Wednesday, April 27, 2011


My youngest turned five today. It makes me sentimental and sad. For her part, she opened everything, very businesslike, with a shrug and a "that's nice" or a thank you or, sweetest of all, turning to her sister, we can share this!

Then, when they were all opened, she let loose a LOUD scream--an Arrrmphh-- jumped Really High five times, coming down Hard and said, loudly "Best Birthday Ever!"

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Waiting for the Bus

This quotation from feminist geographer Doreen Massey haunts me:

Much of life for most people, even at the heart of the first world, still consists of waiting in a bus-shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Myth of Progress

A month ago, Guernica linked to a blog post from Amy Davidson at The New Yorker. Meditating on the death of nine little boys in Afghanistan, out gathering firewood, she asked us to pause, once again, over this war. “Do we know the costs, or even understand our own losses?” she asks. Reflecting on the testimony of the surviving witness, she offers an aside: “Hemad is eleven years old. (So, as it happens, is my own child.)” 

That aside touched me deeply. When terrible things happen to someone who is just my age or just my child’s age, we feel them more keenly. We can imagine more vividly how great the loss because we are intimately involved in what it is to be eleven or the mother of someone who is.

I thought about how little I’ve done to work for peace in the past year. At other times, I’ve really tried to do my part, but it’s been a long time since I have even blogged about peace, let alone tried to contact congress. I’m deleting emails from progressive groups unread and I’ve barely signed a petition in 2011. So, for the past month, I’ve been wondering what I can do to work for peace.

And I’ve been feeling pretty discouraged about the prospects.

Then, today, I listened to my 8 year old give me the plot summary of the Kit: An American Girl (1934) book from the library, explaining the Great Depression to me and I thought about how much easier it was to imagine having parents who took in boarders in 2011 than it might have been in 2008. I thought about the wars and listened to an interview with a Tunisian activist. I read about the stagnating violence in Libya and the vortex of violence in the Ivory Coast. I saw headlines about tax season and retirement and worried about my daughters’ future. After all this, I heard myself whine to myself, “I thought everything was going to get better, but it’s not better. It’s worse.

Shame on me. All those moments in class when I mock the modernists for how shattered they were when their world didn’t get better, when war turned out to be ugly and ignoble, when bringing women into the workplace proved complicated. Suddenly, I feel so like them. Middle-aged, worried about the future of my children and my students, nostalgic for past times that were really not that good, but are now colored by the knowledge that the gas crisis would abate, the Iran hostages would be released, the Berlin Wall would come down…

The Myth of Progress dies hard. I have yet to kill it.

I need to find new ways to work for peace--and, the Bob Marley fan in me rushes to add--and justice.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


I’ve got a pretty sweet Pandora station to listen to when I need to work but don’t want to. It’s based on Iron & Wine and it plays all kinds of gentle folk rock by soulful kids living in Brooklyn—a little Coldplay, lots of Sufjan Stevens, some Neko Case, moments of Phillip Glass, Penguin Cafe Orchestra. But I had an intense reaction of fascinated loathing when The Vision of a Dying World’s “Barges” came on.

We used to sing “Barges” at Camp Sealth, a Camp Fire Girls camp on Vashon Island (and less often at the Y-owned Camp Orkila) and I always found it creepy. First of all, of all the sea-going vessels that passed through Puget Sound, or any waterway, barges hold the least romance for me—and have the ugliest name. Singing “Barges, I would like to go with you / I would like to sail the ocean blue” always seemed sorry to me. I dreamed of ships, of islands, of adventures, but they never involved a barge.

Then, too, at sleepaway camp, I worked hard to guard myself against group sentiment. I was homesick at night and I knew that the counselors preyed on that generic feeling to build esprit de corps. Dreamy and bookish, I resisted anything that smacked of manufactured sentiment.

My feelings about the song are really strong. If you asked me when I was ten, I would have told you that it was really stupid, but something in it moved me deeply and I resented being moved. I still do.

