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On Reading


[Author’s note: There are all types of reading material and all reading time is well-spent. This information is specifically focused on books and how to study books. Thoughts on reading are never final; I may be adding to and editing this piece until I die.]

Do not undertake the acquisition of a book lightly. In fact, do not even pick up or buy a book that you do not sincerely intend to read. Books not only take up physical space but mental space. Now you are expected to do something with that thing you bought; that money you spent. When you buy or acquire a book, you are making a promise. Think of the book as a living being. You are now committed, at least until the last page of the book, to that being. In the acquisition of a book you are saying, “I may place you on the shelf, but you are there for a good reason. I will see you. Although you must wait your turn, you will have your time to shine. You will be lovingly handled, read, contemplated, marked, discussed, explored. What is inside of you will end up inside of me. I will not make you wait for nothing. You mean something to me.” If you are not going to read the book, why have it around? Ego boosting? One who has a well-curated bookshelf but does not read is only a fake.

Do not short-shrift the reading of the book. The reading of the book is the enactment of the commitment you have made to the book. Don’t attempt to read deeply in noisy or distracting places. Everyone knows you are not absorbing that Shakespearean play in the middle of a Starbucks. You are not contemplating moral philosophy while also watching television. Turn off your music. Turn off the tv. Go to a quiet place. Set yourself up for success by having something to sip within arm’s length. Have a pen or pencil nearby. Chew gum. I prefer the use of a bookmark rather than torturing the book with dog ears; that’s disrespectful. (Remember when I said to treat your book like a living being?) Bookmarks can be any flat material (even that Starbucks napkin), so don’t say you don’t have one. Proper bookmarks that have flat-edged stiffness are good to use for underlining so your annotations look less palsied. Choose active brain time to read as well. Sure, you can read at bedtime, but once you have determined you are falling asleep, you are no longer absorbing the material. Magazines are better suited for this purpose. If you only use reading in order to sleep, then you are not sincerely reading; you are using the text for an off-brand purpose. What you need is chamomile tea, not zombie-like meanderings through books.

Once you begin a book, commit to finishing the book. Don’t punk out. You can view the book as a challenge: You won’t best me! I have endurance! If the book evokes your fighting spirit, all the better. Don’t allow even the longest of books to intimidate you. YOU intimidate the book! If you are not on a timeline, who cares how long it takes you to complete the book? A page a day is for babies, but even three or six pages a day will eventually lead you to complete that book. Of course, it is best when the book absorbs your mind and you cannot put it down. In this case, you have found your genre and/or author. Find more books of like-kind because now you know this is your jam. The converse may be true. You may be reading a sci-fi paperback and early on you think this crap is really not for me. What are you going to do…give up? No! Finish that book if only to come to learn what you don’t like. It is difficult to argue against something you’ve never tried. When I find myself committed to a book I am not enjoying, I shift into viewing reading as a practice. I am practicing reading. I am practicing mindfulness. I am practicing patience. I am practicing reading aloud. I am expanding my vocabulary and knowledge. I am exploring what I don’t like. It sounds counter-intuitive, but we can’t constantly surround ourselves with only the things we like. We also learn from fully engaging in the things we don’t like. We are learning all the same.

Reading is The Great Escape. Don’t want to twiddle your thumbs in that waiting room? Take a book. Standing in line at the DMV? Take a book. Being told to take a nap but you are wide awake? (I’m thinking of my granddaughter here.) Take a book. Called for jury duty? Take a book. In jail again? (What did you do this time?) Demand your reading material! Reading is a tool to make certain periods of time that would normally be torture, fly by with the greatest of ease. We can’t all travel the world, but most of us can get to a library. We can’t all afford luxurious lives, but we can read about those who can. We can’t all be heroes, but we can find them in books. I know about so many things I’ve never experienced in real life because I’ve read about these things in books. In books, we can travel to far-away places and learn of ancient customs. We can envision people on the other side of the earth or aliens from outer space. We can explore imaginary worlds or knock around the thoughts of a crazy person. Being able to escape our current moment to experience the world through the eyes of others allows us a greater capacity for empathy. Perhaps there is a connection between an ancient sherpa’s quest for home and your own longings for your childhood abode. We can escape by reading more profound thoughts than we could ever think on our own. We can find words that represent images in just such a way to make us burst out laughing or crying. We can come across a set of ideas so achingly beautiful that we tattoo it on our arm…and it came about through words on a page!

Don’t judge yourself regarding the type of reading you prefer. Who cares? Like trashy romance novels? At least you are reading! Into manga or graphic novels? Historical war novels or biographies? Plays or sports writing? Children’s literature or Native American narratives? The topic is up to you; the exercise is the reading. When it comes to reading, there is literally something for everyone. Here is where your local library comes in handy. Walk right up to the closest librarian, plant your feet like Superman and say with all dignity, “I’m into dancing robots who farm but also use technology to learn about humans. Have anything like that?” They’ll come up with something, and it’s free! If some jerk comes along and says, “Ech…why are you reading that?” You could possibly deflect punching them in the nose by asking, “What are you reading?” If they don’t have an answer, you just won. If they do, then maybe you can discuss reading again in the future. You will just as often find people who say, “Oh wow! I love that book!” Instant friend. Books can bind people.

Some people are book borrowers (like those library visitors) while others are book keepers, like me. Both are excellent and most people are probably a combination of the two. People who frequent libraries perhaps seek a wide variety of reading material without having to give up money or space for the luxury of reading. They are discouraged from marking or dog-earring the books; they are merely a temporary keeper of the kingdom. They can start something, dislike the proposed journey and return the book the next day; no harm done. Book keepers are involved in a deeper commitment. They are willing to invest money and concede space to inanimate objects that simultaneously capture their hearts. They mark books. They highlight, underline, circle and write in the margins. They revisit the book and stick nameplates inside the front covers. I write short summaries at the end of each chapter. Lately, I’ve taken to writing not only my name inside the front cover but the season and year in which I read the book. I can picture my son or grandchildren one day inheriting the book and seeing what their grandma (or great-grandma!) marked in a book decades before. If I have enjoyed the book more than normal I make a note to myself to read it again in the future. Conversely, I may get to the end of a book and be so happy it is done! I don’t place a nameplate in those books; I give them away or take them to the Goodwill.

There are many different reading levels. You will hear of a child in third grade who “reads on a ninth grade level.” That means they are able to comprehend material above the normal reading comprehension for their age group. Try to diversify your levels of reading. Some stuff you read might be kind of dumb or just for fun. Some stuff you read is right at your level and you don’t have to spend a lot of time worrying about unfamiliar concepts or words. Every once in a while, try to tackle a reading project that is a bit beyond your normal comfort level. You are pressed to do this in school, but don’t drop the habit just because you’ve graduated. Pressing your reading into territory just beyond your total comprehension stretches and exercises the mind. There may be so many words in a row that you don’t completely understand, but are you comprehending the broad overview? Are you able to understand the overall idea? You may not want to spend time looking up every word you don’t know while in the midst of this exercise because it would prove too time consuming (unless looking up the meaning of unfamiliar words is your new super cool hobby). In this case, read slowly and in smaller chunks. Write notes in the margin when you clearly understand an idea. Spend time simply sounding out the words and reading upper-level sentences out loud. It does feel strange to be exploring a world of words and ideas that seem abstract, but if we practice reading beyond our level every once in a while we become less stressed by the practice. There is no shame in saying, “I don’t understand half of what she is saying, but I’m trying.” 

On that note, don’t forget that you can always bring in outside reinforcements if you are not understanding what you are reading, or if you simply want to know more. If there is a concept that is not quite clear, you can always Google it! If you have completed a short story and now you are wondering how a certain theme works within it, you could use Google Scholar and type in something like “the role of domestic violence in the works of Zora Neale Hurston” and see what comes up. You could also use the search word “critique(s)” which will lead you to critics who have analyzed and written about the work. For example, in a Google, library or Google Scholar search box one could type: critiques on “the mother” by Gwendolyn Brooks. You may then be bombarded with different points of view pointing out different ideas of that one work. Filter through and see what you are looking for. The text is not simply the text; there are usually texts (or some sort of outside reference) about that text that expand upon and attempt to explain the original work.

Reading for School/Study

Once you have signed up for a literature course (in high school or college) see if you can acquire the syllabus or reading list right then. Ask the teacher or school which books you will need and find a way to get them. If you are reading older material, don’t forget you can find many works in full on the internet or through your school’s library or online resources. Project Gutenberg (gutenberg.org) has tens of thousands of works-in-full whose copyright has expired. Beginning the reading list and taking notes before the semester begins is a life-saver. We are unable to predict a future in which we may acquire a new job or experience a bump in the road that will throw off our reading schedule. Reading early safeguards against unforeseen misadventures.

Once you have received the syllabus, (a rules and to-do list for the semester) create a reading calendar. The best syllabi will have the reading pages listed for each entry. This will let you know how many pages are required per week/project. If the page numbers are not listed, go inside the book and, using the table of contents, jot down how many pages are involved in each reading. Only you know how much reading time you have per day or on particular days. Break down the number of pages into a per-day goal. If all the readings for the week add up to one hundred pages, you will have to read 14.2 pages per day over the course of seven days. In school, there is no getting around this. If you skip a day of reading, guess what? Instead of fourteen pages tomorrow, you will have to read 29. Now you are under pressure and you are not going to absorb the material as well as if you’d stuck to the reading plan. At the end of each week check to see if you have met your reading schedule. If not, you have to set your alarm earlier or stay up later in order to get the reading done. Mark the readings off in your calendar as they are completed; this will boost feelings of success and accomplishment.

Accept the challenge that while taking a literature course you must do the readings. This is not a sit-in-class-and-I’ll-probably-pick-it-up scenario. Your professor may focus on one work and not the others for the week. They may focus on answering questions rather than deeply exploring the text. They may discuss historical events or the backgrounds of authors rather than the text. In all of these scenarios, you have not gained a deeper understanding of the readings themselves just by being in class. Do not take a reading class unless you sincerely commit to the process of reading deeply.

When reading for school you are always reading for a purpose. If you are not given reading guides or questions to answer along the way, then you are reading in the wilderness out there on your own to decide what is and is not important to note within the text. Whatever situation you are reading for in school, always incorporate your reading tools. You should never just plop down with only the material. You must have a pen or pencil and notebook paper or computer to take notes. With the amount of reading you have to do for school, you are not going to remember everything. As you read, mark what you have critically determined to be the most important elements on the page. Train yourself to think of a page, section, or chapter like this: If a person asked you “What was _ about?” what would you tell them? Would your notes (without the book) sufficiently answer their question? Imagine even more pressure: you are in the classroom and the professor asks you, “So, what takes place on page 375?” Would you be able to answer the question from what you underlined or highlighted on page 375? What would your notes from page 375 reveal? In this particular situation there is a handy trick: as you are writing or typing notes from the reading material, note the number of the page you are on along the left-hand margin of your notes. For each new page of material, update the page number. This trick helps in many ways. Page numbers within your notes help you save time when you are searching for something specific, and the professor can never trip you up in class with the above question. When the professor asks about the plot twist in chapter five, you have noted “Chapter Five” at the top of a page along with the page number. Your notes reveal the unusual twist that happened in this section. Boom! You raise your hand.
You are taking separate notes in addition to your in-text annotations for three reasons: 1) it keeps you on-task while reading. Constantly going back and forth from the page to writing/typing notes keeps your thoughts engaged and your body alert; 2) knowledge of the material goes deeper into your brain if you not only read the material but also put the ideas into your own words by writing or typing reading notes; 3) you will study these notes for quizzes and exams. Once you have read the material and notated the most important information into your own words and notes, you have a way to go over and over the material for whatever may be thrown at you in the future. Many professors allow/encourage open-note quizzes or exams. How smart would you look without your book having taken excellent notes you can now use to pass the test? Score!

When you are reading elevated college material, you may come across various unfamiliar textual practices. Anthologies are collections of writings that are merely pieces of larger texts. For example, instead of the entire novel of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in the anthology you may get chapter one, chapter seven, and bits of chapters thirteen and twenty. The point with anthologies is to give you a broad overview of the best works in a certain genre or area of writing. To read the entire work, you’d have to buy or borrow it separately. Ideally, while reading anthologies you will come across an author or work that resonates with you leading you to go out and seek the entire work to read later on your own. For school purposes, you are merely learning more about the characteristics of certain types of writing performed during a certain time in history (sometimes associated with a particular country or geographical area). Because the works do not appear in full, you will see the word “From”, often in italics, which indicates that what you are about to read is not the entire work but selected pieces. You may also come across a series of asterisks running across a page. This signifies that at this particular juncture, the editors removed material from the original work and we are jumping ahead; something is missing. In addition, you will often find little numbers (in order) scattered throughout a work. These mini-numbers indicate footnotes which can usually be found at the bottom of the same page. Footnotes provide a reader additional information shared by the editors of the anthology or the author of the piece. The information may not flow in the body of the text or the information gives a definition, background, or historical information not needed in the body of the text. I prefer to stop at each footnote to read it right then. Afterwards, I go back and apply that new information to the sentence and context. Others view footnotes at the beginning or end of reading the page.

