W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. 1903. Barnes and Noble Classics,

2003.

 

Summary of Work
In this nonfiction work, W.E.B. Du Bois discusses the problem of the color line in the United States through a series of essays that describe personal experiences black people have had, particularly in the South. He coins two terms that become of major importance in discussions of race: double consciousness and the Veil. The first term is meant as a representation of African-Americans being forced to live double lives because of irreconcilable, conflicting identities they have in the US: these being black identity and American identity, coming in that order. The Veil refers to black people living behind a curtain or veil from which they experience their own lives and the lives of the rest of Americans. They can see out to understand other people’s lives, but others cannot understand them or see their lives. His first essay describes how from the time of Reconstruction forward, black people realized that they would be treated differently based on skin color. Discussing the color line through Jim Crow, he states that there was the idea that the Freedman’s Bureau and education would be a panacea that would bring equality to African Americans, but with social barriers still in place, there would be no way for them to progress and overcome oppression, especially oppression in the South.

He also gives a strong critique of Booker T. Washington and his ideas about social progress: particularly about needing to accept a subordinate position, not focus so much on having the same level of education as white people, and not wanting political equality either; social peace was more important than social progress. While certainly Du Bois believed that Washington had done good in his work at Tuskegee, he thinks that Washington has done more damage than good because many black people are no longer willing to stand up for what is theirs and it is harder for black people who want to stand up to make any progress.

Du Bois also describes his time as a schoolteacher in the rural South, and he realizes the struggles of teaching in spaces where children have no opportunities and must work in the fields. When he returns years later, he finds that industrialized life has taken over the area, and that many of the students he taught are dead or sharecropping, not doing anything that would help better their lives. He then talks about how in Atlanta, Georgia, the point of life has become money and physical possessions, which has made many black people forget about what is important in life. He also says that with industrialization came a new form of slavery, because black people were trained for new jobs and how to be submissive in those jobs.

In discussion of this, Du Bois specifically mentions the problems of the justice system in the South, particularly in specific counties in Georgia. He states that the police in the South were primarily used to keep track of and manage slaves, and that hasn’t changed. Black people are arrested on the slightest offenses and then put in the peonage system and worked to death. Many black people are assigned this fate, and it makes the communities down there afraid and feeling trapped. It is not easy to escape the injustice of the law because the counties and states in the South all use the same labor system to make the South rich, and so they together hunt down the black people trying to leave the area. He also mentions the problems of the lien-system of sharecropping and states that it is essentially a form of slavery, and that the 40 acres and a mule dream that many African Americans had is completely erased from hope and reality. Very few black people are able to get land, and when they pay the white landowners for it, many times they are cheated and robbed.

Du Bois also recounts the death of his son in the book, and states that while he was happy when his son was born, he was also worried about him because he knew the challenges he would face. When the child died, he was sad but also somewhat relieved because he knew his son never had to experience the racial prejudice and live behind the Veil like he and all other black people had to. He then discusses the life of Alexander Crummell and tells about his struggles to deal with segregation once he became an educated priest and how he travelled the world to fight for what was right, even though he never felt fulfilled or satisfied. He also talks about a young man named John Jones who gets an education and returns home to find that he cannot be satisfied when he sees the inequality that was not so much visible in the North. He starts teaching, but under the direction that he is not to teach anything about social equality, and when the Judge hears that Jones is teaching about the French Revolution and it is causing people to not call white people sir or ma’am, he gets angry and shuts down the school. On the way back, he sees the judge’s son trying to sexually assault his younger sister, and he hits him with a branch and bloodies him up and knocks him out. He tells his mother he is going to leave and before he can, he is lynched.

The last chapter of the book focuses on the sorrow songs. Mostly spirituals, they describe the struggles and hardships that many black people faced. Christianity was the most important thing to preserve the ideals of redemption and salvation, especially when it came to some preservation of Obea belief systems. The songs carry with them vital information for the community as well as messages and hope for the future. This chapter has the most mixed media with song lyrics and song notations throughout the chapter. The book itself has a few lines of poetry and a line or two of musical notation to begin each chapter.

Discussion of Work
This work contributed to an important discussion about racial problems within America in the 1900s and forward. The concepts of the color line, the Veil, and double consciousness still play an important part of discussions of race and social equality today. One of the important discussions that I think is rarely had about the tensions between Washington and Du Bois is that Du Bois was not wholly against Washington, even though he was a strong critic. There were pieces of Washington’s work that he admired, and they both agreed on the importance of education, even if they disagreed about what should be taught and how the black race was to become educated.

