Thomas F. Defrantz, Editor, Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance

Defrantz, Thomas F, ed. Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African

American Dance. U of Wisconsin P, 2002.

Summary of Work
For the purposes of my comprehensive exam list studies and dissertation research, I read chapters 1 – 7 of this edited collection. The work broadly covers how African American dance has been perceived and performed from slavery to near the present day. Thomas F. Defrantz starts off the collection by briefly discussing the struggles of terminology for African American dance. He states that he will use the term black dance or black vernacular dance in spaces where there are only people of color present, but always uses African American dance to refer to the same thing in mixed cultural groups. The reasoning is complex, and largely revolves around the history of the term black dance: it was often used as a pejorative, a term that meant it was lesser than European dances like ballet. White dance critics did not understand the cultural underpinnings of the work and made no efforts to understand or learn, meaning that the reviews in the paper of performance works were often derogatory or backhandedly complimentary.

While there were two important works on African American dance in the mid 1900s—Jean and Marshall Stearns’ Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance and Lynne Fauley Emery’s Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970—there are problems with both of those works. The Stearns put a focus on the term vernacular, making very clear that the dance styles they are talking about will never be high art or even really considered worthy of such a title. Emery’s work tries to document too much in travelogue form, and she doesn’t consider that there is more to these dances than race and the slavery-to-freedom narrative. Yet these two works are the foundation for the few other books that have been written on African American dance forms, and since the records on the dance forms are poor, there are a strange amount of methodological approaches taken to studying and writing about the dances. Defrantz states that the best scholarship out of the last decades of the twentieth century comes from scholars Kariamu Welsh Asante, Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jacqui Malone, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. Their works have served to diversify the scholarship on African American dance.

P. Sterling Stuckey discusses the challenges of converting African religious dance tradition into Christian worship. He briefly discusses the forced dancing on the boats during the Middle Passage crossing, and then goes on to say that the fact that the dances remained even after that and all the oppression and hardship they faced proves the importance of dance in African culture. But since there was such a mix of tribes, the dancing changed to become a language of slavery and communication across cultural boundaries. Stuckey then moves his focus to the Ring Shout, discussing it as a form of worship that involved shouting praises and shuffling the feet side to side while in a circle. Despite the many attempts to stop the practice, black people found ways to keep it in their worship. Stuckey also states that these dances were able to cross from religious to secular, and that while many times the steps were the same, the context is what made the dance different; thus, much like the African understanding of secular versus sacred, the line between the two is blurred. He states that Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin best describe the function and uses of these dances, citing Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain specifically as an example: the character Elisha performs a solo form of Ring Shout in the church as he dances and the crowd and preacher join in, creating something almost akin to Juba. The novel also contains prime examples of the Ring Shout in communal form at the church as it is done to tambourines and piano music, indicating that the Ring Shout is a very important and all-encompassing religious experience for these black Christian communities.

Nadine A. George discusses the struggles that black female vaudeville performers faced when going on the circuit. She focuses specifically on the Whitman sisters, discussing their rise as gospel focused performers and then moving away from the gospel performance to do vaudeville shows. They were light skinned, meaning that they could pass as white, and they performed on both the white vaudeville circuit and the TOBA circuit. George states that to their credit, they never did deny their black racial heritage, and yet that also brought its own set of challenges. These women, in order to “look black,” donned blackface and performed in it for most of the show. They also performed some stereotypical acts in order to keep the crowd pleased, and they were often fighting to get paid the rates that they had been promised. They were also in charge of being matriarchs to the picks that they had traveling with them, knowing that if they didn’t take good care of the children, it would ruin their business. At the same time as all of this was going on, they also often dyed their hair blonde and came out on stage for one number without the blackface, confusing many audiences because they wondered what white women were doing on stage during a black minstrel/vaudeville performance. They also had crossdressing acts, which challenged expected gender norms. Their business acumen and talent made these women the longest running vaudeville performing group, and they gave many great dancers their start, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In spending more time looking at the challenges, both gender and racial, they faced to accomplish all of this, George hopes their work will be more widely recognized and studied.

Marya Annette McQuirter discusses the myth of black people having natural dance talent, particularly focusing her studies on the 1940s forward. She states that there are problems with that precisely because every dancer goes through an awkward learning stage, but that stage is never represented in any studies or literature. Taking Malcolm X’s autobiography as an examples, she states that he goes directly from being unable to dance from lack of experience to a top jitterbug dancer magically: it is his African heritage that mysteriously gives him the ability rather than teachers helping him through awkward learning stages. It is narratives like that which put fuel on the fire of the stereotype of the natural black dancer. McQuirter states that there were many black people, especially those coming from the countryside, who did not dance and could not dance. If they wanted to go out on the town when they moved to the cities, they then had to go through an awkward learning stage in order to be able to dance at the clubs. As a parting statement, McQuirter asks her readers to realize that “The dance arena . . . did not offer a retreat from this awkwardness, but it was where women and men worked out the complex and difficult moves required to navigate the new and different terrain of urban centers throughout the United States at mid-twentieth century” (99).

