Bridging the 18th & 21st Centuries: The Timeless Depiction of Race in the Casta Paintings and Trethewey’s Poetry

The intersection of race, art, and poetry is just one of the many forms of voicing, remembering and monumentalizing histories that have been forgotten. To be a poet that writes about race in this decade is to write at a time that spans instances of police brutality against the Black population all over the United States. But what Natasha Trethewey, the author of the of poetry collection Monument (2018), does is situate readers in historical narratives that blend with her own. Trethewey shows the importance of memory and the assurance that it lives on through written word often grounded in historical photos and paintings. Poetry becomes a way to evoke in readers the emotions and historical context concerning issues of race to past and present narratives. Trethewey utilizes ekphrasis, which is the “description of visual art” to contextualize her work into the past that demands attention and relevance today (McHaney 153). Monument isn’t just a collection of poems, but one of selected and new poems. She binds together work from her different books such as “Native Guard” and “Thrall” to tell a fuller story of memory through her own family history and spans the country’s dark history of White Supremacy.

“De Español y Negra Produce Mulato”

In her poem “Taxonomy,” Trethewey uses ekphrasis to place the reader into an 18th-century context, allowing us to enter the thought process of a casta painter, a reflection and tool of the society at large to progress ideas of identification in the period of hegemonic New Spain. The merging of visual art from the 18th century and figurative language in the 21st century is the author’s way of simultaneously acknowledging and bridging a gap for present-day analysis. Trethewey provides readers with the origins and inner workings of the thoughts and physical action behind the reactors and thinkers who have molded our current discourse of ‘mixed race.’ But this idea is not limited to Latin America for the social construct of race has profoundly impacted a wider global history. She does this by replicating artistic expression in her own work through diction, word placement, interrupted phrases and more literary devices.

In Trethewey’s second poem within the “Taxomony” series, “2. Espanol y Negra Produce Mulato,” the author starts with the very inscription of number and words in the art to serve as the title for the poem. In the piece, she uses ekphrasis to describe the painting of a Spaniard and Black women on either side of a young boy referred to as “mulato” (Trethewey 141). The poet goes on to describe the racial dynamics of the scene and even asks what we should do about the different components that make it a casta painting such as the inscription in the corner serving as taxonomy and the depictions of racial stereotype. She states how the artwork, the story, changes if we took out the inscription or hid the child. The author continues,

“The boy is a palimpsest of paint —

layers of color, history rendering him

That precise shade of in-between.

Before this he was nothing: blank

canvas — before image or word, before

a last brush stroke fixed him in his place.

 

Trethewey not only describes the creation of the artist who represents the New Spain society on a large scale, but uses an interrupted phrase to dig deeper and go beyond what the finished artwork depicts. In using this literary device, the poet expands upon the word “palimpsest,” which means “something such as a work of art that has many levels of meaning, types of style, etc. that build on each other:” (Cambridge Dictionary). In the interrupted phrase, Trethewey uses words like “layers” and “history” allow readers to understand the depth behind the surface of a canvas. This device allows the poet to insert a short reversed timeline at the end of the poem, a reminder that art speaks to the past, present, and future state of humans. In doing so, it is like she allows the reader to become the artist and see the reverse progression of the artwork. She starts with undoing the layers, then situates readers by presenting them with the boy’s “precise shade.” The poet takes us all the way back to the “blank canvas” (142). At that moment Trethewey ends the interrupted phrase and continues with the rest of the sentence. In doing this, she suggests that the mulato child has no identity beyond that which the artist, or colonial Spanish society, create for him.

In the interrupted phrase, it is evident that Trethewey’s word choice hold powerful significance to the title of the entire poem, “Taxonomy.” The word itself stands for “the science or technique of classification” (Dictionary.com), which add weight to the words “fixed” and “precise” (142). These words illustrate an exact classification of the shade of the mulato child, despite the layers of colors it took to paint him, and the real identities of children from European and African descent. And so just as the paintbrush is a tool for the artist to translate stereotypical portraits and environments of miscegenation, Trethewey’s words are tools for the readers to analyze the depiction of race in art.

Whereas the paintbrush was a tool to support imagined fact in New Spain, Trethewey’s words create a friction that requires readers to see the past and present in tandem, visually and figuratively as layers of action and final product. Like a painting, she pieces together action with description, verb with adjective. The placing of her words tell of visual complexities that get us to think of a deeper significance. One unique way the author does this is in the very first and last stanzas. In the first she writes, ‘Still, the centuries have not dulled / the sullenness of the child’s expression” (Trethewey 141). The author creates a dichotomy between “not dulled” and “sullenness,” because, in hindsight, the two words evoke a similar connotation of feelings such as gloomy, gray and sadness. According to Dictionary.com, the word sullenness means, “showing irritation or ill humor by a gloomy silence or reserve.” (Dictionary.com). Trethewey places the verb to dull right before the adjective sullenness, creating both a likeness between the words but also a contrast between the unfulfilled action of time and the clear expression the painting of the boy continues to portray today.

Trethewey also incorporates a narrative of time and juxtaposition in her words in the very last stanza of the poem. She writes, “before / a last brush stroke fixed him in his place.” (Trethewey 142). Similarly, the use of “last brush stroke” as a verb and “fixed” as an adjective form a convergence of both movement of the artist’s tool and a seemingly permanent state of being for the boy. The action solidifies the boy’s existence, a contrast to the more free position of the artist in New Spain who were commissioned to paint these narratives. This literary device of diction and placement in the poem is important to our understanding of who gets to move about freely in society, who and what that power is translated through and who remains stationary in the timeless gaze of an oppressive system.

Pearl Amelia McHaney goes deeper into the style and framing of Trethewey’s poetry in her essay, published in the Southern Quarterly, titled “Natasha Trethewey’s Triptych: The Bodies of History in Belloq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, and Thrall” (2013). On the contrary, Dwight Garner’s New York Times, article “Natasha Trethewey’s Poems Take Wing on Intimate Details” published in 2018 is a review of her work in Monument, and offers a different perspective in which to look at the personal and historical analysis the poet reveals. On the other hand, in The Paris Review, Lauren LeBlanc directly engages with the author herself in publishing “Building a Monument: A Interview with Natasha Trethewey” (2018). LeBlanc’s questions make sense of the layers of intent behind Trethewey’s work of poetry including the reason for calling her collection Monument (2018). 

The Cover of Trethewey’s collection “Thrall” (2015), painting by Juan Rodríguez Juárez c.1715

Through work dedicated to her mother and the observance of various forms of monuments in her experience of the deep south, Trethewey speaks of a “psychological exile” and a “necessity for remembering” (LeBlanc 3). In her analysis, McHaney illuminates that, “Trethewey paints with words… She makes visible what cannot be seen– before or after the photograph is made or beyond the constructed frame” (McHaney 153). What McHaney does here is analyze Trethewey’s use of ekphrasis in her poems and in doing so, unravels the “complicated histories” into which the reader is placed (McHaney 153). This analysis not only places the reader into the historical context of the artwork but also at the intersection of Trethewey’s personal social world as well. McHaney says “Guided by Trethewey’s description of ‘the triptych their bodies make’ in the casta paintings, we see a child centered, caught, held, enthralled between the parents in poems throughout her work” (155). McHaney mentions how in triptych painting donors would somehow incorporate themselves into the panels. Trethewey is said to have done the same here because she has created poetry that resembles her own life. Trethewey is like Ophelia in the center of the triptych, whereas the “parents” on either side of Ophelia relate to the author’s black mother and Canadian father. By situating readers in the time, place and experience of Trethewey’s poetry,  McHaney reminds us that we can’t resolve to look at Trethewey’s books of poetry as sole manifestations of her personal story, but that which tells a larger story grounded in history. She talks about how the attention from receiving a Pulitzer prize made it easier for readers to see the poet’s work as an account of her life.

By unpacking these visual and figurative complexities, someone in the present day United States of America is able to digest what they see and may even live through themselves. One can look at the topic of police brutality today and find similarities between these hegemonic structures of power. To give one example, poets such as Claudia Rankine highlight the issue in the poem “Stop-and-Frisk” (2014). The job of cops in American society can be abused to further beliefs during reconstruction and beyond of controlling the black population. The continued reality of driving while black in the 21st century is dependent on ideas that have solidified over time and kept black people in a “fixed” struggle to be viewed as human. That is why narratives such as Monument are relevant not just in time, but on an individual and personal level. The author doesn’t tell you how to think, I don’t think poetry works in that way. Rather she presents information to the reader through words that can then be carried differently and convey different meanings to people. Although, there is no denial in what she presents and the voice she is using to do so.

Analysis of Trethewey’s poem “Taxonomy” matters because race is still viewed as a biological fact rather than a social construct. Taxonomy and the labeling of different groups have come to define us, it has given us an identity that’s not so easy to part within our current discourse and environment. And so even as we say “race is a social construct,” it is critical to understand the history, to place ourselves into past context an make more sense of our present. Trethewey is able to do that for us. Talking about race has by no means ever been an easy topic to cover. But what the author does is use poetry to get us thinking, to get us to create a timeless dialogue about race. Today it’s not uncommon to hear someone dismiss the concept of race, to say they are colorblind or how race doesn’t need to be part of the conversation. But to say that is to erase a history depicted, viewed and discussed in the very casta paintings Trethewey refers to before her poem begins.

Natasha Trethewey

Works Cited

Garner, Dwight. “Natasha Trethewey’s Poems Take Wing on Intimate Details.” The New

          York Times, 13 Nov.

            2018, www.google.com/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2018/11/13/books/review-monument-

natasha-trethewey.amp.html , Accessed 10 Mar. 2019.

Kilroy-Ewbank, Dr. Lauren G., “Spaniard and Indian Produce a Mestizo, attributed to     

        Juan Rodriguez.” Khan Academy, https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/ap- art-history/early-europe-and-colonial-americas/colonial-americas/a/spaniard-and-indian-produce-a-mestizo-attributed-to-juan-rodriguez

LeBlanc, Lauren. “Building a Monument: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey.” The      Paris     

           Review, 15 Nov. 2018, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/11/15/building-a-

           monument-an-interview-with-natasha-trethewey/. Accessed 11 Mar. 2019.

McHaney, Pearl Amelia. “Natasha Trethewey’s Triptych: The Bodies of History in

        Bellocq’s Ophelia, Native Guard, and Thrall.” Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the          Arts in the South, vol. 50, no. 4, 2013, pp. 153–172. EBSCOhost,           

        search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?     

         direct=true&db=mlf&AN=2014380100&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Trethewey, Natasha. “Taxonomy: 2. Espanol y Negra Produce Mulato.” Monument.     

         Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018, pp. 141-2.

Images

https://images.app.goo.gl/nBGNvcCVnQq2wEAC7

https://images.app.goo.gl/WwkXspcoG8a4NfwS7

 

The Vietnam War: The Contrasting Politics of Representations & History

The most accessible narrative of the Vietnam War portrays the American solider heroically fighting the communist super powers of Northern Vietnam. These depictions are drawn predominantly from perspectives of American soldiers and circulate within American popular culture. The Vietnam War, which lasted from 1957 through 1975, followed the aftermath of World War II (Ferry 2). In this period, the French reestablished colonialism in southern Vietnam while communist leader Ho Chi Minh established the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) in the north (Ferry 2). Meanwhile 1960s McCarthy age of postwar America sustained a culture of conformity and anxiety towards communism in the United States. In this age of McCarthyism, the U.S. government deemed any act which challenged the preservation of American culture as untrustworthy or inherently communist. Fear in the spread of communism from Southeast Asia prompted U.S. military involvement (Ferry 3). Antiwar movements followed in the late 1960s when a recorded 500,000 plus American soldiers were documented fighting in Vietnam (Ferry 3).

Cartoonist Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do (2017), is a 329 page graphic memoir which documents the detailed history of her family’s escape from Southern Vietnam in the 1970s to their new lives in America. Published by Abrams ComicArt in New York City, Bui narrates the text of the graphic memoir in a poetic fashion alongside engaging illustration. Bui titled the memoir The Best We Could Do, from her perspective as an aging mother and in recognition of the two paternal generations which the timeline of her memoir follows. The structure of the memoir begins from the birth of her first born son, backwards through memories of the war. These memories are shared through the eyes of her siblings being raised in the United States, temporarily displaced in a refugee camp off the shores of Pulau Besar, to Bui’s birthplace in Vietnam. In this timeless story of immigration and the Vietnamese diaspora, Thi Bui examines the importance of identity and the meaning of home.

On the theme of representation, NPR host Mallory Yu’s article “Cartoonist Thi Bui Weaves Together Personal and Political History” (2018) offers a biographical framework for examining how the personal, historical, and political amplify the significance in representation of various Vietnam War narratives. Yu’s report which was aired on All Things Considered offers insight into how Bui found closure in her traumatic past after realizing that she is not responsible for representing all Vietnamese diasporic voices of the war. Published by World Literature Today, scholar and professor Alison Mandaville offers a similar framework for examining the politics of representation within American popular culture in her review of “The Best We Could Do/Saigon Calling: London 1963-75” (2018). Mandaville offers the underrepresented narratives of Vietnamese Americans Thi Bui and Marcelino Truong, who share intimate family and political histories which contrast stereotypes of Vietnamese people illustrated in film, pop culture, and American scholarship. By acknowledging the difference between Bui and Truong’s stories, Mandaville demonstrates the politics behind the absence of contrasting representations of the Vietnam War.

In “Chapter 2: Refugees from War” of the book Vietnamese Immigration (2003), Joe Ferry provides a comprehensive political history of the Vietnam War starting at the end of World War II in the 1940s through the 1990s. In doing so, Ferry successfully outlines and draws connections between the politics of how dominant portrayals of the Vietnam war has potentially impacted U.S. immigration policy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ferry’s book was published by Mason Crest Publishers in 2003. Mandaville’s analysis of how Bui and Truong’s distinct and intimate narrations of the Vietnam war illuminates the erasure of Vietnamese diasporic voices and histories in mainstream media. Yu’s interview with Bui, which argues that a singular perspective can never accurately reveal the entire truth of the Vietnam War overlaps with Mandaville’s argument of representation politics. Both of these points inform Joe Ferry’s argument of how poor depictions of Vietnamese people in mass media predicted bias immigration policy of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Throughout her graphic memoir, Bui weaves U.S. anti-immigration rhetoric in scenes of tension to highlight the influence in which discriminatory language inhibits freedom of cultural expression and racial, ethnic, and minority acceptance in the United States. After hastily escaping Sai Gon in an evening on the March of 1987, Bui’s family meets a refugee boat docked in Can Tho. After landing on the shores of Pulau Besar, Bui’s family joins a refugee camp holding “hundreds of thousands…flooding into neighboring countries, seeking asylum” (283). Bui’s family waits in line for their name and picture identification to be registered into the refugee camp before Bui’s mother, who is pregnant, returns from the local Hospital Kuala Terengganu. Central to page 267, Bui inserts photocopied passport-sized images of herself and each of her family members holding plaques which function to generically identify her family among thousands of others by “name, boat number, date of birth, and date of access” (267). While Bui is depicted unintrigued, staring blankly beyond the focus of the camera, Bui’s father also appears unamused with a weathered look in his eyes. Bui’s mother is captured supporting the weight of the youngest of Bui’s sisters on her hip. Surrounding the four images, Bui illustrates rough, impersonal sketches of nineteen other Vietnamese refugees also holding their identity plaques which detail their significance. In cursive print, the center of page 267 reads “We were now BOAT PEOPLE-” with an undertone of defeat simultaneous with acceptance and solidarity (267). Although the text is presented in a style similar to a handwritten letter, the font is in fact computer generated. The personalized appearance of this text resembles traces of official documentation through Bui’s artistic choice to present the text deceivingly hand-written. Bui’s unclear presentation of how she wants this page to be observed is constructed intentionally to provoke the audience to inquire their understanding of what “boat people” connotes. Additionally, which context and sources have informed their preconceived notion of “boat people”.

Located in the bottom right corner of the page, is a textbox which reads “—five among hundreds of refugees flooding into neighboring countries seeking asylum.” (267). The sketches of these faces in the background of the text further suggest how policy and news coverage mutes these individual stories. The most easily accessible narratives of the Vietnam War often portray from the American perspective. These perspectives, which circulate within American popular culture insufficiently document the Vietnamese diaspora. Similarly to the discourse which supports anti-immigration policy, Bui argues even the resources of authority such as the news also part takes in minimizing detailed family histories into simple numbered statistics.

