Tuesday, November 30, 2010

"Matriarchy" and the Contemporary Black Family

For all of you who are wondering where I've been, I'm back to let you that the last few weeks have brought some exciting changes in my life. Not only are we selling our house and moving into a beautiful new home (hopefully within the month of December because it is dang hard to keep a house clean enough to show with an 19-month-old and a 7 1/2-year-old--this situation does not accentuate my better nature!!), but I have also been assigned three new classes for the Spring semester. I am thrilled to be teaching two sections of a "Reading and Writing about Literature" class, an introductory course in the English major, and a colloquium for the Honors College. Because the theme of my colloq so well matches the focus of this blog, I thought that I'd share my syllabus and schedule with you, my loyal followers.

I've entitled the course "'Matriarchy' and the Contemporary Black Family." As the syllabus demonstrates, we're taking as a springboard the US Department of Labor's Moynihan report of 1965 which--although likely well-intentioned--propelled the myth of the black matriarch into the forefront of the American consciousness. The report attributed the "pathology" of the black family to its "matriarchal" nature, pointing out that many black families were headed by women who oftentimes ran the home and at the same time financially supported the men in their families. The report was meant to convey the necessity of creating more jobs for black men, but many have claimed that it blamed the victims, the women who were--and had been for centuries--keeping it all together in the face of greatly oppressive social and political circumstances. The matriarch myth has stayed with us and has played out in complicated social scripts as well as in popular culture representations of black women.

This course will therefore investigate "matriarchy," past and present. It starts with "The Articulation of the Matriarch Myth" in 1965 and then jumps back to slavery to explore what I am calling, facetiously, "The Rise of the Matriarch" from slavery times up to the 1960s or so. This portion of the course will examine the historical circumstances that positioned the black woman as so central to the black family and also media representations of this positioning, such as in Amos and Andy, for instance. Next, we will move to "Disciplining the 'Matriarch,'" which will cover the ways that both black men and mainstream America have endeavored to punish black women for their deviance and powers of emasculation in movements such as Black Power and Reaganism. In addition to the listed readings, in these weeks we will view an episode of Sanford and Son, Boyz in the Hood and a documentary on hip-hop music. The fourth unit in the course is "Michelle Obama in the Context of 'Matriarchy'" and will explore Obama's portrayal in the media as an emasculating matriarch and the ways that she has negotiated this stereotype. Finally, in "Making Sense of the 'Matriarch,'" we will try to reckon with the legacy of the matriarch myth for us today.

I am proud of this course because my conception of the overall narrative arch of the story of the matriarch has been affirmed by the readings that I've found. Like me, many critics and theorists that I'm including in the course trace the myth of matriarchy to Moynihan, and, together, they present a complex and rich understanding of the significance of his report. In other words, the readings build on each other and complicate each other. It is awesome to see the course come together like this!!

Please take a look at the tentative syllabus that I've posted below! I'd love to hear your suggestions about how I can make this semester an even richer experience for my students as we work together to understand black "matriarchy."

“Matriarchy” and the Contemporary Black Family

Instructor Information
Name: Dr. Andrea Powell Wolfe
Office: RB 297
Office Hours: Tuesday 2-3 and 3:30-5, Thursday 2-2:45, and by appointment
Email: andreapowellwolfe@gmail.com
Website: http://andreapowellwolfe.weebly.com
Blog: http://literatimom.blogspot.com

Course Information
Title: HONRS 390: Honors Colloquium
Semester: Spring 2011
Location: Honors House
Meeting Times: Tuesday and Thursday 9:30-10:45
Credit Hours: 3

Required Texts
Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. (any edition)
Williams, Sherley Anne. Dessa Rose: A Novel. (any edition)

Additional Texts
Readings for the course are listed on the schedule below. In addition to the two books that I’m asking you to borrow or purchase, I will also provide some handouts in hard copy. You will access the majority of the readings for this course, however, either on the World Wide Web, through Blackboard, or via Electronic Course Reserves. In order to locate readings stored in the Electronic Course Reserves, log in to CardCat and then select “Course Reserves” from the menu bar.

Course Description
This course will constitute a semester-long interrogation of the term “matriarchy” as it has been used over the course of decades to describe the make-up of the black American family. Grounded in an awareness of “matriarchy” as a terrible misnomer in this context, the course will explore ways that the classification of the black family as “matriarchal” has reinforced oppressive cultural and political conditions for black Americans. We will endeavor to recognize the widespread abuse and subjugation of black women over time and still celebrate the strength of black mothers who have nurtured children and maintained families in the most dire of circumstances throughout American history. We will discuss ways that black men have reacted to the labeling of their families as “matriarchal.” Perhaps most importantly, we will attempt to uncover how the stereotype of “the matriarch” continues to play out in contemporary media representations of black womanhood and how it has played out in social scripts surrounding even our current First Lady, Michelle Obama.

Course Requirements
Paper #1 100 points
Paper #2 100 points
Paper #3 100 points
Final Exam 200 points
Participation 20 points per class
Quizzes 10 points each

Assignment sheets for each paper will be posted in the “Assignments” area in Blackboard. In general, these assignments will ask you to use textual evidence to support thoughtful and sophisticated claims regarding “matriarchy” and the black family. Papers will be 4-5 pages (1400-1750 words) in length and will be due to my email before class on the days noted on the course schedule. Late papers will lose 10 points per day late (including weekends).

Final Exam
The final exam will be comprehensive and will consist of short essay questions. In order to prepare for the exam, you will need to read carefully, participate attentively in class, and take good notes throughout the semester.

Quizzes over reading notes and class notes may be given without advanced notice. You are always welcome to use written or typed notes for quizzes. Quizzes cannot be made-up.

Your active and thoughtful participation in this course is absolutely critical to its success! Because discussion is such a big part of the Honors Colloquium experience, you will earn daily participation points for coming to class and engaging in meaningful discussion. Part of participation is also preparation to learn and interact in the classroom. This means that you must bring the appropriate reading(s) to class every day, either in hard copy or in electronic form on your laptop. Participation scores will be posted in the grade book in Blackboard after every class.

Extra Credit
Because I want to give you the opportunity to make up points that you might lose due to necessary absences, I will allow you to complete two extra credit assignments throughout the semester for a total of 40 points in extra credit. For each extra credit assignment, you will choose a full-length book (either critical or literary) or a film (either documentary or fictional) to review for extra credit. I will be happy to recommend texts that might match your personal interests, and, even if you do not need suggestions from me, I ask that you allow me to “approve” your selections before you begin working on these assignments. Each review should be 3-pages (1050 words) in length and should analyze the representation of black motherhood in the text that you have chosen.

Attendance Policy
You will lose all daily participation points when you miss class. While one or two absences may not affect your overall grade in the class, making a habit of missing class will most certainly negatively impact your grade. Any requests for a waiver of the penalty for missing class must be made before the absence for which you seek to be excused.

Classroom Behavior Policy
It is my goal to foster a classroom environment in which every student feels comfortable contributing to discussion. Though we will not always agree with one another, we must listen to one another with respect. Furthermore, you are never required to agree with me or with a text we are discussing; disagreement is a valuable part of the thinking process. I will not tolerate disruptive behaviors such as reading newspapers, talking on cell phones, texting, emailing, or sleeping in class. Behaviors like these will cause you to lose participation points for that day. In order to promote engaged discussion, I may ask you to close your laptop at times during class.

In order to protect the integrity of the university and of students who work hard, I take academic dishonesty seriously. The intentional or unintentional use of another’s writing without giving proper credit or any credit is theft and the use of a previously written paper for a current course without approval of the instructor is dishonesty. These types of actions undermine the educational process and may be cause for course failure or expulsion from Ball State University.

Disabilities/Accommodations Statement
If you need course adaptations or accommodations because of a disability, if you have emergency medical information to share with me, or if you need special arrangements in case the building must be evacuated, please make an appointment with me as soon as possible

Extra Help
I am happy to meet with students about drafts, assignment questions, additional discussions of a text, and absence policies, etc. during office hours or by appointment. I also encourage you to visit a writing tutor at The Writing Center to work on your papers at any stage in the writing process.

Syllabus Information Disclaimer
Parts of the syllabus and the course, including the schedule and assignments, are subject to change to meet the needs of students in the course.

Course Schedule

Articulating the Matriarch Stereotype

Tuesday, January 11 Introductions

Thursday, January 13 Readings Due: Syllabus; Daniel P. Moynihan, US Department of Labor, “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”, Chapters II-IV

Tuesday, January 18 Reading Due: Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book” in Blackboard

The Rise of the “Matriarch”

Thursday, January 20 Reading Due: Deborah Gray White, “Jezebel and Mammy: The Mythology of Female Slavery” on Reserve

Tuesday, January 25 Reading Due: Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Chapters I-XIV

Thursday, January 27 Reading Due: Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Chapters XV-XXXIII

Tuesday, February 1 Reading Due: Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Chapters XXXIV-XLI; Stephanie Li, “Motherhood as Resistance in Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl” in Blackboard

Thursday, February 3 Reading Due: Deborah Gray White, “From Slavery to Freedom” handout

Tuesday, February 8 Reading Due: YouTube videos, “Scarlett Dresses for the Barbeque”, “Mammy—Gone with the Wind”; Maria St. John, “’It Ain’t Fittin’: Cinematic and Fantasmatic Contours of Mammy in Gone with the Wind and Beyond” in Blackboard

Thursday, February 10 Reading Due: George Kirby, “Amos and Andy: Anatomy of a Controversy”

Tuesday, February 15 Reading Due: Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, Acts I-2

Thursday, February 17 Reading Due: Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun, Act 3; Ellen Silber, “Seasoned with Quiet Strength: Black Womanhood in Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959)” in Blackboard

