Thomas F. Defrantz, Editor, Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African American Dance

Defrantz, Thomas F, ed. Dancing Many Drums: Excavations in African

American Dance. U of Wisconsin P, 2002.

Summary of Work
For the purposes of my comprehensive exam list studies and dissertation research, I read chapters 1 – 7 of this edited collection. The work broadly covers how African American dance has been perceived and performed from slavery to near the present day. Thomas F. Defrantz starts off the collection by briefly discussing the struggles of terminology for African American dance. He states that he will use the term black dance or black vernacular dance in spaces where there are only people of color present, but always uses African American dance to refer to the same thing in mixed cultural groups. The reasoning is complex, and largely revolves around the history of the term black dance: it was often used as a pejorative, a term that meant it was lesser than European dances like ballet. White dance critics did not understand the cultural underpinnings of the work and made no efforts to understand or learn, meaning that the reviews in the paper of performance works were often derogatory or backhandedly complimentary.

While there were two important works on African American dance in the mid 1900s—Jean and Marshall Stearns’ Jazz Dance: The Story of American Vernacular Dance and Lynne Fauley Emery’s Black Dance in the United States from 1619 to 1970—there are problems with both of those works. The Stearns put a focus on the term vernacular, making very clear that the dance styles they are talking about will never be high art or even really considered worthy of such a title. Emery’s work tries to document too much in travelogue form, and she doesn’t consider that there is more to these dances than race and the slavery-to-freedom narrative. Yet these two works are the foundation for the few other books that have been written on African American dance forms, and since the records on the dance forms are poor, there are a strange amount of methodological approaches taken to studying and writing about the dances. Defrantz states that the best scholarship out of the last decades of the twentieth century comes from scholars Kariamu Welsh Asante, Katrina Hazzard-Gordon, Jacqui Malone, and Brenda Dixon Gottschild. Their works have served to diversify the scholarship on African American dance.

P. Sterling Stuckey discusses the challenges of converting African religious dance tradition into Christian worship. He briefly discusses the forced dancing on the boats during the Middle Passage crossing, and then goes on to say that the fact that the dances remained even after that and all the oppression and hardship they faced proves the importance of dance in African culture. But since there was such a mix of tribes, the dancing changed to become a language of slavery and communication across cultural boundaries. Stuckey then moves his focus to the Ring Shout, discussing it as a form of worship that involved shouting praises and shuffling the feet side to side while in a circle. Despite the many attempts to stop the practice, black people found ways to keep it in their worship. Stuckey also states that these dances were able to cross from religious to secular, and that while many times the steps were the same, the context is what made the dance different; thus, much like the African understanding of secular versus sacred, the line between the two is blurred. He states that Frederick Douglass and James Baldwin best describe the function and uses of these dances, citing Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain specifically as an example: the character Elisha performs a solo form of Ring Shout in the church as he dances and the crowd and preacher join in, creating something almost akin to Juba. The novel also contains prime examples of the Ring Shout in communal form at the church as it is done to tambourines and piano music, indicating that the Ring Shout is a very important and all-encompassing religious experience for these black Christian communities.

Nadine A. George discusses the struggles that black female vaudeville performers faced when going on the circuit. She focuses specifically on the Whitman sisters, discussing their rise as gospel focused performers and then moving away from the gospel performance to do vaudeville shows. They were light skinned, meaning that they could pass as white, and they performed on both the white vaudeville circuit and the TOBA circuit. George states that to their credit, they never did deny their black racial heritage, and yet that also brought its own set of challenges. These women, in order to “look black,” donned blackface and performed in it for most of the show. They also performed some stereotypical acts in order to keep the crowd pleased, and they were often fighting to get paid the rates that they had been promised. They were also in charge of being matriarchs to the picks that they had traveling with them, knowing that if they didn’t take good care of the children, it would ruin their business. At the same time as all of this was going on, they also often dyed their hair blonde and came out on stage for one number without the blackface, confusing many audiences because they wondered what white women were doing on stage during a black minstrel/vaudeville performance. They also had crossdressing acts, which challenged expected gender norms. Their business acumen and talent made these women the longest running vaudeville performing group, and they gave many great dancers their start, including Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. In spending more time looking at the challenges, both gender and racial, they faced to accomplish all of this, George hopes their work will be more widely recognized and studied.

Marya Annette McQuirter discusses the myth of black people having natural dance talent, particularly focusing her studies on the 1940s forward. She states that there are problems with that precisely because every dancer goes through an awkward learning stage, but that stage is never represented in any studies or literature. Taking Malcolm X’s autobiography as an examples, she states that he goes directly from being unable to dance from lack of experience to a top jitterbug dancer magically: it is his African heritage that mysteriously gives him the ability rather than teachers helping him through awkward learning stages. It is narratives like that which put fuel on the fire of the stereotype of the natural black dancer. McQuirter states that there were many black people, especially those coming from the countryside, who did not dance and could not dance. If they wanted to go out on the town when they moved to the cities, they then had to go through an awkward learning stage in order to be able to dance at the clubs. As a parting statement, McQuirter asks her readers to realize that “The dance arena . . . did not offer a retreat from this awkwardness, but it was where women and men worked out the complex and difficult moves required to navigate the new and different terrain of urban centers throughout the United States at mid-twentieth century” (99).

Richard C. Green focuses on the career of Pearl Primus, a phenomenal black dancer who made many of her choreographic works about social issues (including the famous choreography to Billy Holliday’s Strange Fruit). Learning her dancing skill set at the New Dance Group’s school on a scholarship, she was influenced by the government’s efforts to use art to placate a people ready to riot. Her work was also shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, with figures like Locke and Hughes and Garvey speaking out about how to solve the “Negro Problem.” When she made her professional debut, she was very well received, and yet at the same time she did not rise to the fame that Josephine Baker and other lighter skinned performers did. Primus was considered a “real” black dancer due to her skin color combined with her dance movement choices. She did perform on Broadway and in an opera, and she staged many performances, some of which had lukewarm receptions, Given her history, it is troubling to Green that Primus is being used as a rebranding tool for both black dance and modern dance, her history being revised or erased in places that it becomes no longer a full picture of Primus. The revisionism reveals a truly American Dilemma where people feel they have to choose between calling Primus a black dancer and calling her a modern dancer. With revisionism like this occurring to push specific racialized agendas, it becomes even more important to be able to preserve a full picture of Primus as a dancer.

Marcia E. Heard and Mansa K. Mussa give a brief overview of African people like Asadata Dafora and Katherine Dunham who started African dance companies in NYC, many of which still operate today, although only three companies in the country are internationally recognized: Ko-Thi, Muntu Dance Theater, and the African American Dance Ensemble.