The intimate photographs of Bui’s family in contrast to the rough outlines of other underrepresented Vietnamese personal and political histories work to exemplify the subtle ways in which cultural outlets, such as the news, promote and sustain the dehumanization of immigrant and diasporic communities. In critique of the function of anti-immigration rhetoric, which is to dehumanize, Bui intentionally utilizes the common metaphor of refugees ‘flooding’ into the United States. Similar to the language surrounding disease control and epidemics, ‘flooding’ suggests threatening undertones of what can not be contained and is therefore negative or deviant. In the context of the Vietnamese refugee crisis, ‘flooding’ also works to create an effect of negating the human experience while emphasizing the animalistic. Finally, Bui purposefully juxtaposes the individual portraits of Bui and her family to a common example of anti-immigration terminology such as ‘flooding’ to reveal the ruthless way in which anti-immigration language disregards the countless, undocumented voices within Vietnamese diasporic communities. Through this work, Yu’s argument emphasizes the significance inherent within how representation is narrated. While she asserts that Bui’s voice should not forcefully bear the responsibility of retelling the entire Vietnamese diasporic narrative, the intimate photographs Bui shares at this point on her memoir validates the individual in each recount of their lived experience in the diaspora (2). The narration of Bui’s family properly exemplifies how the voices and lived experiences anyone within the diaspora should have been depicted.

Mandaville’s critique of the media’s role in supporting the erasure of the voices directly relates to Yu’s report, which criticizes the lack of recognition which mainstream American cultures gives to the muted voices of Vietnamese diasporic communities. Before beginning her talk at the San Diego Comic-Con convention, Bui shares with her audience that her narrative represents a singular representation of a national narrative which extends beyond herself (Yu 1-2). Until recognizing this truth, Bui was unable to begin the process towards reconciliation of her family’s traumatic past (2). Both of these scholars indirectly acknowledge the damaging ways in which media simplifies the histories surrounding the Vietnam war. Ferry’s critique in the lack of footage documenting the destruction of “once-lush green countryside” now damaged with “land mines; chemical sprays [which] stripped foliage and vegetation” diverges from the fabricated narrative of the American soldier sacrificing himself for the betterment of Vietnam’s deeply entrenched communist society (4). The enhanced representation of the heroic American soldier in the wake of the degradation of Vietnamese ecology validates Bui’s frustration with the political bias inherent within media representations.

Toward the end of her memoir, Bui introduces a painful memory exemplifying how anti-immigration rhetoric has effectively manifested within the Vietnamese diasporic communities into a dangerous competition of who can deviate farthest from their cultural baggage. Upon arrival into the United States, Bui’s family moves into a two bedroom house with her aunt, her husband, their five children and one dog in Hammond, Indiana. From an impressionable age, Bui sensed the societal pressure to assimilate into American culture. Bui’s older cousins, who “had been in America for three years already”, often scolded Bui for behaving like “such a REFUGEE!” when, for example, she ate cereal out of the box (285). In response, Bui blamed herself for “probably embarrassing” her cousins for their “fresh-off-the-boat appearance” (285). Bui illustrates this page into a set of two larger frames stacked on top of one another. The top half of the page distinctly separates into two smaller frames which portray, Bui and her siblings in contrast to her more experienced and assimilated “American” cousins. Bui and her siblings are illustrated barefoot, in simplistic clothing which does not serve beyond the functional use as a protective layer. In contrast, Bui portrays her older cousins, aunt, and uncle, standing confidently united in the aesthetic appearance of 1970s American fashion.

The metaphor of appearing “fresh-off-the-boat” threatens Bui’s cousin, who has already gauged the sacrifice she is expected to make in order to find comfort in the contrasting binds of American culture. Vietnamese people have historically named themselvesat people”. This title reclaims aspects of the shared refugees experience of escaping Vietnam in boats. The boats provided the Vietnamese refugees a means of survival and an opportunity for escape. Floating for weeks at a time in a wide expanse of ocean water, most families were split apart or never had the opportunity to reach land. Bui foreshadows themes of assimilation and the model minority in this scene when her cousin threatens her for her dress and mannerisms which don’t align with American culture. Boats which were once sought-after for protecting refugees, now represent a discarded narrative as an foreigner subject to alienation. Assimilation now dictates how Bui will craft a home for herself in the United States. Although the boat represents a concrete Vietnamese identity distinguished through war history, the drifting boat also connotes an emotional and physical sense of unidentifiable weightlessness. Despite actions of assimilation, the boat in “boat people” is symbolic of the American identity which Vietnamese refugees will never claim.

While the parallel alignment of these frames appear to highlight difference between Bui and her cousins, the arrangement also foreshadows the insecurity which Bui’s cousin feels towards her threatened “American” identity. After dismissing Bui, Bui’s cousin asks, “at least don’t eat like that in front of my house where everyone can see you!” (285). In this bottom frame, Bui’s cousin projects her insecurities onto Bui in the form of unwarranted aggression. The words of her cousin invoke the fragility in their identities as Vietnamese-American immigrants (285). Similar interactions at school inform self-consciousness in her identity. Bui’s cousin reveals the precarious nature of her American identity when she reprimands Bui for harmless mannerisms such as eating cereal out of the box.

In connection to the work of Bui’s memoir, Mandaville’s critique of the media’s role in supporting the erasure of the voices directly relates to Yu’s report, which criticizes the lack of recognition which mainstream American cultures gives to the muted voices of Vietnamese diasporic communities. Before beginning her talk at the San Diego Comic-Con convention, Bui shares with her audience that her narrative represents a singular representation of a national narrative which extends beyond herself (Yu 1-2). Until recognizing this truth, Bui was unable to begin the process towards reconciliation of her family’s traumatic past (2). Both of these scholars indirectly acknowledge the damaging ways in which media simplifies the histories surrounding the Vietnam war. Ferry’s critique in the lack of footage documenting the destruction of “once-lush green countryside” now damaged with “land mines; chemical sprays [which] stripped foliage and vegetation” diverges from the fabricated narrative of the American soldier sacrificing himself for the betterment of Vietnam’s deeply entrenched communist society (4). The enhanced representation of the heroic American soldier in the wake of the degradation of Vietnamese ecology validates Bui’s frustration with the political bias inherent within media representations.

In reflection of how poor depictions of Vietnamese people in mass media influenced bias immigration policy, Ferry demonstrates the influence of pop culture and wider socio-political movements on U.S. policy. He acknowledges President Lyndon Johnson’s conscious shift to “not seek re-election as president” in response to U.S. antiwar campaigns (3). Ferry’s critique of how poor documentation, or a lack thereof, overlaps with Yu’s critique of how an absence in representation obscures some parts of history while exaggerating others. In the latter half of chapter 2, Ferry recounts the suffering which refugees experienced through generations following the war (5-7). Although Ferry does not outright state how mass media has directly influenced the discriminatory immigration laws of the late 1970s and early 80s, he point out the revealing significance and politics of not documenting history of the “bombs [which] destroyed infrastructure that had delivered electricity, clean drinking water, and sanitary sewage disposal to the population” following the aftermath of the Vietnam war (4). Through this point, Ferry correlates how the removal or leaving out of certain histories reflects a stylized prejudice in documentation.

Through his book, Ferry’s analysis of documentation aligns with Mandaville and Yu’s arguments which highlight the politics and responsibility of representation. Through entertaining Bui’s personal inflictions and “academic grumpiness” toward deconstructing offensive and stereotypical cultural representations of Vietnamese people in graduate school at NYU, Yu discusses how Bui intentionally “weaves the personal, historical, and political” in form of a graphic memoir (4). Yu discusses how Bui consciously decided to promote her voice through the frame work of a graphic memoir, which is the most accessible to a wide audience. The singular narrative of the Vietnam War which the Vietnamese people are bound to by Hollywood blockbusters consistently document the Vietnamese in stigmatized representations. The demonization of the Vietnamese aligns symbolically to the negligence of their continued suffering following the aftermath of the war.

The context of Bui’s memoir in conjunction with the connections between Yu, Ferry, and Mandaville arguments advocate and pioneer for the significance and politics of representation within the sphere of multiculturalism. The connection between how Yu illustrates the specific biographical context of how the process of writing this novel while raising her child supported Bui’s reconciliation of her layered identity relationship with her parents, Ferry, outlines the objective political history of the Vietnam War in contrast to mainstream documentation, and Mandaville outlines major debates of how blind American patriotism sustains ignorant representation of non-American perspectives, provides access points of deeper analysis into the role and responsibility of media in representing history. Points of overlap between Yu and Ferry’s arguments have had the effect of further illustrate the extent to which mass media can impact culture and history. Drawing from the overlap in these three source, the essence of how, which, and what narratives are portrayed in the media carries importance. Mandaville’s point of distributing the knowledge of oral histories draws stronger ties of connection between Yu and Ferry’s argument which both indirectly highlight the importance of documenting history in accessible modes of communication. These congruent points of connection broaden the definition of “false representation” to include also a lack in representation. Additionally, on the point of representation, these sources raise the question of how will media continue to impact history moving forward. How will this influx in influence be monitored? Should it be monitored?

Work Cited

Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir. Abrams ComicArts, 2018.

Ferry, Joe. “Chapter 2: Refugees from War.” Vietnamese Immigration, Mason Crest Publishers,   2003, pp. 8-14.

Mandaville, Alison. “The Best We Could Do/Saigon Calling: London 1963-75.” Review of The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui. World Literature Today, March-April 2018.

Yu, Mallory. “Cartoonist Thi Bui Weaves Together Personal and Political History.” All Things    Considered from NPR, 1 August 2018,             http://www.npr.org/2018/08/01/634606313/cartoonist-thi-bui-weaves-together-personal-  and-political-history

 

Seeing America Through the Eyes of a Chicano

Francisco X. Alarcon provided by poetryfoundation.org

Francisco Alarcon published his book of short poems From the Other Side of  Night/Del Otro Lado de La Noche in 2002 as an attempt for readers to get a glimpse of Chicano experiences in America. Alarcon was born in Wilmington, California and moved to Mexico with his family in the 1960’s. Being raised in Mexico, but consistently traveling back to Los Angeles in order to visit relatives opened his eyes to cultural differences at a young age. He began transforming the experiences he had as a Chicano child growing up in two worlds into poems. The poems themselves began to transition from feeling out of place at school to feeling out of place in the country where he was born. 

From the other Side of Night/Del Otro Lado de la Noche contains a wide array of pieces from his fifteen years as a poet with a few new additions. The poems are categorized by chapters all pertaining to the books they were featured in. Majority of the poems are written in a style Alarcon likes to call “skinny”(Transcript 1) meaning short poems with few words and lines per stanza. While there is no clear speaker many of Alarcon’s poems are meant to represent crucial points in his life including love, heartbreak, and family. Yet, it is the poems of struggle and hardship that invoke the most emotion. As an activist for Latino rights, Alarcon used his profession as a poet in order to spark notions of change in those that read his work with a huge focus on the younger generation of Latinos and Chicanos. In particular, his 2 page poem Carta a America/Letter to America focus on the mistreatment and misrepresentation Chicanos and Latinos feels in the United States.

To fully understand the pain invoked in Alarcon’s poems, one must know some history of the Anti-Mexican sentiment that has plagued the U.S since the late 1800’s. In Nadra Nittle’s article History of the Chicano Movement, she discusses the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty was passed in order to end the Mexican American War which resulted in the United States acquiring territory such as Texas and California, which previously belonged to Mexico (Nittle 1). What followed was decades of discrimination toward Mexican Americans including segregation in schools and violent hate crimes. While the protests did lead to some substantial changes for civil rights of Chicanos such as the birth of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, we appear to be in an era where these Anti-Mexican sentiments are on the rise again. 

Alarcon addresses how this historical hatred has manifested itself into modern views of Chicanos in his poem Carta a America/Letter to America. He starts the poem off with an undisclosed person saying: 

pardon

Common sign put up in shop windows during the early 1900’s

the lag

in writing you 

 

we were left

with few 

words (Alarcon 51) 

There is no direct statement of who the “you” in the poem is, but there are implications of it being America or American citizens. Similarly, there is no direct title associated with the “we” so the reader must assume the “we” as being Chicanos, Latinos, or other oppressed groups. The stanzas are both very short and contain very few words per line, meaning it can be read quickly. A parallel between the “we” and the structure of the stanzas themselves becomes evident; both contain few words. However, it is important to acknowledge they were “left with few words” meaning someone has control over the allotted amount of words the are aloud to say. It is obvious Alarcon is the one who decides how many words to include in his poem and what is being said, but who is controlling the “we’s” voice. 

Thinking historically, the U.S government was known to shut down protests advocating for equal treatment during the Chicano Movement. One such instance was the death of Ruben Salzar, a Mexican journalists recognized for his effort of addressing Chicano struggles in mainstream news sources. In an article surrounding the 2014 documentary made by Phillip Rodriguez, “Ruben Salzar: Man in the Middle”, evidence is presented exposing the strange circumstances around his death. Given how successful his articles became the LAPD, began to issues warnings again Salzar claiming he was being monitored by law enforcement (Rodriguez). He was then coincidentally killed after police began tear gassing and beating Chicanos protesting Anti-War sentiments. No one was charged for his death and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department refused to release any information on this case for years (Rodriguez). But this is just one of the many instances where law enforcement has psychically silenced Chicanos voices their pleas for change. As states in the PBS article, the U.S government appears to have control over the voices of Chicanos and can take action against them which parallels Alarcon being able to control the amount of words he uses in his poem. Both the Chicanos and the poem are being limited by a higher power. 

The poem then transitions to a long list of inanimate objects that represent what the speaker feels like the “we” or Chicanos can be compared to including a rug, table, lamp, toy and pan. The 7 stanza list is then directly followed by 2 stanzas that represent what the “you” does with these objects: 

you fear us 

you yell at us

you hate us 

 

you shoot us 

you mourn us

you deny us (Alarcon 52)

The stanzas are set up in such as way that the reader can see the increasing levels of hostility all steming from fear. The fear manifests itself into direct acts of aggression resulting in a shooting followed by a mourning. Each line contains an aggressive or violent action imposed on the “us” by the “you”. This repetition forces the reader to stay on these ideas of violence for a while. But one must remember that the violence is being directed towards the “we” in previous stanzas, which has transformed into the “us” in these two stanzas. The “we’s”(Chicanos) were previously compared to random objects in the previous seven stanzas. Interestingly enough,  the objects are all luxury or essential items that most Americans have in their home, not to mention all these objects are pretty harmless. If the Chicanos are being portrayed as harmless, essentials parts of society why are they being brutalized? 

This portrayal of repetitive violent acts towards innocent “objects” as depicted in the nine stanzas, mimics the rise in hate crimes against Latinos and Chicanos in the United States. Brendan Campbell, Angel Mendoza, and Tessa Diestel from News 21 address these acts of aggression in their 2018 article “Rising Hate Drives Latinos into Silence”. A huge factor in this rise has stemmed from the 2016 presidential election. Pricilia Garcia, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant told the News12 staff “post election, I could tell there was a change. People became a little more brave with their words, especially when it came to hateful things they said”(Campbell, Mendoza, Diestel). There were 34 reported anti-Latino hate crimes directly following the first two weeks of the 2016 election; a 176% increase over the year to date daily average (Campbell, Mendoza, Diestel). Not only are the crimes increasing, but “studies have shown the FBI substantially undercounts them”(Campbell, Mendoza, Diestel). This aids the denial expressed in the ninth stanza. Having the stanza end with “you deny us”, gives power to the word “deny” as that is the last idea the reader is left with. Considering the “you”(America) has the ability to deny the “us” (the Chicanos), it completely undermines the repetative violent acts as seen in both the stanzas and reality. It is important to remember that the poem sets up the Chicanos to appear harmless, so seeing consistent infliction of hate towards innocent people should invoke feelings of anger for the reader; especially if they are Mexican. 