Richard C. Green focuses on the career of Pearl Primus, a phenomenal black dancer who made many of her choreographic works about social issues (including the famous choreography to Billy Holliday’s Strange Fruit). Learning her dancing skill set at the New Dance Group’s school on a scholarship, she was influenced by the government’s efforts to use art to placate a people ready to riot. Her work was also shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, with figures like Locke and Hughes and Garvey speaking out about how to solve the “Negro Problem.” When she made her professional debut, she was very well received, and yet at the same time she did not rise to the fame that Josephine Baker and other lighter skinned performers did. Primus was considered a “real” black dancer due to her skin color combined with her dance movement choices. She did perform on Broadway and in an opera, and she staged many performances, some of which had lukewarm receptions, Given her history, it is troubling to Green that Primus is being used as a rebranding tool for both black dance and modern dance, her history being revised or erased in places that it becomes no longer a full picture of Primus. The revisionism reveals a truly American Dilemma where people feel they have to choose between calling Primus a black dancer and calling her a modern dancer. With revisionism like this occurring to push specific racialized agendas, it becomes even more important to be able to preserve a full picture of Primus as a dancer.

Marcia E. Heard and Mansa K. Mussa give a brief overview of African people like Asadata Dafora and Katherine Dunham who started African dance companies in NYC, many of which still operate today, although only three companies in the country are internationally recognized: Ko-Thi, Muntu Dance Theater, and the African American Dance Ensemble.

Sally Banes and John F. Szwed discuss the history of the instructional dance songs, which create a form of dance notation for people to learn popular dances of the time. They state that the instruction song was a long-standing tradition among black communities, where they would use songs to call out dance steps. The songs were always only part of the picture for learning the dance: the songs assumed some level of familiarity with dance steps that would be taught in communities or at parties on a dance floor. There would be people present who could help others who were unfamiliar with the dances learn. The songs take many forms that reassure the listeners that the dances are popular, that everyone is doing them, that they are easy to learn, and that they should learn it too. They give examples in the text such as “Mashed Potato Time” and “The Locomotion” as well as “The Monkey” and “The Twist” and “The Jerk.” The songs had declined by the 60s but saw a revamp in the 70s with the Disco age, but the songs were much less specific with their instruction. The only place that such songs seem to exist in the present day is in country line dances done to country music. Banes and Szwed conclude by stating that these instruction songs contradict Adorno’s belief that popular music was an opiate, because these songs required their audiences to pay close attention, and they were encoded with specific cultural and communal knowledge. The one problem that the instructional song poses is that of appropriation: by making the moves mainstream, they are often watered down and found bereft of their cultural heritage.

Veta Golar discusses the blues aesthetic, stating that it is more than just sad songs and hard times, but comes to embody “(1) art that is contemporary, that is created in our time, (2) creative expresssions of artists who are empathetic with African American issues and ideals, (3) work that identifies with and reflects popular or mass black American culture, (4) art that has an affinity with African/U.S.–derived music and/or rhythms, and (5) artists and/or artistic statements whose raison d’être is humanistic” (206). These aesthetic ideals combine to create something that is important to cultural production and black art forms. Golar states that Albert Murray’s belief is that it focuses and relies very much on vernacular. Therefore, the popular is the heart of the blues aesthetic. This aesthetic also opens up the blues to non-black artists. She looks at Dianne McIntyre’s work to discuss how the blues aesthetic can be seen in modern dance, stating that the rhythms she uses are a big part of that aesthetic. She performed many different dances that included dances which highlighted black cultural roots. Her aesthetic movement choices made the blues aesthetic clearer and more accessible to many audiences outside of black cultural audiences and connects those experiences to other people’s lives; her work is a form of cultural outreach.

Discussion of Work
The theory section of this collection will be very useful to me for my dissertation for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly that there is a reference to James Baldwin’s work in the piece on Christianity and AfAm Dance. Stuckey’s chapter specifically deals with not only the cultural importance of the Ring Shout but also the transference of that tradition into literary culture. The dance is an entryway to understand the cultural importance of the religious worship in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. The presence of the Ring Shout multiple times throughout the work demonstrates that it is important to be aware of the dance’s cultural importance in order to properly read or analyze the work as a whole and its representation of black church worship services. The literature is as much a cultural artifact as the dances, and it requires readers to have a level of cultural competency in order to fully understand and appreciate the works instead of consume them and appropriate the material for our own popular or scholarly purposes. This is particularly true of scholars, who have argumentative agendas in writing about these works: refusing to acknowledge the important cultural points in the work becomes an act of assimilation into the broader term of Western, and therefore white, culture.

Generally speaking, the collection brings up important discussion questions: should we be referring to the dances done as black vernacular dances, African American dances, idiom dances, or something different from all of those? How can words, performers, and dances be reclaimed from a pejorative history? At what point is someone appropriating black art forms (in creating, using, consuming without knowledge of the roots of the art form)? What motivations do we as writers have when we approach this rich cultural history to make arguments about the dances’ validity? How can we avoid the dangers of the need to create an “Africanist” notion of African American dance?

