Category Archives: african-american literature

Fences by August Wilson – POC reading challenge #1

19th April 2011

I don’t participate in many challenges because I am bad at them. It’s the commitment thing. BUT, I read about the Persons of Color reading challenge and decided I’d love to highlight some of my favorite works. Specifically, African-American literature is some of my favorite to read, and I usually read quite a bit of this specific fiction sub-section, so why not?

First up is Fences, a Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson. August Wilson has fascinated me for years. I read in the Houston Chronicle several years ago about The Ensemble Theatre, a playhouse in the Heights neighborhood that started out featuring only the works of African-American playwrights in 1976. The article (sorry, can’t find it) highlighted another of Wilson’s works, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I love Ma Rainey, the blues singer, but I promptly forgot about August Wilson. Then, three years ago, on adopting a textbook for my writing and literature class, I found Wilson’s play Fences.

I’m not a huge fan of reading plays; I’d rather see them performed. However, I read Fences at a rapid pace and was blown away. Fences is the 6th in a 10-play cycle called The Pittsburgh Cycle, and Wilson’s focus is to present the African-American experience by decade. It isn’t necessary to read them chronologically, though I understand some characters reappear in other plays.

Fences is set in the 1950s and has a mainly-male cast, headed by Troy, a resentful, disappointed garbage man, husband, and father who could have been a baseball star had he been born a decade or so later. After spending much of his adulthood in prison, he sets out to make a way for himself and his wife Rose, who constantly nags him about building a fence [insert symbolic interpretations here]. His two sons Cory and Lyons envision a new America and want to be part of it, but Troy is so inured by the past, he cannot see change on the horizon. He sees his job as a garbage man, and he isn’t allowed to be a driver simply because he’s black. He sees his past, wherein he didn’t have a shot at making a career out of being a ballplayer, and he takes it out on everyone around him. The tales of Jackie Robinson and others mean nothing to him: he didn’t make it, so no one else can either.

Troy is larger than life, and he talks about Death as a personality, someone out to get him, but whom he outsmarts again and again. Troy has so little control over his life, so he exerts it when and where he can – in his household, over his sons and wife. Yet Troy isn’t a character you hate. You understand his deep-seated anger and his motivations, all while wishing he would see how destructive he truly is.

The play is about so much: boundaries, as the title suggests, death, infidelity, the role of the masculine in African-American culture, but it’s also about how even justifiable anger can make us wrong about life and love. It’s a masterpiece, and I urge you to pick it up, or better yet – buy tickets if there is a showing near you.

Here’s a clip of Denzel Washington (he won a Tony Award for it, as did James Earl Jones. Unfortunately, couldn’t find a clip for him as it was in the 80s):

 

I am invisible … because people refuse to see me.

23rd November 2010

Teaching is a funny profession. Teaching well is insanely difficult. At this point in the semester, I am usually battling an upper respiratory infection. I don’t want to grade another essay. Students asking for their averages in the middle of class elicit blank stares and a speech balloon above my head that looks like this: $&@*! In other words, I am ready for a break.

However, the end of the semester for my American Literature class is also the point in the semester during which I get to teach and discuss one of my favorite novels – Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison. I believe it is a vastly underappreciated novel. Also, don’t make the mistake one of my students did and download THE Invisible Man.


Invisible Man is a novel of race and identity, but it’s also a bildungsroman, the story of a faceless, nameless narrator and his realization that everyone around him only uses him for his or her own purposes. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Epilogue of this novel begins:

I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Pie; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me….When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me.

The narrator is living in a basement in Harlem, a good bit after the Harlem Renaissance, surrounding himself with light bulbs, leeching electricity from the city, desperate to see himself. The proceeding novel is the story of why he can’t see himself. Told in episodic fashion, the novel begins when the narrator is young – school age, in fact. He is intelligent and knows he is intelligent, winning a scholarship to an all-black school, Tuskegee Institute. He is invited to speak before his town’s leading white citizens, which culminates in one of the most anthologized chapters of this or any other book, “The Battle Royale.” The scene, in which other young black males are blindfolded, stripped down to their underwear and told to fight, is brutal and horrifying. The men are taunted by a blonde white woman dressed provocatively, and the fear and scent of that fear is palpable. The men are then tossed coins as payment, but the coins (fake) are tossed onto an electrified rug, and the older white gentlemen see sport in this.

