3/31 Discussion Questions

  1.  Does Heaney’s mention of the blackness of the body in “Punishment” motion towards his own experiences with black struggles in America, primarily in his time at Berkeley in “Views,” or is detail purely superficial?
  2. In regards to last week’s discussion of religion in Hurston’s writing, do Heaney’s works have similar subtext regarding religion, especially as an Irish Catholic who migrated from the North to the South?
  3.  How do the PSNI’s efforts to solve murders from the Troubles and heal the deep wounds of the conflict echo efforts in America to make amends for racial and ethnic discrimination through programs such as affirmative action and reparations?
  4. How do Irish citizens’ hesitations to either move on from the painful past or focus on past issues and solve them harken back to the tension of the Harlem Renaissance, in which creators tried to move past or reclaim former traumatic experience by means of their art?

Questions for Week 11: the troubles

I’ve drawn some questions about the material that might help the discussion tomorrow. These include:
1. How useful are the analogies and comparisons with African-Americans and Catholics in the north of Ireland?
2. What kind of different perspectives does studying the Irish and American Civil Rights Movements alongside each other add?
3. Is Seamus Heaney’s criticism of Berndaette Devlin and the Black Panthers fair? What does it say about the limitations of these comparisons?
4. How ethical is Heaney’s approach to representing the troubles? Do some of the depictions of victimhood, particularly its gendered aspects, unsettle you?
5. Is Ciaran Carson’s reading of the poems, posted below, fair?

‘It is as if he is saying suffering like this is natural; these things have always happened; they happened then, they happen now, and that is sufficient ground for understanding and absolution. It is as if there never were and never will be any political consequences of such acts’.

Ciaran Carson, ‘Escaped from the Massacre?’, Honest Ulsterman 50 (1975)

Christianity in Literature

I was thinking about my initial reading of John Redding Goes to Sea and how I saw John as a Christ figure. When reading, the description of John Redding’s body floating in the water stood out to me as reflecting the death of Jesus because of the positioning of his body, his torn clothes, and his blood mixing in with the water. In our discussion on Wednesday, I couldn’t come up with a reason for why I picked out this image and asked a question regarding Christianity and Biblical references. I think part of the reason is that I have been trained in past classes to look for the Christ figure while reading, since it has been brought up in so many discussions I have had before. During my freshman year of high school, Simon from Lord of the Flies was identified as a Christ figure. Same with Santiago from Old Man and The Sea my sophomore year and Jim Casy from Grapes of Wrath my junior year of high school. Just a few weeks ago in my American Lit class, one of my classmates brought up the question of whether Benjy from The Sound and the Fury could be seen as a Christ figure. Christ figures have popped up everywhere for me in my past English classes, which is why it is something I look for when reading.

There’s a danger, I think, that comes with searching for Christ figures in literature. They are usually the character in the story that makes sacrifices, is good with children, and/or experiences physical suffering. By assigning these characters the title of the Christ figure, readers accentuate the importance and power of the character’s sacrifices and morality. The issue with this – it excludes characters in literature who are women, and it excludes non-Christian readers, or those who have no exposure to the Christian religion, from a full reading of the text and the author’s intention in the crafting of a character.

Turning to Zora Neale Hurston, we discussed on Monday the lack of reverence for religion in Mules and Men. This can be seen in stories like the tale of why the church split, as Charlie explains that Christ glued together eleven rocks to build his church on. Hurston’s folklore involved a satire of Christianity as the religion of colonialism, which was imposed on African Americans who were deemed “never ready” to accept religion. Taking this point from our Mules and Men discussion, I identified John Redding as a possible Christ figure in Wednesday’s reading due to the heavy influence religion, or the critique and satire of it, had in other works of Hurston’s. Christianity plays an important role in the history and folklore that Hurston is attempting to preserve and share through her writing.

So, I guess the question I am asking of myself and others here is what is the danger of automatically identifying good male characters as Christ figures in literature? How can we reconcile this with the intention of authors and the influence Christianity has on so many works of literature? I know this is a lot broader than the specific readings we discussed this week, but the question of why so many of us posed questions about Christianity really stuck with me. Why do we (I) instinctively read this way?

