August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Plume, 1985.

Summary of Work
The play opens in a recording studio, with two men, Sturdyvant and Irvin, discussing Ma Rainey’s work. Sturdyvant, the owner of the recording studio, thinks that Ma Rainey is a diva, and he’s upset that her last recording didn’t sell as well as he wanted in the North, even though it sold in the South. He wants nothing to do with talking with the black people in the studio, and leaves Irvin to take car of that. He also requests that Levee, the horn player, have more of a role in the music because that is what is the new sound that’s selling. Aftewards, the band sets up for rehearsal. Levee is late because he is buying new shoes. When he arrives, he immediately starts bantering with the other band members: first about the price of his shoes and how Cutler helped him pay for them; then about how to spell the word music, and then about how the songs should be played. Levee wants to add more of a jazz feel to the music, and he doesn’t want to rehearse songs they’ve played numerous times.

They start rehearsing, but are regularly interrupted by arguments between Levee and Toledo, who reads books and has a lot to say about race relations and black entertainment and advancement. Slow Drag, a man who’s as laid back as his name implies, keeps trying to divert discussion so they can get back to rehearsing, but he fails. In the meantime, Ma Rainey has still not shown up, and Irvin is nervous about it. Just as Sturdyvant is getting angry, Ma Rainey, her girlfriend Dussie Mae, and her nephew Sylvester walk into the recording studio, escorted by a policeman. The policeman tells Irvin that she had hit another car with her car and then tried to run away in a cab, and then assaulted the cab driver when he wouldn’t take her. Irvin tells Ma he will handle it, and he slips the police officer some money for him to forget about taking her to the precinct.

Since the production of the record is delayed from the incident, Irvin gets sandwiches for the band, and while eating, they discuss their pasts. Cutler tells about how Slow Drag, dancing in a competition with a woman one evening, nearly got knifed for dancing with her when the woman’s boyfriend saw them. He talked the guy out of knifing him by saying that he was trying to help the girl win the competition so she could buy him a gold watch. After that, all the women wanted to Slow Drag with him, which is how Slow Drag got his name.

Toledo discusses how black people are the “leftovers” (57) in America, and after a brief discussion about race relations, they start to rehearse Levee’s version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Ma hears it from upstairs and confronts Irvin about it, who tries to convince her that it’s the style people want, but she’s not hearing it. She goes downstairs and tells them what they will be playing, and tells them that Sylvester will do the speaking part at the beginning of the song. Afterwards, Levee goes off, and in his anger, tells the story of watching his mother get gang raped by white men, and how he tried to stop them by getting a kitchen knife and cutting them, and they took the knife and sliced his chest open, nearly killing him. Then he tells about his father selling the home to one of the white rapists so they could get out of town.

Act Two opens with Irvin and the band discussing how Sylvester can’t do the part, and Irvin tells them to stick with Levee’s version of the song and he’ll work it out with Ma. Ma goes to record and sees there’s no coke to drink, and she will not record until she gets one. She waits, and tells Cutler that she knows that she doesn’t mean anything but money to these white men. She says that because of that, she’s going to do everything she can to ensure that they treat her how she wants to be treated even if it kills the white men. She talks about how the blues are a more than a form of expression for her, they are a form of survival, a way to understand life. Meanwhile Levee starts seriously flirting with Dussie Mae.

When they finally get to recording, they first have problems with Sylvester getting the line right. When he finally does, they don’t get it recorded due to technical difficulties with the sound equipment. Ma threatens to leave, and Irvin hurries to get the issues fixed. While they are waiting, the other men in the band tell Levee to lay off Ma’s girl, and try to tell him the problems that it will bring him to meddle with women who are involved already. They also try to tell him that the way he dresses won’t change anything in the eyes of white people, and that they even know black preachers who, very well dressed, were publicly humiliated and harassed by white people. Levee gets angry and says he isn’t an “imitation white man” (94), and he starts in about how he is going to be successful with his music once Sturdyvant lets him record. When Cutler tries again to talk to him about God, he insults Cutler and says that his God, if he is real, can strike him down.

Finally, the issues are fixed, and they finish recording. Afterward, Ma confronts Levee about his playing and tells him that he is to play his horn in a way that fits her music style for the band. When he gets upset at Ma, she fires him. Figuring he doesn’t need the job anyway, he goes to talk to Sturdyvant about his music, and he finds out that Sturdyvant will buy his songs for a few dollars, but won’t let him record. With no job and no prospects, he is upset, and as the band is getting ready to leave, Toledo accidentally steps on Levee’s shoes. Levee, in a rage, stabs and kills Toledo.

