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White Boy Shuffle

Towards the end of White Boy Shuffle, Gunnar Kaufman recites a Martin Luther King, Jr.  quote as a call to self-examination, and self-execution.  The quote states, “If a man hasn’t discovered something he will die for, he isn’t fit to live” (199-200).  It is unclear whether or not Gunnar has decided what he is willing to die for, and I wonder if Beatty himself completely figured out what this novel was meant to stand for?

If we consider this novel as a genre piece, the humor in this novel stands out through Beatty’s word play and use of hyperbole.  The character of Ms. Cegeny, the fact that Gunnar and Nick Scoby attend Phyllis Wheatley High, and of course the unforgettable Kaufman legacy are each undeniably funny.  But to what end is the humor intended to move the reader?  Beatty throws pointed barbs at black intellectuals, Afrocentric activists, gang bangers, and bleeding heart liberals alike.  He casts his satirical net so wide, that no one escapes criticism, and everyone is vilified rather than creating a clear thematic or political stance.

Despite Beatty’s broad stroke he touches on several issues in meaningful ways.  White Boy Shuffle calls attention to the erasure of women from black history, most notably through his own family history, but inserts women into his narrative in surprising ways.  Women inexplicably appear on the Phyllis Wheatley basketball team, his mother plays a formative role in helping Gunnar navigate (at least in the geographic sense) his racial identity, and Yoshiko and Naomi’s emergence at the end of the novel opens the possibility that women will reenter the racialized and patriarchal narrative which has left them out.

Perhaps the most clear issue that Beatty is addressing the concept of multiculturalism.  Published in 1996, the heart of the multiculturalism debates, Beatty creates a landscape that deals with ‘color blindness,’ forced diversity, and complex notions of being biracial (Ms. Kim, Gunnar’s daughter, and Gunnar himself in some ways).  How does Beatty’s critique of racial stereotypes fit with the Hillside Community that he seems to glorify?  Is Gunnar’s call for suicide a means of providing a way out for those trapped in an outdated racial binary, or is it yet another symbol of ineffective black leadership?  How useful is it to read White Boy Shuffle as a treatise on race, rather than a humor piece which simply reflects the realities of mid-90’s Los Angeles?

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Devil in a Blue Dress

In chapter 15 of Devil in a Blue Dress, Mr. Albright says, “We all owe something, Easy. When you owe out then you’re in debt and when you’re in debt then you can’t be your own man. That’s capitalism” (147-148). This quotation, despite coming from the story’s antagonist, encapsulates a lot of Easy’s philosophies. First, the mortgage debt that Easy owes to the bank is what engenders all of his actions. Second, the masculine undertones of Albright’s statement are omnipresent throughout Easy’s narrative.

Easy is constantly trapped, even at the novel’s outset; and he is entrapped by his own notions of what it is to be a man. His desire to stand on his own, to be free, is what drives everything that he does. The way that Easy aims to satisfy this desire is through the acquisition of money and land. There is an idyllic quality to the way he thinks about the house he is in the process of paying off. Easy appears willing to die – and he nearly does – before he gives up the house. His masculine identity is married to the idea of financial independence.

What I was wondering as I read the novel was if Mosley was trying to expose a flawed notion or if he supported it. That is to say, the novel at times seems to promote sexism, materialism, and greed. What does Daphne represent to all of these men but an ideal white sex object? When it is revealed that Daphne is passing as white, what does that change and why? Did Easy desire her because of her whiteness? And if so, doesn’t the notion of her whiteness as beauty permeate the novel? Never does a black female earn the same worshipful description as Daphne. Mouse says that Easy is just like Daphne in that he wants to be white (253). Easy does long for a lifestyle lived primarily by white people during the time period in question – a lifestyle in which amassed land acts as economic sustenance. Mouse says that Easy’s way of thinking is wrong. He says, “And a nigger ain’t never gonna be happy ‘less he accept what he is” (253). So, according to Mouse, Easy is playing a part, or acting white, because he cannot come to terms with “what” he is.

But Easy does appear to be happy at the novel’s conclusion when he has buckets of money and property. Has Easy accepted what he is, as Mouse said he should? Or is Mouse wrong? It seems that Easy has not changed at all. It seems that he has achieved the end he set out to achieve, but what is Mosley trying to accomplish, then? Albright’s definition of capitalism motivated Easy’s every move. He wanted to be his own man: he did not want to be held down by any kind of debt or family. He wanted money and the freedom that he believed it offered, and that is what he got. So, for a character that is constantly abused by white people, is Easy – as Mouse says – trying to be white to achieve his ends? If so, are his ends flawed? Or is Mouse wrong?