The Outsider

One thing I found rather interesting while reading Mules and Men was how careful Zora Neale Hurston had to be when she was a newcomer in Polk County. She was extra cautious when interacting with the people of the boarding house, as it turned out for good reason. They treated her as an outsider – the same way that she described the way that they would treat a white person interested in their lies. She was especially considered different for having a car and an expensive dress. It wasn’t until she had made clear that she was just like them that they took to her and accepted her as a new part of the community. I thought it was rather interesting how quickly they accepted her, considering how differently she was treated from the beginning. And it was also interesting how eager they were to share their lies with her, even though she was still an outsider. They would have been concerned with telling her lies before they accepted her, but they were fine with sharing them with her so she could share them with many other people. I wonder what makes the distinction here? Where is the line? Why does it matter who shares the story if it’s going to be shared with everyone eventually?

Hurston and History

Emerging towards the latter half of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston works at a crossroads of African-American expression, trying to break free from previous stereotypes and caricatures of the black experience in America, such as the cake walk and other forms of minstrelsy which are still close enough in time to hang over the period.   While some authors, such as Alain Locke, wish to “scrap the fictions” and forget any negative depictions and performances of black culture seen commonly in minstrelsy, Hurston instead decides to refer back to these performances and comment upon them but still try to create authentic forms of African-American expression.  What Hurston accomplishes in her work, notably Color Struck, is the ability to use these pre-exisiting cultural markers, such as the climactic cake walk, and use them to bolster new issues at hand in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, such as color and the institution of marriage.

Although the cake walk functions as the main force of the plot in Color Struck, Hurston uses this dance to act as a backdrop to the newer, more personal problems rising within the Harlem Renaissance, showing an acknowledgement of the past as well as a sort of evolution beyond it by placing deeper issues as the main conflict of the work.  While Emma and John bicker and argue about how to approach the cake walk dance, with Emma holding the view that such practices should be left behind and John trying to enjoy it as an act of liberation and reappropriation, the heart of the play focuses upon the pair’s issues with colorism and the delay and eventual failure of marriage.  Emma’c concern that John will leave her for any light-skinned girl shows the concern during this period about how dark and light-skinned black people begin to view each other differently, with light-skinned black people tending to have more opportunities to achieve success and move up in the world because of their lighter complexion.  This tension and uncertainty about how to approach such issues also appear in the works of other prominent Harlem Renaissance writers, such as Nella Larsen and Jessie Fauset.  This, along with Emma’s reluctance to complete the dance, leads John to dance with Effie instead, ending the earlier segment of the short play on a note of colorism leading to the dissolution of love, all while the issues of the cake walk still linger in the minds of both Emma and John.

Twenty years later, removed from the cake walk incident, Emma and John meet again, though each has gone to achieve unfulfilled romance in their own lives,  with John’s wife dying and Emma giving birth to a child with an absent father.  While the two seem to work things out and begin to come back together, Emma is once again infuriated by John’s apparent interest in her daughter because of her light skin.  This final encounter leads to the two fighting, resulting in Lou Lillian not getting the medical attention she requires and dying.  This brief epilogue to the cake walk scene shows Hurston’s own views on the debate of that and other preexisting cultural performances; after a while, these issues will go away, but the more personal issues which many Harlem Renaissance writers focus upon and experience in their own lives are more important and will repeat beyond the issues seen in the cakewalk.  While she first uses the dance as a central conflict in the pair’s youth, her later focus upon the issues of “jealous love” and colorism shows her desire to resole these issues first and foremost to substantially fuel the rise of African-American expression which the Harlem Renaissance aimed to achieve, not merely dwell on the past.  By incorporating images of the past in her works, Hurston shows her awareness of the past and how to appropriately use it, while still adding new themes and topics to actually move African American prose forward in the twilight years of the Harlem Renaissance.

Hurston’s Attitude Towards Leaving in “John Redding Goes to Sea”

When we talked about how people moving away causes a community to irreparably change, we posed the question of whether it was odder to keep everyone home or let people go off to sea. I wanted to explore this idea further, using “John Redding Goes to Sea.” Despite Hurston’s idea that the community will be destroyed if one leaves, her narrative seems to portray the idea that keeping everyone home is strange. For John, the call to leave is something inherent to his nature. All of his dreams, from the time he was ten, had centered around sailing off into the horizon. His father reinforces this idea that this embedded wish to travel is normal, remarking, “It jes’ comes natcheral fuh er man tuh travel. Dey all wants tuh go at some time or other but they kain’t all get away” (4). In this story, the main reason that the men can’t get away seems to be a result of the conformity they tie themselves down to in marriage and the family unit.

