Friday, December 7, 2007

The Renaissance and it's Impact On Our 21st Century 12/10

While the Harlem Renaissance may seem far removed from or lives in the 21st century, I would argue it really isn’t. Many of the themes we have discussed this semester are still relevant. Today, people of all races, still struggle with the “who am I” question, and even famous people of mixed ethnicity address the idea of being treated differently in different situations. (Example: Mariah Carey’s song On the Outside.) Similarly, poems about feeling different or missing your home still express the same sentiments today, even if you don’t know the background of McKay or Cullen. Much like the story of the girl from an immigrant family, who read Hughes’ “Minstrel Man” and applied it to her own personal experience. While the point of this course was not to relate the early 20th century African Americans experience to our own lives, I think it’s important to point out many of these themes are universal to the human condition, and in that way have stood the test of time.

What’s more, studying the Harlem Renaissance allows us to evaluate the amazing achievements of a group historically economically, politically, and racial oppressed. While publicity for some African American artists during the Renaissance did not change legal and de-facto segregation, or stop lynching in the south, or even change the economic conditions of many of it’s contributors, it did set in motion a chain of continued progress and advancement. White Americans were now exposed to Jazz, Ragtime, Countee Cullen, and numerous black actors who would rise to an unprecedented level of prominence in the coming decades. African Americans were now written back into history, if not in the text books, in articles and poems written by other African Americans, so that both children and adults could view a documented history that was more than a drawing of an ugly, or worst, blissfully happy slave in a history book. The Advancement of the race through education was stressed, and the next generation realized that they had not just the opportunity, but the obligation to accomplish as much as they could.

The study of events or periods in history requires an understanding of cause and effect relationships. With out the accomplishments of artist, authors, and musicians in the 1920s, the next generation would have lacked a documented history, and perhaps even the sense of identity encouraged by musically art forms and poetry. Certainly without the influence of the Harlem Renaissance, the push to better the next generation and the encouragement of African American doctors, teachers, and social workers would not have had the impacted it did, perhaps occurring much later or not at all. Similarly, without prominent black artists to look up to, the next generation might have well believed that there were only certain jobs for ‘colored children.’
\In this way, the Harlem Renaissance was an integral part of the Civil Rights movement and even the successes of many people today. Thus, in order to really understand today, we have to reflect on yesterday.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

" got tuh go there tuh know there. " 12/3

I was honestly shocked by the ending of Their Eyes Were Watching God. While we know from the beginning that Tea Cake is ‘gone’ his immaturity and pension for gambling and music made me thing that Tea Cake had left Janie. Either to be with one of the women he meets in the Muck, or just to take her money and make a new life for himself. However, the ending turns out much differently than I though.

Here’s a brief re-cap….

Janie and Tea Cake seen to be making a good life for themselves, although Tea Cake’s temper and jealously is hinted at in the beginning of chapter seventeen, when he hits Janie to prove to others (a.k.a. Mrs. Turner) that Janie would not leave him (147-149.) So life is good, until a hurricane hits Florida, flooding the muck. Unfortunately, Janie did not leave when the others evacuated and found themselves stuck in the storm trying to swim to higher ground. Interesting, the reference to people looking to God comes up here as the people of the Muck sit wondering if they will survive the storm (159.)
At one point, Janie and Tea Cake are separated by the storm and Tea Cake instructs her to grab hold of a cow swimming by in order to stay a float. Also using the cow as a flotation device is an angry (we find out later, probably rabid) dog who threatens to attack Janie. However, Tea Cake is able to reach the cow in time and struggles with the dog until he has killed it and thrown it off the cow, but not without sustaining a nasty bite on his check (165-166.) Ultimately, Janie and Tea Cake survive the storm, and after a few days of rest Tea Cake is basically required to help bury the dead (169-172.)

