Thursday, May 28, 2015

First Ever Ernest J. Gaines Society Panel at ALA 2015

May 23, 2015, saw the first ever panel of the Ernest J. Gaines Society. The panel took place at the American Literature Association and involved three papers on the continued importance of the works of Ernest J. Gaines. Each paper brought new perspectives to Gaines scholarship and opened new avenues for examining Gaines's works in relation to the American and African American literary tradition. The panel, entitled "Rethinking Race and Culture in the Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines," explored differing thematic elements in Gaines;s works. Covering "A Long Day in November," The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, and Catherine Carmier, the papers varied from discussing marital traditions, literary genres, and social hierarchies. Overall, the panel presented eye-opening avenues to expand Gaines scholarship. For this post, I would just like to briefly discuss the papers, providing a little information about each of them.

Pearlie Peters's "Rekindling Old Marital Traditions in African American Folk Culture, Southern Style: Domestic Violence in Selected Fiction of Ernest J. Gaines and Zora Neale Hurston" opened up the panel. In her paper, Peters discussed the closing scene of Gaines's "A Long Day in November" where Amy tells Eddie that he needs to beat her in order to save face in the community. When Amy threatens to leave Eddie again at the end of the end of the story, she tells him that he better stop her before she leaves for good. Eddie picks a switch off the floor and hits her twice. Amy tells him, "Beat me," and he proceeds to beat her even harder (74). After he beats her, Eddie runs towards Amy and picks her up to take her to bed. At dinner, Amy's face is swollen and she's been crying. Eddie finally asks Amy why she wanted him to beat her, even when he didn't beat her for that thing with Freddie Jackson; she responds by saying, "Because I don't want you to be a laughingstock of the plantation" (75).

Upon first reading this scene, it confounded me because I did not understand why Amy wanted Eddie to beat her so he would not be the laughingstock of the community. Perters's presentation covered this topic in some detail, even bringing in examples from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Amy's request, as Peters argues, comes from a space that conflates the public and the private. Everything in the quarters becomes public in some form or another, so if Eddie does not rectify the situation of his wife deciding to leave him, the whole community will see him as a laughingstock because his masculinity has been contested. Peters draws on Robert Hemenway's "Are You a Flying Lark or a Setting Dove" and Hurston's "Story in Harlem Slang" and "Characteristics of Negro Expression" to show that the domestic violence portrayed at the end of "A Long Day in November" and in Hurston's novel was once perceived as being good, respectful domestic violence. This does not justify domestic violence in any way; she just maintains that the situations shown within these texts have precedent in socio-cultural folk communities.

Erin Salius's "Rethinking Historical Realism in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" argues that the way we typically read Gaines's famous 1971 novel needs to be altered. Instead of reading Pittman as historical realism, Salius proposes that we read it as a precursor to more disruptive neo-slave narratives such as Octavia Butler's Kindred, Charles Johnson's Middle Passage and Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada. Scholars place Gaines's novel at the forefront of the neo-slave narrative genre; however, they do not typically see it as novel that mirrors either Butler's or Toni Morrison's Beloved because it is a straightforward, chronological narrative. Other neo-slave narratives contain disruptions and temporal overlap, and they work to, as Dubey argues, to fill gaps in existing historical narratives. Salius argues that we should read The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman in this way.

Salius proposes that we should read Gaines's novel like a "palimpsest novel." Ashraf Rushdy argues that this form of neo-slave narrative is a novel "in which a contemporary African American subject describes modern social relations that are directly conditioned or affected by an incident, event, or narrative from the time of slavery" (535). This comes from the fact that during Part III of the novel there are numerous references to characters appearing possessed by forces beyond their control. During the scenes with Tee Bob and Mary Agnes this possession appears. Ultimately, the residual effects of slavery come into play withing the novel in regards to the "rules" that Jules Raynard and Jimmy Caya espouse in regards to what Tee Bob can, and should, do with Mary Agnes. To find out more about Salius's argument, check out the summer 2015 issue of Callaloo where her paper will appear.