In John’s case,  the “community” that he would be irreparably changing by leaving is this very family unit. His family consists of his mother, father, and his wife. The women are portrayed negatively as a result of their efforts to keep John at home, suggesting that they are incorrect in doing so. The mother is a manipulative character who purposefully uses her emotions in order to get what she wants. She is selfishly holding onto John and because she does not want things to change and never pauses to think about what might be best for his own interests. Furthermore, the women are denying something deep within John’s nature by keeping him home. Despite his best pleadings and promises, the women remain unwilling to compromise. They are forcing him to conform to his marriage and the expectations for the family unit. John is terribly burdened, as he is faced with the choice between the ones he loves and his destiny.  

John ultimately decides to rebel against conformity and disobey his mother and wife so that he is able to set sail. He refuses to let anyone or anything get in the way of his dreams. The story gets a bit more complicated, as John dies before he is able to fulfill his plans. John is given his own sweet moment in the end as he is finally allowed to float away and live out his dream in death. If John had left of his own accord, however, the women would have considered him to be dead to them anyways. In this scenario, it is just a literal death instead of a metaphorical one. Leaving, whether living or dead, has always been John’s destiny and no one could ultimately stop that. 

Even though Hurston puts forth the idea that communities are lost when one leaves, “John Redding Goes to Sea” seems to suggest that keeping one tied to the past is futile. This is true both within the story and within the broader world. Hurston seems to have realized that the societies are changing, no matter what one does to stop it. Rather than fighting against these changes, writers—such as Hurston and Synge—capture pieces of these places in their works, helping to preserve or reclaim what was. Hurston especially realizes that it is time to leave behind past conformities and pave a new future. While it is a shame the communities are lost, there is a future with brand new prospects being gained for those moving on.

Writing Community

I was thinking a little bit about lies after our class on Monday. I wonder if, rather than having a negative connotation, which I think we agreed wasn’t the exact way it was utilized, if calling their stories lies was more a statement of agency over the tale.  Calling it a lie gives the teller ownership and creative liberty to take and change another tale or embellish for your crowd without incurring overt questions of accuracy. As a lie, it doesn’t need to be true, in fact you are directly claiming it isn’t, and it opens up a new realm of creative endeavor and ingroup cultural performance, and maybe even a higher degree of underlying truth and authenticity because of the pressure taken off the storyteller. You are at liberty to pit God against the Devil and have still have Man win for once, and the only one who can tell you otherwise is someone with a better lie.  It creates or maybe was born out of a particular type of exchange, and Hurston’s interactions and lies on the porch stoop seem to have a very different tenor than Synge’s collection of folk tales in The Aran Islands, and play into the community building lying seems to suggest.  

Community, or what it means to leave your community, seemed to be a large part of our readings for the week, but that aspect wasn’t clear to me upon my initial readings. I was more focused on thinking further about these gestures between Hurston and Synge. This community focus, however, and its implications in the Atlantic world, feels like the most direct connection between the two.  Briefly setting aside Synge’s complicated place in the community he observes, both he and Hurston are engaged in attempts at cultural preservation in the face of impending loss. Atlantic travel irreparably altered both the Irish and the native Africans who were taken in the slave trade and the alterations of both were reflections of pain and trauma (though admittedly distinct and different traumas). As we have established in many class sessions, the Irish faced economically mandated migration and deep hunger and the resulting threats to culture and language are what Synge seeks to combat.  Hurston seeks to preserve the stories of her community and their cultural value brought out of the collective trauma of slavery from the changes that Northern migration and modernity were bringing to the American south. The importance of these stories can be read in the tragedy both writers write into their loss. In Riders to the Sea we saw the devastation of a whole family – losing all of their men to the power and pathos of the ocean – and as Synge saw men as the cultural repository for Western Ireland, this significant and hyperbolic loss is particularly tragic.  Similarly in Hurston’s John Redding Goes to Sea there is a man lost to the sea in the wake of a foregone blessing that results in female lamentation and an immense sense of loss.  Beyond the ostensible loss of life in these stories, there is a sense of something larger lost or missing or perhaps misplaced, like a sense of unfulfilled promise or legacy, gone in the swell of the ocean.  Not all is dark and tragic however, because in the loss of the storytellers highlighted in these works, there is gained, this new literature of preservation, that of Synge and Hurston themselves, and a creative endeavor towards conceptualizing peoples and traditions.  Forgive my probable rambling throughout this post, but this is my best way of coming to understand these moments of renaissance as moments of recapturing and piecing together a wholeness through both preservation and new creation rather than an actual rebirth.      

