Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Latino Action Network Says NO to "Opportunity Scholarship Act"

With Christian Estevez, Executive V-P and Chair of Education Committee of LAN
Please read this press release from the Latino Action Network, which includes its policy statement on the "Opportunity Scholarship Act." It is important that we all remain aware of the continuing efforts toward corporatization of our public school system. Yes, the system certainly needs improvement, especially in terms of providing an adequate education for children of color (who, in the main, live in poor districts), but this scheme simply seems to divert funds in a way that benefits corporate interests and not the children. Labor leader Christian Estevez, who serves as the Executive Vice-President and Education Committee Chair of the Latino Action Network, also provides some additional thoughts on this legislation. The press release is reproduced in its entirety below:
Latino Action Network Announces Opposition to Opportunity Scholarship Act

For Immediate Release: December 5, 2011
Christian Estevez, Chair, Education Committee – 973-418-7012
Daniel Santo Pietro, Chair, Public Policy Committee – 732-496-9628

The Latino Action Network [LAN] today announced its opposition to the Opportunity Scholarship Act because it would drain money away from public education and give it to corporate interests so it could be doled out to private schools. “The Opportunity Scholarship Act is a big gimmick that benefits corporate interests that would do nothing to help poor children stuck in failing school districts,” said Christian Estevez, Executive Vice President of the Latino Action Network and Chair of the Education Committee. “Not one penny of corporate money would fund the scholarships established by this misguided legislation. The state would take money from our public schools and hand it to the corporations, who would then claim corporate philanthropy with our tax dollars.”

Estevez concluded: “This is an educational gimmick of the worst sort. This legislation does nothing to address the core issues of housing and educational segregation. We pledge to work with legislators to address the real issues that hurt so many children of low and moderate-income families.” Below is the official policy statement of the Latino Action Network with regards to the Opportunity Scholarship Act:

The Latino Action Network opposes the publicly funded voucher bill known as the ‘Opportunity Scholarship Act’.  This voucher law would provide corporations a 100% tax credit for contributions made to a state run voucher program, which would then distribute the funds.  This legislation would divert from $360 million to over $1 billion in tax dollars away from the public education system to private and religious schools.

The Opportunity Scholarship Act, as written, diverts tax dollars already owed to the state of New Jersey without requiring any additional contribution from corporations.  Participating corporations will be given bragging rights for providing ‘scholarships’ without making any sacrifice on their part.

The Latino Action Network believes that it is fiscally irresponsible to divert up to one billion dollars from struggling schools in order to pay for a voucher program that has failed to improve the academic achievement of students using them in other states.  Furthermore, providing vouchers to a small group of students does nothing to address the underlying conditions that cause schools to struggle in the first place.  The vast majority of students in communities with high concentrations of poverty would still be trapped in struggling schools. 
There is clear agreement from both sides of this debate that the vast majority of poor children of color in New Jersey are confined to the state’s lowest performing schools based solely on the zip code in which they reside.  The members of the Latino Action Network believe that we must do everything we can to end the practice of educational and housing segregation in our state.  In the meantime, we must provide immediate relief to as many students as we can.  The Opportunity Scholarship Act does not provide that relief.

Private and religious schools have no requirement to prove that public money spent in their institutions will be used to improve students' academic experiences or achievements.  These schools are not held to the same level of standards or accountability as public schools.  At a time when our schools need more efficiency and effectiveness, this legislation will lead to less accountability. It is incongruous for Gov. Christie to both say that schools should be measured based on results and to push the Opportunity Scholarship Act which has neither proven effective in increasing results nor requires better results.

There are many ways the state can increase access to excellent public schools for children who live in high poverty areas.  These options include the expansion of models like magnet schools, charter schools, and the Interdistrict School Choice Program which enables all students to attend a public school outside their district of residence without any additional cost to their parents or to taxpayers.