Sally Banes and John F. Szwed discuss the history of the instructional dance songs, which create a form of dance notation for people to learn popular dances of the time. They state that the instruction song was a long-standing tradition among black communities, where they would use songs to call out dance steps. The songs were always only part of the picture for learning the dance: the songs assumed some level of familiarity with dance steps that would be taught in communities or at parties on a dance floor. There would be people present who could help others who were unfamiliar with the dances learn. The songs take many forms that reassure the listeners that the dances are popular, that everyone is doing them, that they are easy to learn, and that they should learn it too. They give examples in the text such as “Mashed Potato Time” and “The Locomotion” as well as “The Monkey” and “The Twist” and “The Jerk.” The songs had declined by the 60s but saw a revamp in the 70s with the Disco age, but the songs were much less specific with their instruction. The only place that such songs seem to exist in the present day is in country line dances done to country music. Banes and Szwed conclude by stating that these instruction songs contradict Adorno’s belief that popular music was an opiate, because these songs required their audiences to pay close attention, and they were encoded with specific cultural and communal knowledge. The one problem that the instructional song poses is that of appropriation: by making the moves mainstream, they are often watered down and found bereft of their cultural heritage.

Veta Golar discusses the blues aesthetic, stating that it is more than just sad songs and hard times, but comes to embody “(1) art that is contemporary, that is created in our time, (2) creative expresssions of artists who are empathetic with African American issues and ideals, (3) work that identifies with and reflects popular or mass black American culture, (4) art that has an affinity with African/U.S.–derived music and/or rhythms, and (5) artists and/or artistic statements whose raison d’être is humanistic” (206). These aesthetic ideals combine to create something that is important to cultural production and black art forms. Golar states that Albert Murray’s belief is that it focuses and relies very much on vernacular. Therefore, the popular is the heart of the blues aesthetic. This aesthetic also opens up the blues to non-black artists. She looks at Dianne McIntyre’s work to discuss how the blues aesthetic can be seen in modern dance, stating that the rhythms she uses are a big part of that aesthetic. She performed many different dances that included dances which highlighted black cultural roots. Her aesthetic movement choices made the blues aesthetic clearer and more accessible to many audiences outside of black cultural audiences and connects those experiences to other people’s lives; her work is a form of cultural outreach.

Discussion of Work
The theory section of this collection will be very useful to me for my dissertation for a number of reasons, but perhaps most importantly that there is a reference to James Baldwin’s work in the piece on Christianity and AfAm Dance. Stuckey’s chapter specifically deals with not only the cultural importance of the Ring Shout but also the transference of that tradition into literary culture. The dance is an entryway to understand the cultural importance of the religious worship in Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain. The presence of the Ring Shout multiple times throughout the work demonstrates that it is important to be aware of the dance’s cultural importance in order to properly read or analyze the work as a whole and its representation of black church worship services. The literature is as much a cultural artifact as the dances, and it requires readers to have a level of cultural competency in order to fully understand and appreciate the works instead of consume them and appropriate the material for our own popular or scholarly purposes. This is particularly true of scholars, who have argumentative agendas in writing about these works: refusing to acknowledge the important cultural points in the work becomes an act of assimilation into the broader term of Western, and therefore white, culture.

Generally speaking, the collection brings up important discussion questions: should we be referring to the dances done as black vernacular dances, African American dances, idiom dances, or something different from all of those? How can words, performers, and dances be reclaimed from a pejorative history? At what point is someone appropriating black art forms (in creating, using, consuming without knowledge of the roots of the art form)? What motivations do we as writers have when we approach this rich cultural history to make arguments about the dances’ validity? How can we avoid the dangers of the need to create an “Africanist” notion of African American dance?

 

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary of Work
Ruth and Walter Younger, their son Travis, and Walter’s sister Beneatha and mother Lena all live together in a small, two bedroom apartment on the South side of Chicago. Walter’s father has died, and after months of waiting, they are expecting an insurance check for ten thousand dollars. It is all Walter can think about, and over breakfast, Ruth tries to keep order as Beneatha and Walter fight about what will be done with the money. Ruth is acting strange, and she is particularly hard on Travis when he asks for money he needs for school, and harder on him when he asks to be able to deliver groceries after school in order to make the money himself. Walter gives his son $1 and sends him on his way, much to Ruth’s dismay. Walter wants to go into business with his friends to buy a liquor store, and he is upset that Ruth is always so worried about money but won’t let him do anything to change their situation. He is insistent that his mother will give him the insurance money to go into business. He leaves for work, Beneatha leaves for school (she is in college and wanting to become a doctor), and when Lena comes out, she starts fussing over Ruth and then talking about how she doesn’t know her children anymore. Ruth collapses.

She goes to the doctor and learns she is pregnant, and she is devastated. However, the next day, the check comes, and everyone starts out happy. Lena tells Ruth that she’s thinking about putting some money away for Beneatha so that she can go to school, and then trying to decide what to do with the rest. She thinks she might buy a house. Walter is angry that she won’t invest in the liquor store scheme, and he goes to leave, but Lena makes him stay, trying to get him to listen to Ruth’s important announcement. He just yells at Ruth, and she goes in her room. Lena tells him that Ruth is pregnant, and Ruth comes out to talk about it. She talks to her family about her trip to the doctor, and lets slip the wrong pronoun, indicating to Lena that Ruth actually went to see the woman who would help her get an abortion. Ruth confirms this, stating that with how Walter is acting and the financial state they are in, it doesn’t make sense to bring a child into the world. Lena, feeling like her world is falling apart, leaves the house with the check that has come in the mail.

When Lena returns, she’s bought a house, but in the white area of town rather than the black area. The family doesn’t know what to say, worried about what will happen. Beneatha, meanwhile, has been going out with different men. One, George, is the son of one of the richest men in town, and the family would like to see her keep dating him and potentially marry him. But Beneatha likes Asagai, the Nigerian who is in Chicago going to college to learn about democracy so he can bring revolution to his country. He brings her a beautiful Nigerian set of clothing, and she puts it on, and he comments that her hair isn’t natural, and that’s sad. She goes to the hairstylist and has it cut off. When she returns, all dressed up, she starts dancing how she imagines a Nigerian woman would dance, and Walter walks in and sees her. He is drunk, and starts wildly dancing as he imagines an African warrior would dance. It is this scene that Ruth and George walk in on, and George is flabbergasted at her dress and her hair. She comments that it’s natural, but she goes to change clothing for their date. Walter, still drunk, sits down, sullen. He makes crude comments about George and about how he dresses, and then they leave. Walter continues his bad attitude to Ruth, but they get talking, and he starts making up with her.