 

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary of Work
Ruth and Walter Younger, their son Travis, and Walter’s sister Beneatha and mother Lena all live together in a small, two bedroom apartment on the South side of Chicago. Walter’s father has died, and after months of waiting, they are expecting an insurance check for ten thousand dollars. It is all Walter can think about, and over breakfast, Ruth tries to keep order as Beneatha and Walter fight about what will be done with the money. Ruth is acting strange, and she is particularly hard on Travis when he asks for money he needs for school, and harder on him when he asks to be able to deliver groceries after school in order to make the money himself. Walter gives his son $1 and sends him on his way, much to Ruth’s dismay. Walter wants to go into business with his friends to buy a liquor store, and he is upset that Ruth is always so worried about money but won’t let him do anything to change their situation. He is insistent that his mother will give him the insurance money to go into business. He leaves for work, Beneatha leaves for school (she is in college and wanting to become a doctor), and when Lena comes out, she starts fussing over Ruth and then talking about how she doesn’t know her children anymore. Ruth collapses.

She goes to the doctor and learns she is pregnant, and she is devastated. However, the next day, the check comes, and everyone starts out happy. Lena tells Ruth that she’s thinking about putting some money away for Beneatha so that she can go to school, and then trying to decide what to do with the rest. She thinks she might buy a house. Walter is angry that she won’t invest in the liquor store scheme, and he goes to leave, but Lena makes him stay, trying to get him to listen to Ruth’s important announcement. He just yells at Ruth, and she goes in her room. Lena tells him that Ruth is pregnant, and Ruth comes out to talk about it. She talks to her family about her trip to the doctor, and lets slip the wrong pronoun, indicating to Lena that Ruth actually went to see the woman who would help her get an abortion. Ruth confirms this, stating that with how Walter is acting and the financial state they are in, it doesn’t make sense to bring a child into the world. Lena, feeling like her world is falling apart, leaves the house with the check that has come in the mail.

When Lena returns, she’s bought a house, but in the white area of town rather than the black area. The family doesn’t know what to say, worried about what will happen. Beneatha, meanwhile, has been going out with different men. One, George, is the son of one of the richest men in town, and the family would like to see her keep dating him and potentially marry him. But Beneatha likes Asagai, the Nigerian who is in Chicago going to college to learn about democracy so he can bring revolution to his country. He brings her a beautiful Nigerian set of clothing, and she puts it on, and he comments that her hair isn’t natural, and that’s sad. She goes to the hairstylist and has it cut off. When she returns, all dressed up, she starts dancing how she imagines a Nigerian woman would dance, and Walter walks in and sees her. He is drunk, and starts wildly dancing as he imagines an African warrior would dance. It is this scene that Ruth and George walk in on, and George is flabbergasted at her dress and her hair. She comments that it’s natural, but she goes to change clothing for their date. Walter, still drunk, sits down, sullen. He makes crude comments about George and about how he dresses, and then they leave. Walter continues his bad attitude to Ruth, but they get talking, and he starts making up with her.

Lena, meanwhile, sees how sullen her son is, and she decides to give him the remainder of the money, the 6500 dollars, to invest as he sees fit, as long as he puts 3500 of it in a bank account for Beneatha. He is ecstatic, and becomes a completely different man. He even takes his wife to the movies and dances the Slow Drag with her. The kids get their mother a set of gardening tools to work with, since she now has the space to garden that she always wanted. They all get ready to leave by helping pack, when a man comes to the apartment to tell them that the white community doesn’t want them there, and they are willing to pay them more than they paid for the house to sell. The children are upset, and they tell him no and to leave. A neighbor also comes over with a newspaper to scare them by showing them the headlines of black people’s homes getting burned when they move into white neighborhoods. Not long after that, Walter’s friend comes around and tells him that their other friend and business partner has run off with all the money. They are broke. Walter is dumbstruck, especially because he didn’t follow his mother’s direction and invested the whole of the 6500 dollars rather than set aside the 3500 for Beneatha.

Everyone is upset and angry at Walter for his poor judgment. They start talking about needing to stay in the apartment now, because they cannot afford the mortgage without that extra money. Walter calls the man from the Homeowners Association in order to accept the offer for the house. Lena is sad and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself, and that his father wouldn’t recognize the man he’d become, because he wasn’t a man. And Walter won’t listen. Instead, he puts on a parody of what he’ll say when the man comes, choking himself up with the words as he says it. When the man actually comes, he realizes that he cannot do it, and he regains his dignity and tells the man that they are going to keep the home and that the white community will have to deal with them moving in.

Lena and Ruth talk about how they just watched Walter learn what being a real man is as they get ready to take the moving boxes down and direct the movers on how to carry the furniture. Beneatha talks about how Asagai has proposed to her and that she is thinking of accepting so she can move to Nigeria with him and be a queen, and both Lena and Walter talk to her about how she is too young to be getting married and that she should stay here and marry someone rich, like George. She is upset and still talking about it when she leaves the apartment. Lena is the last one to leave the apartment, happy and yet nostalgic about her husband. She grabs her plant, which has struggled to survive in the apartment environment, and turns the light off on the space.

Discussion of Work
This play explores themes of poverty and discrimination in Chicago: the abysmal conditions of the kitchenettes that black families are forced to live in and pay ridiculous rent for; few economic opportunities; discrimination from the economically wealthy black elite; racism from even poor whites in similar economic situations; and pipe dreams such as the “Back to Africa” movement and better economic situation through education.