Disciplining the “Matriarch”

Tuesday, February 22 Assignment Due: Paper #1

Thursday, February 24 Reading Due: bell hooks, “The Imperialism of Patriarchy” on Reserve

Tuesday, March 1 Reading Due: Amiri Baraka, “20-Century Fox,” “Newshit,” “Song,” “Lady Bug,” “A Poem for Black Hearts,” “Black Art,” “For a Lady I Know,” “Civil Rights Poem,” “Beautiful Black Women . . .,” “Bludoo Baby Want Money and Alligator Got it to Give,” “Leroy,” and “Who Will Survive America” handout; Daniel Matlin, “’Lift Up Yr Self’: Reinterpreting Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), Black Power, and the Uplift Tradition” in Blackboard

Thursday, March 3 Reading Due: Hortense Spillers, “Interstices: A Small Drama of Words” on Reserve

Tuesday, March 8 No Class; Spring Break

Thursday, March 10 No Class; Spring Break

Tuesday, March 15 Reading Due: Herman Gray, “Reaganism and the Sign of Blackness” on Reserve

Thursday, March 17 Reading Due: Sherley Anne Williams, Dessa Rose, “Prologue” and “The Darkey”

Tuesday, March 22 Reading Due: Sherley Anne Williams, Dessa Rose, “The Wench” and “The Negress”

Thursday, March 24 Reading Due: Sherley Anne Williams, Dessa Rose, “Epilogue”; Ashraf H. Rushdy, “Reading Mammy: The Subject of Relation in Sherley Anne Williams’ Dessa Rose” in Blackboard

Tuesday, March 29 Reading Due: Linda M. Burton and M. Belinda Tucker, “Romantic Unions in an Era of Uncertainty: A Post-Moynihan Perspective on African American Women and Marriage” in Blackboard

Thursday, March 31 Reading Due: “Between Apocalypse and Redemption: John Singleton’s Boyz in the Hood” in Blackboard

Tuesday, April 5 Reading Due: Mark Anthony Neal, “Baby Mama (Drama) and Baby Daddy (Trauma): Post-Soul Gender Politics” on Reserve

Michelle Obama in the Context of “Matriarchy”

Thursday, April 7 Assignment Due: Paper #2

Tuesday, April 12 Reading Due: Mosheh Oinounou and Bonney Kapp, “Michelle Obama Takes Heat for Saying She’s ‘Proud of My Country’ for the First Time”; Fox News, “Outraged Liberals: Stop Picking on Obama’s Baby Mama!”; Marcus Baram, “Rusty DePass, South Carolina GOP Activist, Says Escaped Gorilla Was Ancestor of Michelle Obama”; The Paparazzis, “Comedian Jay Mohr disrespects Michelle Obama”; Alicia Shepard, “Juan Williams, NPR and Fox News”

Thursday, April 14 Reading Due: Fight the Smears, “The Truth about Michelle”; Lois Romano, “Voices of Power: White House Social Secretary DesirĂ©e Rogers,” Chapter 3; The White House, “First Lady Michelle Obama”

Tuesday, April 19 Reading Due: The Huffington Post, “Up In Arms: Michelle Obama’s Sleeveless Style Sparks Controversy”; Wendy Donahue, “Some harrumph over Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dress”; Bonnie Fuller, “Michelle Obama’s Sleevegate: Why Can’t America Handle Her Bare Arms?”; Madison Park, “How to get Michelle Obama’s toned arms”; Andrea Sachs, “Michelle Obama’s Fashion Statement”; Danny Shea, “New York Magazine Blog Takes Down Michelle Obama Booty Post”; Gina, “Another ‘Booty’ Post: ‘That Site’ Puts the Marginalization and Dehumanization of First Lady Michelle Obama Up for Vote”; Erin Aubry Kaplan, “The Michelle Obama Hair Challenge”

Thursday, April 21 Reading Due: The White House Organic Farm Project, “About TheWhoFarm”; Michelle Obama, “Remarks by the First Lady to Unity Health Care Center”; Sesame Street, “Sesame Street: Michelle Obama and Elmo—Healthy Habits”; AOL Health, “First Lady Michelle Obama Answers Your Questions on Let’s Move!”

Tuesday, April 26 Reading Due: Patricia Yaeger, “Circum-Atlantic Superabundance: Milk as World-Making in Alice Randall and Kara Walker” in Blackboard; Kara Walker, “I Dream of Michelle Obama”

Tuesday, April 26 Reading Due: Andrea Powell Wolfe, “Michelle Obama and the Historical Positioning of the Black Mother within the Nation” in Blackboard; Ann Ducille, “Marriage, Family, and Other ‘Peculiar Institutions’ in African-American Literary History” in Blackboard

Making Sense of “Matriarchy”

Thursday, April 28 Assignment Due: Paper #3

Thursday, May 5 Final Exam at 9:45-11:45

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Complexities of Subject Positioning Played Out in Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night

The Tyrone family, of Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night (1956), has got to be one of the most relentlessly dysfunctional families in all of 20th-century American drama. The play’s four long acts portray the seemingly endless histrionics of the four members of the family, who all go out of their way to bait and bully—either directly or passive-aggressively—each of the other three main characters, so that the play seems to do little more than stage every possible configuration of confrontation between the members of the family. Mary blames her husband, James, and later their son, Edmund, for her morphine addiction. James transfers the blame for Mary’s condition onto the other son, Jamie, who he perceives as a philanderer and drunk. Jamie, in turn, sees Edmund’s birth as the root cause of the family’s troubles. And, to varying degrees, all of the men—alcoholics themselves, mind you—hold Mary responsible for the ultimate disintegration of their family unit and home life. Indeed, given the incessant accusations made by and against all of the Tyrone family members, it is difficult to sort out the true origins of the family’s unhappiness. I would argue, though, that the circular blaming that occurs in this play demonstrates O’Neill’s complex understanding—far ahead of his time—of individual subjectivity as comprised of overlapping identities. Because of the multiple subject positions that each of the characters occupy, none of them are simply oppressed or oppressor; instead, all are both. Even the Tyrone mother, powerless and pathetic as she appears throughout most of the play, is presented as simultaneously victim and victimizer.

Coming from a background in motherhood studies, my first inclination is, of course, to see Mary as a casualty of an uncompromisingly patriarchal family structure that positions her as mere (m)other. And to some extent, she is. The Tyrone men clearly construct Mary as an “other,” representative of that they are not. While they see Mary’s addiction as a sign of feminine weakness, for instance, they perceive their own alcoholism as a natural masculine trait, “a good man’s failing.” Besides, as they believe, they don’t drink because they are drunks; they drink to dull the pain that Mary inflicts on them by popping pills. In this way, they attribute all that is wrong with their lives to Mary—they blame the mother. Also, in many ways, the three male Tyrones exercise more control over Mary’s life than she does herself. As the patriarch of the family, James in particular determines where Mary will live, when she will eat, and even how many light bulbs she can have on in the house at one time. In a painkiller-induced state during the final scene, Mary articulates the loss of her subjectivity by embarking on a household search for “something [she] need[s] terribly.” Indeed, through Mary’s various conversations with her sons and husband that lead up to this pitiful moment, we learn that, over time, Mary has gradually experienced the deterioration of all of her dreams. She abandoned her goal of becoming either a concert pianist or a nun when she married James Tyrone. She submitted to the demands of James’s acting career and accepted his frequent drunkenness. Later, she devoted herself to the needs of her children. The birth of her youngest son Edmund sent her into a depression, which the family doctor medicated with morphine, thus setting the stage for Mary’s all-consuming addiction. In her older years, Mary lives in shabby hotel rooms and a run-down summer home, in accordance with James’s aversion to spending money on anything he perceives as frivolity. In these ways, Mary is oppressed by a particular set of restraints imposed on her as a middle-class wife and a mother in the early twentieth century; her life is circumscribed by her position as adjunct to and nurturer of her husband and sons.

But Mary is certainly not blameless in the development of the Tyrone family pathology. Besides choosing marriage over the nunnery in the first place, refusing James’s continued efforts to draw her out of her insular home life, and ignoring Edmund’s efforts to help her stay sober, Mary purposefully uses the class position of her family of origin to assert authority over both the Tyrone servants and her own husband. She attributes the perceived misbehavior of her maid and cook to their working-class Irish roots. More importantly to my point, Mary takes every opportunity to remind James of the discrepancy between her own pampered upbringing and his childhood as a poor Irish immigrant. She points out in one scene, for example, that James probably predisposed their sons for alcoholism by giving them shots of whiskey to treat their minor childhood illnesses, and she is quick to blame parental shortcomings of this type on James’s Irishness, impoverished childhood, and lack of education. In this way, Mary maintains an attitude of class superiority and reinforces James’s sense of shame regarding his working-class immigrant heritage. She contributes, then, to his self-doubt and self-hate, which almost certainly manifest themselves in his stinginess and bullying of his sons, not to mention his own addiction.

In a current review of Long Day’s Journey into Night at St. Louis’s Muddy Waters Theatre Company (running through November 21, 2010), Judith Newmark summarizes the plot of the play: “four deeply unhappy people spend a hot, miserable day in August 1912 succumbing to their addictions and unloading on one another.” She goes on to comment, “Superficially, it seems strange that we'd choose to share this experience with them instead of fleeing.” Indeed, the unrelenting nature of the blame-game played out in this dramatic text makes it a bit tiresome. But the blaming contributes directly to O’Neill’s portrayal of the complexities of subject positioning. Mary is both woman and middle-class, and although she may be victimized by the constraints imposed on her as a female—and, more specifically, a mother—she certainly uses her class status to victimize others, and, sadly, her claim of class superiority over her husband contributes to his oppression of her as a woman.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Anney Boatright Waddell: Bastard Out of Carolina’s Villain, Victim, or Heroine?