Lena, meanwhile, sees how sullen her son is, and she decides to give him the remainder of the money, the 6500 dollars, to invest as he sees fit, as long as he puts 3500 of it in a bank account for Beneatha. He is ecstatic, and becomes a completely different man. He even takes his wife to the movies and dances the Slow Drag with her. The kids get their mother a set of gardening tools to work with, since she now has the space to garden that she always wanted. They all get ready to leave by helping pack, when a man comes to the apartment to tell them that the white community doesn’t want them there, and they are willing to pay them more than they paid for the house to sell. The children are upset, and they tell him no and to leave. A neighbor also comes over with a newspaper to scare them by showing them the headlines of black people’s homes getting burned when they move into white neighborhoods. Not long after that, Walter’s friend comes around and tells him that their other friend and business partner has run off with all the money. They are broke. Walter is dumbstruck, especially because he didn’t follow his mother’s direction and invested the whole of the 6500 dollars rather than set aside the 3500 for Beneatha.

Everyone is upset and angry at Walter for his poor judgment. They start talking about needing to stay in the apartment now, because they cannot afford the mortgage without that extra money. Walter calls the man from the Homeowners Association in order to accept the offer for the house. Lena is sad and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself, and that his father wouldn’t recognize the man he’d become, because he wasn’t a man. And Walter won’t listen. Instead, he puts on a parody of what he’ll say when the man comes, choking himself up with the words as he says it. When the man actually comes, he realizes that he cannot do it, and he regains his dignity and tells the man that they are going to keep the home and that the white community will have to deal with them moving in.

Lena and Ruth talk about how they just watched Walter learn what being a real man is as they get ready to take the moving boxes down and direct the movers on how to carry the furniture. Beneatha talks about how Asagai has proposed to her and that she is thinking of accepting so she can move to Nigeria with him and be a queen, and both Lena and Walter talk to her about how she is too young to be getting married and that she should stay here and marry someone rich, like George. She is upset and still talking about it when she leaves the apartment. Lena is the last one to leave the apartment, happy and yet nostalgic about her husband. She grabs her plant, which has struggled to survive in the apartment environment, and turns the light off on the space.

Discussion of Work
This play explores themes of poverty and discrimination in Chicago: the abysmal conditions of the kitchenettes that black families are forced to live in and pay ridiculous rent for; few economic opportunities; discrimination from the economically wealthy black elite; racism from even poor whites in similar economic situations; and pipe dreams such as the “Back to Africa” movement and better economic situation through education.

The play also explores the meaning of gender roles and expectations within black families. Ruth is as much a breadwinner as she is a housekeeper, and her decisions are what goes for the whole family, often making her husband feel like less of a man when it comes to financial decisions and decisions regarding his own life choices. And yet what Walter comes to understand about his role is that it is owning up to mistakes, standing up and supporting his family both emotionally (when they learn they will be having another child) and physically (when he must stand up to the white HOA representative and when he tries, and fails, to stand up for and do what’s right by his mother’s trust and insurance money). Children’s roles are a main focus of the play, both with Ruth and Walter’s little boy and with Walter and Beneatha as Lena’s children. There is a level of obedience and respect that is expected, and when not shown, it in effect collapses the family unit because the people with the life experience and wisdom are not heeded (Beneatha disregarding marriage advice and basic life advice; Walter disregarding financial advice and friend advice; Ruth disregarding childbearing advice).

For the purposes of my dissertation, dancing features in this play in two separate instances: when Beneatha puts on the Nigerian robes, and when Walter and Ruth slow drag in the living room. The first instance highlights a particularly problematic obsession with Africa and the need to hearken back to African roots. African Americans, while certainly their culture does have African roots, is not African. And the imitation African movements come off as not only false, but disrespectful and comical. Just as Beneatha does not fit within the Nigerian culture that Asagai would have her assimilate to, African Americans cannot magically regain “Africanness” by dressing in native garb and attempting African dance ritual. The second instance highlights what happens when Walter becomes happy about his life prospects again and takes Ruth to the movies and then comes back home with her, still elated about his financial gain. A blues song is playing in the background, and they dance in the living room, much to Beneatha’s chagrin. Still hooked on the idea of going back to Africa, she cannot fully accept or appreciate her own culture, which Walter and Ruth have embraced both in music and physical movement. The space demonstrates that these dances are done in multiple spaces and for multiple reasons, whether they be to release sad or happy emotions, to engage in romantic entreaties, to engage in social convention, or other reasons altogether. The acceptance of the space, dance, and moment create a level of happiness and authentic cultural experience that the African dance scene lacks in its farcical display.

Chinua Achebe, “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness'”

Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of

Darkness.” Massachusetts Review, 1977,

polonistyka.amu.edu.pl/__data/assets/pdf_file/0007/259954/Chinua-Achebe,-

An-Image-of-Africa.-Racism-in-Conrads-Heart-of-Darkness.pdf.

Summary of Work
In this article, Achebe discusses the racism that the West holds, particularly in its views of Africa. He builds his argument around Joseph Conrad’s famous novel Heart of Darkness, the story of a narrator’s journey through the Congo to find one Mr. Kurtz. He states that the images, particularly in Conrad’s obsession with blackness and the darkness of not just the Natives’ skin color, but the land itself, shows Africa as the antithesis to England and the rest of the civilized world: Conrad is obsessed with the primitive nature of Africa and its people in an attempt to show that Europe was able to conquer that darkness, but that there is danger in interacting with people and places who have not yet conquered that savagery, because the savagery could engulf the civilized and lead them back to primitivism.

Conrad is unkind to the native peoples in his novel, showing them always in a frenzy, or dying, or otherwise running around. They are not given language, but grunts and sounds and physical actions. The only two times when they are given language are when they are cannibals asking for people to eat or the slave man telling the narrator that Mr. Kurtz is dead: those examples, Achebe states, are purposeful in that they are made to show how horrific these people are and how awful the state they are in as black people. Given these images, it is clear that Conrad is racist, and it is surprising to Achebe that in all the years of scholarship, no one seems to even want to admit that or deal with it. It is a blind spot in the Western world because people in the West have so long used Africa as a foil of themselves, insisting that Africa is as backward as Europe is enlightened. So when people say that they are not aware that Africa has art or history, it is part of that tradition of racism and colonialism. In order for any good or real communication between Africa and Europe and North America to happen, the West must first relinquish its long-held beliefs about the primitiveness of the African continent and the African people.

Discussion of Work
This piece discusses racism in a way that I think is very telling: it shows that what has happened is that the West has fallen prey to a single story about Africa. A single story is powerful, in that it can give people motivations or reasons to conquer or oppress people in the name of “saving” them or bringing them enlightenment of some sort. But as powerful as those stories are, they are also wrong and dangerous because they allow for people to do terrible things by dehumanizing others. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses a very similar thing in a TED Talk that she gives called “The Danger of the Single Story,” where she states that her teachers once told her that her novel was not “authentically African” because people were not poor, starving, or otherwise destitute or unenlightened: her characters looked too much like the average Western person.

