3/30 Discussion Questions

Heaney’s poems center around the punishment and suffering of women. Why women? Did The Troubles affect men differently than women? How would the poems change if they instead focused on men?

In the song adaptation of Strange Fruit, the singer refers to black bodies hanging from trees. The majority of those hanged were black males. Did anyone else see the black bodies it was referring to as males? How did this affect your reading? If Heaney’s other poems were rewritten and situated within the context of black America, would they focus on men or women?

“The central paradox of the process is that on the one hand, if society is to move forward, then it may be necessary to leave bitter experiences from the past behind. At the same time, many argue that if past hurts are not dealt with then they can provide the seeds for future conflict” (Fitzduff and O’Hagan) Which way do you think is better in order to move forward? What does all of the literature that we have read so far this semester seem to say about it? Is there a way to do both at the same time?



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.

Discussion Questions 3/25

In John Redding Goes to Sea, John is repeatedly described as “queer.” Is this meant to be taken as meaning odd, gay, or both?

Would John have been able to leave if he hadn’t gotten married? Why don’t the women want them to leave? Are there forces greater than the women that are keeping these men tied down? How does this compare to Irish men trying to leave their homes?

I also found the point about “the new refusing to acknowledge the old” in Color Struck to be very interesting. What does this do to the act of cakewalking? Does it help the blacks to make it more their own?

3/23 Discussion Questions

Adding on to Julian’s questions, there were a few questions I had that I was hoping we would get to discuss as well.

To start, does Hurston fit into the ideas of the Harlem Renaissance? Mules and Men was published near the end of the Renaissance timeline. Do you see it as a part of it or something that marks the beginning of a new literary era?

Why do the people refer to the stories as “lies”? What does this say about how they view the stories? How does it affect how the audience comes to interpret the stories?

On page 20 of Mules and Men, a man makes a remark about preachers and how they have no greater authority to preach as they aren’t any different from anyone else. This moment stuck out to me. Why did Hurston include this? What did this moment mean to you? Did you take it to be something larger than a man complaining about preachers?

I was also hoping to talk about whether anyone saw differences in the stories she was told in Eatonville, where she was welcomed and considered a local, and the stories she heard elsewhere, where she was considered to be an outsider. How does one’s position in the community affect the stories that they are told?

A New Perspective on Progress

In class this week, I was constantly questioning the cakewalk and whether one should view it as a tool of resistance. I seemed to be very fixed on the idea that it could not have been the tool that Brooks claimed it was, as it both seemed to be offensive and did not seem to be successful or recognized in the moment that it was performed. After much reflection, I have realized that I was approaching it from too harsh a guideline. In today’s society, we are pushed to strive for the best and to not be content until we have reached the place that we hope to end up. This is the mindset that I was applying to the cakewalk. I was demanding that it would adhere to a standard that would be impossible for it to have during the time it was made—it would have never been allowed to go on. In doing this, I lost sight of the importance of baby steps in controversial issues, such as racial struggles. 

Paving the way for progress is important, even if one is forced to do so in a transitional way. This is what Williams and Walker are doing with In Dahomey and its controversial inclusions, such as the cakewalk and black actors in blackface. They are getting their foot in the door, flipping the script normally used against blacks, and helping to set a foundation for the racial change to come. Representation is the first step to good representation. The reviews that we read may have played down the cultural and political significance of the cakewalk and the reclamation by the blacks, but history has not. Williams and Walker were exploiting the cakewalk and playing up other negative stereotypes for their gain and to the advantage of the black theater community. The very fact that we study this play so many years later supports the importance and overall impact that Williams and Walker had in paving the way for blacks on stage and in the American culture. Change starts with one person or group of people and their reclamation makes it possible for the larger reclamation.

This situation reminds me a lot of the way that I, and many others, view the n-word. The n-word is a word that I think is inherently derogatory and rooted in hate. There are blacks, however, who see the reclamation of it as empowering and a form of resistance that is used in both art and everyday speech. While it may appear to be problematic, there is some correct thinking within it. Their opinion of it is what really matters, as it contributes to their individual liberation. The n-word was used to define the blacks of the past, but now they are using it to represent themselves and attempting to redefine its very meaning. They are using the word in their own context and with their own agency. This action will perhaps also be a gateway for cultural change, or at the very least, a conversation starter.

