Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Jungle

At the end of the first chapter in part 2 (my edition doesn't have chapter markings?!?) Stamp Paid has a pretty pseudo-philosophical segment on the dehumanization of slavery to blacks and whites alike. This reminded me of similar statements expressed by... I think it was Fredrick Douglas? We talked about it in history class. The basic idea is that by subjugating blacks ("the jungle whitefolks planted in them"), the whites became afraid. Stamp Paid says that "scared were they of the jungle they had made". In this context, was schoolteachers calculated and scientific method of treating his slaves an expression of his fear? Perhaps he thought that if he could completely understood everything about his slaves then he could protect himself from "the jungle". And what is the jungle? Ingrained resentment on an extreme magnitude? Barbarism? The description that Stamp Paid gives of the jungle: "swift unnavigable rivers, swinging screaming baboons, sleeping snakes, red gums ready for their sweet white blood" has a very "Heart of Darkness" feel to it.


Amy is a really frickin cool character. I'm talking about in the literary sense. One of the things that I disliked about Their Eyes Were Watching God was the Tolkien-esque feel of all the characters. There were the good guys and the bad guys and everything they did and everything they said supported their status as a good person or a bad person.

The book Beloved is much more George RR Martin-esque, as there are characters that I either don't know how to feel about (Beloved) or characters who I both love and am annoyed by at the same time (Amy and Denver).

Amy is a really cool character because she's not the knight in shining armor coming to save Sethe. She sort of stumbles onto Sethe, calls her a "nigger woman" or something like that, and keeps rambling on about her pipe dream of buying velvet in Boston (.... okay?). But the more I read her story the more I liked her.

She made it seem like she really didn't want to help Sethe and wanted to move on towards Boston, but as readers we were kind of made to feel that deep down she really did want to help Sethe. When he eventually sticks with Sethe for a few days and saves her from frostbite, our hopes are confirmed.

All in all Amy is a really well written and interesting character. She's written as if a bunch of strings were pulling her in all different directions.

White Boy Shuffle

The suicide dynamic in the White Boy Shuffle is one that is rather rare and was somewhat confusing to me upon initially reading the book.

Gunnar's and Scobies thoughts on suicide stem from a self-consciousness that Gunnar describes when he says the following to Psycho Loco:

"Might as well kill myself, right?  Why give you the satisfaction.  The trippy part is that when you think about it, me and America aren’t even enemies.  I’m the horse pulling the stagecoach, the donkey in the levee who’s stumbled in the mud and come up lame.  You may love me, but I’m tired of thrashing around in the muck and not getting anywhere, so put a nigger out his misery” (226). 

Why does everything seem to turn downhill in Boston? I think it's the awareness that the boys have of the underlying racist tendencies that even exists among the backdrop of multiculturalism found in Boston (contrasted sharply with the single cultured settings earlier in the book). Scoby goes ahead and kills himself, leaving Gunner to play the part of Osamu Dezai, "the heavy hearted writer who wandered the back roads of Japan struggling to raise the nerve to commit suicide in the Tamagawa River" (190).

The nihilism in the book seems to peak during the scene when Scoby is asking Gunnar about the height of various buildings in Boston... obviously planning his suicide. Gunnar knows Scoby is going to kill himself. I think he doesn't stop him because Gunnar feels just like Scoby does, the only difference is that--like Osamu Dezai--Gunnar is still gathering the courage needed to kill himself. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Love and Theft

Bob Dylan's "Love and Theft"--his 31st studio album and the second album in his late 90's/early 2000's comeback (Time Out of Mind, Love and Theft, Modern Times)--is an essential album for anyone looking to sample "American Music", and is a highly recommended album for anyone regardless.

The album achieves such an accurate representation of what “America” is with what David Mcnair calls a “complete artistic synthesis. On "Love and Theft,"country, blues, folk, swing, and rock all converge with Dylan's husky growl into a form of music that he has himself described as "all mashed up." Throw in some F Scott Fitzgerald quotes, pecan pies, and a wide cast of jokers, gamblers and other operators of the iconic neon midnight big city american scene… put that over Dylan’s growling voice that sounds like it’s been soaked in Wild Turkey and left in a smokehouse for a decade, and you have pure extracted AMERICA in music. It’s something that very few can get close to pulling off (maybe Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash?).

