If you are at all interested in Native American or Early American literature, I would highly recommend reading Philip F. Gura’s biography of William Apess (Pequot). The Life of William Apess, Pequot chronicles Apess’s life based partly on Apess’s own writings but also on historical documents such as newspapers, correspondence, and other items. Gura takes all of this information and paints a portrait of Apess that further solidifies the activist’s importance in our understanding of American history and literature by showing how Apess existed within the specific miles of early nineteenth century America and how he worked tirelessly to argue for the rights of his own people and other Native American tribes, from the Mashpee to the Cherokee.
James V. Hatch and Ted Shine’s two-volume Black Theatre USA has graced my bookshelf for a few years. Occasionally, I pull one of the volumes down to read or reread a play. A couple of weeks ago, I pulled down volume one and read Ira Aldrige‘s translation of Auguste Anicet-Bourgeois’s Le Docteur Noir (1846). Aldridge’s The Black Doctor (1846) contains differences from Anciet-Bourgeois’s original play and other translations. I have not looked at these other texts, so I cannot comment on how Aldridge’s additions or subtractions change the play. However, Keith Byerman has written about these differences in his essay “Creating the Black Hero: Ira Aldridge’s The Black Doctor” in Ira Aldridge, the African Roscius (2007).
|Aldridge as Othello|
When we judge or limit people based on their race, nationality, or class, we hurt them as well as ourselves. How can we claim to live in a society with democratic ideals when we still treat individuals in the same way we did during the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries? Fabian, like Charles Blow’s son, gets ostracized and profiled because of the color of his skin. Dr. Miller, like Kiese Laymon, receives rejection because of the color of his skin. When one asks why we should care about early American literature or African American literature, show them that the experiences these authors went through still exist. The question is, what will we do to flip the script? What will we do to make sure the students in Detroit, MI, receive the respect and education they deserve? What will we do to make sure that Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Freddy Gray, and countless others do not happen again? What will we do?
As I reread Lyle Saxon’s Children of Strangers (1937) for the 2016 NEH Summer Institute “Ernest J. Gaines and the Southern Experience,” I couldn’t help but think about the idea of authenticity and reality when I came to the final section in the book. There, Flossie Smith, Adelaide Randolph’s friend, encounters the fallen Famie as she leaves Easter service with Henry Tyler. Upon first meeting Famie years earlier, Flossie celebrates the mulatto’s near whiteness and praises her beauty; however, by the end of the novel, Flossie does not even recognize Famie as she sits on the mule behind Henry Tyler.
All of this reminds me, to some extent, of Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use.” There, pictures play the same role, as a means of capturing, without really exploring, conditions. Unlike Flossie and Paul, though, Wangero (Dee) takes pictures of her old home to validate where she came from, to show those back at school that she made it out. She wants to highlight her own authenticity. Like Flossie, Wangero stages the pictures. She tells her mother not to get up, and “[s]he never takes a shot without making sure the house is included” (29). When a cow meanders by, she takes a picture with the cow, house, Momma, and Maggie. Wangero’s actions mirror Flossie’s in the fact that she does not necessarily want the pictures to reflect upon positively; instead, they exist as objects that do not recognize the humanity they contain. Famie and Henry Tyler become non-existent, and Wangero’s sister and mother exist as nothing more than a past, one that only serves to show where she came from.