Shortly thereafter, Janie and Tea Cake return to the Muck, where they even find friends they didn’t expect to survive the storm had, and life is good once again, until Tea Cake begins to feel ill and can longer drink even water without chocking. Sadly Dr. Simmons informs Janie that Tea Cake has rabies and there is little they can do for him. He even suggests she send Tea Cake to a hospital or some other place he can be restrained, so that he won’t bite or attack anyone else as his condition worsens. However, Janie informs he she can’t do that, as Tea Cake doesn’t like hospitals and she doesn’t want him to think she no longer wants to take of him. We can also infer that the situation with Tea Cake reminds her of what happened to Jody, and the fact he would not let her cake for him as he got sicker. Obviously, Janie loves Tea Cake and feels as if that dog did in fact succeed in hurting her, for if she must live with out him she might as well be dead. So, she believes all she has to do is wait for the arrival of medicine from Palm Beach and he will get better (174-178.)

However, Tea Cake’s condition quickly worsens. He becomes jealous and confused; convinced that Janie’s trip to see of the doctor for an order of medicine was a secret rendezvou with Mrs. Turner’s brother (180.) When Tea Cake awakens later, Janie even finds he is keeping a pistol under his pillow. In an effort to prevent him from hurting himself, Janie spins the barrel so he will have to fire at least three times before it will shoot, but leaves it there because she is afraid he will get angry. She does however hide his rifle. Still angry and confused, Tea Cake points the pistol at Janie and she attempts to talk him down, but is forced to raise the rifle to Tea Cake when he attempts to fire three times and will not lower the gun. Ultimately, it is Janie who kills Tea Cake is self defense, and as she comes to comfort him, he bites her arm (183-184.)

After a very shirt trial (decided by a white male jury) Janie is released on the grounds of self-defense. However, it is not until Tea Cakes funeral, where Janie makes sure he buried with a new guitar in a place in Palm Beach where floods will not disturb his body, that the members of the community forgive her (188-190.) Thus, Janie’s story comes full circle, as the flash back ends and her Pheoby assures her she will not let the townspeople say bad things about her. However, the towns opinion now matters little to Janie, as she come home now becomes she finally feels she has lived her life, and is not alone even though Tea Cake is gone, because she will always have her memories (190-193.)
Although it was a sad ending and unexpected ending, I was happy for Janie. I think Hurston intended us to feel as if Janie now had all the answers, and was at peace with herself, summed up best when she tells Pheoby;
“It’s an unknown fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got to do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go to tuh God and they got tuh find out about livin’fuh theyselves.
I also get the impression that she is over the resentment she felt for her grandmother. Most importantly, the reference to the horizon re appears and sums up the way Janie feels about the life she has lead, giving us the readers a feeling of the book truly coming full circle and (sort of )clarifying the reason the novel began the way it did (193.)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Their Eyes Were Watching God 11/26

Throughout this section, I felt Hurston tackles relationships and the emotional turmoil that comes with them, as a universal theme for woman of all races. Yet, clearly uses the character of Janie, a middle class African American woman who is looking for her place in society, as a reference to the class consciousness that was prevalent among ‘elite’ African Americans of the time.

Much like Langston Hughes (whom she references in her article “Characteristics of Negro Expression”) Hurston includes references to the everyday people, not just with dialect, but with the stories of the townspeople who sit on the store porch, and later on, with references to jooks, gambling, and life in the Everglades. As an immovably stern force, Jody reminds Janie that she should not be out among just anyone, and should not carry on in the town’s conversations. However, upon his death, Jody is somewhat sympatric character, as Janie describes him as a misunderstood man who had only sought to make something of himself, Perhaps a cautionary tale against separating yourself from the plight of your race, or being over ambitious? (86-87)

After which Janie is only able to enjoy life when she stops worrying about what others think and focuses instead on what makes sense for her. Besides dating out of her class, as the townspeople and even the boy who helps with the store reminds her, Janie also goes against the accepted behavior for widows (110-111.) She’s left wondering if she will be left as the widow Tyler, high and dry, with no money and no husband. However, in the end she does leave with Tea cake, and although it seems they have a bumpy start, she finds herself in the Everglades, among yet another class of people, working as a laborer, seemingly happy, although their seems much more to learn about Tea cake.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Their Eyes were Watching God 11/19

I was honestly frustrated when I began reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. We begin right in the middle of things, with out any real explanation of characters or events. What’s more, there is apparently some sort of scandal involving the women everyone’s talking about and some man referred to as Tea Cake, and, it seems the wealthy husband of this woman recently died? If all that wasn’t enough to leave you wondering, the dialogue adds another element of confusion. Although after a few pages of reading aloud, having to actually say what I saw written gave me a pretty good idea of what the ‘dialect heavy’ words were supposed to be.