The title of the album, “Love and Theft”, is based on the same titled book by Eric Lott which describes the history of minstrelsy in America.

Dylan’s song is greatly influenced by the negro blues. To quote Eric Lott, "High Water" sounds the most like actual minstrel show music from the 19th century, which is interesting not only since it's dedicated specifically to black blues singer (donor?) Charley Patton but also because it's a song of high seriousness, as though ultimate truths are rooted in cultural plunder.”

Lott goes on to defend Dylan (not that there’s really any criticisms) by saying “He's one of those rare people, like Michelle Shocked, in fact, for whom cultural miscegenation is a spur to cultural newness and uniqueness. Dylan goes his own way”. Basically, Dylan’s not playing the part of mistral in the creation of this album, but is still acknowledging his negro folk blues influences with the title “Love and Theft”.

Don’t expect the album to be a “Blonde on Blonde” and you would be crazy to expect something on the level of “Blood on the Tracks”, but this is still a very good Dylan album and is another testament to his status of one of the greatest artists of all time (seriously, who comes out with one of the best albums of the decade--check out the reviews--as their 31st studio album?!?).

Best songs: “Mississippi” and “Summer Days”. Look them up on spotify or something cause they aren’t on youtube (Dylan’s stingy about his copyright).

I'm a get up in the morning, I believe I'll dust my blog

The blues has been a significant aspect of African American culture, influencing many writers such as Zora Neale Hurston and most significantly Richard Wright. In his essay "Richard Wright's Blues", Ellison defines the blues as the following: 

"The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger it's jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." 

Buddy Guy (a blues guitarist) reflects this sentiment quite well in his song "All that makes me happy is the blues" 

i've been .. so bad, since she's been gone
i've tried to take comfort
in some old sad song
cause i feel a little better
knowing someone hurts the way i do
yeah! when i'm this far down
all that makes me happy is the blues
all the talk on TV
shouting about something
nobody listening
nobody saying nothing
seem like my old guitar
is the only place i find the truth (yeah)
this whole world is gone crazy,
all that makes me happy is the blues
i'd love to hear that sweet Memphis soul
and that good old funky rock n roll
oh but when i need some healing
there's only one thing i turn to
when I'm this far down
all that makes me happy is the BLUES

Generally, blues does not take the shape of an extremely in-the-moment pain infused expression (like a Nine Inch Nails album might). Instead, it's more of a communal head-nodding understanding between those who have had the blues (And, as Albert King said in his song Blues Power, "Everybody understands the blues. Everybody from one day or another have the blues"). This is partly what Ellison means when he calls the blues a "near-tragic, near-comic lyricism". 

Ellison goes on to call the blues "an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically". We can see how this could parallel certain ways that authors may draft their stories. The example Ellison uses is Richard Wright's Black Boy, which is an autobiographical novel that echoes the blues expression.Right underwent the "personal catastrophes" in his early life: His father left his family when he was a baby, he was later lodged in an orphan asylum, he was constantly hungry, he became a drunk as a young boy, etc. Wright expresses that "near-tragic, near comic lyricism" when he writes the seemingly paradoxical image of a protagonist who "sings lustily as he probes his own grievous wounds". 

Singing lustily as you probe your own grievous wounds? Sounds just like the blues. 

While the blues as a musical form was developed by blacks in the south (early 20th century), the blues as way to "keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger it's jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." did not develop with the rise of black literature. Joyce, Nehru, Dostoievsky, and countless other authors have expressed catastrophic personal events through near tragic, near comic lyricism in their writings.

Some blues songs to check out:

1. Albert King: I'll play the blues for you
This is pretty smooth, sounds very 70s. It was hard to pick a single Albert King song to put on this list. I highly recommend his 67' album "Born Under a Bad Sign" for some real blues revival.

2. John Bonamassa: Sloe Gin
This is an extreme exception to the near-comic head nodding of the blues. This is one of the most emotional songs I know (up there with NIN's "Hurt"). The "I'm so damn lonely, I aint even high" line is killer. The guitar playing creates a mood much better than most blues songs... this is because John doesn't base his blues on traditional american blues but on a sort of english/irish fusion blues. I wanted to include an exception to the "Near comic near tragic lyricism"... this is it. 

