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.