Brief Note on Themes
This play is the only one of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to be based on a historical figure, although he insisted that Ma Rainey was not a researched character. The play itself deals with how the music and entertainment industry treated its black artists, who sold very well and yet were terribly treated and underpaid. Issues of segregation, how popular music is marketed, race relations, economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and black rage brought on by systemic injustice and oppression feature throughout the play. One distinct example is the altercation with the police, where only a white man can pay off the white police officer to keep Rainey out of jail. Still, the power black entertainers held was more than the average black person: Rainey describes being able to be forceful and get what she wants from white men in the business when otherwise she has no power to command respect, or if not respect, then decent treatment.

Music plays a big part of this play, the first of Wilson’s Century Cycle. The purpose of the blues is a theme running through the work. Blues is one of Wilson’s main influences for his work (he stated this many times in interviews during his lifetime). While Rainey outright states how she feels about it, the blues also feature as each of the characters tell their stories of sadness, travel, and life experience. Recording technologies are explored, as glitches occur throughout the process (a known problem for Paramount, since their recordings were regularly poor quality). The recorded and unrecorded blues songs can stand in as a form of cultural memory, music that passes on important information from one generation of listeners to the next.

Richard Wright, Native Son

Wright, Richard. Native Son. Harper & Brothers, 1940.

Summary of Work
Bigger Thomas wakes up in the one bedroom, small kitchenette flat that he and his family of four share. There is a rat, and his mother has him and his brother attempt to kill it. In killing the rat with a cast iron pan, Bigger breaks a box. He then scares his sister Vera to fainting as he approaches her with the dead rat. His mother gets after him, and continues to tell him that he is good for nothing and ask him why he won’t work rather than cause trouble. She reiterates that she has him a job opportunity from the relief center, and that they are living on the grace of others and God because they have so little money. He sits and eats as she says this, and then asks for money. She gives him twenty five cents, and he heads out.

He knows his interview isn’t until the evening, and he has time. He wants to do something, but doesn’t have the money. So he goes to the pool house and waits for his crew to arrive: GH, Jack, and Gus. They start planning to rob a white man’s deli down the street at 3 PM because the cops aren’t around and no one will yet be shopping. Bigger says that with a couple of guns they could do it in three minutes flat. They, after some argument from Gus, decide to go through with the plan. In the meantime, they go to the movies and masturbate while watching a group of young heiresses frolick on the beach in Florida. He sees Mary Dalton on the screen, and tells the other men that it is the Dalton family who might give him the job this evening.

Bigger is getting more and more nervous about robbing the white man’s store. What if they get caught? He also has a chance for a job, and what would the robbery do to those chances? He decides he has to go through with it because the other boys are going to. He goes and gets his gun and goes back to the pool hall. Gus is later than everyone else, and Bigger uses that as an excuse to start a fight. He has a knife at Gus’s throat and makes him do humiliating things. When the pool house owner, Doc, tells him that’s enough and to stop, he damages the pool tables with his knife, and Doc pulls his gun out and tells Bigger to leave and never come back.

He leaves, goes home, and then nearly immediately has to leave for the interview and doesn’t have time to eat. His mother gives him a little money to buy dinner on the way. He goes directly to the Dalton home and rings the bell on the front door because he cannot find a way to the back entrance. He is let in and led into Mr. Dalton’s study. After an interview where Bigger feels very uncomfortable, he is hired to be the Dalton family chauffer. Mary Dalton walks in just after that and starts asking him questions like if he is part of a Union, and it makes Bigger dislike her immediately because he doesn’t know how to answer the questions and doesn’t want to because he is afraid of associating with white women for fear of being lynched or murdered or put in jail for it.

Mr. Dalton tells Bigger to go out to Peggy, who will show him where he will be sleeping. He is told that he will have $25 a week, five of which will be for spending money for him each week. He is also told that he needs to drive Miss Dalton to the college that evening. He sees his room, gets food in the kitchen, and Peggy also tells him that he is to tend to the furnace while he works there. Then goes back home quickly to collect his things. When he returns, he overhears discussion when he sits in his closet. He pretends to be putting away his clothing when he is doing this so if he is caught it won’t look unnatural for him to be in the closet.

