Why do we read literature?; or, Questions from the Classroom

During a class discussion last week on Ernest Hemingway’s “Big Two-Hearted River,” a student asked, “Why do we read literature? Why do we read Hemingway?” I provided a generic answer and tried to get the class to respond with their own ideas. This method completely failed. I told the class, “I cannot give you a definitive answer to that question.” I went on to talk about the construction of the literary canon, the difference between history and literature, and the emotional appeal of a reading literary texts. None of these answers seemed to satisfy the class, and I left rather disheartened. 

For the next period, the class had to read Richard Wright’s “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow” and “Down by the Riverside.” As I thought about teaching these texts, I tried to figure out the best way to explain to them about Jim Crow segregation. While looking for a possible song or film clip to help students understand the sordid history of Jim Crow in the early to mid-twentieth century, I came across Sho Baraka’s “Jim Crow” from his album The Talented Tenth. After listening to the song, I realized that it showed modern day examples of segregation and stereotypes. Along with these aspects, the song provided me with a way to help answer the students’ questions about the importance of literature.
I entered class prepared to show them why they should know literature. After they listened to the song, I asked them to identify the two references to literary texts in the lyrics. One student found the allusion to Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man immediately. Baraka raps, “I am the Invisible Man/Though I have no soul/I am from an invisible land.” I proceeded to tell the class a little about Ellison’s novel and its eponymous protagonist, explaining to them that Baraka references the text because he sees himself, as an African American entertainer, as being pigeonholed and his true identity being rendered invisible in the process.  The community, as well, becomes invisible, relegated to “nigga island” where everyone becomes lumped together as one. Students could get the meaning of these lines rather easily; however, the fact that Baraka drops Ellison in to the conversation adds more to the song’s overall meaning. Looking at the verse, Baraka traces IM’s journey, partly, even apparently referencing the paint factory where IM has his accident. Baraka raps, “Yeah I’m trying to leave this island/But swimming through bleach.”
Students tried to find the second literary reference in vain. One pointed out the mention of “Uncle Tom,” and I did recognize it as a nod to Stowe’s novel. However, here it refers to the stereotyped character that arose throughout the years. The other direct allusion comes in the second verse.  Here, Baraka intones, “Teach beauty is straight hair and the bluest of eyes.” Of course, this refers to Toni Morrison’s first novel The Bluest Eye, a novel where Pecola Breedlove dreams of having blue eyes and being white. Again, listeners can get the idea of this line without knowing about Morrison’s novel; however, realizing the allusion here adds much more to our understanding of the ideas Baraka is dealing with in the song.
Along with these texts, Baraka brings up “double consciousness,” W.E.B. DuBois, and Booker T Washington. With these, I told the class we should consider the men as literary artists. Then, I proceeded to show them that the culture they consume contains numerous references to these two men and their ideas. For one, I asked them if they watched The Boondocks. The majority of the class raised their hands and perked up. I went on to inform them that Tom DuBois’s last name comes from W.E.B. DuBois and that Huey Freeman comes from Huey P. Newton and the the surname Freeman that many took after Emancipation. As well, I pointed out a scene from one episode where two African American characters fight on a dock. During the scene, the camera shows a bucket of crabs. One crab tries to escape, and the others pull it down back into the bucket. This refers to the “bucket of crabs” analogy that Washington used.  Finally, I asked them if they listen to Childish Gambino. Again, numerous people raised their hands, and I told them that his song “Hold You Down” contains the same image.

Showing students that literature exists even in places that they don’t realize helps them see its importance. They view teachers and reading, sometimes, as things that have no benefit to their lives. If they begin to know where to look, they will expand their understanding and appreciation of literature and art without even realizing it. What are some activities you do in class that are similar to this? What song, paintings, film clips, etc. do you use? Let me know in the comments below. 

August Wilson’s "Fences" and the American City

With the announcement that Denzel Washington would  be starring in one and producing all ten of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle, I thought it would be fitting to do a brief post on Wilson’s Fences. Plenty of scholars have focused on the failure of the American Dream and the integration of sports in the play; however, I do not want to focus on what Troy Maxson and other characters say in regards to this topic. Instead, I want to look briefly at the play’s paratext, the section before Act One, simply titled “The Play.” This note provides context for the play’s action, describing the Great Migration(s) that occurred during the early and middle parts of the twentieth century in America, and the section caught my attention the last time I read the play because it provides a microcosm of assimilation and the migration of African Americans and other immigrants into Pittsburgh during the mid-twentieth century.