The play also explores the meaning of gender roles and expectations within black families. Ruth is as much a breadwinner as she is a housekeeper, and her decisions are what goes for the whole family, often making her husband feel like less of a man when it comes to financial decisions and decisions regarding his own life choices. And yet what Walter comes to understand about his role is that it is owning up to mistakes, standing up and supporting his family both emotionally (when they learn they will be having another child) and physically (when he must stand up to the white HOA representative and when he tries, and fails, to stand up for and do what’s right by his mother’s trust and insurance money). Children’s roles are a main focus of the play, both with Ruth and Walter’s little boy and with Walter and Beneatha as Lena’s children. There is a level of obedience and respect that is expected, and when not shown, it in effect collapses the family unit because the people with the life experience and wisdom are not heeded (Beneatha disregarding marriage advice and basic life advice; Walter disregarding financial advice and friend advice; Ruth disregarding childbearing advice).

For the purposes of my dissertation, dancing features in this play in two separate instances: when Beneatha puts on the Nigerian robes, and when Walter and Ruth slow drag in the living room. The first instance highlights a particularly problematic obsession with Africa and the need to hearken back to African roots. African Americans, while certainly their culture does have African roots, is not African. And the imitation African movements come off as not only false, but disrespectful and comical. Just as Beneatha does not fit within the Nigerian culture that Asagai would have her assimilate to, African Americans cannot magically regain “Africanness” by dressing in native garb and attempting African dance ritual. The second instance highlights what happens when Walter becomes happy about his life prospects again and takes Ruth to the movies and then comes back home with her, still elated about his financial gain. A blues song is playing in the background, and they dance in the living room, much to Beneatha’s chagrin. Still hooked on the idea of going back to Africa, she cannot fully accept or appreciate her own culture, which Walter and Ruth have embraced both in music and physical movement. The space demonstrates that these dances are done in multiple spaces and for multiple reasons, whether they be to release sad or happy emotions, to engage in romantic entreaties, to engage in social convention, or other reasons altogether. The acceptance of the space, dance, and moment create a level of happiness and authentic cultural experience that the African dance scene lacks in its farcical display.

Randall Jarrell, Poetry & The Age

Jarrell, Randall. Poetry & The Age. Ecco P, 1980.

Summary of Work
In this critical work, Randall Jarrell discusses the age of Modernism in poetry as well as the criticism surrounding that poetry. He states that while there is much lament over the current state of poetry readership, or rather the lack of readership, that there is nothing that poets can do about it except for to continue writing and attracting their current readers, because the world will only get noisier as new technologies take hold of people who once would have been readers. He also insists that poets need to make sure that their work is quality and that references and obscurity serve a purpose rather than simply being there in order for the work to be called poetry.

Jarrell takes a look at Robert Frost’s work, and he states that despite Frost’s later work, which is often filled with a conservative and overimportant and self-indulgent attitude, he is one of the best poets of the age. He specifically cites “Frost’s obsessive themes, those of isolation, of extinction, and of the final limitations of man” as reasoning for his high designation of Frost and his work, despite the poems that he finds less quality. The main argument for his awarding Frost the rank of great poet is the nonchalant and matter-of-fact way in which Frost puts forth the previously mentioned themes in his work.

Looking at the age he lives in, Jarrell states that criticism has caused less and less literature to be written, and just as importantly, less and less literature to be read. In an age that thrives on critics’ readings of supposedly great literature, both the average reader and the scholar spend more time reading criticism than actually reading literature, and therefore, when asked about important works of literature, they cannot answer that they’ve read them, because they have been too focused on criticism, most of which is dull and useless to the larger populace. Jarrell believes that criticism and theory evolved in English departments much as statistics and raw data and studies evolved in psychology and sociology: scholars in those fields did not want to be looked down upon by the hard sciences, so they found a way to make their field look like scientific fields. The problem with this for English is that it’s made people come to rely on critics’ readings of literature instead of coming to an understanding of the literature themselves. It’s also caused the USA to largely disregard poetry, since so few critics write about it and deal with it in comparison to fiction works.

Of John Ransom, Jarrell states that he is writing in the time of Modernism and is yet not a Modernist; Ransom’s poems are far too structured and perfect in their form to be Modernist (which one doesn’t find surprising when knowing that Ransom is the founder of New Criticism). His poetry ranks among the great poetry because of the way the form helps to make matters of morality and living ambiguous: people are unsure whether they should be looking at light and dark as good and bad, or if they should at once be rooting for both and neither.

Of Walt Whitman, Jarrell states that while many critics have lamented his work and are not ashamed of saying they have never read it, Whitman’s work is in fact great poetry. He states that certainly, there are many mistakes and failings of the work, which any critic can tell you. However, many critics fail to understand that the sentimentality of the work combined with the bombastic and often ridiculous use of language and the disorganized forms of many of his poems are what make the work great. Rather than stick to forms as Tennyson did, Whitman chooses not to limit his subject matter with form, and instead experiment with language and organization to capture what is the heart of America.

Wallace Stevens, he states, has much of a tourist feel to his work, which many readers resent. His poems that fail are the ones that strive to be philosophy, and poetry is a bad format for philosophical musings in Jarrell’s opinion. Yet Stevens shines when writing about the similarities between America and Europe, and creates forms that eloquently speak clear messages to his readers. He goes on to give more, similar readings of other American poets’ work, such as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. Indeed, he finds that Stevens and Moore and Williams have much in common, but that it is far harder to anthologize Williams in any adequate way.

