Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

"The Truth About Stories": Notes Towards Day 8 (Thurs, Sept. 22)

Anne Dalke's picture

I. coursekeeping

* foregoing discussion in "Race-ing Ed"?

* For Tuesday, finish Thomas King's The Truth about Stories, Section IV-Afterward, pp. 91-168.

If you are interested in a writing conference, to discuss paper #1, due in 10 days, on Mon, Oct. 3,
next week would be the time to schedule it, after you've begun to think about some possibilities....

Here's what I'm asking: By 5 p.m. Mon, Oct. 3: Paper #1 (1500 words = 6 pp.): An analysis of how (Beloved, or Lemonade, orThe Truth About Stories) "works." Use as a critical lens a single text from a discipline that you have felt helpful in guiding your own thinking (this could be something you read for Jody or Monique's classes; could be a text from a class you took/are taking in comparative literature, philosophy, psychology, sociology....; could be Gordon, or Tuck and Ree, from this class). Tell us what using this particular critical lens offers you/us (i.e. why are you a philosophy major; why did you switch to Religious Studies; why do you think you're likely to major in Political Science?); and then tell us what one specific text from this field illuminates about one particular literary text (Lemonade, Beloved, or The Truth About Stories), in a way that you find helpful, problematic, or....?

This assignment is my way of asking you to take up seriously Gordon's claim that we,
as academics/intellectuals, are accountable for those who do the counting (are among
the counters ourselves?), to ask you what sort of activist-academic you want to
[learn to] be
, what forms of academic study you find most fruitful...A number of you
have said you are not versed in literary criticism; so: what tools do you bring,
from other disciplines, to the reading of literary texts? (Avery Gordon a great model here:
really opened up sociology beyond the visible, material, statistical, to haunting...)

II.  At the end of Tuesday's class, we were working with Gordon's refusal of
"the American dream of innocence," and her counterclaim that we are all born
within a social network, that "social relations….are prepared in advance,
and they linger well beyond our individual time…" None of us exists outside them;
each of us plays a role in each story we hear/know/learn. "To be haunted is to be
tied to historical and social effects." This is the idea of "the sociological imagination":
each individual, each caught up in a structure; each both always subject and object:
acted on by institutions, and able to resist/exceed that script. Very helpful framework
(my small group: rephrasing triggers/trigger warnings, replacing the implication of
automatic reactions w/ a more evocative framing....).

We were also talking, in conclusion, about storytelling: what's real?
Who gets to say what's real? How is reality authenticated? What's true,
and who gets to say this?

After class, Creighton posted this passage from Ursula LeGuin:

"To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is that inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned.

The exercise of imagination is dangerous to those who profit from the way things are because it has the power to show that the way things are is not permanent, not universal, not necessary. Having that real though limited power to put established institutions into question, imaginative literature has also the responsibility of power. The storyteller is the truthteller."

Thomas King does a spin on this: his book is not called
"true stories," but "the truth about stories." For him,
it's not that the storyteller is the truthteller, but rather that
choosing which stories we tell-and-hear can affect the
way we live our lives.

He claims that "stories can control our lives"
(p. 9): "a part of me...has never been able to move past these stories,
a part of me...will be chained to these stories as long as I live.
Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous....
(p. 10): Once told, [a story] is loose in the world.
So you have to be careful with the stories you tell.
And you have to watch our for the stories that you are told...."

King's collection includes lots of good (I mean bad) history,
lots of awful, and awfully instructive, accounts of how
"the Indian problem" was handled in this country in the past.
Each of his chapters begins with the identical preface,
a story about it being "turtles all the way down" (or:
there's always more; there's no bottom to the story).
And each chapter ends with the identical caution:
"Take it. It's yours. Do with it what you will....But don't
say in the years to come that you would have lived your
life differently if only you had heard this story.
You've heard it now."

The collection is grounded in a belief that in life, as in fiction,
whether we live or die "depends on which story we believe."
On p. 26, King asks whether our stories reflect the world as
it truly is, or did we simply start off with the wrong story?
He starts off Ch. 1 w/ a comparative telling of Native and
Christian creation stories, and then asks (p. 28):
What kind of world might we have created [if we'd
started with a different]  kind of story?

When I've taught this book before, in an ESem on "Telling and Re-telling Stories,"
we focused on Chapter 1: I had students (many international students)
bring in their own creation stories, we compared and analyzed
them both for the storytelling strategies they used, and for the values
that these strategies represented; then reflected on how our lives might have been
different if we'd been told a different origin story.