One of the most important parts of this work which needs more time spent with it is the discussion of the peonage system. Having done field work about the peonage system and the effects it had on black communities only to have the US government refuse to publish the government committee’s findings and then destroy Du Bois’s work, he was very upset and concerned about the US’s huge efforts to cover up the fact that many black people were still enslaved through unjust judicial systems and corrupt cops in the South. Douglas A. Blackmon’s work Slavery by Another Name discusses this issue in depth, but the fact that Du Bois does more than simply reference it, but talks about it across chapters of his work, more fully describes the fear these people lived in.

One pitfall of this work is Du Bois’s very open prejudice toward Jews, especially if they are Russian Jews. He proclaims that many of the black man’s struggles come from greedy and unjust Jews cheating black people out of house and home and livelihood. The statements serve to highlight the racial tensions between the two minority groups, both of which were discriminated against in the US. The word Jew was later changed to immigrant by Du Bois in later publications of the work, indicating that perhaps either he overcame much of this prejudice or that it was brought to his attention that his prejudice was undermining his own argument (I’m not sure if this is discussed somewhere in scholarship or history, because I haven’t looked it up yet).

With all this discussion of race and social ills, it is telling that Du Bois also includes a whole chapter on the sorrow songs, a mix of spiritual and blues, although largely focused on the spirituals. While the title of the chapter is The Sorrow Songs, the songs themselves carry messages of hope to the next generation, indicating that music is a very important communication device in the community. It also indicates that Du Bois sees the music and the things connected with the music as retainers of not just hope, but the potential for social progress.

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

Theater Communication Group, 2013.

 

Summary of Work
Set in New York City in the 1980s during the Reagan years, this play centers around the judicial system: Roy M. Cohn, a power broker and successful lawyer, is trying to talk a head judicial clerk by the name of Joe Pitt into taking a job in Washington, D.C. Cohn is talking to Pitt and at the same time answering many phone calls, including one from a client from whom he took a half million dollars; she wants her money back. Cohn is using the Lord’s name in vain, and Joe gets very uncomfortable over it and asks Cohn to stop. He asks him why he doesn’t want to hear it, and Joe says that he’s Mormon and it is against his beliefs and values to use such language. At the same time, Joe tells him that he’ll have to talk to his wife about it. Cohn urges him to take the position, saying that it won’t stay available for long.

Meanwhile, Joe’s wife, Harper, is coming out of a valium high. She has dreams and hallucinations on the drugs, and she doesn’t leave the apartment. Joe gets home to talk to her, and she says she doesn’t want to go to Washington, D.C., stating all sorts of superficial reasons for not wanting to go, and at the same time starting arguments over his lack of sexual interest in her. He leaves her be and goes out for a walk. She gets back to her hallucination of selecting a vacation to go on with Mr. Lies.

In another part of town, Louis Ironson and Prior Walter sit together after the funeral of Louis’ grandmother Sarah. They argue over the loss of a cat, and then Prior tells Louis that he has been diagnosed with AIDs and he’s having to be seen for it. Louis cannot handle the news and he seriously considers leaving Prior. Even though he loves Prior and has told him that he can handle everything with Prior, he finds himself incapable.

The next day, Joe runs into Louis crying in the bathroom. He asks him how he’s doing and if he wants to talk, and Louis tells him thank you for noticing and insinuates that Joe is gay. Joe is very offended at first, but then they get talking about how Joe voted for Reagan and is Republican, and Louis, very much disliking both Reagan and Republicans, starts teasing him. Meanwhile, Harper is high on valium again, and she hallucinates Prior in her dream; she and he talk about unhappiness, and he suggests to her that her husband is gay. When Joe gets home from the office, she confronts him about it, causing a huge fight.

Roy Cohn is next seen in the doctor’s office, and he has just been diagnosed with AIDS. He insists to his doctor that he has slept with men, but is not gay, and no one can know that he has AIDS because he doesn’t have AIDS and his doctor should call it liver cancer. The doctor tells him that he can call himself and the disease whatever he wants, but it won’t change the fact that he does, in fact, have AIDS.

When Prior gets sick enough to be defecating blood on the floor in the bathroom, Louis calls an ambulance and gets him to the hospital even though Prior is insistent that he can’t go because they’ll never let him out of the hospital again. After he starts to get better but then has another episode, Louis tells the nurse to tell Prior he is sorry, but he just can’t stay. He goes to Central Park and sleeps with a man there to deal with the pain. Prior is very upset but expected it to happen, and he confides in his friend and nurse, Belize, who is a black gay man who regularly performs in drag. She makes sure he stays on the medication he wants, because it makes him hard, and he wants to experience orgasm. When he experiences this, he starts seeing past relatives and then hearing voices, who tell him that he will soon be visited by an angel.