Discussion of Work
To start with my criticism of this work, it would largely be how vague that Jarrell is in his analysis of the poets whose work he chooses to look at. He outright admits in the beginning of his work that he finds Frost to be one of the best poets of his generation, which may be why he has a hard time doing anything but broadly stating that Frost has his small failing points while overwhelmingly focusing on what he likes most about Frost’s work. He does a much better job of critiquing poets like Whitman, when even when striving to defend his work, he can admit the many shortcomings of the poetry.

However, his discussion of the problem of the age of criticism is worth keeping in mind when looking at the current state of scholarship. A scholar in today’s world can hardly expect to be taken seriously if they don’t know the major names in criticism and theory; the literature often seems secondary in scholarship to the response academics have to other critics. I’ve heard many of my colleagues (and even myself) say that it is fine to have not read a work of literature if they have read the scholarship on it, because the scholarship will tell them all they need to know anyway. Often in graduate courses, we are told to start reading the scholarship about a work during, or even before, we read the work of literature itself. This scholarship can come in the form of introductory materials at the beginning of a new edition of the work, critical reviews, or scholarly articles from peer-reviewed journals. While I am certainly not a New Critic, I do believe that it is important to spend time with literature first and foremost, as that is the field we are in, the field of literature. Scholarship is secondary material, especially given that its subject matter should be literature (in my opinion).

Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'”

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of

Darkness.” Massachusetts Review, 1977,

polonistyka.amu.edu.pl/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/259954/Chinua-Achebe,-

An-Image-of-Africa.-Racism-in-Conrads-Heart-of-Darkness.pdf.

Summary of Work
In this article, Achebe discusses the racism that the West holds, particularly in its views of Africa. He builds his argument around Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness, the story of a narrator’s journey through the Congo to find one Mr. Kurtz. He states that the images, particularly in Conrad’s obsession with blackness and the darkness of not just the Natives’ skin color, but the land itself, shows Africa as the antithesis to England and the rest of the civilized world: Conrad is obsessed with the primitive nature of Africa and its people in an attempt to show that Europe was able to conquer that darkness, but that there is danger in interacting with people and places who have not yet conquered that savagery, because the savagery could engulf the civilized and lead them back to primitivism.

Conrad is unkind to the native peoples in his novel, showing them always in a frenzy, or dying, or otherwise running around. They are not given language, but grunts and sounds and physical actions. The only two times when they are given language are when they are cannibals asking for people to eat or the slave man telling the narrator that Mr. Kurtz is dead: those examples, Achebe states, are purposeful in that they are made to show how horrific these people are and how awful the state they are in as black people. Given these images, it is clear that Conrad is racist, and it is surprising to Achebe that in all the years of scholarship, no one seems to even want to admit that or deal with it. It is a blind spot in the Western world because people in the West have so long used Africa as a foil of themselves, insisting that Africa is as backward as Europe is enlightened. So when people say that they are not aware that Africa has art or history, it is part of that tradition of racism and colonialism. In order for any good or real communication between Africa and Europe and North America to happen, the West must first relinquish its long-held beliefs about the primitiveness of the African continent and the African people.

Discussion of Work
This piece discusses racism in a way that I think is very telling: it shows that what has happened is that the West has fallen prey to a single story about Africa. A single story is powerful, in that it can give people motivations or reasons to conquer or oppress people in the name of “saving” them or bringing them enlightenment of some sort. But as powerful as those stories are, they are also wrong and dangerous because they allow for people to do terrible things by dehumanizing others. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses a very similar thing in a TED Talk that she gives called “The Danger of the Single Story,” where she states that her teachers once told her that her novel was not “authentically African” because people were not poor, starving, or otherwise destitute or unenlightened: her characters looked too much like the average Western person.

The image of Africa and its people as backwards and primitive exists in many forms today, including that we group the whole African continent together as a group and remain largely ignorant to the fact that Africa is composed of many countries, just like the Americas Europe, and Asia. The issues set forth by Achebe in his essay are still very prominent today in that by and large, no one seems to question the idea of the single story of Africa as exactly what Conrad set forth, despite the fact that it was never that way, that there were diverse people, languages, art, and nations. And today, while there certainly are areas of Africa that have poor and starving people who cannot read and live what the West would consider primitive lives, there are far more people who are living in sophisticated cities with functioning governments and thriving businesses; there are people who create wonderful art and products and enjoy many different activities that Western people also enjoy.

The power dynamics inherent in the way we discuss Africa and its people says much about the Western world’s continued need for dominance: a way to prove that they are still more enlightened than the people who live on and descend from ancestors on the African continent. I agree with Achebe’s statement that we cannot just hand the West a happy pass on this issue or offer them a positive note to end the discussion on. Such a positivity cannot come until the West chooses to change its views and discussions on Africa, because the way it is currently being discussed is wrong, and there should be no cookies given out for fixing something that should never have been considered acceptable in the first place.

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”

Hughes, Langston. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.” 1926. Modern

American Poetry,

http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/g_l/hughes/mountain.htm.