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Black Arts Movement

To what end should art work? Is it simply art for art’s sake or is there an expectation that there be more than just images that reflect the current state. From Baracka to Fuller there’s an increasing emphasis on Black literature having purpose and each author chooses a different path where the writing is concerned. For Baraka, the art must be a warrior. It must be filled with zeal, leading to hostility and a great sense of overwhelmingness which would instill strength into its black readers while oozing fear into the other (the whites who engage in such discourse).  The line “rape the white girls” for example not only illustrates a myth that became increasingly popular post the abolishment of slavery among white society, it also puts a sense of agency into any of its black reader. Blacks during this time and prior to it would have been familiar with this idea of the black man overpowering the white woman sexually but there was a fear of being accused of such a thing, rather than an increasing wanting to do this injustice completely orchestrated in the minds of their white neighbors who would literally cringe at such a statement. Baraka also illustrates the European conquerors who invade ancient civilizations in search of wealth, and use their God and their technological power to subdue the members of such societies. Ironically he describes this idea of praying to God to deliver his “lost white children” which is particularly interesting because it counters this Uncle Tom’s Cabin-idea that we are to be washed whiter than snow by indicting their horrid practices throughout history and illustrating that their whiteness doesn’t necessitate purity as taught by them. His poems in particular shoot daggers at the audience holding no prisoners and telling it like it is without the fluff that would have possibly existed prior to his writing.

In his article “On Black Art,” Karenga focuses primarily on art and how it’s being delivered to the audience as well as how it is affecting change. He states that Black Art must assert revolutionary change otherwise it is invalid. He challenges Black artists to “create black images that inspire their people” and stresses that “all education and creation is invalid unless it benefits the maximum amount of blacks.” His final thought is that art cannot be for art’s sake because then public should not be exposed to it. In the case of Black Art, I am in agreement with him for the time period he’s writing in because there’s an increasing sense of urgency to affect the change that Blacks during this socially charged  moment, and there’s a need to establish Black Art in a world that is dominated by the white world. He continues this idea in “Revolutionary Theatre”  stating that it is shaped by the world, and should move to reshape the world using its force, the natural force and perpetual vibration of the mind of the world. Something that he states towards the end of this piece seems to sum up the whole idea of the movement “we are history and desire, what we are and what we experience can make us.” This moment in his article illustrates autonomy for Black artists as well as their Black readers. It gives the impression that each individual has access to shaping the future they desire despite his/her history.

Fuller’s premise on Black Art is very simple. “Art born out of oppression cannot be explained in the terms of the un-oppressed” and “the white world is not qualified to evaluate black writing” as a result. This particular idea is interesting because prior to this moment in time, it is the white man’s rules that we live and create by, and he is calling attention to the fact that this is a fallacy in the mindset of black artists who need to be acknowledged by a white readership. Fuller emphasizes the need to create for our black communities and our black scholars more so than the whites since they couldn’t possibly understand the importance of showing where we came from and where we’re going with respect to society through art.

Something Karenga says in “The Black Aesthetic” seems to wrap up what the purpose is for Black Art. He says “black art must expose the enemy, praise the people, and support revolution.” This idea seems to be the crux of what each author is trying to accomplish, hence this idea that we can’t have art for the art’s sake but instead art as a means by which to affect the change that we desire as a people and this is incredibly important for the movement.

Etheridge’s “Hard Rock” – This poem reminds me of Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Society’s need to control any and everything that goes against the position that is imposed on them is a theme that circulates both pieces. The lines where the narrator admits that the community was in denial about Hard Rock’s sudden change from a roaring lion to a meek man who turns the other cheek illustrates the need for society to keep everyone in their societally designated place and to use any methods necessary to prevent any kind of social uprising.

In “The Idea of Ancestry,” Etheridge discusses how ancestors blood linger in one’s veins and he illustrates the idea that one has a sort of responsibility to one’s ancestry as you move through life. The focus seems to be on who one comes from and where one’s going with respect to procreation, but he seems to be calling attention to the fact that Blacks have a sense of agency which their ancestors wouldn’t have necessarily had.

