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.

Race, Space and Standing Your Ground: Interiority and the George Zimmerman Trial and Trayvon Martin Case

A few days ago, I ended my last post with a link to Defining the Question of Interiority, which discussed interiority, partially in terms of architecture but also in terms of blurring the lines between interiority and exteriority. This link quotes from another interesting source, The Body Within: Art, Medicine and Visualization (2009), which talks about the problematic nature of the interior and imagining one’s interiority as both material and invisible and intangible

Interiority is always based on something exterior, something with extension, something that cannot be internalized or appropriated. Things with extension are spatial (119).

In trying to resolve this relationship between interiority and exteriority, the inner self and the actual flesh and blood that surrounds, Jenny Slatman writes in Chapter 6 of The Body Within, “Transparent Bodies: Revealing the Myth of Interiority,” that “At first glance, we might be inclined to say that interiority is the space beneath the skin” (108). What is this “space”? Is it psychological? Is this interior traceable by brain activity? Seen by x-ray? Perhaps it’s at least a spatial and psychological concept and both visible and invisible. Visible because we do have an interior beneath the skin: our flesh, bones, internal organs, but also visible in psychological terms as well through actions and the motivations that seem to be behind one’s behavior. If, as Slatman continues, “Psychological and spatial interiority converge in this so-called phenomenon of bodily subjectivity,” then interiority is based on both one’s bodily experience and also one’s individual perspective and experiences in relationship to how one’s body interacts with cultural and national spaces (110).

I was thinking about these themes after finishing Suspicion Nation last week, Lisa Bloom’s analysis of the 2013 George Zimmerman trial. She brings up some of these themes implicitly in her critique of the legal argument the prosecutors presented to the jury and in her concerns about the cultural baggage and biases that led to Zimmerman’s acquittal and that continue to lead to a general suspicion of black men and racial others in the United States. How we understand or make assumptions about a person’s inner thoughts must be put in context of how we view his or her relationship to his or her body and the outer world. If interiority is the space beneath the skin or product of experiencing bodily subjectivity, then skin, or one’s skin color and the ethnic/racial meaning that skin connotes, influences how we understand a person’s inner thoughts, desires, fears, and motivations. Interiority is relevant to how we view a person’s relationship to the world and his or her right to protect and own space and have a place in this world.

Bloom mentions Stand Your Ground Laws, though not explicitly part of Zimmerman’s defense, to explain U.S. preoccupations with crime, race, and space. These laws “expanded traditional self-defense doctrine to allow those who felt threatened in virtually any location to use deadly force even if they could have escaped without violence” (Bloom 12). Such a belief in one’s right to claim space and protect one’s turf by any means necessary shaped Zimmerman’s defense and belief that he was reasonable in his fears of Trayvon Martin. Bloom argues that while Zimmerman was deemed reasonable in his fear and eventual killing of Trayvon Martin, neither the defense nor more importantly the prosecution gave a voice to Trayvon Martin’s inner feelings the night he died or gave any value to who he was as a human being, all of which influenced how the jury viewed these two men and what motivated their actions. 

And much of that comes back to how we view interiority and what we believe lies beneath the skin. George Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin as suspicious because of a combination of factors dealing with his anxieties about race, space, interiority as they figure in the “black-as-criminal image” that according to Bloom “has been with us at least since the nineteenth century, when explicit racism portrayed African-American slaves’ essential nature as ignorant and savage and in need of the ‘civilizing’ influence of the white man” (232). Zimmerman was allowed to feel afraid for his life, to defend his body and his turf. Acknowledgement of these inner feelings and respect for his bodily subjectivity allowed him to claim physical space and do so with lethal force. His innermost feelings or more accurately, his race-based paranoia, had a voice. His feelings, his anxieties, his desire to feel safe in his gated community were privileged above Travyon’s interiority and bodily subjectivity in court of law.

Charles Taylor writes in Sources of the Self that, based on a tradition in the West of respecting human dignity and one’s individual rights, “we [in the West] believe it would be utterly wrong and unfounded to draw the boundaries any narrower than around the whole human race” (6-7).   But boundaries are drawn among members of the human race depending on whether or not we recognize one’s interiority. To have the law and society recognize these interior experiences as well as protect one’s bodily subjectivity allows one to claim rights and protect one’s space as sacred, untouchable. How do such rights emerge from this recognition of bodily integrity and subjectivity? How does it correspond to how we engage in our society and nation at large? These are questions I hope to touch upon in my next post.