Joe talks to Cohn and tells him that he can’t take the job, and Cohn gets upset because he wants him in Washington so that he can have someone on the inside to influence decisions and potentially court case decisions. Joe is mortified at the statement, but Cohn says that he’s been doing it in the past, and it was the reason that the last person he had executed was executed. Another politician comes in to talk, and Cohn tries to explain to Joe that power is to have people across the political spectrum at your beck and call, just like he has. He tries to tell Joe that he is throwing away his chance at greatness and he should just go to Washington and forget about what his wife wants. Joe refuses and leaves. The politician then tells Cohn that he is under investigation for his misconduct with the woman he took half a million dollars from. Cohn says that it won’t matter, that they can’t get him.

Harper and Joe fight again over Washington. She wants him to leave and she wants to leave him. They both get upset, and Joe leaves. On Sunday, he goes to the office and finds Louis there. They talk about what’s going on with Louis and then, moving past the sexual tension, they both leave. Joe goes and gets drunk and calls his mother, Hannah, in Salt Lake City to say that he and Harper aren’t fine and that he is gay. Hannah refuses to believe him, and she states that he needs to get ahold of himself. Hannah proceeds to sell her home in Utah and move to New York City to be with her son and daughter-in-law. Joe has some sort of ulcer or injury, and he has to go to the hospital.

Louis goes back to Prior to tell him that he is moving out, which infuriates Prior. He goes to talk to Belize about it and says some pretty racist things about the state of relations between black people and Jewish people in America, and it infuriates him so that Belize leaves him to his thoughts and goes back to work at the hospital to work. Prior has been sent back home because he is doing well enough, and while he is trying to sleep at home, he sees an angel come down and destroy the ceiling and speak to him and force him to go get a book of prophecy out of his kitchen floor.

Louis and Joe meet again, and after some conversation, Joe and Louis go home together, and Harper has disappeared into the city in a valium high. She has left the apartment and thinks she is in Antartica with Mr. Lies. She spends days outside in the winter cold without proper clothing, and she cuts down a tree and gets arrested for it. Hannah has just gotten into town, and she is lost in the Bronx when she should be in Brooklyn. She is upset that she has had to navigate her way around town because Joe was supposed to come get her from the airport. When she finally gets to the Pitt apartment and pays to be let in by the building manager, she receives a phone call from the police department letting her know that they are going to take Harper to the hospital to put in the mental ward, because she thinks she was in Antarctica cutting trees down with her teeth. Hannah insists that they leave her alone and she’ll be over to get her.

Prior keeps seeing angels and they keep having sex with him and telling him things that he will prophesy to the people. He goes to a funeral with Belize for a fellow drag queen, and Prior is upset and grumpy. He talks to Belize and tells him about the visions he’s been having and what is going on. Belize tries to get Prior to think that he doesn’t think he’s crazy, but somewhat fails. Prior has also been overdoing it, and is causing his health to decline even though he had been doing well getting rest in his home. Prior talks specifically about how the angel told him that the prophecy is that he should stop progressing. It scares him.

Roy Cohn ends up in the hospital after having had an episode and seeing the woman, Ethel, he had sentenced to death for being communist. Belize is his nurse, and he sees that Cohn actually has AIDS, not liver cancer. Even though he absolutely hates Cohn, he tells him that he shouldn’t let them give him radiation because it would destroy t-cells he can’t afford to lose. Cohn, both homophobic and racist, tells Belize to do his job and get out. Belize continues to talk to Cohn, telling him that the research study he’s been able to get in on for the AIDS drug is double blind, meaning that he may not be able to actually get treated, and he’ll die anyway because he’ll be given a placebo. When Belize leaves, Cohn makes a phone call to get the drug AZT, which is in experimental stages, to his hospital room. He is given a very large amount, enough to last more than his lifetime.

Prior goes to the Mormon Visitors’ Center, and Hannah is working there as a volunteer. She takes him in to see the visitor center show, and Harper is there, eating junk food even though there is no food or drink allowed in the theater. He sits by her and she says that she’s waiting for the woman in the show to talk, since the mannequin never does even though all the men do. She also says that the man in the show looks like her husband. As they watch together, they both have the vision of Louis and Joe together talking and they are talking about Mormonism in Louis’ apartment. Prior leaves, and Harper realizes that she knew the man sitting next to her because he was in one of her hallucinations.

Prior takes Belize to the courthouse and they both get a look at Joe. Prior can’t believe just how good looking and large he is. Belize realizes that he knows Joe from having seen him in Cohn’s hospital room. Joe confronts them, and they find a way to skirt out of the awkward situation. Louis and Joe are together at the beach, and Louis has just told Joe that he wants to go try and repair his relationship with Prior. Joe rips off his temple garments on the beach and yells that Louis will come back to him eventually, and Louis helps him get some clothing back on, but does leave. Prior then confronts Louis, who has come to apologize, and he tells him that he shouldn’t come back until there are literal cuts and bruises on him.

