Take a look. I am interested in your response.

Blackness as the Second Person: An Interview with Claudia Rankine

March 19, 2016 Leave a comment

Thank you Alyssa, for pointing me to this.

Just a Blip on the Radar

Hey, LITR 490 classmates! Look what I found on my feed for WordPress!

Author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” In Claudia Rankine’s National Book Award-shortlisted Citizen: An American Lyric

Source: Blackness as the Second Person: An Interview with Claudia Rankine

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Further Reflections on Claudia Rankine’s Citizen.

March 13, 2016 Leave a comment

As one of the organizers of our symposium on Race and Racism I was terribly distracted by some technological snafus early on. So it’s marvelous to read Chris’s comments on the opening panel.


I had the pleasure of attending a few round tables of academics discussing Caudia Rankine’s Citizen, as well as the pertaining topics of the book. The presentations not only focused on Citizen, but things Citizen was written about. Some of the presentors even made no mention of the book, and yet were just as connected to it as the presentors that did. If there is one thing one could’ve taken from the event, it’s that Citizen isn’t just about these concepts that exist, but it is about what we inherit and what we are born into.

One of the first presentors touched on the topic of one of my previous blogs; the title of Claudia Rankine’s book of poetic prose. Citizen refers to the things that come along with citizenship. Being an American citizen doesn’t just mean that one has the rights and priveledges that come with citizenship…

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The Beauty in Pain and Anger

February 22, 2016 Leave a comment

One of my student’s response to Rankine’s Citizen. It gives me so much to think about–and learn!


“You can write me down in history with hateful,

twisted lies, you can tread me in this very dirt,

but still, like dust, I’ll rise,”

-Maya Angelou

I live and breathe with the hopes that I’ll be accepted as I am. I spend a lot of my time internalizing incidents or asking myself “How might I react in any situation? How would I feel? And would their be any justification for my actions if they were not appropriate? Sometimes I do not have an answer, but on a particular day an African-American professor turned to me from her desk chair, in her office, with the sun glinting off her long-grass tapestry and said “You’re like me. You’re angry.” I listened and swallowed her casual reference to my character. I was not sure what she meant, but part of me did not agree Growthwith her and did not believe her. I…

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reading the visual

February 13, 2016 Leave a comment

We had a great class discussion about this piece of installation art by Renee Green. One of my students directed us to the following website: http://www.fabricworkshopandmuseum.org/Artists/ArtistDetail.aspx?ArtistId=d73e052f-8aca-4d44-b7e7-b6386058e8f0# on which Green explains how she altered the fabric and introduced jarring scenes of antebellum America and Colonial Europe. She said that “the aim of her work is to ‘help people think about themselves in relation to different histories and alternative ways of seeing.’”


Today as a way to continue class discussion of Citizenship (as interrogated in Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric and Homi Bhabha’s The Locations of Culture), I want to begin with the following piece of visual art (is it a life installation?) by African-American artist Renee Green.  What do you see?

Renee Green visual art work

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“Friends”–reading Rankine’s Citizen

January 30, 2016 Leave a comment

This semester, in the senior seminar I am teaching, we are reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric . Rankine will visit our campus in April–she will give a poetry reading and participate in the JNT Dialogue with Homi Bhabha.  It’s an incredible opportunity to read her work–and Homi Bhabha’s–with students in preparation of actually meeting both Rankine and Bhabha.

Reading Citizen, I found myself very drawn to section III that I have informally entitled “friends”: before even reading the first page of this section, I am arrested by the photograph of five black teenagers sitting in a row in what looks like a school uniform, red shirts with an R printed on them.  It’s the expression on the faces and the posture of the bodies that moves me. I sense both questioning and a strange resignation in the facial expressions.  Where and why are they sitting like that, I wonder? What are they waiting for or anticipating? Judgment? Appraisal? Praise? Affection?

Black Teenagers in school Uniform

In this section Rankine recalls everyday encounters with people, white people, that leave “you” spinning.  In some a “friend” is present and it’s the friend’s response or lack of response to what she witnessed that reverberated with me, leaving me with the question: what would I have done, what would I do?  For instance, on page 54, the man at the cash register “wants to know if you think your card will work.” He didn’t ask your friend who just paid the same question. Indeed, the friend,

as she picks up her bag, … looks to see what you will say. She says nothing.  You want her to say something–both as witness and as a friend. She is not you; her silence says so. Because you are watching all this take place even as you participate in it, you say nothing as well.