He then goes down for a drink of water and Mrs. Dalton, who is blind, is in the kitchen. She talks to him about their previous chauffer and how he got an education and now has a good government job. She asks him if he would like an education and he says no, that he doesn’t have time or opportunity. She says if they were to afford him the opportunity, would he go, and he replies no. She tells him they will talk about it later, and that it is time to get Mary to college. He goes and gets the car out, a Buick, and she comes out the front. About halfway to the college she tells him to go someplace else, and they go to the Communist headquarters and she brings out a man, Jan Erlohn. He forces Bigger to shake hands with him, and then Mary says that they are all going to get in the front seat, Jan is to drive, and that they’d like to eat where black people eat.

Bigger tells them about a fried chicken place on the South side, and when they get there, he is astounded that they won’t eat there without him despite his saying that he is not hungry and would rather wait with the car. Feeling forced, he gets out, and his step away from Mary makes her cry, and Jan comforts her. They eat, and everyone is staring at Bigger. His girlfriend Bessie comes over and he won’t speak with her for fear of the white people being with him. She is offended and leaves. Jan orders beer and then a bottle of rum, and they take the bottle with them when they leave. Jan and Mary get in the back seat of the car and tell him to go drive around the park. They get drunk in the back seat, occasionally letting Bigger have a swig of liquor. He drives for two hours while they are kissing and spooning in the back seat, and they drop Jan off just about 2 AM. Jan lets Mary take one more very large drink, enough to make her very drunk.

When Bigger drives her back, she is again in the front seat, she cannot walk on her own and keeps falling unconscious. He takes her around the back, her purse left in the car, the door ajar. He carries her up the stairs, hoping that no one will notice. When he puts her in her room, he looks at her, and kisses her and grabs her breasts. But as he is doing this as she is in bed, Mrs. Dalton walks in the room. He freezes. She is calling out to her daughter, and in fear of her saying anything to indicate that he is in the room, he puts his hand over her mouth. When she keeps calling and Mary keeps trying to answer and take his hand off of her mouth, he puts the pillow over her and keeps an iron hand down on it. She struggles, and then the struggle stops so he lets go and backs away as Mrs. Dalton gets close to the bed. Mrs. Dalton just expects that her daughter has passed out from the drink, so she leaves the room.

When Bigger takes the pillow off of her face and looks at her, he realizes he has killed her. He is panicked and doesn’t know what to do. It was an accident, but he knows no one will believe it and that people will say he raped her. He also knows that Mary is supposed to go to Detroit in the morning, so he decides to try and stuff her in her trunk. She fits, and he carries her down the stairs in it to the basement. And when he passes the furnace he has the thought that he can dispose of her body in the furnace. So he takes her out of the trunk and pushes her in, but her head won’t fit in. He spreads newspapers under her body and cuts her head with his knife. But the knife won’t cut the bone, so he takes a hatchet and cuts off her head with that, blood falling all over the newspapers. He then puts her head and all the newspapers into the furnace and covers the body with coal, hoping it will burn. He closes the trunk and leaves, deciding to take Mary’s purse with him as he does so and leave the car out.

As he goes home, he decides that he will frame Jan for the murder when it comes to light, but hopes that it will not come to light for some time because she is supposed to be traveling. He looks through her purse and finds a roll of bills, which he takes, and he disposes of the purse. He also disposes of his knife. When he wakes up at his home in the morning, his mother asks him why he got in at nearly 3 AM. He claims that he got in around 2 so insistently that she gives up. His little brother also insists that he got in late. He eats breakfast with them quickly but says he has to go back to his job. As he runs out of the house, his brother follows him, holding the rolled bills in his hand and asking if he is in any trouble. He tells his brother no and hands him a bill as payment for his silence about having the money.

Then he goes to a local eatery and buys himself a pack of cigarettes with the money, and as his friends Jack, GH, and Gus come in, he buys each of them a pack of cigarettes as well. For the first time ever, Bigger is feeling powerful and free because he knows things others do not and he is making his own course. He goes back to the Daltons’ home and takes the trunk to the station. As he gets back and sits and waits for the never coming Miss Dalton, Peggy asks if she is out to be taken yet, and when he says no, she gets worried because Miss Dalton is also not in the home. Peggy has known Miss Dalton since Miss Dalton was two years old, and has nothing but love for the family who gave her, an Irish immigrant, a good job to last her life.

