American author, Richard Wright, was born in Natchez, Mississippi forty-five years after the emancipation of slaves. Though slavery was technically no longer practiced, codes and laws were still set in place which limited the rights and freedoms of African-Americans. It was in this atmosphere that Wright began writing. The focus of this research in regards to Richard Wright’s story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” is analyzing the story through a Marxist lens and identifying how the characters in this story are a part of the capitalist machine in which racism, produced by colonization in the form of slavery, is an important aspect. The components of capitalism- alienated labor, commodification, colonization of consciousness, and the ideology of the rugged individual – will be examined and how those structures work together to move the character of Dave Sanders through the entire story to the very end where his decision to hop the train illustrates the inevitable failings of capitalism.

“From a Marxist perspective, because the survival of capitalism, which is a market economy, depends on consumerism, it promotes sign-exchange value as our primary mode of relating to the world around us” (Tyson, 60). Wright’s story revolves around the seventeen-year-old Dave who so desperately wants to buy a gun because he is sure owning a gun will earn him the esteem of his fellow African-Americans and his white boss, Mr. Hawkins. For Dave, the gun holds a sign-exchange value because he is under the mistaken impression it will cause the men he works with to have some respect for him. “One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy…and if he were holding his gun in his hand, nobody could run over him; they would have to respect him” (Wright, 899, 903). The gun symbolizes not only respect but power, the power that has always eluded African-Americans.

One reason for Dave’s angst and feeling of separation could be seen as a result of what Karl Marx refers to as alienated labor. Alienated labor occurs when the worker is separated from the production, the product of his production, himself, and as a result others. Richard Wright was the son of a sharecropper and so was well familiar with the practice of sharecropping and labor in general for African-Americans in the South. As History explains, many African Americans “went into debt or were forced by poverty or the threat of violence to sign unfair and exploitative sharecropping or labor contracts that left them little hope of improving their situation” (“Sharecropping”). It is from this feeling of alienation that Dave first begins to want a gun.

Commodification is perhaps one of the biggest traits of capitalism and is illustrated in the relationship between Dave and his family,  Dave and Mistah Joe. The capitalist ideology promotes the viewing of “objects or persons in terms of their exchange value or sign-exchange value” (Tyson, 60). “In a capitalist economic system, an objects value becomes impersonal. Its value is translated into a monetary “equivalent” –  the term capital means money – and determined solely in terms of its relationship to a monetary market” (Tyson, 59). Dave Sanders and his family work, along with other African-Americans, on Jim Hawkins farm for low wages. In this respect, the African Americans laborers hold a value for Mr. Hawkins that is detached and impersonal and merely relates to the cheap labor that benefits him financially. Equally, Dave can be seen as a commodity for the Sander’s family. His labor provides an income that helps support the family unit. But much like the early slaves who were beaten into submission, Dave is also beaten. “Nobody ever gave him anything. All he did was work.  They treat me like a mule, n then they beat me” (Wright, 906). Dave can also be seen commodifying his mother. Her value lies in the fact that she is the one that can give him the money for the gun. He exchanges his sweet talk and words of love in order to gain the money. And she willingly complies.

“To colonize the consciousness of subordinate people means to convince them to see their situation the way the imperialist nation wants them to see it, to convince them, for example, that they are mentally, spiritually, and culturally inferior to their conquerors…” (Tyson, 61). “Whut’s the use talkin wide m niggers in the field…Them niggers can’t understand nothing” (899).  Though Dave is speaking of his fellow Negro workers, he is also (whether he realizes it or not) speaking of himself. “He felt very confident until he saw fat Joe walk in through the rear door, then his courage began to ooze” (Wright, 899). This is another example of the feeling of inferiority that has been colonized in his, as well as other African-Americans, consciousness.

The idea of the rugged individual, and individualism in general, is one of the biggest attributes of the foundation of the American dream. This is encouraged by the competition that capitalism involves. This idea of the rugged “individual who strikes out alone in pursuit of a goal not easily achieved, a goal that often involves risk and one that most people would not readily undertake” has been romanticized throughout America’s history. One example of this rugged individual trait is when Dave goes to shoot the gun while plowing the fields. Though he doesn’t go far, he is striking out alone to achieve a goal he has been forbidden to achieve and entails risk if it is discovered. “Although it may sound like an admirable trait, Marxist thinkers consider rugged individualism an oppressive ideology because it puts self-interest above the needs – and even the survival – of other people” (Tyson, 57). In the end of the story, Dave decides he is no longer going to submit to anyone. He digs the gun back up from where he buried it, symbolically digging up the power and illusion of respect, and hops on a train. It could be conceived as a heroic feat but for the fact that has now robbed his family of the extra income and has left them with a huge debt, a debt that he created. In effect, he put his own self-interests before that of his family’s. Though the reader could interpret his actions as those that are “bucking” the capitalistic society that has oppressed him, he is actually participating in it.