A friend recently posted on Facebook a local news story of a battered five-week-old baby. The story portrays the child’s father as the culprit of his multiple head injuries and broken bones. It also states that the baby’s mother attempted to cover up her partner’s abuse of the baby, which she witnessed firsthand on several occasions, and failed to seek medical treatment for the child in a timely manner. One person commented, "How does this happen?" Indeed, it is difficult to understand the abuse of a child by anyone, let alone the battering of a tiny baby by the kid’s own father. And it is equally as hard—if not harder—to fathom that a mother could stand by and watch her innocent five-week-old be beaten and shaken and then neglect to have his injuries treated.

I was reminded of this news story a couple of days later as I finished Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992). The semi-autobiographical novel depicts the childhood of Ruth Anne “Bone” Boatright, who is born to the “white trash” Anney Boatright, promptly labeled a bastard by the state, and, later, physically and sexually abused for years by her stepfather, Daddy Glen Waddell. The story ends with the absolutely heart-wrenching portrayal of Glen’s brutal assault and rape of the then 12-year-old Bone. Anney interrupts the attack and pulls Glen off of Bone, only to turn away from her daughter to comfort Glen when he cries and apologizes. Anney takes Bone to the hospital for treatment but disappears as soon as the young girl is signed in. She turns up a last time to visit Bone as the child recovers from the attack, which left her with a dislocated shoulder and various other physical injuries, at Aunt Raylene’s. At this time, Anney turns over to Bone a new copy of her birth certificate, one that she has managed—after countless attempts—to have printed without the word “Bastard” stamped on it, and then leaves for good. Bone knows that her mother is headed to another state to live with Glen.

Just as it is difficult to understand the abuse and neglect of the five-week-old baby in the news article, it is hard to muster much sympathy for Anney, a mother who ignores the long-term abuse of her daughter and finally runs away with her daughter’s attacker and rapist, presumably to continue an emotional and sexual relationship with this brutal man. But as much as readers struggle against it, the book urges us toward an—albeit tenuous—understanding of Anney Boatright Waddell. In the somewhat puzzling final words of the novel, Bone seems to come to peace with her mother’s betrayal and even goes so far as to posit her mother as a sort of role model, saying, “I was who I was going to be, someone like her, like Mama, a Boatright woman” (309). Surely, this statement is partially the product of Bone’s still traumatized state-of-mind, but it seems to be more than that. Bone sees that, like herself, her mother has struggled against adversity her entire life and persevered in the way that she knows how. Ultimately, then, we are given little choice but to read this in many ways despicable mother as victimized by a social system that has positioned her as “trash” and triumphant in finally (though certainly belatedly) giving her daughter the chance for a better life.

There’s no doubt about it, Anney’s life is defined and limited by the systematic oppression of the poor, white, working class. As a Boatright, a member of a family reputed in the Greenville, South Carolina community for shiftlessness, fighting, drunkeness, and sexual immorality, Anney has struggled against the stereotype of “white trash,” a label that she felt inscribed upon her very being when the state officially designated her first child a “Bastard.” J. Brooks Bouson points out that although Anney resists the label of “trash” by working hard on a daily basis and repeatedly seeking to have Bone’s birth certificate changed, she internalizes the stigma of her position as a poor white woman, ultimately passing on the shame caused by this stigma to Bone and her other daughter, Reese (106). As if the shame of her position as “white trash” were not enough, Anney struggles for the means to feed her family as Glen loses job after job because of his bad temper. She works full-time at a local diner, periodically takes a second job at a factory, and once—after she is forced to feed her children a meal of crackers and ketchup—even turns to prostitution. Anney is also portrayed as psychologically tormented by the knowledge—however deeply denied—of Glen’s hatred and abuse of Bone. Anney dates the seemingly doting Glen for two years to ensure that he will “make a good daddy” (15) and, after the marriage, leaves Glen two times because of his physical mistreatment of Bone (she is not aware of his sexual abuse until the final rape scene). During the times when Anney and her girls do live with Glen, Anney is careful to remove Bone from the house at the times when she cannot be home to oversee her care. She sends Bone to Aunt Alma’s after school and to stay with Aunt Ruth or Aunt Raylene during summer vacations. On the rare occasion of witnessing Bone’s abuse, Anney cries for Glen to stop and afterward encourages her daughter to just stay out of Glen’s way in order to avoid the beatings that she knows Bone does not deserve. Anney is depicted as physically and psychologically exhausted by the trials in her life; Bone notices that she looks more worn with every passing year.

Besides being just a really bad guy, on a figurative level, Glen seems to embody the system of power that keeps Anney in a state of poverty and shame. Although his relationship with his family of origin is strained and despite his failure to secure a steady job, Glen is from a different social stratum than the Boatrights. He is depicted as coming from affluence and uses his marriage into the Boatright family to “shame his daddy and shock his brothers” (13). As he ensnares Anney and her girls within an ultimately dysfunctional family unit, then, Glen becomes representative of the inescapable dominance of the bourgeois over the poor working class. Anney is no match for his brutality and manipulation; she finally gives in to the system against which she has struggled for so long and, in the process, betrays her daughter and loses herself. She abandons Bone and leaves with Glen because she so badly wants to escape the degradation of her position as “white trash.” She receives from Glen the attention that she never got within a family defined by a culture of shame, a family in which the highest form of compliment to a child seems to be to call him or her “ugly,” a title which ensures that the child is “a Boatright for sure” (21). However misguidedly, Anney also seems to see in the middle-class Glen her chance to flee the shame of her existence as a Boatright, a family regarded in the larger community as worth little more than garbage.

Despite her ultimate abandonment of Bone, Anney does succeed in re-writing the originally sordid story of her daughter’s beginnings by securing for Bone a new birth certificate. Indeed, the whole lower section of the paper that Anney gives to Bone before she leaves with Glen is “blank, unmarked, unstamped” (309), signifying that because Anney has managed to unmoor Bone’s origins from the stereotypical origins of most “white trash,” Bone’s future is no longer bound to the restraints of her class position. It is perhaps because Anney gives Bone this gift of hope that Bone is able to face her future while still acknowledging her family’s past. The new birth certificate comes to signify, as Tanya Horeck states, “the inextricability of the daughter’s future from that of her mother’s at the same time [that it] contain[s] the possibility the child will script her life differently” (56). In the final words of the novel, Bone claims the strength and perseverance of the Boatright women, but she is able to imagine a fate different from that of her aunts and especially her mother.

Bastard Out of Carolina challenges us to look beyond Anney’s inability to consistently protect and nurture her daughter, despite her appalling behavior in the final scenes. The novel points to the ways that Anney has herself been brutalized by a system of oppression that works to keep her in a state of disempowerment and shame. I don’t claim to understand Anney’s refusal to face her daugher’s abuse or her final choice to leave her daughter, but I can sympathize with the physical and psychological exhaustion inflicted upon Anney by a lifetime of debasement as “trash.”

So, the news article about the abused five-week-old bothers me, not only because I am horrified by the terror and pain inflicted upon this little guy by the very people who are supposed to care for him in the first weeks of his life, but also because I read the subtext of this article to say of the parents, “What more would you expect from these trash?” From their separate addresses, which are provided in the article, we can infer that the parents are unmarried and also that they live in some of the most impoverished areas in our city. Furthermore, the article cites the particular obscenities that the mother claims to have heard the father shout at the child, making both of them seem ignorant of the social norms that dictate the acceptable use of these terms in both private and public settings. The mother is also portrayed as either slow to understand that her child was being abused or a heartless bitch to deny him treatment. The father is depicted as using an imagined medical condition to excuse his abuse of the baby. He is further discredited by the detailed recounting of his past convictions: “Wihebrink is no stranger to local authorities, having been booked into the Delaware County jail nine times. He was convicted of battery by body waste (in 2006), possession of marijuana (2008) and receiving stolen property (2004).” Like the Boatrights are regarded by the greater Greenville community, then, these people are clearly perceived by the writers of this article as poor, stupid, lazy, and morally bankrupt, and readers are invited to see them this way as well. Given the details provided in the news article, these parents may be all of these things, but to characterize them in this light might also allow all of us to ignore the social circumstances that have almost certainly contributed to the awful mistreatment of this baby. To represent and perceive these people as “trash” is to dismiss our own culpability in maintaining a system that shames and debases our poor simply for being poor and, in doing so, might very well perpetuate the abuse of children.

Works Cited

Bouson, J. Brooks. “’You Nothing But Trash’: White Trash Shame in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” Southern Literary Journal 34.1 (2004): 101-23.

Horeck, Tanya. “’Let Me Tell You a Story’: Writing the Fiction of Childhood in Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina.” New Formations 42 (2000): 47-56.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

John Murray Day

We celebrated John Murray Day at our house this week.

We’ve been attending a local Unitarian Universalist church for a couple of months, and, in a church-sponsored parenting book group, I recently encountered John Murray for the first time. According to uuworld.org, Murray is “often referred to as the father of American Universalism, helping to found Universalism as a denomination in the 1790s” (par. 10). The story goes that fierce winds prevented Murray from leaving the shore of New Jersey for his intended destination on September 30th, 1770, and, because he was detained, he agreed to speak at a Universalist meetinghouse, thus preaching the first Universalist sermon in America. He went on to serve as a minister for the first Universalist church in Massachusetts for the better part of the next couple of decades. As a Universalist, Murray espoused that salvation was for everyone, not just “the elect,” as the Calvinists of his day believed (or “the saved,” as contemporary conservative Christians believe today). Universalism of Murray’s time was driven by the belief that if Jesus was sacrificed for all of humanity, as the Bible states, then even non-believers could not be doomed to Hell. Today, Universalism is much less confined within a Christian worldview and, in UU theology, has come to stand for the inclusion of all people, regardless of faith or creed. Many Unitarian Universalists see Murray as helping to build the foundation for acceptance of difference within a religious community.