With that in mind, I tried to center in on a theme, but I got the impression I wouldn’t really understand what Hurston was trying to say, until I actually finish the book, so I settled for looking for connections to texts we’ve read. I was reminded of Johnston’s narrator in Autobiography when Janie recounts the story of how she first learned she was not white, but ‘colored’ (9.) While it was sort of a cute story, it also gave the impression that Janie’s parents were light skinned, or that she was the product of a bi-racial relationship. Additionally, we know that Janie grew up around the white family her grandmother worked for. As the chapter progresses we learn Janie’s grandmother has a very definite idea of what it means to be respectable, and wants to protect her granddaughter from the abuse her daughter suffered, by insuring that Janie marries young (15-20.)

However, the relationship between Janie and her first husband, Mr. Killicks, seems fraught with class tension, although not in an economic sense. Killicks seems to be rather wealthy, with sixty acres of land, yet he is a farmer, and more than once alludes that Janie is so spoiled being not used to hard work, that she acts as if she were white (30.) Similarly, her relationship with Joe seems to begin because he appreciates ‘gender divisions of labor’ and wants to provide for Janie in the manor he feels a woman should be provided for (29.) It feels as if these relationship are a reference to passing, although Janie, nor the men in her life, actually try to pass for white, which reminds me of the way the more ‘elite’ characters in Passing (even those who do not pass) are more aware of the social standing they hold in their small community, than the larger plight of the working class African American.

I think this theme of class/social distinction is particularly evident when Joe becomes the mayor of the experimental solely African American town. The other members of the town, especially the men begin to feel that they are being ordered around by him, yet they feel indebted to the money and infrastructure he has brought to the town (47.) Likewise, it seems even Janie resents the fact that she is being turned into to some sort of trophy wife, once again unable to find the love and understanding she was looking for. It even makes me wonder if Joe sought a relationship with Janie because she was light skinned, and he equated this with the chance to be the ‘big voice’ in a community of other African Americans (46.) Thus, although I’m not sure I have an accurate interpretation of the comment by Hicks on page 39, I certainly think it alludes to the theme of the book, and maybe what ultimately happens to Joe, Janie, and the town.
“Us Colored Focous is to envious of one ‘nother. Dat how come us don’t git no further than us do. Us talks about the white man keep’in us down! Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down.”

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Hughe's America 11/12

The Hughes poem I found most interesting this week was “America.” Although I don’t know how to characterize it stylistically, I felt it had a very obvious uplift message. Similar to the Brownie’s Book his mention of Crispus Attucks, Jimmy Jones, and Sojourner Truth reference an African American history many people, especially children, probably did not know. What’s more, the poems positive tone elaborates on the values of freedom, equality, and democracy, not in a sort of ironic light as we have seen in authors like McKay, but as something that is being accomplished. Giving the reader the impression that they have a vested interested in the cultivation of these values, just as Sojourner Truth and Crispus Attucks had. Their hopes and dreams (equality, freedom, etc. are in fact the hopes of America.
Who am I?
You know me,
Dream of my dreams,
I am America.
I am America seeking the stars. (53)

Most importantly, I thought it was interesting that Hughes chosen to reference an African American child and a Jewish child. Historically speaking, I know Jewish people have long been persecuted, and probably faced a great deal of prejudice as immigrants to America. It seems obvious that Hughes was acknowledging this and comparing it to the racism facing black Americans.
Out of yesterday
The Chains of slavery;
Out of yesterday,
The ghetto’s of Europe;
However, his comparison also makes a clear point that the Jewish child is white, yet knows something of the pain the black child has to face, as they both struggle for a better life and find obstacles in the present condition of America. He describes these racially and ethnically different children as brothers, both being a needed part of America.

