Alejo Carpentier, The Lost Steps

Carpentier, Alejo. The Lost Steps. 1953. University of Minnesota P, 2001.

Summary of Work
We find the unnamed narrator in this work living in NYC and working in the advertising industry even though his talents lie in his musicology background and college degree. He is married to an actress who is part of a wildly popular yet banal play. As he is wandering the city one day, he meets an old friend, a museum curator, who talks to him about going on an expedition to find and bring back primitive musical instruments in South America. At first he refuses, but after meeting with his mistress, Mouche, and some friends and watching a film he composed the music for and finding it worthless, he determines that he will go with Mouche to South America, but go on vacation and buy forgeries to satisfy the requirement of bringing back instruments. When they arrive in a coastal city (again unnamed), he feels suddenly more at home speaking his native tongue, Spanish. As he falls in love with the culture there, Mouche starts detaching from him. Still, he searches for antiques in shops. While he is shopping a revolution breaks out, and he, Mouche, and the other hotel guests have to stay in the hotel, where they worry about food and water supply, getting shot, and getting eaten by the insects that have invaded the place. Even after the revolution ends, he is held up by snipers in the grocers. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, Mouche and the narrator leave and go to the home of a Canadian painter and friend in another town. He becomes jealous of the relationship Mouche has with the woman, and after some time spent there, he determines that he will actually take the trip to look for primitive instruments.

Mouche decides to accompany him, and they take a bus across the Andes and also take on an Indian woman who seems to embody the culture there. One evening, he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on the radio, and it brings him back to his musical heritage and European connections and his forced removal from the space by WWII. The native woman, Rosario, becomes better acquainted with them, and as they enter an oil town where prostitutes are the local entertainment, he begins to criticize Mouche for not being more like Rosario. They finally reach the City of Ruins, and when they reach Puerto Anunciacion he vehemently argues with Mouche. He also meets Adelantado, who tells him of the life of tribes in the jungle. He also witnesses the funeral of Rosario’s father and meets an herbalist who is seemingly insane but who tells of tales of El Dorado and other ancient myths. Mouche, meanwhile, tries a sexual advance on Rosario, and she beats her for it. Mouche then gets malaria, and she has to be sent back to Puerto Anunciacion for treatment. Rosario and the narrator become sexually involved. The remaining party take canoes upriver.

They head into the heart of the jungle by a hidden tributary which Adelantado finds, and they seem to start traveling back in time. The tropical atmosphere, the plant life, and the animal life in the jungle scare the narrator, and a thunderstorm nearly capsizes their canoes. However, they finally find a native village, and he is able to get some of the musical instruments he had been sent to find. He finds their customs and way of life primitive, almost Medieval, and he feels that he witnesses the birth of music while he is there watching a funereal rite. They travel further on to Santa Monica de las Venados, which is a village Adelantado settled. The narrator determines that he will live out his life there, but he is torn because he wants to write music and lacks paper, and he also has an obligation to deliver the instruments he has collected to the museum curator. He visits many primitive areas in the village, including a valley full of prehistoric plants. The rains come, and it seems they will never cease, and he comes up with a new musical composition based on The Odyssey. However, his lack of paper and ink poses problems. This whole time he stays with Rosario, and he asks her to marry him, but she refuses him. Not long after, an airplane stops in the village in search of a lost explorer, which turns out to be the narrator. Torn about going with them or staying, he finally determines that he must return to get paper and ink and deliver the instruments, and then he can come back to live in the village and with Rosario again.

When he flies back home, he is at first a celebrity, and he learns that his wife is pregnant. He sells his story, which he lies about, to a newspaper, but when Mouche sells her story, it creates a scandal, and Ruth also learns about Rosario and that he wants to leave and go back to her, but Ruth will not divorce him. NYC has lost all beauty to him and he finds it useless to him. He runs out of money while he is getting divorced, and he is forced into tiny and poor room accommodations. When he sees Mouche and spends the night with her, he is disgusted with himself about the decision. He decides to get back to writing music to earn some money, and once he sells a film score for enough money, he goes back to Puerto Anunciacion, but cannot find his way back to the tributary and the village. He meets Yannes, who was at the village, and he learns that Rosario has married Marcos, the son of Adelantado, and she is pregnant. The narrator then realizes that he can never go back and relive his previous experience.