Though America has been hailed as a land of freedom, wealth, and opportunity, through the story, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man,” the opposite picture is portrayed. Through the character of Dave Sanders, the reader is able to see the incredible failings of a capitalist society selling the American dream especially for a “liberated” race. Through the alienation Dave feels as a result of hard labor without reward or pride, the inevitable commodification which strips away any meaning to be found for Dave in his life or family obligations, the colonization of consciousness and the idea that the consciousness of both whites and blacks have been conditioned to believe in the superiority of one over another, thus retaining the status quo, and the idea of the rugged individual propelling Dave to take his gun, claim his “freedom” and hop the train, the darker side of capitalism is displayed along with the inevitable failings. Wright does well to explore the dark side of capitalism in “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” He explores it through the character of Dave Sanders and ultimately shows that there is no escaping the oppression that comes with such a system.

Works Cited

Bertens, Hans. Literary Theory the Basics. NY: Routledge. 2014. Print.

“Estranged Labour.”  Marx Engels Collected Works. Lawrence & Wishart. Web. 2 April 2016.

“Sharecropping.” History. A+E Networks Corp. Web. 2 April 2016.

Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today: A User Friendly Guide. NY: Routledge. 2015. Print.

—. Using Critical Theory: How to Read and Write About Literature. NY: Routledge. 2011. Print

Wright, Richard. “The Man Who Was Almost a Man.” The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Ed. Baym, Nina. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. 899-907. Print.

 

 

Sometimes I lie awake at night and stare at the ceilin. I hold my hands behind my head for myself a pillow and listen to the night sounds, thinkin I’m sure gonna buy myself one of them feather-filled pillows one day. They’re supposed to be real nice and fine. I wouldn’t much mind havin somethin fine to lay my head on.

I hear the crickets chirp and the bullfrogs croakin like grumpy old men. Kind of like Mr. Blythe down at the hardware store in town. He’s always got a real sour look on his face like he just done bit into a lemon or somethin. Heck, someone should done thrown him some salt. Then I hear little Jay breathin real soft like beside me. I like the sound of his breathin. I don’t feel so lonely. I can even hear the man in Mama’s bed snorin so loud it almost covers the sound of Mamma cryin. Almost. Heck, even the house has a little somthin to say. Floorboards creakin and complainin like they’re just so darn fed up they gonna snap under the next foot that dares step on em.

So here I am, listenin to all the sounds that only come out in the night time, kinda like lonely old ghosts, and I get to feelin lonely myself. Mamma always says a person can feel lonely but they aint never alone cause the good Lord is always with em. I just nod my head and say, “Yes Mamma.” But sometimes, lyin in the dark here at night, alone with the ghost sounds and all my thoughts just kickin around in my head, I wonder.

“The Outcasts of Poker Flat” was published in 1869 by Bret Harte. Harte, who lived in Northern California, was familiar with the mining camps of the West and he was a master of portraying the stereotypical characters of the West, from the prostitutes with “hearts of gold” to the stoic, chivalrous, and “coolly desperate” gambler. Harte was also familiar with the greed of the Western gold mining camps where people came to find their fortunes and explored the theme of morally-superior-white-vigilante justice in his writings. In fact, it was because of an article he wrote and published in The Northern Californian, “expressing outrage over the massacre in nearby Eureka of sixty Native Americans, mostly women and children, by a small gang of white vigilantes,” that Harte was fired from his job as assistant editor (351). It is this theme of religious hypocrisy that is explored in “The Outcasts of Poker Flat”, but moreover, it is the idea of redemption through the characters as well as nature that makes a lasting and meaningful impact.

The story begins in a gold mining camp in California with the protagonist, John Oakhurst, noting the change in the atmosphere, “There was a Sabbath lull in the air which, in a settlement unused to Sabbath influences, looked ominous.” This line is the first indicator that the citizens are not in reality good Christians who are living the good life, but are people who for some reason have decided to put on the cloak of Christian righteousness, which Oakhurst understands to be a dangerous thing if they are not indeed Christians. Harte gives an indication of the local landscape and local morality when he describes Oakhurst “whipping away the red dust of Poker Flat from his neat boots.” In the Bible, Jesus says, “Even the dust of your town that sticks to our feet we wipe off against you. Yet be sure of this: the Kingdom of God is near” (Luke 10:11). The color red of the Californian mining camp can be construed as symbolizing the sin of the “righteous” citizens, and Oakhurst – who actually committed no sin other than being a very good gambler- is obeying the words of Christ.

Harte further illustrates the hypocrisy of the town when he writes, “It was experiencing a spasm of virtuous reaction, quite as lawless and ungovernable as any of the acts that had provoked it. A secret committee had determined to rid the town of all improper persons.” The hypocrisy in the town’s actions resemble that of the high priest, Caiaphas, in the gospels who calls a secret and illegal meeting of the other chief priests in order to try, judge, and condemn Jesus. Harte then introduces two of the other characters, Duchess and Mother Shipton, who are being banished for their profession. They are prostitutes but it is obvious that they would not be able to sell their wares if there were no buyers. There were indeed buyers and it is those guilty buyers that are exiling the two fallen women. There is yet another correlation to scripture that shows the town is not acting the part of good Christians and are in fact hypocrites. In the New Testament, a woman is brought before Jesus. By law she is to be stoned for committing adultery. Jesus does not stone her but shows her mercy. He then says, Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).