3. Robert Johnson 32-20 blues

This is in my opinion the most listenable Robert Johnson song. Y'all should read about Robert Johnson, he's one of the pillars of blues history. His music is so old that it's not super listenable, even though Clapton and Keith Richards will blow steam up his ass all day. 

4. He's better than BB King. He's better than Buddy Guy. He's way better than Clapton. SRV is the master of the blues. The way he controlled the guitar tops even Hendrix's control. Evidence? Listen to any damn Stevie Ray Vaughan song.

Here's my favorite... first of all it's live and sounds 2000% better than the studio version (that's already an accomplishment). He also brings on Johnny Copeland which is a really nice addition.

I present, SRV's live "Tin Pan Alley"

If you like this stuff, other artists to check out are Freddie King, BB King, Buddy Guy, Albert Collins, Robert Cray. I'm not a huge Howlin Wolf/Muddy Waters fan, but if you liked the Robert Johnson delta blues stuff you might be into that pre-blues revival acoustic based stuff. 

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Going, Going, Gone

In class we talked loosely about Jody's physical deterioration and the effect that had on his behavior towards Janie. As Jody's physical health deteriorates due to a combination of age, the luck of the draw (liver disease), and stubbornness (seeing the witch doctor lady instead of a medical doctor), Jody begins to lash out with increasing severity. Mr. Mitchell said something about the episode sadly making sense to us, and I agree with that. It reminds me very much of super old people who get very bitter when they realize that they can't do certain things on their own any more (drive, care for themselves, etc.).

In Jody's case it is even worse. Jody built his life around control and power, and slowly withering away must have really got to him. Right before he dies we see that he has completely lost control of one of the people he controlled best: Janie. Instead of Jody making Janie be quiet and listen to him, the tables have turned and Janie is telling Jody her mind whether he wants to hear it or not (he doesn't).

They are the final words that Jody Starks hears before he dies. Janie, finally free, casts off her hair binding and walks out of the house ready to find something (or someone) in life to make her happy. From the prologue I'm guessing that's going to be Tea Cake.

Why all the hating on Janie?

Today in 2nd hour's class (10/16) there was a lot of discussion about Janie. Most (if not all) speakers agreed--to an extent--that Janie was whiney and impulsive.

There is a scent of hypocrisy in the sense that, if Janie stayed with Logan and remained unhappy for the rest of her life shoveling manure, we would all be very sympathetic towards her and wish that she had made decisions in her life to escape such a situation that made her unhappy. Yet if she runs away from Logan (who, while he really isn't all that bad of a guy, Janie is certainly unhappy with) we all board the hate-train.

We also talked about the idea that Janie was running away from Logan more than she was running to be with Jody. I also disagree with this. I think it's equal part run from and run to. Jody met her in the woods and they talked for three days. Jody seems like the kind of guy that would be able to put on a mask and act very suave with the ladies. There's not doubt in my mind that at the end of those three days Janie felt like the Juliet and Jody seemed like her Romeo.

To anyone living in modern western society (where the ideal of loving your spouse is expected) it seems odd to me that we would criticize Janie running off from a situation in which she is genuinely unhappy to be with a guy that seems like a genuinely great guy. I know that she only knew him for a few days, but hell, he was leaving! She had to make a decision. It was a gamble that I definitely would have taken in Janie's shoes.

In any case, any amount of impulsiveness that she had before her marriage with Jody was soon extinguished (probably by Jody himself). For I'm sure that in her 20 or so year marriage with Jody there were ample opportunities that were presented or that could have been made by Janie to escape from her unhappy life in Eatonville.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Jody's domineering nature building tension

(Up to chapter 7)

When we first met Jody I thought that he genuinely cared for Janie (naive maybe, but in the context of Janie's stale marriage with Logan I was hoping for a breath of fresh air). It was impossible to know  who Jody was until they got to Eatonville, and by then it was too late.

Jody didn't talk to Janie in the woods for three days because he loved her. He saw in Janie a possibility to advance himself. He saw a beautiful, proper lady... just what he pictured he would need as mayor of Eatonville (the mayor needs a stately wife). When the couple gets to Eatonville we see that he cares a lot about her image - she needs to be seen at the right places, she needs to play hostess correctly, she needs to say the right things (refrain from speaking in many cases), etc. Janie falls from a marriage that--while stale and uninteresting--was safe/stable to a marriage in which she is a prop to advance Jody's position in the community.

