunken chemistry professor who used a Bunsen burner to warm up a can of Campbell's soup and eat it in class. He thinks about his history professor, who he kind of liked, that dies half-way through the semester "and was replaced by a little porch lizard" (3). He thinks about the other students in the back of a class that him "Uncle Jed." He flunked out, but, as he says, "I got my money's worth learning about people that don't have hearts no bigger than bird shot" (3).

The narrator's experiences at LSU did not teach him anything, and while there, he became the object of ridicule because of his appearance and his social background. Flunking out of college, the narrator became a welder and worked in the community. Later, as his grandkids watch TV, the narrator begins to contemplate running away with them, "away from their mamas, TVs, mildew, their casino-mad grandmother, and Louisiana in general" (12). If he did this, he "could get a job, raise them right, send them to college so they could own sawmills and run car dealerships" like the Fordlysons (12). At that moment, a drop of sweat from a class falls on the narrator's twenty-year-old shoes and he realizes he hasn't had a steady job for a while. He then begins to think if his wife ever had the fantasy of taking his daughters away and starting a new life so she could send them to college. Did the grandkids' mamas have the same fantasy?

Through these reflections, the narrator works through showing that what he, his children, and his grandchildren inhabit is a cycle that cannot be escaped easily. He tried to attend college, but the classes, ridicule, and possibly even the long hours at the sawmill hindered him from completing more than one semester.  The narrator eventually starts to think about other avenues of education, including the Methodist church. At one point, he ponders the fact that his four daughters do not have much religion to speak of. He thought that his wife, LaNelle, would instill religion in them, but she "always worked so much, she just had time to cook, clean, transport, and fuss" (7). The continual need to work to survive not only affected the narrator during his semester at LSU, but it affected his children as well.  

In the next post, I will talk about other instances of education in Gautreaux's collection. For now, what are your thoughts? Who are some other authors who talk about education in a similar manner?

Gautreaux, Tim. "Welding With Children." Welding With Children: Stories. New York: Picador, 1999. 1-19. Print. 
Hebert-Leiter, Maria. "An Interview With Tim Gautreaux." Carolina Quarterly 57.2 (2005): 66-74. Print. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Marie Adrien Persac and Riverlake Sugarhouse

Marie Adrien Persac--an itinerant painter, cartographer, photographer, and lithographer--detailed nineteenth century Louisiana life. One aspect that he captured in his paintings was plantation life in Louisiana during the mid-nineteenth century. Born on December 14, 1823 in Saumur, France, Persac left for America, family legend contends, around 1843, a year after his father passed away (3). We do not know precisely when Persac came to Louisiana, but we do know that he married Odile Daigre in Baton Rouge in 1851. Between 1857 and 1861, Persac painted landscapes; these images present "the image and indeed the very feel of Louisiana plantations on the eve of the Civil War" (9). Persac painted plantations such as the Shadows-on-the-Teche in New Iberia and Faye Plantation in St. Mary Parish. Among these landscapes, Persac also painted Riverlake Plantation, specifically the sugarhouse.

The exact date of Riverlake Sugarhouse in not known. Persac painted it anywhere between 1855-1861. What we do know, though, is that the painting provides us with a picture of Riverlake Plantation, a plantation that once occupied three thousands acres of land in Pointe Coupee Parish. This is the plantation where Gaines grew up, where he was born, in 1933. The painting shows the plantation, and one of the key structures on the plantation, almost seventy years before Gaines's birth. Persac's painting shows the sugarhouse, "the most important building on any sugarcane plantation, for it was here that the sweet but comparatively worthless cane juice was rendered into money-making crystal sugar and the less-valuable but still profitable by-product molasses" (70). In the foreground, rows of sugarcane can be seen. Some rows have slaves harvesting the cane with wagons being pulled behind them to collect the cut cane. In the back left of the panting, a slave cabin can be seen, and next to that, a pile of bagasse (crushed cane pulp) that would be used as fuel for the plantation instead of timber. Inside the sugarhouse, the cut cane would be boiled to extract the sugar.