I tend to react to slights–to my own person and to those committed against others in my presence–with a delay.  Like the narrator, I often watch what’s happening while participating in it and it is only later, when I replay what happened in my mind that I come to feel what I feel I ought to have felt right then and there, and that I imagine how I could have and should have responded.  But something else is going on in the episode above.  The narrator suggests that the friend’s silence tells her “she is not you.”  And since she is not you, she cannot, or will not, or, perhaps in her mind, should not step in on behalf of “you.”

Reading this episode I imagine that “you” is black and “my friend” is white, or not black.  But what real evidence do I have? Well, there is the question by the man doubting “your” ability to pay; and there is the sudden gulf opening up between the friends by that unequal treatment, a gulf that positions one as unequivocally on the right side, and the other, “you,” on the to be questioned, somehow marked, side. (it’s that “marked” look that I sense on the face of the black teenagers in the phto; and the question: “why”? Suddenly the “R” on their uniforms seems a little ominous).

So how could or should the friend have responded–as “witness and as a friend”?

The Price of Art in Pamuk’s My Name is Red

March 15, 2015 Leave a comment

surname2Husrev and Shirin

Reading the entire novel, I’ve been struck by a particular theme, which I’ve begun to mark in the text as “the price of art,” specifically the exorbitant sacrifice miniaturists are willing to bring in pursuit of excellence in drawing and coloring. The novel abounds with descriptions of regular beatings and other kinds of physical punishment as part of their arduous apprenticeship, begun when they are mere boys. It seems that such apprenticeship is like a religious service and devotion; children (all of them male, of course) are dedicated to a workshop (it seems that the boys had little say in the matter) where they spend all day being instructed in the art of drawing and coloring, head bent over the tables, until in adulthood they are mangled into the crooked pose of the professional miniaturist and, as a sign of their true dedication to the art, become blind.  Butterfly, one of the miniaturists in the novel (all of them are named according to the whim of their master miniaturist), attributes his mastery of the art to the beatings he received and admits, gleefully, it seems, that because of his own experience, he beats his apprentices “without a guilty conscience….even a beating given without just cause, if it doesn’t break the spirit of the apprentice, will ultimately benefit him” (363).  Nowadays, of course, such treatment would be castigated as physical abuse.  Add to that sexual abuse!  The workshops appear to have been hotbeds of homosexuality; the young, pretty apprentices were frequently the object of their master’s desire and sexual ventures in ways reminiscent of ancient Greek society where the relationship between teacher and student frequently veered into accepted homoerotic contact which did not, for most of the men and boys involved, conflict with heterosexuality or the accepted institutions of heterosexuality, in particular marriage.  And there was love.  Indeed the love between master and apprentice appears to have been fed by a “submissiveness verging on servility”  (311).  Master Osman, surrounded by beautiful books and illustrations in the Sultan’s treasury is filled of a sudden with an “agony…a melancholy and regret” for

the belittled, tormented, pretty, moon-faced, gazelle-eyed, sapling-thin painters–battered by masters–who suffered for their art, yet remained full of excitement and hope, enjoying the affection that developed between them and their masters and their shared love of painting, before succumbing to anonymity and blindness after long years of toil. (315)

How to account for such self-destructive devotion in the pursuit of artistic excellence? I began to think of the workshops in terms of patriarchal institutions all the harsher, perhaps, because the life of a miniaturist had little of the masculine valor of a soldier (or other more typical male professions), but like these enforced submission to a superior, cruelly enforced, male authority.

Women seem to be exempt from that kind of service and display no longing for it either.  Shekure and Esther are supremely practical in all their dealings with others, and particular with men.  I do not sense that either one of them is motivated by service to an ideal–an ideal of womanhood or motherhood, for instance.  It’s not that ideals don’t count–for instance, Shekure insists on a wedding procession despite its dangers–but Shekure wields such ideals with expert pragmatism.  Her one true and entire devotion is to her two sons, whom she treats with tempestuous affection and impatience.  Even when she and Black finally make love–the kind that Black had longed for–she is delighted “not with the object in [her] mouth…the entire world throbbing between my lips, [… but] the happy twittering of my sons cursing and roughousing with each other in the couryard” (408).