Through all this history of violence and discrimination the poem approaches an end with the speaker acknowledging the resilience of the Chicanos saying: 

“United Race”

and despite 

everything

we 

 

continue 

being 

ourselves (Alarcon 52)

This resilience is what forms the back bone of Latino and Chicano activism. The power to keep their culture despite society telling them to hide it. A huge part of this culture is the language. The poem “Carta a America/Letter to America” is structured in a way that forced the reader to acknowledge the different language and in turn the different cultures present in America. The first column contains the poem translated in Spanish directly next to a second column containing the english translation. Having the Spanish translation presented directly across from the English translation not only allows for a broader audience to enjoy the poems, but forces the reader to acknowledge a presence of two languages. Alarcon is quoted in a 2018 “Transcript From an Interview with Francisco X. Alarcon” saying Latinos “have this connection with the Spanish language, and I want to keep that, to me it’s very important”(Transcript 1). There is a sense of pride both he and many other immigrant families feels in being able to speak another language. Alarcon’s choice in having every poem first being presented in Spanish and then English demonstrates this sense of pride—-putting his native tongue first. For non Spanish speakers who read the poems, they are consistently made aware of the presence of a different language. While this may seem like a waste of ink to some, it may result in curiosity from others which aids in Alarcon’s goal of preserving Chicano culture and language. 

The final stanzas of the poem contain a plea to America from the perspective of the “we’s”. They ask: 

America 

understand 

once and for all —

 

we are

the insides 

of your body 

 

our faces 

reflect 

your future

The ending metaphor compares Chicanos to the inside of Americas body, in a sense making them the organs. We have yet another example of Chicanos being compared to essential parts of life, although the significance of being the “inside of a body” is arguably more important than the previous comparisons of tables and rugs. It is possible to remove some organs without resulting in a fatality to the body, but if one were to remove all their organs they would surely die. This implies that it is impossible to get rid of all the Chicanos and Latinos in the United States. But not only is it impossible, it is unadvised do the serious repercussions it would have on the country; similar to what would happen if you removed all your organs from your body. In a statistics provided by the Census Bureau, it is projected that in “2060 Hispanics will comprise 28.6% of the total population with 119 million Hispanic individuals residing in the United States”(CNN). This sentiment further supports the claim of “our faces/reflect/your/future” (Alarcon 52). By stating the faces of Chicanos “reflect” future of America, Alarcon creates a sense of peace between both groups. Considering the long history of violence between Chicanos and “Americans” the reader gets a sense of relief when reading the last stanza. If the reader so happens to be Chicano or Latino one can only imagine the sense of pride they must feel knowing their presence in America will last for many generations to come. 

Alarcon takes readers on a rollercoaster of emotion stemming from historical oppression, but ultimately leading to a hope ending. He chronologically start the poem of with stanzas that revert back to the history of the United States silencing Chicanos and moves onto how Chicanos are still the targets of hate despite being deemed harmless and in some ways essential through his use of repetition and metaphors. One must not forget that this poem is meant to be a letter as mentioned in the title. This leaves the question, when will it be mailed out? When will America read it? If America does read it will they do something about it or just throw the letter away? Even if the letter doesn’t get read Alarcon makes sure the reader understands that Chicanos keep being themselves and ensure their future in America despite the history of being silenced, beaten, and mistreated. His final statement in the Reading Rockets interview goes as follows “And I think it will be important to open up, you know, the idea of, you know, it’s OK to be American and to be bilingual. It’s OK to be Latino, to be dark-skinned, to speak Spanish as a first language. It’s OK. It’s America. No problem with that”(Transcript 9). Alarcon wants readers to realize despite all the hardships there is immense pride associated with being Chicano in the United State and how they should be proud of who they are. Although he has sadly passed on, his poems will surely keep invoking notions of pride and notions of change for the Chicano community. 

Works Cited

Alarcon, Francisco. Interview by Reading Rockets “Transcript from an Interview with Francisco X. Alarcon” PBS, 27 Nov. 2018 http://www.readingrockets.org/books/interviews/alarcon/ transcript. Accessed 6 May. 2019. 

Mendoza, Angel. Campbell, Brendan. Dieste, Tessa. “Rising Hate Drives Latinos and Immigrants into Silence.” Public integrity.org, 22 August. 2018, https:// publicintegrity.org/federal-politics/rising-hate- drives-latinos-and-immigrants-into- silence/. Accessed 6 May. 2019 

Rodriguez, Philip. “Ruben Salzar: Man in the Middle”.PBS.org, 29 April. 2014, http:// www.pbs.org/program/ruben-salazar-man-middle/. Accessed 6 May, 2019

Nittle, Nadra. “History of the Chicano Movement”. ThoughtCo, 21 January. 2019, https:// www.thoughtco.com/chicano-movement-brown-and-proud-2834583. Accessed 6 May. 2019

“Hispanics in the US Fast Facts”.CNN, 6 March. 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2013/09/20/us/ hispanics-in-the-u-s-/index.html. Accessed 6 May. 2019

Dynamics of Black Marriage in the Early 1900s

Zora Neale Hurston’s Florida based 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, takes the reader through a journey of a woman finding herself and obtaining self-fulfillment through many struggles in her path. This 193-page, the coming-of-age novel has an organized structure of repetitive ending and start. In which the novel starts and finishes with the main character Janie and her friend Pheoby, both sitting on the porch of Janie’s house. Janie’s story runs chronologically and is told from the third person point of view. In the novel, Janie’s grandmother shows her love toward Janie, by marrying her off to someone who will provide financial support and social standing. Janie moves in with her new husband, Logan Killicks, and soon becomes dissatisfied with her life with him. Logan uses her more as a maid than a wife and does not show affection towards her. She then goes on to marry two other men, Joe Starks, and Tea Cake, but both these marriages end badly.

During the 1930s traditional women of color were taught to be subservient to men. They were forced to believe that they needed a man, in order to be taken care of and that they should be happy with their husbands. During this, time women of color were still being discriminated against their gender, while applying for jobs. This was worsened as the burden of intersectional oppression was placed on them. Therefore, given to the struggles of women of color during this time, they were pressured to get married as soon as possible, in order to obtain security. Marriages for these women during this time-constrained them to oblige to their husbands’ demands. Many of them felt unhappy but new that the norm was to stay in their marriages and be subservient to their husband. On the other hand, Janie is an exception to the traditional roles of married black women from this time; she is not a woman of her time.

Marriage is a part of a woman’s life that is less frequently observed when considering her freedom in society. This may be due to the stigma of marriage being a private part of a woman’s life and not a societal issue. Marriages, specifically before the 20thcentury, did not revolve around the idea of love, in fact, according to a The List article, “How marriages have changed over the last 100 years” by Brittany Brolley, marriage was more of a “political and economic institution,” than a commitment of love. For middle-class people marriage was a way to make a “business arrangement,” and for people of lower economic class, and less privilege it was a “way you got your working partner.” This held especially for women of color, in the lower economic class. Whose main goal was to secure a husband, who could provide for them and relieve them of the state of economic struggle. This created a long history of dependency on men, that is often seen today. Taking part of marriages, trapped them into a subservient dependent relationship, to their husband that often did not consider love. This was an inexcusable role that was often played, women, as time progressed, became aware of the submissive roles they were playing, in their loveless marriages and soon enough began to fight back against it. One of the women who fought back was Zora Neale Hurston, with Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which Janie, the main character is a representation of Black women, who cultivated her own freedom, by undergoing a journey to find happiness and self-fulfillment.

The novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God,demonstrates how Janie is not a woman of her time and breaks the stereotype, that women are supposed to be bound to marriage. Janie ran away with her second husband, Joe Starks, to an all-Black town, Eatonville. Joe becomes the mayor of this town and transforms Janie into a model wife. Joe is the most popular, the richest and the most confident man in the town. Though Janie soon finds these qualities not good enough to sustain her happiness. His qualities transform him into an obsessive and demanding husband, who does not care about Janie’s voice or opinions. One day, Joe publicly humiliates Janie in the town store that he owns. In front of everyone, they both know because Janie mistakenly cut a piece of chewing tobacco incorrectly. Joe’s remarks hurt Janie’s feelings and make her feel, “like somebody snatched off part of a woman’s clothes while she wasn’t looking, and the streets were crowded” (Hurston 78).

This simile produces the effect of humiliation and embarrassment. When someone’s clothes are taken off, they become vulnerable, due to that one’s body is one’s possession that’s made private by covering up with clothing, once that privacy is exploited and clothes are taken off that vulnerability takes over their power and their right to choose to showcase their possession. The choice can be seen to be taken away by the syntax in which the phrase “and the streets were crowded” comes after stating Janie’s embarrassment, in order to add on to how embarrassed Janie felt and amplify that she did not choose for this situation to occur. When one’s clothes are taken away in front of many people one’s privacy is exploited by that amount of people. This connects to the idea that Joe purposely embarrassed her in front of many people and purposely made her vulnerable in order to show her the power he has over her, and how their marriage gives him the power and opportunity to do this to her. In a marriage a woman becomes vulnerable when she chooses to show herself to her husband without clothing, in this way a man and a woman create a connection, this connection is thrown away and used by Joe to embarrass her in front of the town.

The embarrassment that is explained and symbolized here is crucial to be understood, because it, therefore, gives Janie justifiable reason as to why she lashes out at Joe, in front of everyone in the store, in the subsequent sentences after this quote. The simile of revealing nakedness shows how embarrassed Janie felt, making the reader sympathize in her. It makes the readers not see Janie as the stereotypical aggressive black woman that needs to be better controlled by her husband, due to the fight in the store. Instead, it allows the readers to view this scene as a pivotal moment in which Janie, for the first time, says to her husband what she truly feels regardless of who is watching, regardless of her subservient position in her marriage, regardless of what society expects of her and regardless of the definition of a black women. Based on this scene, she makes her way toward self-fulfillment and freedom that she sought out to obtain from the start of the novel.      

Another section of the novel that demonstrates a change in Janie’s and Joe Starks marriage is in the scene where the narrator quickly describes the miserable years that Janie underwent with Joe Starks. Janie soon became the model wife that was not allowed a say in decisions that regarded life around her and was degraded of her voice by Joe more and more as the years went by. Joe become the beloved image of the town, as his popularity increase so did his unrealistic demands for Janie, Joe “wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it. So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again” (Hurston 71). The personification of this quote in the description of their marriage as a spirit gives the marriage human-like features that show that marriage can be removed from a place of intimacy. A marriage revolves around the personal intimacy a couple of shares, this intimacy is shown by the diction of the “bedroom”. The bedroom is in a way be compared to the parlor, a place that is not intimate and is usually used to receiving guests. When the marriage moved from a place of intimacy to a public guest location, the marriage was lost. In the later parts of the quote, the spirit was said to “shake hands whenever company came to visit”, meaning that the image of the marriage that Joe had fabricated was used to impress others, as a tool for Joe to gain popularity. The marriage was, therefore, a hoax, an act put on for the public

Critic Dale Pattison, who wrote the journal article “Sites of Resistance: The Subversive Space of Their Eyes Were Watching God” (2013), explains that Janie’s evolution as a character from the beginning of the book to the end of the book is dependent on her participation in space. Therefore, showing that specifically for Janie, locating and producing “subversive spaces” for herself that move beyond physical place allows her to successfully challenge hegemonic white patriarchal authority and therefore providing the widely believed idea that Janie is, in fact, a feminist and feminine empowering character. Specifically, Pattison claims that the house porch holds high significance in the facilitation of Janie’s growth against societies gender role setbacks. Pattison Symbolizes the set of the porch as a “space of resistance” (12). The porch is utilized by Janie to “provide a space outside of and counterpoised to the structures of race and gender that oppress her” (12). Though according to Pattison the porch is not only significant to Janie but also to African American men, who use it to empower themselves against white authority, which makes them feel less like men. The porch then reestablishes this missing masculinity when used against women like Janie, because it gives them space that they can control to do so. In the novel, the porch is where Janie begins and ends her story, the place where she grows and gains strength from telling her story.

Janie’s marriage inhabits the movement of “subversive spaces”, the bedroom and the parlor at this point in her life both become a system of oppression. The bedroom where love is supposed to stem from does not offer her the intimacy and love she craves for, because Joe is in charge of the actions that take place within the bedroom. In the second part of the quote the spirit of the marriage, “never went back inside the bedroom again”, signaling that the love and intimacy of the marriage were never recuperated and was lost forever because it never returned to the place where love and intimacy are created. The personification of the marriage allows it to move from subversive place to another just like Janie does in the later part of the book with the porch. Both the porch and the parlor demonstrate masculine directed spaces that enforce black male empowerment against white authority.

Women during the early 20thcentury believed that the only way to fix gender inequality in the united states was by pushing for a voting rights amendment. A step towards accomplishing this goal was taken in 1922, when the 19thamendment was passed in 1920, which allowed a woman the right to vote. After the 19thamendment women participated more often in society, dress style changed to shorter skirts and clothing that allowed free movement. In addition, hairstyles changed to shorter hair to symbol freedom. During the great depression when many men lost their jobs due to the stock market women had no choice but to work. According to a History.com article “Underpaid but Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women” by Jessica Pearce Rotondi, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who held the first female cabinet position, “advocated against married women competing for jobs, calling the behavior ‘selfish’ since they could be supported by their husbands”. Therefore, Perkins reflected the public believe that married women should not have the right to work because single women needed the money more than they did. Married women fought against this idea and searched for jobs regardless of what others believed. Women also searched for personal fulfillment and happiness of their own.

One of these women was Janie, who achieved self-happiness through her midlife’s journey. Throughout the novel, there are many instances where Janie is shown to have fought against the idea that women have to be controlled. One of these instances was shortly before Joe’s death. On Joe’s death bed Janie built up the courage to express to Joe how she felt regarding his mistreatment towards her. Joes persona had taken over Janie’s not allowing space for Janie to be her own person, Janie’s “own mind had to be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for” his mind inside hers (86). After Janie expressed her anger towards Joe on his death bed, Joe passed. His death brought with it a sense of relieve for Janie, because after Joe passed “she tore off her kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair” and she realized that “the weight, the length, the glory was there” and now she could own her true self and let herself rest from having to keep herself together up to Joes expectations (87). During the funeral, Janie showed her true relieve and happiness towards Joe being dead when “She sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world” (88). This metaphor signifies Janie’s true feelings toward her husband’s death. When Janie “sent her face” to Joe’s funeral she is showing up at the funeral in order to show respect for her husband, but she only does this for the public. When someone controls their face in a public space, they are putting up an image for the public, hiding what one truly feels. In previous sentences from this metaphor, the diction in the sentence “Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral” (88), also displays the act of Janie putting up the image that she wishes people to see of her. The word Ironed represents the act of straightening imperfections normally in regard to clothing. Though, when speaking of Janie’s face, she is straightening the imperfections on her face which are the signs of happiness that are far from the norm of how she should be feeling at her husband’s funeral. Her face is the representation of the public view of her marriage, of the stereotypical black women mourning her husband. Stereotypes during this time included woman feeling helpless without a husband by her side, the death of a husband, therefore, would according to the norm completely shatter a woman. Janie’s face is the representation of stereotypes imposed on black woman during the early 1900s.

Modern-day critic Amanda Bailey examines Janie’s journey to happiness and self-fulfillment, in her journal article “Necessary Narration in Their Eyes Were Watching God” (2016). Bailey examines the novel by working through the critical history of the novels use of voice and story by looking closely at the novel’s plot and structure. Bailey uses these points to analyze Janie’s voice and power. In Bailey’s article she mentions how Janie does gain her strength and becomes a symbol of feminist ideals by the end of the novel by becoming a character whom “Women can look for many of the traits they are traditionally accused of lacking, such as strength, courage, enduring love, and wisdom” (322). Though Bailey portrays Janie as a woman who can pave the way for many other black women who are struggling to find their voices, she does not agree that Janie is in charge of her own story and therefore puts a set back to her growth. In the novel Hurston is telling Janie’s story, not Janie herself, this can be seen from the switch from first to the third person once Janie starts telling her story to Pheoby. Therefore, this leads Bailey to claim that “Hurston, not Janie controls the storytelling” (323). In other words, Janie is said to not be in control of her voice.