The Riverlake sugarhouse continued to stand into the twentieth century, and Robert Koch's pictures here show it as it stood in 1935, two years after Gaines's birth. In fact, "[s]ugar brought prosperity to south Louisiana in the nineteenth century," and specifically to Pointe Coupee Parish (70).  This prosperity, though, did not occur on backs of the landowners; instead, the slaves, and later sharecroppers, who worked the land bore the weight of the prosperity with little to nothing to show for their efforts. Today, the sugarhouse is not there; however, the fields remain covered in sugarcane year after year, and grinding season, the time when the cane gets harvested and processed, still occurs in the fall.

Why is it important that we remember images like Persac's or Koch's? Apart from being images of the land where Gaines grew up, what importance do they serve? In regards to Gaines, the importance is obvious. They show us an historical account of "his people," the ones who lived on and worked the land of Riverlake Plantation. In a broader sense, the paintings and photographs provide us with an historical account not just of the plantation system but also an account of the aftermath of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and through the Great Depression. To understand where we are today, and how we got here, we must understand the past and images like these help us to do that.

Bacot, H. Parrott, Barbara SoRelle BAcot, Sally Kittredge Reeves, John Magill, and John H. Lawrence. Marie Adrien Persac: Louisiana Artist. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2000. Print.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Solomon Northup's "Twelve Years a Slave" and Steve McQueen's Imagery

I finally, after months of putting it to the side, watched Steve McQueen's adaptation of Twelve Year's A Slave. It took me so long to watch it because I kept telling myself that I had to be in the right mindset to sit through two hours of visual representations of brutality and prejudice. The movie is not something to view for pleasure. It's a visceral experience, much like Schindler's List. It's a film that you see, take in, and reflect upon long after the credits roll. Many people have written about the film version of Solomon Northup's narrative, and I do not wish to necessarily enter in to any of the debates surrounding the relevance or importance of the film. I do think that the film, and Northup's Twelve Years a Slave (1853) are important today because of what they tell and show us about history and because the continuing effects of that history remain with us one hundred and fifty years later.

As I watched Northup's narrative unfold, I could not help but notice the haunting beauty of the landscape that I inhabit here in South Louisiana. Throughout the film, shots of the landscape and of trees--oak, willow, cypress, etc.--covered in Spanish moss appeared. The trees, covered with the flowing Spanish moss, join beauty and horror together in one image. Blowing with the wind, the moss takes on a sort of ghost like quality, and ultimately, the continual shots of oak trees covered in Spanish moss made me think of lynching and the fears facing slaves and African Americans in the South: lynching and rape. The beauty and horror of the trees collide in one of the pivotal scenes in Northup's narrative.

After Solomon fights with Master Tibeats and whips him profusely, Chapin, the overseer, intervenes and removes Tibeats. Tibeats, infuriated at being beaten by a slave, leaves, and Chapin warns Solomon to remain put or he cannot help to protect Solomon from Tibeats when he returns. Upon returning with two horsemen, Tibeats and the men approach Northup with a noose. Northup submits to the men humbly, as he says, and they proceed to bound him tightly and slip the noose over his neck. The men do not hang Northup from a tree in the narrative; Chapin intervenes before they get the chance. Chapin scares Tibeats and the other men off, then he sends Lawson to get Mr. Ford, Solomon's master. While waiting for Mr. Ford to return, no one removes the bindings or the noose from Solomon's body: "All day Chapin walked back and forth upon the stoop, but not once approached me" (68). Solomon goes on to contemplate, "Why [Chapin] did not relieve me--why he suffered me to remain in agony the whole weary day, I never knew" (68). Chapin, and no one else relieves Solomon of his suffering. Mr. Ford, who arrives later, cuts the ropes that bind Solomon and helps him.  

