Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The N-Word Presentation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Page 10
Works Cited

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gestational Imagery in William Gay's Provinces of Night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

Friday, August 3, 2012

Sublimity and Childbirth

I recently composed a sample presentation on the Romantic conception of "The Sublime" for my Honors humanities sequence and thought I'd share.

Some questions came up as I was working on this, mostly regarding the second kind of sublimity that I discuss in the presentation, the Gothic sublime. According to Vijay Mishra, in the gothic sublime, the subject takes pleasure in the fact that s/he has no power over the terrifying or grand and her/his complete subjugation within it. It's hard for me to wrap my brain around this idea. People might cite the example of the horror film--we enjoy the overwhelming feeling of terror when watching Saw, for example. But don't we know, in the end, that it is just a movie, that we can turn it off, that we DO have control over it in this way? On the other hand, once the ideas are in our heads, do we have control over them any longer? So, perhaps the horror film is an adequate example because we do give in to the terror of allowing ourselves to have horrifying ideas. Another example might be Goth culture. Do people wear particular kinds of clothing and get particular kinds of body modifications in order to submit to the grandness of terror? Not sure that I buy that one either.

My final thought is that perhaps childbirth could sometimes be seen as an example of a sort of submission to the Gothic sublime. If a woman were to enjoy the experience of childbirth (and, inexplicably to me, I've heard women say that they do), she would certainly be taking pleasure in the terror of something larger and grander than herself, something bloody and gory and connected both to death and to a life force. What do you think?

Okay, here's the script. Follow along with the presentation located at: The Sublime.

Page 1
Today going to talk to you about the sublime
Might see this title page and get excited--"Santeria"
Not what we’re doing here today
The sublime is an artistic and philosophical concept derived during the European Romantic movement of the late 18th century

Page 2
Start by talking about definitions
In typical usage, use sublime as adjective
Going to talk about “the sublime” as a noun
Definition that we’ll be using is taken from A Dictionary of Philosophy
Don’t forget—terrifying yet awesome grandeur

Page 3
Most scholars see Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1757, as the seminal text for the concept
Burke distinguished between beauty and the sublime
Quote from Arthur Krystal’s "Hello, beautiful: what we talk about when we talk about beauty," published in Harper's Magazine in 2005
Remember the tenets of Neoclassicism that we discussed when we created our Monticellos—symmetry, balance, serenity, reflection of rationalism, goal of beauty
Here’s Burke saying “Bye-Bye, Neoclassicism”

Page 4
Immanuel Kant expanded on the concept of the sublime in The Critique of Judgment, published in 1790, according to article by W. Walsh in Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Believed that pleasure that we take from the sublime comes from our recognition of our own brain’s ability to comprehend the immensity of the object and thus exercise some kind of power over it
Because I can see that you are terrifying and great, I must therefore be powerful
Quote from Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy explains
So, yeah, the brain is super awesome according to Kant

Page 5
Romantics believed enlightenment possible through encounters with the sublime
So, remember the definition? Terrifying yet awesome grandeur, would bring higher level of understanding of life
Thought the sublime would help them to see the light, so to speak

Page 6
Romantics believed that they could not only find the sublime in nature but also in art
Kant pointed to St. Peter’s Basilica—or even the larger St. Peter’s Square—in Rome, Italy as an architectural example of the sublime
Goal is not necessarily beauty—not the balance that we see in Monticello—but power and immensity, movement
We see a lot of life here (with the flow of people) in contrast to serene setting of Monticello

Page 7
An example from the world of music is George Frideric Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus, composed in 1741
In Music and Monumentality, Alexander Rehding says that critics differ as to the characters that they consider indicative of the sublime in music
Some say that a fugue, which is a special type of repeating theme, must be present in a piece for it to qualify as containing the sublime—this happens in the Hallelujah Chorus (34)
Others say that the piece must have intensification and contrast, which we definitely hear in the Hallelujah Chorus (34)
Rehding himself says that the sublime is present when our “sensuous capacity[ies] [are] overwhelmed” (104)
I would argue that this also happens in this piece—let’s see what you think
"Hallelujah Chorus"
After listening to this, I think we can all agree that Handel is pretty much a rock star, hence the electric guitars

Page 8
In literature, scholars divide Romantic writers into those of first generation and those of second generation
Early writers tended to focus on finding the sublime in nature
Lines from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”
Here we have an explanation of how this poet believed that the sublime worked
Find terrifying yet awesome grandeur in nature, in this case the landscape surrounding the ruins of the Abbey
Experiences a lightening of the load of this world because finds some understanding in that moment of being overwhelmed
Transports new understanding back to daily life

Page 9
Second generation of Romantic writers tended to focus on the terrifying part of the definition of the sublime—terrifying yet awesome grandeur
Felt that the best way to experience the immensity and power of the world was to experience the ecstasy of terror
According to Vijay Mishra, this kind of sublime is very different from the Romantic sublime that we’ve talked about so far—that we saw in St. Peter’s Basilica, Handel’s Messiah, and Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”
Remember that Kant said that we get some pleasure out of the terror of the sublime because we enjoy our mind power, our ability to recognize the awesomeness of the grandeur
With the gothic sublime, though, we embrace the fact that we have no power over the terror, we take pleasure in our complete subjugation within the sublime—how the terror of the sublime completely defeats us (Mishra 17)

Page 10
Out of this arose the gothic novel, like we’ll be reading
Some traits of gothic novels, according to an entry in the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia

Page 11
Visual artists also worked toward capturing the gothic sublime in their work
Here are a couple of notoriously terrifying paintings by the German artist Henry Fuseli
First is The Nightmare, painted in 1782
Mysterious horse head, dark colors, medieval look
Also incubus (male demon who lies upon sleeping women in order to have sexual intercourse with them)
We can see here what Mishra is talking about when he says that the gothic sublime was about embracing the subjugation that comes with terror, as this woman is completely under the control of the incubus
Other is Horseman Attacked by a Snake (1800), similarly terrifying, as horseman is again completely overcome by the power of the devouring snake

Page 12
To end, return definition of terrifying yet awesome grandeur, engagement with which might lead one to Enlightenment
How has this carried through to today’s culture
As mentioned in discussion of gothic, definitely allow ourselves to become terrified by watching mystery or horror films—do we expect these experiences to lead to enlightenment?
Interesting question
It is clear that we continue to seek the sublime in nature and to consider those experiences times of Enlightenment
We go hiking, we visit the ocean, we climb Mount Everest--
Mount Everest
From 8850 meters, the creators of this video clearly experienced the sublime, terrifying yet awesome grandeur, and as the soundtrack demonstrates, I think, this experience helped them to see themselves differently as human beings
To reach a level of Enlightenment

Page 13
Works cited