Discussion of Work
This work could be considered a work of magical realism, in particular because of the unsurety of time and the magical regression from modernity to primitive life. The winding back of time is an important part of the novel, as it helps to display the tension between European and Latino cultures: the modernity of NYC and European culture evident there as valuable is called into question as the narrator finds his identity, culture, and home in the more “primitive” space of the village of Santa Monica de las Venados. Unlike the European image of primitive cultures, the culture of these villages is sophisticated and engaging and valuable, particularly because of how they live in harmony with the environment. That harmony is particularly tied together through music, moving from the poorly written but popular musical his wife stars in to the beauty of Beethoven, to finally the origins and harmonies of music in its usefulness for everyday life.

Alejo Carpentier’s The Lost Steps puts readers in what feels like a dream state, leaving them to wonder if they read passages on previous pages correctly because the story jumps through six weeks so quickly. The main guidance tool readers have to navigate through the book are the musical performances, which cue readers to coming change and new settings for its main character. The surrealism in the novel, then, is in part created by the magical expectations that the music creates for the readers, as it guides the main character from city to jungle in search of not only music, but of himself.

We first become aware of music’s pull on the main character as he struggles to find any object that does not remind him of some musical composition he has neglected, and any music that does not remind him of pieces of his life he would rather stay buried and forgotten, and this is particularly true of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It drives him to disgust and out into the rainy weather, where he runs into an old friend, the organology curator of a museum. Forced to deal with his past and ashamed at his current state, which is much less than he had hoped it would be as a composer, the main character accepts the Curator’s job offer to obtain specific musical artifacts in the jungles of South America.

It is music, then, which sends the main character out into the unnamed, dreamlike land in the jungles of South America, where he stays in Puerto Anunciación until, at the cue of poorly played music, a revolution breaks out, and he moves on into the jungle in search of the musical artifacts he initially did not intend to find for the Curator. And as he is sitting in an inn in the jungle, he hears Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony over the radio again, this time succumbing to a dream state, remembering his past experience with his parents, and that music’s particular effect upon his father. His whole life is inherently tied to music and this symphony, ever guiding him back to song each time he comes across the composition. We see that music is inherently tied to his life and is leading his destiny, although we, as readers, are unsure of what that destiny is or how much reality is portrayed in such a fast-paced narrative, a narrative that from the second playing of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony onward feels as if it moves backward in time.

The music played becomes improvised, not written down, and then even more primitive, used for religious and funereal rites rather than for pure enjoyment or artistic, aesthetic ideals. As he moves back into what he feels could pass for the Middle Ages and primitive lifestyles, the narrator discovers that he believes every Westerner has misunderstood the origins of music: music is not imitation of animal calls, as he had previously believed, but instead a connection to life and death, created for practical purposes rather than aesthetic ones. The realization drives the narrator to abandon the Western lifestyle.

But he cannot stay away from it. Becoming obsessive over composing for the first time in years, he starts a musical rendition of portions of The Odyssey, feverishly composing through the rainy season and causing his woman, Rosario, and other villagers he lives with to worry about his sanity. For them, there was no reason to write down music when it could be played. He realizes that if he wants his music to be heard, he will have to find a way to connect to the Western world to have the work performed, which leads to the beginning of the end of the dream cycle in the South American jungle. If it were not for the hysteria in New York City over his disappearance and discovery in the jungle, readers would question if the experience had been real or if he had simply slept all day in his apartment and dreamt up the experience.[1]

And as the primitive music fades, no quality music reenters the narrator’s life, signaling the downturn from prosperity to poverty for our narrator. His composition from the jungle, Threnody, left with his love Rosario, he has no muse and no piece to work on even when he makes his way back to South America, unable to find Santa Mónica de los Venados and unable to find the motivation to work on previous compositions.

By the end of the novel, the narrator’s life destroyed and hopes of reuniting with his love Rosario dashed, both the readers and the narrator believe that for these characters, there is no free will, but rather destiny that fate will bring to pass regardless of personal desires: for our narrator, this destiny is to compose music, whether or not anyone will hear it and whether or not he will find success as a composer of classical music. Individuals, then, should strive to be more aware of the external forces that drive them and to learn to ride the wave of those forces or risk being swallowed and destroyed by them.

