Sunday, August 30, 2009

Back from Summer Break and Ghana

I have been quiet all summer, not because I have not been writing, but because I have been teaching so much that my writing has become particularly cryptic, and comprehensible only to me. Now that fall has come, the teaching is still with me, but there is something oppressive, for me, about teaching a full course load in the summer. I will never, ever again teach more than one course in the summer; I do not care who asks me to do it.

Ghana. I chaired a session at the 5th Biennial Conference for the Association of the Study of the Worldwide Diaspora (ASWAD) in Accra, Ghana, this summer. Twelve days before I departed, I herniated two discs in my cervical spine and was highly recommended to have "spinal surgery" immediately. My philosophy about surgery is that if there is minimal function in the injured body part, I will avoid any invasive procedures. Thus far, this philosophy has kept me relatively healthy, alive, mobile, and free of pain. But the pain from having two herniated cervical discs was nearly unbearable. Yet I went to Ghana anyway with topical lotions from my massage therapists, heat pads from the drugstore, and lots of prayers from friends, family, and neighbors.

The roads in Ghana, chock full of potholes, did not help my spine at all; however, I distracted myself with examining the hawkers: some old; but, most were young, school aged children. Making eye contact with a hawker guaranteed your obligation to buy, well at least for a Westerner like me who had not developed the thick skin and quick tongue that was needed to "shoo" away the hawkers. "Roll up the window," the van driver warned me as we stopped at a red light near Nkrumah Circle and the hawkers immediately descend on us, pressing their hands through the windows with plastic sacks of "purified water," certified by the government of Ghana, fried plantain chips, and other delicacies that I could not properly investigate with my eyes because this signaled my tacit agreement to purchase the goods. Changing U.S. dollars on the black market, courtesy of the conference van driver who guaranteed that finding an exchange bureau would be impossible, seemed to be the best way to get Ghanaian cedis; further, the banks would not change my money unless I had an account. Needless to say, my experience was that the van driver was correct because I could never find an exchange bureau despite being directed to one in the Osu district and the prospect of giving my money to the hotel front desk clerk so that she could bring me cedis the next morning went against my U.S. cultural mode of money exchange and capitalism. Besides, the hotel clerk, too, would go to the black market to exchange my money, but quoted me an exchange rate that was insulting, to say the least.

A herd of cattle in the middle of the city, chickens pecking underfoot and in the rain gutters, and goats bleating challenged my perception of what is proper in a city landscape. The acrid, choking smell of burning rubbish each night filled the nostrils until, after the second night in Accra, I looked forward to stepping outside the hotel and sucking in the night air for the smell reminded me of fall in the midwest when we would burn the leaves at the curb after having raked the lawns.

I heard the Moslem "Call to Prayer" at 4:30 a.m. Not cow or bull horns being blown, just a chant rising like the incoming tide and the blossoming morning sky. At first, I mistakenly thought the sonorous singing came from the women, men, and children setting up their makeshift markets along the roads (all of Accra seems to be one endless market), but a British couple standing outside the hotel waiting for a taxi informed me that a mosque was a few blocks away, and I was hearing the call to prayer.

My visit was punctuated not by the presentations at the conference, but by two day trips I took with other participants at the conference: one to the slave dungeons at Elmina and Cape Coast and the other to the Village of Aburi. The commercialization of these two dungeons, which are Unesco sites; my own connection to the transatlantic slave trade as one whose family survived this inhumane trafficking in humans; and the dire poverty around both sites all coalesced not only to leave me in a state of pain and confusion but also cognizant enough to thank my ancestors for having the tenacity to survive, for without their survival there would have been no ME.

The conference participants were warmly received by the chief and his court in the Village of Aburi. We were properly entertained and fed, and I was very appreciative of the hospitality the chief and his court extended to us. But my eyes and heart kept looking at the villagers, the commoners, who surrounded us and were disallowed from participating in any of the events. Yet, as soon as the events ended, the villagers descended on us, and I found myself attempting to negotiate the various requests for U.S. dollars, to purchase goods, or for my e-mail address or telephone number because the person really wanted to come to the States. How to discern who is genuine when so many appear to be in need?

I received five marriage proposals and one indecent proposal from a man from Burkina Faso. One 22 year old Ghanaian, in particular, confessed to me that it was "love at first sight." I was not flattered, and mildly suggested that he would be better off asking me for sponsorship for his education particularly since I had a 19 year old son in the States. Imagine this 22 year old attempting to be a stepfather to my 19 year old son. What a hoot! This young Ghanaian did not know the kind of trouble he was asking for :)

Home. I hailed a taxi at Reagan National Airport with the help of a Ghanaian. "I just returned from your country, Ghana," I told the porter. He laughed and asked, "How do you know I am from Ghana?" "Your tribal mark," I responded. We talked about my experience as I waited for the taxi. My taxi driver was a middle-aged gentleman from Pakistan. I told him about my experience of hearing the morning call for prayer for the first time. He agreed that it is a pleasant sound to hear at dawn break. Then I said to him, "this is a very rich country, isn't it?" "Yes, it is," he said, as he expertly guided the four door, Ford sedan south on I-395 on smooth asphalt that made me feel luxurious for one of the few times in my life.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sunmer and Fun

I've been quiet for awhile. The end of the semester has its own set of challenges: fielding student e-mail messages and convincing them that yes, the grade that they received is the grade that they earned and the one I calculated; there is no gray area. I do not subjectively grade. I have grading rubrics for every assignment (something that none of my professors used when I was in undergrad); use a formula to calculate their final grades; and only round up grades according to how my many math teachers taught me. This way, I can eliminate as much bias as possible when I am assigning student's grades. Three weeks after the semester has ended, I think that I can stop checking my e-mail for student messages about grades for the summer.