This time around, in this cluster on "Representing Race," it feels to me that
the next two chapters, about representing Indians, are more salient --in part
because of the very different ways that the stories of Blackness and of
Nativeness have been told in this country.

Some of you know the work of Eve Tuck
(anyone doing Education has read her essay on "Suspending Damage,"
an open letter to  communities, researchers, and educators
to reconsider the long-term impact of “damage-centered” research,
to replace it with work that is "desire-based"). Next Thursday
we'll read a wonderful "A Glossary of Haunting" that Tuck compiled.
[Links to her and her writings are in my course notes for today.]

Tuck is an enrolled member of the Aleut Community of St. Paul Island, Alaska;
in another astonishing essay called "Decolonizing is Not A Metaphor"
she critiques "moves to innocence," and argues that decolonization
"specifically requires the repatriation of Indigenous land and life."
In that essay, and her co-author also describe how blacks and natives
have been "racialized" in profoundly different ways in this country:

"Black people’s enslavement produced an inclusive taxonomy that automatically
enslaved the offspring of a slave and any other parent. In the wake of slavery, this
taxonomy became fully racialized in the 'one-drop rule,' whereby any amount of
African ancestry, no matter how remote, and regardless of phenotypical
appearance, makes a person Black.
...the one-drop rule dominates understandings of race in the United States and,
so, most people in the US have not been able to understand Indigenous identity.
Through the one-drop rule, blackness in settler colonial contexts is expansive, ensuring
that a slave/criminal status will be inherited by an expanding number of ‘black’ descendants.
Yet, Indigenous peoples have been racialized in a profoundly different way. Native Americanness
is subtractive: Native Americans are constructed to become fewer in number and less
Native, but never exactly white, over time. Our/their status as Indigenous peoples/first
inhabitants is the basis of our/their land claims and the goal of settler colonialism is to diminish
claims to land over generations (or sooner, if possible). That is, Native American is a
racialization that portrays contemporary Indigenous generations to be less authentic, less
Indigenous than every prior generation in order to ultimately phase out Indigenous claims to land
and usher in settler claims to property. This is primarily done through blood quantum registries
and policies, which were forced on Indigenous nations and communities and, in some cases,
have overshadowed former ways of determining tribal membership."

This, too, is the account you've now heard from Thomas King, who tells a number of stories
that illustrate this process; most painful, I thought, was the article he describes in Chapter 3,
which described him as an "urban Indian," "contradictory first class and first nations."

Chapter 2, "You're Not the Indian I Had in Mind," begins with Curtis's photographs of
the national fantasy about Indians: creating "authenticity" and a fixed identity;
Chapter 3, "Let Me Entertain You," begins with Ishi, the museum curiosity,
moves through stories of other Natives who, King says, stopped being people,
becoming "performers in an Aboriginal minstrel show." The punch line of the
first 1/2 of this book, for me, was what King says on p. 60:

"What's important are the stories...we make up to try to set the world straight"
(maybe not so different from Carrie's description of Kris Graves' photography,
"using brightly colored lights to destabilize race-as-appearance"). King talks
too, about "Appearance," about how only "middle-class Indians can...
afford the burden of looking Indian."

III. So, last night (instead of preparing for this class!)
Jody and I attended the panel that Monique moderated @ the PMA,
with a sociologist, Tukufu Zuberi, and a dancer, Nora Chipaumire
(whom you saw in a TED talk that Monique showed you the
first day of her class:  in her most recent posting, Beatrice
referenced Nora 's line about thinking for oneself).
Nora said last night that her body was a
"site of discovery," because of all the "projections" she has to
"negotiate in public spaces." [This resembles King's question:
how to perform "Indianness" authentically, to people
who have a fixed fantasy of what it is?] When Monique was
asking Nora about how museums might "disrupt static notions
of Africanness, "Nora said, "Why talk about that? I am a
performer...I am interested in enlivening those spaces
'where dead things live'; I want to disrupt these archives
of Western achievement, to enjoy something besides
looking @ an object." The first person to speak during the Q&A
was a man who'd just arrived from the Congo, and said that
"all these questions about being commodified and put in museums
are 'so yesterday,' to those who live on the continent"; that we
"Americans still think we are the center, that our validation matters";
that those living on the African continent are working on all sorts of issues,
but "not waiting for validation" from us; that's our issue, not theirs.

So, inspired by this panel and its aftermath: here are my instructions
for you to start digging, today, into the implications of King's stories.

* Count off to six (to make 6 groups of 3)....

Nope! Didn't happen! Franny asked for a large group discussion of the book....
which focused on "truth," "authenticity," "performance"....