As the group of outcasts, which also includes Uncle Billy who is likely the only legitimately guilty person, are led out of town by an armed escort, the reader catches a glimpse of Oakhurst’s kindness when he trades his horse for Duchess’s mule. Harte then begins to describe the landscape: “A wooded amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley.” Though Oakhurst cautions against delay and foreshadows the tragedy that is to come when he warns them against, “’throwing up their hand before the game was played out,’” the group decides to stop and partake in a few drinks. It is in this amphitheater, as in the amphitheaters of ancient Greece where many tragedies were performed, that the tragedy of the outcasts of Poker Flat will be played out.

When considering the religious symbology of the story as well as the natural aspect, the following passage is important: “He looked at the gloomy walls that rose a thousand feet sheer above the circling pines around him; at the sky, ominously clouded; at the valley below, already deepening into shadow.” The imagery of clouds is littered throughout scripture and is usually connected to the presence of God. In fact, during the crucifixion, for three hours the sky was dark. Christ, having been innocent, was a sacrifice for the sin of mankind. When considering the fate of the outcasts, they could be seen as having been sacrificed by the citizens of Poker Flat who were gamblers themselves as well as frequenters of prostitutes. In a natural sense, it is easy to assume the increasing danger in the outcasts’ situation knowing that the story takes place at the end of November when snow is likely to fall.

When Harte introduces Tom Simson, the Innocent of Poker Flat, and his fifteen year old fiancée, Piney Wood, the reader begins to get a glimpse at the goodness contained in the outcasts, minus Uncle Billy who steals away in the middle of the night with the mules and provisions. The reader learns that Oakhurst, after having won a significant amount of money from Tom some time ago, gives the money back and advises him to no longer gamble. This is a characteristic far from the swindler that the citizens of Poker Flat made Oakhurst out to be. Mother Shipton and the Duchess transform into something self-sacrificing and angelic: “the virgin Piney slept beside her frailer sisters as sweetly as though attended by celestial guardians.” Oakhurst, Duchess, and Mother Shipton spare Tom and Piney the anxiety and fear that would surely have overwhelmed them had they known Uncle Billy had stolen the mules with no intention of sending help: “For some occult reason, Mr. Oakhurst could not bring himself to disclose Uncle Billy’s rascality.”

Then the snow comes. Harte describes the brutality of the California Sierras to a tee: “The third day came, and the sun, looking through the white- curtained valley, saw the outcasts divide their slowly decreasing store of provisions for the morning meal. It was one of the peculiarities of that mountain climate that its rays diffused a kindly warmth over the wintry landscape, as if in regretful commiseration of the past. But it revealed drift on drift of snow piled high around the hut–a hopeless, uncharted, trackless sea of white lying below the rocky shores to which the castaways still clung.” Harte then references Poker Flat using the ironic word “pastoral.” The fact that the outcasts can see the smoke rising from the warm settlement miles away is perhaps the reason they join in the hymn that Piney and Tom are singing, not out of devotion but with defiance: “I fear that a certain defiant tone and Covenanter’s swing to its chorus, rather than any devotional quality, caused it speedily to infect the others, who at last joined in the refrain: “I’m proud to live in the service of the Lord, And I’m bound to die in His army.”

It is not much later that Mother Shipton does indeed die, having sacrificed her rations so that the young Piney would have a better chance of surviving. It is with Mother Shipton’s passing that the story takes a turn for the worse. The Innocent, Tom Simson, follows Oakhurst’s direction and heads for Poker Flat on snow shows made from a saddle while John Oakhurst decides his game is done. While Oakhurst hands in his cards with a bullet to his heart, it is the picture that Harte paints of Piney and the Duchess that brings the theme home. When Piney and the Duchess truly understand their fate is death, the Duchess asks Piney if she can pray. Piney replies, “No dear.” This refusal to pray is Harte’s separating the truly righteous, in the form of Piney, from the truly unrighteous, the citizens of Poker Flat and their new found religion who surely pray every morning and every night.

Though Nature has seemed impersonal and brutal throughout the story, it is towards the end that Harte uses it in a very personal and beautiful way: “The wind lulled as if it feared to waken them. Feathery drifts of snow, shaken from the long pine boughs, flew like white-winged birds, and settled about them as they slept. The moon through the rifted clouds looked down upon what had been the camp. But all human stain, all trace of earthly travail, was hidden beneath the spotless mantle mercifully flung from above.” Doves, or white birds, are referenced throughout scripture. They represent guilt offerings and the Holy Spirit. In many respects, the Duchess could well be seen as a guilt offering for the people of Poker Flat. And as the Holy Spirit descended upon Christ as he was baptized, the Holy Spirit descends on the two women. In this scene, the Duchess’s sins are covered by white just as it says in the Bible, “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean: wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Psalms 51:7).