In order to commemorate John Murray’s contribution to Unitarian Universalism, my family and I instituted a new ritual involving dessert! (As my husband says, my daughter and I can turn anything into an opportunity to consume chocolate.) We started with two scoops of ice cream. I poured chocolate syrup over one of the scoops, and we all observed how it flowed over the ice cream. I then stuck an Oreo part-way into the other scoop, taking care to position it so that it was perpendicular to the bottom of the bowl. I poured chocolate syrup into the ridge between the two chocolate wafers of the Oreo, and we observed how it flowed differently than it did in the first. We talked about how the ice cream represents the world and the Oreo represents a person, like John Murray. The syrup flow over the Oreo demonstrated, then, that one person can make a difference in how the world experiences the forces of life. After discussing the demonstration, we all had Oreo sundaes!

Okay, so maybe it’s a stretch. But I wanted to find a way to celebrate this day, one of the only “special” days of a specifically UU history. It is important to me to reinforce that we are a family grounded in a free-thinking spiritual tradition, a tradition founded on principles of Universalism, both of the new definition and the old.

Perhaps because I come from an evangelical Christian upbringing, I see the concept of Universalism not just as a tenet of the UU church but also as a marker in my own spiritual journey. To move beyond the (fear-based) belief in Hell has been a major milestone for me and has allowed me—just as it allowed the Calvinist-turned-Universalist John Murray, I suspect—to join in meaningful community with believers and non-believers of all sorts.

I also believe that we might all benefit from the adoption of a belief in Universalism, as it seems to me to not only prevent our condemnation of each other to spiritual damnation but also, and perhaps more importantly, to pave the way from toleration to associationism, a journey that very well might led all of us to further spiritual enlightenment by virtue of learning from others. In a post over at A Commonplace Blog, D.G. Myers defines toleration: “Toleration, on my showing, would entail the unspoken agreement to put up with religious differences without ever undertaking the impossible mission of reconciling them, which—in the absence of any logical method for doing so—can only end in coercion or violence —separatism to learning from each other” (par. 6). Myers thus describes toleration as enduring the religious opinions of others without budging on our own beliefs. As Kevin points out in a comment, though, it seems a bit ridiculous to envision living in harmony with people of differing beliefs but remaining unchanged by this diversity. Kevin states, “Perhaps the world’s religions aren’t as insular as [Myers] suggest[s], aren’t self-contained circles” (Myers, par. 11).

Indeed. It seems to me, in fact, that the concept of Universalism allows for a more positive—and perhaps more practical—way of living with difference, a way that Daniel Harper at Yet Another Unitarian Universalist describes as associationism. Harper sees associationism as “refer[ing] to a form of voluntary association in which local organizations or voluntary associations are connected into a larger association or network of local organizations, by means of written records (minutes of meetings, bylaws, etc.), and formal and informal exchanges between associated local organizations (informal local cooperation, formal regional and national conventions, annual meetings, etc.)” (par. 8). In short, associationism allows people of divergent belief systems to come together in community, to support each other, to work toward common goals, and to help each other attain spiritual enlightenment. Associationism differs from toleration in that it implies more than a respect for spiritual difference; instead, it opens up the possibility of learning from the diversity of a common religious community.

John Murray Day is, for me, then, not just an opportunity to rejoice in my family’s recent inclusion into a local spiritual community but also a celebration of Universalism itself, a concept that has played a major role in my own religious liberation and that offers the promise of uniting us for the purpose of individual and communal spiritual growth. And, of course, the kids and I liked the ice cream and Oreos!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Motherhood and the Law of the Father in Nuruddin Farah's "Dictatorship" Trilogy

As many critics have noted, Naruddin Farah’s trilogy “Variations on the Theme of African Dictatorship” represents the patriarchal structure of the family as reinforcing the power of Somalia’s governmental regime under the General (a stand-in for the historical figure of Siad Barre, who led the Somali Democratic Republic from 1969 to 1991 as military dictator). Certainly, traditional gender roles that position the father/husband as the unqualified head of the family and his children/wives as powerless and therefore submissive to his commands map easily, according to Naruddin’s novels, onto the structure of a dictatorship, which situates one omniscient and all-powerful man above a citizenry at the mercy of his dictates and their often violent enforcement. I claim, however, that Naruddin also portrays motherhood, both as a familial position and a conceptual framework, as playing a crucial role in the maintenance of the General’s regime.

The extent to which motherhood functions to underpin the oppressive Somali government is most fully explored in the first two novels of the trilogy: Sweet and Sour Milk (1979), which introduces this issue even in its metaphorically rich title, and Sardines (1981). The final novel in the series, Close Sesame (1983), sidelines the issue of motherhood in favor of a final look at the patriarchal family structure and its tribal counterpart, the traditional Somali clan system. I will therefore focus in this post on the first two novels. In Sweet and Sour Milk, Loyaan undertakes to determine the cause for the sudden death of Soyaan, his twin brother, which appears to have been ordered by the General in response to Soyaan’s subversive politics. The novel introduces a host of mother figures, including Loyaan and Soyaan’s mother, Qumman, who, out of fear for her children’s lives, discourages their political activism. The second novel centers on the strained relationship between Medina and Samater, who differ in their approaches to dealing with the General’s government and, by extension, the continued oppression and abuse of women and girls personified in Samater’s highly conservative mother, Idil. While Idil works to maintain the political and social status quo, Medina and other mothers throughout the novel offer us alternative approaches to motherhood. In both novels, mothers are depicted as subjugated to the rule of their husbands and the dictatorship, but they are also powerful in that they either visit—in true Kristevan fashion—the Law of the father upon their children or actively resist the rule of the patriarchal family and government structure.

Although she recognizes that her son’s death was a work of foul play, Qumman insists on blaming other women—Soyaan’s mistress Margarita and her husband’s other wife Beynan, for instance—for his demise. In this way, she deflects responsibility for Soyaan’s murder from the oppressive military regime and—though unwittingly—reinforces the patriarchy’s conventional suspicion of women and breeds distrust within her own community of women. Fearful for her only remaining son’s life, Qumman also tries to prevent Loyaan from pursuing the truth or resisting the government in any way, hovering close to him during a communal “broom party” in an effort to ensure that he does not verbally or non-verbally challenge the officiating government personnel (212). As J.I. Okonkwo points out, “[T]hrough loyalty, service and emotional hold over sons and husbands, Qumman’s generation of women, deeply conservative, militate against individual freedom and progress” (219). We find another—perhaps more extreme and certainly more deliberate—example of this type of maternal control over the potential subversive acts of her children in Idil of Sardines. As I mentioned in a previous post on genital mutilation, Idil insists that she will have her granddaughter, Ubax, circumcised, even if it means that she has to steal the eight-year-old away from Medina and Samater. When Medina moves away with the young girl in an effort to escape Idil’s threat, Idil arranges for a more suitable—conservative and submissive—wife for Samater. Samater ultimately rejects both his mother and the new woman, forcing them to leave his house, but not without arousing the anger of the state.

In fact, Samater’s decision to eject his mother from his home is treated as an act of treason. Samater is picked up by government officials, held in prison for a period of time, and subjected to various acts of torture before he is finally allowed to return to his wife and child. In this sequence of events, we see Idil the matriarch positioned as a representative of the General and his regime. An offense against Idil is perceived by the state as an offense against the General. In addition to a father-figure, then, the General becomes a mother-figure. A passage in the first novel of the trilogy describes the General and his dictatorship as taking on the role of both mother and father to the abandoned orphans of Somalia: “[A]ny unclaimed babies found in the city’s garbage bins or unpatrolled streets were trained to consider the General their father, his revolution their mother, and the regime’s generosities to them their breast-feed” (235). In fact, the novel’s very title, Sweet and Sour Milk, suggests both the role that women play in perpetuating the violence of the military regime through their efforts to protect their children and the ways in which the head of the state acts as a mother himself, indoctrinating his subjects into a harsh world by laying down the Law, his own law of fear and violence. Recurrent imagery in the novel depicts mothers nursing, refusing to nurse, unable to nurse, and weaning their children. I read these women as representative of the state—and the general himself. Together, they portray the General as an abusive mother. He suckles his citizenry in the rhetoric of equality and freedom and then abandons them to hunger and desperation, all in a careful plan to ensure their dependence on his random and infrequent acts of nurturance. In that they care for their children and then limit their children’s struggles against an oppressive government and in that they take on the symbolism of the state—which protects and kills at whim—conservative mothers in Farah’s trilogy raise their children on the sweet and sour milk of the first novel’s title.

Not all mothers in Sweet and Sour Milk and Sardines reinforce the Law of the dictator, however. Especially in the figure of Medina, Farah offers us a woman who acts as a strong leader for the young women in her community and encourages both her surrogate and biological daughters to question the government and engage in political activism. Interestingly, though, in all of her zeal to teach her daughter to resist the General’s militaristic regime, Medina has to consciously work to avoid taking on the qualities of a dictator herself. Medina recalls at one point the words of her progressive father: “You must leave breathing-space in the architecture of your love; you must leave enough room for little Ubax to exercise her growing mind. You mustn’t indoctrinate, mustn’t brainwash her. Otherwise you become another dictator, trying to shape your child in your own image” (17). Even as Medina struggles against the General in her political life and her mother-in-law who represents the dictatorship in her personal life, she must proceed with caution in her relationship with her own daughter, for, as Derek Wright points out, “The freedom which Medina forces prematurely upon Ubax is at times almost as oppressive as the obedience Idil has forced upon Samater” (103). In this way, Farah again insists on the power of motherhood, a power that many women use to initiate their children into the way of the Law and that Medina must moderate in order to raise a free-thinking daughter.