On the contrary, in the novel, Janie takes control of her voice during Joe’s death bed as well as her internal voice after Joe’s death. Janie sent her straightened face to Joe’s funeral in the public’s eyes, but internally she was happy and at peace. This is shown by the second half of the quote, where Janie’s true self “went rollicking with the springtime across the world”. Her true self was at peace with true hope of happiness due to the use of the word springtime”, spring arrives with sunshine and a fresh start after the dark cold winter. Janie’s true self is where she wants it to be, at peace and happiness, something that she no longer is denying herself. She is allowing herself to be internally happy instead of letting Joe’s opinion of her crowd her mind, therefore taking charge of her internal voice and power, encompassing the image of free independent black women, unlike other women during the early 1900s.

Janie’s journeys from the beginning to the end of the novel detail her growth from a woman who blindly followed people who were superior to her to a woman that takes charge of her life with dignity and independence. At the end of the novel, Janie becomes a model of freedom for black women despite her failed marriages. Janie kills her third husband, Tea Cake, in self-defense after he was beaten by a rabid dog and became rabid himself. After his death, Janie is trialed for murder but was proven innocent in an act of self-defense by the white jury. After Tea cakes funeral Janie returns home where she goes on to telling Pheoby, her close friend, her journey’s story. Janie’s returning home causes an uproar of gossip amongst the town’s women. Janie’s return also shows her independence and confidence because she returns home alone with her head held high. Pheoby’s gratefulness of Janie’s story is shown with her response to Janie’s Story of “Ah did grow ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie.” (Hurston 192). This hyperbole shows that Pheoby feels like Janie’s story helped her grow immensely, due to the description of her growth in an exaggerated and dramatic way. Janie’s return home is significant because immediately afterward she shares her new self with her friend and inspires her to take charge of her life as well.

Critic Jurgen C. Wolter whose journal article “From History to Communal Narrative: The Merging of Cultural Paradigms in Their Eyes Were Watching God”(2001), argues that Hurston employed the dualism between “linear literate tradition” and “circular orality” on many levels such as in her narrative technique, the imagery of pulpit and porch, the treatment of time, Janie’s lovers and the metaphors of mules/buzzards and dog/god. Wolter uses these symbols to explain Janie’s choices in her life that overall take part in connection to the idea of women’s oppressive role in marriage and in opposition to men. Pattison throughout the journal explains his great approval with Janie’s transformation from beginning to the end of the novel. Similarly, Wolter acknowledges Janie’s development throughout the novel through the authors use of linear and circular pattern of literate to show Janie’s “development from a dependent child to an independent personality” (234). Though these three authors agree on Janie’s development they also disagree on certain aspects of Janie’s journey to freedom.

Janie’s development from beginning to the end of the novel is what impowers Pheoby, who herself grows immensely due to the description of her growth in height. Humans can’t physically grow several feet in a matter of minutes, therefore the diction of the word “feet” is significant because physical growth is being compared with emotional and mental growth. Feet’s are also larger than other units of measurements, therefore, signifying the greater growth that Janie influenced Phoeby. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, black women did not usually openly speak about how unhappy they were in their marriages. Women who did not marry were scorn in society, regardless of Janie being gossiped about and scorned for coming back to the house without a husband, she still shares her story with Phoeby and empowers her to go against societal norms of black women and how women should behave in their marriages.

The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston provides a catalyst for black women during the early 1900s to take control of their lives and their personal happiness instead of suppressing their ambitions and needs. Janie stands as the black female feminist of her time. The unequal treatment and consideration of women’s independence and power were during this time greatly overlooked. Marriage during the early 1900s was often a systematic form of oppression and Janie’s marriages were a great example of that. Black marriages endured signs of struggle that greater tensed their relations. Though Janie was oppressed in her marriages she overcame them and resulted in discovering her independence. This discovery is stemmed from her journey that goes against gender roles in marriages, one that many other women of color who read this book can be influenced by.

Sources:

Bailey, Amanda. “Necessary Narration in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Comparatist, vol. 40, no. 1, 2016, pp. 319–337. JSTOR , doi:10.1353/com.2016.0018.

Brolley, Brittany. “How Marriages Have Changed over the Last 100 Years.” TheList.com, The List, 11 Sept. 2018, www.thelist.com/132979/how-marriages-have-changed-over-the-last-100-years/.

Pattison, D. “Sites of Resistance: The Subversive Spaces of Their Eyes Were Watching God.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 38, no. 4, 2013, pp. 9–31. JSTOR, doi:10.1093/melus/mlt050.

Radek, Kimberly M. “Women in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.” Women in Literature, 30 May 2006, www2.ivcc.edu/gen2002/Twentieth_Century.htm.

Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 11 Mar. 2019, www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression.

Hurston, Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1937

Wolter, Jürgen C. “From History to Communal Narrative: The Merging of Cultural Paradigms in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’” Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 46, no. 2, 2001, pp. 233–248. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41157646.

 

Palestinian Refugee Narrative and the Right to Return Home

Baddawi, by Leila Abdelrazaq

Baddawi, by Leila Abdelrazaq

Baddawi (2015), a graphic novel written by Leila Abdelrazaq, follows protagonist Ahmad as he grows up in Lebanon as a Palestinian refugee.  Based on the life of Abdelrazaq’s father, Baddawi contains roughly 100 pages of black and white illustrations and text to outline both the political context of the Palestinian conflict between 1959 and 1980, as well as the personal implications these conflicts had on individuals such as Ahmad.  In the aftermath of the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, which dispersed Palestinians into occupied territories or into neighboring countries in light of the establishment of Israel, Palestinians no longer had legal citizenships to call their own (Abdelrazaq 11).  This was the result of a Zionist movement that led Jews from all over the world to the area of Palestine to form the state of Israel after the events of the holocaust.  Only two regions in Israel were left for a small population of Palestinians to inhabit: the Gaza Strip and the West Bank; however, starting in 1967, Israel began to illegally occupy these territories (Shlaim).  The influence of the Nakba created a huge mass of Palestinian refugees who have gone through loss and trauma, are unable to become full citizens in their countries of refuge, and who long for their right to return to the land that has been their home for generations.  Baddawi explores what life is like for one such Palestinian refugee as he dodges violent attacks and bounces between refugee camps in Lebanon amid rising political tensions and the beginning of the Lebanese civil war.

Leila Abdelrazaq

Leila Abdelrazaq

Beddawi illuminates the inadequacy of the standards of living for Palestinian refugees as individuals who are barred from a home space which is an integral part of their cultural identity.   Abdelrazaq utilizes literary devices such as alliteration, metaphoric imagery, allusion, and illustrated symbolism within a framework of historical moments such as the Lebanese civil war and the Al Naska of 1967 to exemplify moments in which Ahmad struggles to hang onto his Palestinian identity.  These devices help to demonstrate how the loss of Palestinian home translates into a loss of cultural memory.  Additionally, in the context of the Right of Return movement, particular aspects of Palestinian culture such as tatreez embroidery act as a method of hanging onto as much Palestinian identity as possible, even if actually reaching Palestine is not a possibility.  Despite this impossibility, Ahmad realizes in Beddawi that even if he cannot physically reach Palestine, he will never stop reaching towards it.

After finishing school in Beddawi camp, Ahmad moves to the city of Beirut to join his father, who gets a job there.  Once he starts to adjust to life in Beirut, Ahmad experiences numerous bombings as a byproduct of militarizing right-wing forces in the Lebanese civil war.  This war was a complicated conglomeration between many groups, each with their own agendas.  Each group, though, fell vaguely underneath one of two sides: pro Maronite-dominated government or pro governmental reform (Abdelrazaq 119-120).  One day, Ahmad’s favorite shop owner, Abu Muhammad, is killed after an air strike.  After this moment, Abdelrazaq writes that “Ahmad frequently traveled between Beirut and Baddawi” (Abdelrazaq 101).  This phrasing utilizes alliteration to emphasize this new point in Ahmad’s life.  The repeated “b” sounds at the beginning of the words “between,” “Beirut,” and “Baddawi” help to separate and accentuate each of these three key words.  A greater focus on this moment, emphasized by the alliteration, is significant considering that the death of Abu Muhammad marks an inciting incident in Ahamd’s life which will cause him to alternate between Beirut and Beddawi in order to remain safe.  The text which states that Ahmad needs to bounce between two cities is paired with the image of him curled in a ball, being overtaken by demons that haunt him as a result of all the violence that surrounds him (Abdelrazaq 101).  Unsafety and fear from the civil war make Ahmad’s fetal position a telling depiction of the effects near homelessness has on his psyche.

Not having a clear home space, as Ahmad experiences, is a major issue for Palestinian refugees.  “Exiled at Home: Writing Return and the Palestinian Home,” an article written by Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Sarah Ihmoud, delves into the influence of Palestinian home ideology.  Written in 2014 for the journal Biography, this long-form article discusses the forced dispersal of Palestinians who otherwise would suffer from the effects of setter colonial violence in occupied territories within Palestine.  Zionist militarization all interfere with the Palestinian home space, which according to the article is imperative for Palestinians to preserve their memories, identities, and a family unit (Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Ihmoud).  As Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Ihmoud detail, the loss of home for Palestinians is more than just a physical phenomenon, but rather, “it is charged with public and communal meaning as a space for the creation and transmission of Palestinian memory and cultural and political identity” (Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Ihmoud 381).  Connecting home identity to the point of the graphic novel in which Ahmad is unsafe in his status as a refugee complicates the idea of home as perhaps having evolved into being synonymous with safety, at least provisionally until Palestinians are not in direct danger and can again focus on returning to Palestine.

Home identity, as discussed in this article, helps deepen the pathos for Ahmad’s situation.  Not only does he have to travel between cities to escape violence, as the alliteration “between Beirut and Beddawi” helps highlight, but neither of the two “homes” he travels between are the true home of Palestine.  The tragedy of Ahmad’s condition, even as one of the lucky ones, is that he becomes a refugee within the country his family had once fled to as a place of refuge.  Alex Mangles comments on this misfortune in his 2015 review of Baddawi in his Los Angelos Review of Books article, “Stitching Out a Life in Graphic Memoir.”  He emphasizes how Abdelrazaq’s portrayal of Ahmad is a way of preserving the story of how Palestinians are treated, which in itself is an act of resistance which gives voice to the non-dominant parties of history (Mangles).  Even within allocated living spaces for Palestinians such as Beddawi, the traditional cultural space of home remains missing for families living provisionally away from Palestine.  Ahmad’s story brings this sense of loss to light.

More concretely, the desire to move back to Palestine is rooted in legal entitlement.  On December 11, 1948, UN resolution 194 was passed in the General Assembly, specifying that Palestinians all have the right to return to their homes in Palestine (Siklawi 78).  Israel, to this day, has yet to follow through with these terms, as Palestinians are still barred from Israel.  Rami Siklawi writes in his article for Arab Studies Quarterly (2019) that “the Palestinians have the legitimate right to continue their national struggle against Israel, which is the only way for the Palestinians to achieve their national goal for total liberation” (Siklawi 78).  Palestinian refugees in Lebanon have hence formed a resistance to their unfair economic social treatment within their camps, and continue to advocate for their legal and human right of a place of belonging (Siklawi 78).  In a 2014 interview at DuPaul University with Quest Sawyer, Abdelrazaq recounts how students without any heritage stemming from Palestine are able to visit Israel each year on birth right trips.  However, she notes, “Palestinians around the world are kept out of the country” (Leila Abdelrazaq Interview 3).  This is a frustrating truth for all of those that risk their lives for the Right of Return movement.

The inability to live in Palestine troubles Ahmad at various crossroads in his life.  Near the end of the graphic novel, Ahmad gets accepted into a university in Texas right around the same time his parents approve of a marriage between him and his study partner, Manal.  Having only a refugee status and no actual Lebanese citizenship, if Ahmad were to go to the U.S., he would be unable to return to Lebanon for years (Abdelrazaq 115-116).  Abdelrazaq illustrates Ahmad’s internal struggle of how to proceed with his life in a full-page drawing which utilizes metaphoric visual imagery.  In the drawing, Ahmad is facing two paths.  One leads through a shape resembling the United States, where he can attend college and start a new life for himself.  The other path leads through the shape of Lebanon, where he would remain in the Palestinian camp to marry his friend Manal and raise a family.  Neither of these paths, however, lead to the shape of Israel/Palestine, pictured glowing in the background sky, unattainable by either of the two paths drawn (Abdelrazaq 113).

Drawn onto the country of Israel is a stripe of the traditional Palestinian tatreez embroidery pattern (Abdelrazaq 113). Author Randa Otaibi describes in a brief Kalimat Magazine column titled, Tatreez…Preserving Palestinian Identity, how tatreez survived diaspora and became transformed “from a village handicraft into an artistic expression of Palestinian identity” (Otaibi 53).  The image of the tatreez on Israel as a final detail of visual imagery, therefore, completes the metaphor by exhibiting how Ahmad, as just one of many Palestinian refugees, has different choices he can make as he enters adulthood.  However, none of these choices will lead him back to his homeland, the source of the tatreez and his Palestinian roots.  The image of Palestine and his culture, represented by the tatreez, remains glowing in the center distance.  As Ahmad is facing this unattainable place, and not Lebanon or the United States, he is represented as desiring Palestine as his first choice to live his life.

Handala

Handala

On this same page, Abdelrazaq provides an allusion to the Palestinian figure, Handala.  A political cartoon character created by Naji al-Ali in 1975, Handala is represented as a young Palestinian refugee boy with his hands clasped behind him while he witnesses the political events of his surroundings.  Abdelrazaq explains in Beddawi’s preface that, “Naji al-Ali promised that once the Palestinian people were free and allowed to return home, Handala would grow up and the world would see his face” (Abdelrazaq 11).  The ideology behind Handala is therefore heavily rooted in the Right of Return movement.  In the illustration where Ahmad is facing his two separate paths, he is depicted in a similar stance as Handala—back facing the reader with hands clasped behind his back.  In this way, the allusion to Handala ties in to the notion that Ahmad is unable to reach Palestine, which in Abdelrazaq’s illustration is lit up, unlike the dark silhouettes of the United States and Lebanon.  Ahmad’s face, as a representation of personal identity, would therefore only be visible in the light of his homeland of Palestine.  The connection Abdelrazaq draws between Ahmad and Handala resonates in the inability for Palestinians to live their lives as they please.  Until the return to Palestine is realized, Palestinians must cope with the idea that they are fairly unseen people.

The essence of Handala’s Right of Return ideology becomes less hopeful after the Al Naska, which was a new Israeli occupation beginning in 1976 in which “Another 300,00 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed” (Abdelrazaq 35).  After this event, several illustrated symbols in the graphic novel help depict Ahmad’s crashing realization that he will never reach Palestine.  One day, Ahmad helps his mother make za’atar, a common Palestinian seasoning.  She tells him, “You know, Ahmad, next time you gather thyme for the za’atar, it will be in Palestine” (Abdelrazaq 34).  In response to this, Abdelrazaq writes, “Ahmad wondered what Palestine would be like.  He thought of his mother’s stories” (Abdelrazaq 34).  An illustration, bordered in tatreez, of Ahmad lost in reverie accompanies this last statement. Ahmad is pictured in the bottom left corner looking down a path that leads to a sunset and large tree; the tatreez helps connote that the scene pictured is Palestine.  This illustration is replicated and then modified on the following page, which includes a text box including historical information about the Al Naska.  In this second image, Ahmad is again drawn in the bottom left corner, this time poking out from the Beddawi camp and stretching out his right arm in the air as if to grab something.  Extending from his arm is a path labeled with a sign, written in Arabic, that points to Palestine.  The path has a major crack down the middle due to the destructive events of the Al Naksa described on this page (Abdelrazaq 35).  At the end of the illustrated path, symbolically destroyed by the Al Naksa, there is a flag with tatreez on it, a mosque, and a tree similar to the last scene, which helps connect the two scenes as being alternate realities of the same path leading to Palestine.  The tatreez flag and mosque also signal that tradition and religion are major components of this lost home space.  The mirroring of Ahmad’s idyllic vision of Palestine in the first image then becomes completely unattainable in the second due to a new wave of destruction that keeps him barred to the life of a refugee.