When Bigger goes back in the home, he goes to his room after eating and then listens in as Mrs. Dalton and Peggy talk about Mary being gone. They think it is one of her tricks. But more and more, especially when the trunk comes back, they genuinely worry about her being missing. Mr. Dalton calls a private investigator, Briton, and he questions Bigger about the missing girl. He talks about the evening previous, and says that Jan came home with them that evening and went upstairs with Mary. He says Jan told him to take the trunk down and he left her with him, and that Jan also told him to leave the car out and that he’d take care of it, which is why it had sat outside all night in the snow. After, he goes to his girlfriend’s house, and after he sleeps with her, he gets an idea that he can, like a previous case, make a kidnapping note and get a ransom and then leave town. He brings Bessie in on the plan, telling her she will be the one to pick up the money.

In the meantime, the police question Jan, who is incredulous and thinks that because he is a communist and loves his daughter, Mr. Dalton is out to get him. He confronts Bigger about it, thinking that they have paid him and forced him to lie, and Bigger pulls a gun on him and tells him to stay way. He then gets paper and pen and writes a ransom note and signs it Red, knowing they will think communism and more suspicion will be on Jan. He slips the note in the front door as he is walking toward the back door of the house. All the while, Bigger is worried about the furnace. Peggy has told him that it needs cleaning, and he know that there is a good chance the bones have not burned in it. By evening, the press has got wind of the story, and everyone is soon there asking questions about the missing girl and about how Mr. Dalton feels about the communist boy he’s had locked up.

Mr. Dalton has by this time received the ransom letter, and decides to make a statement to the press that he intends to pay the ransom and that he would like them to publish that the police are not to interfere because he wants his daughter back. Bigger is somewhat excited, but also worried because he is thinking about the bones in the furnace. The furnace isn’t working properly, so he has to do something. He pours more coal on, but it creates a plume of smoke, and before he can properly get the ashes out of the furnace, a newspaper man takes the shovel from him and does it. Everything seems fine, but the newspaper man, when the dust clears, keeps staring at the ashes. He slowly pulls out bones. All the men gather round, and as Bigger looks over them, he sees the bones, panics, and runs.

He runs to Bessie and forces her to go with him with some bedding to an abandoned building. There, he rapes her, and then when she is asleep, he realizes that he must kill her. He finds a brick, bashes her head in, and drops her down an air shaft. But she had the roll of bills in her pocket, and he forgot to take it out, and so now he is penniless as well. He hides in different buildings, stealing newspapers to see the headlines. He is all over in the headlines, and there is a manhunt on for him. He buys bread with the little money he has left and searches for places to hide. The manhunt for him has damaged the lives of people across the black community in the South side of Chicago. Men have been let go from their work and every black home is being raided in search of him. He cannot escape, so he hides in a kitchenette building. When they go to search that, he hides on the roof. He is almost clear when a man comes on the roof, and he decides to hit the man on the head and knock him out with the gun. He does so, but the man’s partner sees his body and sounds the alarm. Bigger climbs atop a water tower and has his gun at the ready, shooting at anyone who tries to get near him. In response, they bring a fire hose up and douse him with water, getting him to drop the gun and fall. They drag him down the stairs, and he wakes in jail.

He will not eat or speak, and when his accusers are brought before him after Bigger has fainted at the arraignment hearing, he is sickened and wants them to go way. When his family preacher comes, he feels the same, and he wishes his family and friends would not be there either. Jan also comes in, and Jan talks to him, telling him that he doesn’t understand, but he forgives him for trying to frame him and that he wants to help him by getting him a lawyer to work with. Max, the lawyer, tells him to not sign a confession or speak to the DA. But when Buckley, the DA, comes in and talks to him, he speaks and tells him what happened, and it is written down and he signs the confession. At the arraignment, he listens to them discuss his crimes and sees the evidence: bones, metal, his knife, and Bessie’s mangled body. Going out of the arraignment, he is forced in a car, and as he is getting in, he sees a burning cross on a building. He recognizes it after some time as the KKK’s burning cross, and in his fear and anger he rips the cross the preacher gave him off of his chest and refuses to put it back on or take it, associating it with the burning cross above him.

They drive him to Mr. Dalton’s house and put him in Mary’s room, which hasn’t been touched since the night of the murder. They corner him and tell him that he should show them how he killed her and what he did, how he raped her. And Bigger, furious, refuses their insistent demands. The DA decides that he doesn’t need him to do that and doesn’t want to fight with Bigger to get him to do that. Then he is put back in jail. And Max comes to him and discusses the arraignment and what will happen at the indictment and the trial.

