Monday, April 17, 2017

Jean Toomer: Cane

Born in Washington, D.C. in 1894 to Nathan Toomer and Nina Pinchback, Toomer spent his formative years oscillating between all-black and all-white schools: an experience that informed his resistance to any particular, racial background. His maternal grandfather, P.B.S. Pinchback was the first African American governor of Louisiana; however Toomer himself preferred to think of himself and his lineage, merely as American.

During his young adulthood between 1914 and 1917, Toomer attended several institutions of higher learning, in which he studied physical fitness, social science, and history, but he never attained a degree. Following his education, Toomer went on to publish short stories. But it was his experience as a Georgia school principal that would help to shape his attitudes on race, and prompt him to identify himself as an African American. His 1923 publication, Cane was heralded as one of the most important novels of the Harlem Renaissance--and of the Lost Generation: those artists and writers that included Hemingway, H.D., Gertrude Stein, and others, who had become disillusioned by the materialism and changing ideals of the modern world. To be sure, Cane is considered by many to be an early Modernist text: one that expresses the Modernist tendencies toward individualism; an acute interest in the workings of the mind and memory; and exploration of literary form. Following the popularity of his first--and ultimately only--work of fiction, Toomer disappeared into obscurity. He himself had become disillusioned by the literary world, and retreated to spiritual matters, becoming a member of the Society of Friends, and studying eastern philosophies. Toomer died in 1967 after a long period of illness.

Toomer's Women in Cane

In her essay, "In Search of Our Mother's Gardens," Alice Walker commented on the "crazy, loony saints" of Jean Toomer's groundbreaking Renaissance novel, Cane. From the too-soon ripened sexuality of Karintha, to Becky's frightening and rather pitiful specter, to Fern's laconic mystery, Toomer captured African American women at the inception of a new era of sexual freedom, yet they still bore the legacy of the unique positioning that slavery and its aftermath wrought upon them. Notions of the inherent looseness of the African American woman lingered into the twentieth century, and shadowed characters such as Karintha. The listless indifference countenanced by Fern speaks to a history of exploitation and misuse. Nevertheless, beneath the burdened frames and sad histories of these women, the author captures and enduring beauty and wisdom of these persecuted 'saints.'

Considered the first novel of the Harlem Renaissance, Jean Toomer's Cane has been considered an early form of "Modernism": a style later adopted by Richard Wright in the years following the Renaissance. Modernist writers chose to examine the workings of the mind and memory through stream-of-consciousness writing, explorations of form and experimentation through genre. The "novel" began to assume different shape and nature. Toomer's text explores the forms of poetry and short story, often with a remote and unnamed speaker describing in elliptical fashion the goings-on of the narrative as if he does so from a distance. How does Toomer's experimental style and narrative voice lend itself to your understanding and appreciation for the women he describes? Who are they? What are they like? And what does it mean that Fern conjured the strains of a Jewish cantor for her admiring narrator?

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Se Debe Ir Alli Para Conocer Alli: Cuba, 2017

During Spring Break, 2017, from March 5th until March 12th, I had the rare privilege of visiting Havana, Cuba. Through the International Studies program at Southwest Tennessee Community College and that of the University of Memphis, I accompanied my four students and a colleague to the little island in the Caribbean, where, depending where you look, time has virtually stopped. Only recently, in the last few years of Fidel Castro's reign, were educators, doctors, and politicians from the United States permitted to visit there. The island of Cuba is gradually opening itself up to commercial tourism with a wary eye.

Perhaps one of the most fascinating and memorable experiences I had on this week-long odyssey was my introduction to Santeria, Cuba's national religion. Santeria, like other syncretic religions (Obeah, Pokemania, Myal, and Vodu) synthesizes Catholic elements with those of primarily West African traditions. Also, like the other syncretic faiths we have discussed, the performance of music and the dances of Santeria convey a narrative concerning the way postcolonial culture has retained its origins in West African traditions through a Catholic guise, and attaining a means of militating against the forces of oppression.

The videos below offer insight into the colorful and lively performance of Santeria as well as an example of the nourishing processes it offers to its followers. 

Known more familiarly to us as Esu-Elegbara, or Papa Legba. As he represents the "beginning and ending of life', Elegba is at times portrayed as a spirited child; at others he is portrayed as an elderly man. Here he is portrayed as a playful child--by a woman performer (1).

Oya: Owner of the Wind: Oya is the "fiercest" of the female santos and fights alongside Chango, the "Lord of Fire and Lightening," wielding a sword in each hand. She is said to bring change--whether wanted or not--into the lives of believers.

Below, our guide, Elian, explains the order of gods, or Santeras, of Santeria that include the figures of Yemaya, Oya, Ochun, and Elegba.

The clips that follow show two santeros (Olorichas)--or priests--conducting a blessing.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) enjoyed a long and multifaceted career as essayist, critic, songwriter, poet, diplomat, attorney, educator and politician. In each of these capacities, Johnson dedicated his energies and passions toward the advancement of African Americans. Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida to parents of humble, yet noble vocations: his father worked as a headwaiter at the opulent St. James hotel; and his mother was the first female and black teacher at an elementary school in Florida. It was his mother who taught her son her love for music of the European tradition and English Literature (1). At the age of sixteen, Johnson became a student at Atlanta University. He graduated with his bachelor's degree in 1894, and later received an honorary MA from that institution. Johnson began a career in education with a teaching post at a rural, backwater Georgia school in which he taught the children of freed slaves. Later he continued at Stanton Preparatory College, eventually become its principal at the age of twenty-three. As principal, he broadened the curriculum with courses in English, Algebra, Spanish, and bookkeeping. Johnson left this post to pursue a law career, and passed the Florida Bar, becoming the first African American since Reconstruction to do so.

Perhaps one of the most striking characteristics of James Weldon Johnson's illustrious career as a member of the African American--and American intelligentsia, was the emphasis he placed on the folk.While still a young man, Johnson went to rural Georgia, where he made his first acquaintance with the children of former slaves. Gates, et al. quotes Johnson as he reflected on the experience, saying that "[i]n all my experience there has been no period so brief that has meant so much in my education for life as the three months I spent in the backwoods of Georgia...I was thrown  for the first time on my own resources and abilities. I had my first lesson in dealing with men and conditions in the outside world...It was this period that marked the beginning of my psychological change from boyhood to manhood. It was this period which marked also the beginning of my knowledge of my people as a 'race'" (qtd. in Gates 791). Such a stance would put Johnson at odds with at least one of the most outspoken cultural leaders philosophers of Africana during this period: W.E.B. Dubois.

By the turn of the last century, Johnson launched a career in activism first through publishing, and founded the newspaper The Daily American. Though the publication went bankrupt only a few years later, Johnson was undaunted. Johnson became the first African American organizer--and later, secretary--of the NAACP, and served as editor and anthologist during the Harlem Renaissance. In this latter capacity he was instrumental in undermining white publishing entities and bringing numerous African American artists and poets to national attention.

Johnson's own literary contributions during this time were generative, and today have been anthologized and studied widely. His collection, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, was published in 1922, honors the tradition set forth by the African American 'folk' preacher, and celebrates the unique poetry and art expressed through the sermon.

Respected actor and bass-baritone singer, the late William Warfield recites James Weldon Johnson's "The Creation":