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"The-Drama-Of-the-Black-Person-as-an-Integral-Facet-of-the-Universe": Notes Towards Day 13 (Tues, Oct. 18)

Anne Dalke's picture

* from supper w/ J&M last night,
coupla shifts in structure of the cluster:
--flipping Tuesday classes fairly regularly (not this week :)
--when possible, also offering a 20-minute break in between TTh classes
--for now, not scheduling another discussion about how we talk together;
will let you know if something emerges along these lines that we think
might be productive
--as you know, the drive for the second 1/2 will be working towards the exhibit;
an still-ongoing question is how this course in particular will contribute towards that;
what texts might be displayed, how, why...? what questions are we raising here
that might also get voiced there....? what forms are we exploring that might
get represented there?

* reminder that I expect you to finish Getting Mother's Body by Thursday,
when we'll leave class to go straight to EH Lecture Hall to meet
w/ Suzan-Lori Parks from 4-5 p.m.

* further reminder
that Thursday a week both
Jody and I will cancel class; we are taking a bus
to Norris Square Neighborhood Project in West
Kensington (North Philly) to experience
a very different kind of exhibition than those
offered @ the well-funded, often inaccessible
museums we've visited so far.

NSq is a Latino culture and youth project,
where my daughter Marian (who graduated
from Oberlin with a degree in Comparative
American Studies) is landscape and garden coordinator;
she manages 6 gardens, created 40 years ago
by a group of Puerto Rican women activists
named Grupo Motivos, to represent the
Puerto Rican diaspora in Philadelphia; one
of these gardens focuses on the African heritage
of the island. This is a community non-profit, with
none of the funding of the large museums we've visited,
and lots of questions about cultural representation....

We will have a tour led by Marian's h.s. interms, talking about
their work, and then a conversation; they may have
questions for you about college access...before we go,
I will show you a short video; have also put up a link
to the group's website for you to review

* both the conversation w/ S-LP
& the excursion to NSq are required;
I need to know today if you can't make either one

* Over break, I really settled in w/ your papers--
have posted all my responses on Serendip:
hope you feel well heard/listened/responded to;
am happy to go on talking on-line (several of you
have already responded, and I've responded back),
or of course in person....I recognize that this is a
very different format than some of you are used to--
part of my initiative of asking you to "be a public intellectual"

* speaking of which: am also beginning to ask you
to write a reflection each Tuesday night
, starting tonight:
I'll expect 8 of these before the semester ends--
on the reading we've just done, or what's upcoming, on the day's discussion,
or other ideas arising related to our various linked topics

Beatrice and Franny did this before break:
Beatrice wrote more about her "love project"--the written and oral interviews
she's conducted over the past 4 1/2 years, along w/ some theoretical writing
on the topic; esp. interesting to me was the way in which you described
Sternberg's Triangular Theory of Love as taking away the language of
"platonic, romantic, and familial" love, and so removing some of the
expectations we have for those roles/scripts--another great example of
refusing/revising the "default story."

Franny also posted a piece about the "pleasure of incompleteness" that is
"reading plays," the "absence" that "serves as an invitation to the reader
to imagine the collective encounter" that is live theater

The postings I'm asking you to do from here on out are different from the museum postings:
Monique has been asking you to take time to reflect after each of our field trips;
it not been her practice to discuss these, to take time for shared processing;
she's been using Serendip as a site for private thinking-through,
an archive of your first impressions and reflections; really: field notes.

Jody used the race journals differently, as a space
for you to reflect on dimensions of your daily living.
Monique, Jody and I have talked through these different uses of Serendip;
and I've thought a lot about what I want to do. To be transparent:
my experiment differs from both of theirs. I want to hear
from you on Tuesdays, in order to help me prepare for Thursday's class,
to direct our discussions to issues of interest/importance to you.
I see Serendip is another mode of speaking & listening,
a space to gather your thoughts after our in-person discussions,
and a way to kick off our next shared conversation.

I know we have different feelings about this sort of writing:
some of us easily "take to Serendip" when we want to communicate
something we can't say in class, knowing that what we write will be
read as part of our larger conversation, that the classroom may not be
able to contain; to others, Serendip doesn't feel like a safe or nice space;
still others are really indifferent--not drawn to it, not finding it either
dangerous or especially useful...

reminder that you can always select the private option, only accessible to our group;
you could also send your reflection  to me as an e-mail (same deadline: midnight each Tuesday);
on Wed nights, I'll put up in my course notes the passages I've selected to use in Thursday's class;
I will not write each of you the night before to ask if this is okay; you should know that this is my
practice, and of course you can read the notes ahead of time so you know what's coming...

questions about any of this?