During this humiliation, though, our narrator can only think about his speech. He is proud, and he is focused. My students, when we began discussing the novel last week, were confused by the scene as it is rather chaotic, but even more so because, thankfully, they also saw how disgusting this behavior was and is and couldn’t believe anything like this could or would happen. We also discussed the subtext of the erotic here, and the danger for these men in this scene, particularly as our narrator then goes on to give his speech, slipping up and saying “social equality” instead of “social responsibility” and the tense moments after before he is basically told to “know his place.” Even as we only discussed half of the book last week, they were already beginning to pick up on one of the key themes of this book – blindness.

The narrator feels invisible, says he is invisible, yet he, too, struggles to see throughout the novel. In the scene depicted above he feels “a sudden fit of blind terror. I was unused to darkness.” Once he arrives at Tuskegee, again he is blind, but in a different way, believing his intelligence will be his champion; unfortunately, at every turn, he is thwarted. He leaves Tuskegee and the South for New York, a place where he can eat yams if he wants, wide out in the open, and he “no longer ha[s] to worry about who [sees him] or about what was proper.” However, the narrator never fully realizes that even the North has its own racial code, and there are consequences for every action, no matter how you gloss it over.

One day he watches as an old couple is evicted from their walk-up, seeing their possessions dumped into the street, and as he watches the crowd becomes more and more expectant of violence, until he steps up shouting at the people to remain “law abiding” in one of my favorite moments in the book:

Did you hear [the old man]? He’s eighty-seven. Eighty-seven and look at all he’s accumulated in eighty-seven years, strewn in the snow like chicken guts, and we’re a law-abiding, slow-to-anger bunch of folks turning the other cheek every day in the week. What are we going to do? What would you, what would I, what would he have done? What is to be done? I propose we do the wise thing, the law-abiding thing. Just look at this junk….Look at that old woman, somebody’s mother, somebody’s grandmother, maybe….Eighty-seven years, and poof! like a snort in a wind storm. Look at them, they look like my mama and my papa and my grandma and grandpa, and I look like you and you look like me. Look at them but remember that we’re a wise, law-abiding group of people. And remember it when you look up there in the doorway at that law standing there with the forty-five.

I can in no way do justice to the brilliant journey this spontaneous moment will begin for the narrator or its accompanying symbols of darkness and light, blindness and vision, invisible and visible. Suffice it to say, whether our narrator is working in a paint plant watching “the right white” paint made whiter by a dark black tint or standing on the porch to a small walkup shouting “Dispossessed!” after the old couple is forced out of their home, Invisible Man is an intricate, enthralling read that forces me to think about the ways in which we choose not to see certain people in our society or the ways in which we simply ask (or require) they take on our own comfortable idea of personhood in order to be recognized and seen.

Hm.. this one would also make a great readalong. I’d love to get some discussion going in comments if you have read it. I haven’t heard many bloggers mention it, so I’m wondering – has anyone out there read it? Or am I alone in my love of this book?

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

14th July 2010

Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.

Only Toni Morrison can so beautifully weave her words together in such a way as to make the reader appreciate the loveliness but still comprehend the stark meaning of all those linked words. In her first novel, The Bluest Eye, Morrison writes of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl who knows the power of beauty and who prays every day for blue eyes, for the chance to be seen as pretty. Her story is told mainly through the eyes of Claudia MacTeer, whose family takes Pecola in after Pecola’s father tries to burn down her house. The girls drink milk from a Shirley Temple glass, and Pecola sneaks extra milk simply to have the privilege to see Shirley’s sweet white face and dainty curls. This is a community that, although filled with blacks, sees no value in the skin of their own and willingly betrays that flesh time and again.