Beddawi utilizes historic and political components of the Israeli-Arab conflict and the Lebanese civil war as a backdrop and instigator to the problems one refugee, Ahmad, faces.  The key debate on this conflict teeters between the idea that Jews have been persecuted for centuries and therefore deserve a protected space on the site of their historic homeland, yet Palestinians are left without a home, citizenship, or a fair standard of living.  In focusing in on the perspective of just one refugee, Abdelrazaq informs readers with a certain amount of pathos for the human ramifications war and conflict have on civilians.  Beddawi directs attention toward not just a housing problem that is commonly associated with a refugee crisis, but issues of identity and belonging.  This graphic novel demonstrates that the seemingly quixotic desire to return to the Palestinian homeland is not ideologically rooted in hatred or spite, but rather in a legal and personal necessity to live in acceptance on the land where Palestinian heritage was created.

Works Cited

Abdelrazaq, Leila. Baddawi. Charlottesville: Just World Books, 2015.

Abdelrazaq, Leila. Leila Abdelrazaq Interview Quest Sawyer. DuPaul University, 18 May 2018.

Mangles, Alex. “Stitching Out a Life in Graphic Memoir.” 8 June 2015. Los Angelos Review of Books. 7 March 2019. <lareviewofbooks.org/article/stitching-out-a-life-in-graphic-memoir-baddawi/#!>.

Otaibi, Randa. “Tatreez…Preserving Palestinian Identity.” Kalimat Magazine (2012): 53.

Shalhoub-Kevorkian, Nadera & Ihmoud, Sarah. “Exiled at Home: Writing Return and the Palestinian Home.” Biography, vol. 37 no. 2, 2014, pp. 377-397. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/bio.2014.0029

Shlaim, Avi. “Is Zionism Today the Real Enemy of the Jews? Yes.” 4 February 2005. The New York Times. 10 April 2019. <https://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/04/opinion/is-zionism-today-the-real-enemy-of-the-jews-yes.html>.

Siklawi, Rami. “The Palestinian Refugee Camps in Lebanon Post 1990: Dilemmas of Survival and Return to Palestine.” Arab Studies Quarterly 1 January 2019: 78-94.

Police Brutality Within the Hate You Give

 

 Police brutality presently encompasses many different areas of expression. One popular book that brings attention to the topic is the bookThe Hate You Give(2017) by Angie Thomas. The captivating 444-page young adult fictional book describes the story of a young black man, named Khalil who is driving home from a party with one of his childhood best friends named Starr. Eventually Khalil and Starr are pulled over by Police Officer One-Fifteen, for having a broken tail light. Which ultimately escalates into Officer One-Fifteen killing Khalil because he mistakes Khalil’s hairbrush for a gun. After this event occurs Starr later faces the challenge of determining whether she should tell the public what happened to Khalil and herself the night he died. She would risk the safety of her life and family, or she could keep the true events of the night enclosed; indirectly and undeservingly protecting the reputation of officer One-Fifteen while Khalil’s is tarnished. [NK1] The Hate You Giveis a book that gives black youth in urban cities a novel that they could easily relate to. Thomas utilizes comparisons, proper nouns, symbols, and allusions in order to establish the unequal power dynamic between police officers and the black community. Through the use of dialogue between officer One-Fifteen the pre-disclaimed stigmas of both parties are expressed and brought into conversation. Starr’s ending decision to speak out about the incident creates a groundbreaking narrative and voice for the black community, and against police brutality in America.

Within the scene of Starr and Khalil getting pulled over by the cop, there is a lot of unnecessary and detrimental underlying tension that causes the act to go down the way it does. At first readers encounter the scene without any true context of officer One-Fifteen, Starr, or Khalil; but later in the book tensions of the scene are explained due to false accusations and stereotypical beliefs. When Khalil gets pulled over officer One-Fifteen tells him to get out of his car and states “Okay, smart mouth, let’s see what we find on you today” (Thomas 23). This statement shows that officer One-Fifteen is already assuming Khalil has done something wrong. The officers remark gives readers insight that he does not have good intentions and is just looking for a reason to label Khalil as a criminal. Khalil did not do anything threatening to One-Fifteen throughout the scene but because he is perceived as a bad guy, officer One-Fifteen fears him and does not feel the need to protect him. The officer ultimately disrespects Starr and Khalil because he doesn’t treat them as people he needs to protect. Throughout the entire scene Starr remained silent in order to prevent herself from offending the officer, because she knew he did not see her nor Khalil as a human but instead as a threat.

In one scene of the book, Starr debates whether she should tell Khalil’s side of the story about what happened the night of his death or not. She later on decides in order to gain justice for Khalil, she has to tell his side of the story just as Officer One-Fifteen’s father did for his son. Mid-way through the novel Starr begins to respond to officer One-Fifteen’s father’s remarks about the situation. Officer One-Fifteen’s father stated in tears, “Brian’s a good boy,”…“He only wanted to get home to his family, and people are making him out to be a monster.” (Thomas 247).  Starr responds by stating “That’s all Khalil and I wanted, and you’re making us out to be monsters. I can’t breathe, like I’m drowning in the tears I refuse to shed. I won’t give One-Fifteen or his father the satisfaction of crying.” (Thomas 247). Throughout this conversation the use of comparisons and proper nouns modify the message that can be taken away, from both Starr and One-Fifteen’s father’s interpretation of what happened the night Khalil was killed. The mistreatment of Starr and Khalil makes it clear to Starr, that the police officer does not see her or him as a priority in society. Starr was able to acknowledge that the police force views Khalil and her as “monsters”, rather than people. By labeling both children as “monsters”, it is interpreted that they should not be treated as humans but instead as creatures to be feared. This can be understood because monsters are typically associated with aggression, whether it be in stories or movies. Within this scene Starr refers to the officer as “Officer One-Fifteen”, rather than Brian as his father does. By not using his real name Starr dehumanizes the cop just as he dehumanized Khalil, by mentally labeling him as a “monster” in order to justify murdering him. Through comparing Khalil and Starr to “monsters”, readers see where the police officer was coming from in his thought process; which causes the officer to, in his opinion, rightfully kill Khalil the night of the traffic stop. The comparison is used to point out how many officers portray black people in society; hostile, aggressive, inferior, defective, threatening, and worthless. All of these descriptions feed into the idea of African Americans not being human, which leads to their encounters of police brutality being discredited.

Khalil and Starr know they are viewed as “monsters” by the officer, so they are now associated as being a problem or enemy in society which causes them to fear him. Because Khalil and Starr are seen as problems, the officer believes that in order to solve the issue he must eliminate them. By labeling Starr and Khalil as monsters and killing Khalil, Starr is given the right to show no respect to the officer or his father. Her refusal to name the officer and his father is a form of dehumanization which she uses as a coping mechanism. By taking away his name, she takes away his identity as a person and instead labels him as just another number. Names tie people to who they are; they are how people are identified. By taking away One-Fifteen’s name, Starr takes away any power he thinks he holds over her in society.

Within the scene of Starr hearing officer One-Fifteen’s father’s opinion about the entire situation of Khalil’s death, Starr reveals her reaction to his remarks. Starr’s internal dialogue expresses her opinion by utilizing her body to symbolize the releasement of fear.  Starr states “Tonight, they shot me too, more than once, and killed a part of me. Unfortunately for them. It’s the part that felt any hesitation about speaking out.” (Thomas 247). Within this quotes Starr releases her power and capability of revealing who the police officer really is as a person. She connects the idea of her body being shot and killed to Khalil’s death. The fatality of a portion of her body represents, her fear about telling the world what happened the night of Khalil’s death being freed; no matter what the consequences are. Her body acts as a shell that encapsulates her power to release her fear after it has figuratively been shot. She no longer worries about the public’s opinion on the situation, nor the Police Force’s retaliation towards her.

People of color continue to be oppressed and in fear of a system expected to protect and serve the lives of everyone. Meaning all people should feel comfortable with the police force because they know if they are in trouble, they have someone to run to for help. But the truth is African Americans don’t have anyone to turn to when they are in need of assistance, according to the NBC article  “Police Killings Hit People Of Color Hardest, Study Finds” (2018) by Maggie Fox “African-Americans died at the hands of police at a rate of 7.2 per million, while whites are killed at a rate of 2.9 per million” (Fox 3). As a result, many people have begun to wonder why the police force has gotten away with the killing of black people so frequently.

The truth is this issue has not just begun, the article “Taking Freedom: Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why.” (2018) by Nikole Hannah-Jones focuses on the idea that the police have been taking advantage of their power in society for years, in order to oppress people of color. The article brings attention to peaceful protests thrown by African Americans that were disrupted by the violent actions of the police force; whether that be by use of police dogs, water hoses, or batons. Jones states “Historically, in both the South and the North, the police have defended and enforced racism and segregation—attacking civil rights protesters and disrupting strikes of black workers seeking to integrate workplaces and neighborhoods” (Hannah-Jones). Hannah-Jones explains that in the past the police were instructed to encourage racist acts, and act violently towards people of color who attempted to improve race relations. This document brings up the history of the police force being created as a resource to oppress black people, with the power and support of the government behind them. Hannah-Jones clarifies the historical oppression of people of color, which helps readers to understand that what happened to the character Khalil is a recurring event; mistreatment maliciously without regret.

 The power Starr gains from building the courage to tell the story of Khalil can be represented in present day by the Black Live Matter Movement. This movement focuses specifically on but not exclusively, the violent acts inflicted on African Americans by systems of power. The Black Lives Matter website states they believe,

“Black Lives Matter began as a call to action in response to state-sanctioned violence and            anti-Black racism. Our intention from the very beginning was to connect Black people from all over the world who have a shared desire for justice to act together in their             communities. The impetus for that commitment was, and still is, the rampant and deliberate violence inflicted on us by the state”. (1)

This group was created by three black women named Alicia Garza, Opal Tameti, and Patrisse Cullors. The organization is made up of individuals who are willing to stand up to systems of power for their rights, and the rights of people who do not necessarily have that courage. The Black Lives Matter Movement understands the hurt that black people face, whether it be with the global or social issues individuals are tied to after police brutality encounters. The Black Lives Matter Movement stands up for people without a voice, who have passed due to police brutality just as Starr is standing up for Khalil. But the difference is Starr holds a larger responsibility in her case; Starr is only one person, who doesn’t have the support of many people other than her father in sticking up for Khalil throughout the story.

Although the Black Lives Matter Movement has made headway in society, one of the popular critiques of it would be that it mainly focuses on the lives of black men. Within the  Huffpost article “#SayHerName: Why We Should Declare That Black Women And Girls Matter, Too” (2017) by Lily Workneh the discussion of women who have encountered police brutality is brought up. In her article Workneh states,

“When we wear the hoodie, we know that we’re embodying Trayvon. When we hold our hands up, we know we’re doing what Mike Brown did in the moments before he was      killed. When we say, ‘I can’t breathe,’ we’re embodying Eric Garner’s final words,”         Gilmer said. “We haven’t been able to do the same thing for black women and girls. We           haven’t carried their stories in the same way.”

She brings up the point that women and girls are often not discussed in topics of police brutality. When reading Thomas’ book I couldn’t help but wonder why Khalil had to be the one to lose his life due to police brutality; a male figure. Ultimately leaving a female named Starr, the burden of expressing the horrific events of Khalil’s death. The book could have been more impactful if the roles were reversed; leaving Starr dead and Khalil living. By switching the characters roles the storyline could have been one that is not typically discussed by the public. Which would cause readers to rethink police brutality, by placing females encounters with law enforcement on a higher platform.

 Thomas did not only place the main character to be killed in the book as a male, but also referenced a popular black man in society whose life was lost to a police brutality incident . This shows how African American males are often the main subject in cases of police brutality. The quote stated above points out a popular phrase “I can’t breathe” which was stated by an African American male named Eric Garner, while he was being choked to death at the hands of a police officer. Thomas uses this quote in her writing when she describes Starr’s internal dialogue due to her reaction about the death of her friend Khalil, Starr stated “I can’t breathe, like I’m drowning in the tears I refuse to shed” (Thomas. 247). By having Starr say “I can’t breathe” the words that Eric Garner repeated (eleven times while being restrained by police officers) Thomas alludes to his tragic death. This allusion further dramatizes Starr’s experience because she is relating her pain from Khalil’s death to a real-life example of police brutality further emphasizing the pain and trauma, she’s experienced. By referring to Garner, she also alludes to the aspect of racial injustice and its embeddedness in the justice system. Khalil, like garner, was unjustly slain and to Starr the experience of losing Khalil under such conditions makes her just as much of a victim of the system as Garner.

Starr’s body being metaphorically shot represents the fear all African Americans live in on a daily basis. It symbolizes a fear that most people of color hold within society because they know their lives are not held at the same value of others, due to their skin color. Instead of being seen as people in society they are seen as an object taking space rather then something to be treasured. It shines light on a system built years ago to hold back and destroy a population that presently legally gets away with the slaughter of humans. Thomas shows the complexities and aftermath that such events hold on the families and communities, who experience such a trauma by utilizing comparisons, proper nouns, symbols and allusions. Starr’s experiences show readers that often people who go through police brutality cases such as Starr, are faced with the tough decision of standing up alone to the police force which has governmental support. By expressing the mistreatment Starr and Khalil faced, Starr discovers she is strong enough to face the legal system and government. Because Khalil’s story deserved to be told to her community in order to earn some justice for Khalil, since his voice was taken away from him in the most permanent way possible.

 

Works Cited

Fox, Maggie. “Police Killings Hit People of Color Hardest, Study Finds”. NBC News. 7 May       2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/police-killings-hit-people-color-           hardest-study-finds-n872086.  Accessed 1 May 2019.

Hannah-Jones, Nikole. “Taking Freedom: Yes, Black America Fears the Police. Here’s Why.”     Pacific Standard, Pacific Standard, 10 Apr. 2018, psmag.com/social-justice/why-black-america-fears-the-police. Accessed 6 March 2018.

“Herstory”. Black Lives Matter Movement.https://blacklivesmatter.com/about/herstory/.Accessed 2 May 2019.

Thomas, Angie. The Hate U Give. Balzer + Bray, 2017.

Workneh, Lily. “#SayHerName: Why We Should Declare That Black Women And Girls      Matter,             Too”. Huffpost. 21 May 2015, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/black-women-        matter_n_7363064. Accessed 1 May 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pain and Privilege: Kathleen Collins’s Commentary on Colorism

The late Kathleen Collins’s collection of short stories titled “Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?” was published in 2016 by Granta books, and is a treasure trove of memoiristic stories, written with whit, humor, sorrow, and personal experiences from Collins’s own life. The narratives focus on the intersection of race, family, friendships, and love. In the words of Slate journalist, Diamond Sharp, in her review of Collins’s collection, “Kathleen Collins was a black woman who lived at a time, quite simply, when black women’s stories were not valued.”  (Sharp,  2017) Rendering the collection an important archival culmination of the sentiments of mainly Black women from a bygone era. Sharp comments on the canonization of her work, but highlights the importance of the publication of her stories as a preservation of African American life during the span of the civil rights movement. Born in 1942, Collins reached adulthood in the late fifties, placing her adult years in a period defined by activism, ra

cism, in addition to social and political turbulence. Collins’s narratives are necessary now more than ever, as they reflect the sentiments of Blacks from past generations, and highlight the impacts of the racial complexities amplified throughout the fifties and sixties, that still impact the Black community and American society at large, today. 

Racial complexities like colorism, have plagued American society since their conception. Colorism is depicted as the cause of a family’s disintegration in Collins’s narrative titled, “The Uncle.” It is among the sixteen stories featured in the collection, and it captures colorism and its effects in past generations. In an article titled, “Dark Skin Pain, Light Skin Privilege: Nine Solutions to Dismantling Colorism in the Black Community,” written by Suzanne Forbes-Vierling in the online periodical, Medium, Forbes-Vierling responds to research on the origins and the effects of colorism throughout history and today. She outlines the found

ations of colorism and its conception in white supremacy and the slave trade. (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) Forbes-Vierling also details the continuation of colorism’s divisive infiltration into American society and evolution throughout history, as well as its implications today. (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) The article informs Collins’s “The Uncle” as it highlights the foundational concepts of colorism, and how these concepts impact individuals within the Black community. Forbes-Vierling and Collins highlight the implications of the effects of colorism, such as light-skinned privilege, and discrimination. These implications had a significant impact within the Black community in Collins’s time, as the turbulence brought by the civil rights era created prominent social changes within the Black community. Colorism continues to run through the veins of society, as it has become a fundamental, thoughtless, foundational practice among Americans. However, it’s impact within the Black community, in addition to the

 perpetuation of its ideologies is perhaps most fascinating and complex.