In the end, the outcasts of Poker Flat are condemned to death by the citizens of Poker Flat. But it was their condemnation that ultimately brought out the goodness in them, the parts of themselves that perhaps they had forgotten about or believed no longer existed. And it was through that goodness and their ultimate deaths that they were able to be redeemed and perhaps were able to touch the citizens of Poker Flat and show them the meaning of sin and forgiveness: “And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned.”

 

 Works Cited

Harte, Bret. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Selected Stories. n. p. 17 Dec. 2012. Project Gutenberg. Web. 14 Feb. 2016.

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

 


“Landscape description was once an important element in novels not only to give meaning and shape to the story but for its strange ability to carry the reader deeply and intimately inside the fiction, to establish the fiction’s truth” (Katz, 6). I find this sentiment to be true, especially in regards to the last bit, fiction’s truth. But fiction is made up, right? Fiction is merely a creation of one’s imagination, yes? While this is true, there still must be truth in it for the reader to have trust, trust in the author and trust in the story.

“This use of landscape as a massive presence in a novel to shape and control the content, direction, plot, and the character’s psychological profiles distinguishes it from mere regionalism or local color” (Katz, 7). In Bret Harte’s, “The Outcasts of Poker Flat,” we can see how the landscape directs the plot perfectly. In the beginning we are given a visual of red dust coating the boots of gambler, John Oakhurst. It could well be interpreted that John Oakhurst is wiping away the hypocritical sin of Poker Flat, the sin represented by the color red, when he wipes his boots before being exiled by the growing “morality” of the citizens of Poker Flat. As the Norton Anthology mentions of Harte, he was known to “…ridicule religious hypocrisy” (352).

Not only does Harte describe the dusty atmosphere of California, but the magnificent mountains as well: “The spot was singularly wild and impressive. A wooded amphitheater, surrounded on three sides by precipitous cliffs of naked granite, sloped gently toward the crest of another precipice that overlooked the valley” (Harte).  But while Harte captures the beauty and majesty of the landscape, he also describes the danger: “As he stirred the dying fire, the wind, which was now blowing strongly, brought to his cheek that which caused the blood to leave it–snow!”(Harte). The mountains and the peril the California Sierra’s offers through its snow storms is pivotal for the plot.

While the dust of California’s Poker Flat begins the story, the pure white snow of California’s mountains ends it. “And when pitying fingers brushed the snow from their wan faces, you could scarcely have told from the equal peace that dwelt upon them which was she that had sinned” (Harte). While it was nature and the land which resulted in the demise of the “sinners” of Poker Flat, it was also what brought forth the best in them and eventually redeemed some of them.

Among other local color writers was Kate Chopin. The Norton Anthology explains, “Chopin, who wrote about her own time, did not concern herself with the prewar South , but her depiction of the present revealed the unhappy residues of an outdated social ideology” (551). In Chopin’s, “Desiree’s Baby,” the residue is portrayed powerfully in the relationship between Desiree and her adoring husband, Armand Aubigny, who are both respectable white folk. Armand falls madly in love with Desiree and insists on marrying her even against the words of caution that Desiree’s past was unknown:“What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?” (552).

Chopin paints a forceful and compelling scene when Desiree realizes that she is mixed. “The baby, half naked, lay asleep upon her own great mahogany bed, that was like a sumptuous throne, with its satin-lined half canopy. One of La Blanche’s little quadron boys-half naked too-stood fanning the child slowly with a fan of peacock feathers.” This contrast that Chopin makes between Desiree and her baby lying in luxury and the half-naked boy right before Desiree and the reader realizes that Desiree and her baby are both mixed is jarring. Desiree having been blinded by the purity of her love for her baby had not seen it before. Armand having been blinded by his racist inclinations had seen it and ultimately his prejudices triumphs over his “love” for Desiree and she leaves.

Zitkala-Sa, perhaps to me, is the most beautiful and lyrical of the three authors. Perhaps it is because she is a Native American that her words seem to flow so naturally. When I read her words, I am there in her story. In “The Trail Path,” the opening lines draw me in to this time, place, and people that existed long before me: “It was an autumn night on the plain. The smoke-lapels of the cone-shaped tepee flapped gently in the breeze. From the low night sky, with its myriad fire points, a large bright star peeped in at the smoke-hole of the wigwam between its fluttering lapels, down upon two Dakotas talking in the dark. The mellow stream from the star above, a maid of twenty summers, on a bed of sweetgrass, drank in with her wakeful eyes. On the opposite side of the tepee, beyond the centre fireplace, the grandmother spread her rug. Though once she had lain down, the telling of a story has aroused her to a sitting posture.” I am lying on the floor of the teepee and I am looking out through the smoke hole. I can feel the tradition of her people.

The Norton Anthology reminds us, “though often suffused with nostalgia, the best work of regionalists renders convincing details of a particular time and investigates psychological character traits from a broad perspective” (13). From the California mountains and the hypocritical newfound morality of the mining camps to the Louisans South and the ever pervasive prejudice that kills love to the beauty and intrigue of the Native American life, all three stories illustrate how using the landscape and characteristics of an area can deepen the characters, plot, and experience the reader has.