Max, a Jew, gets Bigger to talk to him, and Bigger doesn’t understand why this man is helping him when it will make all these white men hate him too. But he decides, against his mind, to trust Max to a point, and discusses his life and how he wanted to be an aviator but couldn’t get the training and that the Navy and Army only wanted blacks for menial work so he really had no chance at life to be happy or work in a way he wanted to. He discusses the murders and says that he hated Mary for her whiteness and her behavior toward him, and that he killed Bessie out of need for survival, and he never really loved Bessie even though she was his girlfriend. After discussing things with Max, Max leaves and tells him that they will plead not guilty at the indictment and then change the plea during the trial, and he will then plead the case for mitigation of sentence so that Bigger can spend life in prison rather than die in the electric chair. Bigger doesn’t have any real hope that this is the case, but there is a small spark of hope in him because Max believes.

In the meantime, he reads the newspapers and sees that the white community has accused him of many more murders and rapes and essentially has made him out to be a beast. He knows that he will be put on trial for rape and murder even though it was not rape, just murder, of Mary Dalton. He also knows that Bessie’s body is simply evidence, and that he isn’t being tried for her murder, just the white woman’s. At the trial, the DA is upset thinking that Max is trying to make an insanity plea, and in the prosecution, he brings forth sixty witnesses to testify to both Bigger’s crimes and his sanity. The next day, Max gives an account of more than just Bigger’s life: he gives an account of the conditions that white people have created for black people that disallow them to live in quality conditions or to grow, and that it is what causes these crimes; fear of whites causes these crimes; and whites’ fear of blacks causes these crimes because they accuse blacks of these crimes before they even commit them. The prosecution rebuts the argument, saying that Bigger never really wanted a chance even when he got one and that he never wanted to work, and that the defense is just communist jargon.

An hour later, they reach a sentencing verdict. The judge sentences Bigger to die for his crimes. Max says that it is not over yet, and he will appeal to the governor. But Bigger has resigned himself. He purges himself of emotion and eats simply to stave off hunger. He doesn’t have it in him to get a gun from an officer and kill himself. His family comes to visit him once, but he doesn’t want to see them, and tells them not to come again. He doesn’t write to anyone despite having the opportunity to. On the day of his execution, Max comes to tell him he is sorry, that the plea to the governor failed. Bigger tells him he is alright, and it is fine, and that he is glad to have got to know Max. He also tries to tell Max how he felt, and Max tells him that he needs to believe in himself and the chance for freedom and equality, even though it is too late for Bigger now because of the decisions he made. And Bigger says that he does believe in himself, and that is why he did what he did: he finally found something worth believing in enough to kill for, to die for. Max, crying, says his goodbyes. Bigger tells him to tell his mother and family he is alright, and to tell Jan hello. Then the door closes behind Max, and the story ends.

Brief Note on Themes
Black-white relations is on overarching, major theme for this novel. How have racist superstructures, long in place, molded and changed black and white minds so that they deal with each other in very specific ways? What happens when those social mores are broken or trespassed? The criminal justice system is another central part of this story. Max points out that similar murders do not cause such a riot, and yet the murders committed by black men are treated that way because of race. The system itself already labeled him a criminal, and might have taken Bigger in anyway for some perceived crime. If blacks people are already labeled as criminal, is there anything we can say but that white minds created them to be criminal (kind of like the line from Thomas More’s Utopia about thieves)?

Wright also takes a lot of time to vividly describe living conditions for black people in the South side of Chicago, discussing in detail the kitchenettes, the unsanitary living conditions and exorbitant rent they pay for them, the tough time for black business owners and black men, and the life struggles of black women. He does this in great detail in his work 12 Million Black Voices, but this work, combined with the fictional narrative of Bigger Thomas, shows just how much of an effect those living conditions have on the entire community. This is a social element to the fiction. Another social element is the discussion of communist party designs on black people and their votes and influence. The characters in the communist party come off as very well meaning in the story, and yet given the literature that Jan gives to Bigger to read, people are left wondering what uses this has for the largely white-run party. It feels very similar to how the Brotherhood functions in Invisible Man.