Collins’s “The Uncle,” just begins to unravel colorism and its complexities as it follows a Black family’s unravelling due to its omnipresent pressures and effects. The story charts the life of the narrator’s uncle, “a former athlete of olympic stature” and a light skinned black man, a “double for Marlon Brando.” (Collins, 15) But after a lifetime of trail and error, long bouts with depression and anxiety, and a fractured marriage to a woman who is also light skinned, and demonstrates an apathetic and shallow attitude, he merely gives in to his sorrow. “cried into his pillow until death took him away.” (Collins, 19) Through her careful crafting of the narrative, Collins incorporates lexical diction, employs tone and contradictions, as well as motifs. This is what forms the narrative into a window into the lives of Blacks from decades past, and renders “The Uncle” an important commentary on the intricacies of racial complexities like colorism that continue to impact the Black community.

Colorism acts a catalyst for the destruction of familial relationships within “The Uncle.” Collins demonstrates the decisive nature of colorism and it’s effects through the narrator’s initial presentation her aunt and uncle. In the exposition of the narrative, she describes her childhood memories of the summers she spent with her little sister at her aunt and uncles home. In her description of them in their younger years she comments on their fairness and beauty. Collins uses glorifying diction such as, “exquisite,” “idolized,” “stunni

ng,” and “magic” to characterize her experiences and perceptions of them as whimsical and almost perfect. (Collins, 15) However, Collins counters this positive portrayal of the aunt and uncle as she blatantly includes their flaws. There is mention of their severe financial insecurities, but the narrator revels in the fact that they are “broke yet so handsome and beautiful, so lazy and generous.” (Collins, 16) by including this contradiction, Collins highlights how the narrator valued her aunt and uncle’s beauty to such an extent that it took away from the severity of their problems. In selecting diction that glorifies the aunt and uncle’s appearances – specifically “stunning” and “idolized” – Collins demonstrates the connection between their fair skin and the narrators initial perceptions.(Collins, 15) The idolization of their features demonstrates the value placed on their complexions. In highlighting the si

gnificance of their complexions to the centrality of their characters, Collins demonstrates the prevalence placed on their exteriors by the narrator, and reveals the connection between their fair skin and their perceived beauty.

This illustrates the implications and effects of colorism in a broader context, as it speaks to the way in which whiteness equates to beauty – this perception is not new. Forbes-Vierling highlights how light skinned slaves were preferred, due to their appeasing features, and traces the roots of this system of discrimination back to white supremacy. Forbes-Vierling illuminates how this “color based acceptance/ rejection continuum is still internalized by African Americans over 300 years later.” (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) Collins highlights these foundational concepts of colorism in the opening paragraphs of the narrative. Rendering the emphasis placed on the complexions and exteriors of the aunt and uncle as a significantly valuable quality, in a society that subscribes to the constructs of colorism. This highlights the importance of Collins’s story in the broader context of colorism in society, as the narrative demonstrates the impacts of the issue in a past era, but also demonstrates the la

ck of change, as colorism still impacts the black community in the United States.

The issue that Forbes-Vierling highlights with colorism is that there is rarely discussion about those “inside our [the Black] community that perpetuate it.” (Forbes-Vierling, 2017) The aunt is presented as a prime beneficiary of colorism throughout the narrative, as she expresses a sense of privilege, due to her understanding of the value and privilege her complexion affords her. Collins demonstrates the way in which the aunt perpetuates colorism through the narrators shift in tone and age. Preceding her description of her happy and light hearted childhood memories, she describes the removal of the “hallowed filter” that shrouds her memory. (Collins, 17) She realizes, in her adult years, that her aunt and uncle were far from perfect. Rather than characterizing them as beautiful despite their flaws, she realizes what their beauty truly means and how it becomes a detrimental factor in their lives. She realized her aunt was a “lazy, spoiled woman who thought her fair, almost-white skin would save her.” (Collins, 17) Collins carefully selects racial diction to frame this pivotal moment of revelation for the narrator and the reader. In selecting “almost-white” Collins illuminates the awkward social placement of the aunt. (Collins, 17) Her complexion renders her a part of the Black community, but simultaneously places her in an elevated medium. She is in a position of privilege due to her fairness, which she is aware of and takes advantages of, this is demonstrated through her shallow and apathetic attitude. But she is not a white women, she cannot transcend any racial barriers, she can only accept the privilege that oth

ers assign to her complexion and use that as leverage over other members of the community. This exemplifies the perpetuation of colorism within the Black community that Forbes-Vierling highlights.

The aunt’s perpetuation of colorism demonstrates the normality of the issue of colorism in Collins’s time and today. The lack of intervention and conversation around those who perpetuate colorism is highlighted in Collins’s narrative and by Forbes-Vierling’s article. In highlighting this issue, both Collins and Forbes-Vierling demonstrate how colorism continues to infect the Black community, resulting in detrimental social impacts. This discourse between Collins’s narrative and Forbes-Vierling’s article, demonstrates how the issues form a bygone era are still relevant today.  An article by Claire Fallon, from the online publication, The Huffington Post, responds to the importance and relevance of the themes in Collins’s collection, in an article called Whatever Happened To Interracial Love?Asks Q

uestions We’re Still Trying To Answer.” She highlights how the collection demonstrates the “tantalizing unfulfilled promise of a “melting pot,” an interracial or even a post racial society, remains a preoccupation many years later, and, again, it has resulted in a painful disappointment.” (Fallon, 2016) Collins’s work demonstrates the lack of social change from her time to the present. Her work highlights the prevalence of racial complexities like colorism, and the continuation of these issues in today’s society. Highlighting that the “questions we’re still trying to answer” lie within the lack of conversation and agency in solving the issues that divide Americans.

The perpetuation of colorism is as relevant now, as it was in Collins’s time. Collins demonstrates how it has a drastic impact on the family’s dynamic, as it cau

ses the aunt and uncle’s relationship to deteriorate and influences the uncle’s life long struggle with depression. This familial deterioration is demonstrated through Collins’s use of setting and motif. The narrator initially depicts the aunt and uncles’ bedroom as an enchanted place, where the four of them “would lie there for hours, laughing and hearing stories.” (Collins, 16) However upon returning to their house after her uncle’s death the bedroom is depicted in a much different light. The bed where the narrator, her younger sister, and her aunt and uncle spend hours in throughout their summers, became a “monument” to the uncle’s “perverse pursuit of humiliation and sorrow.” (Collins, 20) Collins uses the bed a subtle motif, only mentioning it twice, however it is used as a means to express how the aunt and uncles relationship has deteriorated, and has changed the dynamic of the family. In characterizing the bed as a “monument” it demonstrates how the bed once stood as a place of gathering and togetherness – even though the aunt and uncles’ relationship had n

ever been explicitly portrayed as perfect – it was still a place where the narrators childhood took place and where significant memories were made. (Collins, 20) After years of depression and the lack of cohesion between the aunt and the uncle, the bed becomes a memorial to the uncle’s sadness that consumed him. This subtle motif highlights how colorism and their complexions destroy their lives and their marriage. The aunt perpetuates it as she benefits from it, whilst the uncle’s relationship with colorism is far more complex. The narrator comments on the “blunt humiliation of his skin, with its bound-and-sealed possibilities” in the last moments of the narrative. (Collins, 20) she highlights the limitations his complexion imposed on him. The limitations that he was unwilling to struggle with. He was “so refused to overcome his sorrow as some affliction to be transcended.” He didn’t want to fight it. He had no desire to stand up against the limitations and his own inhibitions that he let sorrow consume him instead. These last moments in the narrative highlight how the aunt was able to use her complexion to gain privilege, but the uncle could not bear to struggle with the trials and tribulations of the complex discrimination that plagued him within his own family, and throughout his life.

“The Uncle” is a harrowing narrative, but it is important. It acts as a historical preservation of an era long past and immortalizes the sentiments of Blacks towards the intricacies of the racial complexities amplified by the civil rights movement. “The Uncle” just scrapes the surface of colorism, whilst it certainly explores the intricacies of the issue, there is more exploration to be done. Additionally, the narrative preserves a social commentary from a bygone era, but could easily be a social commentary on colorism today. In reading Collins’s narratives from the past, we seem to be peering more into the present. Whilst the narrative presents the issue of colorism, I also think it presents the solution. It shows us our mistakes, and misconceptions, it shows us where we went wrong and ignored it, continued to ignore it, until we finish the story and arrive back to reality, where we ask our selves as readers, what has changed?

Op Ed

Works Cited:

Collins, Kathleen. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Granta Books, 2018.

Forbes-Vierling, Suzanne. “Dark Skin Pain, Light Skin Privilege: Nine Solutions to Dismantling Colorism in the Black Community.” Medium.com, Medium, 14 Oct. 2017, medium.com/@suzanneforbesvierling/moving-forward-with-radical-action-nine-solutions-that-the-black-community-can-adopt-to-dismantle-8edfb15917cb.

Sharp, Diamond. “Our Minds are Intricate” Slate Magazine, Slate, 7 Feb. 2017, www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2017/02/kathleen_collins_whatever_happened_to_interracial_love_reviewed.html.

Fallon, Claire. “New Book Asks Questions About Race & Gender We’re Still Trying To

Answer.” The Huffington Post, 2 Dec. 2016, www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/whatever-happened-to-interracial-love_us_5840aee7e4b09e21702ddb0f

1926 or 2019? The Fight for Equality in “I, Too” foreshadows The Black Lives Movement

History frequently repeats itself, oftentimes foreshadowing the future through works of literature such as poems. The issues that poets write about decades ago reform into present day issues, connecting the past and modern issues. Langston Hughes, an African-American author and poet fits this framework by being a top Black literary figure whose upbringing and scholarly works composes of the African American struggles and experiences in America, parallel to today’s Black Lives Matter Movement: a fight for African American’s lives and equality. Hughes’ poem, “I, Too” was originally featured in the collection The Weary Blues in 1926, and has since been included in top magazines and newspapers such as New York Times and the Smithsonian (Knopf 1926).

                

James Mercer Langston Hughes was born in 1902 in Joplin, Missouri but would grow up to be a big part of the Harlem Renaissance (African American Artistic movement) in 1920s New York City, shaping, “American literature and politics,” through celebrating and promoting black pride (Britannica 1-2). Hughes attended Columbia University before attending and graduating from Lincoln University in 1929 (Britannica 1). In congruence with Hughes’s personal history and identity, acknowledging it attests to the emotions and prideful tones for Black identity and equality showcased in the poem.

Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too,” is a rather short, free verse poem of five stanzas, opening and closing with similar one-line sentence, and using simple language throughout. The poem is only five sentences in total, but covers two events (today and tomorrow), and two places, (kitchen and table). The poem depicts the relationship between a presumed but not named authority figure and the narrator. The narrator alludes to racism towards blacks within the oppressive dominant white culture of America through their own experience of getting excluded (Hughes, “I am the darker brother/They send me to eat in the kitchen/When company comes”) while the company eats together at the table (2-4). More powerfully, the events of the poem derive from and captivate the rancorous history of slavery and oppression that created everlasting systems of racial inequality and denied blacks their right. This history is recounted in both The African AmericanGreat Migration and Beyond (2003) and Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America (2001). As a Black male growing up America in the 1900s, Hughes’ writing reflects the racial divide and discrimination, particularly to minorities, that has cycled through generations. When the poem emerged in 1926, the Great Migration was ongoing, it was “the (high rate relocation of African-Americans from Southern states to the North” (Stewart 209-232). The Chicago race riots (the lynching of blacks) was also occurring, along with Jim Crow (state and local laws that legally separated the South), that painted the racially divided climate of the US (Emerson and Smith 42).            

In the poem, the speaker metaphorically tells his desire to be included at the “table” also represents his desire to be included in American patriotism as represented by the words, “I, Too.” The poem uses an exemplary event of the unfair treatment of a person because of their darker skin complexion to comment on the racial divide then transitions to an optimistic perspective where he demands equality and acceptance. Hughes’ uses figurative language, commas, tone shift, and vagueness in setting to articulate black inequality and provides a prideful and positive future perspective of their place in America by appealing to pathos and unification.

Hughes’ poem frames what I have referenced as the 21st century representation or reforming of his poem, the Black Lives Matter Movement which generates a similar articulation of black inequality and argues for unification of America. “I, Too” shows the complexities in the changing of times but the continuance of racial inequalities and tensions for blacks in America. The poem in conjunction to what I am talking about reveals the change in times in America but the continuing racial inequalities and need for the BLM. Hughes uses the speaker of the poem to reveal the unfair treatment and exclusion of a person based on skin color like seen in the mass killings of blacks by police leading to the creation of the BLM to stand against that. Hughes’ poem in combination with the BLM is important in analyzing the history of discrimination and unfair treatment of blacks, as well as establishing a black prideful forward-looking perspective that I will address.

Hughes utilizes commas to showcase the changing narrative of the speaker and to separate his changing experiences and emotions. Hughes Writes, ““I am the darker brother. /They send me to eat in the kitchen/When company comes, /But I laugh, /And eat well, /And grow strong” (I, Too” 2-7). The use of commas in this quote forces the reader to slow down and take in the actions of the narrator. The commas show the continuation of the unfair treatment because the commas combined with the word “grow strong” shows the longevity and multiplicity of times he had to eat in the kitchen because he is “the darker brother.” The commas also allow for the tone shift through the lines as well as stanzas of the poem. The tone shifts from one of anger to one of strength using the commas because the commas allows for the poem to be read like blues music, filled with sorrow and anger, but finding the beauty by finding its worth like the narrator does connecting back to Hughes’ use of blues and jazz club settings to write during the Harlem Renaissance. Commas produce this effect because it showcases the narrator’s growth and emotions. The commas allow us to get a whole picture view of the changes the narrator goes through after being banished to the kitchen such as the, “But I laugh,” that is followed by the, “And eat well,” then him saying, “And grow strong.” He is not allowing for his banishment to the kitchen to keep him down, but rather laughs and thinks of the future when he is stronger and can escape the segregation that has been forced on him.

 

The commas also produce a contrast between not being able to eat at the table juxtaposed to his claim of his, “tomorrow(‘s)” right to eat at that table. His perseverance and resilience in self authorizing that he will be at the table comes through because of the use of commas showing that he is not accepting his current situation. Agency, not accepting one’s unfair current situation, a message that Hughes promotes as black pride clashes, the picturistic America (land of freedom and opportunity), with the unmatched reality when we look further in. Through sources of literature, this unmatched dream of a racially equal America is exposed and investigated. This shows through the authority to speaker power dynamic as seen in the poem. One source that adds to the conversation is an NPR tribute by Neal Conan to Langston Hughes titled, “Celebrating the Legacy of Langston Hughes.” Published in February of 2012, Conan praises Hughes and his work as being a significant impact by giving a voice to blacks and black bodies in the 20th century that have historically been dehumanized. Conan’s promotes Hughes as a figure to be respected and praised because he created a foundation for black voices to be recognized and identified, as is done by the “I, Too” poem.

Nevertheless, he acknowledges the present-day ongoing racism on a micro and macro level, posing the question, “what should we teach about Langston Hughs in schools today?” (4). Conan amplifies the need for the presence of Hughes’ works in schools today, stating that, “it is a gateway in understanding black suffrage and black’s fight for equality” (5). Conan also recognizes the significance of Hughes as setting the stage for comprehending black identity and developing black pride in his works which allows for the canon of what is taught in schools to be expanded. Conan marks Hughes as setting a general framework for, “the importance and lasting foundational structure of black identity and black’s wanting freedom in a land where they were held captive and still are” (14). The Black Lives Movement acts as another agent and framework for understanding why there is a critical need for present-day foundations and organizations that protect and uphold black equality and freedom in a country who history has opposed it.

Through the Smithsonian Article titled, “Why Langston Hughes Still Reigns as a Poet for the Unchampioned,” published in May of 2017, author David Ward continues the praise of Langston Hughes by recognizing his contributions and achievements both in academia and society, painting Hughes as a “canonical figure in American culture” (1). Ward says that, “Hughes bridges the gap between cultures through his poems that connects to today’s multicultural society that lacks those bridges of culture and still uses Hughes’ work as a voice for continuing the building of cultural bridges” (8). This is done through first recognizing Hughes as inspirational and groundbreaking African-American author and figure for American culture and the American dream from a realistic viewpoint of blacks (2). Ward identifies the governments creation of systemic racism and its structures as a way of creating the unmatched dream of a racially equal society. Hughes growing up in the 1900s aligns with that even closer because the racial divide and legal separation of people was occurring which highly influenced his work. This correlates with the dreams of inclusion and equality of the speaker in the poem juxtapose with his “today.” His “tomorrow” and positive forward-looking dream by Hughes contrasts with the reality of racial systems put in place to keep him excluded.

