A New Vision for America

I always feel a bit like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window when I look out of my own rear windows across a narrow driveway and into the apartments around me.  I usually witness brief, mundane moments: two people eating by a table in a kitchen identical to mine; a mother walking slowly around her living room cradling a baby; a cat looking out of a window, waiting for its owner to return home.  Kids play together and ride their bikes back and forth within view of their mothers who sit on their apartment buildings’ front steps, or they line up near the ice cream truck that passes down this driveway every weekday once the weather turns warm.  Adults lean against their cars, chatting with each other in relaxed, indecipherable voices.

I love looking out of the window and seeing life happening around me; it makes me feel connected to humanity in a cliched but significant way.  The neighborhood feels American in all its ethnic diversity.  I know what this country is when I look outside my window and see the warm glow of a light on in a neighbor’s apartment; I know we share a space and (hopefully) agree to do each other no harm and even, occasionally, to help each other if we need a hand.

When I think about the country at large, however, I have no idea what it’s doing or what it’s about.  Maybe that’s at the root of what plagues us nationally and has always been haunting this nation persistently divided by an us vs. them mentality.  Those divisions are natural; we group ourselves with whom we share a variety of characteristics and opinions.  But it’s a destructive dynamic nonetheless because the United States is neither a monolith nor a nation that can comfortably be dominated by one side or the other.  And yet a sense of bipartisanship or even coalition appears impossible amongst the tribalism that defines our politics and identity.

Does tribalism exist when there’s a resistance to empathy?  When we care more about our own team than the others?  Despite desires to strive for a more perfect union, this country was founded on cruelty, misogyny, genocide, and slavery.  For hundreds of years, writers, artists, politicians and other citizens have publicly called for people to soften their hearts, revive their consciences, and pay attention to those suffering around them rather than silently tolerate inhuman policies or politics.

What might be needed is not only a new vision for the future that addresses concerns about healthcare, our economy and the benefits/dangers of automation, and the cultural and racial divisions that persist but also a new way of invoking or constructing empathy for the “other.” A desire for privilege, to strive for, protect and accumulate power and wealth and to defeat those who seem to stand in our way continually undermines this empathy, and it is doing this especially now.   It seems that we’ve come to a time again for the construction/invention of feeling, an awakening of our conscience.

Whoever can channel the emotional connection we might have for our closest neighbors and apply it to how we imagine ourselves as a nation might save us from ourselves.  I say this as a person who is angry at half of the country and unable (perhaps even unwilling) to truly understand the other side.  Tribalism often feels justified and even righteous; cooperating with people who are eager to hurt you seems not only unwise but insane.  And yet…that tribalism is our exploitable weakness, so empathy for the other, a desire to look out for each other, because we can imagine others in their most human and mundane moments, may be the only way that this country isn’t just a loose, disparate collection of antagonistic strangers.

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Representation and Madness in Mad Max Fury Road and Zone One

“In the new reckoning, a hundred percent of the world was mad” – Mark Spitz in Colson Whitehead, Zone One

“If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane” – Mad Max in Mad Max Fury Road

For the last few semesters I’ve been teaching Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One in my Introduction to American Literature classes.  The novel is often a bit frustrating for students to read because the plot is virtually nonexistent until the last third or quarter of the the novel.  However, Whitehead’s depiction of this post-apocalyptic world is beautiful and breathtaking, especially as he describes a human race that’s denying its own fall into madness as they try in vain to return to a time before zombies, called “stragglers” and “skels” in this novel, came to reclaim this world.

The world has ended and the novel starts during the days of its reconstruction.  Mark Spitz, the novel’s protagonist who works in Zone One with other teams to sweep resettled parts of Manhattan for remaining skels and stragglers, muses on how, “big groups were in again: the elite antsy to drop their pawns, and the pawns hungry for purpose after so long without instructions…” (88).  Although seemingly well-protected settlements survive to reestablish a society that mirrors the culture, politics, and capitalism that we once knew, humanity is devouring itself outside of those barricades.  And within, the survivors struggle to keep their PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Survivor Dysfunction) at bay.

Despite the clear differences in the setting and the conditions between Zone One and the 2015 Mad Max reboot Mad Max Fury Road, there are fascinating similarities in the stories they tell about the madness that rises, who survives, and what institutions remain and are toppled after the apocalypse.  Max, like Whitehead’s protagonist Mark Spitz, is surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, except he cannot kept his madness away.  It helps him survive.  Visions of the dead haunt and protect him against the uncontrolled villainy of the War Boys who serve King Immortan Joe, a tyrant who has his people clamoring for every drip of water he deigns to give them. Like Mark Spitz, Mad Max reflects that “As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy.  Me…or everyone else.”

