A Feeling for What I Write
by Randall Allen
“Me and Sinclair” was an assignment for a World Literature II course that I took in Spring, 2015. This course was my second time with the instructor, Professor Holly Hofmann. The first had been two semesters prior, World Literature I. Then, studying guys like Kafka, Rilke, and Neruda, I was able to “feel” the topics Professor had assigned. That is, these writers were discussing contemporary things, ideas that were then germinating or had already unfolded as major themes of the late 19th and of the 20th century.
In World Literature I, we dealt with “old” stuff: Tao te Ching, Gilgamesh, and The Aeneid. Some of Professor Hofmann’s topic prompts included: “Gilgamesh and Enkidu are opposites, yin and yang. What forces does each character represent?” and “Go and find the account of the flood from Genesis, and compare it to the tale of the flood in Gilgamesh (told to Utnapishtim). Identify similarities and differences.” Certainly these are important topics. I don’t know whether it was because of the breadth of the ideas or the antiquity of the material, but I was having trouble “getting into” them. I could have researched a few journal articles on them and written something up, but I like to have a feeling for what I write.
As supplemental material for Virgil’s Aeneid, Professor Hofmann had provided a YouTube link to Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas, featuring Jessye Norman. After clicking the link, I found myself stunned. I had never heard of Jessye Norman, but it took no large amount of research for me to discover that she was both very famous and very accomplished. She must be international, I thought at first. Maybe she’s from France or Portugal, or, perhaps, Ethiopia. No! She was born in Georgia. More importantly, she grew up and attended school there. Suddenly the ideas started to align and the feelings began to coalesce: a contemporary black woman playing an historical figure, one typically depicted as white.
The notions I had developed from my first essay (and the first one that you’ll read here) “More Than Two Dead Flies,” my feelings from the African American Literature class I had taken a semester prior that had been the fount of that first piece, and my consternation at discovering that Ms. Norman’s autobiography was less “militant” than I had anticipated – these all contributed to how “Me and Sinclair,” the next piece that you’ll see, came about. The dialect is something that I gleaned from some of the authors I read in the African American Literature course, principally, I believe, Richard Wright and Paul Laurence Dunbar.
Finally, it should not be underestimated the extent to which Professor Hofmann’s prodding had to do with the form my work took. In addition to the “formal” topics she provided the class as eligible themes, she also gave a list of “creative” ones. These included: “Rewrite Christ’s parables for modern times,” “Rewrite Book IV of the Aeneid (or rewrite the whole Aeneid) – how the story could have ended differently, or do a modern day version of it,” and so on. Initially, I thought these were crazy topics. Now I guess I get her point.
More Than Two Dead Flies
The Student sat down to his desk a bit wearily, keenly aware of the need to begin the draft of the literature course’s first term paper. Gilgamesh: what a topic on which to write! Not complaining really, but confused, he fretted, wondering why early ideas balked and why his enthusiasm seemed so wan. The ennui seemed inexplicable, especially as he had lobbied for the World Literature course. Gilgamesh, Homer, Dante – the journeys and experiences of these principals were, he knew, lauded in the canon of Western Literature.
His mind, though, reverted insensibly to another literature course, one he had taken just the semester prior. This African American Literature course was one he had grabbed late in the registration period, desperately, when no other offerings had been available. He had noticed that albeit listed in the catalogue of every campus in the nine-school system he attended, he had only seen the course actually offered at one of the nine: the smallest and the poorest in the network. Interestingly, it was the only campus that had a majority of black students.
His experience in the course had been a jolt – and a revelation. Literature courses tended to be impersonal: formal, literary critiques of historical and dated material. Students jockeyed for positions of favoritism with the teacher. No one really has an emotional stake in what is read or what is said. In this African American Literature course, conversely, students bled with the material.
Richard Wright, describing an early experience with white youth the same age as he, after he had turned down their offer of alcohol, says:
The words were hardly out of my mouth before I felt something hard and cold smash me between the eyes. It was the empty whiskey bottle. I saw stars, and fell backwards…. The white men … stood over me. ’Nigger, ain’ yuh learned no better sense’n tha’ yet?’ asked the man who hit me. ’Ain’ yuh learned t’ say sir t’ a white man yet?’ … . Yuh’re a lucky bastard, ’cause if yuh’d said that’ t’ somebody else, yuh might’ve been a dead nigger now’ (294).
This horrid scene, albeit some eighty years intervening between that day and this, to every student in the class, stung as if it were a current event, as each one knew, to this America, deep in the bowels of its belief system, each of them was still a Nigger.
How did Gilgamesh figure in all of this? The Student was torn, pulled one way by the sheer weight of the accolades for the Gilgamesh epic, its worldwide acclaim, and the universal themes it was heralded as proclaiming. The Student didn’t want to deny this lauding. He also could see that the work expressed undying human motifs of friendship and mortality. Too, he was impressed by the resurrection of the legend from 2000 years of obscurity, lying in desuetude, rising to live again in the early 20th century. Yet, if he were honest with himself, he had to admit that he could comprehend the story but abstractly. The “wild bull of Lugalbanda,” the combat with Humbaba, and the Cedar Forest were all colorful and fun exploits, but they did not hit the Student in his soul. Other warriors, ones much less heralded and known, like Sojourner Truth, Richard Wright, and Frederick Douglass, somehow, inexplicably, insinuated themselves, loomed larger, and became more compelling.