Throughout the poem, Hughes employs the vagueness of setting to note the deep-rooted effects of slavery and the continuing holds it has on black equality. The vagueness in the setting acts as a metaphor for the ongoing oppression of blacks. The speaker uses the words “tomorrow” in the poem to contrast his current situation with his desired future. He says, “Tomorrow/I’ll be at the table/When company comes. /Nobody’ll dare/Say to me, / “Eat in the kitchen,”/Then” (I, Too” 8-14). Here Hughes’ using the word “tomorrow” is vague because it means the day after today, but it can also allude to the future in the sense of days, months, or even years. The word also acts as a metaphor for the oppression of blacks and the unfair treatment they face because it puts an uncertain time clock on their suffering. “Tomorrow,” acts a sense of hope for better days but is not marked with an exact date. Rather, it is the endless hope that things will get better than they are presently, even if that day isn’t certain.This is important because it showcases how whether it takes place during slavery or post-slavery, the remaining effects of oppression and unequal treatment of blacks is still present and draining in the American society. Paralleling with the vagueness in time, the events we see such as the killings of unarmed black males in the 21st century as covered in CNN’s article Family of Stephon Clark, unarmed black man killed by police, files wrongful death lawsuit published 2019 by Sonya Hamasaki and Dan Simon shows the continual effects of racial inequality systems from slavery. It shows how the African-American experience is still one of unfairness and inequality prior or post slavery and why the BLM is critically important in the fight against it.

    

Moving on, the narrator claims his liberation and argues for unification at the table through his hope of “tomorrow” as a brighter future juxtapose with the present. Hughes writes, “Besides, /They’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed—/I, too, am America” (I, Too” 15-18). He is claiming his right to feel included and equal as a citizen in America. He is disapproving the idea that equality is based on race, or more specifically that you must be white or of a lighter skin complexion to be fairly treated. This topic is important to me because America is often seen as a ‘melting pot’ of cultures, nationalities, and races, yet the country is racially fragmented, unequal in income and opportunity, and the viral killings of minorities at an unproportioned rate to whites shows that the ‘melting pot’ image is juxtaposed with the reality of oppressed identities in America. However, the black identity has always been present and is still fighting to be acknowledged in America’s multicultural society ran by white privilege.

 

This situation in the poem aligns with the oppressive history of domination from the white culture onto the black culture. Furthermore, it speaks in a hopeful tone despite the vagueness of setting to promise a brighter or equal “tomorrow.” This is congruent to the message that is delivered by Hughes in his speech at UCLA in 1967. The YouTube video from the UCLA Communication Studies Archives is of Langston Hughes’ speech at UCLA on the 2nd of February in 1967, a few months before he passed which presents and support the arguments of both Conan and Ward that will come up latter correlating with Hughes own words. However, it diverges by speaking more intensely on the social implications of identities and races and function of education as a tool for growth and change in America. The speaker approaches the history of discrimination through his motto, “dig and be dug in return,” as a framework for displaying the need for 20th century graduates to be aware of different identities as well as how they are represented and treated in society (Archives 45). Hughes acknowledges and praises the abilities of the Negros capabilities to achieve equal to other races and be even greater.  Hughes notes college and education as tools for growth in awareness levels and social consciousness of American students, stating it will be a catalyst for the understanding of identities and races in America which diverges from our abusive and discriminatory history towards minorities (58). This claim that he makes is highly important in explaining the development of the Black Lives Matter Movement which was established by highly educated black members and organizations in the African-American community which parallels with Hughes claim that education is a tool for social consciousness and awareness in America that this movement is trying to activate.

Just as the vagueness of the setting of time was established by the word “tomorrow” in the poem, the tomorrow that was being referred to is now enlightened by Hughes’ speech at UCLA. The near future but uncertain timeline of the “tomorrow” that the speaker of the poem hinges on to upkeep a hopeful tone and outlook on the future is like the hopeful tone and outlook that Hughes desires for America. Hughes looks at college or more generally education as a tool for establishing a brighter future for African-Americans that will bring them from the exclusion of the kitchen to the table. The tomorrow spoken about in the poem is played out in forty-two years after the poem is published at Hughes speech in 1967. This connects back to the vagueness of setting that the poem elicits because despite how hopeful and strong the speaker of the poem is in his declaration of an equal tomorrow where he says, “tomorrow I’ll be at the table when company comes,” the timeline of exactly when it actually happens is uncertain. Furthermore, the speaker goes on to say, “Besides, /they’ll see how beautiful I am/And be ashamed—/ I, too, am America.” This is critically important because it connects back to the rising of awareness and consciousness of America that Hughes speaks on in his speech through using education as a tool.

This is again played out in 1925 in his poem and also in 2019 because the multitude of endorsing organizations for the BLM such as such as the Center for Social Inclusion, Southeast Asian Freedom Network, Jewish Voice of Peace, articulate the rising awareness and consciousness of America and more show the diversity and inclusion of all as equal Americans. It shows the removing of exclusions that the speaker faces in the poems transitioned to an enlightened state where diverse groups are willing to join for a movement to stand for equal citizenship in America redirecting from its racially oppressive and shameful history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited 

Knopf. “Selected Letters of Langston Hughes & The Weary Blues.” Knopf Doubleday, 1926, knopfdoubleday.com/2015/02/03/the-selected-letters-of-langstonhughes-and-the-weary-blues/. 

Hughes, Langston. “I, Too by Langston Hughes.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, 1926, www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47558/i-too. 

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Langston Hughes.” Encyclopædia BritannicaEncyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 28 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Langston-Hughes. 

Tolnay, Stewart (2003). “The African American ‘Great Migration’ and Beyond“. Annual Review of Sociology29: 209–232. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.29.010202.100009JSTOR 30036966. 

Michael O. Emerson, Christian Smith (2001). “Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America“. p. 42. Oxford University Press. 

Pilgrim, David. “Slavery in America.” Slavery in America – Timeline – Jim Crow Museum – Ferris State University, 2012, www.ferris.edu/HTMLS/news/jimcrow/timeline/slavery.htm. 

Conan, Neal. “Celebrating The Legacy Of Langston Hughes.” NPR, NPR, 2 Feb. 2012, www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=146297228. Accessed 10 Mar. 2019. 

Ward, David C. “Why Langston Hughes Still Reigns as a Poet for the Unchampioned.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 22 May 2017, www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-langston-hughes-still-reigns-poet-unchampioned-180963405/. Accessed 10 Mar. 2019. 

UCLACommStudies. “Langston Hughes Speaking at UCLA 2/16/1967.” YouTube, YouTube, 1 Dec. 2014, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Px5hwNCs9ss. Accessed 10 Mar. 2019. 

Hamasaki, Sonya, and Dan Simon. “Family of Stephon Clark Files Wrongful Death Lawsuit.” CNN, Cable News Network, 29 Jan. 2019, www.cnn.com/2019/01/29/us/stephon-clark-wrongful-death-lawsuit/index.html. 

“Malcolm X Quotes.” BrainyQuote.com. BrainyMedia Inc, 2019. 19 April 2019. https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/malcolm_x_387554 

Mexican Heaven: (Untold) Experiences of Mexican Immigrants

Cover of Citizen Illegal and author Jose Olivarez

Given today’s political climate with our current president, Jose Olivarez’s work, Citizen Illegal (2018), engages readers to learn and understand true experiences told by someone who is knowledgeable about Mexicans immigrating into the U.S. The collection of poems reveals cultural, social, and socio-political struggles of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. Citizen Illegal helps us re-imagine this topic by showcasing specific experiences that other Mexican immigrants can relate to while also educating readers of these experiences. It directs our attention to micro-level experiences that are not portrayed. Further, it encompasses emotions and experiences revolving around Mexican immigrants. Citizen Illegal is divided into five sections and contains poems ranging from 1 stanza to multiple stanzas in addition to the emotions ranging from nostalgia to sorrow. While there is no set character, the poems are meant to place the reader in Mexican immigrants’ position and enlighten relatable situations. Throughout the poems, readers learn about relations between individual family members, and between Mexican immigrants versus American society. Although Olivarez himself is not an immigrant, he is the son of immigrant parents, whose experiences informs some of his poems. His work helps readers understand the untold experiences of Mexican immigrants that no one thinks twice about. The poems allude to esoteric and specific experiences while educating and informing the reader of more than the misconceived notions or what is often portrayed in the media. Citizen Illegal highlights the experiences of Mexican immigrants that are not portrayed in media or that are seldom in discourse revolving Mexican immigrants. It challenges the representations of Mexican immigrants in U.S. cultural production and highlights untold experiences of Mexican immigrants. In particular, his multiple one-stanza poems titled “Mexican Heaven” describes and understands the ideal “heaven”/utopia that consists of both Mexican and American culture. The various “Mexican Heaven” poems allude to representations and experiences of Mexican immigrants that defy the misconstrued and negative portrayals of Mexican immigrants.

As Alejandro Portes and Robert L. Bach explains in their book Latin Journey: Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States, the history of Mexican immigrants in the U.S. spans as far back as 1907 during the annexation of land belonging to Mexico (Bach and Portes 77). Eventually, the annexation of Mexico’s land reconfigures into the narrative and understanding of Mexican immigrants as “bad” because they are trying to “reconquer land that was formerly theirs (U.S. Southwest)” (Chavez 3). Often, what is portrayed or misconceived of Mexican immigrants is that they “don’t contribute to society” or “they’re taking all our jobs” or, as President Trump has most recently described them, “drug dealers, rapists, and criminals”. 
Unfortunately, we believe or perpetuate these notions because these narratives are most often the only ones portrayed, making us unaware of their untold experiences. In addition, these portrayals contribute to what author Leo Chavez coins as the “Latino Threat” narrative in his book, The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Narrative, and the Nation. The “Latino Threat” narrative encompasses the many assumptions of Mexican immigrants, including the “unwillingness to become part of the national community,” “illegal alien,” “destroying the way of American life,” and a foreigner (thus implying a threat to national security) (Chavez 3). The “Latino Threat” continues to perpetuate the discourses revolving Mexican immigrants in part (but not exclusively) because of the negative portrayals and the lack of continued struggles Mexican immigrants face. These portrayals are “typically devoid of nuances and subtleties of real lived lives”, consequently negating the additional obstacles and experiences of Mexican immigrants (Chavez 4). Because of the lack of appropriate Mexican immigrant portrayal and the over portrayal of the “Latino Threat” narrative (as made evident by President Trump), many individuals’ perceptions of Mexican immigrants revolve around the “Latino Threat” narrative.

While he has multiple poems titled “Mexican Heaven” in different sections of the book, the “Mexican Heaven” poem in the third section exemplifies Mexican women’s role in the Mexican community. The Washington Post conducted a research study to analyze the depictions of Mexican immigrants in news media. Their results asserted that while the majority of Mexican immigrants’ portrayals were harmful and produced them in a negative light, Mexican immigrant men were more often represented than Mexican immigrant women were. This “Mexican Heaven” poem complicates the portrayals of Mexican immigrants as it gives recognition to Mexican women, rather than Mexican men, who “are pictured more often than females” (Washington post).

The poem is one stanza, comprised of five lines, and narrates common domestic responsibilities:

all the Mexican women refuse to cook or clean

or raise the kids or pay the bills or make the bed or

drive your bum ass to work or do anything except

watch their novelas, so heaven is gross. The rats

are fat as roosters & the men die of starvation. (Olivarez 31)

The repetition of “or” throughout the poem separates the numerous tasks/responsibilities Mexican women have, even though they may not work at an actual job. The repetition produces the effect of an ongoing list that is “never-ending”, that the domestic responsibilities of Mexican women are endless. Additionally, in omitting commas to separate the tasks, the poem forces the readers to take their time in reading and reflecting on each task. This poem showcases that while Mexican immigrant women contribute just as much in providing for the family, even though it is not always portrayed. Moreover, in stating that this imagined “heaven” is where the women refuse to do this continuous list of tasks, it signifies that the “heaven” they imagine is different than the one they are living in. This poem illuminates that the “heaven” imagined for Mexican women is being able to relax and not do any of these tasks. However, the “heaven” they are living in (America) emphasizes that they have to do these tasks in order to help sustain their family’s life.

In examining Olivarez’s work, his poems speak to experiences and motivations of Mexican immigrants. As sociologist Carol Cleaveland observes in her research study, ‘In this country, you suffer a lot’: Undocumented Mexican immigrant experiences, Mexican immigrants individuals migrate “in order to spare their families potential suffering from poverty, or from having to immigrate themselves” (Cleaveland 582). They immigrate in pursuit of a better life, of the American Dream. Immigrating in pursuit of the American Dream reflects their concerns and worries of providing for their family and of financial stability (Hugo Lopez, “Latinos”). While there is no concrete definition to the concept of the American Dream, the Pew Research Center defines the American Dream as “hard work, financial security, career success and confidence that each new generation will be better off than the one before it” (Hugo Lopez, “Latinos”). The American Dream is the idea that if you work hard enough, you can achieve whatever you want.  In another short-stanza poem titled “Mexican Heaven”, Olivarez is able to articulate what an imagined “heaven” looks like to Mexican immigrants while highlighting the realities of coming to America and striving to achieve the American Dream. The poem further complicates the portrayals of Mexican immigrants by illuminating the concealed, continuous struggle of trying to provide for their family. In a seven-line stanza, the “Mexican Heaven” poem of the third section of the book showcases the contrasting ideas of the expectations versus the realities of America. Through the use of descriptive diction, Olivarez highlights to the reader the dismay of Mexican immigrants’ experience in America:

Saint Peter lets Mexicans into heaven

but only to work in the kitchens.

a Mexican dishwasher polishes the crystal,

smells the meals, & hears the music.

they dream of another heaven,

one they might be allowed in

if they work hard enough. (Olivarez 19)

cartoon taken from https://theimmigrants2010.wordpress.com/

The word “heaven” refers to the ending destination of Mexican immigrants: America. The word “heaven” juxtaposes where they come from, indicating that the place they are leaving in pursuit of “heaven” is unpleasant. As Cleaveland stated before, many Mexican immigrants migrate to the U.S. as “neo-liberal economics created untenable conditions for workers in Mexico” (Cleaveland 568). Mexican immigrants migrate because they are unable to work and therefore unable to make money to provide for their family. Additionally, the third, fourth, and fifth line of the poem contain diction that describe menial tasks, specifically referring to a job in the kitchen. The third and fourth sentences indicate that the worker is not enjoying the event, rather they are the ones prepping it. This portrays one of many low, “under-the-table” jobs Mexican immigrants work in order to sustain their life in America because of the disadvantages of language barriers and minimal education (Cleaveland 569). Because of their status, Mexican immigrants are forced to “work at jobs that are exploitative in terms of pay and benefits” (Cleaveland 571). Many places hire Mexican immigrants while not giving them the full benefits because it is cheap labor. Furthermore, describing these jobs by referencing some of the human senses (touch, smell, and hearing) places the reader in the shoes of a Mexican immigrant working the job. In placing the reader in this labor position, it illuminates an aspect of the life Mexican immigrants have in that they work “under-the-table” jobs because of their status.
The second half of the poem uses diction that refers to the idea of the American Dream. The words “dream” and the phrase “if they work hard enough” indicate that by working hard, one can achieve the American Dream. However, this poem showcases that “working hard enough” is not enough because Mexican immigrants are able to only work in menial occupations. It highlights an experience that is not often portrayed in the media and it recognizes the labor Mexican immigrants face in order to sustain their life.

Even after migrating to America, Mexican immigrants still face obstacles that remain concealed. One of these instances is the experience of Mexican immigrants needing to give up a part of their culture for the sake of white people. Olivarez encompasses this situation in another “Mexican Heaven” poem:

There are white people in heaven, too.

They build condos across the street

& ask the Mexicans to speak English.

I’m just kidding.