Economic relations are another large part of this book. Mr. Dalton is the landlord for the building where the Thomas family lives. The poverty of the Thomas family is stark against the wealth of the Dalton family. The Daltons are large donators to black education and other social programs for black people, but they do so on their own terms and at a distance, where they never have to see that they are part of the cause of black suffering with their indifference and price gouging. This is the fact that the communist lawyer tries to exploit in the trial, but fails. The story reveals how the superstructures of racist power are largely upheld by economic and political means rather than simply social custom. The power behind the racial prejudice in the form of the justice system and the capitalist system keep white supremacy as the governing system.

Religion as a blinding force and power is briefly discussed in the narrative. Rather than be an aid and comfort to Bigger, Christianity is a thorn in his side, because he recognizes that the religious system just plays into racist power: if poor black people can be focused on a better life in the afterlife, they will not focus as much on their miserable living conditions on Earth. The system asks for meekness and nonviolence and for trust in God and Jesus to answer prayers and set them free, meaning that it can be a system of control; no violence to the white supremacist system can ever occur if the people actively believe that change can come from prayer and fasting and church attendance. The narrative Wright wrote shows how intertwined and complex racist superstructures are and how hard they are to dismantle, even impossible to dismantle. It showed black rage and fear to a reading public in a way that is shocking even today.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf P, 2014.

Summary of Work
Citizen is a work of poetry about what it means to be black in America. Claudia Rankine starts her work by remembering experiences in her past—from the white girl in Catholic school who cheated off of her and thanked her by saying that she wasn’t very dark or didn’t look very black for a black girl to having her partner complain about having to hire a person of color as the fiction writer at the university—and how white people have made her invisible through their words and actions. When she went to walk into a board room for a meeting and overheard white people saying that when black people spoke to each other it was like listening to a different language, she thought about waiting a good while to go in the room. When a white friend used the term “hoe” to refer to her when she was late, she called her friend out on it by asking, “What did you say?” and her friend was too ashamed or embarrassed to repeat it. When she has called others out for using the N word to describe black teenagers or people, white people have been angry at her for calling them out or for taking offense at their use of language.

She actively discusses how language has power precisely because it makes racism hyper visible: the features that others despise about black people are brought to center stage. She discusses this at length by bringing up the competition history of Serena Williams. She talks about the outright racism that Serena has faced in her career, a black tennis player in an almost all-white sport. The racism got so bad that new tech was invented to prevent it, and commentators even outright had to admit the bias. And she discusses how well Serena has dealt with most of the hatred she’s received on and off the court. Yet when she has outbursts because of the built up resentment over racist actions that have damaged her career and person, the media sees her as insane.

Rankine also discusses how there is a man on youtube who has stated that in order for black artists to be successful they have to commercialize and channel their rage and anger. It cannot be real anger, but must be a kind that white people can consume in entertainment and feel like they can understand. And yet, Rankine knows there are other types of anger, and she states that every black person has had moments where they would like to beat down every white person they see because of that rage. And yet they cannot, because their bodies are rendered dangerous if they don’t present as white people want.

She presents a series of scripts about a variety of injustices black people have faced: murders by the hands of the police, lynching and beating and murder at the hands of white people, and police profiling as they strip search black people who do not even meet the description of the perpetrator they are looking for. She has a list of names that read “In Memory of . . .” that list all the black people who have died at the hands of the police at the time of the book’s publication. The “In Memory of” fades from the page as it continues, emphasizing that the names will continue to be added and cannot be numbered.

Using the FIFA World Cup event where the Algerian team member head butted another player in rage, she discusses how people of color are always expected to be better than everyone else in their behavior and are held to a higher standard than those perpetrating racism and hatred. As the Algerian is labeled a terrible person, terrorist, and a “typical Muslim” for his action, everything that led up to the moment is lost. She also discusses how the race riot in London over a black man’s death was dealt with so much differently than the Rodney King riots, and people in London focused on the looting and rioting so much that it seemed the cause of the rioting was nearly forgotten. When she asks her journalist friend if he will write about the issue, he tells her no, and she realizes that these are issues that white people can just set aside, while black people must live with the reality every day.

The book is filled with illustrations and photographs: from the video clip reels showing the Algerian head butting the other player to a white opposing player of Serena’s stuffing towels in her shirt chest and pants butt to imitate Serena Williams, ultimately performing the blackness that white people want from her. There are also paintings and archival photos that go along with the various topics that Rankine explores in her poetry.

Brief Note on Poetic Structure
The poem itself feels like a very free form verse. It reads more like prose than like poetry, with the poem itself being broken into paragraphs and seven sections. There are points throughout the work with a lot of white space, sometimes pages of it. The images are often placed under paragraphs or given their own page entirely, sometimes spanning two pages.