Not knowing where else to go, Joe goes back to Cohn and confides in him that he is gay. Cohn discusses ideas about father figures and disappointments and then goes into a coughing fit and Joe gets sprayed with blood on his shirt. Belize tells him to get out and to throw away the shirt because it will make him sick. Joe has just come to the realization that Cohn has AIDS, and he is upset over the deception. That evening, Cohn and Belize talk about heaven and hell, and Belize constructs the image of a more nature-like San Francisco as heaven. Cohn laughs and slings insults.

When Louis comes and talks to Belize about what has happened between him and Prior, he goes off on Louis and tells him that Joe is good friends with none other than Roy Cohn and that he stands against everything that they are. Louis at first doesn’t believe it, but then goes and pulls court decisions and files, and he realizes that Joe is the one who has written decisions that have affected LGBT rights, specifically the anti-discrimination laws. He again breaks up with Joe over it, and Joe beats Louis.

Joe goes back home to Hannah and his wife and discusses why Hannah came to New York City, and he suggests that he has everything under control and that she should leave. She doesn’t tell him that she sold her house and can’t go back to Salt Lake City. They realize that Harper has once again escaped the house, and they go out to find her. Joe and Hannah split up, and Joe is the first to find Harper, shoeless and running around. He wraps her in his arms and takes her home. Prior is also out in the rain, and he runs into Hannah and starts talking to her. When he gets so sick he needs help, Hannah goes with him to the hospital.

Prior asks Hannah to stay with him at the hospital, and despite her discomfort over his homosexuality, she promises to stay until he’s asleep. They talk and he tells her that he’s a prophet and has seen angels, and Hannah at first thinks he’s crazy, but then talks to him about how their church believes in continuing revelation so he may have actually seen an angel. When he says what should I do if I don’t want to be forced to do what the angel did, and she tells him that like a prophet of old, he should wrestle with it and not let go. Then, later that night, she sees the angel he spoke of, and watches him wrestle with it and win. Then, he climbs a ladder into heaven. She has an orgasm and then doesn’t remember anything more.

When Prior reaches heaven, which looks just as Belize described, he learns that God has left heaven and the angels don’t know why. They are listening to the radio and hearing about Chernobyl, and he tells them that they only see fear and pain and suffering because they don’t understand life or see the larger picture. He gives them their seeing stones and book back and says that Earth doesn’t want the prophecy. He also says that he will not give up and that he wants life no matter how painful it is. They allow him to go back to Earth.

Roy Cohn learns that he is disbarred for his actions just before he dies, and Ethel is the one to tell it to him. She has wanted to be able to forgive him but cannot, and instead has wanted some sort of revenge, and has been able to get it by watching his pain. Belize is with him when he dies. Belize, knowing that the medicine will be taken back since he is dead, opens up the container that holds it and takes many bottles

Joe and Harper have sex one more time, but then she determines she will be leaving him. She gets dressed and leaves him in the apartment. She goes to San Francisco. Louis returns to Prior once more, beaten up and bloodied, and Prior tells him that while he cannot let him move back in, they may be able to see each other. The play ends a year later with Hannah, Prior, Louis, and Belize are sitting at the Bethesda fountain in the park, and Prior is still alive and functioning with the aid of the drug. When Prior starts talking about the history of the Bethesda fountain, Hannah states that when the fountain becomes a living fountain again, she will take Prior to bathe him in it and heal him.

Discussion of Work
This work nearly seamlessly blends Catholic, Mormon, and Jewish belief systems and thoughts to show the complex relationships that LGBT people experience with those religions and religious concepts. The religious-secular tension of the LGBT experience is embodied in Joe, who ultimately stays still and never moves forward because of his inability to fully come to terms with both his religion and his sexuality. The language of the angels in the work is almost Shakespearean when they talk about the great unraveling of heavenly design.

Prior and Cohn are foils of each other: one wants to make sure he’s remembered as heterosexual and powerful, a lawyer of the most memorable kind, but Prior wants to remain living and experiencing the pain and pleasures of life while admitting his true identity. Hannah shows the most character growth, coming to recognize that perhaps her belief system isn’t as whole as she thought it was.

The play also contains information about a historical moment: the AIDS crisis during the Reagan era. Cohn was also a real person who did illegal things, although his character is not a perfect representation of Cohn but rather a different character and person. It does a good job of exploring how LGBT people felt during that time period and the dangers of not just the physical illness, but the societal dangers of being out in the open about non-heteronormative sexuality.

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.

Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. 1947. New Directions, 2004.

Summary of Work
The play opens with a woman, Blanche DuBois, finding her way to her sister Stella’s home. Her sister is married to a Polish man and they live in a low income area of New Orleans. Blanche is somewhat disgusted but enters the apartment space upon being let in by a neighbor. When Stella comes home they start talking, and Blanche tells Stella that she was put on leave from teaching for the summer and that’s why she’s here to stay sooner than expected. She also tells Stella that they lost their home, Belle Reve, to mortgage because she had to keep taking money out against it to pay for funerals for all the family members after Stella left. Blanche is her usual self, very self-centered and obsessed with looking and acting younger than she is and always dressing fancy and acting fancy.