There are no white people in heaven. (Olivarez 21)

cartoon taken from https://newiesthirteen.wordpress.com/cartoons/

This Mexican Heaven poem highlights the relationship between Mexicans and the neighborhood they live in. It illuminates and an experience that it relatable (but not exclusive) to Mexican immigrants as it juxtaposes their positionality in relation to others, specifically white people. The contrasting diction of “build” and “ask” indicate that white people have the privilege to do and ask what they want of Mexican people. In incorporating the sentence about “speak[ing] English”; it illuminates the experience Mexican immigrants have about needing to change their language.
Additionally, the first sentence of the poem indicates the reality of being in America while the last sentence imagines a “heaven” in which there are no white people to denigrate them. In America, they are asked to rid their language and speak English, whereas in an imagined “heaven”, they do not have to worry about such an incident. The poem further illustrates Olivarez’s intentions, in which he states in a 2018 interview with Hannah Steinkopf-Frank of the Chicago Tribune. The interview, titled “Chicago Poet Jose Olivarez builds his own world in debut book ‘Citizen Illegal’,” contextualizes Olivarez’s background and experiences to show how they are illustrated in Citizen Illegal. In addition, the article suggests that while many of poems are based off of Olivarez’s experiences, they can also be accredited and attest to other experiences of Mexican immigrants, as he wanted to “create a space where Mexicans who already know the language feel that intimacy” (Steinkopf-Frank, “Chicago”). This poem highlights the experience of language as while each individual has their own obstacles, language is a common obstacle shared by (but not exclusive to) the Mexican community.

Primarily, analyzing Citizen Illegal and its multicultural contexts showcases that the portrayal of Mexican immigrants in U.S. cultural production is frequently a negative portrayal and disregards other aspects of Mexican immigrants’ experience. Citizen Illegal highlights and explains experiences that are not always depicted in discourse revolving around Mexican immigrants. In the “Mexican Heaven” poems, Olivarez is able to describe experiences in easy-to-understand terms, such as recognizing Mexican women’s role in the Mexican community, understanding the difficulty of striving for the American Dream, and understanding the sacrifice of culture in order to “make it” in America. After reading Citizen Illegal with additional research, I question why these experiences remain untold and why the negative portrayal of Mexican immigrants are perpetuated in U.S. cultural production. Citizen Illegal speaks to a specific audience that can relate to these experiences while educating other audiences of more than Mexican immigrants being “drug dealers, rapists, and criminals”. Ultimately, the discourse and portrayal of Mexican immigrants remains in this perpetuating state of unconstructiveness  unless challenged or enlightened, as Olivarez does in Citizen Illegal.

 

Works Cited

Chavez, Leo. The Latino Threat : Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation, Second Edition, Stanford University Press, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/dickinson/detail.action?docID=1162035.

Cleaveland, Carol. “‘In This Country, You Suffer a Lot’: Undocumented Mexican Immigrant Experiences.” Qualitative Social Work, vol. 11, no. 6, Nov. 2012, pp. 566–586.

Farris, Emily and Silber Mohamed, Heather. “The news media usually show immigrants as dangerous criminals. That’s changed – for now, at least.” Washington Post, 27 June 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/06/27/the-news-media-usually-show-immigrants-as-dangerous-criminals-thats-changed-for-now-at-least/?utm_term=.ee14874a0da7. Accessed 24 April 2019.

Hugo Lopez, Mark. “Latinos are more likely to believe in the American dream, but most say it is hard to achieve.” Pew Research Center, 11 Sept. 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/09/11/latinos-are-more-likely-to-believe-in-the-american-dream-but-most-say-it-is-hard-to-achieve/. Accessed 30 April 2019.

Olivarez, Jose. Citizen Illegal. Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2018

Portes, Alejandro, and Robert L. Bach. Latin Journey : Cuban and Mexican Immigrants in the United States, University of California Press, 1985. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/dickinson/detail.action?docID=470876.

Steinkopf-Frank, Hannah. “Chicago Poet Jose Olivarez builds his own world in debut book ‘Citizen Illegal’.” The Chicago Tribune. 11 Sept. 2018, Website, https://www.chicagotribune.com/redeye/culture/ct-redeye-jose-olivarez-poet-citizenillegal-20180808-story.html. Accessed 4 March 2019.

 

Identity Conflict: The Precarious State of Mexican-American Identity

Cover of “Citizen Illegal”

In José Olivarez’s “Citizen Illegal” (2018), a complicated perspective on the intersection of Mexican and American identities is offered. In “Citizen Illegal,” Olivarez addresses coming of age as the child of Mexican immigrants as a series of triumphs and challenges. The collection is composed of five chapters, each containing eight to ten poems. The poems themselves typically have multiple stanzas. Notably, throughout the collection are woven eight pieces of the poem “Mexican Heaven,” which explores the celebrations and struggles of Mexican American life. While most poems have multiple stanzas, some pieces, such as “I Walk Into The Room And Yell Where The Mexicans At” are written as prose. “Citizen Illegal” thus informs readers of the conflict within Mexican American identity. Specifically, the poems “River Oaks Mall” and “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)” explore Olivarez’s feeling like a misfit within American culture due to his Mexican roots. In these poems, the evolution of Olvarez’s precarious identity from Mexican-American to American is observable. This evolution is indicative of a constant pressure to assimilate as well as perceived “otherness” of Mexican-Americans. Ultimately, in the context of political rhetoric and public perception of Mexican-Americans, these poems illustrate the perceived incompatibilities between Mexican and American identities due to the otherness of Mexicans in the United States. The pressure to assimilate is strong, then, due to the benefits associated with shedding Mexican identity.

“River Oaks Mall” is the fourth poem in the collection. The poem consists of six three-line stanzas concluded by a single-line stanza. The first letters of each sentence, despite grammatical convention, are not capitalized. Proper nouns, however, such as “Saturday” and “American,” are written conventionally. In “River Oaks Mall,” Olivarez describes walking through a mall on a Saturday with his family. The poem begins with the speaker describing a refusal to confess his feelings for the girl he likes and concludes with his throwing a coin from his father into a fountain in the mall. In seeing other young people around him at the mall, Olivarez notes that he feels a separation between himself and those surrounding him. This feeling of difference demonstrates the speaker’s conflict between his American and Mexican identities:

 

trying too hard is another way to confess.

my family takes a Saturday stroll

through the mall dressed in church clothes

 

every other kid in jeans, t-shirts, & Jordans.

fun fact: when you have to try to blend in

you can never blend in (Olivarez 6).

 

The juxtaposition in the sentence “my family takes a Saturday stroll/through the mall

Photo by Davon Clark

dressed in church clothes” specifically elucidates the reader’s conflict between Mexican and American identities. In this phrase, the family is representative of Mexican identity. Specifically, as religion is a strong presence in many Mexican families, wearing church clothes designates the family as a symbol of Mexican identity. The mall, as a staple of recreation in the United States and an extremely casual setting, is the pinnacle of an environment in which the family’s behavior is unusual. Here, mall culture exists as a microcosm of a greater American culture, as the shopping mall is a staple of life in the United States. The situation of “through the mall” and “dressed in church clothes” in the same line makes the juxtaposition impossible to ignore. This placement signifies the adjacency yet perceived incompatibility of Mexican and American identity to Olivarez. The imagery of a family taking a “Sunday stroll / through the mall in church clothes” also highlights the juxtaposition of the family and the shopping mall. The poem facilitates the reader to envision the scene, as picturing a family dressed in church clothes among groups of kids in stylish clothing is almost

Additionally, the repetition of “blend in” supports the juxtaposition in the second stanza. “Blending in” in this case implies the hiding of Mexican culture, as the juxtaposition illustrates the perceived incompatibility of Mexican and American culture. This repetition highlights the ever-present confusion that comes about as a result of Mexican/American identity conflict. Historically, divisions between American and other national identities have been rooted in fears of disloyalty. In the 2009 report Are Immigrants Disloyal? The Case of Mexicans in the U.S., Krystof Kozak examines the perceived disloyalty of Mexicans to the United States and posits explanations for this perception. Kozak outlines that concerns of disloyalty have existed since the independence of the United States. Disloyalty was a major argument employed by Nativists, who sought to limit immigration to the U.S. (Kozak). Kozak asserts that Nativism has persisted to the present. These modern-day Nativists categorize Mexican immigrants as “Other,” implying that they possess a separate identity from the rest of the United States (Kozak). “Blending in,” therefore, would work to alleviate the speaker’s “otherness” and subvert perceptions of disloyalty.

The final chapter of “Citizen Illegal” features “River Oaks Mall (Reprise),” which is a continuation of the narrative that began in “River Oaks Mall”. In this poem, the speaker is presumably an older version of the speaker from the first poem. This older speaker expresses a desire to shed the embarrassing Mexican hallmarks of his past in favor of an assimilated American identity. The poem begins:

we were so American it was transparent.

Southpole hoodie & a i-could-give-a-fuck type

attitude. french fries down our throats.

blood pressure bursting. thin, fair

white women in our fantasies. in our faces,

our grandmothers’ faces. so what?

we pawn it at the mall for a gold star (Olivarez 63).

In the phrase “in our faces, / our grandmothers’ faces. so what?” the rhetorical question “so what?” symbolizes the speaker’s imposed separation from Mexican culture and heritage. Assuming that the speaker of this poem is a grown-up version of the speaker in “River Oaks Mall,” this device demonstrates a discarding of familial history in order to assimilate into American culture. As one can picture “so what?” being spouted by a bratty teenager, the tone of this question is indicative of an adolescent rejection of the misfit identity of being Mexican in the United States.

The attitude of the speaker is elucidated by the “gold star” metaphor in the last line of the quote. When Olivarez says, “we pawn it [Mexican identity] at the mall for a gold star,” he is implying that he has traded an outward expression of his identity for social approval. Colloquially, a “gold star” is a common metaphor for achievement or the approval of others. The word “pawn” in this phrase additionally demonstrates the eagerness of the speaker to adopt a new American identity. Pawning an item is typically an eager and quick decision, as in pawning an engagement ring after a failed romance. The negative labels applied to Mexican-Americans put this “pawning” of identity in context. The struggles related to social categorization that Mexican immigrants and their children face are elucidated by Kathleen Rooney’s 2018 review of “Citizen Illegal” for the Chicago Tribune titled “’Citizen Illegal’ by Jose Olivarez is Poetry for this moment.” Rooney acknowledges Olivarez’s addressing of “the struggles and complexities of immigration and gentrification.” She further explains how labels such as “citizen” and “illegal,” when applied to individuals, can promote “fear, confusion, and discrimination” (Rooney). Rooney’s review of “Citizen Illegal” further defines the negative associations that society has towards Mexican-Americans. Olivarez’s “gold star” may be a relief from “fear, confusion, and discrimination” (Olivarez 63, Rooney). Therefore, in this quote, the speaker is trading an old, once embarrassing identity for a new identity. The speaker sees American identity as socially approved but sees Mexican identity as a thing of the past.

The sentiments of precarious identity in “River Oaks Mall” and the reprise are autobiographical. In Levi Todd’s interview with Olivarez for Hooligan magazine, Olivarez addresses the conflict between Mexican and American identity. In this 2018 interview, Olivarez discusses events and emotions within his own life that inspired the poetry in “Citizen Illegal.” Olivarez states that he once “felt like [he] had to choose one identity and perform that identity to the max” (Qtd in Todd). Thus, Olivarez perceived his multiple identities to be in conflict with one another. Olivarez’s one-time desire to “perform [an] identity to the max” provides context to the desire to commit entirely to an American identity in “River Oaks Mall (Reprise).” The act of being “so American it was transparent” expresses this total commitment to a single identity, as explained by Olivarez in his interview with Todd (Olivarez 63). The use of the word “transparent” in this phrase enforces the performance of an identity “to the max.” The word “transparent” connotes that the speaker doesn’t have anything to hide, suggesting that he is effectively “passing” as American. The exaggerated imagery in “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)” additionally indicates the performance of identity that Olivarez spoke of in the Todd interview. The phrases “french fries down our throats” and “blood pressure bursting” offer almost theatrical imagery of stereotypical American attributes. The performance of “American” identity in “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)”, therefore, mirrors Olivarez’s own experiences in Mexican-American identity.

Due to the perception of Mexican-Americans as “other,” the speaker of “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)” gains several advantages by assimilating in the United States. These advantages assuage the identity conflict that the speaker experienced in “River Oaks Mall” via the assumption of a new identity. The most significant advantage would be a reprieve from the stereotypes and the “otherness” that come with the label of “Mexican.” Political rhetoric enforces this “otherness,” necessitating a choice between “otherness” and assimilation. According to commentator Rush Limbaugh, Mexican-Americans are “allowed no demonstrations , you cannot wave a foreign flag, no political organizing, no bad-mouthing our President or his policies, or you get sent home” (Qtd in Kozak). Families crossing the U.S.-Mexico border are being detained in camps, and Donald Trump is using his Twitter account to portray Mexican immigrants as “animals… and infestations” (Traister). Clearly, political rhetoric has drawn a line between the treatment of Mexican-Americans and the rest of the United States. Thus, assimilating into American culture and disassociating from Mexican identity may be a mechanism of self-preservation for the speaker of “River Oaks Mall (Reprise).” Olivarez’s “gold star,” then, represents the benefits associated with assimilation. Assimilation would protect the speaker from the categorization of “otherness” and the designation of “infestation.”

“River Oaks Mall” and “River Oaks Mall (Reprise),” therefore, highlight the precariousness of Mexican identity in the United States. As Mexican identity is demonized, the speaker in these poems must assimilate in order to escape the stereotypes placed upon him. This need to assimilate suggests a pressure to be either entirely Mexican or entirely American, and the difficulties associated with incorporating both into a cohesive national identity. “River Oaks Mall” demonstrates the strain between Mexican and American identities, as the speaker feels embarrassed by his Mexican family in a United States shopping mall. In “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)”, the speaker assumes a fully American identity. In the context of both public perception of Mexicans in the United States and José Olivarez’s own experiences, the identity conflict within these poems gives insight to the perceived “otherness” of Mexican-Americans. “River Oaks Mall” and “River Oaks Mall (Reprise)” tell a story about Mexican-American lives that is pointed and relevant. In the United States, Mexican identity and “American” identity, due to harsh political rhetoric and fears of disloyalty, are seen as incompatible.

Works Cited

Chiquiar, Daniel, and Alejandrina Salcedo. “Mexican Migration to the United States: Underlying Economic Factors and Possible Scenarios for Future Flows.” Migration Policy Institute, Migration Policy Institute, 12 Aug. 2015, www.migrationpolicy.org/research/mexican-migration-united-states-underlying-economic-factors-and-possible-scenarios-future. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Clark, Davon. “Hooligan Mag.” Hooligan Mag, Hooligan Mag, 13 Sept. 2018, www.hooliganmagazine.com/blog/2018/9/13/writing-poems-with-a-love-ethic-an-interview-with-jos-olivarez.

Kozak, Krystof. “Are Immigrants Disloyal? The Case of Mexicans in the U.S.*.” European Journal of American Studies, vol. 4, no. 2, 2009, doi:10.4000/ejas.7629. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Rooney, Kathleen. “’Citizen Illegal’ by Jose Olivarez Is Poetry for This Moment.” Chicago Tribune, Chicago Tribune, 7 Sept. 2018, www.chicagotribune.com/lifestyles/books/sc-books-citizen-illegal-jose-olivarez-0912-story.html. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Todd, Levi. “Writing Poems With a Love Ethic: an Interview with José Olivarez.” Hooligan Mag, Hooligan Mag, 13 Sept. 2018, www.hooliganmagazine.com/blog/2018/9/13/writing-poems-with-a-love-ethic-an-interview-with-jos-olivarez. Accessed 8 Mar. 2019. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Traister, Rebecca. “Cages, ‘Infestations,’ and the Demonization of Immigrants.” The Cut, New York Media, 27 June 2018, www.thecut.com/2018/06/trump-immigration-zero-tolerance-ai-jen-poo.html. Accessed 4 May 2019.

Olivarez, Jose. Citizen Illegal. Chicago, Haymarket Books, 2018.

Powell, Andy. “The Paris Review.” The Paris Review, The Paris Review, 24 Aug. 2018, www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/08/24/there-are-no-white-people-in-heaven-an-interview-with-jose-olivarez/.

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