In all the breadth of a person’s experiences, if he lives long enough, life poses that one, supreme challenge which, if met, allows him to be true to himself. Frederick Douglass, a chattel slave from birth, could purchase no sanctuary from this extreme life test. Somehow, having no gods at his side or Shamash at his back, standing alone, he was not found wanting. One hundred thirty years after Frederick Douglass, another black man, sitting in a prison cell, facing his own crisis, laid out the following observation: “Why is there dancing and singing in the slave quarters? …no slave should die a natural death…. A slave who dies of natural causes cannot balance two dead flies on the Scales of Eternity” (Cleaver 241).
Douglass, and many other nameless warriors like him, who made that unheralded, anonymous trek of courage, may be little recognized in the pantheons of literature. But, thought the Student, they may have done enough to equalize, just a bit, perhaps, the balance in that cosmic, Eternal Scale.
Cleaver, Eldridge. Soul on Ice. New York: Delta, 1968. Print.
Wright, Richard. “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow: An Autobiographical Sketch.” Black Voices: An Anthology of African-American Literature. Ed. Abraham Chapman. Penguin Books Ltd, 1968. 288-298. Print.
Me and Sinclair
THIS IS ME TALKING FIRST:
Me and Sinclair are in this literature class, you see, and we was brain-storming the other day about this paper that’s due soon. Brain-storming is what they teach you to do in Dumbbell English. It means you just throw out ideas and don’t worry about if they make sense or not. Teachers and their papers! They’re my bête noire. How’d you like that? That’s a new word that Sinclair taught me yesterday.
You see, Sinclair’s smart. You wouldn’t think so just listening to him, maybe. I mean, he don’t use big words. Actually, his talking and writing sound pretty bad. He had a tough upbringing. But he learns fast, and he thinks pretty deep. Well, we was brain-storming, like I said. He’d throw out some ideas; then I would; then he would; then I would – like that. We’re in different classes, but we both need to write a paper.
Well, it’s not like we came up with anything definite, you see. But Sinclair is older than me, so he’s seen some interesting stuff. And he has some strange takes on things. But it’s not like he’ll come right out and share his thoughts in the class. No, he won’t speak. I’ve been in class with him and I know. But he has some interesting stuff to say. I’ve asked him to speak sometimes. But he won’t.
So I cheated, see. Well, not really cheated. What I did was, during one of our brain-storming sessions, I taped Sinclair. He didn’t know I was taping him. I didn’t tell him. If I’d told him, he’d of hung up – then maybe hit me later. We was on the phone. So I was just listening and taping. I just want to show you some of the things he says and some of his ideas. But you gotta promise not to tell, okay?
THIS IS SINCLAIR TALKING:
Yuh see, we black folk see ’dings diff’ent ’dan da white folks. For instan’z, when I wuz a kid, an’ Nat Cole or Sarah Vaughn shewed up on telev’sin t’ sing or dance, da yells went thru out da house dat a Negro was on. My mom an’ my dad wud bof cum runnin’ t’ watch. It wuz funny t’ us kids. We didn’ unnerstan’. Black folk jest didn’ show up on TV ever’day lak white folks did. So it wuz special.
Yuh see, back den, dem talent’d Negroes had a ’white’ life an’ a Negro life. And dey wuzn’t da same. Da white life wuz when dey show’d up all fancy dress’d fo’ dem shows – all shiny and greas’d up – hair slick’d and fried. Dey talk’d ’white’ talk. Good Englesh. Oh, and dey smiled a lot. Den dey sang an’ danced. Da Negro life wuz whut happn’d later. Dem Negroes lived in the Nigger part of town. Dey ate der too. Dem Negro ba’bas did der hair. It wuz lak dem white folk dress’d ’em up an’ show’d ’em off – sometimes – den dey had t’ go back t’ be lak da rest of us.
T’ings is diff’ent now – so dey say. Dis is the new ‘m-u-l-t-i-r-a-c-i-a-l s-o-c-i-e-t-y.’ Ah had t’ make s’hore t’ spell it ri’te. Dey say dat wit’ Obama now, we all da same.
Yuh pro’bly askin’ wats all dis got t’ do wit dis pay’pa da teacha’ as’d us t’ ’rite. Well, we wuz studin’ Ahned. Dats not ri’te. It’s ‘A-e-n-e-i-d.’ Dats Latin. It’s dis king’s story ’bout ‘a-n-c-i-e-n-t’ t’ings lak dat. My point is dat ’ur teacha’ showed us a video on Dido. She wuz dis queen who fell in luv wif dis guy A-e-n-e-a-s. He’s da hero. Ma point is dat, on dis video, guess w’ose playin’ Dido? It wuz dis black chick ah had nevah he’rd of: J-e-s-s-y-e N-o-r-m-a-n.