The Latino Action Network stands willing and ready to work with lawmakers to develop a comprehensive plan that improves the public education system for the benefit of all New Jersey. We believe that New Jersey should strive to provide the comprehensive and equitable education which our state constitution requires and all of our children deserve.

Monday, November 7, 2011

November is Native American Heritage Month

From the series, "Indian Photographing Tourist Photographing Indian," Zig Jackson
November is Native American Heritage Month. The Library of Congress (in concert with the National Archives, the NEH, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Smithsonian Institution, and other partners) has a comprehensive website devoted to the observance. Here is the main link, Native American Heritage Month 2011, with links to a number of other sites, as well as to historic newspapers,documents, and other ephemera.

Indian Chieftain, September 29, 1882
One of the newspapers, The Indian Chieftain, published in Vinita, Indian Territory (which later became the state of Oklahoma) was in circulation from 1882-1902 (for some of those years as a daily), billing itself as "Devoted to the interests of the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Seminoles, Creeks, and all other Indians of the Indian Territory." The other paper, The Indian Advocate, published by the Benedictine Fathers of Sacred Heart Mission in Oklahoma from ca. early 1890s through 1910, was a Catholic missionary paper. Editions of the papers are available for viewing online through links on the main site.

I encourage you to visit the site/s and to think about Native American history, art, culture, politics, and economic and social progress.
All best,


Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Celebrate National Coming Out Day!

Today is National Coming Out Day, an international observance held annually on October 11. As an advisor to the Gay/Straight Alliance at the college where I teach, I will be celebrating with my LGBT students, colleagues, and friends. 

Click on this link for the Human Rights Campaign's National Coming Out Day page, and show your support and pride! 

All best,


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Banned Books Week, Sept 24-Oct 1: Read a Banned Book Today

Dear friends, fellow writers, and upholders of intellectual freedom,

Did you know that in some schools and libraries, books such as Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn have been challenged or banned?  

This week marks Banned Books Week, sponsored annually by the American Library Association. Several years ago, when I served on the Plainfield Cultural and Heritage Commission, we held a couple of community "read-ins" at the Plainfield Public Library to observe this important week of intellectual freedom by having Plainfield residents (adults and children) read passages from books that, for numerous reasons, had been banned in schools and libraries around the country. 

Our special guest in 2005 was renowned poet and scholar Cheryl Clarke, (link) who read aloud the love scene between Celie and Shug in Alice Walker's Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning yet much-banned The Color Purple, along with selections from one of her own highly-regarded books of poetry. The following year, we focused on Latin American authors as part of Hispanic Heritage Week, as they overlapped. Others who read at these events were Plainfield residents Herb Green (reading from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), Alice Logie (reading from Dr. Seuss's The Lorax), Julie Jerome (reading from Heather Has Two Mommies) and a couple dozen other folks. 

It was gratifying to know that all the books we used for the read-in were provided to us from our own library. Below are challenged classics, some of which I teach in my literature classes:

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
Ulysses, by James Joyce
Beloved, by Toni Morrison
1984, by George Orwell
 Lolita, by Vladmir Nabokov
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
Native Son, by Richard Wright

Click on this link to see the Top Ten books that were banned in 2010:

The dangers of book-banning are well-known in our country--below is a link to the ALA site, where you can find a comprehensive list of the most-banned books, along with more information about the events for the week:

All best,


Thursday, September 15, 2011

September 15, 1963


Ballad of Birmingham

(On the bombing of a church in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963)
Clockwise from top left: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, 
Denise McNair, and Addie Mae Collins
Mother dear, may I go downtown
Instead of out to play,
And march the streets of Birmingham
In a Freedom March today?"

"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For the dogs are fierce and wild,
And clubs and hoses, guns and jails
Aren't good for a little child."

"But, mother, I won't be alone.
Other children will go with me,
And march the streets of Birmingham
To make our country free."

"No, baby, no, you may not go,
For I fear those guns will fire.
But you may go to church instead
And sing in the children's choir."