II. today we move into the middle 1/3 of
Getting Mother's Body.
we began our last class before break by sharing our initial reactions,
then building a group discussion from there: we first focused on

*why it takes this form,
how the genre of novel-writing differs from that of plays,
in giving us both a larger sense of internal dialogue and a wider sense of
interaction, how people are seen, influenced by others' views of them

* we also looked particularly @ Dill, both as an exemplar of queerness,
and a site for thinking about family dynamics, and love; we questioned
our impulse to assign him an identity, but promised to return to the
questions of love-and-hate, and (along those lines) to the mother-daughter
relationship at the heart of the novel

Before we move back to the novel, I want to talk a little about two things:
how I think Suzan-Lori Parks sees/represents blackness
in relationship to whiteness (or not); and also about the
ways in which she complicates blackness, by insisting
on intersectionality. I think I misspoke, when I said before break
that we could "talk about both"--both about Dill's queerness
and about his role in the family dynamics of the novel.
Saying "both" made it seem as if those two dimensions
are separable, when I think they are too tightly wrapped
to be separated; this is what is called intersectionality.

In one of the essays I had you read a few weeks ago, her
"Equation for Black People Onstage," Parks write about her
refusal to be " a singular mode of expression"; and asks
"what happens when we choose a concern other than the race problem to focus on?"
She is deeply concerned with identity, with how the presence of the Other helps
both to define and to obscure our sense of ourselves. She says that she's interested
in exploring "the realm of situations showing African-Americans in states other than
Oppressed by/Obsessed with 'Whitey,"' in encouraging audiences to see,
understand and discuss these dramas in terms other than that same old shit."

Parks characterizes each of her plays as a
encouraging herself, and us, to listen to what she calls "the stories beyond
our default stories": "we African-Americans, she says, "should recognize this
insidious essentialism for what it is: a fucked-up trap to reduce us to only one way of being..."

in a 2004 symposium, Parks said, similarly, that "It's insulting when people say my plays are about
what it's about to be black, as if that's all we think about, as if our life is about that. My life is not
about race. it's about being alive."

Now, this is a pretty interesting (troubling?) binary:
a life that is about race is not about being alive.
A life about being alive is not about race (?).
[Makes me think of the quote by Kierkegaard on the wall of the NMAAHC:
"Once you label me you negate me." As far as I can tell, this emerged in
an argument with Hegel, who was speaking of the absolute whole that contains 
everything. Kierkegaard said, “I am no part of a whole, I am not integrated,
not included. To put me in this whole you imagine is to negate me. Who am I?
I am an intensity of feeling in relation with beings...I want to be in a kind of
self-destroying contact with...the Absolute Other.”]

That's the philosophical version! I hear Parks, like Toni Morrison, saying
in much more concrete and literary language that she is exploring/
representing the humanity of Black people, not as already scripted, known,
labeled, not bound by a dialectic with Whites, but self-generated in all
sorts of ways that are not determined by a black-white binary.

If, as Parks says, "the Klan does not always have to be outside the door," if her
characters are not only/always obsessed with "Whitey," then she can can
attend to the complexities of what's going on within and among Black people.
And part of what that orientation allows her to do is to write about intersectionality.

The epigraph for the Identity Matters 360°, which focused a lot on intersectionality,
came from Eli Clare, a transman with cerebral palsy, who grew up among--and was
repeatedly abused by--lumberjacks in the forest of eastern Oregan, and who wrote,
"gender reaches into disability; disability wraps around class; class strains against
abuse; abuse snarls into sexuality; sexuality folds on top of race. . .
everything finally piling into a single human body."

A key idea in Eli's writing is that when we recognize the intersectionality of our identities,
we also recognize their interaction, how they might affect one another. For Eli, being disabled
in one domain actually turned out to be enabling in another. There's a single passage in his
book Exile and Pride which made this crystal clear to me. Describing what it meant to him
to be thought-a-girl-child with cerebral palsy, he writes,

"The same lies that cast me as genderless, asexual, and undesirable also framed a space in which I was
left alone to be my quiet, bookish, tomboy self, neither girl nor boy....How would I have reacted to the
gendered pressures my younger, nondisabled sister faced? For her the path of least resistance pointed
in the direction of femininity; for me it led toward not-girl-not-boy....when I look around me in disability
community, I see an amazing range of gender expression...mixed and swirled in many patterns. Clearly we
respond in a myriad of ways to the ableist construction of gender....I think of disabled people challenging
the conception of a 'perfect' body/mind."

