Week 12’s broad theme—identity and experiment—took us from the turn of the century up to the present. We read James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son” (1955), the “White Tigers” chapter form Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior (1975), three chapters from Gloria Anzaldua’s Borderlands: La Frontera (1987) and a few key excerpts from David Shields’s Reality Hunger (2010).
In many ways, these readings could not have been more different, both from themselves and what came before. Baldwin’s tense and often bitter calm—broken, occasionally, by private and public violence, and that startling memory-within-a-memory that arrives during his father’s funeral—departed from the rhetorical flourishes of the two previous African American autobiographies that we had read (Douglass and Du Bois). In class, we discussed how Baldwin’s undertakes an enormously difficulty project as he works to move from self-hate to self love. The essay’s conclusion, suitably, is at once hopeful and yet ambiguous and tentative:
It began to seem that one would have to hold in the mind forever two ideas which seemed to be in opposition. The first idea was acceptance, the acceptance, totally without rancor, of life as it is, and men as they are: in the light of this idea, it goes without saying that injustice is commonplace. But this did not mean that one could be complacent, for the second idea was of equal power: that one must never, in one’s own life, accept these injustices as commonplace but must fight them with all one’s strength. This fight begins, however, in the heart and it now had been laid to my charge to keep my own heart free of hatred and despair. This intimation made my heart heavy…
One gets the sense here that Baldwin must, through great effort and psychic pain, will happiness and hope even in light of persistent injustice against which one seems nearly powerless. In the end, we arrive at an achieved calm that can’t disguise its provisional, even unstable nature.
In class we discusses this tension in great detail. Placing Baldwin’s piece in the broader context of African American autobiography, Joshua described the essay as a kind of calm before the storm of the more revolutionary African American autobiographies of the 60s and 70s (The Autobiography of Malcom X, for example). We also briefly talked about how Baldwin learns from the psychological intensity of Richard Wright’s protagonist in Native Son, a clear influence on the young Baldwin.
Baldwin’s deep self-consciousness as an artist struck us as being a particularly important theme. Turning to that moment in the “autobiographical note” where he is unable to imagine a deep genealogy, being, as he describes himself, a “bastard of the West,” we might think back to that key trope of lost or impossible genealogy that we discussed in relation to slave narratives. Baldwin, here, seems to quietly echo this trope. As a self-described outcast, Baldwin nevertheless adheres to Western conceptions of art as order imposed upon chaos. But he struggles deeply with this idea that he must appropriate the “white centuries.”
Overall, despite its purposeful emotional withdrawal (evident in both style and content), Baldwin’s “Notes” struck us as very emotionally affective and honest as it worked through these compounding tensions.
Baldwin’s “Notes” bears an interesting relationship with each of the other texts that we read, though it does so largely by contrast (Charles reflects on these matters here). Instead of adhering to Western ideals of art, Gloria Anzaldua revels in a kind of artistic chaos of embodied identity and image in Borderlands. She courts instability even as she excoriates the embedded inequalities that have made not only her homeland, but her very body, a contested borderland torn between cultures and languages and identities. Anzaldua’s meditation on her artistic process contrasts starkly with Baldwin’s. Where Baldwin struggles to come to terms with what his difference might mean, and what it might enable via artistic expression, Anzaldua embraces the distinct difference and dynamism of her identity with great confidence and rhetorical force. Perhaps Anzaldua is able to perform her identity so powerfully because she is able to tie it to a much deeper historical and spiritual history—something Baldwin feels himself unable to do. Or perhaps Anzaldua was galvanized by the rise of Chicana activism and the burgeoning of feminist thought in the 60s and 70s. Baldwin, we must remember, was writing before the Civil Right Act of 1964. This might help us think about why the future Baldwin imagines for people like himself and his father are much more bleak: “how to prepare the child for the day when the child would be despised and how to create in the child—by what means?—a stronger antidote to this poison than one had found oneself,” he writes. Baldwin never quite discovers that antidote in his essay, which is a great part of its sadness.
In class (though we did get to discuss the extraordinary trope of embodiment that courses throughout Anzaldua, an issue which Crystal reflects upon here) we got more caught up on the issue of language—namely, Anzaldua’s strategy of incorporating multiple other languages and dialects alongside her predominantly English text. You can revisit some of those debates on the course blog. My feeling in general was that these are great and necessary debates to have, and yet at the same time I thought these issues kept us from making more sustained engagement with Anzaldua’s work. If we were able to get beyond language, for example, I felt we could have talked more about her compositional method, which blends moments of political, military and family history, childhood memories, poems, quotations, songs and sayings in a dynamic, organic, and at times disjunctive mix. The formal method here seems to echo her claims about her own identity as multiple and intersectional. In any case, I’m glad some of you addressed other aspects of Anzaldua’s work on the blog—it’s great to have this more flexible space to tease out ideas that we didn’t get to in class.
