Friday, January 24, 2014

Immersive-Learning Project on Sustainable Agriculture

Below, I describe and reflect upon the recent immersive-learning project that I led.  I wrote this for publication on the English Department Blog.  Enjoy!

In the fall semester of 2013, I led a seminar on sustainable agriculture at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry (VBC).  The main product to emerge from the class was a 25-minute film entitled Down to Earth: Small Farm Issues in a Big Farm World.  The students in the seminar also developed a website containing recipes for foods that are locally available and more than 60 articles meant to serve as supplementary to the film.  In addition, they built a four-week curriculum on sustainable agriculture and implemented it in an after-school program for elementary students at the Roy C. Buley Center in Muncie.  I see the seminar as a great success!  The students and I were able to develop informed opinions about the future of farming and food production.  The course also allowed us the opportunity to enter into the current social and political movement toward sustainable agriculture by sharing important information about local foods with community members—and the world—through the film, website and educational program. 

Since I hail from the Department of English, many people have asked me about my interest in sustainable agriculture and why I chose this topic for a VBC seminar.  Certainly, I’m not an expert in agriculture or environmentalism.  But I care about finding solutions to the problems in our current food system, in order to build a healthier world population and to mitigate the damage that humans have caused to the Earth over time.  Agriculture has always been a part of my life, as I grew up in rural Indiana surrounded by soybean and corn fields, many of which my family owned and leased to local farmers.  I began to develop a real interest in farming only a few years ago, however, after I changed my eating habits because of health issues.  In the process of researching the impacts of food choices on human health, I also learned about the economic, social and environmental issues that have arisen out of our current methods of agriculture.  I saw the VBC seminar as an opportunity to produce a film that would advocate for responsible production and consumption of food items and, on a personal level, as a chance to learn more about farming, an endeavor that I may someday undertake through ownership of my own family’s farm.

Some of the students in the seminar knew more about farming than I did at the start of the semester.  Those from scientific fields brought valuable background knowledge of agricultural and environmental issues, such as soil science and climate change, to the seminar group.  One student had grown up on a working farm, and another was currently interning at a farm in the local area.  Others in the class were more like me, from disciplines and backgrounds removed from agriculture.  But each of us felt passionately about some aspect of sustainable agriculture or another, and, throughout the semester, we developed shared knowledge of the field.  The students also learned to depend on each other’s individual academic strengths and personal skills to complete the projects of the seminar.  Students from Telecommunications and Journalism contributed particular skill sets that were crucial for the success of the film, for instance, while those who were talented in research and writing focused on producing articles for the website. 

We began the semester with a visit to Becker Farms, where we witnessed the successful use of sustainable methods such as rotational grazing and natural pest control.  In addition to leading a tour of his own farm, Kyle Becker took us to see additional farms—ranging in size from small to very large—that he serves as a large animal veterinarian.  During this time, we also read seminal texts in the area of sustainable agriculture, such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Anna LappĂ©’s Diet for a Hot Planet, to name a few.  We interviewed regular people about their eating and purchasing habits as well as leaders in the movement for sustainability in farming.  Finally, we visited Washington, DC, to talk with important political figures, such as Indiana Senator Joe Donnelly, and representatives from groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition about food policy.  By the sixth week in the semester, we were overwhelmed by the complexity and depth of the problems in our current food system and wondered how we would ever make a difference in the area of sustainable agriculture through a student film and other related projects. 

After some floundering, the group decided to focus the film on the first farm that we visited together, Becker Farms.  The students believed that they could use Kyle’s story to convince consumers to exercise the considerable power that they possess to drive a national movement for a socially, economically and environmentally sustainable local foods system.  Down to Earth: Small Farm Issues in a Big Farm World follows Kyle through a week of life on the farm, at the farmers market, and on veterinary calls.  At the same time, it presents commentary from leading figures in the local foods movement, such as Joel Salatin and Will Allen, to explore the importance of growing and selling food locally.  The film shows that farming methods like those that Kyle employs are environmentally and socially advantageous, unlike many that are used in conventional agriculture.  Ultimately, Down to Earth asks consumers to buy their food locally in order to advance the movement toward sustainable agriculture.   Besides the importance of its message, the film is worth watching because it is beautiful!  Its cinematography and color are truly stunning.

