Monday, January 22

Under the Lion's Paw

I thought this painting (American Gothic by Grant Wood, c. 1930) was the perfect accompaniment to a discussion of "Under the Lion's Paw." We see the tidy, well-kept farm in the background, painstakingly maintained with a fresh coat of whitewash. It seems we are observing the couple just after Haskins' confrontation with Butler (remember, Haskins threatened him with a pitchfork.) "The woman came to light as a small, timid, and discouraged-looking woman, but still pretty, in a thin and sorrowful way." (812) Mrs. Haskins looks weary, defeated, and confused. She stares into the distance, perhaps watching Butler's retreat. She wonders how anyone could treat them like he has, but she's too tired to feel any rage. "Haskins was a tall man, with a thin, gloomy face...And his sallow face, though hard and set, was pathetic somehow." (813) Mr Haskins stares straight into our eyes, his fist still clenched tightly around the handle of the pitchfork, and there is something cold and terrifying in his gaze. He has tasted injustice, and he does not like the taste at all. And yet he is resigned. He has bowed to the unfairness and the wrong, because he sees no other way. This story is a powerful commentary on greed, and it calls for fair treatment of the disenfranchised working class of America. The American ideal, after all, is that with enough hard honest work and sacrifice, any man should be able to build a life for himself and his family, and no one ought to be able to take that away.

Saturday, January 20

The Dutchman

"You don't know anything except what's there for you to see. An act. Lies. Device. Not the pure heart, the pumping black heart. You don't ever know that...You great liberated whore! You fuck some black man, and right away you're an expert on black people." (p. 2312)

While this excerpt from "The Dutchman" is clearly a statement about race, and specifically a criticism of American white liberals who claimed to understand blacks and presumed to know what was best for them, I find it really interesting in a more general way. I was immediately drawn to this passage because of the reference to "an act." Any time a play makes reference to play-acting, it makes the actor who speaks the line seem strangely self-conscious to me, and adds a note of irony. Clay points out that no matter what we might think we know about another person, we never truly get to the heart of them, because everyone lies and everyone wears a mask of some sort. All we see is what is there for us to see, the image that is projected, as carefully chosen and constructed as a costume. I wonder if Baraka acknowledges here his own inability to show us "the pure heart, the pumping black heart," for he is, after all, limited by his art--to the use of "an act. Lies. Device."

Friday, January 19


This story has two central themes: one is the relationship between two girls (Roberta and Twyla) of different races, and the ways in which that relationship is shaped over time by changing racial tensions; the other is the relationship each of the girls shares with her mother. Although one could argue that the first of these themes is more important, it is the second that interests me more, so that's what I've chosen to focus on.

"My mother danced all night and Roberta's was sick. That's why we were taken to St. Bonny's." (p. 2253) With these first two sentences of the story, Morrison lets us know immediately that the reason the two girls are in an orphanage is that their mothers are incapable of caring for them, and that their abandonment will be their common bond. They become friends because "nobody else wanted to play with us because we weren't real orphans with beautiful dead parents in the sky." (2254) Twyla's tone of obvious disappointment seems to be directed toward her own mother for being alive and imperfect, rather than toward the other children for rejecting her.

When the girls' mothers come to visit them on the same day, Twyla's happiness at seeing her mother Mary is deeply shadowed by her embarrassment over the woman's inappropriate clothing and behavior. She talks about Mary (she never calls her Mom or Mommy) as though she herself were the adult and Mary the wayward child, specifically when she says, "she smiled and waved like she was the little girl looking for her mother--not me." (2256) Twyla's horror at her mother's behavior during the chapel service sounds like the outrage expressed by a parent over a bratty toddler. "And Mary would have kept it up--kept calling names if I hadn't squeezed her hand as hard as I could. That helped a little, but she still twitched and crossed and uncrossed her legs all through service....Why did I think she would come there and act right?" (2256) As Twyla is narrating, we don’t get as much insight into Roberta’s relationship with her mother, except that she has mixed feelings when she is sent home from the orphanage. But as the story goes on and the girls become women and mothers in their own right, each time they meet they return to that point of common ground--painful as it remains for both of them.

Both of the women make reference to a woman named Maggie who lives at the orphanage when they are young. She is physically handicapped and mute, and one day some of the older girls knock her down and start to kick her. Roberta and Twyla don’t join in, but both later admit to having wanted to. Twyla recalls, “Maggie was my dancing mother. Deaf, I thought, and dumb. Nobody inside. Nobody who could hear you if you cried in the night. Nobody who could tell you anything important you could use….I knew she wouldn’t scream, couldn’t---just like me—and I was glad about that.” (2265) Twyla harbors so much anger toward her mother for being weak and, in a sense, crippled, that she enjoys seeing Maggie beaten. Roberta confesses to the same feelings: “And because she couldn’t talk—well, you know, I thought she was crazy. She'd been brought up in an institution like my mother was and like I thought I would be too...we didn't kick her...but, well, I wanted to. I really wanted them to hurt her." (2266) It is interesting to note here that both of the girls acknowledges that they are in some way like their mothers, or that they fear being weak in the same way that their mothers were.