Her husband Stanley is very upset upon hearing about Blanche’s dealings with the real estate and says that Blanche has swindled them and used the money to buy fancy clothing, throwing out all of Blanche’s clothing from her trunk to prove it. Stella tries to talk Stanley out of talking to Blanche, who is bathing, but he insists. When she comes out of the bathroom, he confronts her, and she is forthright with him about what happened. Stella goes to get Blanche a lemon coke in the meantime. Stanley also lets slip that Stella is pregnant and that is one of the reasons he’s concerned about her land.

After a few days having Blanche around, Stanley is having friends over one evening for a poker night, and Stella takes Blanche out so as to not worry her or bother the men. They get in at 2:30 AM, but the men are still playing poker. They are very drunk, and due to Blanche’s insistence on music and his friend Mitch’s insistence on talking to Blanche, when Stella tells Stanley to end the poker night, he beats her and the men have to get him away from her. Blanche takes Stella out and they go upstairs to their neighbor’s. That evening, Stanley yells up to her that he’s sorry and to come back, and she sneaks out and spends the night with him. Blanche is beside herself over this, and the next afternoon when she thinks Stanley won’t be coming home she tells her sister that she thinks he is common and a brute and that she doesn’t understand why Stella stays with him. Stanley walks in during the middle of the speech, and he pretends he didn’t hear her.

In the meantime, Mitch starts dating Blanche. His mother is sick and dying, and she wants him to settle down before she dies. He thinks that Blanche might be a good choice. He learns of Blanche’s first marriage when she was young: she married a good looking young man who wrote beautiful poetry, and one night she caught him with another man. When they were at a dance together, she told him she knew that he was degenerate and how much she hated him for it, and he ran outside during a polka song and shot himself. Meanwhile, Stanley, wondering about why Blanche is really sticking around for so long and worried about his friend’s interests in Blanche, decides to investigate about her.

On Blanche’s birthday, when Stella is getting things ready for a party, Stanley tells her that Blanche has done some terrible things; when she lost Belle Reve she moved into a cheap hotel called the Flamingo and had a string of lovers so large that the hotel kicked her out; and while she was teaching she became involved with one of her high school students, and she was forced out of town. Stella doesn’t want to believe it, and she’s upset that Stanley has not only verified it through three different people but has told Mitch. Mitch doesn’t come to the birthday party even though Blanche is waiting for him. During the party, after dinner, when Stella tells Stanley to bring the dishes to the sink, he slams them to the ground and then confronts Blanche about her previous behavior. She admits to it, and yet sees no problem with her behavior. And when Blanche leaves the room, Stella goes into labor and Stanley has to take her to the hospital.

While they are at the hospital, Mitch stops by in his work clothes and talks to Blanche. Blanche finds out what he’s been told, and that Mitch no longer intends to marry her because of what kind of woman she is. He finds out that she is older than he thought, but is fine with that. And he attempts to have sex with her, but she screams fire out the window and he gets scared and leaves. But then Stanley comes home, drunk. Blanche is also drunk, having been drinking heavily the whole summer and emptying out Stanley’s liquor. Stanley says that the baby hasn’t come yet and they told him to go home and they’d let him know when his child was born. He says he’ll put on his pajamas that he wore the first night of his marriage and rip them off to celebrate when he gets the phone call. Blanche, worried, tries to get the operator to put her on the phone with a rich man she knew in Dallas, an oil man. But she is not successful, and when she backs herself into the bedroom and tells Stanley to stay away, he comes on to her and rapes her.

Weeks later, everyone is still catering to Blanche, but Stella has decided that she needs to put Blanche in a psychiatric ward. And they have told her that Shep, the man from Dallas, is coming to get her. Stella worries that it is the wrong decision, but she cannot believe what Blanche told her about what Stanley did that night, and so she has to do something to get Blanche out. The men are again at their home playing poker, and Stella’s neighbor is out with her to give her support when the doctor comes. When he does come, Blanche at first resists until she is forced down by the matron. Stella can’t stand to watch, and she has second thoughts, but her neighbor tells her it is the only way. Blanche talks to the doctor and calmly goes with him, telling him that she’s always relied on the kindness of strangers. As she leaves, she doesn’t say goodbye to anyone, and both Stella and Mitch are terribly upset. As the play closes, the men are still playing poker.

Brief Note on Themes
This play has a number of running themes or conflicts worth discussing: race relations, since one of the issues that Blanche has with Stanley is that he’s Polish, and this really bothers Stanley; economic and class struggles, as Blanche is further frustrated with her sister’s choice in husband because he is poor and from a lower social class than they were, having come from a plantation home of old money in Mississippi. The play explores the decline of individuals or families who have seemingly met with success in reaching the American Dream and their inability to fully let go of the lifestyle and attitudes that came with such wealth and privilege.