As is the case for all students who participate in VBC seminars, the students in my class received up to 15 credits in courses that they needed for graduation.  They also gained a deep understanding of many issues related to sustainable agriculture, something that matters to each of us since we all eat and we all live on this planet.  The students were also given the opportunity to develop professional skills, through the completion of project-related tasks suited to their individual career goals.  Finally, all of us learned about teamwork, as we worked together to create a film and related products that far exceed our early expectations for this project.  

Post on Emma Donoghue's Room

Please check out my post on Emma Donoghue's Room over at the Ball State English Department's blog!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

No Divergence from "Mama Bear" Stereotype in Veronica Roth's Divergent

My almost 11-year-old daughter recently received Divergent (2011), by Veronica Roth, as an early Christmas present.  The gift came from a family member who had taught English in a middle school for the past several years, so, thinking that it was already vetted by an expert, I felt pretty safe letting Taegan read the book.  Besides, Taegan reads at at least a 10th-grade level, and she’s been choosing books from the Young Adult section in the library for a few months now.  Granted, I try to assess each YA book for its levels of violence and sexual content before letting her check it out, but, honestly, how much can you tell from a cover?  I’ve pretty much resigned myself to the idea that she will probably, at some point, read content that is somewhat inappropriate for her, but I guess I’d rather her read that than not at all due to boredom with the books that are classified as Juvenile. 

Anyway, I picked up Taegan’s copy of Divergent one day last week, and we ended up reading it together.  The book upheld my expectation of a YA novel in its inclusion of some violence and sexual content.  It was titillating but not explicit; perhaps more importantly, nobody got past first base.  Even so, Taegan said that it contained the most kissing that she has ever encountered in a book.  J  Going through it with Taegan actually gave me the opportunity to talk to her a little bit about what she was reading, though, which ended up being a good thing, I think. 

Divergent is frequently compared to The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner, due to its similar themes and target audience.  It is a bestseller, and Lionsgate Entertainment is currently producing a film version of the story.  The novel is the first in a trilogy about a dystopian world where people are strictly organized, according to their dominant personality traits, into five factions: Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Candor, and Amity.  It is also a coming-of-age story, portraying Beatrice—or Tris—Prior’s discovery that she is Divergent, which means that she doesn’t fit neatly into one faction; her subsequent choice to leave her home faction of Abnegation, because she is unwilling to live an entire life in a state of self-denial; and her successful initiation into Dauntless, where she struggles to hide her differences from the other initiates.  In the ending chapters, the novel depicts the beginnings of a war between Erudite and Abnegation.  Erudite’s attack is fueled by the insertion of computer chips into members of Dauntless and their use Tris’s Dauntless peers as combatants.  By the end of the novel, Tris is uniquely positioned—because she is Divergent—to quell the violence of the war and change the structure of her society for the better. 

Divergent is interesting in several ways, but I am most intrigued by its portrayal of Tris’s mother, Natalie Prior.  Although the critics have said very little about her, Natalie plays a crucial role in the development of the story’s narrative arc, as she ends up teaching Tris that which I would argue is the primary lesson of the novel.  In the heat of battle, Natalie courageously sacrifices her life for her daughter, an act that proves that self-denial and bravery are sometimes one and the same—not opposite from each other, as the division between Dauntless and Abnegation seems to suggest.  By extension, Tris begins to realize that no one is merely one thing or another, that every personality combines elements of selflessness, courage, knowledge, honesty, and kindness.

Natalie is portrayed as foundational to Tris’s journey of self-discovery and cultural awareness, even from the opening pages of the novel.  The story begins with Natalie and Tris locking gazes in a mirror, a moment that might suggest, of course, that the two see each other in their own reflections.  According to Abnegation rules, members of the faction may utilize mirrors only on the second day of every third month, and, this time, Natalie is taking advantage of the opportunity to cut Tris’s hair (1).  Tris needs to look her best for the upcoming Choosing Ceremony, where she will elect the faction in which she will spend the rest of her life.  Tris perceives Natalie as the perfect model of self-abnegation, “well-practiced in the art of losing herself” (1).  But, in this instance, Natalie surprises Tris: “Her eyes catch mine in the mirror.  It is too late to look away, but instead of scolding me, she smiles at our reflection. . . . Why doesn’t she reprimand me for staring at myself?” (2).  Natalie surprises Tris again at the Choosing Ceremony, defying the motto, “Faction before family,” when she assures Tris that she will continue to love her no matter her choice (41).  Certainly, Natalie’s words contribute to Tris’s election to enter into Dauntless, but Tris continues to think of her home faction and her new one as stark opposites, telling herself, “I am selfish.  I am brave” (47). 