Because women (as mothers) are so potentially powerful in resisting the dictatorship, Farah situates their full freedom—from arranged marriage, circumcision, purdah, censorship, etc.—as crucial to the development of a just government in Somalia. In that they continue to suffer the terrorism and indoctrination inherent to a dictatorship, however, mothers in Farah’s novels often function to serve the state by teaching their children the Law that, ironically, oppresses them and also by serving as honored symbols of the dictatorship itself. It is in fact because Farah is so sensitive to the continued victimization of women and the political consequences of this victimization that popular and scholarly critics agree, as blogger The Activist Writer claims, for example, that he is one of Africa’s leading feminist authors.

Bibliographic Notes: Those who have discussed the patriarchal family structure as reinforcing the General’s dictatorship include R. John Williams and Derek Wright. For further discussion of the significance of milk in Somali lore and tradition, see Abdourahman A. Waberi.

Works Cited

Farah, Nuruddin. Close Sesame. Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf P, 1983.

---. Sardines. Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf P, 1981.

---. Sweet and Sour Milk. Saint Paul, MN: Greywolf P, 1979.

Okonkwo, J. I. “Nuruddin Farah and the Changing Roles of Women.” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 58.2 (1984): 215-221.

Waberi, Abdourahman A. “Organic Metaphor in Two Novels by Nuruddin Farah.” World Literature Today: A Literary Quarterly of the University of Oklahoma 72.4 (1998): 775-80.

Williams, R. John. “'Doing History': Nuruddin Farah's Sweet and Sour Milk, Subaltern Studies, and the Postcolonial Trajectory of Science.” Research in African Literatures 37.4 (2006): 161-76.

Wright, Derek. “Parents and Power in Nuruddin Farah's Dictatorship Trilogy.” Kunapipi 11.2 (1989): 94-106.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Genital Mutilation

A couple of weeks ago, Africa Today asked me to review a submission to their journal. Probably, they knew of my article on Chinua Achebe published in Research in African Literatures a few years ago and then republished more recently in a Harold Bloom collection. Anyhoo, I accepted. The manuscript that I subsequently received discussed the first two novels in Naruddin Farah’s “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship” trilogy. In preparation for reviewing the essay, I quickly got a hold of the books; I’m currently done with the first one and nearly finished with the second. I will have a lot to say in terms of how Farah—in stark contrast to Achebe—posits gender equality as central to post-colonial nation-building, but I will save that for another time. Today, I have another issue on my mind and heart, albeit one closely related, for Farah at least, to gender equality in Africa: genital mutilation both in the US and abroad.

As I’ve made my way through the first two novels, Sweet and Sour Milk (1979) and Sardines (1981), both set in Somalia in the 1970s, I’ve noticed numerous references to that which we in the Western world refer to as female genital mutilation (FGM) or, perhaps less judgmentally, female circumcision. In the first book, Ladan suffers excruciating pain for several days each month, a pain common, the narrator points out, to circumcised women. In Sardines, Medina leaves her husband, Samater, at least in part, because he refuses to take a stand against his mother, who insists that she will circumcise Medina and Samater’s eight-year-old daughter, even if it means that the old woman has to snatch the child away from her parents for a few days to get the job done (106). In a reverie on the topic of circumcision, Medina articulates the physical and psychological damage that it causes to young girls, as well as the ways that it leads to further—seemingly endless—violations throughout women’s lives: “If they mutilate you at eight or nine, they open you up with a rusty knife the night they marry you off; then you are cut open and re-stitched. Life for a circumcised woman is a series of de-flowering pains, delivery pains and re-stitching pains. I want to spare my daughter these and many other pains. She will not be circumcised. Over my dead body” (67). In fact, the evil of the current Somali dictatorship seems to be best represented for Medina by circumcision. She tells the story of an African-American couple who visited the country with their “gem of joy,” a sixteen-year-old daughter, in order “to introduce their daughter to the country of their birth” as well as to gather research for a project that would threaten to reveal to the world the political problems of Somalia (102). Soon after entry into Somalia, the family’s passports were confiscated. To further humiliate this family, the dictator arranged for the girl’s circumcision: “The women hired by the newly stipended chieftain plotted. One night, while the parents were asleep in their room, they dragged the girl out of her bed, tied her to the bed-post, gagged her mouth with a cloth and circumcised her. Poor thing” (105). Powerless and unable to face their teenage daughter’s mutilation and the plans of the government to then marry the girl to “a man of the clan,” the parents committed suicide (105). Medina shows FGM, then, to function both as a method to subordinate womanhood and simultaneously further the power of the dictatorship.

Of course, I had heard of FGM, but I wanted to understand it within the Somali context established in Farah’s novels. Through simple internet research, I found that the US Department of State classifies infibulation, the type of FGM practiced most frequently in Somalia, as Type III Female Genital Mutilation: “Type III is the excision (removal) of part or all of the external genitalia (clitoris, labia minora and labia majora) and stitching or narrowing of the vaginal opening, leaving a very small opening, about the size of a matchstick, to allow for the flow of urine and menstrual blood. The girl or woman’s legs are generally bound together from the hip to the ankle so she remains immobile for approximately 40 days to allow for the formation of scar tissue” (par. 7). The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports, “The practice itself often takes place in remote rural areas by untrained village midwives who use instruments such as knives, razors or even broken glass. The instruments are often not sterile and the ritual is very often performed in unsanitary conditions. In urban areas, some families use a doctor to perform the operation. . . ..The practice often occurs without the use of anesthesia” (par. 7-8). The World Health Organization (WHO) considers the consequences of infibulation as severe:

Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue.

Long-term consequences can include:

• recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections;
• cysts;
• infertility;
• an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths;
• the need for later surgeries. For example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening [infibulation] needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sometimes it is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing and repeated both immediate and long-term risks. (“Female Genital Mutilation,” WHO par. 7-8)

According to UNICEF, FGM in Somalia is widespread: “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) has a prevalence of about 95 percent in Somalia and is primarily performed on girls between the ages of four and 11. This traditional practice is embedded deep within Somali culture, and the belief is widely held that FGM is necessary to ‘cleanse’ a girl child. In some communities, girls cannot be married without it” (par. 1). FGM is condemned by many African nations, as well as by the US, WHO, UNICEF, and many other countries and organizations.

Looking at the information about FGM, I am deeply grateful that my own daughter will never face the prospect of female circumcision, but I am also proud of my husband and myself and our decision, made about a year and a half ago, to forego circumcising our baby son, despite both cultural and familial pressure to do so. I look at my son and daughter and see happy, healthy, and intact children, and I am proud that we have given them—and my son especially—the gift of wholeness. While it is easy to declare FGM a horrific—and backward—practice, it is perhaps harder for many US citizens to think critically about male circumcision.

It is clear to me that male circumcision, which despite the American Academy of Pediatrics' declaration that it is not medically necessary is still performed on about 75% of male babies born in the US, is similar to—albeit less severe than—FGM. Wikipedia describes the circumcision procedure:

For infant circumcision, devices such as the Gomco clamp, Plastibell, and Mogen clamp are commonly used, together with a restraining device.

With all these devices the same basic procedure is followed. First, the amount of foreskin to be removed is estimated. The foreskin is then opened via the preputial orifice to reveal the glans underneath and ensure it is normal. The inner lining of the foreskin (preputial epithelium) is then bluntly separated from its attachment to the glans. The device is then placed (this sometimes requires a dorsal slit) and remains there until blood flow has stopped. Finally, the foreskin is amputated. Sometimes, the frenulum band may need to be broken or crushed and cut from the corona near the urethra to ensure that the glans can be freely and completely exposed. (par. 25-26).

Granted, male circumcision does not cause life-long health problems or (debatably) function socially or religiously to affirm the non-subject status of its victims, and it may not be such an obvious method of exercising political control over a people as is FGM. It clearly does, however, cause boys unnecessary fear and pain—often in an infant’s already probably terrifying first few days of life outside of the womb—and reduce sexual feeling in male genitalia. Furthermore, male circumcision seems to me an attempt to indoctrinate boys into a culture that values mind over body, to abnegate, according to religious traditions, the sensations of the body in favor of a psychological closeness with God. Personally, I find this veneration of the mind/body split ridiculous, as we are all minds and bodies intricately intertwined. More importantly, though, I am against male circumcision because at its core it is a form of genital mutilation, a practice leftover from violent tribal societies that existed thousands of years ago, performed most often without that person’s consent. Just like with FGM, using the legitimizing term “circumcision” doesn’t change that.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reflections on Service Learning in the Freshman Composition Classroom

In the interest of becoming—and to facilitate my students’ becoming—more community centered, I implemented my first ever whole-class service project in the freshman composition course that I taught this summer at Ivy Tech Community College. My idea was to have my students design and put together a book of writing prompts for local high school students. I thought that this project would benefit both my college students and the high school students who would receive the books. Besides gaining a measure of self-satisfaction simply by giving back to the community, my students would have to articulate—and then construct prompts that called for—the types of thinking and writing that they thought that the high school kids should be practicing in order to later do well in college. In this way, this project would provide my students with a meaningful opportunity to reflect on the particular challenges and restraints of “college writing” as well as critical thinking in general. At the same time, I thought that my students would develop skills as visual rhetoricians as they designed the prompt pages and the book as a whole. As for the high school students on the receiving end of the books, I thought that this project might help renew their interest in writing, as the books would be constructed especially for them, not by teachers or textbook writers, but by college students.