Notably, despite the chaos that these worlds have fallen into and the new orders that arise, both Mad Max Fury Road and Zone One contemplate the survival of the status quo, specifically class, gender, and racial inequality as well, all of which are pose just as much threat as zombies and Immortan Joe and the War Boys.

In the face of all this, representation and agency become important in how these stories are told.  Whitehead reveals towards the end of Zone One that the protagonist and narrator of the story is black, making his madness and ability to survive, his suspicions about the institutions that will return, and his place in this new world take on a different meaning.  He begins to identify with the zombies coming to reclaim “the broken city” and to feel that for the first time in his life, this broken world is finally his for the taking…if he can continue to live.

Mad Max Fury Road is a film that’s just as much about the madness of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as it about Max’s own mental instability in a world where everyone has lost their minds.  Her madness and those of the Immortan Joe’s five wives, whom she smuggles out of his tyrannical desert compound, calls them to action and to fight every insurmountable challenge to the death.  In her wake, Max escapes his own captivity from one of the War Boys, Nicolas Holt’s Nux, and both he and Nux are inspired to help Furiosa and her fellow female road warriors fight Immortan Joe’s economic and patriarchal tyranny.  Faced with the insanity of the wasteland that surrounds them Furiosa tells Max, “You never gonna have a better chance [at] redemption.”

It seems that there’s always a ongoing, unending conversation about the threat of racialized bodies and female bodies and how to regulate, punish, and legislate those bodies to keep society safe.  In Mark Spitz, the zombies, Furiosa and her road warriors, those black and female bodies are allowed to go mad with power in these texts.  They fight, they rage, they go crazy and they kill to take back their land and liberate themselves.  They don’t destroy the world, but they try to make new places for themselves and others to own and in which they can live freely.  What a time to be alive.

The Persistence of Black Invisibility: Darren Wilson and the Invisible Man

I was on Tumblr today and saw someone post an article from Popular Science by Rafi Letzter, “What Science Tells Us About Darren Wilson and Michael Brown: What Does It Mean for a Black Teen to be a Demon” that discusses Darren Wilson’s depiction of Michael Brown moments before deciding to shoot him.  It briefly analyzed the persistent history of seeing black people or in this case the black body as superhuman or as a superhuman threat.

According to excerpts from Wilson’s account posted in the article and heard in various ways in mainstream media recently, Wilson believed Brown “was almost bulking up to run through the shots.”  A few months ago, I ended a post asking, “What was the threat in this situation and what was this officer Darren Wilson fearful of?  When and why does it appear that fear itself is justification enough killing someone else?  Fear is at the root of these very broad questions, but I start with fear because it is that emotion that allows us to determine how and to what lengths we protect ourselves and who we believe is worth protecting, especially within our national borders or local communities.”

I suppose Wilson’s comments are my answer.  Brown stopped being human in Wilson’s eyes, whether he knew it or not.  Wilson protected himself against not a man but a powerful villain who could somehow run through bullets and would get madder and more powerful the more Wilson shot at him.  Wilson felt like a five-year old child despite being 6′ 4″ and 210 lbs. Despite the fact that Brown, at 300 lbs, was the same height.  What Wilson describes sounds like a nightmare.  In this narrative, Wilson is allowed to express his fear and while Brown is an unfeeling, unafraid, Hulk.  Wilson is a person with feelings and interiority who can only continue to live only if Brown does not.  We do not get to hear if, no matter how terrifying Brown was to Wilson, Brown, too, showed any fear in his last moments, only that he was terrifying, unstoppable, and then subdued only by lethal force.

This article concludes that Wilson might not even know that he has attributed superhuman traits to Brown and, as Letzter reminds us, “the insidious truth of prejudice…is that it can emerge unbidden in an instant, and vanish moments later without ever bubbling to the surface of conscious intent.”

Two nights ago, I was skimming the Prologue to Invisible Man since I taught excerpts from that novel this semester, and I think these last few lines say more on this subject, not from a traditional scientific standpoint, but a literary one.  I want to conclude this brief post with what in 1945 Ralph Ellison writes about being what it means for a black man to be seen as a demon 70 years ago and what it might still mean today:

“I am an invisible man…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything except me.  Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis.  That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition in the eyes of those with whom I come in contact.  A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality…You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds.  Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.” 