While reading for school pay special attention to the full names of authors, the full titles of the pieces, the year they were published, and from what country or area. For each new text, write the name of the author in large script at the top. Include their birth and death date. Before their works begin, there is often a biographical section that tells us about the author. Begin taking notes here. Where were they born? Did they suffer through unusual hardships? Did they have early success? Were they rich, poor, educated, or not? Was there anything unusual about their families like mental illness or extreme poverty? What writing characteristics did they come to be known for? What are two or three titles of their most famous works? What I search for is any biographical information that may have influenced their writing. What in their background can give us insight to their work?

Once you get to the text itself, note the full title of the piece. It may be long, but thems the breaks. (Yes, I meant to write that.) Pay special attention to lead sentences (the first indented sentence of each paragraph) that announce the topic of the paragraph. You don’t always have to notate them, but each new paragraph should move the story or material forward. Also, pay special attention to the last sentence of the paragraph. Pause at the conclusion of each paragraph. Do you understand what is going on? If not, go back and read it again. If you still do not understand the material, jot down a question (or place a sticky note) next to that page number in your notes. At the end of the paragraph, ask yourself if there is anything important to note. Sometimes a paragraph can result in a one-word note like, “war” and the next paragraph might be “famine” and the next, “farming.” If the author is simply describing an area during a certain time, you will still have noted the broad ideas discussed on that particular page. Not all paragraphs warrant a note.
Look for themes that seem to run throughout the piece. Themes can be many things, but a few examples are man vs. nature, the search for immortality, the downfalls of hubris, gender roles, naming and identity, rituals, social mores, the family, ritual, the domestic sphere, etc. Is there a unifying idea that each part seems to reflect? What is it and how does each part reflect that theme? Is there a recurring symbol such as decay or death? Why do you think this symbol continues to appear? Does something happen more than once like dreams or missed opportunities? Does society place rules and restrictions upon the people? What role does gender play in the story? Is religion playing a role?

Depending on your reading experience, you will encounter words you don’t know. Depending on why you are reading, it may be best to pause, click over to dictionary.com, plug in the word, and note the definition. This technique is needed if you are analyzing or writing about a specific idea or if you are required to know certain vocabulary. Pausing to look up words does not mean you are dumb; it means you are becoming smarter. If, time and again, you simply skip over words you don’t know then you will continue not to know them. How is this learning? An expansion of vocabulary is a byproduct of active reading. Note the definition in the margin of the text or in your notes. You could also set up a vocabulary page that you revisit from time to time just to learn new words. Many words have more than one meaning. You will have to study the context of the word to understand how it is being used. Use clues from the rest of the sentence to choose the best definition. The meanings of words also shift over time and can be used in different ways in different countries.
Slowly sound out unfamiliar words; don’t simply skip them. I like attempting unusual names out loud just to see how close I can get to actually saying it. I may be incorrect, but I’m trying (and no one else is around, so who cares). I became slightly irritated one semester in class while observing students who mumbled their way through the name Dostoyevsky. Not only did it hurt my feelings for one of my favorite authors, but they didn’t take the time to look at the name more closely. The name Dostoyevsky may look intimidating at first glance, but sound it out: Dos-toy-ev-sky. You can say all of those syllables and the name is spelled like it sounds. It is only difficult if you skip over or mumble through it because you didn’t take the time to try.

From time to time, read out loud. It doesn’t matter how slow your progress. Sometimes reading slowly is better if it means you are taking in more of the information. Reading quickly doesn’t make you smarter; comprehending what you read makes you smarter. You may be surprised how difficult it is to smoothly read text out loud. While your mouth is verbalizing the current words, your brain is listening to the information while simultaneously your eyes are scanning ahead for the next bit of information. I often see students attempt to skip ahead of the wording in order to read faster; that is not reading what is on the page. You are “reading” what you imagine is on the page. Take the time to complete each word and try to incorporate inflection and emotion. The more you practice reading out loud the smoother you will become. Sometimes hearing the words out loud helps you make sense of a piece. Sometimes you want to share a particular thought or image with someone else. Sometimes you just want to hear your own beautiful voice. Sometimes you want a challenge. You can’t read all material out loud all day; it tires the voice. You may switch between reading out loud for one page and reading in silence the next just to keep yourself in active reading mode.

As you take notes you are also asking questions of the text. Active reading is like a conversation between the text and the reader. Your mind is doing multiple things at once. You are performing all the tasks mentioned above, yet in addition, you are using the back of your mind (I call it the back burner) to roll around ideas such as: This has happened to me! Can this be true? The same storyline happened in my favorite show this year! I like this writer’s tone or style. I wonder if the author combined events to give us a representation of reality at that time. This female character is taking on the role normally given to men. There is a leap in logic here that I don’t think holds up. This part is ridiculous. This reflects in direct parallel to what is happening today. These behaviors seem to indicate mental illness. Ect. Some of those “back burner” ideas and sparks could later lead to an essay or class discussion. You are reading what is on the page, but you are also connecting what is there to other things in reality.

Along with these critical questions, sometimes you just have flat-out questions. I don’t understand what is going on, or how did the author get from here to there? Not understanding while reading will cause discomfort. That is okay. When we are in a state of not knowing, we feel unmoored, somehow intellectually (and slightly emotionally) out of control. Becoming a reader means accepting a level of discomfort that varies with the material. Sometimes we see the big picture but may get lost in the finer details. Sometimes a piece is just beyond our grasp…above our heads. This is why you have a professor. Write down your questions. Go to office hours. Use email. Google it! Good professors and teaching assistants love to answer questions of students who have read the material, taken notes, and really tried to understand. They see you putting in the effort so they are willing to explain further. Don’t be upset if they tell you that you are concentrating on the wrong stuff. Ask to be re-directed so you don’t waste further time. You can’t get your questions answered if you don’t ask the questions! I remember in one of my grad classes I came upon a piece of philosophy that, for the life of me, I couldn’t understand. It was difficult to even take notes because the ideas were so muddled in my brain. When it came to writing a response paper that week I asked the professor if, instead of writing the regular short response, I could draw what I thought was happening in the form of a diagram or map. He loved the idea and accepted the work. What I found most interesting was that the diagram formed a circle! The point is that I was engaging with the text and trying (albeit in an alternate form) to make sense of it.

Another way of attempting to comprehend the material is pretending that you will have to teach the material. (Sometimes professors actually assign this project.) Pretending that you have to teach the material really shines a bright light on close reading, note taking and comprehension. If you have thirty minutes to teach a short story, would you first give the class a handout? What would be printed there? How much time would you spend on the plot versus various themes or ideas within the text? What issues would lead to relevant class discussion? If you were to give a quiz or test, what questions would you include and how would you answer them? If you were to generate a reading guide what would it include? The teacher’s point of view is a simple yet effective brain trick to hyper-focus your attention.

The Literature of Slavery and Freedom: 1746 – 1865

Study Notes The Norton Anthology of African American Literature Third Edition Volume 1 pgs. 75-87

THE RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL MISSION OF AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERATURE

Impulse of African American literature is resistance to human tyranny. Sustaining spirit, human dignity.

Impetus for writing:

  1. They would articulate the spiritual and political ideals of America to inspire and justify the struggle of blacks for their birthright as American citizens.
  2. Demand fidelity to those same ideals from whites whose moral complacency and racial prejudices had blinded them to the obligations of their own heritage. The first AA writers in the US appealed to the traditional Christian gospel of the universal brotherhood of humanity as a way of initiating a discussion with whites that did not directly confront their prejudices and anxieties. Social significance.
  3. The least advantages of black Americans had feelings to voice and stories to tell to the public at large.
  4. Mastery of language, the essential sign of a civilized mind, to the European, implicitly qualified, a black writer, and by analogy, those whom he or she represented, for self-mastery and a place of respect within white civilization.
  5. Challenged the dominant culture’s attempt to segregate the religious from the political, the spirit from the flesh, insofar as racial affairs were concerned.
  6. To dignify black experience with spiritual significance and divinely ordained importance.
  7. The abolition of slavery and the promotion of the black man and woman to a status in the civil and cultural order equal to that of whites.

Exhorted their white readers like preachers, imploring a backsliding congregation to live up to the standards of their reputed religion and their professed political principles.

Explored through various forms of irony the chasm between white America’s words and its deeds, between its propaganda about freedom and its widespread practice of slavery.

Early: pointing out the inconsistencies between the Declaration of Independence and the simultaneous promotion of chattel slavery. Later: the right of AA to armed resistance to slavery was proclaimed.

SLAVERY IN THE AMERICAS

Slavery as perpetrated by the European colonizers of Africa and the Americas brought man’s inhumanity to man to a level of technological efficiency unimagined by previous generations. This era in the history of international slave trading is generally dated from 1501-1867. An estimated 12.5 million captives were conveyed from Africa to Europe and the Americas. To maximize profits from the production and export of precious metals, sugar, rice, rum, tobacco, cotton, coffee, and indigo in the Americas. Africans were viewed as strong. By 1820 African slaves constituted roughly 80% of all immigrants to the Americas since 1500. Only about 8% of the Transatlantic slave trade disembarked in North America. Sugar plantations.

The first people of African descent who came to North America were explorers. The first Africans in British North America were brought to work as laborers; indentured servants. By 1700 however, the expanding plantation economy of Virginia demanded a workforce that was cheaper than free labor and more easily controlled and replenished. By establishing the institution of chattel slavery, in which a black person became not just a temporary servant, but the lifetime property of his or her master, the tobacco, cotton, and rice planters of British North America, ensured their rise to economic and political preeminence over the southern half of what would become the US. Slaves were divested of his or her culture. The system of chattel slavery was designed to prevent Africans and their descendants from building a new identity except in accordance with the dictates of their oppressors. Instead of an individual, slavery devised what Patterson calls “A social non-person”, a being, that, by legal definition, could have no family, no personal honor, no community, no past, and no future. Absolute dependence on and identification with the master’s will. They could not even possess themselves.

SLAVERY AND AMERICAN RACISM

Insistence that enslavement was the natural and proper condition for particular races of people. Visual differences equaled internal differences. A sizeable school of racists writers in the first half of the 19th century in the US followed Jefferson in arguing that the AAs physical and cultural differences amounted to an intellectual, spiritual, and moral otherness that only slavery could manage and turn to some productive account.

RESISTANCE TO SLAVERY AND RACISM

Framers of the US constitution wrote into law several measures that protected slavery. “⅗ compromise”: counted as ⅗ of a person for the purpose of apportioning representation for a given district in the congress. Slaves could not vote, the ⅗ compromise did nothing but augment the size and power of the Southern block in the US House of Representatives. Antislavery advocates issued a call for the gradual abolition of slavery in the new republic.

Newspapers, public schools, churches, mutual aid, fraternal and debating societies were all used to share abolitionist ideas.

British textile industry, farming, and cotton in the 1790’s, wedded the South more and more tightly to slavery. The slave population in the South grew rapidly, from 700,000 in 1790 to 2,000,000 in 1830.

Nat Turner crystalized the impending crisis. Executed 60 whites. The Confessions of Nat Turner the leader of the most successful slave revolt in US history was hanged on November 11, 1831. The Virginia state legislature made slavery more repressive. Suspicions were heightened. The compromise of 1850 instituted the Fugitive Slave Law and balanced the power maintained between the North and the South. Compromise only intensified the feeling in each section that the opposition was gaining an unfair share of power.