My son is HOME!!!!!!! Yes, I am screaming. He's such a delightful young man, and he has had a very successful freshman year. He is far more disciplined than I was at his age, so I am very, very proud of him. He still hasn't found a summer job; so if any of you out there know of any summer positions any place in the U.S. please let me know. I've had to drag my son out of the house for fear that he wasn't getting enough vitamin D. He admitted to me that he was a bit depressed about not finding summer employment. I've given him a few strategies: like going door-to-door and inquiring about employment at all of the businesses in the neighborhood. We live between a strip mall and a town center. There must be no less than 50 businesses between the two venues; he should be able to secure some type of employment.

Yoga and hiking are going well. A good friend gave me a retro bicycle recently. So I'll be adding cycling to my exercise program as soon as a buy a helmet so that the Fairfax County police won't ticket me. Will start kayaking soon. The Sierra Club offers free kayaking and canoeing lessons every Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m. I'm trying to make myself drive into the District soon because tonight is the first night for free canoeing and kayaking this season. I'm just waiting another hour or so to see what the weather holds for us. Thunderstorms are being forecasted, and we won't be in the water if a storm arises.

Went to my nephew's high school graduation; he graduated Phi Beta Kappa, and did not even say anything; and did not stand up when the "Beta" club members were called. This sort of keen ability not to honor one's accomplishments runs in the family. I'm trying to get the younger generation not to be this way. For example, when my father retired, there was an acknowledgment/retirement luncheon that I did not know about. Perhaps this event still would not be part of my knowledge if I had not spied a U.S. flag some weeks later in my father's study. When I inquired about it, he told me with a great degree of reservation that it was the flag flown over the U.S. Capitol on the day he retired, and was given to him to honor his many years of service to the U.S. government. Okay, I felt really humble. I also wished that on some level he would have shared his accomplishments with his children (I don't doubt that he discussed them with my mom). But my dad raised us to understand that you always give your best effort, for doing so is about your integrity and has nothing to do with being acknowledged or receiving awards. So I suppose that my siblings, nieces and nephews, and I are the same as my dad. Therefore, I should not be surprised when my nephew does not stand to acknowledge that he is Phi Beta Kappa, or when a local fraternity acknowledges my son's high academic achievement and he refuses to attend the award ceremony, or when I have to be convinced to attend my own hooding ceremony. It is in our blood. Ultimately, the only one to judge my accomplishments is me, and I am, as my friend told me yesterday, hard on myself.

My nephew wants to be a stockbroker. My son just wants to finish undergrad; although he recently asked me questions about graduate school. I'm going back to U Mass-Boston to train as an instructional designer. I'm tired of online courses being 90% text based; there is too much technology available for these universities and colleges to upload only text and call it an "online course." It's a travesty and only addresses the needs of the most astute visual learners. If you are an aural learner, please avoid online classes. My goal is to mitigate this by learning not only to design but the psychology behind learning. Wish me luck. Wish my nephew and son success. They have so much energy and enthusiasm. And they are two very focused individuals!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sun, Domesticity, and Love

Well the sun brings out the best in some folks, and I'm one of those folks. No matter what is happening, somehow my mood and outlook remain positive and optimistic when my face is kissed by the sun. Left the Fairfax County Courthouse on Friday in good spirits despite losing my hearing (yes, I'm was in contempt of court for not ponying up the equivalent of one-half the cost of tuition, room and board at University of Virginia for my lovely son attending Howard University, but that's another story that I probably shouldn't blog about less I get sued by my former husband, oh well).

I once read by some famous writer that if you write long enough, you are bound to anger some folks. I have had my share of angering folks: from my 5th grade student teacher in history who accused me of plagiarism to lawyers who think that if they send me a demand letter, I'm going to crawl in a corner and let them do with me as I please. Oh, well, having worked 10 years of my life for a circuit court judge, large defense firm, and bond attorneys, I'm not easily scared when lawyers send letters to me; which is why when I go in court I often win, but I often piss folks off. But it's all in the writing, which is why I tell my students, if you have good writing skills, they will take you far beyond the classroom. In fact, good writing skills are essential to surviving in this complex U.S. culture. But as for the outdoors and my life beyond legalities: hiking is my anecdote to boredom.

Still hiking. I've slowed down a bit this week. I need to let two blisters heal. So I'll meet my hiking club on the Mall in DC and look at the monuments. This is not really a hike, but a way to meet, look at the monuments, and stop for coffee. Walking the Mall will give my feet a break, but next weekend these old dogs are going to get a workout in the Shenandoah National Park. I can't wait to try out my new trekking poles in the mountains.

