Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Black Boys and Gorillas: The Cincinnati Zoo Incident and Alice Walker’s “Entertaining God”

Earlier this summer, a three-year-old boy entered a gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo and was violently and repeatedly dragged through a moat by a 450-pound gorilla before zoo officials killed the gorilla and rescued the boy, who sustained no serious injuries. News of the encounter between boy and gorilla, only ten minutes in total, and the subsequent killing of a western lowland silverback gorilla, one of a critically endangered species, spurred a lot of response on the web. Outraged by the gorilla’s death, news stories and independent commenters questioned the zoo officials’ haste in killing the gorilla without trying other methods of rescuing the boy first, the boy’s mother’s childrearing abilities, and even the jail record of the boy’s father (not present at the time of the incident). These kinds of responses might seem ridiculous at first glance. Yes, it is tragic that a gorilla was killed, but the incident is not incomprehensible. Haven’t most of us momentarily looked away from a child under our care only to turn back and find him or her doing something dangerous? And, in any case when a child is the grasp of a wild animal, wouldn’t most of us agree that he or she should be saved in the timeliest way possible? As others have since pointed out, race is the underlying issue in many of the comments that people have made regarding this little boy and his parents, all of whom are black. The disparaging—and cruel—remarks that people have made regarding these three are ultimately unsurprising, given the predominant understanding in the US of black fathers as absent, black mothers as negligent, and black boys as delinquent.

In interesting ways, the Cincinnati Zoo incident echoes the plot of Alice Walker’s short story “Entertaining God” (1973). “Entertaining God” contains three sections that seem to connect only loosely. In the first section, a black teenager, named John, leads a gorilla away from the Bronx Zoo, performs ritual sacrifice to the gorilla, and is killed by the animal; in the second one, John’s father dies in a tornado; and, in the third, John’s mother attempts, only somewhat successfully, to connect to her dead son by performing poetry readings for college students. Stereotypes of black men, women, and boys are in play in this story as well, as John’s father has left his son to pursue a relationship with another woman, John’s mother is distant and clearly unaware of her son’s plans for the gorilla, and John himself succeeds in stealing an animal from the zoo.

In preparation for teaching “Entertaining God” next semester, I poked around in the MLA Bibliography database to get a sense of the critical conversation surrounding Walker’s work. It turns out that there isn’t much written about her short stories at all, and some of what I found isn’t flattering. In “Alice Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction,” for instance, Alice Hall Petry discusses Walker’s “capacity to produce stories that are sometimes extraordinarily good, sometimes startlingly weak” (12). Petry seems to place “Entertaining God,” included in Walker’s first collection, In Love & Trouble, in the second category, claiming that “the story comes across as a disjointed, fragmentary, aborted novella” (21). According to Petry, the story “would make no sense to a reader unfamiliar with Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood” (21), a novel that also includes a series of episodes with a teenaged boy—in this case white—and a gorilla. Although I agree with Petry that Walker’s stories are hit or miss, I see “Entertaining God” as a better one. I think that the story coheres thematically, despite the fact that each section takes on a new main character and setting, and that it provides the details needed to comprehend its meaning. And, although familiarity with Wise Blood might enhance a reader’s appreciation for the inclusion of a gorilla, the Cincinnati Zoo incident provides a new context for the story, placing it in conversation with those who have questioned the parenting abilities of the mother and father in Cincinnati and the value of their son’s life in comparison to that of a zoo animal as well as in historical relationship to the shooting of a gorilla to save a black boy’s life. I would argue that the three vignettes presented in the story portray the struggle for and difficulty (impossibility?) of survival for black men, women, and children in a white supremacist culture, both of which are still at issue in the rhetoric surrounding the recent Cincinnati Zoo incident.

As the title indicates, “Entertaining God” is particularly interested in religion in a way that the commenters on the Cincinnati Zoo shooting have not been. The subheading for the first part of the story, “John, the son. Loving the God given him” (99), suggests that what follows will depict an act of worship. And, indeed, John’s two days with the gorilla, at first “drowsy from the medicine the zoo keepers had given him” (99) and later “powerful and large and twitching with impatience” (105), are depicted as a journey toward the spiritual ecstasy that inhabits John’s final act of sacrifice to the idolized gorilla. To begin, John and the gorilla hike to the top of a hill near the zoo, a vantage point from which John is able to observe the activities of everyday human life below, perceiving the “cars whiz[ing] to and fro” as insect-like nuisances, “wasps or big flies,” to be “swatted” away in order to focus on his higher purpose with the gorilla (100). When the gorilla passes out as an effect of the drugs he received before John led him away from the zoo, John prepares a loaf of bread and bottle of red wine, traditionally used to symbolize the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood in the Christian sacrament of communion, for giving the gorilla “the homage he deserved from him” the next day (101). When he wakes up the next morning, John is “exhilarated” (102) and begins to build a fire “with slow ritualistic movements” (103). He positions the still-groggy gorilla above him, on “a shallow rise overlooking the fire,” and proceeds to burn several pieces of bread and repeatedly “[bow] all the way down to the ground in front of the gorilla” (104). Finally, John pours the contents of the wine bottle into the fire and lays “the burnt offering at the feet of his savage idol” (105). By this time, the gorilla has reclaimed full consciousness and is frustrated by John’s destruction of each item of food before him. Predictably, even to John, who anticipates with some relish that, after the ritual, “everything [will] be over” (101), the gorilla quickly dispatches with the boy and eats the burnt bread.

