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Notes Towards Day 12 (Thurs, Oct. 11): Am I my brother's keeper?

Anne Dalke's picture

Carey Muhammad, My Brother's Keeper

Silence via sdane;
when we return from break, we will have guests in both Tues & Thurs classes (they will be bringing the silence!); the week after that, Jo's up...

* Sasha, sdane: post your account of "what you/we need to flourish here...."

* reminder that on the Sunday evening when you return from break (Oct. 21), we ask you to post on-line a short description of the sort of activism which interests you, and any ideas you have about what particular form this action might take; this is a first step toward our structuring our final work in the 360°

For Tuesday after break, I would like you to watch Released: 5 Short Videos about Women and Prison (28 minutes long) on reserve in Canaday; and also read Samuel Beckett's (very short!) play Footfalls

We will have two visitors in class, Mark Lord and Catharine Slusar, who
will share their in-process performance-and-production of Footfalls.

The theme here will be performing silence--how to do this? How to represent it (and make it interesting)?

Then, in preparation for Thursday's class, we'll be watching some sign language poetry (and reading an article about it); we will be joined (here) for that class by Kristin Lindgren's HC freshman writing class on "portraits of disability," and by a Deaf artist, Christine Sun Kim.

From 5:30-7:30 p.m. on Fri, Oct. 26, there will be an opening @ Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery, HC, including Christine’s performance/installation, which we're all invited to attend (the exhibition will continue through December 16, so you can also catch it later....)

And @ 5 p.m. on Sun, Oct. 28, your third web event for me will be due: 3 pp. in which you explore your current understanding of cultural variations in the understanding of silence. You can write a conventional analytical paper (and a number of us have talked about my giving you a hand up w/ this form); you can also experiment with the "performative form" that might best convey some of your understanding of that variation (make a storyboard for a film, begin a script for a theater piece, sketch out an interactive performance piece, or...?)

* this is a lot! questions.....?

III. picking up from Tuesday
* on what literature "does"/on what we can "do" with it-->
a novel or memoir is not an argument; its function is not to "solve"
a problem, but to represent/to "hold" the complexities

 --"literature is important…as the place where impasses can be kept and opened for examination,
questions can be guarded and not forced into a premature validation of the available paradigms. Literature…is…a mode of cultural work, the work of giving-to-read those impossible contradictions
that cannot yet be spoken" (Barbara Johnson, The Feminist Difference: Literature, Psychoanalysis,
Race and Gender,

--what Wideman was up to in his "Father Stories": "it was a world unfinished, because not all the stories had been told....The fullness of time....a space capacious enough to contain your coming into and going out of the many lives, and each different, each unknowable....we must speak these stories to one another."

--what he is also up to in Brothers and Keepers:
p. 19 ("You never know exactly when something begins...."),
p. 66 ("It all started with Gar dying...."),
p. 91 ("Seems like I should start the story back in Shadyside...
Nothing but white kids around. Them little white kids had everything...."),
p. 111 ("Edgar must of taked pity on me. He seen I got myself in too far to back away...
Anyway that's part of the beginning...he let me slide that day"),
p. 148 ("My brother slows down...He's the one telling but he's looking too.
I think of somebody fumbling through a drawer, trying to find something important...
he's started over again, looking where he's looked before...
My brother is searching in a place no one else will ever see,
for an answer no one else would ever understand...")

--on the indeterminacy of beginnings (why the book is structured to loop back again/again/again)

--and on the openness of endings:
"I realized no apotheosis of Robby's character could occur in the final section...the only denouement that might make sense of his story would be his release from prison" (p. 194)

--on his mother's approach to life:
"Most of the time...she held judgment in abeyance. Events, personalities always deserved a second, slower appraisal, an evaluation outside the sphere of everyday hassles and vexations. You gave people the benefit of the doubt...acknowledged the limitations of your individual view of things...You tried on the other person's point of view"(p. 69).

--on how he came to understand Robby: "Silences troubled me...until I learned to accept the quiet interludes as breathing spaces, necessary reminders of...limits" (p. 237).

* on choices
--tension in Inside/Out training between a curriculum focused on interrogating/problematizing the criminal "justice" system, and the strong imperative of inside students to take personal responsibility

--can see this shift in Brothers and Keepers,
from p. 3 ("I wanted things to be easy...I ducked hard things")
to p. 243 ("Big time, no rehabilitation, lock em up like animals...the people cry for punishment")

--where is responsibility/blame/intervention most usefully located? (individually or structurally?)

* on gender
--the plight of black men in this country, emasculated...

IV. we talked about the ways in which Wideman "walled" himself off from
his brother, tried to distinguish himself from him, as a form of self-protection.

We will soon have a similar challenge:
p. 52: "The visitor is forced to become an inmate. Subjected to the same sorts of humiliation and
depersonalization. Made to feel powerless, intimidated...treated like both children and ancient, incorrigible sinners. We experience a crash course that teaches us...just how low a prisoner is in the institution's estimation. We also learn how rapidly we can descend to the same depth. Our pretensions to dignity, to difference are quickly dispelled.....We are in fact their prisoners until they release us."

p. 182: "Visitors must take leave of the certainties underpinning their everyday lives."

V. How do we understand the relationship of the visitors to the prisoners?
John and Robby's relationship? The relationship of the writer to his subject?

p. 77: "the hardest habit to break... would be listening to myself listen to him. That habit would destroy any chance of seeing my brother on his terms...the whole point of learning his story....However numerous and comforting the similarities, we were different....Start fresh, clear the pipes, resist too facile an identification
...but wouldn't there be a point at which I'd have to take over the telling....Wasn't writing about people a way of exploiting them?

p. 199-200: "Since I was writing the book, one way or another I'd be on center pull together many loose mateiral had to surface and be resolved...though I never intended to steal his story, to appropriate it or exploit it, that 's what would happen once the book was published."

202: "Maybe I'm inside West Pen to warm myself by his fire, to steal it." 

cf. Doris Sommers: "what draws the reader to the the hope of warming his
shivering life with a death he reads about'...testimonios promise [a lot of] warmth."

VI. How do you understand the title of the memoir?
In Genesis, after Cain had murdered his brother Abel, God asked him where his brother was. Cain answered, “I know not; am I my brother's keeper?” Cain's words have come to symbolize people's unwillingness to accept responsibility for the welfare of their fellows; the tradition of Judaism and Christianity is that people do have this responsibility.

Is John his brother's "keeper"? What might that mean? Why is the title plural?

VII. school to prison pipeline
p. 116: "Turned school into a prison...They fixed us good...We had a black history class, but wasn't nobody eligible to take it."
p. 104: "Call prison the House of Knowledge cause you learns how to be a sure nuff criminal. Come in lame you leave knowing all kinds of evil shit. You learn quick or they eats you up."
p. 235: "Well, this is the place of knowledge. By the time a dude gets out of here, most likely he's a stone criminal...They got professors and Ph.D.'s in crime giving crime lessons in here."