RADICAL ABOLITIONISM AND THE FUGITIVE SLAVE NARRATIVE

A new generation of reformers in the North proclaimed their absolute and uncompromising opposition to slavery. Led by the crusading white journalist William Lloyd Garrison, these abolitionists demanded the immediate end of slavery throughout the U.S. Garrison’s American Anti-Slavery Society mobilized on all fronts. New departure in African American lit: the fugitive slave narrative which dominated the literary landscape. A black message inside a white envelope (often with white people writing the introduction). Slavery in the South to freedom in the North. Antebellum slave narrator portrayed slavery as a condition of extreme physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual deprivation, a kind of hell on earth. It followed a familiar structure. Reaching the free states but by renaming oneself and dedicating one’s future to antislavery activism. Slave narratives qualified as America’s only indigenous literary form. In 1845 the slave narrative reached its epitome with the publication of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself. Immensely successful. The subtitle Written by Himself on a slave narrative bore increasing significance as an indicator of a narrator’s political and literary self-reliance. Trickster motifs, biblical allusion, and picaresque perspective. Mid-century slave narrative took on an unprecedented urgency and candor. Moral and social complexities of the American caste and class system in the North as well as the South. Jacobs’s autobiography shows how sexual exploitation made slavery especially oppressive for black women. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman: new models of female self-expression and heroism.

THE FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN LITERARY RENAISSANCE

1850s and early 1860s: the first renaissance in A. A. letters. Spur intellectual independence and expansion of literary horizons in both form and theme. Models of black manhood. Travel books, mixing fact and fiction, sentimental image of the “tragic mulatta”, testing the limits of gender conventions in fiction, plays, serialized novels, slave revolutionaries, women’s fiction, socioeconomic realities of life for a black working-class woman in the North.

FOLK TRADITIONS

Genius of the spirituals rested in their double meaning, their blending of the spiritual and the political. Only in the next world would they find justice.
Animal tales: commonsense understanding of human psychology and every-day justice in this world. How the world came to be as it is, exploits of trickster figures, Brer Rabbit, who used their wits to overcome stronger animal antagonists. Power of mind over matter.

THE CIVIL WAR AND EMANCIPATION

In 1860 the first avowedly antislavery candidate for president, Abraham Lincoln of the Republican Party, was elected in one of the bitterest campaigns ever waged in the U.S. In 1862 Lincoln finally permitted free blacks in liberated portions of Louisiana and South Carolina to form regiments. By the war’s end, more than 186,000 blacks had served in the artillery, cavalry, engineers, and infantry as well as in the U.S. Navy. More than 38,000 A.A. gave their lives for the Union cause. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the summer of 1862, which declared all slaves in the rebellious states to be free as of January 1, 1863, blacks in the North felt that, at long last, their country had committed itself to an ideal worth dying for. When the army of the Southern slaveocracy surrendered at Appomatox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865, A. A. pressed for the enactment of laws ensuring a new era of freedom and opportunity for every black American. On Dec. 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished “slavery and involuntary servitude” throughout the country, was ratified by the newly united states of America.

This is Where I Leave You

by

Jonathan Tropper

New York Times bestseller A Plume Book 2010 339 pages

This novel had me hooked and in stitches from page one. How rare is that? The novel opens by describing the personality of the narrator’s family and how they deal with life. I could immediately relate to the crass, harsh, hilarious and real way the Foxman family does family. The patriarch has died which becomes a framing device for the story. While Dad was sick he requested the family come together and sit Shiva for seven whole days. For years they have actively avoided bonding family time and none of the four grown children are looking forward to all this togetherness. Each sibling has a lot going on including spouses and assorted lovers. We get to peek inside each life, but we are always in the head of Judd, the narrator, whose life is completely upside down. Even though the situations are not obviously funny, Tropper gives Judd such a twisted sense of humor that somehow you laugh even when you are not supposed to. On the other hand, Tropper can be very nostalgic and heart-felt when discussing family, sometimes even waxing poetic. The story is told in the present tense and is counted by the time on the clock so that, in effect, you are also sitting Shiva with the Foxmans. This novel is full of belly-laughs that will make you want to read out loud to your friends. What follows are my favorite bits (I like to call “the best bits”) and chapter summaries.

1 “If we sound like a couple of callous assholes, it’s because that’s how we were raised” (2).

“Dad didn’t believe in God, but he was a life-long member of the Church of Shit or Get Off the Can” (3).

[Story being told by Judd who has an older sister (Wendy), older brother (Paul) and younger brother, Phillip. Their dad has finally died after a long battle with stomach cancer. They will gather for the funeral. Judd has been having a tough time even aside from his father’s death.]

2 “…trying to look like someone trying not to look bored” (10).

“You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone” (11).

[Judd and Jen are divorcing. They had met in college. Jen is sleeping with Judd’s boss and is pregnant. Judd and Jen were pregnant once. Still birth. You can tell Judd still loves her and is very hurt.]

3 “Because the thing of it is, no matter how much you enjoy sex, there’s something jolting and strangely disturbing about witnessing the sex of others. Nature has taken great pains to lay out the fundamentals of copulation so that it’s impossible to get a particularly good view of the sex you’re having. Because when you get right down to it, sex is a messy, gritty, often grotesque business to behold: the hairs; the abraded, dimpled flesh; the wide-open orifices; the exposed, glistening organs. And the violence of the coupling itself, primitive and elemental, reminding us that we’re all just dumb animals clinging to our spot on the food chain, eating, sleeping, and fucking as much as possible before something bigger comes along and devours us” (16-17).

[Margin note: No romanticizing here! Thank you for telling it like it is.]

“Naked men shouldn’t run” (24).

[Judd goes into gross, horrible and hilarious detail about the day he caught his wife and boss together in HIS bed. Now he lives in a cheap basement room and is somehow still spiraling downward.]

4 “…even as his ridiculous raincoat makes him stand out like a bloodstain against a sky the color of a dead tooth” (33).

[Father’s funeral.]

5 [After the funeral the extended family gather around the dinner table. Chaos ensues.]

6 [Judd recalling the first time he met Jen.]

7 “And as the room starts to fill with the first somber-faced neighbors coming to pay their respects, it becomes clear to me that the reason for filling the shiva house with visitors is most likely to prevent the mourners from tearing each other limb from limb” (63).

[In high school Judd and Alice lost their virginity to each other. Alice later married Paul and the brothers have had a rocky relationship ever since.]

8 [Judd escapes shiva for a short drive to pick Horry up from the store and take him home. Judd learns an old flame also works at the store. His interest is peaked.]

9 [First day of shiva finally ends. Judd listens to voicemails from pregnant Jen who wants to hurry along divorce proceedings.]

10 “There is nothing more pathetically optimistic than the morning erection. I am depressed, unemployed, unloved, basement-dwelling, and bereaved, but there it is, every morning like clockwork, rising up to greet the day, poking out of my fly cocksure and conspicuously useless. And every morning, I face the same choice: masturbate or urinate. It’s the one time of the day where I feel like I have options” (84).

[Judd’s relationship with his mother.]

11 [All the kids are giving Mom a “Dad” story but Judd can’t recall a time he had his dad’s undivided attention.]

12 [Mr. Applebaum is already scoping out the widow.]

13 [Judd is lonely and every woman in society has his attention.]

14 [Judd re-lives quitting his job when Wade was his manager.]

15 [Tracy is now competing with old school chums of Phillip’s. Judd puts in a good word for Horry’s independence.]

16 [Judd sees Penny who he had a thing with in college. They made a pact to marry by age 40 if they were both still single. Horry cannot live alone even though he desires independence.]

17 [Horry brought back a memory of a dog attack that Judd and Paul experienced as kids. Now Judd is dreaming about it.]

18 [Paul and Phillip finally go to blows and Jen appears out of nowhere. Will Phillip join the family business? Will Paul let him?]

19 [Judd sums up what sex is like after you’ve been married for years.]

20 “‘Please,’ she says. ‘Tell me what you’re thinking.’

“It’s an absurd request. Our minds, unedited by guilt or shame, are selfish and unkind, and the majority of our thoughts, at any given time, are not for public consumption, because they would either be hurtful or else just make us look like the selfish and unkind bastards we are. We don’t share our thoughts, we share carefully sanitized, watered-down versions of them, Hollywood adaptations of those thoughts dumbed down for the PG-13 crowd” (137).

[Jen comes to tell Judd that she is carrying HIS baby!]

21 [Judd recalling when he and Jen learned they had lost their first (and only) child. It led to the demise of their marriage.]

22 [Mom gives her input on her kids’ relationships then Paul decks Phillip to return the favor from the day before. Phillip drops the bomb about Jen being pregnant.]

23 [Judd visits Penny and they have a short skate holding hands. Phillip is cheating on Tracy. Dad’s death is starting to sink in.]

25 [Horry still has a thing for Wendy. Does she still think of him too?]

26 [Paul and his wife are trying to conceive and everyone knows it.]

27 [After a make out session with Penny in the pool, Judd calls Jen. Wade answers and doesn’t appreciate this late night call.]

28 [The crazy party in high school where Alice and Judd were going to make out but instead Judd gets kicked in the balls. Paul comes back to revenge his little brother, but Paul ends up being attacked by a guard dog owned by Judd’s attacker. The two brothers’ relationship has never been the same.]

29 “You can sit up here, feeling above it all while knowing you’re not, coming to the lonely conclusion that the only thing you can ever really know about anyone is that you don’t know anything about them at all” (188).

[Judd is accidentally electrocuted which brings forward a dad memory. He mourns with his mother.]

30 [The brothers sneak off during church service to smoke dad’s last joint. They accidentally set off the fire alarm.]

31 “Back when I lived with Jen, I had some friends. In the aftermath of our separation, Allan and Mike had met me for drinks and we’d all raised our glasses in agreement that Jen was a cheating bitch and I was the good guy here. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was actually my good-bye party. Jen would retain custody of our friends and I’d be wordlessly discarded. A few weeks later, as I circled the multiplex parking lot, I saw Allan and Mike with their wives, leaving the theater along with Jen and Wade, all walking in standard formation, talking and laughing in the cinematic afterglow, like it had always been just so. I tried to tell myself it was simply a chance encounter, but it was clear from their body language that they were all together, and probably not for the first time. It’s a sad moment when you come to understand how truly replaceable you are. Friendship in the suburbs is wife-driven, and my friends were essentially those husbands of Jen’s friends that I could most tolerate. Now that I’d been sidelined, Wade had stepped in for me like an understudy, a small note was inserted into the program, and the show went on without missing a beat” (214-215).

[Jen wants to talk but Judd is having none of it. He makes mischief in his old house when no one is there. He is practically raped by his sister-in-law Alice who has been trying for 2 years to get pregnant with Paul. Later, Judd goes on a date with Penny and for the second time says nothing about Jen being pregnant.]

32 [Judd dreams a sweet dream of his father who heals him.]

33 [Wendy and Judd talk about life. Why did Linda (Mom’s lifelong friend) stay the night?]

34 [Old high school friends come to visit during shiva. Their lives have all turned out pretty mediocre.]

35 [Visiting high school friends prompt an impromptu batting round in the side yard where Paul hurts his ravaged shoulder and Boner gets hit in the face with a ball. Have mother and Linda been lovers for years?]

36 [Judd lets all the older women know he DOES NOT want to be set up with their daughters.]

37 “She is waiting in front of her building when we pull up, looking edible in a T-shirt, short shorts, and tennis shoes. She could be nineteen. She could be my girlfriend. We could be going out to the amusement park, where we’d kiss on the lines, hold hands on the rides, and share cotton candy. I’d win her one of those giant stuffed animals and we’d carry it around the park with us like a badge of honor. Afterward it would take up permanent residence on her pink bedspread, where she’s lie across ti while we spoke for hours on the phone” (252).

“A kid with a name tag and a digital camera asks us to pose for a picture with the cheesy plaster palace behind us. There are countless pictures of my family at various ages in just this spot. If we pulled them out of all the messy albums in the living room bookcases, you could probably track the steady growth of our family, like annual pencil marks on the wall to show how tall you’ve grown. Dad isn’t in any of the Wonderland pictures, because he was always the one taking them, with this old Yashica he’d bought when he first got married, because why the hell would he pay for a picture he could take better himself? As a matter of fact, you’d have to turn a lot of pages to find Dad in any of our albums. The inadvertent result of being the default photographer is that he was relegated to the role of a bit player in the actual recorded history of our family. There are entire years of our lives where he doesn’t appear at all” (253).

“Sometimes, contentment is a matter of will. You have to look at what you have right in front of you, at what it could be, and stop measuring it against what you’ve lost. I know this to be wise and true, just as I know that pretty much no one can do it” (255).

[The last date with Penny.]

38 [Judd is having a moment with Jen at the hospital listening to their baby’s heartbeat when Wade arrives. He ends up arguing with both Judd and Phillip who ends up decking him. A bit of vandalism meets Wade’s car before the brothers exit the parking lot.]

39 [All the brothers are feeling quite beat up by their wives. They need a night off.]