In the film, Tibeats and the men hang Solomon from a large oak tree in front of Mr. Ford's house. The scene, which is above, starts after Tibeats and Chapin have left Solomon alone. What captured me about this scene is the long shot of Solomon hanging from the tree, struggling to maintain his breath and strength. For about thirty seconds, the scene only contains Solomon, the tree, slave quarters on the right, and a partially constructed building on the left. At the thirty second mark, movement occurs as slaves come out of the houses on the right and resume their daily activities. None of the people even approach Solomon for another minute. At that time, a woman comes up to him and offers him a drink of water then moves on. At one minute and forty seconds, the perspective changes and we see Chapin standing on the gallery of the big house staring out at Solomon hanging from the tree. This shot remains for twenty seconds before it returns to an image of the quarters. Over Solomon's left shoulder, a trio of kids chase one another in circles, playing and laughing. At the end of the scene, dusk has settled in and the slaves have returned to their quarters. Mr. Ford rides up on his horse and cuts Solomon down.

The scene juxtaposes a lot of images in the span of three minutes. It shows, for one, the cruelty of the "peculiar institution" which classified Solomon as property, not as a human. It also shows the control that lynching, and abuse, had psychologically on the slave population. When people start to emerge again, no one helps Solomon. Instead, they go on about their business and perform their day-to-day activities. Women carry laundry, men carry hoes, and children play. A similar scene occurs when Solomon confronts Epps over Patsy. When they begin to argue and chase one another, the slaves in the background can be seen dispersing and going inside their quarters. One slave can even be heard telling his child to get inside. The slaves go on with their lives, not ignorant of the punishment Solomon is enduring, but helpless to do anything about it. Solomon's hangings, the whippings, and the sexual overtures all exist as part of the plantation life, and the slaves can only, as one suggests to Solomon earlier, strive to survive.

Along with these images, we also see the big house, not more that twenty feet or so beyond Solomon's hanging body. He looks at the house, and as he gazes upon it, he sees Chapin pacing back and forth on the gallery. Even Chapin, the overseer, does not help Solomon down. Why, because Solomon is Mr. Ford's property? Because he wants Mr. Ford to see what Tibeats did? Solomon even asks these types of questions in his narrative. Countered with Solomon's hanging, limp body, we see the opulent house of his master.  We also see, when the shot returns to the quarters, the unfinished structure that Solomon has been building. These images both show that the things that Mr. Ford, Chapin, and Tibeats have exists because of the slaves they subject to oppression.

There is more that could be said, as usual. If you have seen the movie or read Solomon's narrative, what do you think? What other scenes stick out to you?

For more about the cinematography of this scene, see "Steve McQueen and the Long Take" at Visual Culture Blog. For more about the history of lynching, see "The Specter of Lynching" on this blog. For a good article on this scene, and the things I have been discussing in this post, see John Stauffer's "12 Years Between Life and Death" in American Literary History (26.2).

Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, A Citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853. Ed. Randy DeCuir. Marksville: Avoyelles Publications, 2013. Print.    

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

American Colonization Society

During his speech by the river in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, Ned Douglass speaks about dignity and respect. He also talks about the questions surrounding emigration and whether or not African Americans should leave, going to Africa or Europe or elsewhere. He says,
I left from here when I was a young man, but most people thought that was the best thing to do then. But I say to you now, don't run and do fight. Fight white and black for all of this place. You got black people here saying go back to Africa, some saying go to Canada, some saying go to France. Now, who munks y'all sitting here right now want be a Frenchman and talk like they do? Let me see his hand in the air. (115)
This short section of Ned's speech down by the river, around 1900, contains a few layers that need to peeled off. When I read this paragraph, I cannot help but think about Gaines's move to California then his subsequent trips back to Louisiana. I also think about his planned trip to Mexico is 1962 with his friends to escape the materialism and racism in the United States. After seeing James Meredith's strength in integrating the University of Mississippi in September 1962, Gaines decided to stay, and not run.

Culturally, the twentieth century saw African American writers emigrating to Europe and elsewhere, specifically Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and James Baldwin. While Baldwin returned periodically and had a presences in the Civil Rights Movement, he never the less resided in Europe and died there. To Ned, running away from the problem is tantamount to cowardice. One must stand and fight in order to see any change occur. I am not saying that Wright, Himes, and Baldwin should be considered cowards. As I said, Baldwin intellectually put himself in the fight.