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Baym, Nina, ed. The Norton Anthology American Literature Volume C. Crawfordsville: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Harte, Bret. “The Outcasts of Poker Flat.” Selected Stories. n. p. 17 Dec. 2012. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 Feb. 2016.

Zitkala-Sa. “A Warrior’s Daughter.” American Indian Stories. n. p. 3 Dec. 2003. Project Gutenberg. Web. 8 Feb. 2016

Mahoney, Timothy, Katz, Wendy. Regionalism and the Humanities. University of Nebraska. 2008. Print.

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a thing like a bubble. There is something wonderfully magical about it, how it holds its shape, its round perfection, and yet you can see right through it.

It lingers, still.

It drifts on currents, rising, falling like a slumbering breath. It holds all of the colors in the spectrum enticing the senses, inviting the senses.

Unrequited love. Love. Unrequited. Untouchable. Unknowable. Suspended. Belief. Suspended belief. Suspended in disbelief.

I could reach out. I could. A finger. A touch. Just one. Just once. I could reach out and touch this one this once. This thing like a bubble. There is something wonderfully magical about it.

This one.

This once.

Unrequited love.

 

I am not prejudice but I do have prejudices. Language prejudice is one. I grew up a minority in a group of minorities, my neighborhood being predominantly African American with a few Vietnamese and Hispanics. While striving earnestly not to develop prejudices, in the end it is inevitable that some will arise. This is not merely and exclusively in regards to Caucasians but to all ethnicities. Growing up, it was very evident that my black classmates could not or would not speak “proper” English. I never chalked it up to them being intellectually inferior, rather deliberately and willfully disobedient and unwilling to be a part of our society. Of course, it does seem reasonable that a race who was subjugated and made to be separate from society might have cause not to assimilate completely into the society that rejected them in the first place. I’ve held the assumption of a willful rejection of society by African Americans by means of their “bad” English (and perhaps there is still some truth in it) for thirty some odd years, but recently am beginning to understand that there is a whole lot more to it. I am now willing to concede that African American Vernacular English is a legitimate form of Standard English and that “There is no causal link between speaking non-standard varieties English—which are spoken by a majority of English speakers in the world—and levels of intelligence or even levels of education” (Olstad).

As stated in Olstad’s article, every language in the world follows a set of rules and AAVE is no exception. Double negatives and g dropping (He don’t know nothin), disregarding the /s/ in the present tense third person (She sing jazz), copula absence (He a pain), the lack of using /s/ in possessive cases (Sula man), and the habitual “be” forms (She be talkin smack). Incidentally, the habitual “be” forms, which imply a continuation, are found in other languages. Two rules I am not as familiar with are the plural absence of /s/ (six bird in that tree) and the remote time been (I been thrown that ax all day). So how can we possibly conceive of AAVE having legitimacy and that speaking AAVE does not correlate to stupidity? There is no finer way than to acquaint oneself with the writing of Maya Angelou.

Thirty six books under her belt, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, three grammys, among her various honorary doctorates and collection of poetry (among so many other amazing accomplishments), Maya Angelou is the epitome of an African American who grew up speaking AAVE as well as being able to speak the standard version. It is through her writing that one can clearly see that AAVE is not merely black people speaking white English bad, but rather a variation of English that grew organically out of circumstances (namely Africans speaking various African languages and being forced to live generation after generation as slaves among white English speakers).

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, the rules that govern AAVE can be seen in Angelou’s writing. The use of the double negative and the contraction ain’t (which is not merely confined to AAVE but definitely associated with it) in the following passage is an illustration of AVVE in action.

“Whew, I was glad to get out of there. The calaboose, and the prisoners screaming they didn’t want no dead nigger in there with them. That he’d stink up the place. They called the white man ‘Boss.’ They said, ‘Boss, surely we ain’t done nothing bad enough for you to put another nigger in here with us, and a dead one at that” (198).

In the following paragraph of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Angelou writes beautifully and clearly (aside from the comma splice) in Standard English. She uses the copula was to link the subject and predicate and also uses the plural /s/.

“Bailey was talking so fast he forgot to stutter, he forgot to scratch his head and clean his fingernails with his teeth. He was away in a mystery, locked in the enigma that young Southern Black boys start to try to unravel, from seven years old to death” (198).

It cannot be mistaken that Maya Angelou clearly has the comprehension of Standard English as well as the ability to communicate via Standard English. She is articulate and holds a very prestigious position in our society, serving on two Presidential committees, all the while possessing at her disposal the ability to speak and write in the African American vernacular. While it would be easy and convenient to dismiss AVVE as “bad, black English”, it would also be unjustified, arrogant, and disrespectful. As Adam J. Banks writes in his book, Digital Griots: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age, “…anyone still attempting to argue that Ebonics is a problem…that it is somehow connected to a lack of intelligence or lack of desire to achieve is about as useful as a Betamax video cassette player, and it’s time for those folks to be retired, be they teachers, administrators, or community leaders…”(2011). Our country is a compilation of various vernaculars that add to the flavor and aroma of our country which is built on diversity. It is time to recognize AAVE as one more spice among many.