Male-female relationships, both romantic and familial, are explored through Stella’s relationship, somewhat abusive, and Blanche’s relationship with Stanley; female friendship and companionship heavily features in this play; the nature of story and actions is also a running discussion, as Blanche’s whole life is a series of lies or glossed-over truths which later make it hard or impossible for people to believe she was raped. The dual nature of male/female moral expectations also features, as Stanley has been very promiscuous and demanding of women and does not receive anywhere near the same treatment that Blanche receives for her promiscuity. This seems to play in Blanche’s favor, however, in the fact that she is simply sent away instead of put on criminal trial for sex with a minor (perhaps this wasn’t a legal issue in the early 1900s?). Questions about morals and forgiveness or belief in a person’s statements given their previous actions feature heavily in this play.

Music features throughout the play, with blues playing in the background. The lifestyle that these men live is a rough one of work, but they regularly enjoy poker and games such as bowling. The music itself, and the streetcars that run throughout the area and make such loud noise as they pass, show the co-mingling of progress and innovation and poverty and decline within the same space of a city.

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?

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau, 2015.

Summary of Work
This work is a series of letters to his son about what it is like to be black in America and how his son, Samori, should strive to live his life in order to both survive and be aware of the world around him, and yet at the same time have joy in his life and take the opportunities that he can. He begins his work by telling his son that race is an invention that is not new, but just continually rehashed with each new country and nation. It used to be Jews and Germans and Irish and English, etc, that would discriminate against each other; now, in America, it is “black and white,” with many of the previous groups mentioned being eventually combined into a class of white, even though they had not previously been branded as such. And it is this myth of whiteness that allowed for slavery and exploitation of black bodies. Coates is very concerned that his son know that the struggle they are dealing with is much more than racism: it is the struggle for black embodiment and empowerment. Racism is a cover term for the destruction of black bodies, progress, and livelihood.

He remembers back to his time as a child growing up in West Baltimore, feeling trapped because he had to go to school but saw no purpose to it and at the same time had to live the laws of the streets for survival and yet had no desire for the violence that went on in the streets. His father would punish him regularly with the idea that it is better that he beat him than the police, and he didn’t understand what it was about until he grew up and had a son of his own. In his desire to get out of the system, he went to college at Howard, where he spent most of his time in the library reading in the stacks and the archives. His father worked as a librarian and archivalist there, so he had always been happy to read and get knowledge from books. His parents never gave him easy answers but always referred him to books. He became very fond of Malcolm X’s writings and ideologies, and sought to have those ideas reinforced and verified as fact from history books. But he found so many different perspectives, and his history teachers gave him so much information, that he had to dispel the illusions that he had built for himself. He says he is very grateful for those historian professors who taught him the issues with grandiose ideologies. For white people, he says that the ideology is the American Dream, and the Dreamers blur faces and forget trespasses and injustices against black people in order to maintain that dream, and they continue to commit crimes against blacks in order to keep the dream.

He learned a lot at Howard, which he calls The Mecca, and met many people there. It was a haven for him where he could see what his people and his culture could be and do. He met his wife on the Howard Campus, but he could not stay long enough to graduate, feeling restrained by the courses he had to take and not caring for the things he could graduate in. He started writing, which was the one thing he really liked. When they moved to New York City, they struggled. He was not making money as a writer, and she got a job and was nearly sole support. Their son was a toddler at the time. He recalls the layout of the city both structurally and racially, and discusses how when they went to a movie on the Upper West Side one day, his four year old son got pushed by a white woman, and he turned around and yelled at her, and other white men came to her defense and told him that they’d have him arrested. He got even angrier. He explains to his son that this moment is a moment of shame for him because he forgot the code of the streets and where he was. He should have been able to call out her behavior and move on, he thought.

He also takes a lot of time to discuss police brutality, shootings, and judicial injustice to his son, who was very upset after hearing the verdict in the Michael Brown case. he talks about Prince Jones, who he knew at Howard, getting shot by the PG policeman in Virginia. He describes his feelings of anger, because Prince was an upstanding citizen, with a fiancee and a daughter on the way; he was a very intelligent man, a prodigy, who valued experience over things; he had it all, and had seemingly beat the system of the ghettos and projects, and yet his life was still taken from him. Coates started writing about the injustice of the police system after that, full of anger. He offers no real relief or respite for his son about these injustices, but tells him that they have always happened, and will continue to happen, without consequences for those who commit the crimes. He talks about how Prince’s killer was put back on the streets to patrol without even a trial. He talks about Prince’s mother’s amazingly strong and calm reaction to the whole affair, even as she grieved for the loss of her son. Toward the end of the book, he describes sitting down with Dr. Jones and learning of her story of success, becoming a doctor and then the chief of radiology and being able to offer her son and daughter everything she didn’t have growing up. To talk about Prince comforts her, but at the same time, the pain never goes away.