Brief Note on Themes
The whole of this work looks at what it is like to be black in America. Largely, it explores how racism takes many forms and has many affects on black people, both visible and invisible. Rankine tries to tell people what it is like to be embodied as a black person, and that their blackness is most often felt when in a room or space full of white people, where white people become aware of their racist language as they are using it in front of people of color. The power of language to determine embodiment is a large theme throughout the book; what are we saying that determines how we see people or expect them to behave? Language as an apparatus of power to uphold white superstructures of racism plays a large part, but so do the images. How do the images of blackness, some of which are provided in the book itself, shape what it means to be a black person in America? And how do those race relations and images extend out from America to other countries? Racism has perhaps one of the largest effects in the justice system, where countless innocent black people are stopped, frisked, arrested, and murdered by white police officers because of fear and images of racism that govern their understanding of black people.

Racism as it pertains to interracial relationships also plays a part in this work. From the times that Rankine forgives or stays quiet about racist trespasses her partner or friends make regularly against her to the casual encounters in a bar or on the street, Rankine reveals that people of color are genuinely working harder than white people to mold to the systems that exist and to not make white people feel too uncomfortable when there is a person of color in their presence. This was highlighted perfectly in the scene where she is listening to someone discuss how comedy comes from context, and how things are funny until a black person can hear what you’re saying about them.

The weight of the work that is being asked of black people, socially, personally, publicly, privately, is so much that it is crushing them to some extent, and yet they have no way out of the situation. They must still be careful to not end up dead like those in the news, and to not lose their jobs or offend their majority-white coworkers, and to maintain proper decorum no matter how terrible the words white people sling at them in racist hatred. Rankine shares her memories of what it means to be a black person in the US as a lesson for all who read about what people of color in the US and elsewhere face, and how it is handled, and she leaves us with that knowledge, almost as a call that we do something with it.

William Faulkner, “Barn Burning”

Faulkner, William. “Barn Burning.” 40 Short Stories: A Portable Anthology,

       Third Edition. Ed. Beverly Lawn. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2009.

Summary of Work
Colonel Sartoris Snopes, son of Mr. Abner Snopes, is sitting in a courtroom. His father has been accused of burning Mr. Harris’ barn, and is standing trial for it. Mr. Harris claims that Mr. Snopes had a hog that was regularly getting out and so he told him that the next time the hog got out, he was keeping it. He gave Mr. Snopes some wire to patch up the pen so the hog wouldn’t get out. But Mr. Snopes didn’t fix the fence, the hog got out again, and Mr. Harris kept it and said it would be a one dollar fee to get it back. And Mr. Snopes sent a black man to tell him that hay and wood could burn, and that night his barn caught fire. His animals got out, but he lost the barn and the crop within it. Mr. Harris has no solid proof, and when the Justice of the Peace asks for Colonel Sartoris to testify, Mr. Harris doesn’t want him to. The Justice of the Peace didn’t find Mr. Snopes guilty for lack of evidence, but tells him and his family to get out of town.

They do, and that night his father smacks him and tells him that he knew if he had testified he would have told the truth, and he needs to stick to blood because that’s the most important, not the truth. The next day they are out and into a new place. The family sets up in the hovel, and Mr. Snopes goes to meet his new employer. But his new employer is not home. Instead of wiping his feet and coming in and waiting, he pushes past the black manservant and muddies an expensive French rug on the floor. Mrs. de Spain is very upset, and sends the rug out to them to tell them to clean it. He gets the women to clean it with cheap lye and water, and he drags the rug back to them in the evening; it is ruined. When Major de Spain gets home, he tells them that they have ruined a hundred dollar rug and that they will have to take 20 bushels of corn out of their crop to give to him in repayment. Mr. Snopes is upset, and goes that next day to the Justice of the Peace in town to sue his employer. The Justice is astonished and yet lowers the payment amount to ten bushels of corn. Mr. Snopes stays in town and they eat dinner there, and he says he won’t be paying even ten bushels. Colonel Sartoris knows that his father, who has burned things all his life, even when he was in the army, will probably be burning again.

