Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. U of Missouri P, 2001.

Summary of Work
This autobiography of Langston Hughes’s life details some of his life experiences from his early twenties into the end of his twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression. When he was a child, his parents split, and he lived with his mother for a time. He remembers having his parents try to get back together in Mexico, but that was the year of the great earthquake in Mexico City, and so his mother got scared and they went back. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Kansas and to go to school, and she was a proud woman who would never do service jobs for white people to earn a living. When she died when he was just before his teenage years, he went to go live with his Aunt. During this time his Aunt took him to a Christian church, where they were praying over people to be saved. Everyone had gone up but him, because he believed he would get to see Jesus in the flesh, and he did not want to be dishonest about coming to Jesus. Finally, filled with guilt that he is the only one who hasn’t been saved, he comes to the front at the alter, and his Aunt is overjoyed. That night, he cries over having lied. His mother remarried, and he liked the man. Hughes was elected the poet for his school (it was integrated) because people made assumptions that all black people had rhythm and could dance, so they must be able to write poetry. He wrote his first poems there. He admits that his entire life, he rarely majorly edited poetry once it was down on the page. He also admits that most of his poetry and other work was written when he was miserable or unhappy rather than when he was happy.

In his late teenage years, his biological father wrote to him that he wanted him to come down to Mexico. His mother was upset about it, but he went anyway. There, he found out that his father was considered very American because all he cared about was money, but he was wiser than other Americans that came to Mexico because he was interested in keeping and saving his money. He hated Mexicans and many black people, and all poor people. Hughes was fairly miserable his first year there, because his father was always trying to force him to hurry places, and because he had to do bookkeeping and was no good with numbers. He got so angry at his father that it made him physically ill and he couldn’t eat for weeks, which landed him in a hospital that cost his father $20 a day to keep him there. After he was feeling better, his father sent him back to the US.  But the next time he went down to stay with his father, he spent more time to learn Spanish and became better friends with the Mexicans in town. A German woman also stayed with them (she later became his father’s wife), and she made the space more pleasant. His father expressed that he wanted to send him to college somewhere in Europe and have him come back to Mexico to be an engineer, but Hughes said he wanted to be a writer and did not want to go learn things he was no good at. His father told him that writers made no money and that if he was going to pay for college, Hughes would go where he wanted him to. He would also not be allowed to leave Mexico until he agreed to his father’s wishes.

So in order to escape, Hughes started tutoring Mexican children so they could speak English. Word spread that he was good at his job, and soon he was able to raise his rates and take on as much work as he wanted. He also got offered two jobs at colleges to teach English, and he took both jobs because scheduling worked for him. While working these jobs, he is lucky to narrowly escape death because a man who the German woman’s relation was working for thought that the German girl was sleeping with Hughes, and he, enraged, came to the house, shot the girl in the head three times, and went in search of Hughes to kill him, but couldn’t find him because he wasn’t home. The girl miraculously survived, and the man was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Hughes had made quite a bit of money, and he started thinking that he did want to go to college, but in NYC at Columbia. He and his father fought about it, but eventually his father agreed to send him there. On the train to New York City, he was mistaken as Mexican and when he said he was black, white people in the South would not serve him. He remembered the struggles of living as a black man in the US, and contemplated why it was so difficult for white people to interact with black people in the US when it was so easy for them to do so in other countries. He spent a year at Columbia, only to find he really disliked college, and so he quit and started looking for a job. But his father at that point had cut him off, his mother was looking for work and struggling, and he could not find a job that would take him, even if it were available, because he was a black man. He finally found a job working at a shipyard, and in the meantime he was having some of his poetry published by Crisis magazine. Alain Locke wanted to meet him and he had met several major figures of the New Negro movement, but he told Locke no because he was nervous and because he knew that Locke wouldn’t be able to get his way around the docks very easily and it could kill him if he weren’t careful. Before Hughes sets off to sea on his first voyage, he tosses all his books from college into the ocean, ridding himself of their weight both literally and figuratively.