American Colonization SocietyCertificate (1833)
The authors mentioned above emigrated to Europe, but Ned also comments that some look to go back to Africa. Here, I want to give a little history into the debates surrounding emigrating to Africa. I do not wish to focus on the contemporary discussions that would have been going during the period when Gaines's wrote the novel. That is there, especially in the look towards African in the Black Arts Movement and elsewhere. Instead, I want to briefly look at debates from the 1820s surrounding the American Colonization Society (ACS)which started in 1816. The goal of the society was partly to find a way to confront the increasing population of free African Americans. To do this, the society sought to establish a colony in Africa where free people of color could emigrate. Some African Americans agreed with the idea, and some didn't.

John B. Russwurm, one of the editors of the first African American newspaper Freedom's Journal, initially opposed the plan. However, neat the end of the newspaper's two year run, his opinion changed. In fact, Russwurm emigrated to Liberia in the mid-1830s and became a governor there until his death in 1851. In a March 14, 1829, article in Freedom's Journal, Russwurm writes,
The subject of Colonization is certainly important, as having a great bearing of that of slavery: for it must be evident that the universal emancipation so ardently desired by us & all our friends, can never take place, unless some door is opened whereby the emancipated may be removed as fast as they drop their galling chains, to some other lands besides the free states; for it is a fact, that prejudices now in our part of the country, are so high, that it is often the remark of liberal men from the south, that their free people are treated better than we are, in the boasted free states of the north. If the free states have passed no laws as yet forbidding the emigration of free persons of color into their limits; it is no reason that they will not, as soon as they find themselves a little more burdened. (207)
Since free African Americans received derogatory treatment even though they did not live in the bondage of slavery, Russwurm argues that they should consider leaving for Africa. There, they could grow and become educated apart from the oppression that daily tormented them in the United States, north and south.  Russwurm's turn drew ire from those who felt that emigration to Liberia should not occur.

American Colonization Society
Coin (1833)
One such opponent of the ACS and emigration to African was David Walker. In his Appeal in Four Articles, Walker blasts the thought of leaving the United States. For Walker, the ACS's plan to colonize African with free people of color would pave the way for whites to continue the practice of slavery. He writes that the ACS's desire was “to fix a plan to get those of the coloured people, who are said to be free, away from among those of our brethren whom they unjustly hold in bondage, so they may be enabled to keep them the more secure in ignorance and wretchedness” (52). To counteract those that would say that emigration is good because it would provide free people of color with their own land, Walker states, “This country is as much ours as it is the whites, whether they will admit it now or not, they will see and believe it by and by” (62). Walker then asks what makes it so hard to fight institutions like the ACS and slavery, and he simply responds by saying that blacks “are too servile to assert [their] rights as men,” and to show this, he asks why whites do not use others as “body servants” (71).

Ned, in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, echoes these same sentiments in his speech down by the river. He tells his audience that they must not be cowards and that they must fight. Ned reinforces the  thought, too, that his audience should not leave because the earth is theirs. He tells them that men cannot own the earth, but he gives them pride by stating that the land is theirs because the bones of their ancestors reside there and the ancestors "sweat and their blood done drenched this earth" that they plowed and cultivated (112). America, and the specific land in Ned's speech, belongs to them because of the work they did and the lives they loved there. No one can take that away. 

This is just a brief discussion of the colonization movement, and its early beginnings. For more, follow the links above in the post. What other American literature texts, in the 19th century, can you think of that focus on colonization or on representations of Africa? Let me know in the comments below. 

Gaines, Ernest J. The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. New York: Bantam Books, 1972. Print.
James, Winston. The Struggles of John Brown Russwurm: The Life and Writings of a Pan-Africanist Pioneer, 1799-1851. New York: New York University Press, 2010. Print. 