When Natalie visits Tris on Visiting Day, she complicates her daughter’s perception of the division between the two factions.  Tris learns that her mother wasn’t always as selflessness as she appears to Tris: Natalie was a transfer to Abnegation and originated in Dauntless (188).  Even more shockingly, Natalie displays traits that Tris never saw in her before.  When the older woman tells Tris that her father isn’t attending Visiting Day because he “has been selfish lately,” Tris is stunned: “More startling than the label is the fact that she assigned it to him” (179).  Tris deduces that her mother must be angry with her father to call him “selfish,” and she is shocked that Natalie is capable of such an emotion.  Natalie is also easily able to shake hands with Tris’s Dauntless friends, even though shaking hands is not acceptable in Abnegation, where the gesture indicates too high of a level of self-possession (181). 

After Visiting Day, Tris begins to call on the image of her mother as both an inspiration for moments of self-sacrifice and a source of strength when she is faced with challenges.  After a fellow initiate is brutally attacked by a competitor, Tris volunteers to clean up the blood, thinking, “Scrubbing the floor when no one else wanted to was something that my mother would have done.  If I can’t be with her, the least I can do is act like her sometimes” (209).  In a later scene, Tris dreams that her mother engages her in the process of cooking crows, birds that have repeatedly swarmed Tris in the simulations that she has undergone throughout initiation (301).  In this dream, Natalie is depicted as herself a force of power and, also, as a source of encouragement as Tris is learning to overcome her fears.

I would argue that the climax of the novel occurs at the same point where Natalie most surprises her daughter by displaying bravery much like that of Tris’s Dauntless peers.  When the war between Erudite and Abnegation breaks out, Tris is discovered as Divergent and taken to become a test subject for Erudite officials, as they attempt to learn how to control even the most irrepressible among them (437).  Natalie rescues Tris from her confines and then courageously runs into a crowd of soldiers, knowing that they will kill her but that her daughter will escape (443).  Tris later announces to her remaining family that, since leaving Abnegation, she has learned how to be both brave and selfless and that, “Often they’re the same thing” (457).

Some might read Natalie as a powerful mother figure and her depiction in the novel an improvement from, say, the portrayal of Katniss’s mother—weak and overcome by her circumstances—in The Hunger Games.  Surely, Natalie is strong and wise; she lives and dies as a testament to the important overlap between fearlessness and self-sacrifice.  But, at the same time, Natalie’s characterization is stereotypical.  She fits the type of the “mama bear”—or the “mama grizzly” so infamously celebrated in Sarah Palin’s campaign rhetoric in 2008.  In literature and film throughout the ages, the “mama bear” is subservient until her child is threatened, at which point she becomes fearless and ferociously powerful.  Michelle Rodino-Colocina argues that the “mama grizzly” ideology articulated by conservative female politicians such as Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachman “st[ands] to further the interests of wealthy, white patriarchs rather than working to end sexist oppression” (89).  It characterizes women as motivated solely by the wellbeing of their children and, in doing so, reduces their own claims to subjectivity.  Although Divergent gives us a strong female lead in Tris, its depiction of Natalie Prior as a “mama bear” does little to challenge this harmful sort of ideology regarding the place and interests of women.  In addition to kissing, the “mama bear” is another thing that I’ll need to talk to Taegan about.

Works Cited

Rodino-Colocina, Michelle.  “Man Up, Woman Down: Mama Grizzlies and Anti-Feminist Feminism during the Year of the (Conservative) Woman and Beyond.”  Women and Language 35.1 (2012), 79-96.

Roth, Veronica. Divergent. New York: HarpersCollins, 2011.