Matthew Teutsch's "'They want us to be Creoles. . . There is no in-between': Creole Representations in Gaines's Catherine Carmier and Lyle Saxon's Children of Strangers" looks at what Keith Byerman calls "the death of the Creole" in Gaines's and Saxon's novels. To highlight the decline of the Creole community, Teutsch focuses on the trope of passing in both novels. He looks at Famie's son Joel in Children of Strangers and how Joel's desire to pass for white in California ultimately causes him to lose all contact with his mother Famie. He essentially separates himself from her and from the rest of the community in order for him to pass as white. Lillian does the same thing in Gaines's Catherine Carmier. She talks about being unable to live a life between the black and white world, so she ultimately decides to pass as well, leaving her family behind.

Teutsch opens up new ways to look at Gaines's work by exploring it in relation to other writers in Louisiana their treatment of Creole communities. Both Saxon and Gaines explore Creole communities in their works, and both discuss the insular aspects of the people, shunning both black and white penetration into the group. This insulation leads to a gradual decline that ultimately causes the death of the community. Both Joel and Lillian show this because they both decide to pass, and in so doing, they sever all ties with the community itself.

This is just a brief overview of the first annual Ernest J. Gaines Society panel. Next year, there will be two panels at the American Literature Association in San Francisco, CA and one at the Society for the Study of Southern Literature Conference in Boston, MA. Make sure to check back on the center's website for the CFPs.

Gaines, Ernest J. "A Long Day in November." Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. 3-79. Print.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Robert Olen Butler's "Crickets"

The other day, someone told me about Robert Olen Butler's Pulitzer Prize Winning A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain (1992), a collection of short stories that chronicles the lives of Vietnamese immigrants in Louisiana. I've only had the chance to read a couple of the selections, and today I would like to briefly write about one of them, "Crickets." Told from the point of view of a Vietnamese immigrant named Thiệu, the story centers around Thiệu trying to instill a sense of Vietnamese culture and history into his son Bill. The story, only six pages in length, contains numerous themes that are worth exploring; however, I will only focus on a couple of them today.

The opening paragraph of "Crickets" sets the stage for what will follow between Thiệu and his son Bill. Thiệu begins by saying, "They call me Ted where I work and they've called me that for over a decade now and it still bothers me, though I'm not very happy about my real name being the same as the former President of the former Republic of Vietnam [Nguyễn Văn Thiệu]" (59). From the first sentence, we know that the narrative will focus on tensions within the narrator regarding him and his wife's escape to America after the fall of Saigon and their struggles to live within a different culture while maintaining a sense of their identity. In America, Thiệu does not go by his original name; instead, he goes by an Americanized version, Ted, partly out of a desire to assimilate but partly because even though he points that Thiệu  is a common name in Vietnam many people in America associate it with Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. After fleeing Vietnam, Thiệu and his wife ended up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, "where there are rice paddies and where the water and the land are in the most delicate balance with each other, very much like the Mekong Delta, where [Thiệu] grew up (60). (Mike Tidwell's Bayou Farewell discusses these similarities.)

Thiệu's Americanization comes at an expense, his son. On their first night in Lake Charles, Thiệu and his wife conceived their son, and both decided to name him Bill. They chose Bill because it is "an American name," and Thiệu and his son became "Bill and his father Ted" (60-61). While names do not tell the whole story of a person's life or past, Bill and Ted connote an Americanized identity that is devoid of any reference to the past life that Thiệu had in Vietnam. This lack of connection, especially with his son, aggravates Thiệu. He wants Bill to understand his culture and his heritage; however. Bill "is proud to be born in America, and when he leaves in the morning to walk to the Catholic school, he says, 'Have a good day, y'all'" (60). When Thiệu tells Bill goodbye in Vietnamese, Bill looks at him and says, 'Aw, Pop" as if it's a joke (60). In regards to him not speaking Vietnamese, Thiệu's wife simply responds by telling him that Bill is American. This statement reminds me of Stanley's comments about being Polish in Tennessee Williams's A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley simply says, "I'm American."

Getting frustrated with his son's lack of cultural identity with his Vietnamese roots, Thiệu suggests that they find crickets to have them fight one another. This was something that Thiệu and his friends used to do in Vietnam, finding charcoal crickets and fire crickets to put in the ring. Thiệu walks a fine line trying to convince his son to find crickets to fight, even thinking about how he is struggling against the Saturday morning cartoons that pit superheroes and robots against each other. after finding only charcoal crickets, Bill begins to get bored, asking how many they need. Thiệu sits beside the house and looks in the shoe box. He notices that they have only gathered up six charcoal crickets and no fire crickets. You need both, according to Thiệu, to fight each other because the crickets balanced one another out. While he ponders the shoe box full of charcoal crickets, Bill exclaims, "Oh, no," and Thiệu thinks that Bill understands the need for both types of crickets. However, Bill only points to his shoes and says, "My Reeboks are ruined!" (64). Thiệu acquiesces to defeat and tells his son he can leave. 