The Poetics and Politics of Race and Space: A Few Thoughts on Ferguson and Fictional Representations of Missouri

A few weeks ago, I concluded my last post with some questions I had about Ferguson, Michael Brown and the dialogue surrounding his death, law enforcement in that region, and fear as the possible root cause of this kind of violence.  Last week I had the opportunity to write a blog post, “Framing Ferguson: A Time for Mourning and Action,” for George Washington University’s American Literature and Culture Organization (ALCO) in response to a panel the university held that brought students and faculty together to discuss a variety of topics ranging from racial and economical tensions and inequalities to policing and public policy.

The panel also proceeded my course’s reading of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). Last week, the students in my Introduction to American Literature course started reading Mark Twain’s novel set in the fictional, slave-holding small town of Dawson’s Landing which Twain locates “on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, half a day’s journey, per steamboat, to St. Louis” (Twain 3). Twain places Missouri as a site of “historical contradictions” (Gillman 448). These contradictions involve the actions and identities of the characters in the town as well as the laws by which they live and customs they value. As Susan Gillman explains in “‘Sure Identifiers’: Race, Science, and the Law in Pudd’nhead Wilson,” “the novel detects a central ambiguity suppressed in law, if not custom, by slave society” leaving us to ask ourselves, “How do we know…who is to be held accountable under the law and who is not? …How do we know what we know is true?” (449).

These questions feel eerily relevant today. I’m left with questions about what fictions exist about Missouri, its pivotal role as a border state in shaping United States’ history of slavery and race, and how those fictions compare, if at all, with the realities that we might know about that state today. I look forward to discussing and exploring some of these comparisons and aforementioned contradictions in a more in depth way in the future.

Works Cited:

Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins: Authoritative Texts, Textual Introd. and Tables of Variants, Criticism. Ed. Sidney E. Berger. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.

Gillman, Susan. “‘Sure Identifiers’: Race, Science, and the Law in Pudd’nhead Wilson.” Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins: Authoritative Texts, Textual Introd. and Tables of Variants, Criticism. Ed. Sidney E. Berger. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.

Updates on New Postings for September

It’s that time of year again.  The semester starts next week for me, and during the fall, I’ll be trying to balance teaching with dissertation writing and research.  In the spirit of keeping myself on task when it comes to this blog, there are at least two posts I’m planning to make during the month of September. One will be in response to the film Belle (2013), which I mentioned in my last post, and the second will be a brief discussion on Juan Francisco Manzano (1797-1854) and his The Autobiography of a Slave/Autobiografia de un Escalvo.

Finally, for the past couple of weeks, my thoughts have also been on Michael Brown, his family, the Ferguson community, and the handling and media coverage of protests about Ferguson.  It’s a topic I have a lot of opinions about both in terms of my research on race, interiority and personhood as well as how it continues to shape my personal experience and understanding of race and citizenship as a black woman in the United States.  While I do believe in waiting to hear all of the facts surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, his death feels too closely linked to a tradition in the U.S. where lethal force is used against black citizens who may seem threatening, even if they are unarmed.

What was the threat in this situation and what was this officer Darren Wilson fearful of?  When and why does it appear that fear itself is justification enough killing someone else?  Fear is at the root of these very broad questions, but I start with fear because it is that emotion that allows us to determine how and to what lengths we protect ourselves and who we believe is worth protecting, especially within our national borders or local communities.

 

 

Belle, The Woman of Colour, and Ourika: On Authorship, Race, and Writing Interiority

I recently completed Paula Byrne’s Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice (2014), a companion piece to the 2013 film Belle that’s part biography of Dido Elizabeth Belle and Lord Mansfield and part historical analysis of slavery in the British Empire. Dido Elizabeth Belle was the mixed race daughter of Admiral Sir John Lindsay, nephew of William Murray, the Earl of Mansfield who served as Lord Chief Justice during the late eighteenth century. Lindsay had a child with a female slave named Maria Belle, and although Dido Belle was born into slavery, she was raised by William Murray (Lord Mansfield) and his wife.

Both the film and the book focus on how Dido’s relationship with Murray might have very well influenced his stance on slavery, particularly in his ruling on the Somerset case of 1772. Charles Stewart brought his slave James Somerset to England in 1769. Somerset later escaped in 1771 but was captured and imprisoned on a ship bound for the West Indies.  Although he was supposed to be sold to a plantation in Jamaica, Somerset and his godparents applied for a writ of Habeas Corpus to determine if his imprisonment was legal since, as Somerset’s council argued, English common law did not support slavery.