Reading Notes:
I. "You'll Never Believe What Happened" Is Always a Great Way to Start a Story

p. 10: w/in creation stories are relationships that help to define the nature of the universe and how cultures understand the world
p. 22: Two creation stories. One Native, one Christian...
I also used different strategies in the telling of these stories....
These strategies...suggest values...
p. 23: the conversational voice tends to highlight the exuberance of the story but diminishes its authority...
the sober voice...makes for a formal recitation but creates a sense of veracity....
while in our Native story, the universe is governed by
a series of co-operations...that celebrate equality and balance.
p. 25: If we believe one story to be sacred, we must see the other as secular....
We trust easy oppositions...
p. 26: Do the stories reflect the world as it truly is,
or did we simply start off with the wrong story?

p. 27: What if the creation story in Genesis had featured a flawed deity who was understanding
and sympathetic rather than autocratic and rigid? Some who, in the process of creation,
found herself lost from time to time and in need of advice, someone who was willing to
accept a little help with the more difficult decisions?
p. 28: Homo pretty much just a walking set of insatiable material desires...

II. You're Not the Indian I Had in Mind
Curtis's photographs of national fantasy about Indians:
creating authenticity/fixed identity, vs. Richard Throssel's
showing Native people negotiating past and present;
his penchant for satiric play
p. 43: the camera allows you to...invent, to create...
photographs are...not records of moments, bur rather imaginative acts.
...when we look at his photographs, we see what we expect to see.
p. 44: how hard it is to break free from the parochial and paradoxical
considerations of identity and authenticity....We see race...we believe
we can see it.
p. 45: we hope we can see it...[we are] determined to be seen as Indians.
irresistable pull to become a "cultural ritualist," a kind of "pretend" Indian...
being recognized as an Indian was critical....We dressed substantiate
the cultural life that had trapped us...
p. 48: "You're not the Indian I had in mind."
p. 52: Their racism is honest and straightforward....
they remind me how the past continues to inform the present.
p. 53: I didn't know how I wanted to represent Indians...
how can something that has never existed--the Indian--
have form and power while something that is alive and kicking--
Indians--are invisible?
p. 54: There is no reason for the Indian to be real.
The Indian simply has to exist in our imaginations....
to be seen as "real," for people to "imagine" us as Indians,
we must be "authentic."
p. 55: race, culture, language, blood--
still form a kind of authenticity test, a racial-reality game
p. 56: questions (full-blood? status Indian?) were designed to exclude.
For the real value of authenticity is in the rarity of a thing.
If you don't look Indian, you aren't.
p. 58: I teach at a university, so I know all about the enthusiasm
for creating social change through intellectual and artistic activity...
the study of literature..has not had a sustained political component.
postcolonial studies...did...carry with it the implicit expectation that...
lives would be made better
p. 59: I've defined identity politics in a rather narrow and self-serving fashion.
Middle-class Indians can...afford the burden of looking Indian.
p. 60: What's important are the stories...we make up to try to set the world straight.

III. Let Me Entertain You
Ishi responded to ad: "Help wanted. Museum curiosity. Apply in person."
on being a spokesperson: expert, vs. entertainment
p. 67: "an apple," Uncle Tomahawk,
p. 68: ceased being people and somehow
became performers in an Aboriginal minstrel show
p. 69: favorite stories about discovery, exploration, settlement
p. 72: taking Indians as souvenirs
inventing history to make political point
(children's story w/ Coyote inventing Columbus to play baseball w/)
p. 73: Indians only guides to this new world that explorers had...
Living together would be another matter
p. 74: Indians impediments to progress and affronts to faith
p. 75: Puritans creating stories needed to carry the day,
p. 77: w/ Indians "stupid as garden poles";
sounds and smells of empire--fear, racism, greed, arrogance
we can't judge the past by the standards of the present?
religion should not be measured by the actions of the people who profess to practice it?
p. 78: these axioms self-serving attempts to insure ourselves against liability
lesson of us which atrocities are profitable, which are not
Complaint is not my purpose
attempt to call attention to the culture distance
p. 79: 3 centuries later, made into cultural treasure, mythic figure: exotic, terrifying
p. 80: Boston Tea Party was whites dressed up as war party of Mohawks: civil disobediance
p. 81: rhetorical device, justifying a cliam of taditional custom, while
p. 82: real Indians resisted American expansionism
performances of Charles Eastman, Pauline Johnson, Sitting Bull (vs. Crazy Horse)
p. 88: article about King as urban Indian, contradictory first class and first nations
p. 89: "Comic Heroes or 'Red Niggers'?"
entertainment all you are left w/ when only defence is a good story