Summary of Work
Langston Hughes discusses his belief that black poets should not be ashamed of themselves as black people or strive to be white in any way in order to be a successful poet. He speaks of a young poet with much potential who told him that he didn’t want to be known as a “Negro poet,” and it made him incredibly sad because he knew what type of upbringing this man had had. Hughes states that people like this grew up in affluent black homes and had parents who were constantly striving to be white, using examples of black people who enjoyed jazz and dancing and clubs as the worst sort of people, the type of people that this young man should stay away from. Yet, it is precisely this desire to get away from one’s own culture that is so problematic in Hughes’ mind, especially if a black person wants to be a good writer. For him, culture is a large part of writing, and so the desire to be white and to rid oneself of one’s culture is antithetic to being a great poet or writer. Instead, a writer should embrace their culture, learn that “black is beautiful,” and pursue writing about what they want within that black cultural framework.

Discussion of Work
I find that this work is very indicative of the times it was written in, and yet is still prescient today. The idea of “black is beautiful” is important, particularly in the circumstances Hughes outlines: shame about one’s skin color, race, and culture is never a good place to come from as a writer, and acceptance of oneself is necessary in order to live a full life. And yet, the piece itself seems to impose restrictions upon writers, restrictions that we in fact see historically during the height of the Harlem Renaissance: the rule of insisting on creating “black” art means that if a writer decides to write about a topic that is not about African American life, they will not be considered an artist or a quality writer by the black academic and literary elite.

Yet this idea of African American writers embodying their culture so much that it becomes the sole focus of their writing has certainly had staying power in the academy and in the general literary world. The African American writers who seem to have staying power or are popular are writers like Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Colson Whitehead, to name a few. These people are writing about black history, black experience, and black culture, and are finding ways to represent silenced voices. Writers who choose other topics, like Ishmael Reed, are often missing from African American literature course reading lists, precisely because of this idea that black writers must write about black subjects in specific historical, oppressed or deteriorating positions where their characters must overcome violence and injustice. But writers like Reed write quality literature which encompasses stories not specific to black historical and current representation. Indeed, Reed is one of those authors who would have bothered Hughes because he insists that his racial identity should not be indicative of his writing choices and quality.

Certainly, the idea of writing about what you know is an important one, and yet it is also detrimental when it does not allow for writers to break the boundaries of what other groups, including subgroups of the same race, set for our writers. It becomes exclusionary of different types of experiences, excluding even the groups of black elites or white-skinned black people that Hughes discusses in his essay. It speaks directly to what bell hooks stated about the importance of allowing multiple experiences, because when we only allow for specific stories to exist about a culture and people, we isolate large groups of people and lose their voices in the conversation.

Barbara Christian, “A Race for Theory”

Christian, Barbara. “A Race for Theory.” Feminist Studies, vol. 14, no. 1, 1988,

pp. 67-79.

 

Summary of Work
In her article “A Race for Theory,” Barbara Christian outlines her concerns about the current academic need to constantly be creating theories to discuss old, canon literature and other critical theorists: “‘For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?'” she asks (77). In asking this question, she discusses how theory has subordinated looking at literature itself, and there are only an elite few who are being published because of their ability to create new literary theories to discuss older philosophers and critical theorists. This means that very few people are determining what the larger world of academia should find valuable and important to discuss. Consequently, this largely leaves out writers of color and current writers, instead always hearkening backward to older works of white, European literature.

By only allowing Western philosophical structures of critical theory, other forms of theorizing are left out. For black literatures, Christian states that “theorizing . . . is often in narrative forms, in the stories we create, in riddles and proverbs, in the play with language, because dynamic rather than fixed ideas seem more to our liking” (68). When such a form of theorizing is not allowed to be written about or explored in the academy, it silences many scholars who have much to contribute and instead allows for gross generalizations to abound in literary theory regarding various cultures and experiences. In place of such a structure, Christian suggests theorists should shift their focus “to the intricacies of the intersection of language, class, race, and gender in literature” that is inclusive of many different ways of reading literature, including literature currently published and literature from different cultures.

As academics have chosen to privilege the white, Western European and American works of literature, they have created a binary of minority and major or centered, and that creates a skewed view of literature. By refusing to accept world literatures as part of the major narrative, academics writing about literature have missed out on discussing many histories and messages, some of which they have recently come across even though the rest of the world has known about them for decades. Literature studies have recently decided to include more world literatures, but only a few, and has finally decided that literature is, in fact, political (even though it always was). And yet, perhaps because of the centering of the Western gaze, many academics have failed to ask important questions about why this change has occurred, why it is now okay to accept literature as political and influenced by social and cultural surroundings. Literary theories contribute to the problem by mystifying the process of that change through strange language that only an elite few can access. And as the focus has become more and more on discussing this mystifying language in critical theory, fewer and fewer scholars are discussing literature. Christian sees this as a response to the rise of minority literatures in our current cultural moment, and the focus on theory is a way to continue to exclude those literatures from academic study.

While she sees theory as necessary, Christian finds it problematic because it becomes very prescriptivist and elitist. Theory desires “to make the world less complex by organizing it according to one principle, to fix it through an idea which is really an ideal,” and often this “dehumanizes people by stereotyping them, by denying them their variousness and complexity” (75). Instead of creating such methods that require monolithic prescriptivism, Christian suggests that academics get back to the literature and learn from the history and language provided in that literature. A focus on literature means that each novel will require constructing a new critical approach rather than applying old philosophical, prescriptivist theories to novels without considering how the novel itself can teach readers how it is meant to be read and discussed.