The story ends the next morning with Bill leaving for school. His mother cleaned his shoes, and as he walks out the door, Thiệu tells him, "See you later, Bill" (64). With this final line, Thiệu relinquishes his desire to instill in Bill a sense of tradition and history. His son is American, without a care in the world for his Vietnamese heritage. This does not mean that Bill will not one day care about his heritage, but at this time, as a ten year old, he does not. In many ways, this story reminded me of a recent episode of Fresh off the Boat where Jessica (the mother) is afraid that her sons will not know anything about their Chinese heritage so she panics and starts to make everything about China. The family moved from Washington D.C. to Orlando, FL.  Ultimately, the episode explores the melding of cultures and how one, especially Jessica's son, can have knowledge of and respect his Chinese heritage while also being American.

This is a topic that I've thought about with the Indian Removal Act in the 1800s and other topics. What are your thoughts? What other works that focus on assimilation and cultural heritage could we examine? I know there are many. Are here any that specifically focus on Louisiana?

Butler, Robert Olen. "Crickets." A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1992. 59-64. Print. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Langston Hughes's "Mulatto: A Tragedy of the South" and Gaines's "Bloodline"

Ambassador Theater
Playbill for Hughes's Mulatto
Last post, I wrote about Frank Laurent being a representation of the decaying South in Ernest J. Gaines's "Bloodline." Today, I would like to continue that conversation by showing how a similar image can be seen in the character for Colonel Thomas Norwood from Langston Hughes's Mulatto: A Tragedy of the South (1935). Like "Bloodline," Hughes's play takes place on a Southern plantation and involves a mulatto character, Robert, returning and starting to create trouble for the owner of the land, Colonel Norwood. In this case, though, Norwood is Robert's father with Cora, an African American woman who works in the house and has been Norwood's mistress, moving into the house when Norwood's wife passed away. Norwood and Cora have four children together, and Norwood refuses to recognize any of them. He does, however, continually try to support them by providing them with educational opportunities on the property (building a school and staffing it) and allowing them to go North to attend school, even helping to pay for their education there. While he does these things, he refuses to completely recognize them as his progeny, always referring to them as "Cora's kids." Robert, home for the summer, resents this, and the play centers around him seeking recognition from his father.

The character list for the play describes Colonel Norwood as "a still vigorous man of about sixty, nervous, refined, quick-tempered, and commanding" (2). Norwood does embody all of these qualities throughout the play, but I would also say that he becomes a representation of the plantation past losing its grip on the present. At the very beginning of the play, we see Norwood becoming frustrated when he experiences the same things that Frank Laurent does in "Bloodline." Norwood questions whether or not he actually has any control over his house. after ringing for his servant Sam and having to wait for him to arrive, Norwood intones, "Looks like he takes his time to answer that bell. You colored folks are running the house to suit yourself nowadays" (emphasis added 5). After Sam arrives, Norwood asks about the delay; Sam simply says that he was helping Sallie, one of Norwood and Cora's children, with her bags. This leads Norwood to explode: "Huh! Darkies waiting on darkies! I can't get service in my own house" (5). This brief exchange mirrors that of Little Boy and Frank Laurent discussed in the last post. Norwood notices that he does not have the same power he once did.

Part of the conflict surrounding Norwood's recognition of Robert revolves around Robert's arguments that he should be able to enter the house through the front door and Norwood's staunch refusal to allow him to do that. Robert does enter and leave through the front door, and when he goes to the front door and encounters Norwood walking in the front door, the two square off. At the beginning, Norwood only "points toward the door at the rear of the house" when he tells Robert which door to walk through (19). Robert refuses, and he confronts his father, remaining adamant that he will leave through the front door, not the back door. The stage directions during this confrontation are important:
The COLONEL raises his cane to strike the boy. CORA screams. BERT draws himself up to his full height, taller than the old man and looking very much like him, pale and proud. The man and the boy face each other. NORWOOD does not strike. (19)  
As the two continue to square off, Norwood becomes rattled and tells Robert  "(In a hoarse whisper) Get out of here. (His hand us trembling as he points)" (19). Norwood goes from being confident and strong to weak, and as the stage direction says later, filled with "impotent rage." Norwood must look up to Robert in the same way that Frank Laurent does with Copper. He does not have anymore power over Robert or the rest of the people who reside on his plantation.