The image of Africa and its people as backwards and primitive exists in many forms today, including that we group the whole African continent together as a group and remain largely ignorant to the fact that Africa is composed of many countries, just like the Americas Europe, and Asia. The issues set forth by Achebe in his essay are still very prominent today in that by and large, no one seems to question the idea of the single story of Africa as exactly what Conrad set forth, despite the fact that it was never that way, that there were diverse people, languages, art, and nations. And today, while there certainly are areas of Africa that have poor and starving people who cannot read and live what the West would consider primitive lives, there are far more people who are living in sophisticated cities with functioning governments and thriving businesses; there are people who create wonderful art and products and enjoy many different activities that Western people also enjoy.

The power dynamics inherent in the way we discuss Africa and its people says much about the Western world’s continued need for dominance: a way to prove that they are still more enlightened than the people who live on and descend from ancestors on the African continent. I agree with Achebe’s statement that we cannot just hand the West a happy pass on this issue or offer them a positive note to end the discussion on. Such a positivity cannot come until the West chooses to change its views and discussions on Africa, because the way it is currently being discussed is wrong, and there should be no cookies given out for fixing something that should never have been considered acceptable in the first place.

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.

Flannery O’Connor, “Judgement Day”

O’Connor, Flannery. “Judgement Day.” Flannery O’Connor: The Complete Stories.

Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971.

 

Summary of Work
Tanner is an old man sitting in his daughter’s apartment in New York City, and he wishes he had never come from the South to live with her. He remembers when his daughter came down from the city to see him, and found him in a shack he and his black worker Coleman had built on someone else’s land. She told him that he ought to know better than to live with black people, and that if he had any self respect, he’d come live with her. He told her he didn’t want to go, and she said that it was his decision, but her mother taught her to do her duty to her family and that she would take care of him if he’d come with her.

He is determined not to go, but then the owner of the property, Doctor Foley, comes to survey his land purchase. The man is part black, and Tanner despises the thought that a black man has power over him and his place of residence. When Foley tells him that his options are to get off of the property or to work the still for him, Tanner states that he will never work for a black man and that he doesn’t have to because he has a daughter up North that will take care of him. Doctor Foley doesn’t believe him, and tells him he will be back next week, and if Tanner and Coleman are still on the land, he’ll assume Tanner will work the still for him.

Looking back on that, Tanner wishes he would have stayed and worked the still for the black man so he could have open air and space and be living in the South. He had overheard his daughter and her husband talking about him, and overheard her say that she was going to bury him in New York City when he died, even though she had promised him that she would send him South to be buried. He is very upset at his daughter, and he determines that he is going to go through with his original plan: he is going to steal away down South to either live or die.

When he first moved into the apartment with his daughter, he had seen new neighbors moving in, and saw that it was a black couple. He assumes that they must be from Alabama, and he tries several times to talk to the man, but he always skirts past him in the hallway. His daughter warns him to leave the neighbors alone, saying that people in New York City just mind their own business and don’t talk to their neighbors. But Tanner persists, and when he stands in front of the black man and calls him preacher and asks how it is coming from Alabama, the man stops and says that he is not a preacher and doesn’t believe in God and is not Christian. He is an actor by profession, and he was born and raised in New York City. And Tanner says that sure, all preachers have a bit of acting in them. The man tells him to leave him alone and leaves. Tanner, however, convinced that he can still make friends with this black man, waits until he returns and, unthinkingly, calls him preacher as he asks how he is. The black man gets so angry that he beats Tanner and throws him back into his daughter’s apartment. He is beaten so badly that the doctor has to be called.

When Tanner is finally able to speak after the incident, he asks where his pension check is. He had intended to use it to travel back home to live. But his daughter tells him that they used it to cover medical bills, and that it is silly to think he will be going back home now. He can barely walk from the beating he took. Still, he is determined. He waits for his daughter to leave, and then he puts his coat on and tries to make it down the four flights of stairs to get out to the road and head to the train station to hop a freight and make it home dead or alive. He has written directions of who to send his body to in case he dies in transit. He trusts that strangers will treat him better in death than his daughter will. But as he is halfway down the first flight of stairs, his legs give out on him and he slips. He uses his arms to catch himself on the railing, but lands on his back anyway.

Delirious and trying to get up, he imagines himself in a coffin, just getting of the freight train. Coleman is looking at the pine box and talking about him, and then Tanner starts to move and says to Coleman, don’t you know it’s Judgement Day? As he is saying that, someone comes up over him, and he asks, preacher? And when he comes back to reality, he realizes it is the black neighbor. The black neighbor decides that he is going to string him up with his arms through the railing of the stairs. When his daughter comes home and sees what’s happened, she calls the cops, but he has been dead for hours. She buries him in the plot she has for him in New York City, but she cannot sleep well and is haunted by her father until she exhumes him and sends his body South for burial.

Brief Discussion of Themes
The nostalgia for the South, even the Postbellum South, looms large over this entire short story. Tanner remembers his life, even as pitiful as it was, as worth more in the South than in comfort in the North. The decline and decay of the South is in full view as readers learn that Tanner has lost land and has nothing; the state of the shack could be seen as the state of living in the South. He has more power over people, particularly black people, in the South, and he is far more familiar with the cultural customs and social interactions in the South. The work displays two different types of racism and also racial prejudice: the daughter is outright racist; she does not want her father seen living or associating with black people outside of the employer-employee relationship. Tanner is more subtly racist; he likes to be around black people in order to have power over them, and he does that by finding ways to relate to them or make black people believe that he is smarter than they are. He takes care of Coleman, yes, but he does so more out of a power dynamic than he does out of friendship or love.

Race relations are further complicated as Doctor Foley comes into the picture. Coleman is black, and so Tanner feels that he knows how to deal with him, but Foley is part white, and he is rich and owns a lot of land, and he knows he cannot deal with him in the same manner. Still, he does not find Foley to be his equal or even his better because he is part black, which, in Tanner’s eyes, nullifies all the education and wealth that Foley has attained. It is a reminder that in the minds of many white people, white blood is what makes mixed race people successful, and they are still less because it is only whiteness that has helped them along the way, skewing the power dynamic back to the majority.

Racial prejudice comes forward in the figure of the black actor who lives across from Tanner’s daughter. He doesn’t per say have a grudge against white people that could be outright stated, but it is apparent that he is wary or resentful of white people, as rather than taking Tanner’s gestures to be friendly, takes them to be offensive and dangerous. Of course, Tanner’s gesture is one of power dynamics, but those power dynamics are turned on their head when the black neighbor successfully attacks the white man with no repercussions, as there would have been in the South. This could be seen as a protection of black embodiment, but it may simultaneously be seen as an inherent distrust of white motives and actions.

