Mold, Spores, and The Planetary South: Further Comments on "Adjust Your Maps: Manifestos from, for, and about United States Southern Studies"

Last post, I wrote about a couple of the manifestos on Southern Studies that appear in the current issue of PMLA. Today, I want to continue this discussion by exploring a couple more manifestos, most notably Katharine Burnett’s and R. Scott Heath’s pieces. These essays reach back, to a period typically overlooked, and forward, from a new, interplanetary viewpoint. Here, I want to comment on Burnett’s piece and briefly state my interest in furthering my knowledge of Heath’s.

For me, the key point in Burnett’s “Mold on the Cornbread: The Spore Paradigm of Southern Studies” lies in the fact that she calls for a reclamation of Southern Studies that looks past the 1930s to texts written in the latter part of the nineteenth century and even to texts written before the Civil War. This re-claiming of texts from before 1930 “serves to expand American literary studies generally” because the issues that confronted the South, then and now, correspond to “other areas of the country and the world [who] share in the South’s historical, political, and economic patterns” (162). Why should we study George Washington Cable or even authors like George Fitzhugh who were ostensibly pro-slavery? 
Charles W. Chesnutt

We should examine these authors because they provide us with a broadened view of the mileu that authors such as Charles Chesnutt and David Walker wrote within respectively. I can recall teaching excerpts from  William Wells Brown’s Clotel in an American literature survey course a couple of years ago. During class, I had students, in small groups, read excerpts from Freedom’s Journal, George Fitzhugh, Thomas Jefferson, John C. Calhoun, and others. Students had to respond to the readings and discuss what they said that could relate to Brown’s novel. I chose these texts because some of them were blatantly pro-slavery and did not appear in the Norton Anthology of American Literature. When students read Fitzhugh and Calhoun, they came to better understand what authors like Brown and Walker were up against, especially given Fitzhugh’s economic arguments when justifying slavery as a practical institution. 

Thinking about an author like Cable, we must get students to read him because he wrote about Louisiana, a state that could have been, according to Thadious Davis and others, a model for race relations in the United States if it were not for the Americanization of the region following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Cable’s texts, like those of Chesnutt, present us with an image of race science and identity during the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century. Most notably, Cable’s The Grandissimes (1881) and Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F.M.C. (1921) both take place in New Orleans in the early 1800s, during a period when the free people of color had the opportunity to succeed financially, albeit while still encountering restrictions based on the color of their skin. Both texts focus on the choice of identity amidst structures that seek to keep individuals in particular categories. As such, Cable’s and Chesnutt’s novels work to explore identity that creates “a sense of place based on human interactions,” something Burnett argues we should consider in regards to Southern Studies (162). 
Likewise, Heath’s “The Other Side of Time: Theorizing the Planetary South” seeks to remove the idea of Southern Studies from a specific geographical space to a more all encompassing spectrum, one that sees the projection of space and a movement towards a spectrum where “[w]e transcend the previous idioms through transformative distortions of time signatures and space registration” (172). Heath explores afrofuturism and its relation to his theory. I can say, at this point, that I do not know as much as I would like to about this aesthetic movement apart from a handful of texts such as Octavia Butler’s Kindred. However, even with my lack of knowledge, I am interested in the ways that afrofuturism takes elements of “Southern” African American texts (containment, flight, etc.) and transforms them into an interplanetary space. I’ve heard these arguments before, and I am interested, now, to explore them further in my own studies. In the comments below, what suggestions do you have in regards to where I should start (movies, music, literature)? 

I did not discuss every piece in “The Changing Profession” section of the most recent PMLA, but I hope  what I did present leads you to pick up the current issue and read the rest of the manifestos that appear. The others cover such topics as ecocriticism, queer theory, and activism in Southern Studies. There are numerous things to think about here, of course. What are your thoughts and ideas? As usual, let me know in the comments below. 

Some Thoughts on PMLA’s "Adjust Your Maps: Manifestos from, for, and about United States Southern Studies"

At the 2016 MLA conference in Austin, TX, I attended a panel on the future of Southern Studies. During the panel, various scholars presented their manifestos on where Southern Studies is and where it should ultimately go. A couple of months after that panel, the latest issue of PMLA arrived in my mailbox with the manifestos in print. Appearing under the banner “Adjust Your Maps: Manifestos from, for, and about United States Southern Studies,” the collected essays present varying thoughts on where we would should ultimately go in regards to Southern Studies.