40 “He sinks his teeth into every word, and they come out chewed” (276).

[The brothers go out but it was not the bonding experience they had imagined.]

41 “Down in the basement, I wash some of Boner’s foam spray off the mirror to better study my reflection. My bottom lip is split and swollen, my eyes bleary, my cheeks pale and puffy. I look like a corpse pulled from the river a week after the suicide. It’s time for a gut check. I mean that literally. I pull off my shirt, which is caked with just enough blood and vomit to represent a much wilder night than the one I’ve had, and step back to study my torso. The overall effect does not match the image I cling to in my head. My belly is not yet what you’d call a gut, but you can see where the inevitable expansion will happen. I have no real chest to speak of; you’d miss it altogether if it weren’t for the two hairless nipples pressed on like decals. Broader shoulders would create the illusion of fitness, but I am sorely lacking in that department as well. The overall impression is lean but soft, and getting softer. This is the package, ladies. Come and get it.

“I lie down on the floor to do some sit-ups and promptly fall asleep” (285-5).

[Drunk Judd gets a punch and an apology from Wade who is leaving Jen. He just can’t do the step-father thing.]

42 [Another dream of Dad who is cradling Judd’s future baby.]

43 “The whites of his eyes are vaguely pink, like something ran in the wash” (295).

[Tracy knows it’s the end of the line with Phillip. Horry lays girls who don’t truly know him. Alice apologizes for raping Judd. Lina leaves after a heated argument.]

44 [Mom comes out of the closet.]

45 [The kids discuss their mom being bisexual.]

46 [Shiva is over. Judd drives home to a long talk with Jen. He is ready to work on forgiveness.]

47 [Mom and Linda get to tell their story. Mom was the one bringing them all together…not dad’s dying wish.]

48 [All the kids prepare to return to the lives.]

49 [Judd goes to apologize and say good-bye to Penny.]

50 [I never summarize the last chapter. That is a prompt to go read the book yourself!]

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much

The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession

By

Allison Hoover Bartlett

Riverhead Books  New York  2009

262 pages excluding notes

I like the way Bartlett sets up the story. She speaks directly to her audience and first describes what made her interested in tracking a rare books thief. It sounds almost like she is setting up a master’s thesis; she first states her driving curiosity and why which sets us on a journey together. The language is straightforward yet sometimes repetitive. She narrows in on a notorious rare book thief named John Gilkey whom she interviews multiple times. She gets to know him and tries to figure out his motivations. I did not feel the need to summarize every chapter, but there were some quotes and reflections on the love of books themselves which I really enjoyed. What follows are the quotes and reflections Bartlett used that captured my attention. If you are a book fanatic, you will enjoy this read. Numbers at the beginning of an entry indicate the chapter followed by the chapter title. My own reflections I will place in brackets.

[Dude! You are not going to believe this!]:

From Anathema in a medieval manuscript from the Monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona:

For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner…let him be struck with palsy, & all his members belated…Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, & when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.

[So badass]

From A. S. W. Rosenback, twentieth-century book dealer:

I have known men to hazard their fortunes, go long journeys halfway about the world, forget friendships, even lie, cheat, and steal, all for the gain of a book.

[The book begins with a story of a borrowed book: the Krautterbuch. Referring to the book, Bartlett writes]:

My favorite remedy, though, is for low spirits. “Often we are missing the right kind of happiness, and if we don’t have any wine yet, we will be very content when we do get wine” (4).

[Prologue summary:

Introduction of the Krautterbuch, a book from the 1600s which was supposedly stolen from a library. The author speaks in first person and explains how this book set her on a journey.]

1  Like a Moth to a Flame

[This passage brought a tear to my eye because it so accurately describes the magic of becoming attached to a book.]

Walking by a booth with an impressive selection of dust jacket art, I heard a dealer say to a passerby, “don’t judge a book by its content!” I had read enough about book collectors before the fair to get the joke: Many collectors don’t actually read their books. At first, I was surprised, but having given it some thought, it’s not so shocking. After all, much of the fondness avid readers, and certainly collectors, have for their books is related to the books’ physical bodies. As much as they are vessels for stories (and poetry, reference information, etc.), books are historical artifacts and repositories for memories–we like to recall who gave books to us, where we were when we read them, how old we were, and so on.

For me, the most important book-as-object from my childhood is Charlotte’s Web, the first book I mail-ordered after joining a book club. I still remember my thrill at seeing the mailman show up with it at our front door on a sunny Saturday morning. It has a crisp paper jacket, unlike the plastic-covered library books I was used to, and the way the pages parted, I could tell I was the first to open it. For several days I lived in Wilbur’s world, and the only thing as sad as Charlotte’s death, maybe even sadder, was that I had come to the end of the book. I valued that half-dream state of being lost in a book so much that I limited the number of pages I let myself read each day in order to put off the inevitable end, my banishment from that world. I still do this. It doesn’t make sense, though, because the pleasure of that world does not really end for good. You can always start over on page one–and you can remember. Whenever I have spotted my old Charlotte’s Web (on my son’s shelf, then my daughter’s), I have recalled how it came to me. It’s a personal record of one chapter of my life, just as other chapters have other books I associate with them. The pattern continues; my daughter returned from camp last summer with her copy of Motherless Brooklyn in a state approaching ruin. She told me she’s dropped it into a creek, but couldn’t bear to leave it behind, even after she’d finished it. This book’s body is inextricably linked to her experience of reading it. I hope that she continues to hold on to it, because as long as she does, its wavy, expanded pages will remind her of the hot day she read it with her feet in the water–and of the fourteen-year-old she was at the time. A book is much more than a delivery vehicle for its contents, and from my perspective, this fair was a concentrated celebration of that fact.

[The author is most interested in the type of book thief that steals for the love of books. Gilkey is notorious. He says he will tell his story from prison.]

2  Half-truths

[The author’s first interview with Gilkey.]

3  Richie Rich

[Gilkey sees his book collection as a representation of himself. He wants to appear rich and cultured. He wants people to be impressed.]

4  A Gold Mine

5  Spider-Man

6  Happy New Year

7  Trilogy of Kens

In 1644, John Milton wrote: “For books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are; nay they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them.”

8  Treasure Island

9  Brick Row

10  Not Giving Up

11  This Call May Be Recorded or Monitored

Of having taken their lives, he said, “Every man must die, sooner or later, but good books must be conserved.”

12  What More Could I Ask?

13  And Look: More Books!

14  The Devil’s Walk

Afterword

From Warning written by medieval German scribe:

This book belongs to none but me

For there’s my name inside to see.

To steal this book, if you should try,

It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.

And ravens then will gather ‘bout

To find your eyes and pull them out.

And when you’re screaming

“Oh, Oh, Oh!”

Remember, you deserved this woe.

[Man, these medieval book lovers were not playing.]

Ordinary People

by Judith Guest Ballantine Books New York 1976

This is a classic and an easy read with short chapters. The writing is not flowery or dreamy although when someone is experiencing disordered thinking the writing reflects what that might look like with few punctuation marks and fragments of sentences. The story deals with difficult family issues. The story and emotions are realistic. There are no easy answers if there are any answers at all. We learn that parental love can come in many forms, but it can also not be shown at all. Accidents happen, emotions and behaviors become twisted, people lose their shit and those around them don’t know what to do with that lost shit. Trigger warning issues of accidental death, suicide and mental institutions.

What follows is a plot summary excluding the epilogue; that’s for you to get to. The numbers indicate the chapter.

1 We meet young Conrad Jarrett fresh out of the mental facility and having trouble starting his day.

2 Calvin Jarrett is the father. Being abandoned as a child makes it even more difficult for him to parent a teen with mental illness. (The chapters alternate between these two characters’ points of view. The novel is written, interestingly, in the present tense.)

3 We learn about Conrad’s school life. All his friends are seniors but due to his illness he is still a junior. He has trouble feeling normal although he is trying to get back to his old routine.

4 Calvin doesn’t think it wise to go on their annual Christmas vacation. He doesn’t want any trouble. We learn that another son, Jordan, (older brother to Conrad) is now deceased.

5 Conrad sees a crazy local psychiatrist who appears inept. Conrad says his older brother died in a boating accident.

6 Calvin, the dad, seems every bit as lost as his mentally ill son. He has no idea who he is or what he wants.

7 Conrad attempts an afternoon date with Karen, a girl from the mental facility. She doesn’t feel mentally safe and leaves quickly.

8 Calvin drinks quite a bit. The neighbors are curious about Conrad’s situation. Beth (Conrad’s mother/Calvin’s wife) doesn’t want to discuss the topic at parties (or generally in public). Calvin misses hearing both sons in the house. We learn Conrad has slit his wrists.

9 Conrad is actually getting something out of seeing this wacky psychiatrist, Dr. Berger.

10 Conrad quits the swim team; he doesn’t like those people. They are too mean and he is too sensitive; too raw.

11 Calvin thinking about his law partner’s life and marriage.

12 Conrad successfully visits with a cute girl. He recalls a ski trip with his brother.

13 Beth finds out Conrad quit the swim team from an outside source. He quit a month ago and his parents didn’t know. There is a big family freak out. Conrad feels his mother hates him.

14 Dr. Berger’s genius is slowly being revealed.

15 Instead of talking about their grief, Calvin and Beth simply fight.

16 Conrad gets his looks complimented. He is starting to gain positive momentum. His psychiatrist is very helpful.

17 Calvin is now the one seeking Dr. Berger’s help.

18 Bumbling through exams and asking out girls.

19 Calvin’s business partner is worried about him.

20 Conrad’s date goes well. They set up another for the following weekend.

21 Calvin evaluates his fears and how he is most motivated to be safe.

22 Conrad gets in a fist fight with an asshole in the school parking lot.

23 Conrad tells his dad about the fight. Mom doesn’t even notice Conrad is waiting up for Dad.

24 Conrad’s new girlfriend is experiencing family drama. His own parents are out of town and he has to stay with his grandparents. His grandmother is a ball buster. (You can see where his mom gets it.)

25 Calvin and Beth on vacation at her brother’s place in Texas.

26 Karen is a girl Conrad was in treatment with. She has killed herself. This sends Conrad into a tailspin thinking about his brother dying on the lake and about electric shock therapy in treatment. He calls his psychiatrist and is driving to see him.

27 Conrad has a bad night but he makes it through.

28 Calvin and Beth can’t get through a vacation without fighting. Beth feels her son cut his wrists to show HER how much he hates her.

29 Everyone seems relieved to be home again.

30 Conrad has a girlfriend and they can discuss important things.

31 Calvin and Conrad discuss Beth and her leaving them. There are no clear answers and they’ll just have to be okay with that.

Epilogue

Langston Hughes

1902-1967

[Study notes]

Hughes helped define the spirit of the Harlem Renaissance and wrote its finest first person account.
He was born in Joplin, Missouri, but moved around. Hughes came from a distinguished family, but his parents separated not long after his birth and he grew up lonely and near poverty in Lawrence, Kansas.
In Sept. 1921, aided by his father, he arrived in New York ostensibly to attend Columbia, but he really just wanted to see Harlem. The previous June, he had published one of his greatest poems, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” in the Crisis, where his talent was immediately spotted by its brilliant literary editor, Jessie Fauset. Hughes lasted only one year at Columbia. He traveled, worked, and wrote poetry. By 1924, his poetry showed the powerful influence of the blues and jazz. In fact, his poem “The Weary Blues” helped launch his career when it won first prize in the poetry section of the 1925 literary contest organized by Opportunity magazine. Aided enthusiastically by Carl Van Vechten, who remained a friend all of Hughes’s life, he won a book contract from Knopf and published The Weary Blues, his first collection of verse, in 1926.
The style of Hughes endeared his work to a wide range of African Americans. His near-worship of black music as the major form of art within the race, was his adaptation of traditional poetic forms first to jazz, then to the blues, sometimes used dialect and radically different from that of earlier writers. His landmark poem “The Weary Blues” was the first by any poet to make use of the basic blues form.
Even more radical experimentation with the blues form led to his next collection, Fine Clothes to the Jew (1927). He was fearless in his evocation of elements of lower-class black culture, including its sometimes raw eroticism, never efore treated in serious poetry. Many critics did not appreciate Hughes’s eroticism.
He stuck to his guns in defense of the freedom of the black writer. “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” quickly became a manifesto for many of the younger writers who also wished to assert their right to explore and explicit allegedly degraded aspects of black life.
He graduated from Lincoln University in Pennsylvania in 1929. Charlotte Osgood Mason became his controlling, eccentric patron who later abandoned him.
Hughes’s politics took a sharp left and he published verse and essays in New Masses, a journal controlled by the Communist Party. He even visited the Soviet Union.
There was never a year when Hughes did not produce art in keeping with his sense of himself as a thoroughly professional writer. In 1934, he published his first collection of short stores, The Ways of White Folks. He was involved in theater and wrote a drama of miscegenation and the South called Mulatto (1935), which became the longest running play by an African American on Broadway until Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun in the ‘60’s.
In 1940 he produced his autobiographical portrait of the renaissance, The Big Sea. 1942: poetry collection Shakespeare in Harlem. For another project he created one of his most beloved characters, Jesse B. Semple, or Simple, a Harlem everyman. In 1947, as lyricist for the Broadway musical Street Scene, Hughes earned enough money to purchase a house in his beloved Harlem, where he lived for the rest of his life.
1951: book of verse, Montage of a Dream Deferred. He kept up his schedule of prodigious output with versatility and skill. He loved being called the “Poet Laureate of the Negro Race.”