Hughes set sail to Africa eventually and landed in many ports to find that the Africans did not consider him a black man because his skin was more brown than black. This astonished him, and he also saw the terrible effects of colonialization. He recalls having to watch a prostitute and a young girl coming on board in hopes of receiving money, and receiving no money but being forced to have sex with all the men on board who were interested, which was a group of about 30 men. He tired of this type of exploitation as well as the economic exploitation. As they were about to leave, he bought a red monkey, and many of the other soldiers did as well. There were adventures on the ship with those monkeys getting loose and winding up drowned or in missionaries’ beds or in the masts, but eventually all were caught. There were also many more antics and debauchery, and all the men were fired upon returning to the US. Hughes made his way to Cleveland, where his family was staying, and found himself penniless in order to make it there with the monkey, named Jocko, who he had bought for his younger brother. His mother was very upset to have it in the home, but his stepfather and brother liked it, so the monkey stayed. Then his stepfather’s mother came to town, and his mother had an ally to protest about the monkey. Then when his stepfather had the monkey out on the town one night and it got scared and destroyed the carpeting of a pool table, it cost them 25 dollars to have it replaced, and his mother was furious. Not long after Hughes left to go back to sea, she sold the monkey.

His second voyage, he got off to stay in Paris, but found himself unable to get a job because he was not a musician, dancer, or performer. He makes friends with a Russian dancer who got sick and whose company had dissolved, and who had no money. They share a cheap room, and she finds a job before he does. He finally gets a job as a doorman and then, through someone who liked his poetry, found a job as a dishwasher and then a cook. When the club he is working at goes nearly bust, they tried to fire the head cook, and he brought out a knife and threatened everyone, and they let him stay. And when they tried to fire Hughes, he threatened them again, so he got a job as a waiter. During his time there, he saw many fights and other antics. The Russian lady got a job at La Havre, and she leaves him, very sad. He then falls in love with a girl named Mary, who is very well-to-do. But when her father finds out what she’s been doing, first she is very chaperoned, and then she is forced to leave. Soon after that, he spends some time with Alain Locke, who is in town, and then when one day he is waiting on a famous poet, he shares his work. The poet “discovers” Hughes, and then he became wildly popular and many people came to the club looking to get a photo with the poet. He has more poems published but is never paid for them.

When the club had to close down for refurbishment and because of lack of business, he goes with some Italians to see Italy. He has enough money to enjoy his time, and Locke is also there and takes him to Venice and they enjoy their time. However, while in Genoa, he has his passport and all his money stolen, and the US embassy and consulate refuse to help him, so he lives homeless and in poverty, unable to get a job that will pay him enough to either get back to France or to find safe passage to America. He finally gets passage as a workman on a ship bound for NYC, and he is nearly kicked off in Spain for being late back to the ship, but he makes it back to the US with a quarter more than he had in France when he first landed. He makes his way to Washington, where his relatives are, and they want him to work in the Library of Congress, but it has too many needed qualifications and Hughes needed work, so he started working doing wet wash laundry for twelve dollars a week. His mother and the relatives had a dispute, and so he found them different accommodations, and they struggled to make ends meet. Carl Van Vechten contacted him and helped him publish a book of poetry at this point, but the elitist community would not welcome him or his mother because they were poor.

He makes his way back to Harlem in hopes of going to college, but he can’t get a scholarship. He talks of meeting Van Vechten and Jean Toomer, who could pass as white and refused to be labeled a “Negro Artist” much to critics’ dismay. He also met Zora Neale Hurston, who he had a good relationship for years until a dispute over a co-writing project. He speaks of Vechten and his parties, the decadence of the Harlem Renaissance and how the area was a victim of its own image. Hughes finally makes a bit of money off of some poetry, works as a personal assistant for a time, gets patronage to go to college at Lincoln, and visits and explores the South and takes a short voyage to Cuba and Jamaica, which he liked very much and would have kept doing if he hadn’t had to go back to college. During his final college years, he wrote a survey of the issues of the color line at Lincoln college, where all white professors taught a nearly all black student body. The founder of the college came up to him at graduation to tell him that as time passed, he would see that there was no way for him to do what he did in founding the school unless he could have had white patronage and made concessions. Hughes disagreed with him.