She has combed and brushed her night-dark hair,
And bathed rose petal sweet,
And drawn white gloves on her small brown hands,
And white shoes on her feet.

The mother smiled to know that her child
Was in the sacred place,
But that smile was the last smile
To come upon her face.

For when she heard the explosion,
Her eyes grew wet and wild.
She raced through the streets of Birmingham
Calling for her child.

She clawed through bits of glass and brick,
Then lifted out a shoe.
"O, here's the shoe my baby wore,
But, baby, where are you?"
                           --Dudley Randall, 1969 

This link will take you to a site which provides more information about the historical events which inspired the poem: The Ballad of Birmingham

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Fall Library Grounds Community Clean Up!

Saturday, September 17, 2011, 9:30 am 

Volunteers Meet on Library Steps
Gloves, rakes, bags, and water will be provided
Councilman Adrian Mapp with Vivi and Gigi at past community cleanup!
Hi, all--it's that time again! The Plainfield Public Library, our community treasure, is due for another community clean up of its exterior grounds. Those of you who could only access Internet service or use the free WIFI at the library during the past week because of the hurricane can certainly speak to how critical the library is to our city and its residents. 
As I have mentioned in the past, we, as a community, need to add to our priorities the protection and enhancement of the cultural institutions that are the life-blood of any city. Last year, one of the community service projects of the New Democrats for Plainfield Club was to assist in cleaning up the exterior grounds of the library for our children and all other library patrons. To that end, I hope you will join me, club members and all other community volunteers as we get out our brooms and bags to make the library look fabulous in anticipation of the exciting opening of the renovated Children's Library.
The Children's Library is set to open on Saturday, September 24 at 9:30 am, so it behooves us to ensure that every one of our little visitors is able to see our library at its finest--meaning spruced up, cleaned up, and dressed up!
We will gather on the library steps at 9:15 am to begin our work. If you have hedge trimmers, please bring them! We would also like to clean the weeds out of the sidewalk cracks, especially on the Park Avenue side of the library, so if this is your area of expertise, please assist us!
We will provide rakes, gloves, bags, water, and camaraderie. Hope to see you there! 
All best,

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Haiku for Gabby: On the Closing of Muhlenberg

What hope is there if/
Apathy is the new black/
Who will speak for her?

Gabby protested while politicians stayed home. (Photo credit: Dan Damon)

When I was a kid, I remember learning to write haiku at school as a way of learning to be concise in my thoughts. More recently, the work of my friend Stafford (who writes brilliant haiku) has inspired me to express myself in this poetic form. 

All best,




Saturday, August 6, 2011

Phrenology: The Law of the Land in Plainfield

While checking out the Plainfield Municipal Code—Chapter 10, Morals and Conduct—I was surprised to discover that Plainfield had a law on the books concerning  phrenology.*
Sec. 10:7-12.  Fortunetellers, soothsayers, palmists and phrenology.13
 13State law reference: As to fortunetellers, See N.J.S.A. 2A:170-7.
     (a)     No person shall advertise himself or herself as a clairvoyant, soothsayer, seer, physiognomist, palmist, fortuneteller, spiritualist, spirit medium, or phrenologist or charge or receive any fee, reward, gratuity or anything of value from any person as such clairvoyant, soothsayer, seer, physiognomist, palmist, fortuneteller, spiritualist, spirit medium or phrenologist.
    (b)     Such a person shall be considered a disorderly person under the statutes of the State of New Jersey.
(R.O. 1957, 10:4-4(b))

Phrenology dealt with skull measurements and involved feeling the skull to help determine one’s character traits and tendencies. Phrenology, now regarded as a pseudo-science, was very popular in the 19th century, and especially so during the antebellum era in America. It also captured the literary imagination of many Victorian-era British authors as well as 19th Century American writers such as Melville, Whitman, Twain. Some explored it with a degree of seriousness, while others (especially Mark Twain) found it ripe for ridicule and parody. 