 

 

Possible Digital Humanities Projects about Race, Space and Interiority

It’s been two months and six days since my last confession…I mean my last post. It has been awhile since I’ve written and I hope to rectify this, at least for my own sake, by posting more often this summer.  In the time that’s passed, I have continued learning to code through codecademy.com.  I’ve finished HTML and am slowly working my way through CSS.  I must confess that I never knew coding could be fun, but it is and I hope to finish those lessons by September.

I began this blog not only to keep track of my progress in acquiring new skills but also as part of a desire to link a burgeoning curiosity in digital humanities to my academic research interests. Since my interests and even the title of this blog are dedicated to topic of race, space and interiority, I hope in future posts to discuss interiority, subjectivity and selfhood and how we articulate and aestheticize these concepts.

While I connect “interiority” to words like “subjectivity or “selfhood” in the paragraph above, “interiority” in particular interests me because it links selfhood and subjectivity to a location. In the simplest definition(s) of the word, “interiority” refers to being within or inside something, a house or a room or some inhabitable space. It might also refer to somewhere inland from the coast or border or something that pertains to domestic, national issues.  The Department of the Interior may have been named with such a focus on territorial and U.S. internal/domestic issues. Finally, interiority can also indicate something’s inner nature or someone’s internal spiritual and psychological disposition.

So, what happens when we view ourselves as having an interior or an inner self that is private and hidden by its very nature of being internal while also being important to how we deal with the world outside of that internal self? What are the implications of understanding subjectivity and selfhood as founded upon a spatial existence within the body? How does this reflect how we understand ourselves and others in relationship to the spaces we can and cannot inhabit? How do we represent and discuss this interiorized self in novels, TV and film?  How do we reveal and even confess these interiorized selves and why do we do this? What rights does interiority grant us and what rights and/or privileges are denied when this sense of interiority isn’t recognized culturally or legally?

In the next weeks and months I hope to discuss ways these questions are answered and post such findings here.

I end this week’s entry with a link to a post I stumbled upon recently that discusses interiority and space as it relates to architecture, culture and identity and how we define our interior and exterior spaces. Defining The Question of Interiority brings up interesting questions I hope to discuss next week.

 

Now, Voyager: Beginning a Journey in Digital Humanities

“What should I write about first?”

For a few weeks now, I’ve been asking myself this question as if the perfect post was out there in the world, and all I had to do was wait for it to find me.

After attending my first THATCamp (dc2014!) last Saturday, April 26th at George Washington University, I realized that the perfect first post would be any post. All I had to do was sit still and write it.

As a graduate student at George Washington University’s English Department, I’ve spent much of this last year online looking through databases as part of my ongoing research on nineteenth-century American and hemispheric literature. However, I have also found various ways to distract myself online with everything from Youtube to Twitter to Tumblr, and I have become fascinated by the ways in which people with various levels of knowledge can reach wider audiences and influence and mobilize people. While I understand and appreciate the ideals of the Ivory Tower, I would like to use and present my academic research for pedagogical use to a larger, general audience as well.

Therefore, I have started this blog with one main goal in mind: to learn about and participate more in the world of Digital Humanities. It’s a lofty goal as “digital humanities” lingers in my mind like a lofty, nebulous term. In the next few weeks and months, I will keep track of whatever knowledge I acquire about digital humanities and web development. My goals in acquiring these new skills are not grounded in a need for more money (though I’d love more) or job (though I’d love to have a well-paid one!). I am simply curious and have a lot of questions. Is there a way to translate my research and the connections I’ve been making regarding race, space, and interiority to an online database or site? What would such a project look like? What would I need to learn to make this possible? What would it mean for my research to be public in such a way? I have no answers to these questions right now, but I believe that asking these questions and asserting these new goals in the here and now is a necessary first step in moving forward in any direction.

And thus ends my first post in what I hope will be the beginning of a wonderful journey in learning new skills and getting out of my comfort zone in some fun, frustrating and rewarding ways!