Loving domesticity! Anticipating my son's arrival home for the summer, I've opened up the kitchen again. My good friend Ricci has been allowing me to experiment on him with some new dishes. Since Ricci is a "food machine," he rarely turns down my dishes. I have found that since my son departed for the university, I am rusty in the kitchen. I rarely prepare a meal unless someone else is around to eat. So Ricci's presence helps me get back into the swing of things.

Glad the sun is back. Happy to be enjoying my living space. Hum, and Ghana is calling me for a summer excursion and conference!

Monday, April 6, 2009

Furloughs, Hiking, and Rainy Weather

What a wonderful weekend. It was nearly 70 degrees all weekend in metro DC, so I had an opportunity to hike through parts of Bethesda, Maryland and look at the Cherry Blossoms in the Kenwood neighborhood. Sunday I spent the day in Annapolis just soaking in the bay air coming off the water and remembering how much I love being near the water. Having grown up in Michigan, a peninsula (I have to often remind my friends of this), I grew accustomed to seeing water, lots of water since my parents were good about making sure that we spent a lot of time on the Great Lakes as children. When I go to Annapolis and stare out at the Chesapeake Bay, I feel as calm and confident as I do when I am on the ocean. Annapolis is by far my favorite city in metro DC: its sailboats (it is sailing capital of the U.S.), the 17th century architecture, and the cobblestone streets truly engage my senses. Yes, slavery existed in this town, but there is something about those native Black folks from Annapolis (the ones who know that they are direct descendants of African slaves and trace their original landing in the New World to Annapolis, MD) that despite all of the discrimination and the ever-pervasive color line, that continues to define their lives in the most insidious ways, that gives me some degree of solace, for they are so defiant, so sure of who they are and where they are from. I tease my friends from there, and tell them that they must have descended from the Fulani group because they will not bend, they do not yield. Recently, the city officials erected a sign designating the corner of West and Calvert streets as the Harlem of Annapolis. While this is a tribute to the artistic and intellectual endeavors and accomplishments emerging from this neighborhood, had anyone consult me, I would have reminded them that the U.S. African population in this area predates the movement of U.S. Africans into Harlem. But, hey, no one asked me. If you are ever in Annapolis, on the wall of the Stanton Center is a mural depicting some of the notable U.S. African residents of the Clay street community. Check it out for it is slowly being gentrified as a generation of elders born in the first decades of the twentieth century are passing and leaving their homes to their grown children who often see no value in keeping the property or returning to the neighborhood.

Hiking is going well. I am looking forward to my next strenuous hikes. I have my warm weather gear that friends recommended I buy. Everyone is swearing by Under Armour, so I purchased my first three pieces this past weekend. I still need to get some lightweight rain gear and trekking poles. In this past Sunday's Washington Post, there was an article about hiking the Appalachian Trail. I will be hiking a portion of the trail in a few weeks. The writer of the Post article suggested that you have trekking poles. So it is confirmed, I will shell out the bucks for trekking poles; besides, I must protect these knees on the descents. And thus far, I have been lucky: I still have good balance so I haven't fallen into any streams. But it is only a matter of time before I lose traction on a wet rock and crash into a stream. I have waterproof boots, but if the water is deep enough, my feet will be waterlogged, and since I almost always forget to carry an extra pair of socks, the rest of my trek will be very uncomfortable. Trekking poles will help me to maintain stability and balance!

Received notice a few weeks ago that I will be furloughed from Howard for two days; and, at the top of the agenda for the Budget Committee at the community college where I teach is furlough. I have to tighten the belt, bite the bullet, and continue preparing myself for this worsening economy. The recession is finally hitting metro DC. I am teaching far too many classes for any one person, which is why I have been so quiet on this blog. But I must do what I have to do in order to insulate myself from an economy that our president predicts will worsen before it improves. I believe him.

Read Paule Marshall's latest publication, Triangular Road: A Memoir (2009). It is a thin book that opens with a tribute to Langston Hughes for the support that he gave Marshall in the early part of her career. While the book allows a glimpse into Marshall's life, it is still too scant on the details and how she accomplished writing and rearing her son as a single parent. Perhaps this is one memoir in a sequel, and there is more to come from Marshall. Hopefully so, for I believe that Marshall is one of our under-celebrated U.S. African women writers.

I'm signing off: I have to teach this afternoon, and I have spent the last three hours in Starbucks grading essays and conferences. Spring will come and stay soon. I'm tired of the rain outside!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Arabesque at the Kennedy Center

Wow, I hope your weather was as warm, inviting, and calming as ours was in metro DC. It was a weekend for being out and about. Although I had planned to spend the entire weekend held up inside the Kennedy Center at Arabesque, a festival of Arab culture, I hit the Capital Crescent trail on Saturday afternoon, hiking from Bethesda to Rosslyn, before heading over to the Kennedy Center to hear Suheir Hammad on Saturday night.

I took the time to tidy up a bit before heading to the Millennium Stage to hear Suheir Hammad read and perform poems, including some from Breaking Poems. Her performance was wonderful: a mixture of spoken word and "traditional" poetry; some performances from memorization and other poems read. Her father introduced her, and he was so fatherly: enthusiastic, louder than he probably knew he was, and proud of his daughter. Hammad read a poem in tribute to her father, and it brought tears to my eyes so touching were the images, so sonorous the rhythm, and so emotional her delivery.