When Norwood enter for what will become the final confrontation with his son, he looks "bent and pale" (21).   He starts towards Robert and "[s]uddenly he straightens up. The old commanding look comes into his face. He strides directly across the room towards his son" (21-22). This movement causes Robert to become afraid yet still defiant, and when he rises to his full stature, "the white man turns, goes back to a chair near the table, right, and seats himself" (22). Norwood knows that he cannot intimidate Robert with his physical appearance, so he decides to sit and tell Robert what he has done for Cora's children. Robert remains standing, again the tableau resembles the scene between Copper and Frank in "Bloodline." When Robert attempts to leave by the front door, the symbolic threshold of the play, Norwood steps between his son and the door. The two tussle, and Robert grabs his father by the throat, choking the life out of him. Robert symbolically kills the old South that Norwood represents, but in the process, he condemns himself to death as well. The play ends with white men chasing him into the house. He retreats upstairs and shoots himself in a bedroom.

There is a lot, and I mean a lot, more in this play and in Gaines's story. I have not even touched on Cora's thoughts regarding her relationship with Colonel Norwood. The way she describes it appears similar to the relationship between Pauline and Bonbon in Of Love and Dust. Their relationship also contains residual elements of slavery when a slave master could do whatever he wanted to do to his "property." In this way, we could read Hughes and Gaines in relation to someone like Harriett Jacobs. Finally, I do not completely discuss the progeny that arise from the relationships in these texts. Their position, as has been seen some, is precarious at best, existing not as a Creole community but as illegitimate children that the white fathers will never acknowledge, no matter how much people know. Lansgton Hughes tackles this aspect in the play and in his poem "Mulatto." The video below is Hughes reading the poem.

What other items should we discuss with these works? What other works could we examine in correspondence with them? Let us know in the comments below.

Hughes, Langston. Mulatto: A Tragedy of the South. Five Plays by Langston Hughes. Ed. Webster Smalley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1968. 1-35. Print.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Decaying South in "Bloodline"

River Lake Plantation 1938 
This past weekend, I read Gaines's "Bloodline" (1968) alongside Langston Hughes's Mulatto: A Tragedy of the Deep South (1935). Reading these two pieces together, one can see many thematic similarities even though they are ostensibly different genres and appear about thirty three years apart. I do not have time to touch on every similarity between each text. Instead, I just want to focus on one essential aspect that appears in each text, namely the appearance of the central white characters in each story. Both texts center around the return of a "mulatto" character who comes back to the plantation, either to move people to action as in "Bloodline" or to seek what is rightfully his and recognition from his father as in Mulatto.

Frank Laurent owns the plantation in Gaines's "Bloodline," a story that centers of the return of Copper Laurent to the quarters. Frank fears that Copper, who is his nephew from a relationship that Walter Laurent had with Copper's mother, has come back to rile up the inhabitants of the quarter and to start trouble. One must keep in mind that the story appeared in 1968, during the Civil Rights Era, and throughout Gaines's work, whites fear demonstrations occurring on their land and African Americans continually comment that the movement has not reached them yet. Typically, a student who has left the quarters and returns tells the inhabitants about the movement taking place. (Think of Jimmy Aaron in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman.) Felix, the narrator of "Bloodline," even says, "They doing that [demonstrating] everywhere else, 'Mailia. Everywhere else but here" (161).

Over the years, Frank's grip on the plantation fades, representing the changing times that have made their way  into the Deep South. Felix describes "the last of the old Laurents" as feeble and struggling "to look hard" when those around him knew "that hardness had gone" (164, 165). The people who still live on the plantation and work in the big house notice Frank's decline and challenge his "rules" in small ways. For example, whenever Frank tells Little Boy and Joby to go down to the quarters and retrieve Copper, Little Boy looks in the corner to Miss Amalia and asks her if it she is all right with him forcefully bringing her nephew up to the big house to see Frank. The exchange is worth quoting at length:
"You're asking her if it's all right when I told you to do something?" Frank asked him.
"I wouldn't want to do nothing she might not--" Little Boy stopped again before he finished.
"Do like Mr. Frank say," 'Malia said, with her head down.
"Just a minute," Frank said. "Who the hell's running this place, me or Amalia?"
"I guess you, Mr. Frank," Little Boy said.
"You guess, nigger?" Frank said. "You guess?"
Little Bot lowered his head, but Frank kept on looking at him. Then all of a sudden his face changed. Like only now he re'lized maybe he wasn't running the place. Maybe somebody else was running it after all. Or, maybe nobody was running it. Maybe it was just running down." (emphasis in original 173-174)
These types of exchanges also occur between Frank and Felix. One could assume that Little Boy's deference to Miss Amalia does not occur because of Copper's appearance on the plantation; instead, he asks her blessing because he respects her and knows that the man he is about to confront is her nephew.