Works Cited

Olstad, John. “Did a Key Witness in Trayvon Martin’s Case Talk Funny, or Could We All Use Some Education? –.” Fully Sic Did a Key Witness in Trayvon Martins Case Talk Funny or Could We All Use Some Education Comments. Private Media Party LTD, 22 July 2013. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

Escalas, Jennifer. “African American Vernacular English in Advertising: A Sociolinguistic Study.” By Jennifer Edson Escalas. Association for Consumer Research, 1994. Web. 28 Oct. 2015.

“01.” Caged Bird Legacy. Web. 1 Nov. 2015.

Banks, Adam. Digital Groits: African American Rhetoric in a Multimedia Age. Sounther Illinois UP, 2011. 208. Print.

 

 

Mamma and Nanny was always working. Nanny always said a man’s either gonna fish or cut bait but you best be believin you gonna be stuck with the fish bones if you the one cuttin and not catchin. Mamma? Well she had a job down at the Berkshire Woolen Company. Mamma made real fine skirts for the ladies. They went for about two thirty five in Parkins. She’d get up real early in the morning and made the sun seem pretty darned lazy if you ask me. Mamma would walk four miles to get down to the mill which wasn’t so bad I reckon if the weather went with her. But if the weather wasn’t with Mamma, that four mile walk sure could be awful hard. But you wasn’t never gonna hear Mamma complaining.

Nanny was always washing and cleaning and cooking. She did some seamstressin for some of the ladies in town too. And when she wasn’t doing that she was takin care of the animals. We had chickens and pigs and an old milking cow named Maisy. Nanny sure did love that ol’ thing. When she got to milking Maisy she’d start carrying on a conversation like they was best friends. Every now and again Maisy would start in mooing like she was talking back. It was pretty darned funny.

Then there was ol’ Earl, the one eared llama. Nobody knew for sure how Earl done lost his ear never mind how a llama came to be in Kanawa County in the first place. Nanny said Earl probably done lost his ear on account of them foxes or maybe some barbed wire. But we didn’t judge Earl none. Besides, Daddy was the one who done brought Earl home. He went out to throw horse shoes with Jace, and Harlan, and Roscoe’s Daddy’s one night. They was real good friends only Mamma didn’t think much of them. She said an apple don’t fall far from the tree and those boys was rotten to the core. I never even told her what they did to Mr. Jitters down at the creek. Mamma just knew. Kind of like you don’t have to see a dung heap to know ones near. All you have to do is to wait for the breeze to be blowing just right.

But Nanny spoke up for Daddy. Nanny was always speaking up for daddy. She said every dog has a few fleas. Mamma come right back at Nanny though and said that might be well and good but if you going to lay down with the dogs, you’re bound to get up with more fleas then you started with. I guess mamma didn’t mind Daddy’s fleas but she sure won’t going to tolerate nobody else’s.  Mamma said her peace and just left it at that. I reckon she knew Daddy needed to get away from all the women in the house even if it was with a bunch of halfwits. That’s what mamma called them. Halfwits. Anyhow, daddy went out that night alone and came back the next morning with a moonshine hangover and a one eared llama.

We all had special affection for Earl. I guess its cause Daddy died the very next week. It was a Sunday and Daddy had gone night fishing. Daddy loved night fishing. He even took me on occasions. I must have been about nine the last time Daddy took me. I remember it like it was yesterday even though it’s been a good four years come and gone. The moon was high in the sky. A big fat moon so white and round. It was so big you could see the crate marks on it.

“Mmm…Jude Bean. That moon sure looks tasty girl. I’m getting a hankering for some cheese. What ya say Jude Bean? You want to take a bite out of that there moon?”

I can still remember the way my Daddy looked that night. Like a giant. But not a scary giant like the one on the stalk Jack took an axe to. He was more like a Paul Bunyan kind of giant. He was a tall man and so darned strong. I remember the way his arms felt underneath his red checked flannel. They was hard like rocks when he picked me up and held me high over his head so I could take a bite. And his voice was just as strong but there wasn’t nothing hard in it. Even more so, there was a knowingness there. Like when you heard my Daddy talking, you just knew everything was going to be alright. And if you weren’t for sure everything was going to turn out fine, well Daddy was.

“I swear Jude, that looks like the best Swiss cheese I ever had the delight of layin my eyes on. We get us some tomato and a couple a slices of Rye and we gonna have ourselves a mighty fine sandwhich.”

I can still remember giggling and feeling my Daddy so close, his chest like a big ol’ wall. There wasn’t nothing soft at all about my Daddy’s chest but it was still the most comfortable place you could ever think to lay your head on. And that’s just what I did that night. While the bull frogs got to croaking and the cicadas and crickets kicked up a fuss, I sat in Daddy’s lap leaning back into him with my head on his chest. And we sat like that together on the bank of the Kanawa River underneath the light of that Swiss cheese moon and I listened to the sound of his voice and the stories he had to tell. Daddy always had a story to tell. I guess that’s why so many people liked my Daddy. The knowingness in his voice and all those stories. Mamma once said Daddy could talk the ear off a deaf person. But his stories sure were good.