Hammad blew me away when she opened Breaking Poems to a page bearing lines about Detroit, and looked up at me and said, "you're from Detroit." Serendipity? I don't think so. This caused me to reflect on my own upbringing and my relations with Arab Americans in Detroit during the 1970s and 1980s. While I knew only a handful of Arab American kids growing up, most of them were immigrants and had been segregated into Black communities, my relations with the Arab American community became more engaging when I returned to metro Detroit from 2001 to 2005. As an adult actively communicating with adult Arab Americans, my maturity enabled me to pose questions and receive responses for which I had always wanted an explanation. But the hysteria of post 9/11 tempered and informed a lot of our conversations. I was still an outsider. And there was reason for my Arab American friends to be suspicious of everyone, including me.

The special police and K-9 dogs were out in full force from Thursday to Sunday, respectively. Security was obviously beefed up. And I was concerned that attending Arabesque was perhaps an endangerment to my safety. I do not need to see a lot of special police to make me feel secure. In fact, I feel less secure when they are around. After seeing far too many K-9 dogs on Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, and unmarked Fords all day Sunday around the Kennedy Center, I became very uncomfortable and suspicious. When a crowd of pretentiously heeled, mostly non-colored people, began to flood the Hall of Nations and Hall of States, it was apparent that something important was occurring. Perhaps not as important as Arabesque was to me, but something important enough to call out the "militia" in full force. One of the guards told me, "It's a celebration for Senator Kennedy's birthday, and the president is attending." Well, this made me feel a bit better, for I was contemplating what threat could a hall full of Arabs present in a cultural space like the Kennedy Center. But even the poet Suheir Hammad joked on Saturday night, "have you ever seen this many Arabs in one place besides a jail?" With K-9s roaming the premises, who of Arab descent was going to laugh at that question?

It was tempting to sit around and get a glimpse of the president, but I stopped being a cheerleader in the 12th grade; and I no longer crash parties. I left just when the president entered. The SUVs were nine deep in front of the Kennedy Center, and the police and secret service presence was so concentrated that it placed a damper on the atmosphere. It was time to go home. I boarded the shuttle to the metro station and made my way to northern Virginia.

Monday, March 2, 2009

It's Been a Long Time

Oh, I've been hiding out on Facebook, reading, going to pilates allegro classes, and hiking. I've also been writing: a book review, a critical essay, and an abstract for another critical essay. We are snowed in in metro DC. Although our president was right about what whimps we are to shut everything down when it snows, I was happy to have a day off without guilt. I finished reading Zadie Smith's novel, On Beauty, today. It is quite good. I haven't digested it yet because I turned the last page less than an hour ago, and I am committed not to write another critical essay until I write some fiction or creative nonfiction.

Hiking is going well. I finished my first strenuous hike this past weekend. It was eight miles in the Shenandoah National Park. Now, eight miles is not far at all for me to hike. But eight miles up to a 2,500 foot elevation was a bit much. See here it is. It's not my age that challenged my physical ability; but my greatest fear: heights. Coupled with my ongoing fight with anemia, I was winded and had to focus on not looking down to the precipice below in order to complete the hike. I know that if I was with a familiar friend, a lover, or family member, I probably would have stopped hiking and someone would have had to rescue me. But because I was raised not to be a burden to strangers, I kept trekking along even though I could hear my heart beating loudly in my ears, and I had to periodically stop and bend over to catch my breath. All I can say is that I made it, and I'm making an appointment with my physician to have my red blood count checked. When you are anemic, you don't have enough red blood cells carrying much needed oxygen to your organs. The gentleman hiking in front of me told me that I was panting like a smoker. So I know it's time to go to the doctor. As for the heights, I can't do anything about this. I have tried for years to overcome this fear, even going parasailing over the Atlantic Ocean. It is what it is, and nothing is going to change this. I just have to grin and bear it.

My legs still ache from the hike on Saturday. Nonetheless, I pushed myself out the bed and walked in the snow around the perimeter of the shopping center (the long way) to the Starbucks this morning. I needed another good cardio workout. Trying to get this heart in shape despite the anemia.

All is quiet on the eastern front. The market is continuing to crash. The moneyed folks really don't like our president's plan for a "redistribution of the wealth." But none of them commented on the upward distribution of wealth that has occurred for the past eight years. Oh, well, it's business as usual in the good U.S. of A.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Class and Black Women’s Literature