 Little Boy and Jorby fail to bring Copper back to the big house. In fact, Copper beats them up and ties them together with a chain. Furious, Frank tells Felix to gather up another group of men to go fetch Copper. Like Little Boy and Jorby, the group of six men fail to get Copper to return to the house. Ultimately, Frank must descend to leaving the big house in order to meet Copper; he rides out the quarters and speaks with Copper on the porch of Amalia's house. When he arrives, Felix describes Frank's movements as he extricates himself from the automobile: "The tall, sick, white man went in the yard with his head high. . . Frank stood before Copper, leaning on the cane and breathing hard" (203). Even though Frank's power deteriorates, he remains adamant that he will maintain control until he dies. He approaches the house "with his head high" and at the end of the story he convinces Copper to leave the plantation. However, Copper still reminds Frank that his time has come to an end. Copper looks down at a seated Frank, not on an equal level or up at him, and he informs him, "Your days are over, Uncle" (217). Frank knows that his way of life has come to an end, and he even mentions this at various points throughout the story. Felix's descriptions of Frank, and Frank's comments, illuminate the changing times taking place on the plantation in much the same way that the description of Colonel Thomas Norwood does in Hughes's Mulatto.      

On Thursday, I talk about Hughes's play and how it relates to "Bloodline," specifically in regards to the changing South and to the decaying plantation traditions. Until then, what are your thought's on Gaines's "Bloodline"? What other themes do you see in the story?

Gaines, Ernest J. "Bloodline." Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. 159-217. Print.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Aunt Clo in Ernest J. Gaines's "Just Like a Tree"

Ernest J. Gaines's "Just Like a Tree" concludes his short story collection Bloodline (1968).  It originally appeared in the Sewanne Review, and it tells the story of a gathering of people in the quarters as the say goodbye to the ninety-nine year old fixture Aunt Fe as her daughter and son-in-law plan to take her away to the North so she will not have to endure anything like the recent bombing that occurred in the quarters. Readers do not hear directly from Aunt Fe in the story, even though the story is essentially about her. Instead, multiple narrators from young to old tell the events of the gathering, similar to Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which Gaines says served as influence, along with Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, for the story.

Today, I would just like to focus on one section of the story, Aunt Clo's. All of the narrators in the story focus on the events occurring in the room, moving to the past and looking to the future periodically. Aunt Clo, unlike the other narrators, does not provide any action that necessarily moves the narrative forward; her section is more philosophical and metaphorical, talking about Aunt Fe as a tree that is currently being uprooted and dragged reluctantly from her home. The section recalls, in many ways, Miss Jane Pittman's musings on the oak tree she speaks with in The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. More similarities exist between Aunt Fe and Miss Jane. One interviewer even asked Gaines about their similar characteristics. Gaines replied that when he started Pittman he realized it was too much like Aunt Fe because others told the story, not allowing Jane to speak for herself. He said, "I've got the same characters telling the same thing. All I've done with Aunt Fe is that instead of her dying, I tell everything that happened before she died" (49-50). Looking at each work closely, similarities appear, but that is not my entire focus here.

Aunt Clo compares Aunt Fe to a tree that has a chain wrapped around it then someone is just a "jecking and jecking, and then shifting the chain little bit and jecking and jecking in some direction, and then shifting it some mo' and jecking and jecking in that direction" trying to wrestle the roots out of the ground so it can be moved (235). When the person extricates the tree from the ground, a big hole remains with a "piece of the taproot still way down in it--a piece you won't never get out no matter if you dig till doomsday" (236). The taproot grows deep, and removing it becomes difficult. Aunt Fe's daughter and son-in-law plan to take her away, to the North, but her roots run deep. Aunt Fe becomes like others who have left. They leave holes behind, but the taproot remains. Aunt Clo continues by explaining that once the tree leaves, two holes remain: "You get a big hole in the ground, sir; and you get another big hole in the air where the lovely branches been all these years. Yes, sir, that's what you get. The holes, sir, the holes. Two holes, sir, you can't never fill no matter how hard you try" (236). The holes, of course, represent what Aunt Fe will leave behind. She will not physically be in the quarters anymore, and the people who loved her will not see her again.