Monday, July 8, 2013

The Sexual Power of Mother Nature in Prodigal Summer

Teeming with the imagery of natural fertility, Barbara Kingsolver’s 2000 Prodigal Summer presents the intertwined stories of three unlikely romances: Deanna Wolfe, a ranger dedicated to protecting the ecosystems of Zebulon Mountain, and Eddie Bondo, a bounty hunter in pursuit of pack of coyotes; Nannie Rawley, the liberal owner of an organic orchard, and Garnett Walker, a stodgy old-timer determined to repopulate the Zebulon forests with an ancient breed of chestnut trees; and Lusa Maluf Landowski, a scientist-turned-farmer, and Cole Widener, Lusa’s husband who is killed early in the narrative but whom she comes to know better after his death than she had during their very brief marriage.  Within each of these pairs, the woman comes to represent “mother nature,” pitted—to varying degrees—against the forces of “man,” enacted and symbolized by her partner. 

The storyline closely associates these women with nature—especially its nurturance and fertility.  The two who are still menstruating, Deanna and Lusa, note that they naturally cycle with the moon, for instance.  Deanna also cares for the wild animals that live near her mountain cabin in a way that Eddie declares can only be classified as “maternal” (190).  And after a couple of months of passionate—even animalistic—intercourse with Eddie, a man nearly 20 years her junior, she realizes that she will have a child of her own (387).  Despite being recently widowed, Lusa, too, becomes a figure of maternal abundance, deciding to adopt a troubled niece and nephew as her sister-in-law loses her battle with cancer (380).  Finally, both Lusa and Nannie use flower pollination as a way of talking about sex with their young charges, Lusa with her niece Crystal (351) and Nannie with Deanna when she was a girl (200).  In this way, they present sexuality as a natural part of life—and, indeed, as necessary to the continuance of life.

The three women also seem to understand the interdependence of living things more clearly than their male counterparts.  Several times, Deanna explains to Eddie that a predator—though villanized in American culture—is a critical link in the food chain, finally managing to convince him to read her Master’s thesis on the importance of the coyote to the health of the mountain ecosystem (179, 362).  Nannie values predators as well.  When Garnett refuses to stop spraying near Nannie’s farm, she invites him to sit down and delivers a lesson on the different insects that live on her orchard, detailing how the bigger insects naturally take care of the “pests.” This natural form of pest control is disrupted, though, when these predators are killed off by the drift of herbicide that Garnett uses to keep his lawn looking tidy.  The pest population recovers more quickly than the predator population, Nannie explains, and causes great damage to her crops until the bigger insects can once again handle the pests (274).  Lastly, after Cole’s death, Lusa decides to try an alternative to tobacco, previously the Widener cash crop, and raise goats for meat instead.  Quite intentionally, she integrates the goats into the landscape of the farm, using them to keep the briars and thistles from taking over her hayfields and, in turn, allowing the animals to harvest some of the hay in order to round out their nutritional profiles (also turning them into more quality products for market) (157). 

In the end, each of the men seems to acquiesce to the women’s greater wisdom of the natural world, at least temporarily.  Eddie departs Zebulon Mountain (without knowing about Deanna’s pregnancy), leaving behind a note that simply states, “It’s hard for a man to admit he had met his match” (432).  Deanna takes this one line as an indication that Eddie is “offering his leaving as a gift,” that he is leaving both Deanna and her beloved coyotes alone: “No harm would come to anything on this mountain because of him” (433).  On the Widener farm, Lusa’s goat-raising scheme is successful, bringing more of a profit than Cole’s tobacco ever had.  More importantly, Lusa comes to realize that Cole had disliked the conventional agricultural methods that he felt that he had had to use; she begins to think that Cole probably would have enjoyed seeing the farm reformulated into a hormone- and pesticide-free operation, although he was not willing to implement these kinds of changes himself.  For his part, Garnett accepts Nannie’s offer to use the genetics of the old chestnut trees on her orchard to strengthen the strains that he is developing and, in doing so, starts to accept the idea that she already takes for granted—that relationships are more important than property lines.