Turns out that this is an old camp song and feeling about it run high from those who were campers in the 50s and 60s. (I would have been at Sealth in the mid-late 70s), as this discussion board attests. Many of those campers were burdened with the dubious origin story that it was written by a crippled, dying child who longed for escape from her hospital room. If that is not enough to secure a permanent contempt for the song and the custom of terrifying little girls away from home for a week, I don’t know what is. I was delighted to learn, decades too late, that it spawned some delicious parodies. Here is one:

Out of my tent flap, glowing in the night
You can see the leaders' cigarette light

Silently flows the whiskey from its flask

As the leaders do go for a blast

Leaders, I would like to go with you
I would like to share your whiskey too

Leaders, are there boy scouts in your bed?
Are you prepared for the night ahead?

That's one I'll remember to teach my kids should the occasion arise.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Afro-American, Afro-British Lit, 1900-1960

I’m teaching a new grad class in the fall, Afro-American, Afro-British Lit, 1900-1960. The prospect has me excited and scared. Here is the description:
Anglophone literature of the African diaspora including canonical and less-well known of the Harlem Renaissance, the pre-civil rights era, and Britain’s Windrush generation. Authors include: Toomer, Hurston, Ellison, Selvon, Marson, Baldwin.
A new federal law means we have to order our books early, so I made a too-long list and sent it in. Some of these books I’ve never read, others I have read and taught many times. Having the list made me want to share it. Maybe you can see what is missing or what can be cut. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

I can see that, in spite of the title, the years 1900-1920 are not represented! I certainly will want to do some DuBois, maybe some Washington, too, and maybe even some Marcus Garvey but, frankly, I’d prefer to include all of that within a lecture on the first night of class and get to the Harlem Renaissance quick: that’s what I love and what I am eager to share. But maybe you can persuade me of why I need a day or so on James Weldon Johnson or fellow Wellesley alumna, Angelina Grimk√©…

This list of 16 books includes Andrea Levy’s historical novel from 2004 as a kind of coda. I just found The Emigrants from George Lamming today and, though I’ve never read it, I’m hopeful: I wanted Lamming, but his In the Castle of My Skin has a Caribbean setting and I’m trying to focus on England for the Afro-British section.

Una Marson, a Jamaican poet and broadcaster, worked at the BBC in London throughout the 1930s, before the first big wave of Afro-Caribbean immigration to England, so she’s a great figure to have on the syllabus. I chose to stop at 1960 so that I could stay within my modernist ambit, include some writers from the Windrush Generation [1948 and after] and sneak Another Country onto the syllabus without covering the Civil Rights Movement proper, which is a whole other context. This choice, however, means that most of the African writers to write about London arrived in the 60s, so they’re outside my time frame.

Here they are, in chronological order, with my 3 poets stuck in more or less where they seem to fit. I am not sure if I’ll teach the class chronologically: I loved a recent class I took which paired texts and took a look at an issue in the field and I’d like to do a better job developing that approach. In any case, I think the balance is decent: 8 women, 8 men; 10 writing in America, 6 in Britain.

Have a look.
  • Jean Toomer, Cane (1923)
  • Claude McKay, Home to Harlem (1928)
  • Nella Larsen, Passing (1929)           
  • Langston Hughes, Collected Poems            
  • Jessie Redmon Fauset, Comedy: American Style (1933)
  • Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)                       
  • Una Marson, Selected Poems
  • Richard Wright, Native Son (1941)
  • Ann Petry, The Street (1946)
  • Louise Bennett, Jamaica Labrish
  • George Lamming, The Emigrants (1954)
  • Sam Selvon, The Lonely Londoners (1956)
  • Paule Marshall, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959)
  • E. R. Braithwaite, To Sir, With Love (1959)
  • James Baldwin, Another Country (1962)
  • Andrea Levy, Small Island (2004)