Having grown up with an emotionally unstable mom who is less than dependable, who struggles sometimes even to take care of herself, I can completely relate to the girls' feelings of anger, even rage, at not being able to count on her and in some cases having to take care of her. I can also relate to that constant background fear of someday sharing the same weaknesses, being marked for failure or insanity. I was blown away by Morrison's insightful and sensitive treatment of this topic, and have to wonder if she went through something similar herself.

Tuesday, January 16

Going To Meet The Man

This story has it all. Sex, graphic violence, foul language. Adult situations. NC-17 kind of stuff. Beyond that, it's deeply, deeply unsettling. Baldwin shoves us into the skin of a detestable man and forces us to see ourselves in him. It's hard enough for me to take, so I can only imagine what it must have felt like for a black American in the 60's to inhabit the mind of a racist white policeman. Baldwin is attempting something truly radical with this story. By showing us the conditions and circumstances that shaped Jesse's mind from childhood, Baldwin forces us to at least try to understand Jesse before we condemn him. But why would we want to?

Well, I think Baldwin recognized that truly understanding something or someone gives you a degree of power over them, and if there was anyone that blacks needed to have an advantage over, it was people like Jesse--ignorant white men in positions of power and control. Baldwin knew that you couldn't fight ignorance with ignorance. In "Going to Meet the Man," he demonstrates how it is Jesse's denial of kinship to the blacks he abuses that allows him to do so. If he fully admitted to himself how similar he was to the man that was lynched or the man that he kicks, or how beautiful the women he rapes are to him, he would not be able to go on hurting them. So rather than hating the white race (which would be more than fair) Baldwin encourages black Americans to find a way to understand their oppressors, to have compassion for them, and to help them rise above their conditioning and see the common thread of humanity and goodness in every man, woman, child, regardless of skin color. As much as I admire this whole concept, when I think of the people that, to me, are truly evil in this country today, I don't know if I could apply this kind of compassionate thinking. Maybe I need another James Baldwin to write about the tortured souls of Donald Rumsfeld and Karl Rove. Shiver.

Friday, January 12

The Man Who Was Almost A Man

Wright's "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" is, as the title suggests, a coming-of-age story. It has all the classic elements of this genre--the boy on the edge of manhood, desperate to prove himself; the overbearing mother, alternately coddling and berating him, and the Dream--in this case, a gun. Twice young Dave is told he is too young to need a gun, but he is determined to have one. Gripping the gun he feels powerful, excited; "They would have to respect him." (1930) But it is not to be: the first time he fires the gun, he accidentally kills his boss's mule Jenny, and a whole crowd of people gathers to witness his public humiliation and shame. The very thing that was supposed to make him respected has brought him ridicule. The thing that was supposed to make him feel free has left him more indebted and restricted than before. He jumps on a train with the gun still in his pocket, disappearing into the evening, and we are left to wonder about his future. Does he ever become a man? Does the gun eventually gain him respect, or does it lead him into even more trouble? And most importantly, what does this story really mean, beyond the obvious?

I don't think it's too much of a stretch to imagine that Dave represents the blacks of America, struggling to gain respect, power, and real freedom in the face of ignorance and condescension. If that is indeed Wright's intention, then perhaps the story is meant to serve as a warning against the use of violence for the purpose of gaining power or respect. Jenny the mule is the innocent bystander, caught in the crossfire, used to warn of the consequences of such senseless demonstrations of force. Maybe even the title of the story has a deeper meaning. Although technically blacks were no longer considered two-thirds of a person for voting purposes when this story was first published (1939) it wasn't until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the black right to vote was truly established and protected. Just a thought. The Voting Rights Act comes up for renewal this year, here's an interesting article about that.

Tuesday, January 9

The Invisible Man

Well what a story. Talk about a cascade effect, it seems like everything Griffin does to get out of trouble only gets him deeper in it. No wonder he's totally insane. He steals from his father to make something of himself, and his father commits suicide because now he'sbroke. He finally has some success with making the neighbor's cat invisible, but then ends up having to go invisible himself just to escape his neighbor. Once he's invisible, Griffin's crimes are bolder because who is going to stop him? He continues to simply take what he needs for his own purposes, whether it be money, supplies, or poor Mr. Marvel's service. Wells seems to be asking a disturbing question about human nature and the individual's place in society--that is, if all accountability vanishes, if we know we cannot be punished or even caught, will we inevitably abuse that power for our own gains? We also wonder, what was it that really drove Griffin mad--the power that came with being invisible, or much earlier on, the powerlessness he felt at being poor? We know Wells was an outspoken socialist, so that would make sense. By showing us the darker side of Griffin's condition, perhaps he was alluding to the way a poor man feels invisible, and so is forced to all kinds of dreadful crimes simply to get by. Certainly if Griffin had never been poor, he would never have stolen money from his father, would never have stolen from anyone else, presumably would not have gone mad, and would not now be dead, beaten by an angry mob. I'm not sure I really buy the social commentary, but Wells was definitely a bright guy. Check out the latest in invisibilty news here. I'd love to hear what y'all think about the moral implications of THAT.