What is interesting about these cases, taken together, is that the men seem to submit to the women as much because they are each irresistibly attracted to their female counterparts on a carnal level as because they are persuaded on an intellectual level to see the women’s points of view.  Both Lusa and Deanna speak with their mates, Cole when he was living and Eddie during his time atop Zebulon Mountain, of the power of women’s pheromones to attract men (37, 92).  After Cole’s death, Lusa is finally able to accept Cole’s sense of attachment to her, and, then, that he would have wanted her to make the farm her own after his death.  Just as Lusa’s pheromones most certainly played a part in the development of Cole’s love for her, it is likely that Deanna’s womanly scents played a part in Eddie’s development of affection for her and his subsequent decision to leave instead of to hunt Zebulon’s coyotes.  For his part, Garnett finally gives in to Nannie’s kindness toward him when he can no longer resist the image of her picking fruit in her “short pants” (427).  Although each situation is different, in each of all three relationships, the man finally succumbs to the power of a distinctly female sexuality. 

Tom Conoboy has pointed out that the ending of this novel is a little too neat, happy, ultimately “bloodless.”  This is true in lots of ways; one of these is that the men seem to lose very little of themselves in submitting to their female mates.  I would argue, though, that Eddie, Cole, and Garnett may be willing to shift in their worldviews, if only temporarily, because they benefit as much as the women in seeing the interconnectedness of the natural world.  If Deanna, Lusa, and Nannie represent “mother nature” in this text and their male counterparts represent “man,” then the novel seems to suggest that we must allow ourselves to be seduced by the sensuous beauty of the Earth—as Eddie, Cole, and Garnett allow themselves to be by the women in the story.  We must submit to the power of nature’s fertility and abundance in order to reap the benefits of these.  

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Post on the Animalistic Black (M)Other

This week, my work the animalistic black mother will appear on Performing Humanity: Humans and Animals in the Early Modern World.  In my post, I compare the depiction of black women in Early Modern travel narratives to the rhetoric surrounding contemporary black mothers, and, specifically, the most prominent black mother in the US, Michelle Obama.  Check it out!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The N-Word Presentation

I developed this sample presentation for a course on "othering."  It is designed to both model how I'd like students to construct their own presentations throughout the semester and also to introduce them to some of the controversial issues that will arise as they read and discuss Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.  The presentation brings up some important issues for teachers to consider--what are the consequences of using this term in the classroom or of avoiding the term?

I've posted the rough script below.  Follow along with the visual part of the presentation at:

Page 1
N-Word Controversy—more apt title might be N-Word Controversies
Used as my cover image a pic of Malcolm X, a man who gave a lot of thought to this word
According to a treatise that he wrote for the Organization of Afro-American Unity in his final years, decided that it must be rejected in all of its forms
So, going to turn it over to you
Will ask you to think about whether this word should ever be uttered in today’s world
If so, who has the right to say it?
When should it be said?
Should it be printed in classic literary texts?
Finally, how should we handle this issue as we encounter the term in our own classroom?
Disclaimer—I use term “n-word” when reading aloud, but I have printed the actual word in the text of the presentation

Page 2
Going to start by talking a little bit about the word's orgins, specifically how it came to be used in the US
N-word derived from the Latin “niger,” meaning “black,” according to an entry in the OED
More importantly, became derogatory in the US as African-Americans became quintessential others
Read quote
Remember our definition of othering—projecting negative traits onto another human or group of humans in order to imagine that you don’t possess those traits and then treating them as inferior to reinforce your own superiority
This is exactly how white colonists used n-word—to show that they were superior to another group, to other and oppress

Page 3
Many ask, why is this one word so incredibly offensive, maybe more so than any other in the English language?
Let’s follow the flow chart here
In American, at least, it all started with slavery
Here we have a poster, offering a monetary reward for the return of human property
Read poster
Evidence of people hunted like animals, forced to serve others in ways that we don’t want to even imagine, and regarded as little more than part of white people’s larger estate
Next, after abolition, freed slaves were forced to continue to serve white people, despite their legal “freedom”—as cooks, caregivers, maids, farm-hands
Disallowed opportunities for education, social advancement, political activism
Any attempts at uplift were met with violence
Were continued to be treated as others in order to reinforce superiority of white people
Here we have an example of segregation—a “colored” water fountain, where black people were forced to drink water separately from white people because white people could not bear the thought of putting their lips near a metal piece that black people might also put their touch with their mouths
Finally, in the present day, we only have to look at incarceration statistics to know that racism continues