Religion also plays a large part of this story, as Tanner is a believing Baptist and everyone around him in New York City is an unbeliever. Tanner is constantly concerned with the idea of judgement day, with his reckoning coming over how he treats people and what he says and does. The theme is carried forward through the imagery and symbol of Tanner as a Christ figure, crucified upon the makeshift cross that is the stairwell railing.

Nella Larsen, Passing

Larsen, Nella. Passing. 1929. Penguin, 1997.

Summary of Work
Irene Redfield has received a letter from a woman she grew up with in Chicago. It is a letter begging her to call on Clare Kendry, and after having seen Clare in Chicago, she does not wish to ever again. Irene remembers back to being in Chicago and visiting family and friends there. She was out and about looking for gifts to give her children when she and they returned to New York—her boys were at a summer camp—and after seeing a man faint on the sidewalk, she also became faint, and had a taxi driver take her somewhere for tea. He takes her to a whites only hotel, assuming because of her skin color that she is white, and she goes up to have tea. Irene can pass as white, but has a black husband and her boys are darker skinned. While Irene is having tea, a woman comes in who she thinks is beautiful, but rude because she won’t stop staring at her. Irene is just about to leave when the woman comes over and says she knows her. She calls her Rene, a name that she hasn’t been called since high school. After awhile she remembers who it is: Clare Kendry. It is the dark eyes that give her away.

She remembers Clare’s past, with a white father who was a janitor at the school and always drunk. When he died, Clare cried with fury but stopped as suddenly as she started. She was in her mid teens, and Irene was certain that the crying was more over frustration and anger at her father than sadness. After that her two white aunts took her to live, and then Clare never came to the South Side but rarely, until not at all. She was seen with white men parading around town in fancy dress, and rumors started about her.

Clare sits down and asks her all sorts of questions about Irene and says very little about herself. When Irene absolutely has to go because she is already late to her dinner and bridge party, Clare begs that Irene take time in the next few days to see her again. At first Irene is hesitant and doesn’t want to, but she gives into Clare, much to her own annoyance. She discovers on the way out that Clare has married a white man who struck it rich in South America. She has all the money she could want and a little girl named Margery. She says that it was very easy to pass because she was part white and had white aunts, so her husband never suspected she had black blood in her. Her husband does not know that she is black, and her aunts didn’t say anything because Clare never told them that she was going to marry a white man on account of her fear that they might get a conscience and tell the man she was half black.

Irene ponders what Clare has said on the way home, and sees Clare the next week. Another woman, Margaret, has also been invited to tea at Clare’s home, which annoys Irene, having thought that it was going to be just the two of them again. Margaret was another school friend who had lighter skin and could pass as white. She married a white man, a butcher, and he did know she was half black, but didn’t care. He married her for love. They all spend some time talking, mostly about their children and the fear that when they were born they would come out dark (to which Irene is insulted because she is proud of her children regardless of skin color), and then just when Irene is about to leave, Clare’s husband, Jack Bellew, walks in. He calls Clare Nig, and Irene is just mortified that her husband would say such a thing. When he explains the nickname as meaning that the longer Clare’s alive the darker her skin gets, and he jokes with her that one day she will turn black. They realize, over the course of conversation, that he does not know that Clare is black, and that he hates black people so much that he will not even be in their presence. Irene can’t stop laughing aloud at the situation because he is duped: he is sitting in a room with three black women, and one of them is his wife.

Irene and Margaret talk on the way out about how horrible it would be to live a lie like that in order to pass as white. They both agree that it is dangerous for Clare, and that they are happy they are not in her position. When Irene goes home, she is excited to get back to New York City and never see Clare again. Yet here is this letter, sitting on her desk. She talks to her husband about it, who says it’s best she just turn her down and get it over with: the association isn’t worth the risk. Her husband, Brian, is a doctor who is well off; they are part of the black elite. When he married her, he wanted to go to Brazil and work, but after a large fight about it, he dropped the matter. She still knows it’s in his heart and he dreams to go travel, but she feels confident that he will stay and take care of her and his two boys. She wants to talk to her husband about Junior, their oldest, about going to a school in Europe, and she hopes that his taking him there will sate some of the wanderlust she can see in his eyes. But when she’s in the car with him, the way she brings it up causes a fight, and she leaves the car angry and he avoids the conversation after that.

She is preparing for a large ball for the black elite and wealthy whites who come to Harlem, and she is in charge of tickets and tables. It is a large job, and she is determined to do it right, but it takes up most of her time. By the time she gets home, she is exhausted. But there is a knock on the door, and it is Clare Kendry. She decides to allow her up, even though the servant is reluctant. Clare asks why Irene never answered her letter, and Irene doesn’t have a good answer at first. But she then talks to Clare about the dangers of her being in Harlem in the home of a black person when she is passing as white and her husband is unaware and hates black people so much. Clare shoos that thought away, saying that she really needs to have her black culture back and to participate, and she will only do so when Jack is out of town so he never needs to know. But then Irene says that Clare should remember her responsibility to her daughter, and Clare cannot brush that reasoning aside. But she still wants to spend time where she can. Irene says she simply cannot do anything with her, especially considering the ball, and when Clare finds out, she talks Irene into letting her come. Brian, when he finds out, is amused.

Clare goes to the ball with the Redfields, and she is extravagantly dressed, moreso than anyone else. She enjoys the ball, and dances with Brian a lot. Irene is happy that Clare is happy and that the ball is going well. Hugh Wentworth, a very wealthy white man, is also there, and he enjoys conversation with Irene. Clare is very eager to meet him, and Irene says she’ll introduce her. After that night, Clare comes quite regularly to the Redfields’ home and even plays with the boys, staying around even if they are the only ones in the home.

Christmastime comes along, and Irene is feeling bleak. She is tired of Clare Kendry, but at the same time can’t say why. She accidentally falls asleep, and she is hosting a party for Hugh that evening, so she is rushing to get ready when Brian comes in. She is about to tell him about the incident, but still can’t bring herself to. Then Brian says he invited Clare to the party, and Irene stops getting ready. He says that he thought it was surely a mistake Clare hadn’t been invited, and Clare was so crushed that he couldn’t help but invite her. It is at this moment that Irene realizes that Brian is cheating on her with Clare, and the look in Brian’s eyes tells her it is true. She tells him that she didn’t invite Clare because Hugh doesn’t like her; she’s pretty enough, but not the type of intelligence that Hugh enjoys. After that nearly starts a fight, Brian leaves. Irene loses herself in grief, but puts herself together enough to go down and host. Still, she is not herself, and Hugh notices. He observes the situation and gathers that Brian is being unfaithful, and Irene, to distract him from that fact, makes up a story about breaking the cup she dropped because she hated it but couldn’t ever get rid of the cup because it was a Civil War relic.