Phrenology also bears some relation to the other pseudo-scientific racial theories that gained force in the 19th century and which still resonate in the form of eugenics and other 20th and 21st Century racialized speculations. *The statute prohibiting phrenologists (as well as soothsayers, clairoyants, seers, spirit mediums, et al) was repealed by the state back in 1979. Here is a link to the Wikipedia entry on Phrenology, which offers a comprehensive view, along with good links to primary source material. Enjoy!

All best,



Tuesday, August 2, 2011

James Baldwin, American Intellectual Giant

James Baldwin, Aug 2,1924 - Dec 1,1987
“Most of us are about as eager to be changed as we were to be born, and go through our changes in a similar state of shock.”

August 2nd marks the birthday of the late James Baldwin, one of the most important American intellectuals of the 20th Century. Baldwin articulated his humanity as a black gay man through a number of novels, essays, plays,  and through his activism and sheer compassion.

Many scholars and activists note the prophetic quality of much of Baldwin’s writing, which seems even more prophetic today. James Baldwin is not easy to teach, because he is searing, unrelenting, and unapologetic—those are qualities that don’t comport well with polite society. That is why I love him so much—he doesn’t sugarcoat American truths and realities.

My parents read Baldwin—The Fire Next Time, Another Country, Giovanni’s Room, etc., and I remember him as a fascinating presence (those huge eyes) from my earliest television memories on talk shows that focused on the Civil Rights movement during the Johnson and Nixon eras, respectively. He was what I would now call “a little guy,” in terms of his physical stature, but his charismatic presence more than made up for it. It was (and remains) difficult to take one’s eyes off him.  

So much of James Baldwin's work seems to reflect my own thoughts and feelings on a number of issues that continue to plague our society—not just issues of racial justice, but also the trend toward self-interest, greed, and meanness. What would Jimmy say about the world today, about our American society today?

In New Orleans, 1963
I think it is important to acknowledge the continued social urgency contained in Baldwin’s oeuvre, as there are those who still manage to manipulate our young people into thinking that certain types of posturing are effective stand-ins for manhood. For those who continue to mislead our young people, who continue to perpetuate tired heterosexist paradigms of black masculinity and virility—I suggest you take a look at James Baldwin, a true black man.

The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction 1948-1985 is available at the Plainfield Public Library, along with most of Baldwin’s other writings.  The excellent American Masters documentary, James Baldwin: The Price of the Ticket is available through California Newsreel.

Baldwin is ubiquitous on YouTube, so I urge everyone to learn more about his life and the legacy he has left behind by checking out some of the clips. Below is an audio clip (with stills) of Baldwin singing “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”—I chose this clip because I love this song, and hearing Baldwin sing it gives me chills.

All best,


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Colored Orphans Asylum and the New York City Draft Riots: July 13-17, 1863

From July 13-17, 1863, in the midst of the Civil War, the worst race riot in American history took place in New York City. Among other buildings, the Colored Orphans Asylum (pictured above) was burned to the ground. There are several good histories of the riot, its causes, and the immediate aftermath--I recommend In the Shadow of Slavery: African Americans in New York City, 1626-1863, by Leslie M. Harris, for its overview of the riot. I have provided a link to the book here, but there is a wealth of additional information available. The Virtual New York site, produced by CUNY, has a comprehensive discussion of the riot here. The New-York Historical Society offered an amazing look at Northern slavery with its recent (a couple of years ago) Slavery in New York exhibit, which is permanently online here

The photo at right is an interior photo of a classroom at the Colored Orphans Asylum. Also available on line is a report, formally titled Report of the Merchants Committee for the Relief of Colored People Suffering from the Late Riots in the City of New York, generated by a relief society formed to aid the African American community in the immediate aftermath of the riot--here. 

This is American history that many folks are not aware of--but it is important for us to know.

All best,


Thursday, June 23, 2011

LGBT Heroes: Happy Pride Month, Plainfield!