There were more than five times as many black men in jail than white men in 2006 according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics.
We know that this is partly due to the continued limited opportunities available to black men and partly due to the stricter penalties enacted on black men vs. white men
So, why is this word so offensive?
Aha! I know.
It has everything to do with othering
It is because this word represents how black men and women have been othered throughout American history, it has been used to reinforce the inferiority of black men and women for centuries
A clip from YouTube shows this legacy of oppression well-- show segments 0-53, 1:24-2:05, 2:50-4:56

Page 4
The history of othering and oppression that my flow chart and the video show are very convincing in suggesting that the word should just never be spoken
On the other hand, some insist that we should say the word in appropriate contexts, in order to diffuse its power over us
Emily Bernard writes about a series of discussions that she had with her college-aged students about the word
Most refused to say it, but some agreed with her that it should be spoken
In The N-Word, a documentary produced by Andy Cohen, comedian Dick Gregory goes a step further, saying that we are actually allowing a white racist system to erase a history of oppression if we stop saying the word that represents that oppression.
Certainly, we don’t want our silence to amplify or erase a history of othering

Page 5
In the past few decades, black men and women have attempted to rehabilitate the n-word, or the different forms of it that I’ve printed on this pageWe know that lots of people today use it as a way of identifying fellowship or brotherhood among black people or even just close friends
OED even recognizes this positive form of the word’s usage
We see this in the media with figures like Laurence Fishborne, film director, who admits to using the term within close circles of friends on the documentary The N-Word
Nicki Minaj uses the term a total of 35 times in just one song, entitled “N.I.G.G.A.S.,” which laments the current oppression of black men in this country
And she actually references the problem that I talked about a few minutes ago—that many black men are given very little opportunity for social advancement and end up incarcerated in numbers that are not proportionate to the number of white men who are imprisoned for the same crimes
It is as if she is using this word—which some would say carries with it a history of oppression—to unite the black community in continuing “hold on” and “keep tryin,'” as the lyrics to the song say
Then we have Sean Combs and Ludacris who also use the word in their music as a way of indicating fellowship or closeness with other black men
Samuel L. Jackson says on The N-Word that he insists that all who work with him know upfront that he is an n-word
Using the word in slightly different way—to indicate that he is tough and not afraid to fight for what he believes in
Then we have Katt Williams who uses the term liberally in stand-up
Use of n-word by black people themselves started to gain national attention in the 1970s when Richard Pryor began to do it in his comedy routines
Used it in a positive way, as a way of showing affection between family members, brotherhood between men—much like all of these contemporary figures do
Ironically, after pretty much single-handedly managing to take the use of this word mainstream, Pryor renounced his use of the term in the late 80s.
According to Hilton Als, Pryor came to the conclusion that “to call one's brother a 'nigger'" is to describe one's own "wretchedness’”

Page 6
Now going to turn to the use of the word in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Ranked #14 on the American Library Association’s list of Top 100 Banned/Challenged Books for the decade of 2000-2009Reason cited is racism
Book actually uses word total of 219 times
Might have something to do with it
Because of the history of oppression and othering that comes with this word, it can make the book very difficult to read, even at the college level
Going to quote from an article that you are going to read for this class in a couple of weeks
This section of the article is written from the perspective of a non-traditional student—African-American woman, on her experience of reading Huck Finn
Had just returned to college
Excited to have opportunity to read this classic that she had never read
Read quote
Interesting that she refers to Malcolm X here, man who believed in procuring dignity of black men and women through eradication of n-word, in her lamentation of its use in this American classic
If it is this painful for a grown woman to read this word, imagine effects on a child

Page 7
This is why, in 2011, publisher NewSouth introduced edited versions of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Replaced "n-word" with "slave"
Here are some reasons that Professor Alan Gribben gave during NPR’s Talk of the Nation last January for agreeing to edit the two texts in this way
Says that this edition is for young children who would not get to read the book otherwise because of the ways that the book has been censored
Says that Twain might well have adapted to this change, since this author was particularly known for changing his opinions about matters throughout his life
And, finally, says that this edition does not change the central concept of the book, only makes it more tolerable for those sensitive to a particular word
It would appear that Professor Gribben should get a gold star, right?