Around this time, he also received patronage to write and finish his novel Not Without Laughter, which he wishes would have been better because it is about the best of his family members. He receives a major literary award for it. He tries to write other things, but the white patron dislikes his work, and finally they part ways, and it makes him sick like he was with his father. He remembers all the decadence and security he experienced and remembers seeing the other people in the street starving because of the depression, and he remembers the disgust the white chauffeur had over being forced to drive a black man places. He went to the doctor to see what was wrong and spent a lot of money doing it, was told first he had a Japanese tape worm, and then told by a white doctor that he had no such thing. Then he got tonsillitis and had to have them out, using up the last of his money from the Park Street patron. After that, he immediately got better from his illness brought on by anger over the patron. It is during this time that he had his dispute with Hurston over the play they had been working on, and while it had been in production, it had to be shut down over the dispute. After that he went to Haiti and decided that he would make money writing for a living, and at the time of writing the autobiography, that is what he had done successfully.

Discussion of Work
This book gives an adventurous story about Langston Hughes’s life during his twenties. Its major dealings in terms of themes that cut across works of African American writing are the color line, economic oppression and poverty, travel narratives, and artistry, particularly writing and music. Hughes regularly comments on the struggles of being a black man, particularly when it comes to finding housing or a job. While he knows that other races are discriminated against, he knows they also have an easier time finding work, which makes all the difference. And he struggles with the knowledge that many of the black elite are not interested in changing the situation because they feel that there can be no progress unless they tell the white people what they want to hear. He states that while the Harlem Renaissance was happening, the majority of the black communities in America felt nothing change in their situation or economic or social standings. Economics and travel go hand-in-hand for Hughes, who travels in order to get money, which he can never keep as he comes back to the US, or even as he simply travels from one country to another. Job opportunities do not change, and while he doesn’t experience the same type of color prejudice, he does experience it in that the natives of the countries he visits dislike him for being a threat to their jobs.

Artistry is the other large portion of this narrative. He shows several of his poems and discusses when he wrote them and why. Much of his work was strongly influenced by blues songs and structures, which can be seen throughout much of his poetry with the AAB writing format, just as many blues lyrics are written. He also talks about how dance and music were a rich part of many black people’s lives, specifically citing the many rent parties and house parties he went to, some of which were certainly to help pay people’s rent, but others which were just hosted to be hosted. He provides several examples of printed up tickets for these events. He states that these parties were the spaces where he liked to be because black artistry was not put on display for racist white audiences. His understanding of what it is to be a black man or a black person in general is changed and given more value in an all-black space.

However, he also discusses the problems that come with the assumptions that all black people have rhythm and can dance and sing: he could not dance or sing, and those were almost the only jobs available to him in Europe and even in the US. The stereotype led to success for some, but not for long for many: once they were injured or could no longer work or could not work the grueling schedules or create enough new material, they often died in poverty. It ultimately narrowed black people’s options and avenues for success, even as it provided a rich culture and outlet for many. In discussion of his own work, he also talks about how a narrow view of what black artists should create doomed his work Fine Clothes to the Jew because critics and general public readers alike felt that the dialect and blues structures should not be used in his art: white people saw enough of that elsewhere, and writing was supposed to highlight the best to show people that black artists were capable of high art. The strict rules placed upon what a black artist could write or create further limited what people read, and who could be successful in the field of art.

Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry

Angelou, Maya. Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry. Random House, 2015.

Summary and Discussion of Work
This book is a compilation of all of Maya Angelou’s poetry. There are three main themes that I find running through Angelou’s poetry: black history, the passage of time, and feminism/black feminism. Her work also readily pulls from the black musical tradition of work songs, gospel songs, and the blues to structure her poetry.