Mother to Son [my interpretation]
Son, my life has not been easy. My life has been like a set of stairs with nails and splinters and torn up wood, but I keep climbing. Sometimes there was no light in this long tunnel. Now you can’t give up when the road gets hard. Don’t fall. Keep climbing like me.

The Weary Blues [my interpretation]
Black folks were playing a slow tune the other night in the low light. I heard the Weary Blues. That black man could make the piano moan. The blues were pouring out from this black man’s soul. He sang of being alone, yet still deciding to be happy. The second verse turns and says he can’t be satisfied, so much so that he wished he’d die. He sang far into the night. Once the stars and moon faded, he could sleep like a man who had poured out his troubles.

Harlem [my interpretation using his key words]
When you have to wait on a dream to come true, what happens to it in the interim? Does it dry up? Fester? Stink? Crust? Sag? “Or does it explode?”

Example of a reading response paper:

Tiffany Akin
Dr. V. Mitchell
English 7468
31 Aug. 2011

I have a couple of bones to pick with Langston Hughes. While reading his piece entitled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” I either tend to disagree with some of his statements or find ways to argue with others. Hughes bases his piece on something he heard Countee Cullen say about his own work: “I want to be a poet – not a Negro poet.” There is a possibility that Hughes understands the statement to have a different meaning and only twists it to explore his thoughts along another line. The essay is based on Hughes interpreting Cullen’s meaning as “I don’t want to be a black poet, I’d rather be considered on scale with the white poets.” Granted, I was not in the room, but I believe Cullen’s statement could very well be misinterpreted or could otherwise have a different focus than Hughes examines. I take Cullen’s statement to mean: “I wish people would just view and appreciate my art without having to know my color.” How frustrating would it be to be an artist and have people ask, “So, is he/she white or black?” You want the audience to focus on your production, not your race. Basically, you are displacing the importance of the self and placing art on center stage; to consistently discuss the art in terms of the artist’s race takes away from the creation itself. To believe that Cullen wished for an audience to judge his work only on its merit is very different from Hughes’s view that Cullen was striving to perform as a white artist.
Hughes says that “[w]ithout going outside his race… there is sufficient matter to furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work” (41). Yes, agreed, but have you ever tried to tell an artist how to create? Have you ever tried to describe to an artist the boundary lines of his expression? “Yes, I want you to be an artistic self explosion… but do it like this.” It does not work. I ask why paint these boundaries? What if his visions for expression are universal? Of nature? Mechanical? Numerical? What if he does want to express in ways that are stereotypically “white”? Why not? It is the work of the individual artist to make himself a volcano of unique construction and to be true only to his inner vision; I do not believe this type of invention is bound by color. Should all black artists paint black people? Should all black singers sing “black” music? Should all black photographers capture only black life images? No; too limiting! No matter how much observers like Hughes would like to rally the troops in support of black artists doing black art, this vision is much too narrow and would kill much artistic expression if these rules were enforced.
Hughes is making quite a few other points but the one other I would like to debate is the idea of upward mobility. It is a fact that by way of the American media and Eurocentric Zeitgeist that we are all programmed, brainwashed, to think a certain way and believe certain things. As Hughes explains that “…the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all virtue” (40). I make the connection to American white girls growing up on T.V. and fashion magazines believing that to be tall, skinny and blonde are the ultimate goals. Woe to the girl who is short, chunky and brunette, for she is ridiculed and looked down upon by her more popular and good-looking peers. Hughes says that the American love for all that is white compels some African Americans to become “Nordicized Negro intelligentsia” (42), which is a pretty cool term, but within the realm of economics, is upward mobility a drive exclusively white? When Hughes states that the more cultured African American family spends more time “aping… things white” (41) he follows the observation with the line, “The father is perhaps a doctor, lawyer, landowner, or politician” (41). I disagree with Hughes implying that upward mobility comes with some disdain. The phrases he uses gives one the impression that African Americans should not seek to better themselves, drive toward more education and jump upward into a wealthier income bracket. I do not care what color you are or in what country you are raised, everyone wants their life to improve and become more comfortable over time. Just because another race is doing it does not mean you do not have a right to do it too. If I have a problem, even a lifelong problem with say, Philippinos, and I notice that they are excellent in calculus, I am not going to shun or stunt my drive to learn calculus because I do not admire the Philippino; it makes no sense. You hear the same argument taking place in the realm of underground rock bands. Many of their fans want the band to stay unknown so that they can keep the music all to themselves. If the band gains some sort of notoriety the fans will say they “sold out.” Guess what? The guys in the band want to eat decent food, live in a house and have enough money to raise a family, just like everyone else. I do not view it as selling out; I view it as striving for a decent living with decent living conditions which is an innate human desire not bound by color.

Zora Neale Hurston

1891-1960

One of the greatest writers of the century. Mules and Men (1935) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) are beyond question two of the finest achievements in African American literature. She liked to keep the specifics of her life a mystery and she was rather eccentric. Born in Eatonville, Florida, the first black township to be incorporated in the U.S. Being so, there was no racism and people felt free to express themselves. Her father was mayor and helped make the laws.

Her father was constantly cheating on her mother and Hurston’s mother died when Zora was thirteen. Hurston never got along with her stepmother so she took to the road where she helped an actress in a traveling theatrical troupe. Earned high school degree then took sporadic classes at Howard. She came to know some movers and shakers in the literary world who encouraged her to submit work. Migrated to New York.

Hurston then became one of the brightest young talents in Harlem. Her writings caught the attention of people who helped her publish and attend Barnard College.

While a student at Barnard, one of her papers was passed on to Franz Boas, a leading anthropologist, who encouraged her to take graduate courses at Columbia. She was granted money to follow her interests down south. 

She produced Mules and Men, generally regarded as the first collection of African American folklore to be compiled and published by an African American. The work opened to mixed reviews. She joined the Works Progress Administration in 1935 and then wrote Tell My Horse (1938). In the second book, she focused less on folktales and more on comparisons between American and Caribbean blacks, much to the dismay of audiences. 

During her research in the Caribbean, she completed her second novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her first novel was Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and was well received. The book was loosely based upon the antics of her father. Their Eyes Were Watching God celebrates one individual’s triumph over the limitations imposed on her mainly by sexism and poverty. The story explores how romance can blind women to the necessity of seeking emotional and intellectual independence as individuals in a complex world.

During the 1930s Hurston worked intermittently on musical productions. In 1939 she began working as a drama instructor at the North Caroline College for Negroes at Durham. It was during this time she produced her third book, Moses, Man of the Mountain. People couldn’t tell if she were re-telling a biblical tale, or making fun of it.

Her novel Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) was an experiment in which Hurston took on the role of a white woman. She didn’t like the rule that black people couldn’t write about white people.

In 1942 Hurston kept up controversy with her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road. She had to take out some material regarding the hypocrisy and racism of whites before it was published. The book won the Anisfield-Wold award for its contribution to the amelioration of race relations. The critics felt Hurston wore rose-colored glasses when discussing the black woman’s role in America. She was being asked to write for many periodicals, but her views were often contradictory.

Even though there was lack of evidence, Hurston was arrested in 1948 for lewd acts with a minor. She was humiliated. For the last twelve years of her life, she never rebounded from this incident. She died poor and her grave went unmarked until the 1970s. Even though critics didn’t know what to make of her at the time, Hurston is still gaining an audience today.

Sweat  [short story. Combination Standard English and vernacular]

Delia Jones is a washerwoman. Most of the time she doesn’t know where her husband, Sykes, may be…usually with another woman. Sykes plays a prank on his wife by throwing his riding-whip over her shoulder knowing she will think it is a snake. He laughs when she is scared. He disparages the washing Delia brings home. He focuses on the wash being the clothes of white people rather than the money the washing brings in which they desperately need. He is unwilling to work hard enough for the both of them. Delia reminds him that it is her sweat that keeps them going. Sykes goes off with his other woman.

“She had brought love to the union and he had brought a longing after the flesh. Two months after the wedding, he had given her the first brutal beating.”

“Too late for everything except her little home. She had built it for her old days, and planted one by one the trees and flowers there. It was lovely to her, lovely.” Delia believed that someday, Sykes would get his comeuppance.

The town gossips know everything. They say Delia used to be a looker, but she’s been beat down for so long that it shows. Clarke spoke for the first time. “Taint no law on earth dat kin make a man be decent if it aint in ‘im. There’s plenty men dat takes a wife lak dey do a joint uh sugar-cane. It’s round, juicy an’ sweet when dey gits it. But dey squeeze an’ grind, squeeze an’ grind an’ wring tell dey wring every drop uh pleasure dat’s in ‘em out. When dey’s satisfied dat dey is wrung dry, dey treats ‘em jes lak dey do a cane-chew. Dey throws ‘em away. Dey knows whut dey is doin’ while dey is at it, an’ hates theirselves fuh it but they keeps on hangin’ after huh tell she’s empty. Den dey hates huh fuh bein’ a cane-chew an’ in de way.” 

Sykes goes around with his mistress. He makes sure Delia sees him buying his lover whatever she wants at the store. Sykes is even paying Bertha’s rent. Bertha will go to Delia’s house to ask if Sykes is around.

To amp up the abuse, Sykes captures a rattlesnake and keeps it in a box by the kitchen door. Delia and Sykes have gotten to the point where they can’t stand each other. 

One night Delia finds the snake in her laundry. 

[reader’s note: The entire story is setting up for a tragedy. I kept being worried that Sykes and Bertha were going to gang up on Delia, steal her house and bury her in the back yard or something. You gotta read the end! I was cheering and clapping. Just desserts for an evil man!]

The Gilded Six-Bits

[Question: Is there a chinaberry tree in every Hurston story?]

The story opens with a very house-proud description of a black couple’s yard and house. Everything, including Missie May, the woman, is scrubbed to a fine finish. It is a joyful Saturday ritual in which her husband, Joe, throws silver dollars in the open doorway before he hides and she chases him. Joe fills his pockets with fun things for his wife to find: candy, gum, soap, handkerchiefs. They have dinner and Joe says he wants to take Missie May to the new ice cream shop. They discuss Otis D. Slemmons who is a “fancy” man who opened the shop. Joe feels he doesn’t compare to a businessman like that. Slemmons has been telling people how much money and women he has. Joe wants to show off his woman to Slemmons. The ice cream shop owner compliments Joe’s wife.

Joe works the night shift and comes home every morning. They’ve only been married a year, but Joe is ready for children. He arrives home to find Missie May in bed with Slemmons! In the fight to get Slemmons out the door, Joe ends up with Slemmons’s gold watch. Joe, overwhelmed with feelings, put the money in his pocket without thinking and goes to bed.

Joe doesn’t throw her out but loses his fire. They don’t play, joke or touch. He keeps the gold piece he took off Slemmons in his pocket. It works like a void between the couple.

After months, they finally make love and Joe goes to work. Missie May finds the gold piece beneath her pillow. As Missie studied the gold, she found it was not true; it was a gilded half dollar. That is why Slemmons never allowed anyone to touch his “gold.” Did Joe leave the fake money there for her to find just like Slemmons had?

Missie May is pregnant. Joe is losing his health, but they are still making a go of it. They have a baby boy. Joe’s mother tells him the baby looks just like him.

Now the couple knows that Slemmons was a fake all along. They work hard, but take the misstep in their stride. Joe takes the fake money one day to the candy store where he hasn’t been in a long time. He shows the candy man the fake money and tells him of the loser he beat up to end up with it. He spends the (proper amount) of money all on candy kisses for his wife and baby. When he gets home he begins tossing silver dollars into the front room. 