“Tell me again how you and Mamma met.”

There was a gentle breeze blowing that night filling the air with just a bitty chill. Daddy hugged me even tighter as he started to tell me my most favorite story.

What You Pawn I Will Redeem, is a beautiful short story about a homeless Native American, Jackson Jackson, who discovers his grandmother’s regalia in a mysterious pawn shop. He is given twenty four hours to come up with the money to buy it back. During the following twenty four hours, the reader follows Jackson Jackson on his quest to regain his grandmother’s regalia and in the process reclaim his lost heritage. Two of the biggest elements of postmodern literature found in the short story are the elements of black humor and magical realism.

In the opening paragraph Jackson introduces himself, “I grew up in Spokane, moved to Seattle twenty-three years ago for college, flunked out after two semesters, worked various blue- and bluer-collar jobs, married two or three times, fathered two or three kids, and then went crazy.” His flippant introduction is humorous but also suggests something depressing. That Jackson jokes about how many times he was married and how many children he may have is an indicator of the apathy Jackson has. The reader can hardly blame him because Jackson constantly hints at the displacement, alcoholism, and violence that saturates his people and alludes to this having to do with white people.

Black humor is woven throughout the story. The scene in which Jackson is sitting beside his friend, Junior, is a great example. “I put my ear to his chest and listened for his heartbeat. He was alive, so I took off his shoes and socks and found one dollar in his left sock and fifty cents in his right sock.” On the one hand, Jackson cares enough to make sure Junior is alive while on the other hand, Jackson steals what little money is stashed in his socks of all places. Words like “sacred bar” referring to the alcoholism common in the Native American culture and the “pawnshop radar” referring to the idea that Native Americans are well acquainted with pawn shops because they need money for alcohol are humorous. The humor is not used to merely incite a giggle but to unsettle the reader. Why is this funny?

Aside from the use of black humor, the magical realism made this story very affecting. The pawnshop seemed to have mysteriously appear and it was quite an amazing coincident that Jackson’s grandmother’s regalia would have showed up after fifty years. It’s possible but highly unlikely and the serendipitous way in which Jackson receives help in his quest urges the reader on. After Jackson spends the twenty dollars the pawnshop owner gave him on “three bottles of imagination” the reader might expect the situation to go downhill. But Jackson continues to fall into more money though he loses it just as quickly. In the end he finds his way back to the pawn shop with five dollars, the same amount he began his quest with.

Along with the mysterious pawnshop, the coincidental emergence of the regalia, and the pawnshop owner seeming to grow younger, the other magical aspect of the story was the characters that disappeared abruptly. Though it is realistic for people to come and go, there was something strange about it. The Aleut cousins’ disappearance was particularly poignant. They sat on the same bench waiting for their ship to take them home but the ship never came. Towards the end of the story Jackson describes what happens, “I heard later that the Aleuts had waded into the salt water near Dock 47 and disappeared. Some Indians swore they had walked on the water and headed north. Other Indians saw the Aleuts drown. I don’t know what happened to them.”

There was a mystic beauty in the ending and an affirmation of goodness, if not in humanity, then at least in Jackson Jackson. As Jackson puts on his Grandmother’s regalia and dances amid a frozen city, he has reclaimed his heritage, even if for just one moment in time.

My name is Judith, born in the dead heat of summer, when it was too hot even for a man to spit proper. Mamma said it was so hot that summer, the Paw Paw creek ran dry and you could see little salamander bodies all dried up and burnt up mixed in with the creek stones and the Kanawa River was so low a person with the mind could walk clear across it without their knee caps getting wet. Mamma said it was so hot because the devil was fit to be tied that an angel was coming into the world.

That angel was me of course. Judith Clay Willis, but most people call me Jude. Daddy tried calling me Judy once but Mamma gave him a look fit to skin his hide. Daddy said he’d be darned if his little girl was going to have to wrestle with a name like Judith all her life. So he took to calling me Jude. Since Mamma knew good and well, once Daddy got a thought tied up in his head real tight like, there was no way on God’s green Earth of untyin it, she gave in. But mamma? Well Mamma never called me anything but Judith.

I was born in the black hills of West Virginia. They call them the black hills cause those hills are filled up with coal. Well they used to be but they ain’t filled with nothing much now except the ghost of old miners. Old except for the ones that was just kids. They used to work kids just like me and even smaller than little Jay down in them hills. My granddaddy, him being my mama’s daddy, was a coal miner and got some of the blackness in his lungs. He died when Mama was only three. He was young, but you’d never know by looking at the creases in his forehead. There was an old corner worn photograph of Granddaddy resting on the china hutch. He was wearing a pair of coal dusted coveralls and had one of them head lamps on. His forehead was creased something fierce and covered in coal dust all but for the white of his eyes and his lips so that you’d be mistaken him for a Negro if you didn’t know better. Mama said she didn’t remember much about her daddy except the way he smelled. Like sweat and sunshine all mixed up together. Sometimes I’d see Mamma just sitting and starin off, where I don’t know. Starin off and breathing in real deep and heavy, like she was smelling something, smelling a memory of her Daddy maybe. And it sounded like she was going to sigh real big. She’d breathe in, smelling that ghost smell, and I could see the softness of her chest rise up, but she never did let them sighs go. She’d keep them inside. And I’d see the softness of her chest settle back down and get a little hard. It never did seem right holding on to all them sighs. Seemed to me holding onto things like sighs and such, well, one day it’s all just going to explode. Mamma never said, but I knew she still hurt for her Daddy. Not having a Daddy does something terrible to a person. It’s like there’s a dark empty place in your heart, a hollow, where nothing takes hold. Just an empty place where all the sadness bumps around in the dark banging up against the sides of your heart. It hurts pretty terrible. I’d know cause my Daddy’s dead too. Seems like that’s what Daddy’s did around here. They died.