Irene, over the next few weeks, tries to tell herself she is making up the situation, but she never really believes herself. And she realizes how vulnerable her position is. Her boys will be fine, but she is dispensable. She wishes she could ruin Clare Kendry. She is out on the town with her friend Felise one afternoon, and when they are walking about shopping, she runs into Clare’s husband. She knows that Jack can see her linked arm in arm with a black person, and that it is dangerous for him to see that because of Clare’s secret. He holds out his hand and says hello, but she cannot shake it and quickly skirts around him. She does not stay out long with Felise after that, and thinks that she’d better tell Brian and Clare about what has happened. But when she gets home, she can’t bring herself to. She and Brian get in an argument over him talking to his sons about racism and lynching. She doesn’t want her children to have to deal with that as children, and he tells her to not force him to give up everything that matters. She is struck and hurt. Her only solace is that soon Clare will be gone to Switzerland to get her child Margery from school, and her husband Jack is forcing her to go.

When they go to a party at the Freelands, Irene is surprised to see Clare coming with them. She tells Clare that Pennsylvania is not very far away and that it is a huge risk for Clare to go. She sends Clare over to Brian to talk because she can’t explain to her why it’s dangerous. At that point, Clare realizes that Irene knows that she is stealing her husband, and Irene reconfirms what she knows. She is saddened, but not as grief stricken as the first time. They get to the Freelands and climb up the many flights of stairs to the top floor. They start enjoying themselves, and about halfway through the party, Jack bursts in. He calls her out for her lying about her race, and Clare, in fear, backs up, Irene tries to grab her arm, but it is too late; Clare has fallen out the window. She tumbles to the ground and dies instantly. Everyone runs down, but Irene stays. Was she a part of the reason Clare fell? Did she push her? Or did she fall of her own accord? She realizes that she needs to go down the stairs, and she realizes that Brian left his coat. She doesn’t want him to catch cold, so she brings the coat to him. She is losing her mind over this, and the men realize it as everyone is asking her about what happened. Brian has said he was sure he saw Jack push Clare out the window, but Irene insists that no, Clare simply fell. Jack is nowhere to be found. The men suggest they all go back up and get another look at the window.

Brief Note on Themes
The largest discussions within this book surround cultural identity and what happens when a person betrays that identity. Irene is very protective of her black community and culture, and feels that Clare doesn’t belong because she actively chose to leave it in order to have wealth and privilege, and now wants it back only out of a need for nostalgia and fun. Irene herself can pass as white, but doesn’t because she values her culture more than the privileges of whiteness. Yet Irene still benefits from those privileges when she is out alone in public. Passing is the act of being able to participate in the culture of the majority because of a light skin color. It was a way around Jim Crow laws for those who chose to renounce their heritage and community.

Clare and Irene’s relationship represents what is largely a broken female bond. Irene feels betrayed, and Clare keeps using Irene in order to relive her life after discovering that money and privilege do not offer her everything she wants. Racism still affects Clare even though her husband thinks she is white, because she still gets to hear his rants against her race; her biracial status places her between two cultures, and she cannot find a way to bridge them because of the racism her husband exhibits. Irene, on the other hand, has a need to control everything in her life, and not being able to control Clare causes her much grief. Her perfectly planned life leads her to be protective of her culture and community and family. Her relationship with Clare starts to force a break in that control, completed when she realizes Clare has stolen away her husband.

Racial tensions reach their height at the Freelands’ party, where Jack confronts Clare. Clare’s death, so quickly occurring, could be said to represent how vulnerable and fragile the black body, but particularly the female black body, is when confronted with racial violence. Lying about race proves more fatal than accepting racial identity and being open and honest about it.

 

Amiri Baraka, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”

Baraka, Amiri. “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” Poetry Foundation,

poetryfoundation.org/poems/58013/preface-to-a-twenty-volume-suicide-note.

Summary and Discussion of Work
This poem, dedicated to Amiri Baraka’s daughter, considers the author’s existence and daily life, reflecting upon becoming accustomed and even consumed by the little pieces of every day, done every day. The first stanza could easily be a commentary on domestic life and the boredom of everyday life, and yet at the same time speaks to a discomfort of accepting being “enveloped” by the world as he enters it every day. His political position as a black man means that he is accepting less in society, or receiving less from the same everyday activities because he is in some way denied other opportunities. As he looks into nature, he sees the same amount of everything, and when the stars disappear, he can still see the holes they left. This could be thought of as opportunity disappearing from him the longer he is alive, and representing the fact that even though the same opportunities are seemingly as available to him as they are to everyone else regardless or race or circumstance, the reality is that they are not available to him, a black man. Yet despite those opportunities being unavailable to him, he can still see that they are there, forever unable to be attained.

The knowledge that opportunities will be forever unavailable to him and he cannot reach them, combined with a communal acknowledgement that black communities should accept the everyday status quo as it stands, leads people to stop hoping, and to stop singing. Singing as a communal release of anger and frustration and sadness, as well as a tool to bring hope to black communities, is an important part of the culture as well as an important part of political involvement, and the fact that the singing stops is not simply an indicator of complacency, but an indicator of acceptance of the situation that black communities are currently in.

That complacency and acceptance of a lesser position for black communities becomes dangerous when considering the legacy it leaves for black children; that concern leads Baraka not to a message of fear, however, but back to hope. He sees his daughter kneeling, praying aloud into her clasped hands, her eyes peering into the blackness of those clasped hands, and he sees those who are still speaking, even to God, and still hoping for a better life. While readers to not get to hear the words she speaks, they do get the image of her looking into “her own clasped hands,” an indication that she speaks not only to God, but to herself, reminding Baraka that the place for hope and desire for change starts from within, from speaking to oneself.

This poem, in comparison to other works Baraka wrote, suggests a change in how he feels about his relationship with America, or if not a change, then certainly an uncertain feeling about how he should direct his life course regarding his political and social life.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin Co, 1990.

Summary of Work
This novel is a collection of interconnected short stories about Alpha company’s time in the Vietnam War. The title of the work is indicative of one of the main things discussed throughout the work: the things that soldiers carry with them through and after wartime. Many of these things are considered lucky or are memories of home. Others are memories and scars from the war and experiences before and after the war that these men have to carry for the rest of their lives. In the first story, O’Brien details the death of Ted Lavender, a PFC who is always taking tranquilizers in order to deal with the horrors of war that he sees. He is going to the bathroom when he is shot through the head. The head of the company, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, blames himself for Lavender’s death because he had been distracted thinking about his girlfriend and her letters and pictures. He burns her letters and pictures in an attempt to never be distracted again. The love he had for her is unreciprocated, and yet he can never get over her or the guilt of Lavender’s death.

The next short story details O’Brien’s experience of receiving his draft notice and running away to the Canadian border, considering skipping out on a war he does not support or want to fight. However, he can’t immediately bring himself to cross, so he helps the owner of a lodge. When they go fishing one evening, the lodge owner lets the boat drift to the Canadian shore, and O’Brien breaks down over the realization that he is not able to leave, too afraid of what other people think and say than even he is of getting injured or dying in the war. He goes back home and then to Vietnam.