Sanchez’s “Ballad” calls attention to the battling between the young and the old. The idea that the youth has their agency in their grasp while the old must rely on the youth to affect the change they desire. I found this piece particularly interesting because in one of Baraka’s poems he talks about the fact that Black poetry for example should be like warriors fighting for change. More focus must be placed on fighting the good fight rather than love poetry etc etc. And I find it funny that Sanchez’s poem is disguised as a love poem because it’s actually talking about the need for the youth to take over where the old have left off and/or have been unsuccessful.

Aubria

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Baldwin/Wright/Hurston

Baldwin/Wright:

James Baldwin, to say the least, is quite opinionated in his views on the protest novel. First and foremost, he completely dismisses the idea of anything related to a protest novel on behalf of human rights. There is a possibility of achievement in his views regarding humans, stating that “he is not, after all, merely a member of a Society or a Group or a deplorable conundrum to be explained by Science. He is — and how old fashioned the words sound! — something more than that, something resolutely indefinable, unpredictable” (Baldwin 15). The complexity of the human makes it difficult to transfer over any concrete ideas/symbolisms/what-have-you into any type of literature. To write simply of protest makes it almost silly because it not only stereotypes the writer, but it also places him/her into a tight, limited writing sphere.

When I finished reading Baldwin, I was more than curious to see what Wright had to say about Negro Literature (especially since there was supposed to be a heated debate between these two fellas). What I found in “Blueprint for Negro Literature” was too much of a master plan. Wright writes too manually in relation to the Negro’s responsibility in White society. He writes in a fashion which is very related to the Lenin and other leaders of the Communist Party. Wright focuses the importance of the masses to rise up, and when speaking of Negro writers, he states that “two separate cultures sprang up: one for the Negro masses, crude, instinctive, unwritten, and unrecognized; and the other the sons and daughters of a rising Negro bourgeoisie, bloodless, petulant, mannered, and neurotic” (Wright 3).

In direct conflict with Baldwin, Wright states that “every short story, novel, poem, and play should carry within its lines, implied or explicit, a sense of the oppression of the Negro people, the danger of war, of fascism, of the threatened destruction of culture and civilization; and too, the faith and necessity to build a new world” (Wright 4).  It is here that I couldn’t help but side with Baldwin argument. While Wright has a pretty steady case, he does not take into consideration the reality. The masses rising up could be possible, of course, but how long will that endeavor take? Baldwin remains loyal to the present. While one focuses on the realism, the other moves more towards hopefulness. Hopefully the masses will rise against the injustices, but as Baldwin so boldly states “our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it”.

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Hurston:

Why is folklore so important to the Negro community? And while trying to figure out it’s importance, one must also take into consideration the ways in which this folklore is received and given to the public. While the Uncle Remus stories were quite popular for a long period of time, those tales were studied by the White man. In her introduction to “Mules and Men”, Zora Neal Hurston states that “we smile and tell him or her something that satisfies the white person because, knowing so little about us, he doesn’t know what he is missing”. Do her experiences in Florida make the African American folkore collected any better or worse than those of Joel Chandler Harris?

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Go Tell It on the Mountain

James Baldwin
“I know,” she said, with a smile, releasing him and rising, “there’s a whole lot of things you don’t understand. But don’t you fret. The Lord’ll reveal to you in His own good time everything He wants you to know” (Baldwin 33).
Revelation is a central theme in James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain. Each character stands to reveal some truth about themselves or another. Elizabeth struggles with revealing her sorrows, doubts, and even her past. Her shame prevents her from telling Johnny about his biological father. Johnny yearns to reveal his love for Elisha and is feels guilty about having sexual thoughts. Florence is determined to one day reveal Gabriel’s past transgressions to Elizabeth and the greater community; and Gabriel believes God has revealed forgiveness to him for denying his deceased son and his mother. We see that none of the characters ends up revealing these feelings or secrets in the way that would offer the redemption they seek. What role does shame and guilt play in each of these characters’ search for redemption?
The novel’s strong focus on Christianity and the black church presents two extremes for how the characters think and act. They are either rebelling against the church or living to the letter of its law. Each character is searching for something in church, expecting religion to provide them with the peace of mind that will set them free. Though Johnny is at first resistant to submitting to Christian practices, we see that he is overcome by the Holy Spirit. Johnny’s experience at the altar takes him on a journey through darkness, which he must pass through to come to the light. “Then John saw the Lord—for a moment only; and the darkness, for a moment only, was filled with a light he could not bear. Then, in a moment, he was set free; his tears sprang as from a fountain; his heart, like a fountain of waters, burst. Then he cried: “Oh blessed Jesus! Oh, Lord Jesus! Take me through!” (Baldwin 266). But when Johnny comes through this experience, proclaiming salvation, his father is unable to smile at him. His father, the preacher, still holds some resentment toward him even after making this triumphant journey to the Lord. What do you think Baldwin wants to the reader to take from this? Does Baldwin want to leave the reader with a negative impression of the black church?