Performing Class: U.S. Africans Strutting Their Stuff

I think that it is apropo that I am sharing the panel with scholars whose papers examine the links amongst race, class and gender, and film and representation. For while my primary interests are in literary studies, my examination of how class is manifested in narratives by twentieth-century Black women writers inevitably leads me to turn my eye both to the text and to the extra-textual world that highly informs the printed text. Of course, in the extra-textual world, a text in and of itself, is performance. And the links between performance on the world stage and how that performance gets replicated (no matter how imaginatively) in printed texts by U.S. Black women writers concern me. I view creative writers as artists whose works often give voice to changing trends, social ills, and human desire before the masses, and even sometimes before the scholars, find the language to articulate eruptions in the culture. For, after all, creative writers only have the tool of language to convey their narratives. And is it not language that ultimately constructs our personhood, with or without agency? In my examination of twentieth- century fiction by U.S. Black women writers, I am struck by the preoccupation, if you will, of the complex negotiations that their black heroines undergo in attaining, maintaining, and oftentimes, negating class status. My work is concerned mostly with Pauline Hopkins, Zora Neale Hurston, Ntozake Shange, Andrea Lee, and Toni Morrison. In each of these twentieth century Black women's fiction, the heroines struggle to come to terms with dual allegiances to race and class. Their concerns with gender are critical to their allegiances with race and class. However, it is the race/class dance, the performance anxieties of both, that take prominence in these heroines' lives. Hopkins, Hurston, Shange, Lee and Morrison create these tensions to interrogate how one performs blackness and femaleness, blackness and class, and blackness and upward mobility.

Although these fiction writers have invested their novels with tensions around the anxieties of class and race, the same degree of attention by scholars of literary studies has been lacking. It seems that scholars of literary studies have left the interrogation of class and race to the sociologists. However, while scholars of literary studies have aptly examined the way that identities are constructed, particularly in regards to race, gender, and sexuality, less attention has been given to the way that Africans in the diaspora construct class. My project is two fold: one, I examine the history of differentiated class status amongst Africans of the disapora in the United States, and two, I am especially interested in the ways that twentieth-century U.S. Black women writers construct, portray, and give voice to black class status in their heroines in fiction. I believe that like other components of people's identities—for example race, gender, and sexuality—people learn to perform class. Often such performances are tangentially related to economics, yet they are not wholly determined by economics either. Class is a performative act that embodies complicated intersections of race, gender and identity, and is equally determined by historicity. Class for the African of the disapora in the U.S. must be interrogated not only in consideration of the history of slavery but also with an acknowledgement of the insidious and perpetual dis-integration of these Africans due to racism. Both the history of slavery and the culturally embedded practice of U.S. racism so over-determine the economic and social statuses of Africans of the disapora in the U.S. that these elements cohere to create at times an impermeable caste system wherein the fiction of race often eclipses other signifiers, and operates as the primary signifier in which both the dominant culture and other Africans read the place of Africans of the disapora in the United States.

Yet my attempts at examining, interrogating, and drawing conclusions about black class as performance are grounded in the history of black racial slavery in the colonies of the New World, and what later became the United States, in particular. Despite this history of black racial slavery that subsumed black lives within a pervasive caste system, those persons of African ancestry who managed to break free of the constraints imposed by slavery, nonetheless found themselves still hemmed in by the restrictions that caste imposed on them. Yet this engendered its own sort of duplicity, for it stratified persons of African ancestry into an intraracial hierarchical society that included bondsperson and free person, non-propertied and propertied, unlettered and lettered, and immobile and mobile—thus intraracial difference evolved among the population of persons of African ancestry in the New World colonies of North America, and I believe therein lies the birth of the performance of class.

Untying the creation and history of a black caste system is as complicated as black racial slavery itself, since both are predicated on visually identifying a population of people whose skin color, hair texture, and physiognomy differed from the dominant population. Historian David Brion Davis argues in Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (2006):

In the Chesapeake (a region that includes Maryland and Virginia), all people of African ancestry were increasingly seen and defined as 'Negro.' This arbitrary racial classification gradually became the norm for most of the United States. And this basic dualism or division between whites and Negroes, between the free and the slave, leads to the argument of the historian Edmund S. Morgan that Virginia's slavery and racism became, paradoxically, the social and ideological basis for America's dedication to freedom and equality" (135).

So while some persons of African ancestry were able to attain social and economic statuses that elevated them above the lowest rung of the black caste system, their African ancestry—which later became a racial identity perpetuated by colonial legislatures to ensure white domination and control— made it impossible for them to escape the black caste system regardless, of class status. But as Morgan points out, the very nature of slavery and racism becomes not only the basis for the freedom and equality sought by non-propertied white males, but most importantly for those persons of African ancestry denied access into and a voice within the body politic.

The body politic—which denied, subjugated, and ignored the teeming population of persons of African ancestry—formed its identity vís a vìs this encroaching African presence while it simultaneously pretended that the presence of the African was inconsequential to the ideological foundation of a new nation. The manner in which the African's presence was trapped within the interstices of the fabric of the new nation and likewise ripped from its moorings perhaps unveils how it was possible for communities of Africans to live both within the caste of blackness and outside of it as well. For I am not denying the reality of the black caste system and slavery, however, what I am suggesting is as Africans sold into the Atlantic slave trade learned to "perform" slavery, they likewise learned how to "perform" both caste and class. Gates, Foucault, Althusser, Tate, Foster, and a host of other scholars' work in challenging the idea of master narratives, particularly for subalterns, reminds us that for every African who yielded to slavery, there was (an)other who did not bear her back to the whip. For every African who felt subsumed and broken by black caste, there was (an)other who, despite caste, struggled to obtain land, maintain freedom, and retain some modicum of dignity. For every African who deemed herself outside of the dominant society, there was (an)other who regarded herself as integral to building of the nation. And feeling that one was integral to the building of a nation was as much about performance, even if the performance meant mocking, aping, or emulating the mores of the dominant culture. But may I also suggest that black class performance is not wholly determined by the dominant culture, that in fact, alienated from the dominant culture, standing "outside" of culture, and living in the margins allowed for a performative space that redefined black class. These performative spaces for Black women, in particular, and as manifested in Black women's fiction are domestic spaces, as Claudia Tate so aptly reminds us. Tate argues: "Black women's post-Reconstruction domestic novels used bourgeois gender conventions as an emancipatory text. The novels mediated the changing constructions of femininity at the turn of the century to define woman as exemplary citizen" (97). And these novels almost always used the domestic space as the primary locale for acting out bourgeois desire, exemplary citizenship, and redefining black women's femininity. The impact of the heroines in nineteenth century Black women's fiction as well as nineteenth century Black women themselves who pushed back against racialized and sexualized discourses that sought to subjugate them is attested to in the past and present not only by their accomplishments but also by the number of successful Black men who pay tribute to their mothers who were instrumental in their success.