For instance, “Times-Square-Shoeshine-Composition” demonstrate the caller shouting his pride at his work with the “(pow pow)” (34) as the response to those calls. “One More Round” and “Pickin Em Up and Layin Em Down” have the same form, with the refrain taking the form of a work song. Many of her poems about black womanhood take the sound of the female blues singer lamenting the loss of a lover who has either died, left her for someone else, or left to travel to different towns. Even if the format is not a blues format, the thematic elements are there to call to female blues singer song traditions. The gospel songs are felt in her poems such as “Just Like Job.” That particular poem calls to an important part of African American Christian beliefs, as Job was the prophet who endured the worst of life and persevered, receiving all that was his and more for his long-suffering and faith in the Lord.

One very important poem in the collection is “Still I Rise,” which takes a blues-like form in its poetic structure and repetition of the title’s phrase. It, like much of her poetry, is revealing of Angelou’s life experience, which tells of being continually forced into the dirt but not losing her fighting spirit and keeping hopes alive for a better future. This poem has the question “Does my sexiness upset you?” (159) written within it, calling attention to the black female body and the stereotypes and concerns historically surrounding black bodies, particularly black female bodies. Many other poems within the collection in some way or another also discuss the black female body and its structure, highlighting Angelou’s comfort and confidence in who she is that befuddles others, both black and white. She discusses how a fear of one’s own body can lead to being alone and dying, and how bodies have been taken captive through slavery in the past.

She focuses poems on the events of Civil Rights, of slavery, and of black-white relations, emphasizing the struggles, the failures, the trespasses, and the understanding or misunderstandings about how race relations work, particularly in the South. The collected poetry feels, as it is structured, like a continuation of her autobiography cycle, but also including the biographies of those deceased, news reels or memoirs of those living with her in the present, and prophecies of what is to come for future generations.

Her work is far more formally structured than the works of other poets I have read for my comprehensive exam lists, taking formal rhyme schemes and African American musical formats. None of her poetry contained within the collection is more than a few pages long at maximum, most being a page or less in length. However, the poems seem to relate across theme within each book of poetry in the larger collection: black womanhood and relationships, both familial and romantic; history, Civil Rights, and black-white relations; and personal struggle and triumph combined with religious fervor and music.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

 

 

James Baldwin, Go Tell It on the Mountain

Baldwin, James. Go Tell It on the Mountain. 1952. Vintage International, 2013.

Summary of Work
John, the stepson of Gabriel Grimes and son of Elizabeth, is sure he is expected to be a man of God, but he worries he is not yet saved. He knows that there is sin in him and he doesn’t know what to do about it. He goes to church regularly with his family. Elisha, the preacher’s son, comes into town, and he teaches Sunday school. John is having a hard time paying attention because he is focused so much on Elisha. He gets to watch Elisha dance before God and pray and sing, and he wants to be very much like Elisha. Elisha is once reprimanded for spending time with Ella Mae, Harriet Washington’s ward. They are publicly shamed in front of the congregation and made an example of for being together so often unchaperoned and unmarried. After that, Elisha never sees Ella.

John wakes up the next Saturday to realize it’s his fourteenth birthday, and wonders if his family will remember. Sometimes his family has completely forgotten. But he doesn’t make a fuss about it. He goes downstairs for breakfast and his mom and his brother Roy are having a heated discussion about their father Gabriel. Gabriel, a man of god and a former preacher, regularly beats his sons for disobedience. They are not allowed to play outside with other children or go to the movies or do anything that Gabriel Grimes considers unholy. So they spend their days in the house or at school doing work and they go to church as a family on Sundays. They also go on Saturday evenings to the prayer service and they regularly have Bible lessons.

When his mother asks him to do chores, he believes his mother has forgotten about his birthday. He does the chores, and afterwards his mother calls him in the kitchen. She gives him some coins and tells him he can go out and buy what he wants for his birthday, but that he needs to do so before his father comes home. He goes into New York City and determines that he will go see a movie, an activity which has been forbidden him by his father. He feels guilty as he starts watching the film, but as the film goes on he empathizes with the main character. John is tormented because he cannot decide if he wants to follow religion or if he wants to participate in what his father determines are sinful activities. He knows that the people in his school and at other places are good people, even though his father says they are sinners. His father has also told him to never trust a white person.

