Louise Erdrich, Future Home of the Living God

Erdrich, Louise. Future Home of the Living God. HarperCollins, 2017.

Summary of Work
Cedar is insistent that she is going to go meet her birth mother on the reservation for the Ojibwe people, but her adoptive mother and father, Sarah and Glen, are worried about her going. There is social unrest, and it may collapse the nation. Still, she insists on going, and she meets her family and tells them that she’s four months pregnant. She met a man at her Church and they unexpectedly fell in love and slept with each other in the basement of the church after a performance of the nativity. Everyone is happy for her, but also worried.

Evolution has started running backwards, and there are rumors that pregnant women have children who are primitive versions of humans. Soon, the government mandates through a new addition to the Patriot Act that all women are to turn themselves in and if they do so voluntarily, they will be given the best rooms and care in the hospitals. Cedar locks herself in her house with provisions and tradable goods, mainly cigarettes and booze, and does not leave the house. She notices that all of a sudden, there are no brown skinned people in the news or on TV anymore, and she wonders if there are any left outside either. Her partner, Mike, keeps calling but she won’t answer, so he comes over and pounds on the door until she lets him in. They talk, and he tells her that he wants to stay with her and protect her because the government is now offering rewards for turning in pregnant women. Cedar goes nearly insane being forced to stay inside, and she convinces Mike to let her go with him to get Subway sandwiches. While she is sitting in the car, she watches the cops take a pregnant woman off the street and beat her husband while their daughter looks on and bystanders hide her. It traumatizes Cedar, and she stays inside. She accidentally lets herself be seen by the mailman Hero, but he hides her and tells her to stay inside because the government officials will catch her.

By this time the US proper has dissolved and all governments are regionally run; all street signs are renamed biblical verses. Mike forges marriage papers for them so he can register their home. Meanwhile, a mysterious woman who calls herself Mother keeps popping up on Cedar’s computer screen, even after they unplug the internet, bury their cell phones, and break the computer. One day, Mike leaves, and a woman forcibly enters the home and steals Cedar away. She is forced into a hospital, where they drug her. When her roommate Agnes tells her to stop taking her “vitamins,” she comes to and realizes how terrible her condition is. She watches Agnes try to break out and fail, and then she is whisked away to an operating room to have her child, and no one will tell Cedar what happened. She gets a new Asian roommate, who never speaks and spends her time unraveling blankets to create yarn and then a rope so they can escape out the window. Cedar helps her do this, and in the process, she learns from her mother Sarah, who is undercover trying to save pregnant women, that Mike is the one who turned her in after he was captured and tortured. Sarah helps them escape, but not before they have to murder a nurse to save themselves. Tia, the Asian roommate, has her baby in a cave, but it is stillborn. When they emerge from the cave, Tia insists that she go back with her husband because she is no longer pregnant and not a target, and Sarah takes Cedar to the reservation, where Eddie, Cedar’s stepfather, is now government head.

She is happy there, despite her confinement, and she feels safe. Sarah is upset over her daughter’s pregnancy, and also reveals that Glen is actually her biological father; it was one of his short-livid dalliances. Eddie gets Cedar forged tribal papers and gives her back her birth name: Mary Potts. Then, one night when she is sleeping on her half-sister’s floor, she hears someone come in. She hides in the mess of clothes on the floor, and is hidden so well that when the woman, who sounds just like the woman from the computer screen, comes in the room search for her, she cannot find her. Soon after that, things spiral downward. She has been going out now and again with tribal family members because Eddie has guaranteed that the government is not taking the tribal women because they are protected. In fact, Eddie has been reclaiming original tribal lands with success. But one night Mike comes and gets her and asks her to go with him. He explains that she is highly valued because she is carrying one of the originals, an untainted genetic child, and if she goes with him they can start their own following and government. She says he is crazy, and he leaves without her. Then, when she and her biological mother are praying at the statue of a saint, Cedar is again kidnapped, this time by poor travelers who are in need of money and want to turn her in for the reward.

Cedar is placed in a prison facility in Stillwater, which serves as an insemination facility. She learns that women are being picked up for minor or imagined infractions if they are of childbearing age and being forcibly inseminated. They are all required to have their pictures taken, and Cedar comes to learn that is because when they die, which they all do from pregnancy complications caused by the reverse evolution, their pictures are put up on a wall in the commons area. During one of her appointments she meets a woman who had helped her to escape the first time, but she realizes that this time there will be no escape. Instead, she asks Jesse to look after her baby, which she promises to do. Cedar gives birth successfully, but she barely gets to see her child, and her heart is damaged from the delivery and she barely survives. When she recovers, she is not released from the facility, as was originally promised, but forcibly inseminated. The story ends with her still writing her story to her child, who she hopes will someday read her story.

Discussion of Work
While largely considered a failure of a novel for Louise Erdrich, the novel does pose some intriguing questions about female reproductive rights. A dystopic science fiction novel, the narrative explores the personhood of women at a time when the species is endangered. Women become objects rather than people, first promised some sort of decent care for turning themselves in if pregnant, and then having the tables turned on them as the situation worsens. One of the important points which is subtly noted throughout the novel is that the majority of the women who are taken are people of color: white people are largely exempt from the government mandates, although white people who find a problem with the forcible detainment and insemination of women are eliminated or forced into the system.

While it is not fully pursued, the issue of dual identity is broached. It is only when Cedar decides that she wants to embrace her full identity that, that identity is stripped from her, as she is stripped of the chance to learn more than she does. The novel is an experiment with female identity: is it motherhood, fertility, sex, or something altogether different? This is also a set of questions asked about the children these women are forced to have: what will their status be? Will they be treated similarly to how we treat endangered animal species? Global warming and how humans change nature is another subtle theme, with a discussion of how the situation came to be. The change started when there was no more winter and the glaciers were gone, the continental ice and permafrost releasing bacteria or some sort of toxin into the air which causes the reverse evolution.

This is also a discussion of how the world ends, which, as Cedar keeps being surprised over, is not very chaotic. People keep going about their daily lives and adapting to the biological changes to their food and the environment around them. Essentially, the world does not go out violently, but quietly, with only one specific group of people, women of childbearing age, affected by the reproduction issue.

bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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