Janie is a part of Jody's quest for power. He is not cruel to Janie for no reason--it is just his view of the world and his quest for power that brings forth frustrated anger.

However we have begun to see the beginnings of rebellion in Janie (such as her speech at the end of chapter 6 and all the hints the narrator gives us that she was sad/tired of the marriage).

We know that Janie ends up with some guy named Tea Cake (from the prologue). It's only a matter of time until something blows, and the more egocentric that Jody becomes, the more tension is built.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Will "Da Real One" Bell

My favorite Will Bell rap/poem has to be his "You have been warned". It has great comedic moments and delivers a powerful message. Will is criticizing the stars of the rap industry who "ain't doing nothing but mic bruising". So in a sense this poem is about being “real”. Will is not just hating on the stars of the rap industry, he is also trying to present a picture of how horrific the ghetto is.

From the start Will begins his attack with "And I got more thug in me than three fourths of the whole rap industry so... I don't scare easy."

He follows with a great line "So when it comes to shit like the Texas Chainsaw Massacre... it ain't got nothing on 10 city blocks filled with guns, heron, and crack rock. That's probably why they ain't trying to film no horror movie in the ghetto." which, while being a somewhat funny line (he doesn’t deliver it in a somber tone but in a playful one - which sets the crowd roaring with laughter), also works towards accomplishing the presentation of a picture of the ghetto as being horrible.

"Cause where I'm from if you got a problem with a nigga you don't rap to him you put gun claps to him. You think I'm lying? Just look at our past. I love Tupac and Biggie but both of their mouths wrote checks that their ass couldn't cash"

Here Will references the murders of famous rappers Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G in the 90's. Both participated in a verbal feud (East Coast vs. West Coast) but in the end were both shot and killed. He is able to both tell a story about the ghetto - how the ghetto functions - with the line “where I’m from if you got a problem with a nigga you don’t rap to him you put gun claps to him” and also takes a stab at rappers who became disconnected with the ghetto after they’ve risen to stardom, and eventually pay a bloody price (“Tupac and Biggie but both of their mouths wrote checks that their ass couldn’t cash”).

The second Will Bell poem I want to present is “So I Run”. This is the most emotional of the three poems, and you can hear the emotion in Will’s voice as he presents this poem for Def Poetry on MTV.

In the poem, the narrator “travels backwards through time” to many iconic and sad moments in African American history. He runs from slave tunnels to Malcolm X’s assassination to Tupac’s murder, chased by a voice screaming “YOU BETTER RUN NIGGER!”. He runs and he runs and he only gets peace when he eventually dies. This line really reminded me of the "Keep that nigger boy running" line in Invisible Man so I wrote a second blog post that took some of my thoughts about that into more detail.

In terms of his presentation, we really hear Will's emotion as he sounds angry and on the verge of tears at the same time. Scared and frustrated at the same time.

It hits hard, it doesn't reward us with a happy ending, and it's presented in a way that allows us to feel the full emotional impact of the words.

The last poem that I want to talk about is Will's Diary of the Reformed. I ended up choosing this one as my poetry reading.

This poem talks about the useless violence in the ghetto. It specifically focuses on "black-on-black" crime and is -as Will describes it- a "black-on-black rhyme" (which, as a white guy, made it a little uncomfortable to say/rap to a room without a single black person).

The narrator begins getting a call from his cousin about "how he just got shot at". The narrator immediately takes action, gets ready, and sets off with his cousin to take revenge on the people that attacked the cousin. It is only moments before the narrator is about to take action that he has an epiphany moment and realizes the cyclical pointlessness of all the violence. It just creates more violence and ends up hurting everyone.

This was an even more powerful poem once I learned that Will Bell was killed in 2011 from such useless violence. He was shot outside his strip-mall located poetry club by two people who have yet to be identified.

You better run!

Just some thoughts I had listening to Will Bell's So I Run, contrasting it's story to Invisible Man....

While listening to Will Bell's poem So I Run, I was reminded of the dream envelope that the Narrator opened in Invisible Man that read "Keep that nigger boy running."