While the holes appear, the taproot remains. When the trees gets dragged to the North, Aunt Clo says that the person taking the tree has to find a space for it. She says, "You look in this corner and you look in that corner, but no corner is good. She kin o'stand in the was no matter where you set her. So finally, sir, you say, 'I just stand her up a little while and see, and if it don't work out, if she keep getting in the way, I guess we'll just have to take her to the dump'" (237). This quote, which ends Aunt Clo's section, is full of themes that I do not have time to explore in this post. The tree, like Aunt Fe, becomes a representation of the past, and specifically the South, that upon entering the North must be done away with or placed in a corner. Gaines speaks about this in his own experiences when he went to California in "A Very Big Order: Reconstructing Identity" and James, a Northerner, exemplifies it in his section in "Just Like A Tree."

At the end of the story, everyone has left Aunt Fe's house and Aunt Lou helps her get ready for bed. As she watched Aunt Fe, Aunt Lou notices "her making some kind o' jecking motion there, but I feel she crying 'cause this her last night here, and 'cause she got to leave ever'thing behind" (249). Important here is the word "jecking." Aunt Clo uses the word repeatedly in her section while she describes the tree being removed from the ground and transported North. Here, Aunt Lou uses it to describe Aunt Fe before she goes to bed, and ultimately dies. This key word links the image Aunt Clo speaks about with Aunt Fe. Unlike the tree, whose taproot remains, Aunt Fe doesn't leave in the end. She goes to bed and passes away in her sleep.

No matter how hard someone tries to relinquish the past, it remains. This in not necessarily a bad thing. The past is important, all of its tribulations and triumphs. When speaking about his grandmother's death, Gaines talks about the fact that "all she talked about was the South" (50). His grandmother maintained her insurance payments so she could be buried back home in the South because that mattered to her. Gaines continues,
When she died, there were no arguments as far as I was concerned that Momma was coming back to the place where she grew up. And there were other people in the family who said, "Well she's dead now, does it matter?" But to me it mattered and to her it mattered. She never did say, 'Send my body back home' or anything like that. We never did talk about death like that, but we knew. She'd say, "I'd like to be buried there" you know, but she never said "Send my body there." She'd just say "I'd like to be buried home." (52)
Even though his grandmother passed well after the story first appeared, Gaines's comments here reflect Aunt Clo's description of Aunt Fe. As well, they describe his thoughts regarding the continual pull of Louisiana and the South to his own writing and life.

What do you think of "Just Like A Tree"? Let us know in the comments below.

Gaines, Ernest J. "Just Like A tree." Bloodline. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976. 221-249. Print.
Ingram, Forrest and Barbara Steinberg. "On the Verge: An Interview with Ernest J. Gaines." Conversations with Ernest Gaines. Ed. John Lowe. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1995. 39-55. Print.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Ernest Gaines's Open Letter to Hank Aaron

Ernest Gaines has made his admiration for Major League Baseball Hall of Famers Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays well known. Living in San Francisco, Gaines became a lifelong San Francisco Giants fan, cheering the team on even when he returned to Louisiana to reside permanently. In 2007, Giants slugger Barry Bonds approached Hank Aaron's record of 755 home runs. Aaron told reporters that he would not attend the games where Bonds would possibly break his record, and speculation began to swirl about this decision. Many saw Aaron's refusal to attend the games as a reaction to the numerous rumors of Bonds's steroid use. Mike Gimbel pointed out that reporters overlooked part of Aaron's statements regarding his decision to stay away from the ball field. Instead of taking away from Bonds, Gimbel argues that Aaron chose to not attend so that Bonds could enjoy the full spotlight of his accomplishments. Whether or not this is the case, we may never know. What we do know is that many view Bonds's single season home run record of 73 and career record of 762 as "tainted" because of his PED usage.

