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"Act so that there is no use in a centre": Notes Towards Day 11 (Tues, Oct. 4)

Anne Dalke's picture

switching classes, meeting today (maybe
again in the future?) in Taylor G @ 12:55
(& maybe starting on time?!?)

* as you know (?), Jody, Monique and I meet every Friday
to share accounts of our classes and ind'l encounters w/ y'all,
to work together on continually re-shaping the 360;
because we were all so eager to explore the MAAHC,
we had a shorter mtg this week..and/but agreed
that we need to find ways to continue the group-wide
conversation that we started on our first Friday together;
that you picked up in Jody's class last Thursday; that Sula described 
as feeling "like the discussion we needed to have before our discussion,"
about how we talk and listen (or don't) to one another, and about
how some of these dynamics might shift among us; I was
grateful, also, for Kamara's trying to write some "bullet points
for ways for us to move past our hurdles," and instead writing
a poem, "as a better way to understand and reflect." we might
do a group convo before/after one of our curating sessions w/ Carrie
after break; we might do it @ a different time, off-campus....
we'll be working towards that/all 3 of us are happy to
take suggestions from all of you (not now,
but in person, in e-mail, on Serendip...)

*I've designed a class structure for today that will also
try to attend to some of this, if obliquely, through some of the
claims made by James Baldwin and his descendent Suzan-Lori Parks

* because Parks coming to campus (as w/ Kris Graves,
great opportunity to talk to artist about their work), I'm
asking us to focus on Parks' work for the next 4 classes

* for Thursday, read to p. 90 of her novel, Getting Mother's Body;
enjoy the dialogue, try to get the characters straight, and their
relations to one another (draw a chart?), come w/
questions about plot, and/but also read the novel through
the lens
of some of Park's own concepts (and/or Baldwin's):
how does the novel exemplify (or not) some of the ideas
she describes in her essays about playwriting? you might
also read it looking for ways in which it does/not exemplify
the subtitle of our cluster, "Querying Black & White"

* I also want to signal that we are returning to a discussion of
black experience, to stories and theories about that history,
from a perspective that's now been enlarged by spending
some time w/ Native American storytelling and theorizing,
and from some discussion, finally emerging, about the role of
voices that come from brown and white bodies in the classroom

* During my "transparency lecture," I said that I'd wanted to re-center the
conventional study of American literature, by designing a course that
centered on the experiences of Black American women; we are now
re-centering again--actually starting to "query black and white," as
promised by the subtitle of the cluster; more accurately, I'm inviting all
of us to refuse a single center, to acknowledge that we and these texts
are interacting in a universe where there actually is no center.
I take as my keynote here the opening line of Tuck and Ree's
"Glossary of Haunting." It's an epigraph from Gertrude Stein:
"Act so that there is no use in a centre."

[After we work our way through Parks' work, we'll return to Gertrude Stein;
Parks mentions her in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," as a part of the
Great Tradition we should embrace; she also plays a large role
in the next novel we'll read, in whicha Vietnamese-American writer
imagines the life of Stein's Vietnamese cook--another great ex. of
destabilizing the conventional canon...] But for now I want us to work with
Stein's idea that "centering" is a not-true story about the universe, a story
that we might begin to query and revise as we look @ social and moral
relations among human beings.

Joanna Russ, a white woman who wrote feminist science fiction
and critical studies of utopia, described it this way in "Aesthetics"
(rpt. Feminisms:  An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism,
ed. Robyn Warhol & Diane Price Herndl,  Rutgers U Press, 1997):

There used to be an odd, popular, and erroneous idea that the sun revolved around the earth. This has been replaced by an even odder, equally popular, and equally erroneous idea that the earth goes around the sun. In fact, the moon and the earth revolve around a common center, and this commonly-centered pair revolves w/ the sun around another common center, except that you must figure in all the solar planets here, so things get complicated. Then there is the motion of the solar system w/ regard to a great many other objects, e.g., the galaxy, and if at this point you ask what does the motion of the earth really look like from the center of the entire universe...the only answer is:
that is doesn't,
Because there isn't.