Summary notes and possible class assignments on

“What White Publishers Won’t Print” by Z. N. Hurston

  • Whites lack of interest in internal lives/emotions of non-white peoples blocks understanding and increases fear
  • Lack of lit about the higher emotions of love life and upper class Negroes and the minorities in general
  • Publishers and producers only put forward those products that will make them money. Shy away from romantic life of Negroes and Jews
  • Public lack of interest–why?
  • Answer lies in THE AMERICAN MUSEUM OF UNNATURAL HISTORY: built on folk belief
  1. All non-whites are simple stereotypes
  2. There are no internal workings
  3. Dedicated to the convenient “typical”
  • The public willingly accepts the untypical in Nordics, but feels cheated if the untypical is portrayed in others
  • Urgent to realize minorities do think–and about more than race. Internally like everyone else
  • Difference = bad. As long as the majority believes non-whites do not feel as they do they will continue the pattern of faulty thinking
  • We must believe we have something in common.
  • Evidence of high/complicated emotion ruled out which leads to lack of interest in romance without racial strife
  • “Reversion to type”: no matter how high we may seem to climb, put us under pressure and we revert to type–to the bush, the jungle
  • Necessary to know how the average behaves and lives
  • Literature and art should mirror nature

Possible teaching ideas for this work:

  • Thinking back on books you have been assigned so far, which cultural voices have you not heard?
  • Think about authors from other cultures. Choose a culture you know little about. Research authors that are well-known within that culture. Write a bio on this author which includes a picture and a list of their works.
  • Think about your own society: family, school, work. Who are the people you see frequently but do not know? Write an essay on what you may think of this person with the knowledge that you do not know them personally. We’ll follow by a question/answer session within class on what we think vs. what we know with classmates.
  • What is an issue that you have explored within yourself that you have never/rarely seen discussed through media?

Claude McKay

1889-1948

Study Notes

“If We Must Die” appeared in the July 1919 issue of the Liberator magazine. The poem, published after a series of race riots in cities across the country, was embraced widely as a call to resist injustice. McKay became one of the major voices of the Harlem Renaissance, producing work that evinced both race and class consciousness. The poems below are pieces from Selected Poems of Claude McKay (1953).
Often regarded as the first major poet of the Harlem Renaissance, he probably did more than anyone else to shape the trends that would later define that literary movement. Frequently explosive condemnations of bigotry and oppression were written invariably and ironically in traditional poetic forms as the sonnet, McKay’s favorite. His work appealed to traditional poetry readers as well as the new wave. McKay understood the power of race-conscious verse. His forms were traditional but his ideas were new.
McKay was born into the peasant class in Jamaica. McKay’s father instilled in his children a suspicion of white people because his own father had been enslaved. McKay’s childhood also embedded profound respect for community and a skeptical attitude toward religion.
McKay’s mentor, Walter Jekyll, helped him publish two books of dialect poetry: Songs of Jamaica and Constab Ballads. McKay was the first black to receive the medal of the Jamaican Institute of Arts and Sciences, which came with a substantial cash award.
His most enduring literary ties were with white publications.
In 1919 McKay found much success in England with I.A. Richards, one of the foremost English literary critics of the century writing that McKay’s work was among “the best work that the present generation is producing.”
McKay returned to the U.S. and in 1922 published his most important collection of poetry, Harlem Shadows, virtually inaugurating the Harlem Renaissance. According to McKay, the book grew out of his urge to place the militant “If We Must Die,” his most famous poem, “inside of a book.” The racial violence that racked America in the summer of 1919 had inspired the sonnet, which later served as one of the unofficial rallying cries of the Allied Forces in WW II, particularly after it was recited by Winston Churchill in a speech against the Nazis. This poem proved to many that a black author had the authority to speak on black issues.
In the early 1920s, McKay gained popularity in Moscow where he traveled and spoke. He lived several years in France where he produced his first novel, Home to Harlem in 1928. The author continued to travel.
Home to Harlem was the first novel by a black writer to become a best-seller. People wanted to know about the nightlife and low life of Harlem. It is a tour of Harlem.
The next book, Banjo, continues the story of Ray and is one of the most extraordinary novels of the era, both for its cynical analysis of the impact of the grand forces of modernity (above all commerce and colonialism) on individual black lives, and for its almost documentary depiction of interactions among a wide range of characters of African descent from the U.S., the Caribbean, and Africa. Banjo may also have had the greatest international reach of any novel associated with the renaissance. Translated into French in 1931, it was the single book with the most significant impact on the generation of Caribbean and African students that would later come to be known as the Negritude generation.
McKay’s third novel, Banana Bottom (1933) is often regarded as his finest achievement in fiction.
In 1934 McKay returned to Harlem. He floundered, then joined the New York branch of the Federal Writers’ Project. By 1937 he had completed his autobiography, A Long Way from Home. The last book he was able to publish in his lifetime was a study of black life in New York, Harlem: Negro Metropolis (1940), which remains an important historical document, with well-wrought portraits of aspects of Harlem life in the 1930s (including the “numbers” racket and the religious leader Father Divine). McKay became a Catholic and taught at their Youth Organization.
McKay did not concern himself with what others thought his work should be. He worked for social change and believed that in order to tell the truth and make great art, some feelings are going to get hurt.

If We Must Die
This poem was written following the “Red Summer” of 1919 when antiblack riots broke out in several cities. McKay never said the poem referred to black and white people specifically. The rhyming scheme is A, B, A, B. In my own words:
If we must die, let it not be like penned-in hogs surrounded by barking, mocking dogs.
We need a noble way to die so our deaths mean something. If we die with dignity, even our killers will have to respect us. Even though we are outnumbered, we must take the fight to them. They may deal a thousand blows, but we will have one deathblow. Nothing lies before us but the grave, but we face it like men and we will fight all the way.

Enslaved
The author can’t think of his people without negative emotions. Much of the wording is negative and sad such as long-suffering, weary, despised, oppressed, enslaved, lynched, and disinherited. The author seeks revenge by an otherworldly force. In my own words:
When I think of all the suffering of my people I become sick with hate. I want an avenging angel to come down and utterly smite the white race. Let it be turned to smoke or disappear so that we may take off the yoke.

Outcast
Poem translated into my own words:
My spirit longs for where my ancestors came from. If I went there I would speak repressed thoughts, sing jungle songs. I long to return to peaceful darkness, but this world says I owe it something. I try to oblige. My life spark has darkened. I walk like a lonely ghost apart from others. I was not born in my native land. In this white land, I am out of step.

Harlem Renaissance


1919-1940

Study Notes

The 1920s was a decade of extraordinary creativity in the arts for black Americans called the Harlem Renaissance. Much of that creativity found its focus in the activities of African Americans living in New York City, particularly in the district of Harlem.
These years marked an especially brilliant moment in the history of blacks in America. Publications by African Americans became unprecedented in variety and scope. Poetry, fiction, drama, essays, music, dance, painting, and sculpture. There was a new sense of confidence and purpose; a sense of achievement.
Expressed in various ways, the creativity of black Americans undoubtedly came from a common source–the irresistible impulse of blacks to create boldly expressive art of high quality as a primary response to their social conditions, as an affirmation of their dignity and humanity in the face of poverty and racism. The influence of the Harlem Renaissance began to spread outward.
Serving in the armed forces contributed to a sense of worldliness. Exposure to new technologies and ideas. While Woodrow Wilson spoke of making the world safe for democracy, black people began asking why America was not safe for them. World War I and the Russian Revolution of 1917 proved that major change was possible, even in the face of a powerful autocracy and entrenched injustice.
Black writers and intellectuals were now being exposed to international ideas such as socialism and race consciousness. There were debates as to whether one should use direct political action or use the arts for social advancement. Should they work on African problems and develop Africa’s resources?
From its inception, the cultural flowering of the Renaissance was characterized by attempts to “reach out.” There was a Negritude movement among the generation of French Caribbean and African students who arrived in Paris in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Renaissance was an international phenomenon due to the prominence of Caribbean writers.
Blacks began to be published by the white establishment.

Migration North
Segregation and poverty continued after emancipation. Migration to the North increasingly seemed an absolute necessity for blacks seeking a better life for themselves and their children.
New York City had better housing and WWI needed workers.
Harlem and New York quickly became the headquarters of many of the most important African American cultural and political national organizations, including the NAACP, the National Urban League, and Marcus Garvey’s UNIA. Newspapers and magazines played a pivotal role in setting the Renaissance in motion. The 1920s saw the pinnacle of periodical circulation. The Northern papers actively promoted the gospel of migration. Major black political organizations used paper media to spread their ideas. A smaller number of publications were associated with the black radical movements in the city. Though each publication had its own focus, each was dedicated to political progress and social uplift for black Americans and to the development of literary and artistic traditions of which the typical readers might be proud. These periodicals had a profound effect on black writings during this period, not only in subject matter but in form. It is a major reason for the preponderance of one-act plays and short stories.

The New Writers
The first glimmerings of the new day in literature probably came not with the work of a black writer but with that of a white–Three Plays for a Negro Theater, by Ridgely Torrence. James Weldon Johnson called the premiere of these plays in 1917, “the most important single event in the entire history of the Negro in the American Theatre.” Overturning the tradition of depicting blacks in stereotypical minstrel forms, Torrence’s plays featured black actors representing complex human emotions and yearnings; in this sense, they anticipated not only plays of the 1920s about blacks such as The Emperor Jones (1920) and All God’s Chillun Got Wings (1925) by the celebrated dramatist Eugene O’Neill but also the work of African American playwrights, poets, and fiction writers breaking with traditions that diminished and often insulted black humanity. Another landmark came in 1919, a year marked by several national antiblack riots, with the publication of the Jamaican-born poet Claude McKay’s militant sonnet “If We Must Die.” Although the poem never alludes to race, to black readers it sounded a note of defiance against racism and racist violence unheard in black literature in many years. Then, in 1921, the musical revue Shuffle Along, written and performed by blacks, brought to the stage novel styles of song, dance, and comedy that captivated blacks and whites alike and underscored the emergence of a new generation of black artistry.
Blues and jazz blew up within the music industry. In the literature of the Renaissance, black music and dance became flash points in larger debates about “primitivism” and propaganda.
In 1922 came James Weldon Johnson’s anthology of verse, the Book of American Negro Poetry. Johnson preferred authors who spoke well while also using their own voice. Above all, Johnson set the manipulation of language and other patterns of signification, not the overt assertion of political ideals, as the heart of the African American poetic enterprise. In the preface, Johnson pointed out things created uniquely by African Americans: spirituals, folk tales, the cake walk, and ragtime.
Like most white poets of the age, most black poets were enthralled by traditional forms of verse as established by the major British and American Romantic poets and their admirers. Modernist verse that resembles the work of Pound, for example, would not appear until much later, and then on a highly restricted scale. Unrivaled optimism emphasizing the power of endurance and survival, of love and laughter, as the only efficacious response to the painful circumstances surrounding their lives.
The New Negro (1925) edited by Alain Locke. Merging racial awareness with a desire for literary and artistic excellence, the text exuded a sense of confidence in the black world emerging from generations of repression in the U.S. Fused ethnic pride or nationalism with a desire for a fresh achievement and independence in art, culture, and politics.

Patrons and Friends
There have been questions regarding the impact of white patronage on black arts during the Harlem Renaissance. The movement did need funding. Many saw nothing but benefits in an association between blacks and whites. The two best known white patrons of the Renaissance were Carl Van Vechten and Charlotte Osgood Mason. Vechten would have interracial parties. Other entities could be patrons such as grant-awarding philanthropies, publishers, and editors.

Emerging Conflicts
Many within the Harlem Renaissance knew they were out of touch with the rest of the blacks in America. There was also a generational gap characterized by the same issues as all generation gaps.
Most working within the movement saw the Renaissance as freedom and each expressed ideas of freedom in their own way. Some were political (with older artists falling more in this category) while others were anti-political. Sexuality was another way to express freedom although sexual exploits weren’t written about or displayed any more than the general modes of the day.

Drama, Poetry, Fiction
In the theater, a combination of song, dance and humor was popular. Willis Richardson’s best-known play is The Chip Woman’s Fortune (1923), the first serious play by an African American to be staged on Broadway.
In 1926 Du Bois established the Krigwa Little Theatre movement with four basic principles. The plays of a real Negro theatre must be 1) about us; 2) by us; 3) the theatre itself should be for us and 4) near us. Drama was almost certainly one of the weakest areas of achievement in the Harlem Renaissance although there were many great actors and entertainers.
Around 1928 there was a shift away from poetry to fiction.