In the short story “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien indicates that many times the stories that are told are not true, but they are in the fact that the feeling of the war and situations are conveyed in them. He describes several stories that may or may not be true, but says that the real truth of a story depends on if you need to ask that question or not. He also tells of Curt Lemon’s death, who dies, blown into many pieces, as he steps on a rigged landmine. Rat Kiley, Lemon’s closest friend, loses it after having to see him in pieces, and when they find a baby water buffalo, he shoots it time and time again, keeping it alive as long as possible to feel the pain, until it absolutely dies from too many bullet wounds. No one stops him because of that. He also at one point killed Ted Lavender’s puppy he had saved and nurtured back to health; Kiley strapped it to a bomb. Kiley is the medic, and deals with so much death and destruction that it drives him crazy, and he later shoots himself in the foot to get out of the war.

A “True War Story” that Rat Kiley told was the story of a man who brought a woman to the war so he could be with her. She was just out of high school and things went well until she started learning how to be a soldier and went out with the Green Berets. She slowly started going out on missions and then became one with the land and even the Greenies were worried about her or unable to connect. Despite the young soldier’s attempts to reel her in and get her to go home, she would not go. He goes to the tent and finds her with a necklace of human tongues around her neck, and one night not much later she disappears into the bush forever. Since the story ending does not please all the soldiers, he makes up the ending as that she is always living on the land, becoming part of the land, only seen every now and then, but never brought back to civilization.

In another story, two friends in Alpha Company make a pact to kill the other if they are mortally wounded, and when one of them has his foot blown off by a landmine, he realizes that he doesn’t want to die and begs his friend not to kill him. His friend complies to his request, but feels guilty about it and is relieved when he finds out that his friend died in transport to medical help. O’Brien also looks back, forty years after the fact, at the time he killed a man on the road. He had a grenade and threw it before the man could ever see him. He couldn’t leave the body and just stared at the face. Kiowa, the Native American in the company, stays with him to help him process but makes sure he eventually gets up and leaves. When O’Brien’s daughter asks him if he’s ever killed anyone, he lies and says he hasn’t. He hopes he’ll get the chance to set matters right one day and tell her the truth if she ever asks again.

Kiowa’s death is in a shit field. They were camping in the evening and Norman Bowker and Kiowa were looking at a picture of Bowker’s girlfriend when gunfire started. They were already in trouble, sitting in the shit field and the river rising and creating a sinkhole of shit and mud and dirty water, and with the gunfire raining down on them, Kiowa got hit and then his body sunk in the mud and shit and Bowker could not get him out. Bowker, years after the war, still feels guilty about it and he relays the story to himself over and over as he drives around a lake in his hometown. Unable to rid himself of the guilt over Kiowa’s death, Bowker kills himself in a locker room a few years after coming home. The book also describes the process of looking for Kiowa’s body, as Cross refused to let him stay MIA. They found his body eventually, and had to dig it out. Kiowa’s effects were also found, particularly his moccasins and his brand new, ornate Bible his father had given him before he left for the war. O’Brien has the moccasins when he goes back to Vietnam over forty years later, and he places them in the field where Kiowa died to honor him and remember him.

O’Brien also remembers getting shot twice: the first time Kiley was there to clean him up and help him, and there were no problems; the second time, it was a new medic and the guy nearly let him die of shock and the wound got gangrene because of him. While in the hospital and in his new station, he dreamed of getting back at the man. And when he came into the base, O’Brien recruited another man to help him get him back. Even after the medic apologizes, O’Brien can’t get past it and continues on with his revenge plan. They scare him all through the night with sounds and flares, and in the final moments of dawn they raise a flour bag to scare him. O’Brien feels satisfied and then bad about what he’s done about halfway through the plan. After the end, the man calls out his name and the next morning they make peace. While at this base O’Brien also remembers Curt Lemon, who was so afraid of the dentist he fainted and then in order to save face, came to the dentist in the middle of the night and had him pull a perfectly good tooth in order to prove his bravery.

O’Brien also discusses his childhood, saying that the reason he entered the war was the same reason he’s always done what he’s done: he always needed to be loved, and feared being called a coward. He describes his childhood love, Linda, who died of a brain tumor at age 9. He recalls mentioning her hat when they went to the movies, and how he wasn’t brave enough to stop a bully from tearing the hat from her head and revealing her bald head and stitches one day. He walked her home after, but always regretted not doing anything. He discusses how many times men aren’t as brave as they think that they are and that when it comes to life and especially war, people do terrible things and it becomes difficult to tell the difference between right and wrong. The only way to get through these tragic moments of realization, at least for O’Brien, is to tell stories about them.

Brief Note on Themes
The main theme running throughout this work is the horrors of war, particularly the Vietnam War, and the scars that the immorality of war leave on the men who fight. Truth and morals are discussed, as many of the characters deal with death in uncharacteristic or mocking ways in order to process or deal with the atrocities they see and the atrocities they commit. For instance, Ted Lavender is never considered dead, but on the most mellow trip the war has ever given him. The power of stories is also a large part of this, as it is the stories that these men tell themselves after the war that determine their ability to cope and survive or to die. Personal responsibility for a person’s actions is questioned; if a person is just following orders or trying to save themselves in the war, are their actions immoral or unjust or wrong? The blurring of those boundaries in wartime is a feature of this work, even as O’Brien tries to grapple with the fact that there are moral pillars determining the correctness of their actions during the war. This work is also semi-autobiographical, as Tim O’Brien places himself as a main character in this story and tells the stories of his time as a soldier, simply changing names and some stories as he tells them. He discusses this in a New York Times piece that he wrote in the early 2000s about his return trip to Vietnam and his struggle to deal with the atrocities of the war and the damage it did to the people he left behind in the country as he went home.

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men

Steinbeck, John. Of Mice and Men. 1937. Penguin, 2002.

Summary of Work
George and Lennie are sitting in the brush by a small pool in the evening light. A bus driver dropped them off too many miles away from the ranch they were headed to, and so George decides they will stop and spend the night by the pool. Lennie is mentally retarded, a big burly man with the mind of a small child. He has a mouse in his pocket which he has killed and is petting, and George makes him throw it away. They have been run out of town because Lennie wouldn’t let go of a woman’s dress, and she said he raped her. They had to hide in order to save Lennie’s life. George tells Lennie that he isn’t to do any talking when they get to the new ranch and he isn’t to do anything bad again so they can get their money for a month’s work and go head out to get their dream land, where Lennie can help raise rabbits and they can put up their own crop. He tells him that if anything bad happens, Lennie is to go back to this spot and to hide until George came for him.

