Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen

I recently came across a Louis Armstrong performance of the song, “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen.”  The song is an African-American spiritual that was popularized by a number of African-American singers, including Armstrong. This song is a fitting anthem for a lot of the gesturing between the Black and Green that we’ve seen in the class. Frederick Douglass doesn’t know the trouble the persecuted Irish Catholics have witnessed. Seamus Heaney didn’t know the trouble African-Americans endured when he wrote about the Black Panthers in 1970. The Commitments and Roddy Doyle did not understand the trouble of African-American Soul singers when they appropriated their songs. These misunderstandings remind me of bell hooks’s quote, “White folks who do not see black pain never really understand the complexity of black pleasure. And it is no wonder that when they attempt to imitate the joy in living which they see as the ‘essence’ of soul and blackness, their cultural productions may have an air of sham and falseness that may titillate and even move white audiences but leave many black folks cold” (Onkey 26).

However, focusing too much on the mistaken gestures threatens under-appreciating the relationship between the Black and the Green. Instead of looking at how Frederick Douglass occasionally looks at Irish Catholics, we can look at Daniel O’Connell, who lobbies for Irish independence alongside an end to slavery. Foreshadowing Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous quote from the Birmingham Jail, O’Connell said, “My spirit walks abroad upon sea and land, and wherever there is oppression I hate the oppressor, and wherever the tyrant rears his head I will deal my bolts upon it, and wherever there is sorrow and suffering, there is my spirit to succor and relieve” (Onkey 15). We could also look at how Synge’s “Riders to the Sea” influences Hurston’s “John Redding Goes to the Sea” or how James Weldon Johnson calls on African-Americans to find a form that resembles Synge’s to talk about their experience (Renaissance and Radicalism 484). Rather than focusing on Seamus Heaney, we could discuss Bernadette Devlin giving the keys to New York City to the Black Panthers.

At the end of the day, neither African-Americans nor the Irish can properly understand the trouble the other has seen. Yet, if any two groups can sympathize with similar feelings of oppression, it is the Irish and African-Americans. Though the Irish were never enslaved, they understand leaving home against one’s will. Though African-Americans did not experience the intensity of the hatred between Catholics and Protestants, they understood the use of religion to justify oppression. Though the oppressions of the Black and the Green were neither the same nor equal, these two peoples understood the inability to feel at home at home. This feeling of placeless-ness and not the comparison between two oppressions is the Black and Green Atlantic.

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?

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.