When he gets out of the movies he sees his sister Sarah running home with a package. He quickly follows and finds that his brother Roy has been sliced open with a knife from his temple to his eye. He had gone to the West side of town and picked a fight with white boys. His father is taking care of his son and is angry that John has been gone so long. John goes to take care of his baby sister. And his Aunt Florence is also there. They argue over what happened and over his wife’s inability to keep his son in the home, and Florence is defending his wife Elizabeth when Gabriel strikes his wife. Roy tells his father never to strike his mom again or he will kill him.

That evening John goes to the Church early to clean it before the Saturday evening prayer service. Elisha also comes along. They wrestle and then clean the Church. Slowly people come in and they start to pray as Elisha plays a sad tune on the piano. As Florence prays, she thinks back on her past: she was a girl born to a former slave, and her mother saw no need to move North. She forced her daughter to stay home instead of go to school so she could learn what her mother saw as the skill set she needed to be a wife, mother, and housekeeper in the South. Florence resented her brother Gabriel’s opportunities to learn and be out and about doing whatever he pleased, and felt disgusted at his philandering and drinking and gaming. His mother always asked him to come to God, but he never would. Then, as Florence’s mother was about to die and her employer had asked her to be his concubine, she decided to buy a ticket to New York and leave everything behind. Her family tries to stop her, but she goes North and gets a job and finally meets a husband, who is a bluesman and who wastes his money on drink and frivolous things. She loves him, but always fights with him. One day he comes home and they have a large fight and he never comes back. She finds out from his mistress years later that he has died in the war in France. She is heartbroken.

As Gabriel watches his sister pray, he prays and thinks back on his life. After his sister left he became a preacher, and he was very successful. He marries Deborah, a woman who had been gang raped by white men in a field as a young girl. She is plain and eight years his senior, but very faithful and a woman of God. She is barren, and one day he meets a young woman named Esther who he is tempted by. While they are at work together, she gets a little drunk and lures him into the house, and he decides to sleep with her. They have sex together for nine days, and then he determines he can no longer be unfaithful and ends the affair. But she gets pregnant. He will not leave his wife and marry her and wants nothing to do with her, so he steals his wife’s savings and gives it to Esther to go to Chicago. She dies in childbirth there, and her family brings her body back and buries it, and take care of the baby, Royal. Royal is the name he was going to give his firstborn son. He watches his son grow up but will not claim him, and he dies in a knife fight in Chicago when he is 18. When he learns this and breaks down, Deborah admits that she knows about the affair and wants to know why he never admitted it and claimed his son. She tells him that he had better repent and keep repenting until he knows for certain God has forgiven him. She dies soon later from her illness. Florence also knows about her brother’s sins because Deborah sent her a letter about it.

Elizabeth was the daughter of a bluesman. Her mother died young, and she was taken away from her father by her Aunt, who believed her father would not raise her right. Elizabeth resented her Aunt for it her whole life and hated the church. While living in the South she met Richard, the store boy, and they fell in love. She follows him to New York City, and they work in the same hotel together. She starts sleeping with him and gets pregnant, but doesn’t tell him. One early morning when they stay out too late, he takes her back to Harlem but then gets caught in a bad situation that lands him in jail. The cops tell her he robbed a store, even though he didn’t and was simply caught in the crosshairs. He will not sign a confession, and he is severely beaten. The cops let her see him, and he stands trial and is found innocent on others’ testimony. He is broken when he gets out of prison and he kills himself, and she never gets to tell him she is pregnant. She still works to take care of herself and the baby, and now she lives in her own space instead of her Aunt’s friend’s home, but she is miserable. She meets Florence, and confides in her about her son and his daddy. She becomes fast friends with Florence, and when Gabriel comes to town, she doesn’t understand why Florence doesn’t like him. Gabriel ends up marrying Florence and promising he will raise the child like his own. She thinks about his promise and that he kept the word but not the spirit. Gabriel hates that John is more righteous than his own son, and cannot stand the thought of John being better than his flesh and blood.