Thursday, April 2, 2015

"Dirt" in James Baldwin's "Go Tell It On the Mountain"

Writing about James Baldwin's, Charles Scruggs notes that "[n]o Afro-American writer in modern literature conveys better the sense of menace lying in wait in the urban streets 'outside.' Word such as 'menacing,' 'dreadful,' and 'unspeakable' are Baldwin's choices for describing those streets" (147). Later, Scruggs points out that for Baldwin "[s]mall, intimate spaces" take the place of "sacred space" within the city (147). This is where I would like to spend today's post, on Baldwin's description of those "small, intimate spaces," specifically the apartment of the Grimes family in Go Tell It On The Mountain.

As he wakes out of a bleary sleep on his birthday in 1935, John thinks about whether or not anyone will remember his birthday as he stares at "a yellow stain on the ceiling just above his head" that eventually transforms "into a woman's nakedness" (18). The stain becomes something that causes John to sin, making him feel guilty. The dinginess of the stain makes one think of Bigger Thomas's apartment in Native Son or of Gwendolyn Brooks's poem "Kitchenette Building." For me, the narrator's later descriptions of the apartment and the suffocating dirt that inhabits it. The use of "dirt" reminds me, of course, of Gaines's implementation of "dust" and "dirt" as an oppressive and stifling force in Of Love and Dust. In Baldwin's novel, "dirt" appears in the same way; however, instead of being outside in the fields, the "dirt" becomes a presences within the confines of the small apartment.

John must clean the constricting apartment, dusting and sweeping its interior. The cramped apartment served as a breeding ground for roaches, and it could never become clean. "Dirt was in the walls and floorboards," the narrator says (21). When John begins cleaning, he discovers that no matter how hard he tries, the apartment will never be rid of the "dirt."
Dirt was in every corner, angle, crevice of the monstrous stove, and lived behind it in delirious communion with the corrupted wall. Dirt was in the baseboard that John scrubbed every Saturday, and roughened the cupboard shelves that held the cracked and gleaming dishes. Under this dark weight the walls leaned, under it the ceiling, with a great crack like lightening in its center, sagged. The windows gleamed like beaten gold and silver, but now John saw, in the yellow light, how fine dust veiled their doubtful glory. Dirt crawled in the gray mop hung out of the windows to dry. John thought with shame and horror, yet in angry hardness of heart: He who is filthy, let him be filthy still. (22)
Within this section of a paragraph, "dirt" and "dust" appear four times. "Dirt" occupies the space, causing it to become a disheveled, oppressive space that does not even allow the light from outside to penetrate its darkness. Maintaining its constriction on the apartment, the "dirt" even takes on animalistic characteristics. It "crawled" into the mop and "veiled" the beauty of the light. These words connote something sinister that the "dirt" represents.

Later, the cleaning of the apartment becomes akin to Sisyphus continually rolling the boulder up the hill only to have it pushed back down for all eternity. Sweeping the carpet, "dust rose, clogging [John's] nose and sticking to his sweaty skin, and he felt that should he sweep it forever, the clouds of dust would not diminish, the rug would not be clean" (26). No matter how much John swept and cleaned the rug or the apartment, the dust remained, clogging every crevice and creeping into the implements whose sole purpose was the clean the apartment.

Scruggs views John's cleaning of the apartment as "a metaphor for Gabriel's morally untidy life, and John's pointless labor illustrates the circles of deception and self-deception which surround the father's authority" (151). I agree with Scruggs on this point, but I also see the "dirt" as a physical contagion that entraps not just John and his family but an entire community in a space of subjugation and oppression. It clogs their pours, in much the same way that the "dust" in Gaines's novel swirls, blisteringly around the characters causing them to seek shelter. Unlike Gaines's characters, the Grimeses cannot go inside to escape the "dust"; when they retreat inside, they encounter the "dirt" all around them.

More can, and should be said about this. What are your thoughts? If you recall, during John's passing through at the end of the novel, he feels like his mouth is filled with "dirt" and he can't breathe. What role does "dirt" play in this instance? What are some other places within Go Tell It On the Mountain or other Baldwin texts where "dirt" or other elements work as symbols of oppression?

Baldwin, James. Go Tell it On the Mountain. New York: Dell, 1985.
Scruggs, Charles. Sweet Home: Invisible Cities in the Afro-American Novel. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1993. Print.