This past Monday, I introduced and read the following resolution in recognition of Pride Month on behalf of the Plainfield City Council, and I want to publicly thank our Municipal Clerk, AJ, for researching and drafting the resolution! (Cross-posted on "And My Point Is" City Council blog)

Bayard Rustin
My own life has been informed and influenced by many thinkers, both LGBT and non-LGBT--in honor of Pride Month, I am including photographs of many of those LGBT individuals--some of whom were unable to live openly as LGBT folks--we should honor them, still.


 Introduced by Councilwoman Rebecca L. Williams:

             WHEREAS, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Americans have made, and continue to make, great and lasting contributions that continue to strengthen the fabric of our great city of Plainfield and of American society at large; and
James Baldwin

WHEREAS, as long as the promise of equality for all remains unfulfilled, all Americans are negatively affected.  If we can work together to advance the principles upon which our Nation was founded, every American will benefit; and  
Paula Gunn Allen
WHEREAS, with each passing year the American people become more receptive to diversity and more open to those who are different from themselves. Our Nation is at last realizing that LGBT citizens must no longer be "strangers among friends," and that we must finally recognize these Americans for what they are: our colleagues, neighbors, daughters, sons, sisters and brothers, friends and partners, and 
Lorraine Hansberry

WHEREAS, many challenges still lie before us. As we have witnessed from recent acts of “ugly free speech” within this Plainfield Community, prejudice against those who identify as LGBT can still erupt into acts of hatred and violence; and  

Walt Whitman
WHEREAS, this June, recognizing the joys and sorrows that the gay and lesbian movement has witnessed and the work that remains to be done, we observe Gay and Lesbian Pride Month and celebrate the progress we have made in creating a community more inclusive and accepting of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and the transgendered; now, therefore, be it

Audre Lorde
            RESOLVED, that Governing Body of the City of Plainfield stands committed and united to help break down the walls of fear and prejudice and will work to build a bridge to understanding and acceptance, until gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered individuals are afforded the same rights and responsibilities as all Americans; and be it

FURTHER RESOLVED, that the Governing Body of the City of Plainfield does hereby call upon its residents, employees and elected officials to work together to promote equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity and does further encourage all to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities that celebrate our diversity and recognize LGBT Americans whose many and varied contributions have enriched our civic life in Plainfield and our national life.

As adopted by the unanimous Municipal Council of the City of Plainfield
this 20 JUNE 2011

Marlon Riggs and Essex Hemphill
 I am thankful to live in a community such as Plainfield and I will continue to sing its praises. 

All best,


P.S. Um...I think Peppermint Patty is saying...

"Happy Pride, Marcie!"


Friday, April 8, 2011

Narrating the Public Self: YouTube, Facebook, and Contemporary Feminism

Today, I chaired a panel at the 42nd Annual Northeast Modern Language Association Convention (NeMLA 2011) titled Narrating the Public Self: YouTube, Facebook, and Contemporary Feminism. I put this panel together to invite scholars to consider how, as twenty-first century modes of communication have altered, the ideological work of feminism has shifted to accommodate those changes, and how new iterations of feminist thinking and writing are affecting the discourse.

One of the other presentations, "Surfing Fourth Wave Feminism: Or, What Do You Get When You Mix an Attempted Rape, a Queen, and the Projects? A Star!", looked at the recent YouTube sensation Antoine Dodson, a black gay man who rescued his sister from a would-be rapist. This turned from a story about Dodson's bravery in thwarting the crime to an Internet phenomenon. Professor Lise Esdaile, who delivered this presentation, asked many questions about the disposable black female body--lost in the spectacle of Antoine's "performance" and the viral nature of its worldwide dissemination was the fact that a black girl from the projects was nearly raped, and the attacker is still at large.

The third presenter was Susana Galan, who is currently finishing a Master's Degree in Political Analysis from the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, and who will be starting in the Ph.D. Program in Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers. Susana's presentation, "Pan-Arab Feminism 2.0? From Transnational Advocacy to Laila's Collecting Blogging," focused on how the Internet has served to empower Arab women in personal, as well as political, ways.  