Page 8
Well, except for the fact that the new edition has caused public and scholarly outrage
One commentator on NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday compared the editing out of the n-word in Huck Finn to the covering of the bloody figures in Picasso’s “Guernica” with band-aids
Picasso painted “Guernica” to protest the bombing of Guernica, Spain by German and Italian warplanes during the Spanish Civil War
Meant to show suffering that war causes
To put band-aids over the gashes in this scene would not only deface this classic, evocative work of art, but it would also cover over a history of suffering that we should remember
Similarly, Simon is saying that to change "slave" for the n-word in Huck Finn is to tamper with a work of art and also to deny the oppression and othering that this word connotes
It is both silly and unwise

Page 9
Time is ticking
Now is when you decide what you believe and how you will handle this issue
We’ve looked at figures like Malcolm X and Richard Pryor, who insist that the use of this term is harmful
People like Nicki Minaj, who see it as a way of uniting black men and women and fighting oppression
Seen how it can be hurtful to people when read in classic texts like Huck Finn
Learned how others insist that we must keep it and talk about it in order to remember a history of oppression
What do you think?
Maybe take three comments on one small part of this issue, most important to us, how we should handle this in the classroom
Each extreme and in the middle
Clearly a provocative topic
My hope is that discussion of it can bring us together instead of divide us

Page 10
Works Cited

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gestational Imagery in William Gay's Provinces of Night

Those who have followed this blog since its inception know that I am particularly drawn to Appalachian literature (see my posts on Bastard Out of Carolina, A Virtuous Woman, and Fair and Tender Ladies).  I find the tenor and themes of Appalachian stories compelling perhaps because I’m only a single generation removed from the hills of Kentucky myself.  My father was born into a stereotypically impoverished and under-educated Kentuckian family, not unlike many of those depicted in contemporary Appalachian novels.  And it seems to me that he’s spent a good portion of his life trying to break away from the oppressive confines of his roots.  My dad can tell you about the day that he realized, as an elementary school student newly relocated to Indiana, that he would have to change the way he talked in order to gain acceptance from the other kids in school.  And he’s always proud to talk about how he worked his way through college as a janitor, eventually earning his Bachelor’s degree in elementary education.  From there, my father went on to obtain a Master’s degree and finally a Doctorate, and he currently works as an Assistant Superintendent for a school district.  He believes in the power of education and sees his pursuit of learning as that which has lifted him from the poverty that plagued his parents and the generations before them.  

William Gay’s Provinces of Night, an Appalachian novel about the aggrieved Bloodworth clan of Tennessee in the 1950s, also posits education as a way out.  Interestingly, it depends on gestation and birth imagery to carry this message, using the maternal body as a necessary metaphor for the positive change that is possible through education.  

Like others of the Appalachian literary tradition that use Southern Gothicism to both lament and satirize the dysfunctional lives of an oppressed people, Provinces of Night is largely about death.  The great patriarch of the Bloodworth family, who abandoned his wife and three sons years ago, has returned home to die.  No longer a legendary rabble-raiser or skirt-chaser, he is simply a proud old man who wants to live out his days with a measure of dignity.  In the end, E.F. commits suicide rather than face the “chickens coming home to roost,” the wife who is growing senile but vividly remembers the ways that E.F. hurt her in their youth, the son who seeks vengeance by trying to have his father committed to “a home,” and the stranger who wants revenge for having been taken by one of E.F.’s schemes (264).  As Tom Conoboy points out in a post on the novel, “there is something elegiac in the writing.”  Indeed, we feel as though we might tip our hats to those in the novel, like E.F. Bloodworth, who do the best that they can in troubled circumstances—or, at least, have complex reasons for making the decisions that they make.  

For E.F.’s seventeen-year-old grandson, Fleming Bloodworth, though, E.F.’s death literalizes the living death that he sees as his future if he follows in footsteps of the men in his family.  He honors E.F.’s desire to live and die on his own terms by assisting his grandfather in carrying out the suicide, but Fleming is transformed by witnessing the once invincible E.F. Bloodworth choose to blow his own brains out.  Stephanie Sorensen says that the novel suggests that “jewels can emerge from the rough.”  Although Fleming earlier finds himself getting caught up in the often illegal and/or immoral schemes of his uncles and his cousin Neal, by the end of the novel, he is ready to stand on his own—and to move away from the way of life of the other Bloodworths, that which leads to death and belongs to the provinces of night.  