* What this could look like in a class like this, I think, is a
complicated push-and-pull of authority and humility,
as we ask one another both to claim what we know
(center yourself, your experience, your knowledge,
your training, your academic expertise)--and acknowledge
what each of us doesn't yet know, what we might learn from others--
and then stretch to figure out the relation between the two.

* It's important to claim our own authority; it's also important,
in a learning env't, to leave an opening for others to claim theirs,
to push back on the limits of our own.  I think Baldwin and
Parks both model this wonderfully: speaking with clarity,
being open to revision, calling others to be similarly open.

Both Baldwin and Parks do what she calls "Rep&Rev":
the work of repeating and revising stories; I'm hoping
that they might model that sort of revision for us.

Learning to speak up, and also  to listen to others' speaking,
are skills that take time to learn. I can name ways to listen,
give you frameworks (listening bowl) and
exercises (text tendering)  to help you learn to listen, but
(as Sula said when she described our weekend workshop),
it takes awhile to undo/relearn old habits.

* One last bit of my mini-sermon: we are also often not aware of
how what we’re saying is being picked up.  Tuck and Ree say,
"Yes, I am telling you a story, but you may be reading another one."
I understand from what you've told me that the field of racio-linguistics
points to a similar idea: listeners are always perceiving race, and
the racial context of any language use, which affects how the speaker's
words are heard.

II. 1:15: Let's turn now to 2 essays by Baldwin, 4 by Parks
* Quick introductions to the authors,
and to three texts that haunt them:
James Baldwin,
d. 1987, wrote about
what thwarted the equitable integration of blacks, and of gay
and bisexual men (these were 2 of his identities); he tried to
distance himself from American prejudice by living most of
his life in the South of France; he returned during the '60s
to work in the civil rights movement, which was hostile to
homosexuals (getting into the territory Gabby named
awhile ago re: intersectionality; NMAAHC: MLKing & Bayard Rustin).
Profound effect on many writers, including

Suzan-Lori Parks,
who was the first African American woman to
win the Pulitzer Prize for drama; she was also a MacArthur Fellow
(these are the infamous "genius" grants).

Uncle Tom's Cabin:
a novel published in 1852
by a white abolitionist, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
(anyone read it?) 

We all remember the repetition, by Aliyah, Swati, Kamara
on Thursday, of the quote from bell hooks:
"I am invited to speak, but only when I speak my pain."
Stowe did a displaced version of this: writing abt the pain of mothers
who were enslaved, in order to move the emotions of Northern white mothers,
who also were vulnerable to losing their children to all sorts of diseases and injuires...
And it's precisely that attempt to evoke a sentimental reaction to such pain
that, you now know, infuriated Baldwin.

Uncle Tom's Cabin entered the Am lit canon via work of
one of the most famous graduates of BMC English Dept,
Jane Tompkins, who published a book in 1986 called
Sentimental Designs:
The Cultural Work of American Fiction, which was seen at the time as an
important inclusive move; Tompkins argued against the modernist belief
that art is free from propaganda, by focusing on authors like Stowe who
wrote not to elicit aesthetic appreciation, but to alter the face of the
social world.

There's an apocryphal story that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he said,
"So this is the little lady who started this great war." This anecdote has
probably lasted so long in literary studies, because of our desire to
affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change.

The value and significance of sentimental novels like Stowe's
(in cf. to the 19th c. canon of Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman,
hugely popular, best-selling book since the Bible)
depended on precisely the characteristics that formalist criticism
taught us to deplore: stereotyped characters, sensational plots,
cliched language--which made the story dramatic and
accessible. And of course it's these stereotypes that both
Baldwin and Parks want to unsettle, because they

see us trapped in/by them.

"Tradition and the Individual Talent" is Parks' "Rep&Rev"
of a 1921 essay of the same title by T.S. Eliot, who argued
that talent emerged from a deep study of the tradition
(what he called "the English mind"), that the poet engages
in a "continual surrender of himself" to this vast tradition,
that artistic creation is a process of depersonalization,
w/ the poet as a "depersonalized vessel," and a great
poem an "escape from emotion." There is no belief,
here, that emotion is the way into art or understanding.