I could not help but think that Shekure was the voice of reason in this novel; of course, she herself calls it “illogic,” but in a world where the conduct of miniaturists is considered logical, such illogic needs be praised.  Such “illogic” pales, however, in a novel given over, almost in its entirety, to a discussion of art and of the people who committed their lives to perfecting it.  What are we, as readers, supposed to think?
So, mulling over the novel’s attitude toward its central subject, I had to think of something my mother once said to me: Men need toys, women have children.  The male toys she had in mind were sports, gambling or stock market investing, cars–activities that give you a thrill.  Women, by contrast, have children to keep them preocccupied, to satisfy their need for tenderness, for play, and to give them a sense of their role, or significance, beyond their own lives.  Women are not as afraid of death, my mother thinks, because they live through their children; men are more afraid because they live for themselves–or, I would add here, for larger, more abstract, ideals: the family, the fatherland, the Detroit Tigers, the stock market. Now, I am quite aware of how reductive and essentializing these remarks are–and perhaps, how wise.

After all, Sigmund Freud’s theories of sexuality lend quite a bit of credence to my mother’s remarks.  According to Freud, men create culture (and women babies), because an essential aspect of male sexual development is sublimation: under threat of castration by his father, the little boy accepts his defeat (i.e., he relinquishes his wish to take his father’s place as lover of his mother) and sublimates his libido, redirecting it into the creation of art.  Freud argued that the Oedipus complex, based on the sexual taboo forbidding sons to have sexual relations with their mother, is the bedrock of civilization, and explains why men will devote their entire lives to the arduous pursuit of excellence (particularly in the arts), most often in all-male realms or institutions.  That the Persian miniaturists thought of their art in highly sexual ways emerges several times throughout the novel. Indeed, Shekure wonders in the last chapter

why Persian poets, who for centuries had likened that male tool to a reed pen, also compared the mouths of us women to inkwells, or what lay behind such comparisons whose origins had been forgotten through rote repetition–was it the smallness of the mouth? the arcane silence of the inkwell? Was it that God Himself was an illuminator? (408)

It seems to me a stroke of brilliance that Pamuk invented the voice of Shekure, and that she, in fact, has the last word in the novel–like Molly in Joyce’s Ulysses.  I still don’t know what to think about the art of miniature: does its excellence justify the sacrifices exacted on its behalf? Perhaps that is one thing Pamuk implies.  But does the novel also suggest–indeed expose–the psychological damage, the tolls such service takes? Yes, absolutely. In addition, so much of the art produced under such arduous circumstances ends up enshrined in a dark, dusty, and cold cellar, seen and appreciated only by a select few.

The only people half-way sane, in the novel, it seems to me, are the women. And yet, even though Shekure has the last word, we are made to understand that she told them to Orhan “in the hopes that he might pen this story.”




My Journey into/with Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red

February 21, 2015 Leave a comment

Today I decided to keep a reading journal for my responses and thoughts about Pamuk’s novel, which I am reading with my senior seminar students. In addition, each of us is supposed to create a reading guide for the novel–or at least part of that guide.  Since I am already looking up all the locations and names mentioned in the novel, I might as well put together a glossary.

But I also read the wonderful introduction to Creative Criticism: An Anthology and Guide (edited by Stephen Benson and Clare Connors) today, and this gave me the idea to do something I’ve done (and asked students to do) in previous courses: keep a reading journal in which I pay attention to the nuances, vagaries of my encounter with the novel–including the thoughts I bring to it, my distracted excursions, my sometimes sluggish brain, which wants to be entertained or simply, since this is the beginning of our winter break, not think the way I want it to.  The whole point of Creative Criticism is to get us out of the rut of the assigned or habitual essay on literature:

“Write an essay on any two of the set texts you have read,” urges our rubric.  This is surely at the heart of all criticism: the marking in writing of our reading or looking or listening; the making of a relation between a word and an act of writing.  Reading and writing, attending and responding.  It sounds so simple. (3)

Of course, it’s not that simple, particularly when we have to put ourselves into the straight jacket of disciplinary, institutional requirements.  Creative Criticism seeks to recreate our encounter with a literary work–the passions, questions, and varied responses of that encounter.  In short, as the editors explain, creative criticism “seeks to do justice to what can happen–does happen; will happen; might or might not happen–when we are with an artwork” (5).

Since I want to attempt a piece of creative criticism on My Name Is Red (and since I am asking students to do the same), I am going to keep a reading journal. How exactly I will keep it, I am not sure yet, although it’s worthwhile to think about that.  In the past, I have used a two-column format: in the column on the left, I jotted down observations, questions, and quotations (with page numbers); I used the right-hand column to comment on these observations, questions, quotations in light of further chapters from the novel.

This time around, I am keeping a daily reading journal. I will underline and comment in the margin, and, after every chapter, or every couple of chapters, I will write down my thoughts and responses. I might insert additional pages and illustrations as I go along; I might begin to organize my journal according to the narrators or topics I encounter; I will see.  Here’s my first entry:

photo 3