When they get to the ranch, the ranch hand gets them set up and the ranch owner tells them they’ll start putting up grain in the evening since they missed going out in the morning. Then Curley, the rancher’s son, comes in and is looking for his wife. He sees Lennie and gets upset that he won’t answer him when he speaks, and George defends him, but Curley is upset and then gone. Candy, an old man with an old sheep dog, tells them that Curley was one of the best welter weight fighters in the area and he’s always looking for a fight. And George tells Lennie to steer clear of him. Then, when the men come in, they meet Seth, who is the head thresher and one of the main ranch hands. They get talking, and they learn that Seth’s dog has had puppies. He had to drown four of the nine because the mother couldn’t take care of all of them. Lennie gets excited about puppies, and Seth lets him have one. He is always in petting the puppies and picking them up, and he has to be told to put his back with its mother so it doesn’t die.

Seth talks to George about Lennie and learns about his condition and what he’s done in the past. George knew Lennie from childhood through Lennie’s Aunt Clara, and had always taken care of him after her passing, even though at first he was always playing jokes and being mean to Lennie because Lennie couldn’t tell what was going on. Seth respects George. That evening, when Candy and his dog come in, Carlson, another ranch hand, tells Candy that he needs to shoot his old dog and he can get a puppy from Seth. Seth says that he can, and not seeing any way that the dog won’t be shot, he lets Carlson take the old dog outside and shoot him. He is devastated, but doesn’t let anyone see.

Throughout the day, Curley’s wife has come in “looking for Curley,” but is in fact looking for men to talk to and flirt with. All the ranch hands know she’s trouble. Curley comes in after Seth has left to tar a broken shoe on a mule, and asks where his wife is. He thinks Seth is with her, so he goes out to get him, and the other men, minus Lennie, George, and Candy, follow. George and Lennie aren’t aware Candy hasn’t left, and they start talking about their dream land. Candy asks if it is real, and offers to front over half the money to get the land. They let Candy in on the scheme, and they plan to finish the month out and then write to the owners of the land for purchase. Curley comes back with Seth, upset that Seth got the better of him, and he sees Lennie smiling and attacks him. George tells him to get him, and Lennie, after being beaten in the face and then the stomach, grabs Curley’s left hand and crushes all the bones in it. Seth tells Curley that he will take him to the doctor, but he is not to get Lennie fired.

One evening George goes to town with the men to the whore house, and he leaves Lennie at the ranch. Lennie first went to go pet the dogs but was told that he couldn’t keep doing that or they’d die. So he goes into the one black man on the ranch’s home, a man by the name of Crooks. Crooks at first is upset he is in there, but then gets talking about his situation. Lennie can’t let up about talking about the ranch and rabbits, and Crooks asks Lennie to suppose that George never came back, that George died or left. This upsets Lennie to the point where he goes to attack Crooks, but Crooks is able to calm him down. Then Candy comes in and they start talking more about the ranch and the rabbits. When Crooks realizes they are serious, he says he’d love to just be able to come work there if he could just live on the land. Then Curley’s wife walks in, and after horning in for so long, Crooks tells her she’s not wanted. But she gets upset and tells him that she has power over him, that she can get him lynched on a single word. It cows him into submission, and when Candy speaks up to say that they’d stop her, she tells him that no one would believe him either. She sees that Lennie has never stopped looking at her, and she talks a little bit to him about how she knows he is the one that hurt Curley and then leaves. George comes home and tells them to get out of Crooks’ cabin.

Then one afternoon, Lennie goes in to play with his puppy and kills it because it bit him and he threw it to the ground. He is upset because he believes that now he will not get to tend to any rabbits. He contemplates hiding the dog or telling George he was already dead when he went to see him, but knows George will know the truth. Then Curley’s wife comes in and starts talking to him, and she talks to him about the dead puppy and why he killed it. He says it was an accident and that he just likes to pet soft things. He tells her about the ranch and the rabbits as well. Then he talks about how his Aunt Clara got him a piece of red velvet and he wishes he still had it, it was so soft. She lets him touch her hair, and he keeps petting it, more and more violently, until she gets scared and tells him to stop. This scares him, and he grabs ahold of her hair and won’t let go. When she starts to scream, he covers her mouth and then starts to shake her, breaking her neck. He panics, covers her partially with hay, takes the dead dog, and runs and hides in the spot that George told him to.

Candy comes in soon after—all the men had been playing horseshoes—and finds the dead woman. He calls in George, and George says that they’ll have to either kill him or put him in jail this time, and there’s no way around it. George has Candy go get the other men and George acts like he is seeing the body for the first time as well, and Curley goes to get his shotgun to kill Lennie. Carlson also goes to get his pistol, but cannot find it. They figure Lennie has taken it. They all go out to find him, and George goes to the pond and finds Lennie there. They talk, with Lennie thinking George is mad at him, and George comforts Lennie by telling him the story of the ranch. He has him look out at the horizon so he can picture the ranch out there, and while Lennie is looking out, George takes out Carlson’s pistol and shoots him in the head, severing the spine at the neck. Then he throws the gun away. The other men come in on the scene and see him dead, and Seth walks away with George, saddened. Curley and Carlson don’t understand why George and Seth are sad.

Brief Note on Themes
Friendship and brotherhood, male bonds, are the main theme throughout this work. The main bond is Lennie and George, where George is both caretaker and friend, if not essentially a brother, to the mentally retarded Lennie. Seth and George and Candy and George also have bonds of fellowship, with Seth being the boss that is a leader and friend, and Candy being another ward of George’s. The various types of masculinity are embodied in these men: George is a strong family man; Seth is the cool and calm, but strong, leader; Curley is the fighter who embodies traditional ideas of masculinity, as is Carlson; Candy is the kind-hearted man, as is Lennie.

The American Dream, particularly the dream of land ownership in the American West, runs throughout the book. Lower-class economic life in the West is another topic that runs through this work, with the men always dreaming of saving enough money to buy land but never able to work out of their situation as it stands. The American West, always seen as wild, untamed, a place for a man to make his mark, is seen as much more domesticated, but still untamed enough for space to grow and cultivate a new life.

Race relations also feature as a theme in this book, with Crooks being the only black man on the ranch or anywhere around for miles and miles. He knows his place among white men is considered lesser, and it makes him bitter and isolated. He has been worked so hard he is arthritic and has a bad back. Those race relations are even more prominent when Curley’s wife comes in and threatens lynching when he tells her to get away from all the men.

Morality and justifiable murder are also themes, with Carlson first killing Candy’s dog because the dog is old and decrepit, and then George killing Lennie the exact same way because Lennie killed Curley’s wife. Questions arise about accountability and life: Should animals be killed simply because they are old? Should mentally retarded men who commit a crime they cannot mentally understand or be responsible for be murdered in kind for those crimes? What other ways of discipline are there, and can different modes be applied to different people according to their mental capacity?

August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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