"Elements of Style"
is Parks' "Rep&Rev" of the classic
1918 manual by William Strunk that prescribes the
rules you need to write plain English (you know this?)

III. 1:25-1:45: count to 6 (for groups of 3)
remembering the practices of careful listening that we were working
on last Thursday: make sure everyone takes a turn, everyone hears...
(questioning whether small groups have played out/lost their usefulness...
given you 4 very directed tasks, 5 min each, so stay on task:

1:25: share what caught your interest in any of these 6 short essays
1:30: talk about how/where you see Baldwin's ideas haunting Parks'
(what repetition? what revision??
Take no one's word for anything--> Think for yourself
1:35: where/how you might use any of these ideas to re-read/re-think
anything we've read so far (Lemonade, Beloved, The Truth about Stories):
what do they affirm/question about the texts/our readings of them?
(what does Parks say about humor that helps explain King's use of humor?
does what she says about possession make you think differently about haunting?)
1:40: draw on the board an "equation" that shows the relationship between (something said by)
Baldwin-> Parks->another literary text->something you've said/thought earlier, might now revise (?)

Our "equations"!

IV. 1:45-2:10: Return to large group, cf. "equations"--what's emerging?
how do you understand the relation being haunted (or "possessed")
and "taking no one's word for anything," "thinking for yourself"?
[Does receiving academic training mean learning to think
through others, quoting them to back up your claims...?]

V. 2:10: how'd we do on the listening today? (go 'round?)
what do you think/feel about switching class times?

Anne's Reading Notes

Baldwin, "A Letter to My Nephew" (1962):
Behind your father's face...are all those other faces which were his [haunting]
this is the crime of which I accuse my country....for which neitehr I nor time nor history will ever forgive them...
destroying hundreds of thousands of lives
it is not permissible that the authors of devastation shoud also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.
the crux of my dispute with my country:....The limits to your ambition were....expected to be were expected to make peace with mediocrity.
Take no one's word for anything
try to be clear...about the reality which lies behind the words "acceptance" and "integration".....You must accept [white men] and accept them with love, for these innocent people have no other hope. They are...still trapped in a history which they do not understand and...cannot be released from...
The danger in the minds and hearts of most white Americans is the loss of their identity....Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your iprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your....lost younger brothers, and..."integration" means...that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it...We cannot be free until they are free....

Baldwin, "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949)
[cf. also upcoming in Jody's class in Nov: Jeff Frank, “James Baldwin’s ‘Everybody’s Protest Novel’: Educating our Responses to Racism”]

p. 13:Uncle Tom's Cabin, cornerstone of American social protest fiction
p. 14: novels of oppression written by Negroes...add a raging, near-paranoiac postscript... and actually reinforce the principles which activate the oppression they decry
UT'sCabin is a very bad novel, having, in its self-rightous, virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women. Sentimentality, the ostentatious parading of excessive and spurious emotion, is the mark of dishonesty, the inability to feel....; and it is always, therefore, the signal of secret and violent inhumanity, the mask of cruelty.
what constriction or failure of perception forced [Stowe] to so depend on the description of brutality--unmotivated, senseless--and to leave unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was...that moved her people to such deeds.
p. 14: her book was...intended to...prove that slavery was...perfectly horrible...why [are] we bound still within the same constriction. How is it that we are so loath to make a further discover and reveal something a little closer to the truth?
p. 15: truth...has...the unfortunate tendency to make one belligerent....truth, as used here, is meant to imply a devotion to the human being, his freedom and fulfillment...not to e confused with a devotion to....a Cause
this resolutely indefinable, unpredictable....overlooking...his complexity--which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves--we are diminished...only within this web of ambiguity...can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves.
p. 17: Uncle Tom, who is a figure of controversy yet, is jet-black, wooly-haired, illiterate; and he is phenomenally forbearing. He has to be; he is black....only through humility....can [he] enter into comunion with God or man
p. 18: UT' activated by...a theological terror,, self-righteous, fearful...medieval...a warfare waged daily in the heart...This panic motivates our cruelty.
p. 19: literature and sociology are not one and the same....Our passion for categorization, life neatly fitted into pegs, has led to...a breakdown of meaning.
The "protest" that framework we believe to be so necessary....this report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation...the protest novels...emerge...trapped and immobilized in the sunlit prison of the American dream.
p. 20: we find ourselves bound, first without, then within, by the nature of our is precisely through our dependence on this reality that we are most endlessly betrayed...
it is only...our unknown selves, demanding, forever, a new act of creation, which can save us
p. 21: the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society: they accept the same criteria, they share the same beliefs, they both alike depend on the same reality....
it is romantic, more, meaningless, to speak of a "new" society as the desire of the in which inequalities will disappear....But what the rejected desire elevation of status, acceptance within the present community...this reality [the Negro] both flees and rushes to embrace
p. 23: we need only to...accept...our humanity. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of...the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.