While Mansfield’s ruling, which freed Somerset, was seen as a sign that slavery had no place on English soil, Dana Rabin asserts in “Slavery, Villeinage and the Making of Whiteness” that, “Mansfield resolved only the question of Habeas Corpus writ. He declared illegal the coerced transportation of slaves from England and remained silent on the general question of slavery in England and throughout the empire” (6). Lord Mansfield’s stance on slavery remained ambiguous. As Paula Byrne notes, “Mansfield was ruminating anxiously on the consequences of his ruling if it went wholly in favour of Somerset, and as a result every slave in Britain was freed, he judged the loss to the proprietors as being more than 70,000 pounds” (142-3).

Dido’s presence in Lord Mansfield’s life ameliorates questions of his ambivalence in Byrne’s interpretation of their relationship, and his affection for her humanizes his struggles while also positioning Dido as an important historical figure in England and as part of African Diaspora. As L.A. Times journalist Mark Olsen writes, “Her presence serves as a catalyst for her great-uncle, the lord chief justice, to make a series of legal decisions that begin to erode the economic basis of the slave trade.”

While reading about Dido Belle, I found a few articles discussing not only the historical background of the story but also current controversies about who wrote the screenplay for the movie Belle and who, consequently, gets credit for bringing her story to a wider audience. In LA Times’ “Writing Dispute for Film ‘Belle’ Bubbles Up Again,” Mark Olsen summarizes the ongoing public struggle between director Amma Asante and screenwriter Misan Sangay, which was settled in court but still goes on in the press.  Both women claim to be inspired by the portrait shown below, and they both assert they breathed life and interiority into Dido’s image.

Dido Elizabeth Belle” by Attributed to Johann Zoffanyhttps://poeticsofinteriority.files.wordpress.com/2014/08/d1c47-didoandeliza3.jpg. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Sagay saw this 1779 painting, which features Dido Elizabeth Belle (right) with her cousin Elizabeth Mary Murray, hanging in Scone Palace in Scotland. Asante claims she received a postcard of the painting, and she used that as her inspiration. The questions around Dido’s life story, the attempts to write her voice for a larger audience, and the controversies about Belle’s screenplay remind me of similar conversations about authorship in texts like The Woman of Colour (1808) and Ourika (1823), which may both be compared comparisons to Belle.

Ourika, written by Claire de Duras, is based on the life of a young Senegalese girl purchased by the Chevalier de Buffons in the late 1780s and given as a gift to the Duchess of Orleans.  The Duchess raised Ourika until she died at the age of sixteen. Ourika was then adopted, in a more figurative sense, by Duras for her novella about the tragic life of a young black woman out of place in Parisian aristocracy during the French Revolution. It’s interesting to note that Ourika was the “first serious attempt by a white novelist to enter a black mind,” according to John Fowles, translator for the French novella (Fowles xxxii).

Making a contrast with Ourika, Lyndon Dominic, editor of The Woman of Colour, believes that this anonymously written epistolary novel “provides a missing link in the narrative history of black heroines from Imonida to Ourika” (18).  Unlike Duras’ novella, “it seems plausible to propose that a woman of colour wrote The Woman of Colour” and that a book like this, possibly based on the real life experiences of Afro-British woman in the long nineteenth century, allows us to see this work as “source material that represents her interiority” (17).

Several questions arise from these topics.  Who gets to take credit for creating a voice out of a perceived voicelessness of Dido Belle’s existence?  How is the interiority of a character linked to how we perceive our own histories and our potential futures? Who gets to claim the voices of these previously unrepresented women who may re-conceptualize how we view black presences in the West?  The movie Belle is still in some theaters and will be available online soon, and I hope viewing this film will in some way elucidate some of the answers to these questions.

Works Cited

Belle. Dir. Amma Asante. Perf. Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Matthew Goode, Emily Watson. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2013. Film.

Byrne, Paula. Belle: The Slave Daughter and the Lord Chief Justice. New York: Harper Perennial, 2014. Print.

Dominique, Lyndon Janson. The Woman of Colour: A Tale. Peterborough, Ont.: Broadview, 2008. Print.

Duras, Claire De Durfort, and John Fowles. Ourika: An English Translation. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1994. Print.

Olsen, Mark. “Writing Dispute for Film ‘Belle’ Bubbles up Again.” LA Times. N.p., 29 July 2014. Web. 29 July 2014.

Rabin, D. “‘In a Country of Liberty?’: Slavery, Villeinage and the Making of Whiteness in the Somerset Case (1772).” History Workshop Journal 72.1 (2011): 5-29. Web.