Our discussion also asked for a reconsideration of the idea of the "public" and the "social." Have new social media configurations served to make the practice of feminist advocacy more democratic? How are feminists writing the texts of their lives through their personae as negotiated through social networking sites? What are the potentialities for future engagement by the next generations of feminist scholars? How are notions of audience and of familiarity altered by "friending?" Our panel investigated how feminism and feminist critical discourse can be more broadly democratized and globally advanced through widespread public engagement on social networking sites, as well as examining the difficulties in achieving it as related to issues of race and class and gender. Is Facebook a feminist issue? My talk, "Facebook 'Likes' Feminism: The Practice of Social Engagement," took up this question, among others.

A couple of years, as I was surfing and playing on Facebook (something that I realize a lot of scholars do), I noticed that one of my friends had just “liked” feminism on Facebook. I decided that I “liked” it, too, so I clicked on a button, and went on about my business—meaning, trying to tell all my other friends that I didn’t want to play Farmville, but I would consider Mafia Wars.  But then, I kinda got curious: Hmmm, what does Gloria Steinem ‘like’? Well, in terms of books, her choices are “officially” acceptable, in terms of feminist solidarity: her favorite books include, not surprisingly: Sexual Violence Against Jewish Women During the Holocaust and At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance.

So, I began surfing all the feminists I could think of on Facebook to see what their interests were.  A couple of years ago, there wasn’t as much as there is now, since Facebook has taken over the world and altered our lexicon by creating new verbs—“to friend”—although I still say “to befriend.” So, as I considered how I could “like” everything I ever thought about in my entire life (Pepsi, The Borgias, Survivor, the New York Jets, and feminism), I started thinking more philosophically about feminism in the age of Facebook and about how we “like” things. “Liking” an ideology fascinates me—is it because it’s a facile, passive way of expressing our political views?

Malcolm Gladwell, in a New Yorker article published several months ago, titled “Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” suggested the limits of social engagement. He notes, “The world, we are told, is in the midst of a revolution. The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism. With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.” 

Gladwell critiques these overblown notions of cyber-activism, saying “Social media can’t provide what social change has always required.” He gives the example of the 1960 Woolworth’s lunch counter sit-in by 4 North Carolina A & T college students to illustrate how the sit-ins spread throughout the south without Twitter, Facebook, or the Internet at all, thus highlighting dramatically the important distinction between true activism and  social networking. The violence directed at civil rights workers and others in the movement, both physical and psychic, he suggests, cannot be underscored enough: “Activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.” Gladwell asks, “Are people who log on to their Facebook page really the best hope for us all?”                      

In reading Gladwell’s essay, I began my own investigation of the potentialities of Facebook as used by feminists. We see how progressive organizations such as MoveOn and TruthOut (organizations that I also “like”) successfully use social networking to advance specific agendas. How, though, do we properly or effectively advance an “ideology” such as feminism in and of itself? Can we? It seems it must be attached to specific outcomes so as to engender an active, rather than a passive, response. The White House uses Facebook, and certainly advertisers use it, which brings me back to the things I “like,” including feminism. What does it mean to like things? Is there a materialist proclivity being revealed that is antithetical to some of the aims of progressive feminism?

Okay, I “like” The Godfather, Pepsi, and feminism. What does it mean to like things that are diametrically and dialectically opposed to one’s most strongly held beliefs—such as The Godfather, with its misogyny and violence? How do we negotiate those contradictions? On my journey through Facebook feminism—as I perused through the open pages of some of these feminist scholars and celebrities—I saw the mundane (how’s your dog/are you still gardening, etc.) and the specific—feminist events, speaking engagements, etc. 
In looking at some of the status reports, I was thinking about how whether one can have a meaningful public discourse when only the first 5-6 lines of any comment are quickly visible without having to “see more.” How does this force one to methodically revise one’s keywords for maximum impact?