For the majority of individuals, both inside and outside of the academy, the South exists as an exotic region in retrograde, a place that contains the lesions and scars of racial segregation, “capitalistic exploitation,” and religious fervor, However, are these items, and more, limited to the states that exist below the Mason-Dixon Line? No, they are not? The South, for me, serves as a microcosm of the Nation and its struggles at equality and democracy. Perhaps Michael Bibler’s introductory comments to the collected manifestos sums everything the up the best. Bibler writes, “Slavery, segregation, racism, sexism, homophobia, social and political conservatism, religious extremism, capitalist exploitation–these are all national problems, not limited to the South” (154).

Today, I want to take the time to express a couple of my thoughts regarding a few of the pieces in the section, especially when considering the role of Southern Studies in serving as a Trojan horse to bring more diverse conversations in regards to literature and culture into the hallowed halls of the university. To this extent, Keith Cartwright’s “Tar-Baby, Terrapin, and Trojan Horse–A Face-the-Music Cosmo Song from the University’s Hind Tit” struck a nerve with me, especially considering the idea of Southern Studies serving as a Trojan horse to bring students who may not read The Third Life of Grange Copeland, Of Love and Dust, The Known World, A Visitation of Spirits, or other texts because they refuse to take an African American literature course into contact with multiple voices and points of view. Let’s focus regionally, instead of continuing, as Cartwright says, to be “bad copies of magnetic North’s real (but devalued and never holistic) thing” (177). 
For me, the idea of using literature and Southern Studies as a Trojan horse and to maintain a regional focus when teaching anywhere strike home. I can remember walking into countless classrooms when teaching as a GA at UL Lafayette and asking students whether or not they had ever heard of Ernest J. Gaines. Nine times out of ten, a couple of students would raise their hands to say that they had heard o from before. To me, this signified a tragedy because he taught at UL Lafayette but also resides less than two hours away. Bringing him into the classroom opens students eyes to the multitudinous obstacles we still need to overcome in regards to race relations and laws, and his work provides students with a focal point that they can draw upon because they are familiar with the region. Likewise, if I was teaching in North Carolina, I would make sure to introduce students to Randall Kenan. If I was teaching in Georgia, I would have them read Alice Walker. These are just brief examples, but providing students with texts they can relate to, especially in regards to region and locale, helps them become more invested in the content. In that way, ideas and themes that would appear in an African American literature or culture course could be integrated into an American literature survey course or a course on the novel in the twentieth century. 
Erich Nunn’s “Screening the Twenty-First-Century South” calls on us to explore the cultural production and representation of the South in this contemporary moment. He discusses Duck Dynasty, Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, True Detective, and the fact that Adult Swim originates from Atlanta, GA. Rather than pandering to natioanl perceptions of the South as a screen where the nation’s ills get reflected, we should “write back against this line [and] Smash the Mason-Dixon, indeed”(190). I have long held that the South serves as an image of the nation’s problems, specifically in regards to race and class. Recall that many African American texts (Richard Wright, Iceberg Slim, James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison, etc.) debunk the North as Paradise myth that partly helped to fuel the Great Migration. Why did the South become the Other? Why does it (we) exist in a realm that sees the region as a site for the ills of America? 
Perhaphs the most interesting section of Nunn’s article comes near the end when he discusses the Norton Anthology of American Literature‘s section on writing that emerged in response to 9/11. The sectin appeared in the seventh edition, but by the eighth edition (four years later) it was absent. While Nunn questions this move, he ultimately comments on the fact that for most of his students, from the Gulf Coast states, Hurricane Katrina served as a more tangible site of trauma. According to Nunn, “They experienced 9/11 as mass-mediated spectacle but remember Katrina and its aftermath as lived experience–not only the violence of the storm but also and perhaps more enduringly the travails of displacement–memories of friends and relatives in FEMA trailers, and so on” (189). What does this say? To me, it signifies the erasing of experiences that a region went through and survived, much like 9/11. It makes the event invisible to the academy, when numerous fiction, films, albums, and other forms of media have  appeared in response to it. I will take this point up in my next post when I discuss Katharine Burnett’s piece.
I want to conclude this post by pointing out that Mafia III, a video game due out in October, may serve as good space to interrogate some of the thoughts that Nunn presents in his piece. The game centers around Lincoln Clay,  a mixed-race Vietnam vet, and it takes place in a rendition of 1968 New Orleans (New Bordeaux in the game). Lincoln, before going to Vietnam, worked with the Black Mob in New Bordeaux. When he returns, he falls back in with the organization, and conflicts arise with the Italian Mob. Appearing to take on elements of True Detective and film noir, it will be interesting to see what comes of Mafia III and what critiques will arise, especially when considering the most recent issue of PMLA
As usual, what are your thoughts on these discussions? There are numerous other manifestos in the section, and I will discuss a couple of more in the next post. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. 