Coates reflects on these shootings and injustices and how they are dealt with within the community. He says he knows that he is somewhat disconnected from them because they can speak of forgiveness and turning to God, but he does not believe in their God, but instead believes that this life is all we have. He tells his son that perhaps he could have taught him more if he did believe, but that he cannot offer that comfort.

His wife’s life had been very different than his growing up, and she had been afforded opportunities to travel when he hadn’t, among other opportunities. She lived in a more well off area in a more well off home. He never understood his wife’s need to travel, thinking back to his French class days and thinking that France was as far away as Jupiter. But his wife went to Paris and came back with stories and photos, and he went by himself later on and got to see a new world, one that was not underpinned by the same superficially-created racial divides of black and white. And yet he also noticed that there is simply a different system of oppression in place: France, like every other European country, was built upon colonizing and oppressing other groups of people. Being aware of that, he thinks, is important so that they don’t lose perspective on how systems of oppression function. He also goes back for a time with his whole family to explore France, and further comes to this conclusion.

He tells his son to live his life, to enjoy it and live it fully, and to fight for the struggle to equality, but to not fight it in hopes that the Dreamers will convert their thinking and ways and come down from their mountain. He says that also to think that gods or ancestors will come and reap revenge and justice upon the Dreamers’ heads is also unrealistic. Instead, he says, Dreamers will always keep exploiting black people, but with technological improvements, they are also exploiting the Earth, which is no respecter of persons. The Dreamers, he says, will eventually destroy themselves.

 

Brief Note on Themes
The main theme of this work is the exploration of what black embodiment means, and Coates does this through an exploration of his own experience with life and watching people engage with the oppressive superstructures forced upon them. Understanding what it means to be racially embodied versus simply a human being is the main message that Coates brings to his son and to all that read the book: there are different rules and codes imposed upon those with darker skin, and even if the rules are followed, there is no guarantee that it will lead to a good life free of violence and terror. And yet there are still spaces that allow for black communities to share in joy and the power of owning their own bodies, of living as a community and an individual.

There are two spaces outside of the Mecca of Howard University that he describes this happening: religion and dance. Religion offers comfort in a higher being and in the spirit, a relationship he doesn’t understand but can appreciate in the community it brings to people who are feeling broken and are oppressed. For dance, he describes it saying that he “would watch how black people moved, how in these clubs they danced as though their bodies could do anything, and their bodies seemed as free as Malcolm’s voice on the outside black people controlled nothing, least of all the fate of their bodies . . . . But in the clubs, under the influence of two-for-one rum and Cokes, under the spell of low lights, in thrall of hip-hop music, I felt them to be in total control of every step, every nod, every pivot” (62). Movement, then, becomes a form of joy and communal engagement and solidarity; it is unique in its function for the community and the individual, as it affirms control over the body in a way that is not possible outside of the shared communal space.

This book also contains photographs periodically throughout the book: of Coates, of his wife, of his son, of the doors in France his wife describes to him, and more. It is worth considering how the photographs enhance the narrative. Is their purpose merely personal, to show his son? Or are they meant to emphasize important messages contained in the text about black embodiment and black bodies?

 

Brief Note on Dissertation Uses
For purposes of my dissertation, this book is going to be very useful in helping me to understand how the power of dance is a way to assert control over one’s own body and to be embodied in a communal space. In literature, then, dance could be discussed in terms of embodiment and communal and public messages of personhood. I have seen this discussed in lectures before in context of blues: it was one of the only ways black people, during enslavement and after, could assert control over their bodies and their lives, not dictated to by white people.

 

 

Tom Wolfe, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Wolfe, Tom. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Picador, 1968.

Summary of Work

Tom Wolfe documents the lives of the Merry Pranksters, the group of acid-tripping hippies who drove around the nation in a Day-Glo covered bus with Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The group forms around Kesey as they start using LSD to have transcendent experiences, a drug he had on hand from volunteering as a test subject in a study at a college and from working at the mental hospital for a time while he wrote his first book. However, upon the announcement of the destruction of the neighborhood he is living in, he moves to La Honda, California, where a group of people, later known as the Merry Pranksters, follow him. They all live in the same home, spread out on the land and in the woods, and each work on their own projects. But two things bring them together: LSD and sound. Taking after William Burroughs’ ideas, they decide to wire everything up with both microphones and speakers and record all of it. They play back the sound by splicing it and speaking over it, as well as gathering any and all sound they can. When they decide that they’d also like to make a grand movie to cover their experiences on LSD, they take it one step further. Kesey buys a bus, which they paint in various Day-Glo colors. They completely gut the bus and remodel it to be a road-trip vehicle for them, and they wire it for sound inside and out so that they can play music, broadcast sound, and record while they are on their trip. Neal Cassady is the driver of the bus, and they take off across the country, doing acid at various points along the way and filming the acid trips.