As I thought about it, I then wondered about the hierarchy of concerns of some feminists—part of the examination is to consider whether Facebook feminism’s issues of class are being addressed. Who has time to be on Facebook? The short answer is: those who have access to computers and the Internet. How do we address and negotiate these issues of class? Are we replicating the same marginalization? What is the responsibility of those who would call themselves feminist? These questions are part of a larger critical conversation that feminists should be asking with regard to access.

Finally, are there those who have “defriended” Feminism? Does it mean they no longer “Like” it?

All best,

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Stephen Crane's "The Monster" and the Limits of Sympathy

Illustration from original edition of The Monster

We are reading  Newark, New Jersey native Stephen Crane's 1898 novella, The Monster, in my English Honors class--it's the story of a black servant, Henry Johnson, who rescues the son of his employer, a white doctor, from a terrible fire. Henry is disfigured in the process and is, at first, regarded as a hero by the community. However, due to his disfigurement--he is literally without a face-- his persistent presence in the community is viewed as a disruptive element and he becomes a pariah. 

There are several ways of reading this story--as a racial allegory and/or as a Christian allegory, as an example of the "white man's burden," for example--my students will be considering a variety of perspectives. The story is quintessentially Crane in its stylistic elements, and he also engages in illustrating some of the racial stereotypes characteristically used by white writers of the turn of the century.

We are reading Adam Smith's "The Impartial Spectator" (from 1759's The Theory of Moral Sentiments) alongside The Monster as we examine the reactions of the racially segregated (black and white) town to Henry's disfigurement. Dr. Trescott's insistence on caring for him despite the social ostracism from the white community asks the reader to consider the idea of "sympathy" and whether there are natural limitations on how one may proceed conscientiously and ethically in one's life. Are there limits to sympathy? If so, what are they?

Old Doc noted Cain's question to God, "Am I my brother's keeper?" in a recent blog post, and promised to address his own interpretation of that query. I hope Doc has an opportunity to read The Monster--the limits of one's duty or conscience become the central controlling factors in Dr. Trescott's response to Henry's situation. These are, undoubtedly, issues that all doctors wrestle with at some time or another in their professional careers. Indeed, the concluding scene in the novella offers no easy closure, as it is open-ended, suggesting that the answers to ethical questions such as these are arrived at with great difficulty and, at times, remain uncertain.

I have posted links to the novella as well as to the Adam Smith text below. 

All best,


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Celebrating Black Intellectualism

"All struggles are essentially power struggles. Who will rule? Who will lead? Who will define, refine, confine, design? Who will dominate? All struggles are essentially power struggles,and most are no more intellectual than two rams knocking their heads together." --Octavia E. Butler 

Today, February 24, 2011, marks the fifth anniversary of the passing of novelist Octavia E. Butler (b. June 22, 1946). Last June, I reflected a bit on Butler's speculations about leadership (click here), but I wanted to honor the black intellectual tradition by providing links to the writings of other African Americans whose important contributions to American intellectual thought often go unrecognized in celebrations of black history.

In the coming weeks, my students and I will continue our look at how black intellectuals (radicals and moderates) advanced the critical conversation about black equality as they identified and negotiated strategies for black progress in the midst of the ongoing struggle for acknowledgment of black humanity. 

Below are links to important speeches by these major 19th century contributors to black intellectual thought--you will see certain "resonances" in some of our own 20th and 21st century rhetoric:

Frederick Douglass, "The Composite Nation" (1869)
Ferdinand Barnett, "Race Unity" (1879)
Frederick Douglass, "On Woman Suffrage" (1888)
Ida B. Wells, "This Awful Slaughter" (1909)

I hope they put you in a reflective mood. I will post more of these speeches in the coming months, but all can be found on The Black Past: An Online Reference Guide to African American History (click here).