As a final thought, if Renaissance, or rebirth, is an inadequate term to encompass the true spirit and accomplishments of these complementary movements of preservation in Ireland and Black America, is revival a better way to gesture towards the sense of recapturing? Or is there some other term that would truly characterize these eras?

Reconciling Hurston and the New Negro

After my presentation on Monday, I was having trouble placing Zora Neale Hurston within the New Negro ideology. I wondered if I misidentified the New Negro idea, as presented by Alain Locke. I questioned why she would write these stories that seemed so stereotypical of an African-American experience in the South. With the freedom offered by the Harlem Renaissance and the opportunity to express oneself for the first time, I wondered why Hurston would returned to these images. I seriously considered whether Hurston was participating in minstrelsy through this portrayal.

However, what Professor Kinyon said in class on Wednesday about this point has really stuck with me. Hurston’s approach in writing Mules and Men doesn’t have anything to do with the racist and stereotypical portrayals of African-Americans by whites. Hurston is showing African-Americans, plain and simple, and what white people choose to think about the individuals she has depicted is irrelevant.

While I agree with this analysis of Hurston’s approach, I wonder if we are returning to the conversation we had earlier in the semester on art being apolitical. The presentation of stereotypical characters in addition to the cakewalk in Hurston’s work attempts to present these aspects of African-American life outside of their political meanings during Hurston’s time. However, while Hurston attempts to preserve these cultural practices, I assert that by the time she writes these works, these practices have already been lost. They can now longer exist as purely representations of African-American culture; viewing them in that light would allow art to be apolitical and ignorant of the political moment. While I have come to terms with why Hurston wants to preserve these cultural remnants, I moved to the question of whether that is possible and, at the moment, I am leaning toward the idea that, as soon as minstrelsy altered the political weight of these cultural practices, these practices were lost and could not be recovered. In line with Professor’s paper, it seems that preservation is not an accurate representation of Huston’s work in Mules and Men or “Color Struck.” Rather, despite the joy that is depicted at times throughout these works, this writing is a eulogy for what has been lost, not a preservation of what is slipping away. Hurston gives a eulogy for the image of the Black southerner and the cakewalk dance, pure black expressions now always connected to minstrelsy and the political gain of whites. All art is political and, by looking at Hurston through this line of thinking, her work aligns more closely to the politically-bent New Negro ideology of Locke than I initially surmised.

Marriage and the Lack of Whiteness in Hurston’s Stories

In both Color Struck and John Redding Goes to Sea, there is a marriage that is left unfulfilled after a death. Emma’s marriage with John is unfulfilled due to the death of her daughter and John Redding’s marriage with Stella  is unfulfilled due to his own death. I believe that the fact that both stories include these unfulfilled marriages resulting from death and lack the presence of whiteness reveals Hurston’s belief that the institution of marriage is inherently flawed because it is a white Christian invention. John Redding’s marriage acts only as a restricting force in his life, preventing him on going on a journey across the world. When he decides to both go on his journey and remain married he dies, showing that Hurston believes one cannot be free to choose their own path under the constricting force of marriage. Emma’s wait to be married to John in Color Struck shows a similar issue. Emma does not follow new ideas such as interracial marriage because she is bogged down in traditional thinking, which leads her to wait in sadness for John to marry her for twenty years. The traditional Christian ideas of marriage hold both John Redding and Emma from living adventurously, which causes the mood of sadness at the end of both stories.

The sad endings of these stories are a result of the black characters’ inability to live within the confines of Christian marriage, an institution founded by whites. I believe the lack of whiteness in both stories then furthers the ridiculousness of the restrictive ideas of Christian marriage. The African American adoption of the white ideas of marriage seems unnatural in both stories. The queerness and exploratory nature of John Redding contrasts with the simplicity and dullness of marriage. Emma’s life as a single mother contrasts with traditional patriarchal ideas that come with being in a Christian marriage. Being happily married does not feel like the right ending for John Redding or Emma because Hurston is not comfortable with the idea of marriage itself. The reason there is a failed marriage at the end of both stories is because the institution acts as a white intrusion on Hurston’s vision of black society, preventing that very society from reaching bliss.