The assumption that, because he had cerebral palsy, he was asexual, freed him from the insistently
sexualized socialization of becoming a girl/woman.

Also very important to Eli's story is the fact that he had to leave the rural area where he grew up, to become
who he became; this involved both self-discovery and a deep loss: "my desire for community, for physical safety,
for emotional well-being and psychological comfort compelled me to leave. B
eing a queer is one piece of this
loss, this exile; abuse is another. And class is a third..the most confusing...if I moved back, I
probably wouldn't
find work...I left because I didn't want to be poor...My loss of home, my exile, is about class."

As Clare's story makes clear, "intersectionality" doesn't just mean that each of us is raced/classed/
gendered/sexualized/spiritualized/disabled. Intersectionality is an integrated analysis and
political practice
that emerged as a term in sociology in the '60s & '70s--though it was first
coined by a group of Black lesbians who formed the ComBEE River Collective in order to claim
the particular intersections  of their own lives. [The Combahee River was named for its first
inhabitants, the Combahee tribe of Native Americans; it was the site of a Union raid, led by
Harriet Tubman in 1863, that freed 750 slaves; this was only military campaign in American history
planned and led by a woman. The collective picked that name to place themselves on a continuum
of Black women's struggle.] Eli Clare says that he learned his own "intersectional" and
"multi-issue politics" from the Combahee River Collective, who wrote, in 1977, that

We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression,
and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the
fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking.The synthesis of these oppressions
creates the conditions of our lives.

If you want to learn more about intersectionality,
Eli Clare will be giving a public lecture @ Swat on disability and queerness @ 4:30 on Fri, Nov. 4;
and a workshop on storytelling, 9:30-12 on Sat, Nov. 5. Registration required.

Also! Qui Alexander, a queer, trans, Black Latinx educator, organizer,
yoga teacher & consultant, who graduated from BMC in '08, will be giving the
keynote address for LGBTQIA+ History Month  in TGH @ 7:30 tomorrow night.

And! I want you to write your next paper, due on Nov. 9, about intersectionality
in either
Getting Mother's Body or our next novel, The Book of Salt.

But! So! by now you might be feeling that I've gone a long way away from
Suzan-Lori Parks, who, as we know, learned from Jimmy Baldwin to
distrust belligerent ideologizing
in black fiction writing
. In "Elements of Style,"
she said that American dramatic literature is in crisis, in part because
it is "mired in the interest of stating some point." Getting Mother's Body,
for all its preoccupations with family legacies and power struggles, is not a
political tract. It does not tell us what to think; it does not have a clear framing,
a thesis statement; it does not sum up (nor is it reducible to) an argument.

And/but it is very much about intersectionality...
and it also plays w/ form to work w/ this concept.

As Parks asked in that symposium, "Why does everyone think white artists make art and
black artists make statements? Why doesn't anyone ask me ever about form?"....
She was schooled in the formalist breakthroughs of the postmodernists, and like
Gertrude Stein, [who I've warned you will be showing up in our syllabus next week....!]
Parks is preoccupied with deconstructing the English language; her work's been influenced
a lot by both classical music and jazz; she tries to create dramatic texts that look/sound
like musical scores, with a lot of that "repetition and revision" which we explored a few
weeks ago. (An obvious example here is Willa Mae's songs--what are they doing in the
novel? What effect do they have in interrupting the story as they do?)

III. I want us now to work the "rep&rev" of intersectionality, focusing just on the novel.
Parks says that she writes a "drama of accumulation," of "incremental refrain"; that none of her
texts cleanly ARC or get to a CLIMAX. That may not be true of GM'sB--we are on a road trip now!
--but let's see.

Count off to 6; gather in groups of 3.
Remember to listen to each other; give everyone time to contribute.
1) Make sure that you understand the concept of intersectionality.
2) Find one passage in the novel that explores/exemplifies this idea.
3) Find another pasage that picks up/repeats/revises the first.
4) Figure out what changes in the repetition:
what's the effect of the repetition-with-revision?
What's the pace/point of the rep&rev?
5) Figure out how you can act/sing this out, to show us what you're seeing/hearing.
Remember to listen to each other; give everyone time to contribute.

IV. return to large group to show us what you've figured out/
are exploring/questioning...

to discuss...

V. To close:
What questions do we have going forward?
How have we done on the listening beat??