I could not think of any text we had read so far that so clearly emphasized in the indifference of race in the human experience, although Johnston’s ‘Red’ character seems to have no personal indifference to the narrator’s race, and the boys in Cullen’s Tableau seem to disregard race in the interest of friendship. A more contemporary example for me was the Norman Rockwell, “Treat other’s as you want to be treated” painting, which also references that idea that America is diverse, and I think, speaks of unity in the interest that what it means to be American is to be searching for equality. I am also reminded of the Dave Matthews “I am an American” PSA that came out after September 11th.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Cullen's Search for Answers 11/5

I found many of the Cullen poems difficult to understand. As we mentioned in class, he has a very traditional style, and includes words and references you really have to stop and think about. I thought this was very much the case with “Heritage.” Although I know it is something about what Africa means to him, or maybe what he thinks it was like in the past, I understand very little of what he is describing, with the exception of the last section dealing with his feelings on God.

It seems clear that Cullen is describing the plight of African Americans and wondering why the God he prays to lets these things happen, or at the least, doesn’t really seem to care.
Wishing he I served were black
Thinking then he would not lack
Precedent of pain to guide it,…
Not surprisingly, many of Cullen other poems seem like a variation on this theme, including “Mood,” “Pagan Prayer” and “colors”, which deal specifically with his anger or confusion, as to why the God does not intervene in his black followers time of need. Similarly, in “The Litany of the Dark People” Cullen seems to be referring to African religions with the same questions when he describes the racism and violence back people face, comparable to being crucified.
Yet no assaults the old gods make
Upon our agony

I wish I could come up with some profound understanding or literary reference to sum up my point. Truthfully however, I rarely read anything outside of non fiction and, as I’m an atheist, I don’t have any religious background to draw from. Still, I think it’s pretty obvious writing was therapeutic for Cullen. No doubt he was explaining his own frustrations and searching for a way to understand why black people were simingly being forced to endure so much. In this way, although I admittedly understand very little of what Cullen specifically wrote, I find his poems to be asking the universal ‘why are we here?’ question.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Propaganda of The Brownie's Book 10/29

When I first began reading the Du Bois article “Criteria of Negro Art” I wondered what connections I could make with The Brownie’s Book. Since Prof. Wells had told us that it was intended for children, I guess I picture it as an old time Highlights, but I was considerably struck by the letter in the ‘grownup’s corner.’ While I knew that text book history did not consider the contributions of African Americans until rather recently, I hadn’t thought of what it might feel like to be a child growing up with out role models or a mother unable to tell her child about the people the text books forgot. It was then I thought about what Du Bois said about propaganda.
“Thus all art is propaganda and ever must be…I stand in utter shamelessness and say whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy.”
Du Bois argued that there was no positive example of the lives of African Americans, even in art or literature, white publishers, directors, or managers only supported arts which portray African Americans as seedy, immoral or laughable and never as “lovable or inspired” as many works about white characters did.
With this in mind, I turned a critical eye to the stories of The Brownie’s Book, searching for the ways in which positive ‘propaganda’ were used. Probably my favorite example of which was the story of Dolly, the little girl who wanted golden curls, and was thus turned into a white girls because “as you know golden curls belong to people with pinky white skin and blue eyes (42.) So much of the other texts we’ve read have dealt with passing or interracial relationships, it was interesting to read a short story which pointed out that children were are of this color scale too and thus, might wish for features which seem to them more ‘white’ or fair. However, instead of making Dolly happy with her new appearance, she learned that she could not be with her family if she was a white child, and that, essentially, although she had only changed on the outside, she had lost a part of who she was.
I also found the article on Harriet Tubman very interesting (94-96.) Clearly, one of the functions of The Brownie’s Book was to provide a history left and out in schools, and to highlight the contributions made by Tubman that affected not just African Americans, but the United States. Additionally, articles like these were probably beneficial to adults as well, who like the mother in the grown-up’s corner, acknowledged neither her nor her husband knew much about African American history.
Lastly, I tried to analyze the stories of Br’er Rabbit, but really wasn’t sure what they meant. Maybe I am looking to deeply into a children’s story, but all the stories had a rather obvious message positive message for black children. However, when I read “Br’er Rabbit Wins the Reward’ I couldn’t help but think that wolf, fox, and rabbit were sharecroppers. Expected to do manual labor no one else would, for only the promise of something once it’s completed. In the end, the rabbit seems to trick the King, not complaining, but instead talking while he worked, and completing the task for the reward. Is the author saying children and other African Americans should continue to work hard and will one day receive recognition? Is it a comment on the labor or jobs open to the lower class, or does it have something to do with the fact that the rabbit essentially tricked the King?