But I have gone off on a tangent, and let me try to get back to historicizing this issue of performing class. Just when democracy in the U.S. was purported to level the playing field for white males in particular and gave way to the promise that with hard work, regardless of previous class status, any white male could rise to the level of prosperity, both Black men and Black women capitalized on opportunities that were not constructed for them to take advantage of, despite the divisions of the color line. They crossed the color line, picketed at the color line, and erased the color line. They sought inclusion based on meritocracy and hard work, which lay at the very ideological foundation of the nation. Striving for upward mobility is as much a part of the Africans' presence in the United States as is slavery. Yet, Euroamericans worked overtime to erect and maintain barriers to separate whites from blacks. W. E. B. Du Bois points out in his essay "The Evolution of the Race Problem" (1909) that while European nations were eliminating barriers that maintained rigid class status, the U.S., in fact was engaging in the precarious erecting of racial barriers that would ultimately make permanent a racialized caste system. Du Bois writes:

We are in fact to-day repeating in our intercourse between races all the former evils of class injustice, unequal taxation and rigid caste. Individual nations outgrew these fatal things by breaking down the horizontal barriers between classes. We are bringing them back by seeking to erect vertical barriers between races. Men were told that abolition of compulsory class distinction meant leveling down, degradation, disappearance of culture and genius, and the triumph of the mob. As a matter of fact, it has been the salvation of European civilization. Some deterioration and leveling there was, but it was more balanced by the discovery of new reservoirs of ability and strength. (qtd. in Brotz 546-47)

While Du Bois is referring to the "discovery of new reservoirs of ability and strength" in European civilization, the very erection of racialized barriers in the U.S. also gave way to new reservoirs of ability and strength within communities of Africans in the U.S. This ability and strength manifested itself in performance. This performance was, and continues to be about redefining the terrain, rewriting the script, and accomplishing the impossible.

As you can gather, my project is not about re-inscribing the history of the African in the U.S. as a history wrought with condemnation, unrealized struggles, and losses. These elements are part and parcel of any group's history, particularly groups that have been subjugated by a dominant group. Rather my project is aimed at unveiling, revealing and giving voice to the way that the African of the Diaspora in the U.S., despite its history, performed class as a means of survival. Whether that class performance was one of the bondsman, the black caste man or woman, the eighteenth century free black man who owned black slaves, or the twentieth century hip hop artist from a middle-class family who is pretending to be down with the folk and then realizes that she really is down with the folks, class performance, I argue, is imperative to survival. In the five texts that I look at in my forthcoming book, Narratives of Black Bourgeois Desire: Examining the Class Line in Twentieth Century U.S. Black Women's Fiction, I am concerned with what Foucault refers to as "subjugated knowledges." Foucault writes, "Subjugated knowledges are . . . blocks of historical knowledges that were present in the functional and systematic ensembles, but which were masked, and the critique was able to reveal their existence by using, obviously enough, the tools of scholarship" (7). When you read nonfiction and fiction by Black writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, their literature not only examines Black slavery, but the texts also give voice to the desire for change: the physical, economic, and social emancipation that remain the primary impetus for the creation of these works. These precursor texts provide the foundation for the twentieth century texts that turn an open eye to the overt performances of freedom, and inextricably linked to these performances of freedom are also the performances of class. How to negotiate the complex American terrain that attempts to control the steps, attempts to rewrite the script, and attempts to direct the performance? These women's novels provide insight into how their heroines overcome insurmountable odds to give stellar performances. Whether it is in fiction or reality, life is about performance, race is about performance, gender is about performance, and class is equally about performance. All these elements cohere to create identity, which is, after all, about performance.

Works Cited

Brotz, Howard, ed. African-American Social and Political Thought 1850-1920. 1966. Intro. Howard Brotz and Foreword B. William Austin. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers, 1992.

Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Du Bois, W. E. B. "The Evolution of the Race Problem." Ed. Brotz 539-49.

Foucault, Michel. "Society Must Be Defended," Lectures at the Collège De France 1975-1976. 1997. Ed. Mauro Bertani and Alessandro Fontana. Trans. David Macey. New York: Picador, 2003.