Though we didn’t have a great deal of time to discuss Kingston’s use of myth within her memoir, I would recommend Rachel’s post on Kingston, which does a great job of explaining the ways in which the two planes of the story—reality and myth—work together to create meaning. I think the key here is not simply to view them as binary extremes, but as elements that bleed into one another. “Reality” enters the mythic landscape at times in subtle ways (as when Kingston interrupts the narration) but also in moments of deep sadness that seem to transcend and even deny the sense of mythic invulnerability. Early in the mythic interlude, Kingston writes that “somewhere in the dead land I lost count of the days. It seemed as if I had been walking forever; life had never been different from this. An old man and an old woman were help I had only wished for. I was fourteen years old and lost from my village. I was walking in circles.” This stunningly bleak passage could have as easily been written in the context of her real life as her mythic one. And that’s just the point: we need to constantly be away of the ways in which myth is not a mere escape, but a way to work through and reflect upon real-life problems on a different plane of thought and action. Though her culture works to keep myth and reality separate, Kingston longs to merge the two–and she comes close in the powerful closing words of White Tigers: “The swordswoman and I are not so dissimilar,” she writes. “May my people understand the resemblance soon so that I can return to them. What we have in common,” she continues, “are the words at our backs.”
We only touched on Shields’s Reality Hunger very briefly when I noted the passage in Baldiwn where order breaks down and different forms of discourse–what he calls a “rash of disconnected impressions”–come crashing into Baldwin’s imagination. It’s an interesting connection: What happens when order breaks down? When our “selves” are knocked off kilter and broken from the narratives we create for ourselves? In Baldwin, this generic instability leads to a moment when unbidden memories stream back uncontrollably. Only when the calm narrative style unravels, it seems, can Baldwin stage the entrance of these memories that perhaps don’t fit the narrative about his father that he had been telling. How might this help us think of what Shields tries to accomplish in his disjointed collage of quotes and personal reflections? Does he consider the method more inherently truthful or honest? And if so, then why did I get the sense that many in the class doubted the “authenticity” of a project that would so honestly foreswear any stable sense of autobiographical truth? The primary tension here—where fiction is discarded because it tries to be too real, and autobiography is embraced only insofar as it admits to its utter fictionality and constructedness—is a fascinating one that I hope to touch on at the start of class this week before turning to Fun Home. So, on Monday, we’ll begin with a brief discussion of Shields before moving on to the reading for this week.
In terms of business matters, we signed up for our 20% project presentation times on Wednesday. I’ll bring the sign-up sheet again on Monday for those who missed Wednesday’s class (due to inclement weather, no doubt). Speaking of 20% projects… you’ve had a few Fridays now to develop your individual project. Over the next two Friday’s I am going to set up conference times to discuss your progress and your ideas for what the presentation–both for the class (6-8 minutes) and on the blog–might look like.
Looking Ahead and Auto[BLOG]raphy
This coming week, we’re back to a single text: Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home (2006). You can read a bit more about Bechdel here, and more about the genre of the graphic memoir here. It’s a rich genre, and I’m excited to talk about how the introduction of visual panels provides a new avenue into the largely textual landscape of autobiography that we’ve explored so far. The panels, here, arguably constitute the most significant part of Bechdel’s Narrated “I.” How do they offer a different version of the Narrated “I” than we get in the accompanying text (both above the panels and within them)? Is there a logic to these different portrayals of the past self? And where, in the mix, do you locate the Narrating “I.” How does this narrating “I” work to control our perception of her past? You might consider this question–or any other inspired by the conceptual tool kit laid out by Smith and Watson in Reading Autobiography as you compose your post for this coming Tuesday (yes, we’re back to the old deadline).
For a more critical post, you might also begin to consider the broader continuities and differences between the autobiographical materials that we’ve read. In Bechdel, for example, I get a strong sense of failed paternalism that we also noted in Franklin, Douglass, and Baldwin. Indeed, in terms of the sub-genre of autobiographical meditations on the death of a father, Baldwin and Bechdel share quite a bit.
One more critical prompt–or just something to consider for our conversation in class: artifice, fictionality and mediation in general are huge themes here. Fun Home is full of embedded books and letters, reflections on fictional characters, the artifice of domestic and personal life, not to mention a particularly rarified prose style at times. To what extent is Bechdel successful in critiquing her father’s artificial life via this theme of artifice, and to what extent does she subtly show herself to be complicit in that artifice?
As for the creative post, aside from the veritable storehouse of past prompts, I can’t think of anything more sensible than asking you to create some sort of autobiographical comic/panel. Surely this entails a good deal of work, but there is an exciting software package–which includes a free trial–called Comic Life that is basically a comic-making machine. Feel free to play around with it and show us what you got! One other good thing about the software–it was invented by Professor Seaman’s husband. So it’s local! And you can check out Mia’s excellent and pioneering autographic here.
And here’s some advance trouble-shooting. The Comic Life images will export as PDF, but in order to get them to appear within your post, you need to convert that image to a JPG. You can do this (on a Mac at least) by opening the PDF in the Preview program. Within Preview, you can save the PDF as JPG. Simple, right?