The Melting Pot vs. The Salad Bowl

The Melting Pot is a theory of American culture that grade schools have been teaching for numerous years. Metaphors usually don’t translate as well as they should, but I’ll try my best to work through the ideas. I propose that America is a cultural “Melting Pot.” I do not, however, think that it is a melting pot in a positive sense and it is certainly not one of cultural acceptance and inclusion. The Melting Pot was a welcoming place for those of European descent. They were the broth (or the base) that constituted what everyone else had to conform to. It would be easy for one to distinguish between a broth and a non-broth item. If you wanted to fit in and be a full member of American culture, you hoped to become the broth. This can be seen within the Irish. The Irish were initially big pieces, out of place in this melting pot. As time went on, however, the Irish were faced with an enticing offer. If they chose to align with the Democratic party and assimilate, they would be allowed to melt into the pot fully and be treated as equals and “white.” Their assimilation into this pot would end their oppression in America and allow them to claim a sense of belonging in the society. The blacks, on the other hand, were chunks that could not be melted into this pot at all. They were bones perhaps, something that one did not want in the pot to begin with. They were not meant to fit into society, just to be used as slaves and considered to be property. 

Gulliver from Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels is one example of a character whose travels take him to societies that also conform to the melting pot model. Like the Irish, he chooses to assimilate with the people that he comes across in his travels (or at least attempts to as much as possible.) This can be seen in the adoption of the customs of the foreign land he sets foot on and the rejection of his English identity in the process. In Zion Boucicault’s The Octoroon, however, Zoe refuses to assimilate into the melting pot of the society. Zoe is a peculiar character in the context of the melting pot—she could pass as part of the broth because of her white ancestry, but she feels as though her one-eighth black heritage completely isolates and separates her from them. Zoe refuses to leave behind her black heritage and bloodline, even when offered the opportunity to assimilate into society through marriage. Despite the other character’s insistence that she could assimilate or the idea that she could “pass” as white, Zoe seems to subscribe to the “one-drop rule.” This is an ideology that even a small percentage of black heritage makes one’s identity black, or non-white. Zoe breaks societal norms by adopting this rule, rather than the usual situation of whites using it as a tool for oppression and justification for the separation of the other. In the Melting Pot, Zoe appears as though she could be broth (white), but she sees herself as the bone (black) that does not belong. This complicates the audience’s understanding of the melting pot and race in the play, calling into question the structure of both and their legitimacy.  

When I was in middle school, they also introduced the theory of a cultural “Salad Bowl”, suggesting that it might be a more inclusive and accurate representation of how America’s culture developed. Unlike the Melting Pot, which is homogenous, the Salad Bowl is a heterogeneous mixture. This heterogeneous mixture was something that we were taught to promote diversity, as it allows one to recognize the individual identities that contributed to the whole of American culture. This concept, however, was more optimistic or idealistic than they realized. Perhaps the Melting Pot theory is historically accurate because of how its problematic nature reflects the problematic way in which American culture developed. Upon its analysis, it more accurately and frankly addresses the injustices of the time, instead of sugar coating it in the way that the Salad Bowl attempts.

When Language Fails, What Are We Left With?

The idea of language failing to effectively communicate one’s feelings and experiences is something that fascinates me. As an English major, the idea that words can fail should seem unfathomable. Yet, being unable to articulate a feeling or traumatic experience is something that is a reality to those such as the Irish, who struggle with how to explain their sense of self. This week, in relation to both the Douglass and McCann pieces, we talked a lot about the referencing of the “other” group when trying to explain one’s own experience. 

Specifically, I want to address the way in which the word “slave” or “slavery” is used in connection to the experiences of both the Blacks and the Irish. The Irish and Blacks are two groups of people being told, “You are this.”  In the quest for liberty from these labels, they must ask, “If I’m not what they have been saying I am, who am I?” In the case of the Irish, as we discussed earlier in the semester, the Irish were referred to as white n******. This connection to the Blacks was ingrained into the ways that they viewed themselves. Perhaps this is where the Irish’s feelings and metaphors of being a “wage” slave or like a slave stems from. 

In Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom, he writes about how the Irish’s use of “slave” is an unfair comparison that shouldn’t be drawn (Douglass). McCann’s TransAtlantic, however, is not as outright in his condemnation. One gets the sense that McCann’s Douglass is uneasy with the shared use of the terms, but he is not as confrontational about it as the real Douglass was in his piece. Both the Irish and Blacks underwent awful oppression but their circumstances were far from the same. The Irish are poor and hungry, but they are free and can grow food. The Irish Americans were also not oppressed in the same manner as the Blacks and are given chances to be the oppressor in America. The Blacks, however, were always the oppressed and never the oppressor. 