Claudia’s voice alternates with an omniscient narrator, and the narrative voice is fragmented, a ploy which Morrison will use later in several of her works. Particularly for a first novel, The Bluest Eye is a wonderful study in literary portraiture, as throughout, each character is dissected and explained in vivid detail, making the reader’s judgment of the character’s actions more difficult. This is what the story hinges on as it is full of rape, incest, demoralization, shame, arousal, joy, superstition, and pain.

Within this framework, we watch the characters in a sort of vacuum. There is no outward show of racism, i.e. white community v. black community; however, the seemingly innocuous presence of the Shirley Temple glass is enough to get the point across: black isn’t beautiful in small-town Ohio. Shirley Temple is the impossible goal, and the inner shame and defeat felt by the young girls in the book is evident through the schoolhouse taunting by white girls, white boys, black boys, and lighter-skinned black girls. Maureen Peel, light-skinned and immune to teasing, briefly befriends Claudia, her sister Frieda, and Pecola Breedlove, only to shun them and scream that they are ugly when Claudia stands up to Maureen for teasing Pecola. Maureen teases Pecola about seeing her father naked, knowing that Pecola has been raped by her father.

There is good and there is bad, right and wrong, yet the girls don’t always know what falls into which category. When Pecola first menstruates, Claudia and Frieda help her, hiding the shame of her womanhood from their mother. However, a young girl hiding in the bushes yells for Ms. MacTeer that the girls are being “nasty,” and Frieda gets a beating for being such. Once Ms. MacTeer recognizes the truth, she is implicit in the shame and brings the girls into the fold.

However, it is not only women and young girls who are shamed in the book. Cholly Breedlove, Pecola’s father, is raised by Aunt Jimmy after his father abandons his mother and his mother runs away. At Aunt Jimmy’s funeral, Cholly sneaks off into the woods with a girl. The two begin kissing and touching one another when two white hunters come upon them. Cholly and the girl are frightened and readjust their clothing, but the two men hold the gun to them and force them to touch one another while yelling and egging them on, treating them as animals. Cholly carries that shame with him throughout his life and only relieves it when he meets his sweet wife, Pecola’s mother, Pauline. However, his shame returns, and his innocent daughter becomes his redemption and curse.

Thanks to Devourer of Books and her Audiobook Week (in June) celebrating audiobooks, I picked up The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. It was narrated by Ruby Dee and Toni Morrison herself. I used to listen to audiobooks fairly regularly, but it has been awhile. However, I recently started teaching at a college that requires a bit of a commute. I picked up The Bluest Eye after looking through the shelves and seeing audiobooks that ran 15-30 hours. This particular one ran three hours, which I guessed would take about a week to get through. Well, I guess I’m in the car more than I thought because it only took two days to get through. Two days, a couple of missed exits, and some detours to listen a bit longer, I finished the book.

Some readers are reluctant to pick up Toni Morrison after having read or watched Beloved. If so, I believe you are missing so much. Toni Morrison is a rich, complex, layered writer, and her stories have always resonated with me. My particular favorites are Sula and Song of Solomon.

Push by Sapphire

23rd June 2010

Book to movie production is a double-edged sword. For instance, when I first saw Milk, I was appalled that it was the first I had ever heard of Harvey Milk, the man and politician in the 70s in San Francisco who made gay activism what it is today. However, I am so happy that his story was brought to me, even though I hated that Hollywood was the one that informed me. In the last year, it has almost become a joke: Precious, based on the book Push by Sapphire. Each time it won something, I would hear those words. I knew, based on reviews of the movie and the attention it was getting on several feminist websites I encountered that it would not be an easy viewing.  I also knew that, regardless, I would read/watch it. When I went to the library Monday night, I picked it up. I didn’t realize the book was actually published in 1991, which is why I love/hate that Hollywood once again beat me to the punch.