[1] It is even arguable that we wonder if this entire story is a dream, including the stay in New York City, given that both times the narrator is living there, the scenes pass in a dreamlike blur.

August Wilson, The Piano Lesson

Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. 1990 Plume, 2013.

Summary of Work
Boy Willie and his friend Lymon go North to visit Boy Willie’s sister Berniece and to sell a truck full of watermelons. They intend to take a family heirloom, a piano, from her so they can sell it to buy land that was previously owned by the family who had enslaved their family. Sutter, the landowner, was said to have died by the hands of ghosts. But Berniece won’t sell the piano, even though she won’t play the piano either. The piano has been in their family for over a hundred years, when the first Boy Willie carved the faces of his son and wife into the piano after the Sutters had sold them to buy it. He also carved their family history from Africa forward into the wood. Decades afterward, the boys of the family—Wining Boy, Doaker, and Boy Charles—decided to steal the piano rather than let it remain with the Sutter family. The family history carved into it represented the family’s soul, and they could not leave it in the hands of their former slavers. They got the piano, but not before Sutter caught up to them and burned Boy Charles and for traveling hobos alive in a train car. Boy Charles and the hobos became ghosts and avenged themselves on white bullies. The piano went to Boy Charles’ wife, Mama Ola, and when she died, she passed it on to both her children.

Berniece is being courted by a preacher named Avery, but she won’t give him the time of day. Lymon gets through her rough nature, however, and it causes him to have doubts about Boy Willie’s plans to steal the piano from her since she won’t willingly give it to him. As Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano, they encounter Sutter’s ghost, who has been haunting the space and the piano in particular, and Lymon and Boy Willie are thwarted in their plans. They determine that the only way to be able to do anything at all with the piano and to be able to live in the house, they must perform an exorcism. They call the preacher Avery to come perform the exorcism, and the ghost Sutter appears. Boy Willie starts to attack the ghost, but nothing is working. Everyone is losing. In desperation, Berniece decides to try to exorcise the ghost through playing the piano. She starts playing the piano, and it summons her ancestors who are carved into its wood; they attack Sutter’s ghost and it flees.

Having played the piano, Berniece has a change of heart about it and the history it holds, believing even more strongly that it cannot be sold, but must be allowed to be a living representation of their family history and ancestry. Boy Willie finally accepts that he will not be able to sell the piano, and he leaves the house.

Discussion of Work
In retelling and centering a marginalized black history, August Wilson seeks to show the importance of family heritage and family history as a powerful form of resistance to white oppression. The piano itself is the living embodiment of that history, housing the spirits and images of the family genealogical line from Africa forward to when Boy Willie carved the piano. Since Voudon so strongly relies on knowing one’s ancestors in order to retain balance and peace between the worlds of the living and the dead, the piano, when not played, becomes a forgotten artifact, and therefore a forgotten family. The imbalance leads to the struggles that Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie, have in their lives.

The effects of slavery are very apparent generations down the family line. Many men, promised 40 acres and a mule to be able to work their land with, never had that dream realized when they were emancipated. Boy Willie’s desire to sell the piano for that land then becomes rooted in the historical significance and economic power of black people holding land as reparations for centuries of enslavement. Yet the sale is not just of a piano, but a selling of family history and legacy, something that even not fully understood or appreciated, Berniece cannot let him do. The conflict is then set up as more than just the sale of a piano, but the conflict of remembering family heritage and yet still finding ways to move forward and succeed. This conflict is embodied in Sutter’s ghost, who haunts the space. Sutter, the ghost of white supremacy, oppression, and ownership, cannot be ousted until the family heritage is claimed, and a selling of the piano is simply a strengthening of Sutter’s ghost, because it allows him ownership over the family once again by owning the family spirits and genealogy. As long as the piano stays in the hands of the black family, no one owns them; they are free from ownership in death.

The imbalance is corrected upon the physical use of the piano, a release of all the cultural and family heritage and knowledge upon the white oppressor. The music coming from Berniece’s piano playing, much like the blues, carries with it all of the knowledge of survival and living that are necessary to avoid a second enslavement. Berniece accepts her role as matriarch of the family at the point she starts playing the piano; she becomes the family griot that holds the authority of the family line. Boy Willie recognizes this change in her, and while he still dreams of economic success through land ownership, he comes to recognize how important Berniece’s role of preservation is to their family line.

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?