Tim Gautreaux’s "Dancing with the One-Armed Gal" and Education

In the past, I have written about education in Tim Gautreaux’s “Welding With Children” and “Misuse of Light.” Today, I want to briefly write about the way he explores ideas of identity in relation to the academy in  “Dancing with the One-Armed Gal,” the concluding story of Gautreaux’s short story collection Welding With Children (1999). In the story, Iry Boudreaux gets laid off from his job and decides to take a vacation out west. On his way, he picks up a one-armed woman named Claudine Glover, a professor of women’s studies who just lost her position at a college in New Orleans.

From the very beginning of their relationship, Claudine struggles to create, and maintain, her identity as an individual. In her past, she worked to construct an identity that would benefit her in her academic career, pulling from different areas to make a conglormate image of herself that did not reflect her true idenity. To justify this amalgamation, she tells Iry, “You don’t know how it is in academics. My Ph.D. Is not from the best institution. You’ve got to find your little niche and hold on, because if you don’t get tenure, you’re pretty much done for” (191). Claudine’s niche does not involve her scholarship or her teaching. Instead, it revolves around the false images she creates for herself. 

This identity manifests itself form the moment Iry picks Claudine up. When she enters the car, one of the first things she tells him is that she is a lesbian. At first, this admition appears to be used as a way to detract from any possible advances that Iry may be pondering; however, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Claudine devised this image to maintain her position at the college in New Orleans and to succeed. Initially, as Claudine explains to Iry, she got her position because of her gender. After a year on the job, though, the department sought to hire a “black man” to replace her. At that, Claudine announced her “one-sixteenth African-American blood,” and the college let her stay on (192). When the department started to bring in other specialists, she “stopped wearing [her] prosthesis, to emphasize the fact that [she] was not only black and a woman but disabled as well” (192). Again, the college maintained her in the position. Finally, in the fourth year, “a gay black female double amputee from Ghana” applied for a position, and the to counter, Claudine “played [her] last card and came out as a lesbian” (192-193). This time, though, the college let her go. 

Cluaidne, according to her, published and was a good teacher. We do not get a clear indication as to the reasons why the department wanted Claudine gone. Her continuing struggles to define herself, in any way that will make her more marketable, shows that instead of relying on her own accomplishments she presents herself as someone who the college would want because of a “diversity quota.” Iry points out that she should highlight her teaching strengths, especially when she meets with the new college in El Paso, TX. Instead, when Claudine speaks with the department head, she tells him “all of the reasons why his English Department needed [her]” (207). This does not work, and she does not get a position. 

Rather than being honest and straightforward, promoting herself as an accomplished scholar and teacher, Claudine continues to focus her efforts on showing the void she can fill with her identity. In essence, she invents herself out of thin air. This invention becomes evident when Iry comments on academia saying, “You invent yourself a job out of thin air” by focusing on niche subjects (197-198). Claudine’s invention falls apart throughout the story as Iry discovers she is not a lesbian and her mother looks Italian; the only truth that appears in Claudine’s story is that she lost her arm in a horse accident and she is a woman. The discussion of identity and the construction of it exists in regards to the academy in this story, but Iry mentions instances when he has been passed over for positions as well. He does not express the same vehemence in these instances as Claudine does though. 

When the story ends, the concepts of identity and reality take center stage. At a booth on the side of the road, Iry buys a necklace. Before purchasing the necklace, he asks the vendor “if the items were really made by Indians” (208). The girls nods but doesn’t smile. Iry buys the necklace, but in the car he sees a label on it that reads, “Made in India.” Here, the ideas discussed in this post take on a semiotic nature because Iry only asked if Indians constructed the items. In reality, they did. Likewise, Claudine’s claims about her own identity appear valid on a semiotic level. However, she only deploys those parts when she needs them to benefit herself. 

Authenticity and reality come into question in Gautreaux’s story, as they do in his other stories as well, and I think that a broader discussion of this topic in Welding With Children needs to be had. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below. 

Gautreaux, Tim. Welding With Children. New York: Picador, 1999.