The prompt book project was successful in many ways. A friend of mine who teaches English in high school became a sort of community partner for this project, as she enthusiastically agreed to take the books and use them in her classes. She spoke to my students early in the term about her student population, which helped them to understand the particular interests and needs of the students who would receive the books. After this presentation, my students wrote a vision statement for the service project. Then, they marketed and organized two fundraisers—a bake sale and a concert—to raise money for the printing of the books, earning over $250. They each designed at least three prompt pages for the book, and several of them submitted entries in our cover design contest. In the end, we chose the best 30 prompts to include in the book as well as the most visually appealing cover. The students then printed and bound a classroom set of the books. I believe that my students did a lot of “real-world” writing and speaking for this project, as they penned emails to various people to organize the fundraisers, conveyed the mission of the project in advertising materials for the fundraisers, and discussed our needs with possible printers as they arranged to compile the books. I also know that the books will play a role in local student learning at the high school level, as my friend seems genuinely excited to use them in her classroom.

Still, at the end of the summer term, I felt a bit uneasy about the way that I’d incorporated service learning in the Ivy Tech course. Yes, my students had worked hard and, I hoped, learned a bit about writing and design in the process. But, for all of that effort, how impressive was our end product? I mean, after all, aren’t writing prompts available from lots of different sources? Couldn’t my English teacher friend simply look in her writing or literature textbooks or, better yet, just Google “high school writing prompts” to find prompts that are possibly as thought-provoking as the ones that my students wrote in our book? I think what I’m saying here is that $250 might have been a lot to spend on creating a teaching tool that pretty much already exists. So, although I wanted to continue to require a service learning component in my freshman composition classes, I was hesitant to do this particular project again.

Enter Project Leadership!

In a separate—more personal—initiative to increase my community involvement, I recently agreed to become a mentor in a local organization that seeks to pair adult volunteers with at-risk but highly capable students and help them to stay focused on the end goal of attending college, a program called Project Leadership of Delaware County. When I met with an administrator of the organization for what seemed like a kind of in-take interview, she mentioned that she was always looking for presenters to lead the monthly training sessions that Project Leadership holds for the mentors in the program. Later, it dawned on me: Project Leadership had a need that my students could fulfill in the form of a service learning project!

So, I’ve come up with a new service learning idea for the fall semester. This time, I will be teaching freshman composition for Ball State University instead of for Ivy Tech. Therefore, my class will likely be comprised of mostly 18- and 19-year-olds instead of the mix of traditional and non-traditional students who enrolled in my summer class. My service project will therefore attempt to harness my students’ special expertise as a population straight from high school. I am going to have my students organize and host a mini-conference for the Project Leadership mentors. The conference will include several student-led sessions on overcoming impediments to attending college. In groups, my students will design and implement multi-modal presentations on issues that they will identify as related to impeding high school students’ dedication to the pursuit of higher education. The presentations will utilize various types of research, including both primary and secondary, popular and scholarly, and they will focus on how Project Leadership mentors can help high school students successfully negotiate these issues in order to ultimately attend college.

How this idea differs from my first service learning idea, I hope, is that it will end with my students actually filling an existing need in the community. Besides providing my students with a meaningful opportunity to conduct all types of research and to construct and give presentations to a real audience, my students will hopefully really help the folks of Project Leadership to provide their mentors with ideas and encouragement to carry on with the important work of mentoring future college students. Although I certainly don’t have service learning all figured out, I feel like I’ve taken a step in the right direction.

Bibliographic Note: See Tim Scepansky’s article for a basic discussion of community service in higher education.

Works Cited

Scepansky, Tim. “Service Learning and Faculty in the Higher Education Institution.” Organizational Issues and Insights. NewFoundations. 13 Jan. 2005. Web. 20 Aug. 2010.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Chilling Truth Exposed in In Cold Blood: Oppression of Gay Men in Middle America in the 1960s

Since the 1965 publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, mainstream critics have seemingly gone out of their way to ignore the author’s intricate weaving of homoerotic tension into the lives and relationships of the two main characters, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock. Besides a virtual void of critical responses to the complicated sexual dynamics that exist between Perry and Dick, this unwillingness to entertain the duo’s queerness has resulted in a widespread misunderstanding of the brutal killing of the Clutter family, as it is depicted in Capote’s novelistic depiction of the historical event. Even contemporary critics assert (see, for example, reviews on the blogs Serendipity and Kidnapping, Murder and Mayhem), as Conrad Knickerbocker does in a 1966 review published in The York Times, that Perry and Dick kill the Clutters “without motive” (par. 6). I would argue, however, that instead of lacking in motive, the murders are clearly driven by a subconscious rage at the oppression of gay men in mid-twentieth-century mid-America, as well as the shame and self-loathing caused by their marginalization.

Significantly, it is Perry, the most obviously gay character of the criminal pair (despite Dick’s repeated use of endearments such as “honey” and “sugar” in conversation with Perry), who ultimately shoots the Clutters. In fact, as literary scholar Kathryn Bond Stockton points out, “the killing of the Clutters, in Capote’s hands, is the result of Perry’s missing the chance for a homosexual connection with a friend” (311). Indeed, Perry openly admits that he would never have agreed to accompany Dick to the Clutter home if “things had work[ed] out with Willie-Jay,” his “real and only friend,” who mentored and cared for Perry during a previous stint in prison (45). I would add to Stockton’s assessment of Perry’s motives that once inside the Clutter household, Perry is further incited to murder by Dick’s (perhaps overcompensatory) assertion of heteronormativity, his pronouncement of a desire to rape the teenage Nancy Clutter before killing her. Although Perry stops Dick from committing the rape, this incident spurs Perry to action, as he quickly executes the Clutters, people who, until this point, Perry had stringently argued with Dick for saving. As Tim asserts on the blog Random Observations
, then, it seems that Perry is motivated in part by jealousy (par. 8). Also factoring into Perry’s motives are his anger at his parents for abandoning him as a child and his embarrassed rage at the nuns at the orphanage who ridiculed his problem with bed wetting and abused him sexually (275). Years after the murders, Perry surmises that he might have used the Clutters as scapegoats for the wrongs committed against him throughout his life: “They [the Clutters] never hurt me. Like other people. Like people have all my life. Maybe it’s just that the Clutters were the ones who had to pay for it” (302). Far from motiveless, then, Perry’s killing spree is thus directly linked to his anger toward the circumstances that led to his life of crime, the cultural factors that works to prevent his reunion with Willie-Jay, and his perceived need to assert control over—or perhaps prove his masculinity to—his new partner Dick.

In addition to his complex characterization of Perry’s tortured sense of his own sexuality, Capote deliberately echoes of a couple of key scenes in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” (1955), published ten years prior to In Cold Blood and depicting a similarly senseless murder as Capote’s text, to highlight the tragic consequences of the widespread oppression of gay men in the mid-twentieth-century. As John Tuttle points out, In Cold Blood signifies on “A Good Man” in several ways. Both figure the perpetrators of murder as polite and respectful towards their victims, and both include scenes in which mother figures—Bonnie Clutter in In Cold Blood and the grandmother in “A Good Man”—attempt to forge bonds with the criminals by expressing their disbelief that men as courteous as these could commit murder. Also, both texts feature “rhetorical flourish[es]” that describe murder as answering the cruelty of the world with personal “meanness” (Tuttle 145). Finally, I would argue that both Capote and O’Connor deliberately characterize their murderers using the grotesque. In “A Good Man,” the sweaty and flabby bodies of the Misfit’s gang embody the evils of a still racially and socially stratified South. Instead of in the South, In Cold Blood is set in Holcomb, Kansas, a city that Capote points out is located in nearly the exact middle of the nation and in which people simply live out “ordinary life” (5). In this way, the physically deformed bodies of both Perry—whose legs “seemed grotesquely inadequate to the grown-up bulk they supported” (15)—and Dick—who was injured in a car accident which left his fact “composed of mismatched parts” (31)—come to represent the social ills of “ordinary life” in middle America, the underlying unfairness and oppression that prevent the long-neglected and abused Perry from achieving a fulfilling relationship with another man and lead both men to lives of self-hatred and, ultimately, heinous crime.

Certainly, in that homosexuality was considered even in medical texts in the 1960s as a pathological illness, it is understandable that Capote would track the motives for the Clutter murder to the widespread oppression and misunderstanding of gay men. The truth exposed in Capote’s journalistic endeavor to write a non-fiction novel, then, is not only that Perry and Dick killed four innocent people “in cold blood” but also that the state in turn murdered Perry and Dick “in cold blood.” This book thus points to middle America’s chilling disregard for vulnerable lives—like the neglected and abused Perry’s, in particular—that don’t fit the “ordinary” mold. In order to more fully understand the extent of Perry and Dick’s victimization by cultural and political institutions, as well as the particular dynamics of their ultimately destructive queer relationship, more critical attention must be paid to the underlying homoerotic tensions that guide the action in this great work.

Works Cited

Cortez, Jessica. “In Cold Blood: The Bible of Crime Writing.” Kidnapping, Murder and Mayhem. Robert A. Waters. 1 Jul. 2010. Web. 13 Aug. 2010.

Knickerbocker, Conrad. “One Night on a Kansas Farm.” Rev. of In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote. The New York Times. 16 Jan. 1966: n. pag. Web. 12 Aug. 2010.

Stockton, Kathryn Bond. “Feeling Like Killing: Queer Temporalities of Murderous Motives among Queer Children.” GLQ 13.2/3 (2007): 301-25.

Tim. “Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.” Random Observations. 13 Sept. 2009. Web. 13 Aug. 2010.

Tuttle, Jon. “Glimpses of ‘A Good Man’ in Capote’s In Cold Blood.” ANQ 1 (1988): 144-46.