After the suicide, Fleming quickly takes action to change the trajectory of his life.  In a gesture of closure, he burns the tumbledown cabin in which he has lived alone for months.  The cabin has offered Fleming little in the way of direction, as it is where he has simply existed, awaiting the return of his father, who left to pursue and kill the peddler who ran away with Fleming’s mother.  When it is gone, he continues with his newfound plan.  He registers for the Navy, intending to fulfill his military contract so that the government will then fund his education.  Finally, Fleming looks up Raven Lee Halfacre.  

As a result of a brief relationship before she met Fleming, Raven Lee is pregnant with Neal Bloodworth’s child.  Neal denies his paternity of the baby and has now left the state.  After the episode with E.F., Fleming is no longer unsure about how to handle this situation.  When Raven Lee says, “I wish this was your baby,” he replies, “I’ll take it then. . . . I want it.  It’s mine.  Neal doesn’t want it and he doesn’t want you. . . . I want you any way I can get you and I’ll treat the baby the same as if it was mine” (285).  As they make plans to marry and move away to wherever Fleming is stationed, Raven Lee’s maternal body—previously degraded and abandoned—is reclaimed as valuable and loved.  More importantly, because it holds the potential for new life, it becomes representative of Fleming and Raven Lee’s hope for the future.  This innocent new life, despite its being borne of generations of poverty and depravity on both sides, will have a better existence than those of its forebears.  

No one knows better than Fleming, however, that there are “no givens” in life (287).  In fact, considering what we know of their family histories, it seems like a long shot that Fleming and Raven Lee will live out the rosy life that we’d like to imagine for them.  Sure, they love each other, but the flashbacks in the novel show us that E.F. and his wife loved each other, too; that didn’t stop them from tearing each other apart.  
In an epilogue, the novel puts our doubts to rest (and, I would argue, sort of wrecks the beautiful ambiguity of the more natural ending which leaves us to wonder what will happen to Fleming, Raven Lee, and the baby).  This final section tells us that the dam being built throughout the action of the novel is completed and that a rush of water flushes and drowns the basin where Fleming’s cabin once stood: “Then the waterway was cut from the river and the water poured down the slope toward the creek, churning and moiling and talking to itself, and the basin began to fill in earnest. There was no life here. It was a world creating itself, caught in the caesura between the scraping away of the old order and the gestation of whatever altered form might follow” (292).  The water imagery here connects this description to Raven Lee’s maternal body.  Like Raven Lee’s womb, the basin is transformed from a despised and barren place to a space of promise.  Fleming’s old life is swept away by powerful life forces, and his new life is gestating.  We are left to imagine that, with another gush of water, this new life will ultimately emerge from Raven Lee’s maternal body and triumph completely over the old ways.

And the triumph that is suggested as soon to come is inextricably linked to the pursuit of education.  Fleming is set apart from the other Bloodworths from the beginning, in that he reads anything that he can get his hands on and has even already written one book (although the publishing company won’t accept the manuscript because it is handwritten).  Raven Lee is different as well.  She buys cokes at a downtown store in order to sit and read the magazines for sale there, and she spends hours at the library.  Most significantly, of course, the two will get their opportunity for real change by pursuing Fleming’s education, provided by the military.  If Raven Lee’s maternal body is the symbol of positive change, Fleming is its agent.  As they seem to figure out in the final pages of the novel, they depend on each other to realize their dream for change.  Raven Lee is tied to Fleming in that he is the one who has the opportunity to earn an education.  Fleming needs Raven Lee because she represents hope, now that she is pregnant more than ever.

The emphasis on education as a pathway to change in this text parallels the significant role that it is has played in my father’s life.  As Fleming seems to sense when he admits that there are “no givens,” and as I’m sure my dad would agree, education doesn’t solve all problems.  But it often provides a way out of poverty and, therefore, we like to believe, frequently improves our quality of life.  Certainly, an educated E.F. Bloodworth might not have been forced to make the tough decisions that he made throughout his life, perhaps would not have hurt the people he loved so deeply by playing out his limited options, and may not have faced the grotesque end depicted in the novel.  

Note: Provinces of Night was released as a feature film entitled Bloodworth in 2010.

Works Cited

Gay, William.  Provinces of Night.  New York: Anchor Books, 2000.