After Granddaddy died, it was just Mamma and Nanny. Nanny was my grandmamma, and I won’t afraid to say, at least when she wasn’t near enough to throw a pan at me, that she was meaner than a creek-tossed cat. And I know just how mean a creek-tossed cat is cause one day after school Harlan and Jace took Ms. Jones cat, his name’s Mr. Jitters and he was the meanest ole cat in the state of West Virginia, and swung him round by the tail like he was some kind of lasso or something, and sailed that poor thing clear to the middle of the creek. You aint never seen anything as sad I bet. I ran into the creek, shoes and all, to fetch that poor wailing cat out and got scratches clear up my arms for my troubles. Not only that, but when I came out the creek and let Mr. Jitters go, Jace pushed me down to the ground and I landed on one of them sharp creek rocks and got a tear in my dress not to mention a right nice pain. And as if it couldn’t get much worse, when I walked through the door for supper that night Nanny skinned my hide with her switch as “payment for her seamstress services” she said. I didn’t much care though. I know I’d done the right thing. Every time after that I’d see Mr. Jitters, he’d come strolling up to my legs, all prissy like, even for an old country cat like him, and rub himself up against my legs. Course he spit and hiss right after, but I know he was just keeping up appearances. You know, reputation and all.

Sometimes I wonder. When the sadness gets to bumping and banging around in that hollow place in my heart, I get to wondering about Nanny and Mamma. I wonder if Nanny would have been so darned mean if Granddaddy hadn’t gotten the black lung and had stayed around. Shoot, maybe if she’d had a husband to use her pan on, frying up some eggs or something, she wouldn’t have always been throwing it at someone. And I wonder about Mamma. My Mamma with the face of an angel. A dark angel with long black hair and even blacker eyes. Coal black eyes. My Mamma with the voice of an angel to match. Mamma used to sing all the time before Daddy died. She’d sing in the morning and she’d sing in the evening and all the hours in between. I wonder if Mamma would still have been singing if Daddy hadn’t died. I wonder if she would have been able to let go them sighs. Heck, I wonder if Mamma would even have had so many sighs needing to be let go if Daddy had still been around. I guess if missing a Daddy does something terrible to a person, I don’t even know what missing a husband does. If you were Nanny, it’d make you nasty and hard. Tough like a strap of leather. But if you were Mamma, well that sadness would just keep on whittling away at that hollow place until there’d be nothing left. Just a pile of ole saw dust.

Weary Blues

The Weary Blues

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
He did a lazy sway. . . .
He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
“Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
“I got the Weary Blues
And I can’t be satisfied.
Got the Weary Blues
And can’t be satisfied—
I ain’t happy no mo’
And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.

 

In Langston Hughes poem, “The Weary Blues,” the word that stands out is “moan.” Old Webster defines moan as “a long, low sound made by a person expressing physical or mental suffering or sexual pleasure.” The reader can be sure the word is not referencing sexual pleasure by the following adjectives used, “sad raggy” and “melancholy.” If the reader is still unsure as to whether the pianist is sexually aroused or emotionally distressed, lines 25-30 clarify, “I got the Weary Blues / And I can’t be satisfied / Got the Weary Blues / And can’t be satisfied / I ain’t happy no mo’ / And I wish that I had died.”   

       Hughes uses the word moan to personify the piano. It is not the fact that he is personifying the piano that calls for attention but the word choice he uses to do it. When one thinks of a piano, moaning does not particularly come to mind. Jingle and tinkle perhaps, but not moaning. The reader can infer a great deal from the word “moan.”

What is really notable is that the moaning occurs when the ebony hands make contact with the ivory keys of the piano: “With his ebony hands on each ivory key / He made that poor piano moan with melody” (8-9). The ebony hands represent African American society while the ivory keys represent White American society and perhaps the piano represents society as a whole. An instrument that is capable of playing such beautiful melodies, in Hughes’ poem, does not. When the ebony hands (African American society) and the ivory keys (White American society) come into contact discord results.

Hughes might not have redefined the meaning of the word “moan” but he did use it in a unique context. By assigning its negative meaning to an instrument generally known for its beautiful sound, he is able to highlight the conflict between African Americans and White Americans that create the American society as a whole.