While perhaps not accurate, I do not think that this adoption or comparison is ill-intentioned. I do not think that the language itself is malicious, but the mindset behind it can become problematic. Phrases such as the “Black O’Connell” take away from Douglass’ own merits and individual identity. He can’t just be Douglass because of his race, even in Ireland. All of this is a very important discussion, as Prof. Kinyon pointed out, remains a very relevant topic even in today’s political sphere, where it unfortunately remains a problem. This raises even further questions: If words fail people, such as the Irish, who just want their experiences and flights to be recognized, what do we do? Do we forgive their missteps in language? What can we do to correct them? Certainly, there are no clear cut answers to these questions, but they are ones that individuals and society must consider as we move forward in history.

Belonging in Gulliver’s Travels

In our discussion of Gulliver’s Travels this week, we touched on Gulliver and his sense of belonging in the world. I found Gulliver to be a peculiar character, as I cannot tell whether he hates the idea of belonging altogether or only belonging when connected to England and the Yahoos. In support of the former, Gulliver is always traveling and never stays in one place for too long (if he can help it). He is of English birth but has no true home; he transfers his “home” to wherever he is. Gulliver seems like he is the most comfortable when he is in the states of in-between found in his often aimless traveling. To most people, being in between two states is often an uncomfortable position. Gulliver, however, always seeks to set himself out into the unknown, leaving behind all sense of belonging in the process. 

On the other hand, Gulliver seems as though he is always ready to jump into a new culture, as long as it is not English. During his travels, he readily abandons the ways of life that he learned from his English origins in order to conform and belong with the peoples that he encounters. He adopts the customs of both the Lilliputians and the Houyhnhnms, learning their languages and contributing to their societies. Gulliver even sees the Houyhnhnms’ way of life as far superior to any of the peoples he’s seen before, including the English. Gulliver is a product of English society but, as a result of his travels, comes to completely reject his national origin and even his identity as a Yahoo. He does not reject all sense of identity and belonging, however, as he comes to express his wishes to find a place of belonging among the Houyhnhnms. So, is it just England (and the Yahoos that inhabit it) that Gulliver wants to abandon or is it all sense of belonging as well? What does the answer mean for us as the reader?

The Problematic Nature of Mardi Gras

In Roach’s “History, Memory, and Performance,” he talks about New Orlean’s Mardi Gras festival culture and the history of discrimination that the floats and parades are rooted in. This is something that caught me off-guard, as I was always taught growing up that these were respectful and “good” celebrations of culture. This is perhaps because I was taught that they were a French celebration, which completely whitewashes the significant role that cultural-mixing played in forming New Orleans and its traditions. Roach’s article caused me to view the Mardi Gras festivities in a different light and to reconsider other instances of cultural celebrations. While at face value, it may seem as though these festivities are important as they bring awareness to a group of people and their traditions, not all representations and performances are positive. I did not realize that the Mardi Gras groups were appropriating Black culture through racist means, such as blackface and minstrelsy. The inappropriate and racist nature of blackface is something that is being called attention to more in today’s society and the news, and for good reason. This negative idea of Mardi Gras seemed similar to how some Irish people take offense in the depiction of the Irish as drunks St. Patrick’s Day, which is often appropriated as a day where people can get drunk in the spirit of the Irish. It is important for society today to realize that representation is not enough; the quality of the way that people are remembered is just as and perhaps even more important.

Questioning “Proximity” and Legitimacy in the Atlantic

In Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic as a Counterculture of Modernity,” he explores Martin Robinson Delany and his views and impacts on the Black community. He starts off by introducing Delany and claims that he is viewed as being more relevant or legitimate as he has a closer “proximity” to Africa than people such as Frederick Douglass. I am not sure, however, whether this added sense of legitimacy is justified, especially when the content of what Delany speaks about is considered. Delany proposes an idea that he and the Black community should ultimately seek to go back to Africa, or what he calls the “fatherland.” Delany’s notions of belonging and returning “home” are troubling, however, as he sees Africa from a viewpoint very similar to that of colonizers. He does not truly see Africa as home and would require multiple things to change before he would find it to be a suitable place to live. He thinks that simply going back to the place of his ancestors is not enough; one must bring that place up to speed with today’s world and craft it in order to make it a better fit. What’s most disturbing about this perspective is that it is similar to those same colonizers that ripped his ancestors from their home. Looking back on Delany’s viewpoints from today’s society, one can easily see how Delany’s ideas are problematic. His condescending views towards the African people and the inherent sexism that he feels the need to detail in his efforts should cause one to question whether he truly deserves to be privileged because of the proximity of his heritage.