In its depiction of John’s experiences with the gorilla, the story reveals that the boy is simply “embrac[ing] the God that others—his mother—had chosen for him” (100). Here, John’s mother is singled out as having significantly contributed to the designation of the gorilla as John’s God. After learning more about the mother’s character in the course of the story, however, it becomes clear that she would never literally encourage the worship of a gorilla. She is, however, at least before John’s death, fervently devoted to assimilation to the dominant white culture, taking great pains to approximate whiteness in both her appearance and behavior. In the last minutes of his life, John’s father reflects on the changes that she underwent in the first years of their relationship. He was initially attracted to her because she was “loose and fun and because she had long red hair” (106). After they were married, though, she stopped dying her hair and started wearing gray suits. Because he was a hairdresser, she had him “conquer the kinks” to create an “unimaginative” hairstyle, and he found that “the duller he could make [her] look the more respectable [she] felt” (106-107). She acted as if she would have liked to change her husband’s appearance as well, having their wedding pictures “touched up so that he did not resemble himself,” replacing his “black and stubbly and rough” skin in the photographs with “olive brown and smooth” skin (106). When John was born, his parents discovered that the child possessed “all of the physical characteristics that in the Western world are scorned,” that “[h]is nose was flat, his mouth too wide” (108). John’s father recalls that “John’s mother was always fussing over John but hated him because he looked like his father instead of her. She blamed her husband for what he had ‘done to’ John” (108). In this passage, it is unclear whether John’s mother “hated” her husband or her son because of either of their characteristically African American features, but, either way, her son ultimately internalizes her antipathy toward blackness, learning to view his father “with an expression faintly contemptuous” (108) and destroying his own black person through self-sacrifice to the gorilla. Fittingly, as she is the one who chose John’s God, “[o]nly his mother had been able to piece together the details of his death” (110). In response to her son’s death, John’s mother seeks to “vindicate herself from former ways of error” (109) and, thus, begins writing poetry lamenting her previous attempts at “incipient whiteness” (110). Although John’s mother didn’t tell her son to worship the gorilla that he takes from the zoo, she clearly feels responsible for his misguided act of self-sacrifice and atones for her mistakes by reversing her position on assimilation. Through John’s mother’s attitudes toward race before her son’s death and her drastic reversal of these attitudes after his death, the story makes the symbology of the gorilla very clear. It represents that which is most predominantly worshipped in the story’s setting of the US in the 1960s and 70s—whiteness.

John’s father had rejected this worship of whiteness after he left John and his mother, marrying “a sister in the Nation” and then endeavoring with her “to preach the Word to those of their people who had formerly floundered without it” (107). Instead of assimilating, as John’s mother did, John’s father had followed the custom of many in the Nation of Islam of taking the last name of X (107), a practice intended as a reminder that the ancestors of many black individuals in the US were stripped of their surnames and renamed by slaveholders. Unlike John’s mother, John’s father’s new wife “wore his color and the construction of his features like a badge” (108). Still, in the moments before his death, John’s father recalls that he had chosen “a new religion more dangerous than the old” (108). The danger of his new beliefs is perhaps most fully manifested in the tornado that takes his life. In the world of this story, it seems that neither acceptance nor rejection of white supremacy can ensure a black person’s survival.

Besides John’s mother, there are two others who do likely survive in “Entertaining God,” however. When they realize that they are destined for the belly of a tornado, John’s father and “the plain black girl who was his second wife . . . . r[u]n toward the refrigerator, frantically pulling out the meager dishes of food, flinging a half-empty carton of milk across the room, and making a place where the vegetables and fruits should have been for the[ir] two children to crouch” (105). John’s father imagines that the children will be rescued after the storm and will mostly forget “in twenty years the plain black girl and the man who was their father” (106). The implication is that the children will live—knowing nothing of the gorilla that killed their brother and remembering little of the tornado that took their parents. At the end of the action relayed by the story, readers are then left with three characters: a “black radical [poet]” (109) who inspires “new proud blackness and identification with their beauty” among the students—about the same age as her son would have been had he lived—who attend her readings (111) and two children who will grow to adulthood among the rhetoric of “the Black revolution” (109) espoused by the activists and poets of John’s mother’s elk. Instead of fulfilling the stereotypes of black men and women that they seem to fit upon first glance, the three adults in “Entertaining God” actively work to protect their children and to create a changed world for future generations. The story leaves open the possibility that the students who John’s mother inspires with her poetry and the two children who John’s father and stepmother shelter from the tornado will live fulfilling lives in a world changed by the difficult social projects undertaken by those of the older generation introduced in the story.

This hope for the future, which is partially concealed within the sad story of John’s death at the hand of a gorilla, is perhaps realized in its contemporary corollary, the incident at the Cincinnati Zoo. Like “Entertaining God,” the incident in Cincinnati began with a black boy’s violent encounter with a gorilla. Unlike in the story, though, the Cincinnati Zoo incident ended with the rescue of the boy. That the boy’s rescue has been challenged and his mother and father’s willingness and ability to parent questioned does not change the fact that the zoo officials very quickly chose the survival of a black boy over the life of a gorilla. Read in tandem with “Entertaining God,” the Cincinnati Zoo incident perhaps indicates some amount of social progress. In the case of the Cincinnati Zoo, black life was protected, at least initially. It did not succumb to the white supremacy that destroys it in Walker’s story. The public backlash against the boy in Cincinnati and his parents are of a piece with other movements in the contemporary US through which radical social conservatives are voicing their desperation in opposing the unstoppable train of social progress that has transported us from the revolutionary poetry and Black Nationalists of the 1960s and 70s to the Black Lives Matter movement in the present and that must—and will—continue to move us, despite the protests of white supremacists, toward a future of racial equality.

Works Cited

Petry, Alice Hall. “Alice Walker: The Achievement of the Short Fiction.” Modern Language Studies 19.1 (1989): 12-27.

Walker, Alice. “Entertaining God.” In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women. Orlando: Harcourt, 1995.