All best,


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Frances E.W. Harper's "Undisputed Dignity"

"Only the BLACK WOMAN can say 'when and where I enter, in the quiet, undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence and without suing for special patronage, then and there, the whole Negro race enters with me.'"--Anna Julia Cooper, A Voice from the South, 1892

February 22nd marks the centennial of the death of abolitionist, feminist, poet, novelist, and Unitarian Frances E. W. Harper* (September 24, 1825-1911). My literature students and I will be celebrating the life of this great American during our Tuesday class meeting. We are using Harper, who lived across the span of the long nineteenth century, as our bridge from the antebellum era to the beginnings of 20th century black modernity. In terms of literary output, Harper was known primarily as a poet during the antebellum era, but published a number of novels (including Iola Leroy and Minnie's Sacrifice) in her later years. 

Her short story, "The Two Offers," wherein she responds, as other scholars (such as Hildegard Hoeller) have noted, to Emersonian ideas of "self-reliance" as she considers the condition of women in the 19th century, is widely regarded as the first short story published by an African American (in 1859). It is a fascinating look at the role of the artist, whose aesthetic and spiritual self-development often precludes traditional romantic notions of what constitutes happiness. I have posted links to "The Two Offers" and a few of her more well-known poems below.  Links to more of Harper's oeuvre can be found online with a simple Google search--the Plainfield Public Library also has several of her works.

In addition, we will be looking at two post-Civil War Harper speeches ("We All Bound Up Together" and "The Great Problem to be Solved") as our classroom discussion moves into the Reconstruction Era to consider how the preoccupations of African Americans moved from strategies for the abolition of slavery to strategies for becoming full participants in American society.

I hope folks will take a few minutes to look at these works by Frances E.W. Harper--I have posted excerpts from "We Are All Bound Up Together" here. Speaking at a women's rights convention one year after the end of the Civil War, Harper delivers remarks on overcoming harsh circumstances in her own life, excoriates President Andrew Johnson as an obstacle to American progress, and also takes white feminists to task for ignoring the struggles of black women in what she viewed as a serious betrayal of their common purpose. Harper also notes her protest of discriminatory treatment of blacks in public accommodations nearly one hundred years before Rosa Parks's planned act of civil disobedience helped push forward the momentum of the modern civil rights movement. 

This is an important speech--I hope that, after reading it (along with the other readings), you will agree that Frances Ellen Watkins Harper is a true exemplar of the "undisputed dignity" of African American women. Links to the other readings are below the excerpts.

Excerpts from "We All Bound Up Together" 

"We are all bound up together in one great bundle of humanity, and so¬ciety cannot trample on the weakest and feeblest of its members without receiving the curse in its own soul. You tried that in the case of the negro. You pressed him down for two centuries; and in so doing you crippled the moral strength and paralyzed the spiritual energies of the white men of the country. When the hands of the black were fettered, white men were deprived of the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. Society can¬not afford to neglect the enlightenment of any class of its members."

"This grand and glorious revolution which has commenced, will fail toreach its climax of success, until throughout the length and brea[d]th of the American Republic, the nation shall be so color-blind, as to know no man by the color of his skin or the curl of his hair. It will then have no privileged class, trampling upon outraging the unprivileged classes, but will be then one great privileged nation, whose privilege will be to produce the loftiest manhood and womanhood that humanity can attain."

"In advocating the cause of the colored man, since the Dred Scott decision, I have sometimes said I thought the nation had touched bottom. But let me tell you there is a depth of infamy lower than that. It is when the nation, standing upon the threshold of a great peril, reached out its hands to a feebler race, and asked that race to help it, and when the peril was over, said, You are good enough for soldiers, but not good enough for citizens."  


Frances E.W. Harper, "We Are All Bound Up Together" (1866)

Frances E.W. Harper, "The Great Problem to be Solved" (1875)

Short Story:

"The Two Offers" (1859)
Selected Harper poems:
*The Frances E.W. Harper Literary Society operates out of the Newark Public Library.