As they start to become noticed across the country (LSD was not yet illegal), Kesey becomes a main face of the counterculture movement, and they start to come in contact with people such as the Grateful Dead and Hells Angels, and the relationships and associations help all groups they come in contact with gain more prominence. Kesey writes one more novel but then gives up writing and focuses on making acid tests catch on for the public. He and the Merry Pranksters host many different acid tests in California, fooling the cops along the way. They even attend a Beatles concert ridiculously high on LSD and don’t get caught for it. They watch the crowd and see how enthralled they are by the Beatles and the control the Beatles have over the crowd but do not use for anything outside of the music or money-making business itself, and Kesey and the group leave back to their bus to make noise on their microphones and tapes. They host a big party for the Beatles, who never show up.

When they do finally get in trouble for something, it is for possession and use of marijuana. The first time the sentencing is lighter, but the next time Kesey is caught with it, he knows that it will be a prison sentence. So he runs away to Mexico, becoming more and more paranoid that the cops are after him and he is going to be extradited. The Pranksters make their way down to Mexico and stay with him for a time, and then help him get back across the border, where he spends some time in California before he is caught and thrown in jail. He avoids sentencing by saying that he would like to tell people that they need to go “beyond acid.” The authorities, thinking that he means that he will tell everyone to stop doing acid and talk about the dangers of it, give him a light sentence and ask him to go on public television to make his statement. But when he goes public with his statement, he never outright declares acid to be a bad influence or as having negatives. He simply says that once you go through the door that acid opens up, you have to take more steps rather than just keep opening and closing the same door.

Kesey and the Pranksters host one more “Acid Graduation” event, where they show that the next step is trying to achieve the transcendence they experience on LSD without the mind-altering drugs. Many news crews, journalists, and others show up to document the event, but leave before it ends, unable to understand what is going on.

The Pranksters themselves aren’t sure that they understand what Kesey’s new goals and direction are, and eventually, one by one, the group members go their own separate ways. Kesey serves his time in work camps in California while his family lives in Oregon. The movie never gets finished, although during the whole time the Pranksters are active people are cutting it and editing it and shooting more film. The film, writings, and sound recordings that are in the Prankster archive are what Wolfe used to piece together the biographical, very subjective narrative that is the book.

 

Brief Note on Themes

This work is a prime example of New Journalism, and it is considered a great representation of the counterculture of the Beat Generation in the 1950s and 1960s. Sound and music plays a large part in this book, making it great for sound studies considerations. Pseudo-religious activity is also a major part of the work, as the Pranksters nearly worship Kesey as the new Messiah, with the Pranksters as the apostles, and they utilize LSD trips to have essentially religious experiences. Drug use is a major theme, particularly acid use. Intersubjectivity is prominent in the work, and focuses on the idea that people can enter into a space where they know what it’s like to be someone else and achieve the ability to think and act as a group. For counterculture, the work focuses on the differences between what others were doing at that time, which was largely unknown, and what the Pranksters were doing, which was bringing the alternate lifestyle to the public eye rather than keeping it underground.

 

Questions about the Work

  1. In this book, we see clearly the obsession that the Pranksters have with mixed media content in conjunction with their acid trips. Claire, a young and naive girl who shows up to an Acid Test event in Watts, states in her account that before she, unawares, dosed herself with LSD, she didn’t understand what was going on: “This may explain why a lot of people were digging the film, laughing, and also why a lot of people were there . . . I’m sure that I was one of a minority who had no idea what to expect. The word must have been passed, but didn’t get to me” (272). After ingesting the LSD, Claire’s perspective of the film and sounds changes from simply odd nonsense to an otherworldly environment. This got me wondering, what is it about sound, lag, and reverb that create situations that seem otherworldly or out of place? What is the purpose of the acid trips and the sound and image manipulation beyond the vague notion of expanding understanding or knowledge?
  2. Tom Wolfe describes his process as one that tries to encompass the full Prankster experience: the drugs, the pranks, the adventures, and the recordings. He states, “The Pranksters recorded much of their own history in the Prankster Archives in the form of tapes, diaries, letters, photographs and the 40-hour movie of the bus trip” (415). How does having so many recordings of people change the way we approach writing a nonfiction work, and when is it useful to stray away from transcription and become more subjective, as Wolfe suggests that he does throughout the work?
  3. Geographically speaking, the many of the acid tests are done in largely black communities (see the houses they rent/use, geographical areas like Compton). What is problematic about the image the Pranksters and other whites have created around these black communities?