John falls under the power of the Lord and has a vision of going through the gates of hell and being under Satan’s power, and being lifted up by Christ. The congregation is elated that he has been saved. Elisha helped him through the process. The only people who are not so happy are his mother and stepfather. As they walk in the morning light, for they have prayed all night long in the Pentecostal Church, Elisha and John talk about praying and staying on the path to God. Florence and Gabriel talk about Gabriel’s past and Gabriel is furious that Florence knows and that she knows how much he hates John. Elizabeth is crying for her past love and for the lack of love Gabriel has for her son and herself and the sorrow he has brought into her life as the other members of the Church talk about how amazing it is that John has so young discovered the path to God and been saved. As Elisha and John get to John’s home, John wishes to tell him about his father, but only asks for Elisha to always pray for him and be with him. He walks into the house at his father’s bidding before Sunday services later that morning.

Brief Note on Themes
Religion and how it works within people is a large theme in this book. This is particularly true for how certain truths for certain individuals lead them in specific paths and often lead to their downfall as they think their way is the only right way. What does it mean to be saved? How can a person come to be saved through Christ? And can a person stay saved, or are they destined to continually fail and fall into sin?

There is also a theme of finding identity and what it means to be religious and American and living in the North versus the South as a black person. Black identity is also overtly discussed, as each of these people come to learn what it means to be black in America and to in one way or another fear and resent white people and their power.

The power of the word of God through the Bible and through prophecy are always present in the work. There is a big tension between being part of the world and being part of religion. This is always in some way or other expressed using the blues and bluesmen and the jook joint spaces they are played in as a secular representation, and the church and the Bible and God as contrast. That tension is a long and well established running theme in black history, and many preachers were at some point bluesmen before they turned to God. Others were originally preachers who turned to blues. So there is a lot to explore in the ways the “world” is represented in comparison to religion. It’s also interesting that dance is associated with the Bible and God, and there does seem to be a sense of possession, much like the mounting of the Vodun, in black Christian worship in the book. When blues is mentioned, any activities surrounding it are always linked to sex. This continues to show that the music and dances, both done secularly and religiously, have the same call and response ties, the same roots.

Family relationships and sexual relationships and dalliances, are also very common in this work, and love as real and love as convenience are explored. Gabriel loves for duty or convenience: he marries those he thinks will bring him closer to God because he is called to lift them up. Elizabeth comes the closest to finding true love with Richard because no matter what they stick together until he commits suicide. Florence falls into the trap of loving someone to have someone around, and though she does love her husband, she cannot truly forget his faults.

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Viking P, 1949.

Summary of Work
Salesman Willy Loman comes back to his home after struggling to drive to Boston. He tells his wife Linda that he is just too distracted on the road and cannot go to Boston that evening, and that he will try again tomorrow. He inquires after his boys, who are visiting. Linda says they went out together and are now asleep in their old room. Linda asks him if he is hungry or would like to go to bed, but he says he will go downstairs himself and take care of it. He starts talking to himself downstairs, and it wakes his boys, Happy and Biff. Happy tells Biff it has been going on for a long time, and that it gets worse when Biff comes into town. Biff is worried his father is going crazy.

Willy’s neighbor Charley is also awoken, and comes over to play cards with him. Willy, however, is still talking to his dead brother Ben, who struck riches in Africa, so Charley leaves. When the boys come down and start making worried comments and say things against their father, Linda tells the boys that Willie has lost his salary and works solely on commission, and hasn’t been making any money, but actually borrowing it from Charley. Biff determines that evening that he will stick around in New York City even though he doesn’t want to (he’s a bum who goes from job to job out West), and he talks with Happy about meeting an old boss to invest in a sports company they have an idea for. Willie gets very excited, getting more delusions in his head about the grandiose things his eldest sone will do. When they finally get Willie up into bed, Linda tells her sons that their father has been trying to kill himself for some time now by crashing his car, and he has a rubber pipe in the cellar that he’s used to try and kill himself. Biff is so furious that he goes down to the cellar and gets the rubber pipe, putting it in his pocket.