Tate, Claudia. Domestic Allegories of Political Desire: The Black Heroine's Text at the Turn of the Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Cold, Change, When Will Spring Arrive

I have been really busy. Zipping from one campus to the other, up and down I-95 and MD-50 and finally saddled with the flu, a cold, I don't know. But the symptoms were intense enough to make me sit down and climb into the bed for one week. Luckily I was saved by two snow days, so I didn't miss too much class time.

My son's birthday was at the end of the month, but I was too sick to see him. When I finally got well, I met him on campus. He has a new saunter: it's self assured, a bit cocky, and playful. It's all good, as my students tell me. But as I checked out how long his legs have gotten, my gaze traveled up to his face, and beaming from his two earlobes were two cubic zirconias. I got out the car, doubled over in laughter, and chanted: "No you didn't. No you didn't." He grabbed me up in a bear hug and laughed with me.

I couldn't be mad at the boy. I just told him that our bodies react to silver, so if that was silver in his ears, as soon as the holes healed he needed to purchase some gold earrings and put them in his lobes. He immediately told me how he has been cleaning his earlobes carefully and he's taking care of them. Then he told me that my dear father was the one who gave him the idea to pierce his ears. Yeah, blame it on his grandfather.

I'm still smiling as I write this. I don't think he should have pierced his ears. He's in the doggone business school. But, hey, he reminded me that he had a 3.0 g.p.a his first semester, freshman year, and he's certain that he will pull a 4.0 g.p.a. this semester, now that he has adjusted to being in the university. This will put him in the running for a scholarship, he assured me. Yeah, the boy is already a business person, letting me know how much money I can save as a lure for accepting his pierced earlobes. Hey, what can I say? The boy has never given me any problems, so if he pierces his ears, I can live with it. Besides, this act of self definition reminded me so much of the time when I put a second hole in my right earlobe the summer when I was 18 years old while visiting my cousin, Robin, upstate New York. I recall my father admonishing me. He had reason to be concerned, I was not as focused and on track as my son currently is.

It has been too cold, even too cold to go hiking. But we are going to have Spring-like weather this weekend, I'll be out on the trails on Saturday. Jabari Asim's book party is on Sunday; hope that those of you in metro DC can join us. Go to his Facebook page for the location and time. Make sure you rsvp.

For my family and friends in Michigan, hang in there. It's cold. The recession has been very real in Michigan since 2001. The country is always slow to respond to the economic downturn in Michigan even though it is the barometer for what is going to happen to the rest of the country economically. Our dear president sounded frustrated on the Air Force One and at the event in Williamsburg admonishing Congress for messing around and not immediately passing the Stimulus Bill. Oh, well... things are getting interesting.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

20 Things My Parents Taught Me

Everything that I needed to learn to survive, I did not learn in an educational institution. In fact, if my education had been left up to the teachers, professors and schools I attended, I'd be woefully dumb. While I may have had a few bright teachers and professors, I must admit that my parents were the major influences on my intellectual development. But they also taught me a few other things. I will list them below.

From my father I learned:

1. The difference between a debit and a credit
2. How to file articles of incorporation (this was a family project when I was in high school)
3. How to check my oil, check the tire pressure, listen to the engine for problems, diagnose the problem, and how not to allow the service person or mechanic to treat me like I'm a dumb chick when I take my car in.
4. How to negotiate terrains of power
5. Never to tell a guy what will happen if he's late for a date
6. How to post accounts (he had me doing this for small businesses before I was in high school)
7. How to do problems in trigonometry, pre-calculus, and calculus (my father was a great mathematician when I was a kid)
8. How to write a coherent essay on the first draft (in elementary school my siblings and I were not allowed to erase our mistakes, my father made us rewrite the entire essay no matter how long it took us)
9. How to be a caring and loving daughter (I'm still learning this)
10. How to be daughter #1.

From my mom, I learned:

1. Never to act dumb no matter how much pressure was placed on me to pretend like I didn't know something
2. To read like my very life depended on it
3. To stir spaghetti sauce while simultaneously reading a book
4. To pay my overdue fines at the library (often my mother would load up the trunk of the car to return mine and my siblings overdue books with her check book in hand; I think my mom was solely responsible for Detroit Public library placing a cap on overdue fees on children's books)
5. How to enjoy poetry
6. How to play the piano
7. How to write fiction, poetry, and plays
8. To read literature within a particular context and to deconstruct it
9. To enjoy all types of literature
10. To develop my mind, develop my mind, develop my mind.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Hiking and Reading

I had an intense week teaching a one-week, all day seminar in African American literature. Pedagogically, this doesn't work because the students don't have enough time to retain any information. If this were a graduate-level seminar it would work because graduate students bring so much knowledge to the classroom, but for an undergraduate class where this might be a student's first introduction to African American literature, the course is very challenging even for the best students. But the students and I made it through, I posted grades tonight, and I get a slight break before the Spring semester begins at the college.