The Great Depression and the Decline of the Harlem Renaissance
By 1937 the Renaissance was over. It had depended on a special prosperity in the publishing industry, the theater, and the art world. The crash of Wall Street. The Great Depression. Unemployment and the rise of crime damaged the image and the reality of Harlem as an artistic and cultural paradise. Harlem Riot of 1935.
The art of the Harlem Renaissance represents a prodigious achievement for a people hardly more than a half-century removed from slavery and enmeshed in the chains of dehumanizing segregation. The Harlem Renaissance can be understood as a conversation (and at times, a debate) among African American artists and intellectuals about the very meaning of modernity from a black perspective.
In this period, black American artists laid the foundations for the representation of their people in the modern world, with a complexity and a self-knowledge that have proven durable. The Renaissance created a body of art on which future writers and musicians and artists might build and in which the masses of blacks could see their own faces and features accurately and lovingly reflected.

The Route That Made the World: On the enduring romance and eternal influence of the Silk Road

The New York Times Style Magazine  May 17, 2020

[These are little tidbits I found interesting since I am interested in Buddhism…and skulls.]

“How the Buddha Got His Face”  by Aatish Taseer

A renunciant prince gaining enlightenment 25 centuries ago set the Wheel of Dharma in motion. “…a 35-year-old Gautama Buddha, hardly older than Christ when he climbed the hill of Calvary, revealed the eightfold path to liberation from suffering, his four noble truths and the doctrine of the impermanence of everything, including the Self.”

“The Wisdom Tree, also known as the Bodhi Tree,” is what he sat under to work toward enlightenment. “He who was never meant to be god nor ever said one word about god”.

“The memory of the Buddha, however, lived on in the hearts and minds of Indians. They reacted to him as I imagine the residents of Memphis must react to those visitors to Graceland for whom Elvis is God–pleased that he was a local son but alarmed by the ardor of his followers.” 

“Early Buddhists did not regard the Buddha as a divine being but a great teacher. He could not be deified for the simple reason that although Buddhism is not actively nontheistic, it is so reticent on the subject of god as to virtually eschew him.”

“In the omission of the figure of the Buddha,” writes Coomaraswamy, “the Early Buddhist art is truly Buddhist: For the rest, it is an art about Buddhism, rather than Buddhist art.”

Part of Buddhist ethos is tolerance.

“Just as Buddhism had been a reaction to the hierarchical nature of Brahmin orthodoxy in India, so too in China…the Chinese warlords, who had felt disparaged by Confucianism, were attracted to the ‘egalitarian creed.’”

“Sacred images in ancient India were not made primarily as objects of beauty but rather as the expression of a philosophical thought…”

“They were visual aids, ‘born in meditation and inner realization…focusing points for the spirit’…”

“The Buddha, seated in padmasana, or the lotus position, with his legs crossed under him, hands open-palmed in his lap, his face a mask of smiling sagacity and fierce inwardness…”

“The Haunted Place”  by  Aatish Taseer

Turkic conqueror Timur known as Tamerlane in the West, between India and Uzbekistan, killed 100,000 when he erected his famous minaret of skulls.

Only mountains can be more beautiful than mountains.

…inverted Zoroastrian triangles indicating good thoughts, good words, good deeds.

“A Single Thread”  by  Esi Edugyan

Persian word gurg, which means “the land of the wolves.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar

1872-1906

Best known for his lively and often genial verse in a literary version of African American speech. He could “feel the Negro life aesthetically and express it lyrically.” Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) was the poet’s best selling book. Dunbar is frequently represented as a cautionary example of a black artist co-opted by white media hype which only postponed the bitter realization resonant in his most poignant line: “I know why the caged bird sings.”
Wrote from a regional point of view; folksy, nostalgic celebration of rural life and homey values. Adapted stereotypes towards more socially redemptive roles. Although his was a peculiar literary dialect and not linguistically accurate, it lent an air of apparent authenticity to the stories he told of enslaved individuals who were quaint and amusing, but also loving and courageous. Promoted a myth of benign southern race relations. Wearing the mask let Dunbar “mouth with myriad subtleties” truths that whites refused to confront face to face.
Dunbar’s parents were former Kentucky slaves who gave the writer much valuable material. Born in Ohio. The only black student in his high school but was high achieving and voted senior class president.
In 1893 Dunbar took out a loan to subsidize the printing of his first book, Oak and Ivy, a collection of fifty-six poems. It was popular due to the range of matter and mood and the level of maturity. Dunbar used a double-voiced strategy by switching back and forth between black dialect and Standard English. He tried to find ways to enlighten his readers without alienating them.
His most famous volumes of poetry were Majors and Minors (1895) and Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896). Reading tours enhanced Dunbar’s popularity. Earned a clerkship in the U.S. Library of Congress. Four books of short stories and four novels. Many stories spoke frankly about racial injustice in the South while others employed fairly stereotyped images of African Americans and drew little upon authentic A. A. culture. But his final book, The Sport of the Gods (1903), is important for addressing a major question for black Amerca at the turn of the century–the advantages and disadvantages of migration from the rural South to the urban North. The concerns behind this grim foray into urban realism also impelled Dunbar to publish “The Fourth of July and Race Outrages” in the New York Times in 1903, a sardonic attack on the myopic indifference of American patriotism to the race riots, lynchings, peonage, and disfranchisement of blacks in the South. By this time, however, Dunbar’s steadily worsening health, brought on by heavy drinking and tuberculosis, together with his harried finances, allowed him little time or energy to undertake serious new departure in his writing.

An Ante-Bellum Sermon [poem in the vernacular in my own words]
We have gathered to comfort each other.
The Lord sent Moses to talk to the Pharaoh. Tell him to let the people go.
The Pharaoh better listen or I’ll beat his ass
No matter your battles, the Lord will come to help you
The Lord is strong when he dons his armour, but I’m talking about the old days
The Lord loved Israel, but that did not lessen the amount of love he has to give
I judge these people in the bible by their acts
The Pharaoh believed in slavery, but every mother’s son is free
So-called Christians who accept slavery are not reading their bibles correctly
Since the beginning of time, the Lord has said his self-same free should belong
to every man
Our modern-day Moses is coming; I can hear his feet.
Don’t start bragging or getting too big for your britches
When we become free we will praise Jesus.
For now, let us pray.

We Wear the Mask [poem in Standard English put into my own words]
To the public, we wear a mask that hides all our true thoughts and emotions. We lie and smile.
The world doesn’t need to know every little thing about us.
We smile, but inside we are crying.
We sing, but our road is long.
Let the world think what it will. “We wear the mask!”

Sympathy [poem in Standard English in my own words]
I know what a caged bird feels when spring is emerging.
I know why a bird will harm himself and bleed trying to escape his cage.
When the beat-up bird sings it is not for joy; it is a prayer to heaven to let it be free.

Charles W. Chesnutt

1858-1932

Charles W. Chesnutt was the first African American writer of fiction to enlist the white-controlled publishing industry in the service of his social message. His three novels and multiple short stories led him to be the most influential and widely respected African American fiction writer in the U. S. Probing analyses and compelling indictments of racism.

Born in Ohio the son of free black emigres from the South. Grew up in North Carolina during the turbulent Reconstruction era. Attended school regularly and became assistant principal. Moved back to Cleveland in 1884 where he settled his family, passed the Ohio State bar, and launched a business career as a legal stenographer.

In 1887 he produced “The Goophered Grapevine,” his first important work of fiction. Featuring an ex slave recounteur who spun wonderful tales about antebellum southern life. Part of the “plantation tradition” of contemporary southern literature. Presented the lore of “conjuration,” African American hoodoo beliefs. Introduced a new kind of blakc storytelling protagonist, Uncle Julius McAdoo, who shrewdly adapted his recollections of the past to secure his economic advantage in the present, sometimes at the expense of his white employer. 

In 1889 came “Dave’s Neckliss”. Dave, whose downward spiral into delusion, madness, and suicide makes him one of the most pathetic of Chesnutt’s tragic protagonists. Through Dave’s fate, Chesnutt invited his white readers to consider the corrosive effects of being stigmatized on the otherwise healthy mind and body of a sympathetic black man. The stigma of blackness was confronted in order to demonstrate how damaging such an imposed identity could be not only to an individual but to an entire community. 

First book, The Conjure Woman, in 1899 displayed a peculiar mix of realism and fantasy. Appearing during an era when most whites questioned the African American’s capacity for full and equal civil rights, the stories of The Conjure Woman implicity argued that, having confirmed their human dignity and heroic fortitude in the face of the worst that slavery could do, the free black man and woman were amply qualified for the rights and responsibilities of American citizenship.

A second collection of short fiction appeared in 1899: The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line explore the moral conflicts and psychological strains experienced by those who lived closest to the color line in Chesnutt’s day: mixed-race persons like himself. The work received mixed reviews. Some reviewers were put off by his unapologetic inquiries into topics considered too delicate or volatile for short fiction, such as southern segregation and interracial marriage.

In 1899 Chesnutt made the leap to full time writer. He produced The House behind the Cedars (1900), The Marrow of Tradition (1901), and The Colonel’s Dream (1905). Toward this end of this stream of work he began to see sales declining so he again took up his day job.

Chesnutt might have claimed an important role in preparing the American public for the advent of the New Negro author of the 1920s who would focus attention on the real racial issues facing their America.

Historians of African American writing today recognize Charles Chesnutt for almost single handedly inaugurating a truly African American literary tradition in the short story. He was the first writer to make the broad range of African American experience his artistic province and to consider practically every issue and problem endemic to the American color line worthy of literary attention. Because he developed literary modes appropriate to his materials, Chesnutt also left to his successors a rich formal legacy that underlies major trends in twentieth-century black fiction, from the ironies of James Weldon Johnson’s classic African American fiction of manners to the magical realism of Charles Johnson’s contemporary neo-slave narratives. 

The Wife of His Youth

I

Mr. Ryder might aptly be called the dean of the Blue Veins. The original Blue Veins were a little society of colored persons organized in a certain Northern city shortly after the war. Its purpose was to establish and maintain correct social standards among a people whose social condition presented almost unlimited room for improvement. By accident, combined perhaps with some natural affinity, the society consisted of individuals who were, generally speaking, more white than blakc. Some envious outsider made the suggestion that no one was eligible for membership who was not white enough to show blue veins. The suggestion was readily adopted by those who were not of the favored few, and since that time the society, though possessing a longer and more pretentious name, had been known far and wide as the “Blue Vein Society,” and its members as the “Blue Veins.”

Character and culture were the only things considered. They had to be of free birth, but if so, they would have a guide through the social wilderness.

Mr. Ryder is the backbone of the Blue Vein Society. His genius for social leadership was such that he had speedily become its recognized adviser and head, the custodian of its standards, and the preserver of its traditions.

Ryder falls in love with Mrs. Dixon and is throwing a ball for her during which he will propose.

Mrs. Dixon had come to Groveland from Washington in the spring, and before the summer was over she had won Mr. Ryder’s heart. She possessed many attractive qualities.

The thoughts of those of mixed race: “I have no race prejudice,” he would say, “but we people of mixed blood are ground between the upper and the nether millstone. Our fate lies between absorption by the white race and extinction in the black. The one doesn’t want us yet, but may take us in itime. The other would welcome us, but it would be for us a backward step. ‘With malice towards none, with charity for all,’ we must do the best we can for ourselves and those who are to follow us. Self-preservation is the first law of nature.”

Between absorption and extinction.

II

Ryder hears the story of Same and ‘Liza Jane. ‘Liza Jane has been looking for Same for twenty-five years. Ryder gives her all the reasons her plan may not work. 1) he may have died long ago; 2) he may have married; 3) maybe he’s moved up in the world and outgrown you; 4) you may have passed him many times and not recognized him. 

‘Liza shows Ryder an old picture of her Sam.

Ryder gets her address and says if he finds anything he’ll let her know.

III

Ryder uses ‘Liza’s story as a speaking platform during dinner at the ball.

It turns out that Ryder was the man she was looking for. He brought the woman out to the ball and introduced her to everyone as “the wife of my youth.” The audience does not get to know ‘Liza’s reaction. Chesnutt ends the story here.