The next morning the boys leave early, and Willie determines he will go to the office and demand a job in New York City rather than having to travel for work. And Linda tells Willie that the boys are planning on having him at a restaurant for a fancy dinner. Upon going into the office, he is made to listen to a dictation device recording that his boss, Howard, has used the night previously with his family. When he finally gets around to having the job change discussion with Howard, he fires him despite the over three decades Willie has spent with the company. This throws Willie into another fit of delusion, and he remembers back to the football game his son Biff played and all the colleges that were after him. He wanders over to Charley’s office and talks to Charley’s son Bernard about the past, asking why his son never made anything of himself. Bernard talks about Biff flunking math and not making it up in summer school, and asks him about what happened when Biff went to see him in Boston. This throws Willie into even deeper fits of delusion and he fights with Bernard, saying that nothing happened and he can’t help that his boy just rolled over and failed.

Bernard leaves when his father Charley comes in to talk with Willie. Charley tells him that his son is now leaving to go try a court case before the Supreme Court, and Willie is sick with jealousy. He asks Charley for another hundred or so dollars to make the insurance payments, and Charley asks him why he doesn’t just take the job he offered him for 50 a week. Willie gets mad and admits that he lost his job but he just can’t work for Charley. Charley angrily hands him the money, and as Willie is leaving, he admits to Charley that he’s the only friend he has. He meets his sons for dinner, and Biff tries and fails to tell his father that he didn’t get in to see Oliver and did not get the money. Upon several failed attempts, Biff leaves the restaurant in a fury. Happy, the whole time, has been courting two women and trying to sweep the family drama under the rug. Willie wanders into the interior of the restaurant toward the stairs, and Happy states that Willie isn’t his father, pays the check, and leaves with the women.

Willie goes into another flashback where he is in Boston with his mistress and Biff unexpectedly comes knocking at the door. He hides her in the bathroom and opens the door, talking with Biff about the failed math class. While he is talking with his son, his mistress comes out and Biff is horrified and will not do anything his dad says after that, calling him a phony and a fake. The waiter Stanley helps him out of the restaurant and gets him on his way home. When the boys return home, their mother is furious, stating that they should get out and never come back because they left their father in the restaurant. Biff goes out to his father, who is planting a garden in the middle of the night and talking to his dead brother Ben about killing himself to give his family the insurance money. Biff tells his father that he’s never been anyone and that no one in the family ever has; they’ve all lied about themselves and their goings on their entire lives. He explains that over the last few months he’s been in jail for stealing a suit, and he stole his way out of every single job he ever worked. He determines he will leave and never come back because it will be better for everyone involved, especially his Dad. He grabs his father and starts crying, and his father comes to realize that his son does love him, but Willie is unable to get rid of his delusions of grandeur about his son. With the reassurance that his son loves him and the thoughts that he will one day be a great man, Willie goes through with his suicide plan and crashes his car.

The family goes to his funeral, but no one else attends. Linda doesn’t understand why she can’t cry about her husband’s death. Biff feels like his father never knew who he really was, which is why he ended up killing himself. And Charley feels that he died the true death of a salesman.

 

Brief Note on Themes
This play goes a long way in exploring the heart of the American Dream and what its real value is, as well as what a failure to reach that dream does to people as they age. The structure of the play experiments with the idea of life as a series of memories, and what happens when there is no growth or improvement: people live in the past to live with themselves, and when it brings regrets, brings bitterness. In order for these people to live with themselves, they create mythologies or legends surrounding their family members and themselves; it is hard to know if Ben actually struck rich or if it is a story that Willie made up to feel better about his family.  The whole of their family’s identity is based on performance, on presenting a likable image to the world with the idea that image alone will get you ahead. The American West is an escape for Biff, although Biff realizes that the dreams of making it big in the frontier are far flung.