It’s a slim volume, and if you’ve been under a rock the past year, here’s the premise. Clarieece Precious Jones is 16, pregnant with her second child by her father, miserable at school, and desperate for a different life, a life for which she will always have to push. Her mother beats her because the father leaves when he realizes Precious is pregnant (he comes back). The mother has also apparently been molesting Precious. Precious is illiterate, and the book opens when she is suspended for being pregnant a second time, saying, “I ain’ did nothin’!”

The book is written as Precious’ journal and is thus full of misspellings and colloquialisms as well as foul language. ‘Miz Rain,’ her teacher at Each One Teach One (an alternative school) encourages her students to write their stories in journals; Precious takes to her journal, and it becomes therapeutic for her. The book is not easy to read, but I tire of hearing people say they don’t think they could handle it. I mean, I get it. If it were gratuitous, that’d be one thing. But it’s life. This book may be fiction, but the story is rife with truths. Life is and can be ugly.

More than anything, this book impacted me in a major way. I am also listening to the audiobook version of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (review up tomorrow), and both are stories of African-American women and incest. Although totally different, these two stories have really made great companions. Whereas Morrison’s story is, as always, so beautifully descriptive of something so vile, Sapphire’s story is in your face. It knocked me out and drug me down when I finished it at midnight last night. It made me angry; no – it infuriated me.

Precious is fat. The scale stops at 200, and she knows she’s heavier. She smells bad at times; she used to urinate on herself at school because she wouldn’t get up. She has been abused by everyone and everything in her life. Her first child at 12 was born with Down’s syndrome or “down sinder” as she calls it and is named Little Mongo. Her grandmother is absent although she cares for Little Mongo. Her father rapes her repeatedly, and her mother beats her and molests her. All of this rent my heart in two, but as a white woman – a privileged white woman – what absolutely killed me were lines like these:

Why can’t I see myself, feel where I end and begin. I sometimes look in the pink people in suits eyes, the men from bizness, and they look way above me, put me out of their eyes. My fahver don’t see me really. If he did he would know I was like a white girl, a real person, inside.

She ain’ come in here and say, Carl Kenwood Jones – thas wrong! Git off Precious like that! Can’t you see Precious is a beautiful chile like white chile in magazines or on toilet paper wrappers. Precious is a blue-eye skinny chile whose hair is long braids, long long braids.

Passages like these actually nauseated me. Feeling ugly at times is one thing; I feel that way with no makeup or when I haven’t fixed myself up. But to feel like I could only be pretty if I were another race? To feel that maybe if I were lighter skinned or white that I would not have been raped, that my mother would have loved me, that I may be able to read?

How, how we have failed children like these! I know and acknowledge that incest, rape, child abuse, and illiteracy affect white children, Hispanic children, Russian children, yellow and brown, light-skinned and dark-skinned, diabetic, fat, skinny, gay, straight, innocent and not-so-innocent boys and girls. I can understand why there are those out there who didn’t want this book to become popular or who didn’t want the film to be made because it then becomes an African-American issue and not a capital “I” Issue. What I love about this book? That it moved me to want to take action.

Toni Morrison has a gift for beautifully telling horrible stories – stories for which the word ‘horrible’ is not even emphatic enough – but she never moves me to want to leave the realm of the story and do something about it. There was a moment in reading Push when the teacher Blue Rain is working with the students that I thought, I want to do that. It scared me. I know that people like Blue Rain (the non-fiction people) are out there doing this work and breaking their own hearts every day and working for little money, but oh, the rewards. For now, I want to find a literacy program and help support it. I’m not sure how yet to do that effectively, but on this site, in the future, I won’t do giveaways. I will promote whatever literacy program I research and decide would best use your money and my money. You and I, dear reader, are blessed. We have books aplenty, but more than that, we have the ability to open the pages of those books and allow them to take us away or to inform us or to better our minds. There are those out there who don’t have that option for more than just monetary reasons.