That night his father gets a fire going and asks for his son to get the oil. Colonel Sartoris does, but he also doesn’t want his father to burn the barn. His father tells his mother to hold on to Colonel Sartoris, because he knows that he will run to tell someone. His father leaves, and Colonel Sartoris immediately starts to struggle against his mother’s grip. He breaks free and leaves, managing to dodge everyone in the house. He runs to the de Spain household and yells barn! And Major de Spain hurries to the barn, even as they can see it’s already too late; the barn is on fire. And Colonel Sartoris keeps running into the woods. He sits and falls asleep in his exhaustion. In the morning he decides to keep walking, leaving his family behind.

Brief Note on Themes
Like much of William Faulkner’s work, Barn Burning explores the atmosphere and living conditions of the Post-Civil War South. What happens to the poor soldiers who returned with little or nothing from the war? Fire is a cleansing power but also a mode of revenge for Mr. Snopes as he doesn’t want to be held accountable for any of his actions and at the same time doesn’t care that he’s living in squalor and does not seek to better his position. In his mind, he holds a position that should always be given a free pass; a position of power, and maybe perhaps because he fought in the war; it’s as if someone owes him. Fire becomes an equalizing force to show that everything can be destroyed in an instant and they, without their property, are no better than him.

The justice system is explored here. In the case, even though they know he burned the barn, he is set free for lack of evidence. Given the nature of things, even asking for the black man to testify probably wouldn’t have been enough given that black people’s testimony was little regarded at the time. And yet, if it had been a black person who burned the barn, he would have been lynched or put in jail. It highlights the privilege that poor whites have even in the law.

Youth and innocence and conscience are explored. Is the son always destined to turn out like the father, or can he be more and better than his father? Is blood more important than justice? And what is the cost of justice or truth?

And, do we owe people anything for their military service? Should we give people a pass for everything else they do because they served or make sure they’re always employed or have money or goods? In the Reconstruction years, there is a period of decline and insecurity for white people in power, and this insecurity also exists in all of white society. But as sharecropping is now the order of the day, it does set up a new system in the South, one that many poor whites utilized. The system itself was often pitted against blacks, but kept everyone within the sharecropping system poor except the landowners. So how do you deal with losing more of your crop and profit to your employer than you originally bargained?

C.D. Wright, One Big Self

Wright, C.D. One Big Self. Copper Canyon P., 2007.

Summary of Work
C.D. Wright’s “One Big Self” explores the lives of people in three different prisons in Louisiana. Wright suggests that when we look at all the prisons in America—and the prison population, which is the largest in the world—we are looking in a mirror at America’s values and legacy. What makes up the prison population outside of the numbers and the listed crime or law broken? Invited by her colleague and friend to go to learn about the inmates while her friend is taking pictures of the prison inmates for a larger project, Wright sets out to learn about the inmates and their lives, both before prison, during their crimes and trials, and life in prison. She also contemplates what prisons do to the environments and communities they inhabit. She shows that these inmates are more than just numbers, they are people who have dealt with many difficult circumstances: poverty, difficult family situations, poor education and no job opportunities available, relationship woes, and more.

One of the main things I noticed highlighted was the difference in experience for men and women in prison. There was a large focus on women in context of their children, children they have before they go to prison, children they have while in prison, and what happens to their relationships with their children; there is even a poem describing the process of getting ready for an Easter party with the children in the main area of the prison. With the men, the focus is much more on their experiences in prison or getting to prison rather than on families. When children are mentioned, it is in context of the ages that they meet and where the children end up, usually in prison like their fathers.

 

Brief Note on Themes
The overarching theme of the work is incarceration; how does the American prison system function? Who are the people in the system? Since the makeup of the majority of the population is black males and black people overall, what does that say about who we incarcerate or crime? How does the prison system affect the communities in which they are built? How does it save or ruin city economies? What are the reasons people invest in such systems, especially private prison systems, and how does having prison on the stock market change the system as people view it, use it, and strive for its expansion and continuation? Wright’s work largely reflects upon what it means to look at people solely for their crimes when they are much more than that, and what that says about the American justice and incarceration system.

 

Brief Note on Poetic Structure
Written in a free form, the work is a mix of what would seem like prose, followed by poetry that utilizes caesura, line breaks, and plenty of white space to cue readers to changes in scene, narrator, situation, and discussion. The structure takes a minimalist attitude, where the situations are given in pieces rather than as one continuous narrative. The breaks in narrative and the mix of prisoners names, only ever briefly mentioned, give a sense of “everyman” for the prisoners, rendering both their invisibility and individuality clear to the reader. Certain phrases or poetic repetitive structures, such as the “Count the . . .” poems which are brought back within other poems, work to remind readers of the controlling situation in which the prisoners live.