Discussion of Work
This short essay details many of the previous concerns I’ve discussed in small groups with my colleagues: the academy does not value new scholarship unless it can be placed in the theories of philosophers like Foucault, Freud, and Derrida. Our choices for writing feel limited, even when we feel we have much to say, because we cannot break from the critical theory realm if we wish to be published in peer reviewed journals. Even areas such as gender and race studies utilize the same prescriptivist methods of theory to discuss works in a broad and generalized sense, spending more time with the theory than with the literature they are discussing.

I do not mean to suggest that this is the case with all theory, however. Since this piece was written, I have, in my academic reading, found many more discussions of Toni Morrison and other black female writers, and there have been discussions of the literature through close reading and a focus on language and culture rather than through specific theorists. Writing was coming out the same year that this was written which offered those tools, specifically thinking of Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s work Signifying Monkey. Still, when compared with White Western literature written in the same period as Morrison and Walker and other black and minority writers, there is far too little discussion and theory going on regarding these writers’ works, forcing them further and further into obscurity.

Morrison is the one writer who has largely escaped this lack of theoretical discussion, largely due to her worldwide acclaim from winning a Nobel Prize. And yet, shouldn’t other writers who have less acclaim than the top level awards also be given similar amounts of consideration? There are many white authors who are given just as much consideration as Morrison and have far fewer awards to their names. While there has been improvement in the field of academics regarding the consideration of what have been deemed “minority literatures,” many of the concerns Christian voiced are still large concerns within academia today, where teaching and discussion of literature is devalued in preference of critical theory creation and publication.

bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. South End P, 1992.

Summary of Work
In her work, bell hooks discusses how image plays a large role in determining how a group of people are represented, and that because of that fact, images and representations are inherently ideological. She discusses how loving blackness is an important and underrepresented part of bringing about social equality, and how loving blackness becomes a dangerous position when put in opposition with white supremacist social structures. She also posits that reverse racism doesn’t exist because while racial prejudice certainly does exist, minorities are not in positions of power to use that prejudice to oppress other ethnic groups. She discusses how this rears its head when white people decide to become friends with black people, and yet they still refuse to let go of their learned racist habits. She also analyzes Nella Larsen’s novel “Passing” in this context, suggesting that it is because Clare Kendry decided to love blackness that she was murdered: both her white husband and her black friend could not accept the fact that it was possible to love blackness, that there wasn’t something inherently wrong with a darker skin color.

hooks also examines how blackness has been commodified, making it a selling point of pop culture: white men want to sleep with as many darker skinned women as they can; movies and stories offer blackness as a primitivism that can appease disgruntled whites in a post-imperialist society; cultural appropriation makes up for a perceived or real lack in white dominate culture. Fashion magazines and other advertising industries utilize blackness as a backdrop to sell their products. She discusses this commoditization within the context of a couple of films including Heart Condition, a film about a black man and a white man in love with the same woman; the black man wins the love of the white woman, but he is dying, and when he donates his heart to the dying white man, the white man is then able to win the love of the white woman. Thus, there is a physical transfer or appropriation that labels blackness as erotic, able to provide sexual pleasure and presence that whiteness cannot. The taking is problematic for not only the images it creates, but for the lack of credit it gives to people of color when the things taken are art forms or non-stereotypical representations.

Using Audre Lorde’s article about black womanhood as a structure, hooks talks about how black women are set in a stereotype of violence—on themselves and their children—that they play out. She believes that the narrative can be changed, but that it is hard and it first requires black women to accept that they can buck the trend. She discusses the ways that black women can change their narrative by discussing black literature and showing that simply journeying to find oneself or to escape one type of violence does not guarantee that they actually become self-agents and break the trend. She says that this is the case for characters like Celie in “The Color Purple,” where she gets away from an abusive situation but goes right back to being a dependent housewife by the end of the novel. Other women in books, like Sula, become pariahs because of their radical behaviors, and hooks does not see that as the ideal option either. What these fiction writers are doing, however, regardless of the end result of their characters, is breaking “new ground in that it clearly names the ways structures of domination, racism, sexism, and class exploitation, oppress and make it practically impossible for black women to survive if they do not engage in meaningful resistance on some level” (50). She identifies Angela Davis as a real world example of a black woman who resisted through political action and education to become a full agent and to resist the violent cycle; she also identifies Shirley Chisholm as an example of breaking the trend and resisting the cycle. However, many women are afraid to have their daughters and themselves follow in Davis’ example because of her prison sentence for political resistance, making her lack a community that is necessary to pass her knowledge and experience on to break the trend of violence. People of color, especially women of color, need to engage in feminism and in the “decolonizing of our minds” in order to center “social change that will address the diversity of our experiences and our needs” (60).