During the lead up to Bonds's surpassing of Aaron's home run record on August 7, 2007, Gaines wrote an open letter to Hank Aaron in The Atlanta Journal Constitution urging him to support Bonds's pursuit of the all time home run record. Gaines draws attention to the vitriol that Aaron endured during his own pursuit of then record holder Babe Ruth in 1974. At the time, in 1973 and 1974, Aaron received numerous death threats. Gaines writes, "How soon people forget. Some. Not all. Because I can remember the days when you were approaching Bab [sic] Ruth's homerun record that some of the same people condemning Bonds today were sending you death threats. Why? I'll tell you why. They did not want to see a Black man break the greatest record set by a White man in sports." The letter to the right shows the hate focused on Aaron and his pursuit of Ruth's record. Just as Aaron received hate mail from individuals who did not want to see him break Ruth's record, Bonds received death threats as well. It is not clear, though, if these were racially motivated. We can presume that the threats contained racist language and overtones.

To me, the most interesting part of Gaines's letter comes when he says that everyone isn't like Aaron, Mays, or Jesse Owens. Gaines says, "Some of us are arrogant. We feel that once we do our work on the field, that should be enough to satisfy the fans." This statement reflects Gaines's thoughts on his own writing as I have written about before on this blog. This arrogance makes some people afraid, though. Gaines continues, "All geniuses are arrogant. Bonds wears his arrogance on his sleeve. And the White world doesn't like it. If you are Black, you are supposed to be humble." He goes on to say that he is not sure whether or not he would even like Bonds if he met him. That, however, is beside the point. The point is that the white media looks upon self-assertive, "arrogant" Black men as a danger. If the player was white, would the media view him the same way?

Aaron did send a message to Bonds when he broke the record. After Bonds's 756 home run, Aaron appeared on the big screen at AT&T Park and said:  
I would like to offer my congratulations to Barry Bonds on becoming baseball's career home run leader. It is a great accomplishment which required skill, longevity, and determination. Throughout the past century, the home run has held a special place in baseball and I have been privileged to hold this record for 33 of those years. I move over now and offer my best wishes to Barry and his family on this historical achievement. My hope today, as it was on that April evening in 1974, is that the achievement of this record will inspire others to chase their own dreams.

Even last year, Aaron received racially charged threats after comments he made regarding politics. These threats came, in 2014, when only 67 African American players held roster spots in the Majors. Three teams did not have any African American players on their rosters: San Francisco, St. Louis, and Arizona. This is a dramatic decrease in the number of African American players who made up on average 16% of the overall players between 1972-1996 in the Majors. Major League Baseball has worked to get more African American youth involved in playing baseball through various programs, but the numbers have not seen any large increase. Last year, an all African American Little League team, Jackie Robinson West, from Chicago was disqualified after allegations of zone tampering appeared. As well, comedian Chris Rock has been vocal about the lack of African American's in MLB baseball.

What are your thoughts? I bring up all of the other items here because of the incidents in Baltimore and the cancellation of two of the Orioles's games against the White Sox and because of Alex Rodriguez passing Willie Mays for fourth on the all time home run list. He accomplished this on May 7, 2015. For article questioning he issue of race in regards to Bonds's pursuit, see this article from 2007 in The Independent.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Anthologies and the Literary Canon

During my recent conversation with Dr. Keith Clark, he spoke about his first encounters with the works of Ernest J. Gaines. He first encountered Gaines, as I am sure many did, when he saw the film version of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman on CBS in 1974. He next encounter did not occur until he was working on his M.A. in the mid-eighties. As a graduate assistant, he taught an undergraduate course in African American literature using Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon's Black Writers of America: A Comprehensive Anthology (1972). Dr. Clark's anecdote made me start thinking about the construction of the literary canon and as a result the construction of literary anthologies again.

According to M.H. Abrams, "literary canon" refers to "those authors who, by cumulative consensus of critics, scholars, and teachers, have come to be widely recognized as 'major,' and to have written works often hailed as literary classics. The literary works by canonical authors are the ones which, at a given time, are most kept in print, most frequently and fully discussed by literary critics and historians, and most likely to be included in anthologies and in the syllabi of college courses" (29). Literary anthologies contribute to the construction of the "literary canon," and in closely tied to that role of canon formation is assisting teachers in general survey courses in covering wide swaths of literary expanses during the course of an academic semester or year. For example, when I teach Early American Literature, we begin in the 1400s and conclude in 1865. That is 400+ years of material. Anthologies help to parse the material out, in various ways, providing opportunities for me to introduce students to a wide array of authors and texts.