Vivienne. “In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.” Serendipity. 8 Jun 2010. Web. 13 Aug. 2010.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Threat of Maternity in The Great Gatsby

With summer vacation already well past its mid-point, my 16-year-old sister recently decided that maybe she should start on the summer reading list for her Honors English class. When I heard that F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) was on the list, I recognized not only a chance to bond with McKenzie over literature (if only required reading, from her perspective) but also an opportunity to finally commit to reading Fitzgerald’s classic, a text that I’d somehow never managed to get through entirely. I thought that McKenzie and I could each read the novel and then discuss it when she comes to visit later this month. Resisting the temptation to—lovingly, of course—chastise my sister for not beginning her summer reading earlier, I communicated with McKenzie via text message (the best way to reach her these days) my plan to read Gatsby along with her, and, although I’m pretty sure that it didn’t earn me any street credit with her, she agreed to be my reading buddy. A few days later, I sent McKenzie a follow-up text: “Gatsby done last night. Still thinking about it, but don’t think it has very positive portrayal of women.” She replied, “Lol omgoodness ur crazy.” I briefly contemplating the possible reasons for her assessment of me as “crazy”—was it because I read the book in a relatively short period of time, because I attempted to instigate a conversation about the novel in a text message, or because I seemed about to discuss gender, a topic which I tend to harp on, at least according to her?. Ah, well, I decided, maybe we will discuss the book further when I see her face-to-face. In the meantime, perhaps my response to the book will be better received by readers of my blog than by my sister, a soon-to-be Junior in high school, someone who at this stage in her life is, at least somewhat understandably, more concerned with her hair and her boyfriend than with literary analysis.

So, here goes. As I began to articulate in my text message to McKenzie, I am troubled by Fitzgerald’s depiction of women in general and Daisy in particular. Although the characterization of Gatsby’s entire cast of characters is complicated by its development through the perspective of narrator Nick Carraway, women—and especially Nick’s cousin, Daisy Buchanan—seem to represent, at least for Nick, of all that is evil in Fitzgerald’s highbrow modernist sphere. Not only does the feminine come to symbolize weakness and carnality—as opposed to the masculine-coded strength and intellect—but also romance, in both the popular and literary sense of the word, as well as popular or “low” culture in general—as opposed to the “high” culture of Fitzgerald’s modernism. Linked to the association of women with popular culture in the novel is the depiction of women—and, again, Daisy most especially—as representative of the iniquitous power of money. In perhaps the most often quoted passage of the novel, Daisy’s voice is described as “full of money” (120). Indeed, many scholars have noted Nick’s misogynistic characterization of Daisy as a sort of siren who leads Jay Gatsby to his demise. What has been neglected in Gatsby scholarship, however, is how Daisy’s depiction as femme fatale is both compounded and complicated by the maternal imagery surrounding her relationship with Gatsby and her literal role of mother. I would claim, in fact, that it is at least in part because Daisy is a mother that she comes to represent such a threat to Nick Carraway.

Nick narrates the story of Gatsby and Daisy’s ill-fated love affair as it unfolds throughout the course of the novel. He learns that the two met and fell in love as teenagers, but that Daisy chose to marry Tom Buchanan, a “brutish” and even cruel man of the “Old Money” set, over Gatsby, a penniless serviceman doing a tour of duty in Europe. After the war, Gatsby went on to make his fortune independently and, through Nick, re-enters Daisy’s life as a new man. Gatsby offers Daisy a way out of her loveless marriage and an escape from the annoyance of Tom’s numerous affairs, but she is ultimately unable to commit to leaving the security and status afforded her as Tom Buchanan’s wife. After Tom manages to secure Daisy’s allegiance to their marriage in a dramatic show-down with Gatsby, Daisy (perhaps accidentally) strikes and kills Tom’s mistress, Myrtle Wilson, in a hit-and-run automobile accident in Gatsby’s car. The other characters blame Gatsby for the death, and neither Daisy nor Gatsby correct their assumption that Gatsby was driving when the accident occurred. Finally, Gatsby is murdered in an act of vengeance by Myrtle’s husband, and Daisy and Tom leave on vacation, not even bothering to attend the funeral. Throughout the narrative, Nick sees Gatsby as emblematic of the prototypical self-made man and even assigns to Gatsby the symbolism of “The American Dream.” When Gatsby dies to protect Daisy’s secret, then, Nick sees him as succumbing to the allure of romance instead of standing steadfast in the reality of his hard-earned success and power. The warning implied in Gatsby’s demise is, of course, that “civilization,” at least in the US, might give way to the frivolity and filth of popular culture and the dictates of capitalism that drive it.

Certainly, Nick portrays Gatsby’s attachment to Daisy as the cause of his ultimate emasculation and death. It is Daisy who diminishes Gatsby’s extraordinary capacity for self-sufficiency and success. Before Gatsby kisses Daisy for the first time, he contemplates his seemingly limitless potential to self-create: “Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder” (112). The maternal imagery in this depiction of Gatsby’s capacity for self-generation serves to characterize Gatsby as god-like, capable of creating his own destiny; he is both mother and offspring, able to nurture himself with the “pap of life” and “milk of wonder” and therefore grow independently of a woman. If he chooses to part with Daisy at this time, he will climb the ladder of success and pursue an existence of achievement and intellect. When Gatsby does act on his physical desire for Daisy, however, his powers of creation and nurturance are weakened: “He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. . . . Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete” (112). Not only is Gatsby here deprived of his god-like intellect and seeming ability to transcend his own body, but also his capability for self-creation is usurped by Daisy. Daisy plays a chief role in Gatsby’s re-birth and forever becomes his font of “incarnation,” thus taking on the figurative position of mother. No longer able to nurture himself, from this point on, Gatsby seeks out Daisy, his source of origin, as an infant seeks the comfort of his mother’s breast.

And as a mother figure, Daisy clearly infantilizes Gatsby. When the two reunite at Nick’s house, Nick is disappointed to find Gatsby the Great “acting like a little boy” (88). Over and over again the next few weeks, Gatsby becomes lost in Daisy’s voice and grows entirely insensible to his spectacular achievements and neglects his powerful social connections because of the power of Daisy’s spell over him. Finally, it is Gatsby’s need for Daisy that leads to his death.

Not only does Daisy thus come to represent for Nick a controlling, ensnaring maternal figure of emasculation, but she also acts to perpetuate the social system that ultimately causes Gatsby’s demise by visiting her own pathologies on her daughter, in effect creating the next generation of femme fatale. Although Daisy cried when she learned that her child was born a girl, in this way expressing an awareness of the gender limitations that have impacted the trajectory of her own life, she actively engages in training her little girl to become “a beautiful little fool” (17). Daisy makes a point of dressing the child in white dresses, for instance, just like the ones that she and her closest girlfriend wear, and ignores the little girl’s chatter, emphasizing only her doll-like appearance (117). Clearly, Daisy seeks to prepare the girl for a role like that which Daisy herself fills in her relationships with both Tom and Gatsby, to accept her status as an object of beauty and a representation of masculine financial and social success. In the end, of course, it is the much larger social system, a system that incidentally forces Daisy and her daughter into playing “fools,” that makes Gatsby’s destruction inevitable. But it remains that, as a mother, Daisy plays an important part in sustaining this social system, of ensuring its continuance into future generations.

As a woman and especially as a mother, then, Daisy both perpetuates and serves as a representation of the evil of flesh, carnality, romance, popular culture, money, and capitalism, the tangled themes that destroy Gatsby and “The American Dream” that he pursues.

Works Cited

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. [1925]. New York: Collier Books, 1980.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Skinny on Silly: What Kids Might Gain from Silly Bandz

Like many of the grade school set, Taegan has adopted the silly bandz trend as an important component of her personal sense of style, as well as a valid form of interaction with other kids at day camp and on the playground. She got her first silly band—-a cloud—-from a boy in her class, apparently after she simply asked him if she could have one, and has been collecting them ever since. To date, Taegan has spent around eight dollars of her own money on these brightly colored silicone bands that both serve as bracelets and also snap neatly back to their various shapes (think animals, sports objects, cartoon figures, princesses and fairies, rock star memorabilia, etc.) when not being worn. Although I haven’t actively encouraged Taegan’s interest in silly bandz, I don’t have a big problem with it either, and I even defended the trend to Taegan’s dad the other day when he tried to dismiss her bandz as “junk.”

Okay, so, of course, rubber bands shaped as insects and flowers, to name a few additional examples, that often break after only a few wearings and that will undoubtedly end up forgotten in a drawer sometime in the near future, could reasonably be classified as “junk.” And certainly, like any other product-driven fad, the silly bandz trend most benefits the companies who are able to successfully market the product, in this case, to children who are attracted to the various silly bandz shapes and who want to fit in with their peers who already sport armfuls of the brightly colored bracelets. As blogger Eric Steinman suggests only somewhat jokingly, then, for our children, silly bandz might represent “the first step along the slippery slope that leads to wanton and reckless consumerism” (par. 5).

I see at least a few benefits in the current silly bandz trend, however. For one thing, at around three or four dollars for 24 bandz, silly bandz are relatively cheap. Even the kids who don’t wear clothing from the latest lines at Gymboree or own every Zhu-Zhu pet and Zhu-Zhu pet accessory can probably pony up the allowance money for at least one or two packages of their very own fun-shaped rubber bands. The low cost of the product allows for kids from different socio-economic backgrounds to get in on the silly bandz action. This leads me to my next point, that the school-yard (or, in our case, Cardinal Kids Camp) trading of silly bandz can be a meaningful form of interaction among children. Taegan looks forward to seeing the other kids who engage in silly bandz trading every day during free time at camp and, more importantly, to trading for new bandz. Indeed, Taegan is also learning a bit about how free trade works. Some silly bandz are more valuable than others simply because they are more desirable among the kids of her crowd. Yesterday afternoon, for example, she was willing to give two gymnastics figures for a much-coveted tie-dyed octopus. She has also discovered that sometimes you have to have something that someone else wants before they are willing to give you what you want. She longs to own her friend’s Mr. Krabs band, but she knows that she won’t get her hands on it until she has the dolphin band that her friend wants in return. Besides giving them practice with trading, silly bandz also offer kids a chance to simply be kind to one another. Since they are inexpensive and come in large packs, silly bandz are easy to just give away. Taegan assures me, in fact, that just like her friend at school gave her a starter band a couple of months ago, she gives away a band or two every day to kids at camp who want to start collecting silly bandz but who haven’t yet saved up enough money to buy their own packs.