In So I Run, the narrator is chased through many different scenes of terror in African American history. From the underground railroad to the murders of Tupac and Biggie, the narrator runs. He runs from a voice that is always chasing him. It screams: "YOU BETTER RUN NIGGA!". The fact that these two phrases are so similar to each other made me immediately make the connection that they had.

And so I started to think about the narrator in Invisible Man versus the narrator in So I Run. For starters they are both running, and they are running because of other people. In So I Run, the narrator is running from a threat - he is fleeing in terror. This is very different from the running that the narrator does in Invisible Man. From his college scholarship, to his dismissal to NYC by Bledsoe, to his "reeducation" (the party members literally called it "indoctrination") in the communist party, the narrator is kept running for the benefit of others. For the benefit of the white town leaders, for the benefit of Bledsoe, for the benefit of the party. So in a way the two forms of running are similar and in a way they are different.

Or maybe Will Bell is not trying to say that people were literally screaming "You better run nigga!" at him. Maybe he is trying to say that was what it felt like or seemed like to the narrator. Maybe the narrator (in So I run) feels that the actions of those around him are telling him "You better run nigga!". If this is true, then the only difference between the two narrators is that the narrator in So I Run is conscious of the fact that he is being sent from place to place while the narrator in Invisible Man is not fully conscious of this fact.

In So I Run, the narrator gets peace from the voice -from the fear- only when he finally dies. However in Invisible Man, the narrator seems to have escaped from the "Keep the nigger boy running" cycle when he is in his lightbulb room stealing electricity from the city.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Humility in Chapter 1 of "Invisible Man"

"Son, after I'm gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy's country ever since I gave up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the Lion's mouth. I want you to overcome them with yeses, undermine em with grins, agree em to death and destruction, let em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open" (16)

This quote - the dying words of the narrator's grandfather - sets up most of the first chapter very well. I suspect it will set up the rest of the book very well, but I cannot make a definite judgement on that since I haven't read most of the book at this point.

The best single word that both encapsulates the grandfather's dying speech and the first chapter in general (as well as a single word can encapsulate such things) is humility.

Humility presents itself in two very different ways in chapter 1. There is a first type of humility that is ingrained in one's existence. It becomes as much of a person as primal desires are, it is a defining characteristic of one's existence. This is the type of humility that the "town's leading white citizens" (at the community gathering) want in the black populace.

The second humility is one of illusion. It is a tool, an attack that -like a tick or leach- is able to gain strength through remaining undetected. This is the humility that the narrator's grandfather described. He (the grandfather) was in full, conscious control of his humility - and that is what separates his humility (of the second type) from the narrator's father who, by having no conscious control or understanding of his humility, has ingrained it into his existence (the first type).

The narrator in chapter 1 is stuck in a sort of limbo between these two polar opposites.

(1) "On my graduation day I delivered an oration in which I showed that humility was the secret, indeed, the very essence of progress. (Not that I believed this - how could I, remembering my grandfather? - I only believed that it worked.)" (17)

(2) "Should I try to win against the voice out there? Would not this go against my speech, and was not this a moment for humility, for nonresistance?" (25)

(3) "Then on a sudden impulse I struck him lightly and as we clinched, I whispered, 'Fake like I knocked you out, you can have the prize.'
'I'll break your behind,' he whispered hoarsely.
'For them?'
'For me, sonofabitch!"

These are three quotes that show that the narrator has a pretty good understanding of what his grandfather was saying. The narrator is sort of 'sucking up' to the white towns leaders, and the humility that he talks so passionately about in his speech is certainly not ingrained in him (for we see him in all three quotes using it as a tool - to curry favor or attempt to avoid pain). In the third quote the other fighter does not have this understanding. By letting humility become a part of him, he partly destroys his own identity, accepts his second class status, and refuses to use illusions ( in this case faking unconsciousness) to trick the white town folk (who just want to see two blacks beat the hell out of each other).

But as soon as the narrator get's his briefcase and scholarship to the black college, he feels that he has triumphed over the townsfolk. And while the objective act of giving someone a nice briefcase and a scholarship is certainly a kind act - knowing these rich white town leaders, it is fairly safe to assume that this was an act to push the narrator towards "leading his people in the proper paths" (32) and to "Keep this nigger-boy running" (33).