Barksdale and Kinnamon's anthology appeared about twenty five years before Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Nellie McKay's Norton Anthology of African American Literature in 1996, whose third edition just came out in 2014. Black Writers of American contains six parts (The Eighteenth-Century Begins, The Struggle Against Slavery and Racism: 100-1860, The Black Man in the Civil War: 1861-1865, Reconstruction and Reaction: 1865-1915, Renaissance and Radicalism: 1915-1945, and The Present Generation: Since 1945) Each part is then broken up into various sections, beginning with "The Major Writers." The other sections vary depending on the time period. One glance at the table of contents and you will notice some omissions that appear in later anthologies and some names that may be unfamiliar. For example, the only female major writer is Phillis Wheatley and female authors such as Pauline Hopkins, Harriett Jacobs, Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmond Fauset, Maria Stewart, Jarena Lee, and others do not appear in the anthology. There are a couple of reasons for this. Gates didn't rediscover Wilson's Our Nig until 1982 and Jacob's narrative was thought, for the longest time, to be a piece of fiction written by Lydia Maria Child. Jean Fagan Yellin didn't clear up the issue until the early 1980s. Along with these issues, the questions surrounding what constitutes "classic" inevitably come into play.

In The Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction, Darryl Dickson-Carr incorporates an entry on "canon formation." There, he speaks about the various factors that led, for one, to the creation of an African American "literary canon" and also to the reasons why authors like as those mentioned above did not necessarily appear in early anthologies. He notes, "In recent decades, as scholarly definitions of 'classic' or merely great literature have opened up to be more inclusive, with women and people of color being the main--and intentional--beneficiaries, this process has become even more difficult, as critics and scholars have collectively struggled to expand different canons while not completely disregarding their mainstays" (72). The "Culture Wars" of the 1980s and 1990s opened up the door for more women of color in the "literary canon," and as a result, Wilson, Jacobs, Hopkins, Larsen, Fauset, and others appear in both the Norton and in Call and Response along with other women who are not found in Black Writers of America.

When a new author enters the canon, another author leaves. As such, there are authors that appear in anthologies such as Cavalcade and Black American Literature, both from the early 1970s, that do not appear in contemporary anthologies. Glancing through the anthologies from the early 1970s, I noticed that authors such as John Marrant, John Russwurm, and Albery Allson Whitman fell out of the canon (if we use anthologies as our measuring stick). As well, twentieth century writers such as Arna Bontemps, Ossie Davis, and William Melvin Kelley do not appear in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Time and literary canons change; they do not remain constant because of the varying influences and movements that occur in our cultural milieu. As such, some authors become forgotten, or pushed to the side for a few years, while others get discovered and explored in more detail.

This post could continue, with me arguing for or against certain selections in anthologies; however, that post would prove fruitless. Instead, I just wanted to spend a little time pointing out that what we consider good literature owes something, good or bad, to the existence of literary anthologies. To see the table of contents for the Norton Anthology of African American Literature click the link here. I am glad they added "Theresa--A Haytian Tale" from Freedom's Journal. It is, to my knowledge, the first short story by an African American author.  

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, Seventh Edition. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999. Print.
Dickson-Carr, Darryl. The Columbia Guide to Contemporary African American Fiction. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005. Print. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

100th Post Continued! Conversation with Dr. Valerie Babb

Last week, we celebrated our 100th post by having a conversation with Dr. Keith Clark (George Mason University). Today, we are happy to share a conversation that Interim Director Dr. Matthew Teutsch had with Dr. Valerie Babb (University of Georgia). During their discussion, Dr. Babb spoke about her first encounter with Ernest Gaines's work. She talks about growing up in New York and coming across The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman there. As well, she provides a unique way to approach Gaines's work in the classroom. She focuses on the written text, and to expand upon Gaines's words, she has students examine the works in relation to their film adaptations. Like the talk with Dr. Clark, Dr. Babb explains why Gaines is still relevant today even though most of his works take place in the mid-twentieth century.

Dr. Babb is the Director of the Institute for African American Studies and the Franklin Professor of English at the University of Georgia. Her publications include Ernest Gaines (Twayne Publishers, 1991) and Whiteness Visible: The Meaning of Whiteness in American Literature and Culture (NYU Press, 1998). 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?