Literature of the Reconstruction to the New Negro Renaissance 1865-1919

“The Bonds of Peace”
The Civil War had not been fought over abolition, but it had broken slavery’s bonds. African American troops convinced many that Africa’s descendants would give their lives to ensure the survival of the U. S. The first Union soldiers to occupy the captured Confederate capital were from the all-African American 25th Army Corps. One of the first citizens to reclaim Virginia was a former slave.
The Civil War was very complicated, involving the following issues and more: could a country based on equality endure? Power issues between federal and state governments, our economy, immigration, religion, culture, science. Blacks, Europeans, Native Americans.
We hung together, but now could we live up to the Constitution while incorporating new ideas and opportunity? The societal role of the freed slaves was yet to be determined, along with the roles of all women and non-white males.
Gender roles and rights took on a new urgency. The war had forced women to become more independent and they wanted to expand their roles. Women began organizing ways to help people and improve society. They began writing and speaking and making connections between themselves and other marginalized groups. They began to become more accepting of those who were different than themselves.
Even though some were speaking of a coming together, others recognized that the agriculture of the South and the mercantile-based North would involve individualism and imperialistic expansion.
The war did not dismantle the plantation system; it just morphed into sharecropping and tenant farming. First transcontinental railroad, 1869. Three more to follow with the addition of canals. Cities began to form. There was a pressing westward. Between 1860 and 1900 immigration from Europe exploded.
There was a mixing of cultures which did not enhance the lives of Native Americans or where they lived.

A Decade of Reconstruction
Generally seen as between 1865 and 1877, but actually began earlier. The building of refugee centers, hospitals, schools, and other social services. The Reconstruction Act struck down many restrictive codes targeting African Americans. Established the Freedmen’s Bureau (1865-1870) to protect the rights and lives of blacks in the South. Many joined to set up schools, establish cooperatives and train people in citizenship. Some of the schools later became colleges.
The most significant pieces of Reconstruction legislation were three constitutional amendments. The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) outlawed slavery, the Fourteenth (1868) provided equal protection to African Americans under the law, and the Fifteenth (1870) granted suffrage to black men. The constitutional amendments were neither uniformly enforced nor even recognized in all parts of the country. Once the troops moved out, vigilante and white supremacist terrorist organizations embarked on a campaign of brutal suppression.

Separate as the Fingers
Within two or three years after Reconstruction, random violence and systematic oppression were supported by Jim Crow laws, which legalized racial segregation in virtually every area of life. The turn of the century saw lynchings and race riots.
Northerners had moved on to issues of suffrage, temperance and pacifism. People argued over issues of equal rights. More and more of the vanguard grew old and died. New generations came up who were not born in slavery; conditions had changed, so the fight had to change.
Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute took a half-step, vocational approach. Become prepared for the privileges to come.
In 1883 the Supreme Court threw out the Civil Rights Act in favor of Jim Crow laws. Black men could not vote and everything became segregated by law.

Lifting as We Climb
The decades just before and after the start of the 20th century was, for African Americans, the Decades of Disappointment. There began the “great migration” from the South to the North. The “talented tenth” or the fortunate few attended colleges, founded theater groups, traveled abroad, edited and published periodicals, and established educations, civic, and political organizations they believed would, in fact, ensure upward mobility. African Americans participated effectively in groups such as the Populist Party, the Knights of Labor, the women’s suffrage movement, and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union.
Wealth and power were still far from evenly distributed, yet there were an increasing number of reform movements. Black people were mostly interested in their physical and economic security. The Washington vs. Du Bois debate is mentioned here. [Explore this topic further. It is one of the great debates in African American literature.]
Literacy increased along with the black middle class and even a small but wealthy social elite grew in number and influence. A. A. institutions prospered. Churches, academic education, day-care centers, employment bureaus, housing projects and orphanages. Discrimination in education and in job opportunities increased. Lynchings.
More freedom in the urban North, yet even there they were subject to intimidation and exploitation. When men left for World War I, America needed workers and put people of color to work.

Writing Things Right
The years between the Civil War and World War I saw A. A. authors record the world in parallel to, intersecting with, and diverging from the methods of other American writers. The most popular literature in the U.S. taught and affirmed social mores. Yet increasingly the artist’s obligation to instruct was accompanied by the desire that it be done both pleasingly and also in a manner that showed off the writer’s familiarity with the literary canon. Thus 19th-century American literature tried not merely to delight and instruct but also to highlight intellectual achievement and aesthetic sophistication. African American writing was primarily a means of instructing themselves and others and of correcting the historical record. Disparagement of their intellectual and creative capacities. Exoticization and marginalization of A. A. culture and aspirations.
Thus A. A. literature in the mid-nineteenth and early 20th centuries was used to confirm and to manifest creativity and genius while also documenting and shaping social, political, and spiritual aspirations and conditions.

Activist Autobiographies
Slave narratives had been critical to the abolitionist effort. In the Reconstruction period, African Americans relied heavily on personal testimony. Generally using their slave past as prelude, warning, and resource, postbellum slave narrators recast the sin and suffering of slavery as trials and tribulations from which they and fellow former slaves, like other survivors of the Civil War or any past trauma, emerged wiser and stronger.
During Reconstruction especially, narrators concentrated on the lessons learned from slavery and the progress made after emancipation that would entitle African Americans to full participation in the building and maintaining of a new and improved version of the “City upon a Hill.”
Biographies, memoirs, life stories ranged in focus. There were stories about religious leaders, community activists, domestic servants, explorers and travelers. They presented their experiences in overcoming adversity as models for the present and as blueprints for a better future. “Progress report autobiographies” became a subgenre. Stories of those who had endured trials but experienced triumph. These autobiographical texts served also to instruct other blacks that they could and should buy into the American Dream.

Literacy as Liberation
Black writers aimed to inspire students; they wanted more A. A. writers! They needed accurate and relevant texts. Need for books that adequately expressed the history, position, and aspirations of African Americans. A. A. authored books showed white Americans how blacks had contributed to the rebuilding of America and instructed the new generation regarding how to have a more satisfying future. As the century advanced the projects became more grand and diverse. All these texts hoped to enlighten and inspire.

Publishing for the People
Even though these works were created by African Americans, they were meant for all to read. Black writers followed major literary trends. Some black character types and situations were re-written to portray African Americans more positively or accurately.
Black authors often had trouble finding publishers. Sometimes a writer’s connections helped them get published, or they wrote about a focused topic promoted by a certain printer or outlet. Sometimes a black author’s work could be promoted as part of a series shared by white writers as well. The African American press promoted many black authors while being ignored by literary scholars.

The African American Press
A diverse group of black individuals and institutions who wanted to promote black authors to black audiences and wanted to promote uplifting, positive and forward-thinking messages. There was advertising and contests. By 1896 more than 150 newspapers and magazines had been founded. Most were poorly funded, local and short-lived. Others merged with larger papers and had a significant impact on national and international perspectives. The art was political and quality was more important than quantity.
The African American press included publications by special-interest groups such as churches, labor unions, sororities, and fraternities. The motto was “lifting as we climb.” Those who were leading turned back to lend a hand to those coming up behind them.
The period between 1890 and 1910 was known as “the women’s era.” Women used fiction, essays, autobiographies and investigative reporting to voice their perspectives and record their activities.
The A. A. press was created by and strongly dependent on A. A. church leaders. A press could provide a church with disciplines, hymnals and records as well as educational materials for church literacy programs. This led to bookstores, distribution systems and literary magazines. Examples are the AME Book Concern and the National Baptist Publishing Company. Songs, poems, autobiographies, histories, fiction championing abolition, temperance, suffrage, education and economic development.

Frances E. W. Harper 1825-1911

Study notes

Frances Ellen Watkins Harper was one of the most prolific and popular African American writers prior to the twentieth century. Born to free parents in Baltimore. Harper received an uncommonly thorough education at her uncle’s school, where she showed promise in writing and elocution, a strong interest in radical politics and religion, and a special sense of responsibility and devotion to lofty ideals. Hired as the first female teacher at the Union Seminary. Here frequent encounters with fugitive slaves and her own refugee status (the result of a Maryland law that made it a crime, punishable by enslavement, for a free black person to enter the state) moved her toward more direct political involvement. Around 1853 she quit teaching and moved to Philadelphia to devote herself to the antislavery movement.
The 1853 publication of Eliza Harris, one of the many responses to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s vastly popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin, brought Harper national attention. She worked hard and did well. Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects includes several of the works for which Harper is most famous today, poems that are generally agreed to have ushered in the tradition of African American protest poetry. She wrote on the need to end slavery and the importance of Christian living, equal rights, and racial pride. As the repressive measures against blacks, especially slaves, increased, Harper’s writings became increasingly militant. It is also likely that she violated the Fugitive Slave Law herself by accompanying runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. Development as “true men and true women” was a high priority. Harper emphasizes the importance of personal faith and self-discipline.
To support her family, the widowed mother returned to the lecture circuit, where she attracted large and receptive audiences. American Equal Rights Association. Equal rights advocacy was complicated by the racism of her feminist colleagues and the sexism of some of her black brothers. “We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity,” she repeatedly admonished.
“Between the white people and the colored there is a community of interests,” she asserted,” and the sooner they find it out, the better it will be for both parties.” Emancipation had opened a new era, a time for blacks, particularly black women, to “consecrate their lives to the work of upbuilding the race.”
In 1872 Harper published Sketches of Southern Life, a significant marker in African American literature as well as in Harper’s carer. Unlike the slave narratives and much of Harper’s antebellum writings, Sketches treats slavery as a literary construct. The heart of this volume is a series of six poems, narrated by Aunt Chloe, that form at once the autobiography of a former slave and an oral history of slavery and Reconstruction. Aunt Chloe may well prove to be Harper’s most important contribution to American letters. Although she is sixty years old, Aunt Chloe learns to read, takes an active interest in politics (though she cannot vote), and does what she can to ensure that the men “voted clean.” She helps build schools and churches for the community, and she works to buy herself a cabin, which she enlarges to accommodate her children after they are reunited.
In 1896, Harper took part in founding the National Association of Colored Women, for which she served as vice president and as a consultant for several years.

Vashti (Poem 1857)

A king is hanging with his crew. He wants Queen Vashti to come to him so he can show off her beauty.
Vashti said she was Persia’s queen. She ain’t got no time to be shown off to no rusty men. Queens don’t do that sort of thing. I must be a role model for the women of my country.
The message is brought to the king. His advisors make sure he knows that if Vashti can scorn him, then what will all the other women of the land do? The advisers say to take her crown!
Vashti was like, whatever dude. You can have my crown. “And left the palace of the King, Proud of her spotless name–A woman who could bend to grief, But would not bow to shame.”

[from Wikipedia]
King Ahaseurus’s command for the appearance of Queen Vashti is interpreted by several midrashic sources as an order to appear unclothed for the attendees of the king’s banquet. Though it was common in the culture for dancers to entertain the king’s guests, the Persian custom that “the queen, even more than the wives of other men, was secluded from the public gaze” suggests that this command was highly inappropriate.
Vashti’s refusal to obey the summons of her drunken husband has been admired as heroic in many feminist interpretations of the Book of Esther. Early feminists admired Vashti’s principle and courage. Harriet Beecher Stowe called Vashti’s disobedience the “first stand for woman’s rights.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote that Vashti “added new glory to [her] day and generation…by her disobedience; for “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Some more recent feminist interpreters of the Book of Esther compare Vashti’s character and actions favorably to those of her successor, Esther, who is traditionally viewed as the heroine of the Purim story. Michelle Landsberg, a Canadian Jewish feminist, writes: “Saving the Jewish people was important, but at the same time [Esther’s] whole submissive, secretive way of being was the absolute archetype of 1950s womanhood. It repelled me. I thought, ‘Hey, what’s wrong with Vashti? She had dignity. She had self-respect. She said: ‘I’m not going to dance for you and your pals.'”

Bury Me in a Free Land [poem 1864]
Bury me anywhere BUT where men are slaves. I wouldn’t be able to rest with them rambling around above me. The chains would wake me; the cries of the mothers would keep me up. The whip…the taking of babies…the baying of hunting dogs. Young innocents sold into prostitution. I don’t need a tombstone or anything to catch the eye. I will only be able to rest if I am buried in a free state.

Learning to Read [poem 1872]
The Rebels hated it when the Yankees came down and set up a school. Our masters had always kept us away from books and knowledge; they didn’t want us getting too smart. This made us want books more and we would sneak and try to learn on the sly. My Uncle Caldwell used to hide a book underneath his hat. The Yankees and all us trying to learn just kept on, even though the whites didn’t want us to be in school. I wanted to learn to read my bible. They said my learning was too late, but I was sixty so how much longer could I wait? I got myself some glasses, learned to read, then got my own little cabin so I could be my own queen.