Parks, "Possession":
the definition of possession cancels itself out. The relationship between possessor and possessed is, like ownership is, multidirectional.
I write for the figures in the play....
So much of the discussion today...concerns how the Af-Am literary contribution should be incorporated into the canon. The history of Literature is in question. And the history of History is in question too. A play is a...way of creating and rewriting history.
one of my tasks as playwright is to....locate the ancestral burial ground....find bones...
I'm working theatre like an incuabor to create "new" historical events...
theatre is an incubator for the creation of historical events
A person dies and yet continues to live...they become our contemporaries...
I'm rewriting the Time Line--creating history where it is and always was but has not yet been divined.

Parks, From "Elements of Style":
give a way in to my work; examine crisis in American dramatic literature:
bulwark against insidious, tame-looking, schmaltz-laden mode of expression
mired in the interest of stating some point
[another glossary]
bald fact: content determines form and form determines content; interdependent
container dictates what subtance will fill it; substance dictates size, shape of container
I am an African-American woman--this is the fom I take:
content predicts this form, this form inseparable from my content
form an active participant in the sort of play which inhabits it
realism never could accommodate the figures which take up residence inside me
"Rep & Rev": to create a dramatic text that looks/sounds more like a musical score
drama of accumulation, of "incremental refrain,"
breaks w/ text which cleanly ARCS, doesn't get to a CLIMAX,
refigures forward progression with African/Af-Am literary and oral tradition
how to physicalize verbal aberrations, words, literally incorporate the past?
"Time has a circular shape"; don't take established shapes for granted
thrilling etymologies/histories:
Because words are so old they hold, have a big connection with the what was.
equations of some plays
badmath: x+y=meaning, ability to make siple substitions, clarity,
characters as symbols for obscured meaning rather than simply thing itself
easy targets let us willfully ignore our own bigotry, own intolerance
History is time that won't quit
humor happens when you "get out of the way":
Laughter very powerful way (not of escaping but) of arriving on the scene

Parks, "An Equation for Black People Onstage"
a refusal of being " a singular mode of expression";
"the Klan does not always have to be outside the door..."
"what happens when we choose a concern other than the race problem to focus on?"
"...the realm of situations showing African-Americans in states other than the
Oppressed by/Obsessed with 'Whitey' state...where audiences are encouraged
to see and understand and discuss these dramas in terms other than that same old shit"
"...encouraging myself to listen to the stories beyond my default stories..."
"we African-Americans should recognize this insidious essentialism
for what it is: a fucked-up trap to reduce us to only one way of being..."

Parks, "Tradition and the Individual Talent":
The Great Tradition, the Personal Tradition, and the
Tradition of the Next New Thing help and hinder our art making
The Great Tradition..of the past...those millions of great writers....haunt us
each...should be of use...embrace warmly (enjoying Ms. Stein)...
cross fertilize (or "cross-train")
Writing styled differently from my own can teach me
enormous sledgehammer, like your great-gramother w/ seed for you deep inside
Personal Tadition (aka Individual Talent) springs from own life story
We "know" much more than our consioucs minds think we know
Body of Work ("BOW") difficult to narrate: X's work = Xish, or Xian,
gets stinky; grow, change, flow, get out of hte way
be careful who we listen to; learn to think for ourselves,
don't stick to what worked once
Trad of Next New Thing: fun, frightening, shapeless, lights the way
can trip up the writer, fearing being forgotten
tastes, minds, sensibilities change; greatest responsibility to the future