I promise you, and I promise myself that I will become an advocate for literacy. I promise to push.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

23rd May 2010

“The boy filled up the whole piece of wood and at the end of the last line he put a period. His father’s grave would remain, but the wooden marker would not last out  the year. The boy knew better than to put a period at the end of such a sentence. Something that was not even a true and proper sentence, with subject aplenty, but  no verb to pull it all together. A sentence, Matthew’s teacher back in Virginia had tried to drum into his thick Kinsey head, could live without a subject, but it could  not live without a verb.”

Edward P. Jones novel The Known World is about legacy. Just as quilts made by African Americans during the time of slavery visually document the happenings of  their lives, Jones follows the town of Manchester in Virginia and the people living there in the years leading up to the Civil War. Augustus and Mildred Townsend are slaves on William Robbins’  plantation. Augustus is a talented woodworker and carpenter and is allowed to do work off the plantation with a commission to Robbins. In so doing, he is able to  buy his own freedom, later his wife’s, and then much later his son’s freedom. Henry Townsend, their son, grows to be a favorite of Mr. Robbins, Robbins thinking  of him almost as a favorite son. Henry is smart and hardworking, so Robbins continually ups the price Henry’s parents owe to free him. Left with his mother’s  friend, Rita, Henry seems to sometimes be resentful of the parents who love him and are working for him. Once freed, Augustus asks him how he feels, and Henry  answers that he feels no different. Augustus tells him: “You don’t have to ask anybody how to feel. You can just go on and do whatever it is you want to feel. Feel  sad, go on and feel sad. Feel happy, you go on and feel happy…. this freedom situation. It’s big and little, yes and no, up and down, all at the same time.”

Henry grows up, making shoes and boots and making a nice living on his own and then proceeds to … buy a slave. As the census worker tells the reader, “in 1855 in Manchester County, Virginia, there were thirty-four free black families, with a mother and father and one child or more, and eight of those free families owned slaves, and all eight knew one another’s business.” Henry tells his parents, and Mildred “went through her memory for the time, for the day, she and her husband told him all about what he should and should not do….Pick the blueberries close to the ground, son. Them the sweetest, I find. If a white man say the trees can talk, can dance, you just say yes right along, that you done seen em do it plenty of times. Don’t look them people in the eye. You see a white woman ridin toward you, get way off the road and go stand behind a tree. The uglier the white woman, the farther you go and the broader the tree. But where, in all she taught her son, was it about thou shall own no one, havin been owned once your own self. Don’t go back to Egypt after God done took you outa there.”

Aside from a former slave owning slaves, the other fascinating aspect of this narrative is that the narrative voice is constantly introducing characters and telling the reader of that character’s future and demise, then leaving the character and continuing with the main story – furthering each character’s legacy as the reader waits to get back to hear how the character arrives at his or her end. The tangible fear and anxiety Jones creates in Manchester County and its inhabitants makes the reader constantly aware of what that time and place must have been like. Jones reinforces the concept that we are only as free as someone above us thinks we are and how dangerous and thin a line there is between freedom and bondage.

Weaving the lives of men and women, free, slave, passing, white, black, good and evil, Jones creates an effecting novel of legacy and heritage and memory, much like one character describes a work of art:

…people were viewing an enormous wall hanging, a grand piece of art that is part tapestry, part painting, and part clay structure – all in one exquisite Creation, hanging silent and yet songful on the Eastern wall. It is … a kind of map of life of the County of Manchester, Virginia. But a “map” is such a poor word for such a wondrous thing. It is a map of life made with every kind of art man has ever thought to represent himself. Yes, clay. Yes, paint. Yes, cloth. There are no people on this “map,” just all the houses and barns and roads and cemeteries and wells in our Manchester…There are matters in my memory that I did not know were there until I saw them on that wall….[and] I sank to my knees.

**Thanks to Kinna Reads for reviewing Edward P. Jones’s Lost in the City, which is how I found this book in the library.