My final point is tentative, but it might be that the silly bandz craze is defeating the gender-based marketing of the bandz themselves. Clearly, certain colors and shapes of bandz-—pink and purple princesses, fairies, gymnastics figures, candies, etc.—-are marketed to girls and other colors and shapes-—red and black baseball figures, Sponge Bob characters, pirate memorabilia, etc.-—are marketed to boys, in such a way aims to reinforce the gender stereotypes that we already battle in the marketing of toys, clothing, and pretty much every other product that is intended for children. But it seems to me that kids are so interested in collecting the various shaped bandz that they are ignoring the traditional designation of some items and colors as feminine and some as masculine. Taegan tells me that lots of boys sport angels and cupcakes on their arms, for instance, and her exchange of the two (pink) gymnastics figures for an octopus was with a boy. For her part, Taegan has never been much for Sponge Bob, a cartoon largely marketed toward boys, but she really wants that Mr. Krabs band because it is one of the few that she has seen that has arms and legs, extra silicone parts that dangle enticingly from the main band!

Like it or not, the silly bandz fad is in full swing in our house. Michael just got back from a trip and brought back music-themed bandz (in glittery colors!) for Taegan. You would have thought that she won the lottery to see the look on her face when she spotted the pack of silly bandz. She’s probably already calculating the bandz loot that she might be able to bring in by introducing her camp friends to the newest additions to her collection.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Kaye Gibbons’s A Virtuous Woman as Guilty Pleasure: Humor and Overweight Women

Many reviewers have noted that Kaye Gibbons’s 1989 A Virtuous Woman is a page turner. Indeed, I read it in a single sitting, which is rare for me, given my often hectic life style. Even more impressive is that this novel had me laughing uncontrollably and then sobbing not 30 minutes later. For at least a couple of hours, this story and its characters came alive in my very own family room. As a reviewer in Atlanta Journal-Constitution puts it, this novel is "[s]o true and so vital I would swear that there were moments when A Virtuous Woman actually vibrated in my hands.” What I didn’t fully realize until I had put down this engrossing read, though, is that not only did its characters come to life for me but also that these characters seduced me into putting aside my critical lenses. Indeed, what is sad about this book—besides its plot, which relates the tale of Blinking Jack Earnest Stokes, a hardworking tenant farmer, and Ruby Pitt Woodrow Stokes, the “virtuous woman” of the novel’s title and Jack’s beloved wife who has recently died from lung cancer—is that the funny scenes consistently utilize harmful tropes surrounding gender and race and ultimately hinge on stereotypical portrayals of overweight women.

There are two characters in A Virtuous Woman who bear much of the brunt of Gibbons’s gift for weaving outrageous humor into this otherwise poignant—and yet believable—love story. One of these is a white woman whom Jack and Ruby pejoratively label “Tiny Fran,” a title meant, of course, to mock Fran’s overlarge body. In their respective first-person narrative sections—Ruby’s set in the weeks leading up to her death and Jack’s set in the time period following Ruby’s burial—the two main characters portray Fran as somewhat of a monstrous personality, deserving of their scorn. Fran was born into the landowning family for whom Jack and his friend Burr have worked throughout their lives and who also used Ruby as a housekeeper for a time. As a teenager, however, Fran gained a reputation as the town whore, and when she became pregnant, her father offered her to Burr in exchange for a plot of land. Burr took the deal only to find himself burdened by Fran’s unreasonable demands and temper tantrums.

In a scene narrated by Jack, the two couples decide to get away to the coast together. When they arrive at the cottage where they will stay, Burr and Fran engage in a hilarious exchange. At the risk of not doing this scene justice by excerpting it from the rest of the book, I will quote the exchange in its entirety:
After we got everything unloaded and inside, Burr told me to let’s get the fishing mess ready and go buy some bait and go on out. Then listen and tell me if you hear something funny. Tiny Fran broke in and asked him where he’d put the folding chairs, and Burr said, “What?” and she said, “You know, my brand new folding chairs I got especially for this trip.” Burr told her he didn’t remember packing or unpacking them and he went on about his business. Then she got hot, she yelled at him, “Well, what do you expect me to sit on?” Then listen, he said, “I guess you can sit down on your fist and lean back on your thumb!” I laughed and Ruby laughed and I thought Burr was going to choke he laughed so hard. Tiny Fran told us all to go to hell and went on inside. (95)

When I read this passage the first time, the image of the mean-spirited, selfish, and overlarge Fran sitting on her own thumb was enough to make me burst out in laughter. When I read it today, I still laugh, but with a bit of a guilty conscience. Despite her numerous acts of maliciousness toward Burr, Jack, and Ruby, Fran is nonetheless a victim herself. As a young woman, she was used as an item of exchange between her father and Burr and thereafter dismissed as worthless by both her immediate family and by Burr and his friends. Furthermore, and disturbingly, her detestability is not only portrayed as caused by her despicable attitude toward others but also as linked to her body size. In a later scene also at the vacation cottage, Jack compares Ruby’s slender and firm body to Fran’s large and soft body, stating, “Tiny Fran getting into her feed sack of a bathing suit must’ve been like cramming mud in a glove” (96). The implication is clear: one of Ruby’s womanly virtues is her thin body. Just as she exceeds the spandex confines of her bathing suit, Fran, on the other hand, does not fit the mold of the virtuous woman of the novel’s title.

Another character who is used for comic relief is Mavis Washington, a black woman whom Jack reluctantly hires to help him with household chores after Ruby’s death. Jack describes Mavis as “the biggest, coal-blackest woman I’d ever seen” (127). Although, again, I fear that it might come off as simply insensitive when excerpted from the rest of the book, I will quote a long passage from the scene in which Mavis first enters Jack’s home:

She went on in and put this big old satchel down on the kitchen table and proceeded to take out all grades of mess and lay it all out over the table. She said, “I likes to be able to gets to my bidnis.” I stood watching her, wondering if I ought to’ve let her come here. Something was way, way off. Then here comes her business out of the bag. It was first a sack of hard Christmas candy, then orange jelly slices. She looked at me, slid both of them across the table and said to me, “I likes to have something sweets to suck on. You welcome to it.” I told her no thank you, and then she took out two all stretched-out-looking Ace bandages, lotion, two snuff cans, a white Bible, a big wad of rags . . ., two tall grape drinks, and a round donut pillow. About that last thing, she laid it on the table and said, “This is for when I sits.” (129-30)

At this point, Jack reports that he was “fairly well amazed” (130). He reaches a deeper level of disgust, however, when Mavis announces that she needs to wrap her knees before she can get to work and then proceeds to the bathroom:
. . . directly I heard something sounded like the whole toilet stool was tearing off the wall. I took and went back there and got by the door and hollered, “What are you doing? Be careful with my toilet stool!” She said she was just doing her business and to go on. She finally came out but she still had the bandages in her hand. She said to me, “You got a wobbly toilet. I can’t wrap on no wobbly toilet.” I told her it didn’t wobble ten minutes ago. (130)

The scene continues humorously from here. Upon deeper consideration than that which I gave it the first time around, however, I argue that this scene depicts Jack’s perception of Mavis as lazy as linked inextricably to his disgust for her overlarge, black, female body. Indeed, Mavis’s body is portrayed as grotesque: big and swollen and in need of extra cushioning when she sits and added support when she works. For Jack, Mavis is a horrendous cross between the mammy figure and the welfare queen. She is dark in color, fat, and acts dumb like a stereotypical mammy, but she seems unwilling to work and self-indulgent like a stereotypical welfare queen. What seem to be lost on Jack, though, are the historical and social circumstances that probably caused Mavis’s grotesque bodily state and, relatedly, her inability to perform traditional housekeeping duties for Jack. We could deduce, for instance, from the fact that Mavis came highly recommended by Burr, who used her for a time as a farm laborer, that she was once a good worker but has damaged her body over the years by performing physically taxing tasks. It seems also probable, given Jack’s horrified description of the shack in which Mavis lives, that she takes the position with Jack despite her known physical ailments in an attempt to earn much-needed funds for her family and herself. Certainly, Mavis has gone through life significantly limited by her race and gender, not to mention by the maladies of her own body.

Although Gibbons certainly provides enough background information regarding both Fran and Mavis that a discerning reader might pick up on the unfortunate shaping of their lives and personalities, she clearly positions these women as outside the realm of ideal—or virtuous—womanhood, a realm inhabited by thin, beautiful, kind, and industrious women like Ruby Stokes. In this way, she not only portrays the fat bodies of Fran and Mavis as worthy objects of humor and even scorn but also constructs these overlarge women as valueless to reflect Ruby’s great worth as a virtuous woman.

In conclusion, I’m not sure what to make of my reaction to this book. I fell in love with Jack and Ruby and their love story, and it seems that I allowed my feelings for these charismatic characters to preclude an in-depth analysis of their limiting portrayal of disturbing race and gender stereotypes, and, especially, widely accepted stereotypes of overweight women, at least initially.

Works Cited

Gibbons, Kaye. A Virtuous Woman. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1989.