“The Play” only consists of three paragraphs, but those paragraphs provide a glimpse into a transitional decade that began to see strides towards integration but fell short of the advances made by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. The opening paragraph describes European immigrants who entered Pittsburgh and “sprang on the city with tenacious claws” (xvii). Wilson describes the swarm of European immigrants in animalistic terms, as entities that get “devoured” by the city for its own sustenance and cause its belly to burst open. For these immigrants, the city, even though it ingested them, welcomed them with open arms, providing them with the opportunity to achieve the American Dream that each of them sought. Each person’s limitations only came from their own level of talent.
On the other hand, Wilson describes the African American migrants to Pittsburgh in a completely different light. Instead of welcoming them and basing their progress on their own talent, the city stifled them, causing them to defer their dreams in order to merely survive. “The descendants of African slaves” moved to the city from the Southern states, each carrying with them a desire to make something of themselves (xvii). Being rejected by the city, “they fled and settled along the riverbanks and under bridges in shallow, ramshackle houses made of sticks and tar-paper” (xvii). The North did not provide the escape that many desired; instead, it only presented the migrants with a newer version of segregation and subjugation. As a result, they started to steal and suffocate under the pressure. The dream to stand free did not arrive initially, and Wilson highlights this fact eloquently.
In the final paragraph, Wilson shows how European immigrants, after World War II, “solidified the industrial might of America” and how the war itself relied on “loyalty and patriotism as its fuel” (xvii-xviii). Here, Wilson only mentions the immigrants, not the migrants. They become pushed to the side, invisible. Their accomplishments during the war and in the building of the industrial cities gets supplanted by the white, European immigrants. What does this say? To me, Wilson shows even though African Americans had the same dreams as others, they did not receive the same opportunities. Their absence here speaks volumes to how society viewed, and to a certain extent still views, the work of African Americans in this nation.
This section reminds of works such as George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes and works that focus on the progress of immigrants in American society. Cable’s novel takes place immediately after the Louisiana Purchase in New Orleans. The Creole community has an easier chance of assimilating into the American culture compared to the Free People of Color. Their phenotype allows them this opportunity. One needs to only think of Irish, German, and other immigrants as well. Frowenfield is German in the novel, and the Creole society accepts him partly because of his whiteness. When teaching literature, I try to highlight that immigrants who appear white, not matter their nationality, have an easier chance to assimilate because of their whiteness. Wilson highlights this fact in three paragraphs before the action of Fences begins. While “The Play” may appear in a playbill or program, no one speaks it in the play.
Make sure you check out my other posts on the Great Migration: “Migration and African American Literature Syllabus” and “Henry J. Lewis’s ‘The Great Southern Exodus.'” What do you think about all of this? What texts would you use with students to highlight and elaborate on what Wilson argues here? What other plays by Wilson do you use when discussing migration? Let me know in the comments below.

Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Plume Books, 1986. Print.


James Joyce’s "Dubliners" and Ernest J. Gaines

Last week, I led a discussion on the influence that James Joyce had on Ernest J. Gaines. I have written about this before, briefly, on the Ernest J. Gaines Center’s blog. There, I wrote about the reference to Joyce in Gaines’s A Lesson before Dying. Throughout his career, Gaines has espoused the ways that authors like Joyce provided models for his own writing. He says that for him to write “A Long Day in November,” he had to get techniques from William Faulkner and James Joyce. While preparing for the session, I came across some more similarities between the two authors.

For the class, they had to read “Araby” and “Ivy Day in the Committee Room.” As I read “Araby,” I came across a couple of passages that reminded me of Gaines’s “A Long Day in November.” Specifically, I thought about Gaines’s story when the narrator begins to slip in and out of dreams. During his Saturday night trip to the market with his aunt, he starts to daydream. The sights and sounds cause him to imagine himself baring a chalice through the throng of people gathered at the market. The girl he infatuates over appears before him, and the narrator says, “Her name sprang to my lips at strange moments in strange prayers and praises which I myself did not understand” (24-25). The rest of the world slips away and he perceives her in front of him; however, he questions whether or not he will ever speak to her.

The narrator’s daydream in “Araby” is magical and childlike. In “A Long Day in November,” Sonny narrates a couple of instances where he slips into dreams while relating the story of his parents. In one dream, the rain and mud prevent Sonny from playing with his friends, shifts to Billy Joe Martin showing Sonny his new dime, and finally to Sonny and Lucy riding on a horse while the family watches from a fire. Unlike the narrator in “Araby,” Sonny is sound asleep, not daydreaming. His thoughts move from one scenario to another, becoming linked through Lucy, the girl he infatuates over. Waking up, Sonny gets jolted into reality, a reality that sees his parents fighting.
Another similarity I notices centers on the focus of Gaines’s and Joyce’s characters. As he worked on Dubliners, Joyce wrote to his brother Stanislaus about the characters and settings he was in the process of creating:

Do you see that man who has just skipped out of the way of the tram? Consider, if he had been run over, how significant every act of his would at once become. I don’t mean for the police inspector. I mean for anybody who knew him. And his thoughts, for anybody that could know them. It is my idea of the significance of trivial things that I want to give the two or three unfortunate wretches who may eventually read me. (qtd in Gifford viii)

The stories in Dubliners highlight ordinary people and events. One needs to only think of “Ivy Day in the Committee Room” to see this. Little happens in this story, just as little happens in “Araby.” The actions does not serve the purpose; instead, the conversation and the setting serve to give the story its brilliance. These things highlight “the significance of trivial things” that occupy the lives and thoughts of the characters presented.  

I bring this up because it reminds me of something Gaines wrote in regards to why anyone should ever care about reading a novel about a 110 year old, illiterate ex-slave. In a speech housed in the Ernest J. Gaines Center, Gaines talks about this very fact. He argues that we should care because Miss Jane exists. She lived, and she survived. He concludes the speech in this way:

To anyone who might ask why should I read about someone who did not fight war, make laws, marry a great politicia[n] or Statesman or writer, or doctor, I would say read about Miss Jane because she survived with strenvth [sic], dignity, love and respect fro man, God, Nature, vaseball [sic], and vanilla ice cream, during the most demanding hundred years of American history.  

Just as Joyce shows the importance of the ordinary man who almost gets hit by the tram, Gaines speaks about the importance of the ordinary woman who lived over one hundred years and survived one of the most trying centuries in American history for African Americans. Both Joyce and Gaines see the importance telling stories about ordinary people who may not have gotten recognition from the world.

There are more similarities that I am starting to see between Joyce and Gaines, but for now this is all I would like to talk about here. What are some similarities you perceive? Do you agree with these perceptions? Let me know in the comments below.

Gifford, Don. “Introduction.” Dubliners. James Joyce. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992. vii-xxxv. Print.  
Joyce, James. “Araby.” Dubliners. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992. 23-28. Print.