I've been hiking and reading, if you are interested! I'm reading "White Cargo: The Forgotten History of Britain's White Slaves in America" wherein the authors, Don Jordan and Michael Walsh, argue that although the word "slave" was rarely used to define the legal and social status of the European indentured servants who were forced into or volunteered their labor in the Americas, they were, nonetheless, slaves. The authors hope to add to the vision and history of slavery in British America the image of poor English children who were mostly kidnapped, English female prostitutes who were sold out of the country as brides to English settlers as a way to populate the colonies, English men who either volunteered their labor or were convicts given emigration to British America as an alternative to death, and the Irish who were in constant battle with the English for their sovereignty and humanity and of whom England wanted to exterminate.

I am wrestling with not the concept of Britain's white slaves, but the implication of this sort of discourse on U.S. Africans seeking reparations for being enslaved. I know how discourse can be twisted to accomplish political agendas; therefore, deracializing, or de-Africanizing slavery in British America as a social and economic phenomena that was not overwhelmingly African and based on racism will be very difficult for me to wrap my mind around. Thus far, Jordan and Walsh argue that few white indentured servants survived indentured servitude, acquired land, or gained a social status above that of a slave, if they fulfilled their contract of indenture servitude. I haven't finished the book, and I'm curious how the authors will handle the shift in status of Europeans in the 18th century as they were increasingly defined as whites rather than by their national origins as a way to establish a racial hierarchy and race-based caste system in the United States that even free Africans in this country could not escape.

If you are curious, Toni Morrison states that reading "White Cargo..." was the basis for her novel "A Mercy."

Okay, so it's hiking this weekend, an 11-mile trek, regardless of the weather. Then I will relax on Sunday and break bread with a friend before going off to tap dancing class. My friend teases me about how I prepare for my hiking treks: eating my protein in the morning, not drinking my mochas (ugh, that hurts), hydrating with water, dressing in layers of silk and synthetics, donning my boots and wool socks, and pushing my locs under my wool cap with ear flaps. He told me that I look like I am about to hike the Himalayas. I had to respond, "no, I'd have a GPS tracking system if I was about to hike the Himalayas." We are best friends! Yet despite our 30 year friendship, he still does not see me as a physical person, which I find very ironic since we have hiked, played basketball, swam, scuba dived, and gone bicycle riding together. Hey, he was the person who taught me how to scuba dive. I suppose being middle aged, I think that he presumes that I will stop being physical and sit down. Wrong! I'm going to keep moving until my legs become like concrete. Besides I keep telling him that women in my family have congenital heart defects; yes every last one of us for three generations! Therefore, I can't ever afford to be sedentary.

Hope that all are having a prosperous year. We in metro DC are preparing for the president's inauguration; it's going to be pandemonium in DC and very difficult to get around the metro area next week.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

"Detroit, July 1967"

Below is a poem that I wrote back in October. I've been wrestling with a novel about the 1967 riots in Detroit for nearly four years. The novel is in various stages. Some chapters are complete. Others need more work. Nonetheless, the poem below emerges from my musings about the novel, where it is going, and what needs to be done next. The tentative title of the novel-in-progress is "At Home in the Night." One of my goals this year is to complete a good draft of this novel.

"Detroit, July 1967"

They swirled like a barrage of gnats
Spot lights unveiling
Hot summer night torn sideways
Babies screamed, slaughters gutted streets
Filled up with swollen anger and
Hungry mischief. That July 1967
When hope snapped necks and dreams
Broke backs and no more stilted speech
Like shattered glass on 12th street
Ringing as loud as the pain, and
Confusion, and silent slow silk
On his arms, strolling home beneath
Whorling wind and heat and loss.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Friendship and New Year's Resolutions

First, thank you Johnny for the wonderful get together at your home on New Year's Day. As always, you open your home with grace and abundance, and we always have a good time. I am thankful for your friendship. And I will not rag you about cooking anymore. I realized that we all have our abilities; you provide the space, and me, Lynda, and Kerin will bring the food. It's not about gender, it's about what we do best.

Secondly, I never make New Year's resolutions, per say. However, since the birth of my child, I have diligently set ten goals for the year. Most years I can cross off at least five of the goals from my list, this year I managed to accomplish eight of the ten goals. Two goals seemed improbable in light of this financial market and my status in it. So perhaps next year will be the year to make some changes financially. Whichever goals I do not accomplish one year, I carry them over into the next year; that is, provided the goals are still in line with my overall goal that I have set for my life.

The goals are nothing ostentatious. For instance, hiking was one of my goals. That was the first one that was easily accomplished. It was just a matter of doing an internet search, looking at the weekend section of the Washington Post, making a phone call or two, purchasing my hiking boots, and meeting the group for a hike. Already, I have formed relations with two other women from my first hike and we are going on a hike on the National Zoo grounds tomorrow after touring the Mary Cassett exhibit at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

I don't believe in setting goals that are wholly unattainable in one year. Rather, I break that long-term goal down into its parts and focus on that part of the long-term goal that I can accomplish in one year. This way, I don't set myself up for failure or disappointment.

I record the goals on the last page of my bound journal. This way I can always reinforce my goals by reviewing them continuously and I can also periodically realign my focus when I find myself going astray. When I record my list of goals, they seem more tangible and attainable. It's easy for me to forget my focus if I do not write down my goals.

What are you goals for the year? How do you maintain your focus? Do you share your goals with family, friends, or colleagues? Or do you keep your goals to yourself? I'd be interested in how you go about attaining your goals. Please post comments.