She continues the discussion of black womanhood by stating that black women in film and other mediums are objectified and seen only as objects, not as people, causing problems in white-black relations, but particularly causes problems in the way black women view themselves: they either vehemently oppose the pop culture representations or quietly absorb the stereotypes and objectification. Citing Tina Turner as an example, she states that objectification creates easy avenues for abuse and violence against black women, who must be seen as lust-driven and sexually free-spirited in order to be successful in entertainment. The conversation about black womanhood is continued as hooks discusses the racist and sexist actions of Madonna, a woman who belittles her coworkers and employees, especially if they are people of color, by saying she is a “mother figure” to them, much as white colonialists looked at themselves as saviors and parents to supposedly lesser races. In hooks’ eyes, Madonna is not only racist, but one of the worst appropriators of black culture. She also discusses this objectification and the problems it causes by focusing on the Clarence Thomas case, when a Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment. Her passive manner in which she engaged the committee, and the images of black womanhood dominating the white committee’s minds, served as a reminder that the images of black womanhood strongly influence people’s decisions about how they look at and handle harassment and assault of black women.

hooks builds a discussion of black masculinity within this discussion about gender, stating that black men are supposed to, under cultural understanding and stereotypes, be unemotional and strong and financially successful, whereas women are taught to be quiet and obey but are allowed to have a full range of emotions. She points out that much of the discourse around black male sexuality is the discussion of how black men really want to be white men, and their inability to be so makes the violent. To hold such misogynistic and phallocentric views of black masculinity is to deny men the full range of emotional and physical development that would allow them to become good fathers, loving husbands, and successful men.

Focusing on paths of resistance that black people can and have taken against racism, hooks talks about how the black gaze upon white people can be a powerful tool of survival and resistance. Black people were often looked at as objects owned or controlled by white people, and white people never took a second thought about the idea that black people could look at them and observe and resist; similarly, black women could look and gaze upon misogynist structures and recognize them, creating a form of resistance as they identify other parts of narratives that represented them in the public eye. The resistant gaze is a way for black people to “imagine new transgressive possibilities for the formulation of identity” (130).

hooks also believes that a discussion of black views on whiteness are important. Mentioning that black people have come a long way from viewing white people as a group of dangerous ghosts, many black people have integrated white beliefs about hating black people. They are also still terrified, even if they cannot explicitly say so, by the dangers of being labeled a “reverse racist” for discussing whiteness and their experiences with whiteness. But black people observing whiteness has also created stereotypes, and when they express those stereotypes to white people, many white people are outraged, upset that they are being stereotyped under the name of observation and data; yet white people see no correlation between what they do to black people and what is happening to them. Whiteness functions as a power source and a place of privilege, in hooks mind, only as long as white people are regularly able to insist that their race is mysterious and undefinable, that it is the neutral that everyone should accept as the base for cultural exchange.

hooks ends her work with a discussion of black-native relations, honing in on the need for interracial minority engagement to promote equality and reparations. She states that Native Americans are the only race of people that are forced to watch their genocide played out as entertainment to this very day through Westerns, games of cowboys and Indians, and other media formats. She points out the strong historical ties between black people and Native Americans, both through blood relation by intermarriage and cultural heritage: when Africans came to the New World before white people, the two cultures were able to harmoniously exist and exchange gifts and ideas. White people find that history dangerous, because their belief system functions on the idea that all people come to new worlds to conquer, and a symbiotic relationship between cultures destroys that image, and therefore white superiority and justification. Since the deterioration of black-native relations, Native Americans have had to resort to techniques of forgetting and forsaking their culture in order to live in a world that has swept their genocide under the rug other than to play it for entertainment: dealing with the history and having to try and convince both white and black people that it is unjust would destroy them. In order for all people of color to reach social equality, the two cultures need to work to “affirm the times of the past, the bonds of the present . . . relearn our history, nurture the shared sensibility that has been retained in the present” (194). Only then can domination be eradicated and society transformed.

Discussion of Work
While I agree with much of what bell hooks has to say, I wonder about the evolution of these arguments in this decade. While we still have a long way to go for proper representation of black people, and particularly black women, as agents and individuals outside of cinematic stereotypes, there are being strides made, as can be seen with films such as Hidden Figures and Black Panther. Films such as these focus on black achievement rather than black failures or trauma: women in Hidden Figures not only assert themselves as experts in rocket science in a white world, but they assert themselves as valuable members of their community who eschew violence and demand respect from their husbands; they also demand that their husbands take on multiple roles that require them to take on more feminine traits, making the men more whole and self-agents as well. Since Hidden Figures is based on a true story, it makes me wonder if there are actually many instances where this is the case, but they have simply been obscured from the mainstream discussions of history, making hooks’ arguments about image and womanhood and masculinity important, but part of a more complex historical and communal discussion. Black Panther, completely fictional, creates another space where nearly the entire cast is black, and the focus is black achievement and innovation rather than tragedy and violence. The people of Wakanda represent a society where blackness has evolved as a culture largely free (although not completely) of white supremacy and oppression. Their culture holds on to old African traditions, but also has evolved into an elite technological society. I do wonder if one concern might be that the technological ideal looks somewhat like white cultural ideals: however, the overly enthusiastic and warm reception of the film in black communities speaks to the fact that black people are actively looking for positive images and representations of them which are free from the stereotypical cliches that exist throughout our media. While there has been progress, there is still work to be done, and hooks’ work is still important in deciding upon ways to progress. However, based on film evidence (to follow hooks’ structuring of culture discussion) in Black Panther, it is fair to say that the idea of loving blackness is no longer a fringe idea, but very much centered in the public—black and white—imagination.

The discussion of Native American and black relations hit close to home, as hooks described something very painful regarding my own heritage. And yet, it opens up our eyes to a blind spot in our critical discussion: the struggle for social equality extends past racial boundaries, and must include all POC in order to make for a successful resistance and push for change. To ignore the representation of other minority groups in media is to neglect those groups of people and their needs.