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Native Son

Blindness.  What does it mean to be blind?  In Native Son, Bigger is obsessed with the notion of blindness, and the idea that after killing Mary, he now can finally see.  “He sat at the table watching the snow fall past the window and many things became plain.  No he did not have to hide behind a wall or a curtain now; he had a safer way of being safe, and easier way.  What he had done last night proved that.  Jan was blind.  Mary had been blind.  Mr. Dalton was blind.  And Mrs. Dalton was blind; yes, blind in more ways than one.  Bigger smiled slightly” (107).  The Daltons believe they are helping Bigger by employing him, donating money to Negroes, and encouraging him to attend school, but they are completely blind to what it truly means to live on the other side of the color line.  Mr. Dalton justifies charging exorbitant rent by donating ping-pong tables to the youth center.  Mrs. Dalton pushes Bigger to attend college rather than getting to know him and finding out what can truly make a difference in his life.  They are blind to what life is really like outside the safety of their own home.

Mary and Jan are also blind in their attempts to show Bigger kindness.  They try to treat him like their equal, without even noticing how uncomfortable they are making him.  Mary and Jan are blind to the fact that they are making Bigger more aware of the color of his skin than he ever was before.  “She… It was… Hell, I don’t know.  She asked me a lot of questions.  She acted and talked in a way that made me hate her.  She made me feel like a dog.  I was so mad I wanted to cry…” (350).

This notion of blindness extends to Bigger’s family, as Bigger sees them for the first time, living in their one room apartment, going about their lives, lives Bigger now sees as pathetic.  Killing Mary allowed Bigger to feel, for the first time in his life, that he was capable of doing something no one expected him to do.  He is elated at the thought of being able to “see” in a world that is blind.  It isn’t until Bigger ends up in prison, facing death row that he truly sees for the first time.  “I know I’m going to get it.  I’m going to die.  Well, that’s all right now.  But really I never wanted to hurt nobody.  That’s the truth, Mr. Max.  I hurt folks ‘cause I felt I had to; that’s all” (425).  Finally, at the end of the novel, Bigger sees himself for who he really is.  He accepts his fate, he explains to Max: “I didn’t want to kill!… But what I killed for, I am!  It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill!… I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ‘em” (429).  This realization of who he is allows Bigger to die in peace, but at the same time causes Max to pull back in horror.  Is he horrified that Bigger truly has no other place in the world than to be a murderer on death row?  Or is he horrified that the current system has led a young black man to think this is his only option?  Is Max, for the first time, able to see?

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Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Y’all makes me tired.  De way you talkin’ you’d thinks de folks in dis town didn’t do nothin’ in de bed ‘cept praise de Lawd.” – Pheoby Watson

          Janie is the product of two generations of rape, one at the hands of a white “owner,” which would seem to be a further limitation upona  rural black woman of 1920’s America.  Hurston uses this to a different effect, however.  Janie, as an individual, is presented to the reader as relatively free.  After the passing of her Nanny, her only familial obligation is to herself.  Granted, she is married off  irrespective of her own wishes, but it sets her on a path of simultaneously painful and enlightening self discovery.  She ultimately leaves Logan Killicks, a man her Nanny didn’t want her to “have” so much as his “protection” (p. 15).  As she moves to Eatonville with Joe her attractiveness, perhaps elements of her “whiteness,” sustain her as a trophy wife to her ambitious husband and provokes the attention of the local men and women. She establishes herself as capable, even sought after in Eatonville. Yet she is stifled by various levels of patriarchy and misogyny, behaviors unequivocally fomented by centuries of emasculation bore by Negro men as slaves in America.  As her Nanny forewarns Janie in her youth, “So the white man throw down de load and tell the nigger man tuh pick it up.  He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it.  He hand it to his womenfolks.  De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.  Ah been prayin’ fuh it to be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!” (p. 14).  And upon meeting Tea Cake, it becomes different for Janie.  With Tea Cake she finds love, or at least something far more fulfilling than anything she had hitherto experienced.  And he does not completely “hand it to his womenfolks.” He works hard to realize his love for Janie.  They work in the muck together and have a satisfying life. The fact that Janie has to tragically kill her love would be less believable had he not been rabid.

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