Ah’m t’inkin’, wow! She has all ’dese white folks ’round hur, playin’ dere instr’ments an’ all. An’ she’s singin’ bomb! Real high tone: c-o-n-t-r-a-l-t-o ah t’ink it’s called. So ah start to Google hur an’ guess whut? Dis chick’s famous! Word, Dog! Look hur up in Wikepedia! Ah can r’memba’ whut it sa’z:
G-r-a-m-m-y w-i-n-n-i-n-g; W-a-g-n-e-r-i-a-n r-e-p-e-r-t-o-i-r;
M-e-m-b-e-r of B-r-i-t-i-s-h R-o-y-a-l A-c-a-d-e-m-y of M-u-s-i-c;
An’ it jest goes on an’ on. Ah read da whole list, an’ it wuz real long. So here’ dis black chick, born in A-u-g-u-s-t-a, G-e-o-r-g-i-a. Git dat: born in Gor’gia – in 1945. Dat’s back in da day, Dog. An’ she’s dark. Real sistah. Hair nappy. Nose thick. An’ she went t’ school in Gor’gia, thru high school. But my point is, on dis long, long, long page of Wikepedia, dis page listin’ all dis woman’s life and ’complishmants, nowhere, ’cept fo’ dis furst par’graf, do dey say ny’ting ’bout hur bein’ a Negro. In da furst par’graf dey say she’s an A-f-r-i-c-a-n A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n an’ dey put da “A-f-r-i-c-a-n” in parentheses. Dat’s r’at – dey write “(African)” American. It’s lak dey sayin’, “Yo, she’s an American only: color don’ matter.”
So ah wuz t’inkin’: is dis dis new ‘m-u-l-t-i-r-a-c-i-a-l s-o-c-i-e-t-y’ ah’v he’rd so much ’bout? Is dis black chick really “Dido,” an’ race do’ matt’r no mo’? Or is dis lak t’ose TV shows when Nat Cole and Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington we used t’ watch ’ur parents cum runnin’ t’ see? Is dis jest da white folks view of black folk?
White folk: dey do’ call ’em dat no mo’. C-a-u-s-i-a-n A-m-e-r-i-c-a-n. Maybe t’ings have chang’d. Yuh know, sometimes ah t’ink ah’m too old now man. Maybe it is a m-u-l-t-i-r-a-c-i-a-l s-o-c-i-e-t-y. Well anyway, ah bought hur book: Jessye Norman’s dat is: Stand Up Straight and Sing. Ah wanted t’ see hur side a’ t’ings – the Negro side. Ah wuz dis’purnted at furst. Hur book is ten chapt’as long an’ she do’ git t’ da Negro part ’til chapt’a five, Dog. Damn! Well, maybe it didn’ ’ffect hur – racism, dat is. Den when she did talk ‘bout it, she was real propa’:
I learned about racial discrimination and America’s system of apartheid long before my first day of school…. Jim Crow, in Augusta in the 1950s and 1960s … was written in bold black letters above the water fountains … and the public restrooms. … My parents … were deeply involved in local civil rights efforts…. But … they were sure that this nation of ours would come to its senses and recognize the humanity of us all (Norman 95).
Ah was p-e-r-p-l-e-x-e-d. (Dats a new wurd ah lurn’d yes’’day). She sounds r’mote an’ distant f’om it all. She sounds a-l-o-o-f. (Dats anuth’r wurd ah lurn’d too). She sounds lak she ain’t involved. How can dat be? Well, maybe some Negroes see it lak dat. Alla us ain’t made da same. Ah know ef ah wuz bo’n in Geo’gia den, ah might hate white folks. But maybe she diff’ent. Aft’a all, she do sing op’ra. She is dis great talent. Maby she’s “w-i-r-e-d” diff’ent, as dey say now’days. Ya know, it’s kinfusin’. Us’d t’ be, Negros lak that’d be called ‘o-r-e-o-s.’ Dey’d be so white’fied dey didn’ know whut it wuz t’ be black no mo’. Maybe dats chang’d. Maybe da white folk Jessye Norman is da same as da black folk Jessye Norman. Ah don’ know. Well, ah bett’r stop wastin’ my time and try t’ finish dis pay’pa da teacha’ want. How ya doin’ on yours, Dog?
Norman, Jessye. Stand Straight Up and Sing. Houghton Mifflin. New York. 2014. Print.
Randall says, “I came to writing obliquely. Math and science were my first academic interests (actually, there are still my interests). Some years ago, I began a process of psychoanalysis. To help assuage some of the angst and anxiety produced, I suppose, my analyst encouraged me to write about what I was experiencing and feeling. It began there. I’ve continued to write. The literature courses I’ve taken at some of the local colleges have helped much. Professor Holly Hofmann, especially, of West Los Angeles College, has encouraged me to expand my form and to seek sources for publishing some of my work. I am immensely grateful to her.”
Read Allen’s teacher’s reflection on this work
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