Thursday, March 22, 2007

Remember to Forget

"... the effect of so much benevolence leads me to beg of you to forget to remember that the barber charges you one dollar for a shave while he humbly submits to the American man a bill of fifteen cents. And murmur no more because your honored elder brother, on a visit to this country is detained . . . he is protected under the wing of the Eagle, the Emblem of Liberty. . . What is the loss of ten hundred years or ten thousand times ten dollars compared with the happiness of knowing oneself so securely sheltered?" (Sui Sin Far, Mrs. Spring Fragrance, p.870)

This is a passage in the letter that Mrs. Spring Fragrance writes to Mr. Spring Fragrance while she is away on a visit to San Francisco. She is relaying her thoughts after hearing a speech given in San Francisco entitled "America, the Protector of China." (p.870)

This scathingly subversive passage in Mrs. Spring Fragrance is very telling of the experiences that the immigrating Chinese were having at the turn of the century in the U.S. More than that, experiences like these were not uncommon among any group of immigrants during this time in America. People from all over the world were traveling here, trying to find there place in the "land of opportunity" and being met with the same types of discrimination Sui Sin Far details in this letter. Here in San Francisco, a number of ethnic groups passed though the gates of Angel Island. Even more interesting, especially when remembering some of the other authors we've read in class such as DuBois, Sa, and Perkins Gilman, you didn't even have to be an immigrant to experience blatant discrimination by not only other people, but also by the government, by the law itself. There are many similarities to the treatment Far describes and the treatment former slaves received after their emancipation at the hands of corrupt government officials and Jim Crow laws. I found this cartoon that appeared in Harper's Weekly.

The caption says:
"The Nigger Must Go,"
"The Chinese Must Go"
The Poor Barbarians Can't Understand Our Civilized Republican Form Of Government

It's important to remember that discrimination and prejudice is a shared experience around the world and especially one played over and again here in the United States - that we are all a part of a group in one way or another that at one point in time was/is/will be the target of this mistreatment. Its a cycle of assimilation which isn't necessary, but is inevitable because we as a group of people don't take the time to empathize, sympathize or even relate to one another at all.

As a lesbian with a multi-ethnic background, I belong to a number of minority groups, each with their own cultures and agendas. It's particularly hard for me to understand how a group that has experienced discrimination will not automatically aid another group. For example, gay marriage being spoken out against at the pulpits of black churches. Must we take down another group in order to take our place, and if so, do we really want a place in that sort of a societal system? Still, how is it avoided when you are a part of that group?

This is possibly another repercussion of the "double consciousness" that DuBios describes, or rather, another state of this dualistic existence, the individual versus their cultural group. I think that Sin Sun Far really distills the beginning states of assimilation and this double consciousness in this story through Mrs. Spring Fragrance. Mrs. Spring Fragrance is a happy, optimistic immigrant that buys into some of the fairy tale of the "American Dream." She keenly feels both ties to American culture and the traditions dictated by her ethnicity. There seems to be a lot of the author herself in this story, as she creates Mrs. Spring Fragrance to be this contradictory character who seems to be blindly accepting of her circumstances but also hits upon the idea that she isn't quite sold on everything being "'high-class'" in America. (p.872) There is a hint of of sarcasm in that spring fragrance.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


I was able to attend the presentation and discussion of the film "War Zone" facilitated by professor Shawn Townes, Ph.D. The film is a documentary created by / staring Maggie Hadleigh-West and concerns her and other women's experiences with men and sexual oppression/violence and cat-calling on different city streets. (New Orleans and New York City)

Professor Townes was great, and so was the film, but the overall experience was a mixed bag. I am happy that events like this are presented at Foothill - it is positive and important work to discuss the dynamics of gender and sexual oppression, especially as it lately seems to have fallen out of the forefront of people's minds, as opposed to the place it had in the 60's and 70's.

What was disappointing was the attitudes and ideas that some of the guys who showed up held, even after the movie, which at the end had a very explicit and horrifying replay of a 911 call of a woman being raped and the hour or more of discussion we had. It seems that they just weren't able to see the very real and direct correlation between harassing behavior such as objectifying women and cat-calling them on the street has with rape culture - like they aren't aware that rape culture exists. I for one had trouble sleeping after hearing the call on the film.

Something the filmmaker talked about was a memory of almost being abducted by a man on the street and her thought that it was "inevitable". Along those same lines, I find myself simultaneously not surprised by the attitudes expressed by the men in the room as well as their apparent decision to retain their attitudes about cat-calling. What's wrong with paying a woman a complement after all? It seems an impossible task to express how situations make something appropriate and not appropriate and how this behavior is still rooted in the belief that women are merely sexual objects to be admired and displayed for men and how that goes a step further in creating an environment in which women are unabashedly harassed and violated as a mater of course.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Kid On a Leash

Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, Zitkala-Sa (Red Bird)

". . . two warm hands grasped me firmly, and in the same moment I was tossed high in midair. I was both frightened and insulted by such trifling. I stared into her eyes, wishing her to let me stand on my own feet, but she jumped me up and down with increasing enthusiasm. My mother had never made a plaything of her wee daughter. Remembering this I began to cry aloud." (Zitkala Sa, The School Days of an Indian Girl, p. 1020)
Red Bird is recalling the memory of her arrival at White's Manual Labor Institute and her first interaction with one of the teachers at the school. The white woman, while well meaning, has embarrassed Sa and made her feel like a "plaything". This passage is one of the more benign cultural misunderstandings Zitkala experiences while attending the Quaker run school.
This passage in interesting because it brings up two thoughts for me about culture and power. Especially Sa's mother and her powerlessness. I think that for the most part, it's true that she didn't have much power and that that was frustrating for her, however, I don't believe that she was completely powerless. This quote speaks to one source of power her mother held, and it was the power she held over her child. Here, Sa remembers that her mother treated her with dignity and respect, as opposed to the white men and women she encountered at the school.
In our culture, young children are treated almost as pets by adults in general. The idea is that they are young and cute, with no thought put into how it might make the children feel. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure there are many people who strive to treat children with dignity, but I don't see that as being the rule rather than the exception. I hadn't thought of the behavior that the teacher displays as being particularly "wrong" and I still don't in the sense that I understand that she meant only to express affection. Still, I wonder if fussing over children in such a manner, especially when we aren't familiar with them is simply condescending.
One answer to why Red Bird's mother didin't directly intervene in her going to school - she repected her daughter's free will. Sure, as her mother, she is entitled to govern what Red Bird does, but she also recognized that there is a limit to that entitlement, that Red Bird is a person who has her own mind and at that point could make her own decisions.
There is also something to be said about it possibly being a racial thing as well. Sa and the other Native American children (and Native Americans in general) weren't thought of as individuals deserving of respect, and would therefore be more likely to be treated as a curiosity - a pet as well. Still, you can't deny the socialization that dictates our place in the world in our culture.

Friday, March 09, 2007

A Liberating Trap

Perkins Gilman

"It is a big, airy room, the whole floor nearly, with windows that look all ways, and air and sunshine galore. It was nursery first and then playroom and gymnasium, I should judge; for the windows are barred for little children, and there are rings and things in the walls." (Perkins Gilman, p. 834)

Dark Fairytale Before Sleep by decrepitude

This is a simple description of the appearance of the room the heroine and her husband have rented for the summer, as well as her assessment of the room. What is evident in the quote is that she doesn't like the room they've rented, but, subtextually, there is a hint that there is something more sinister about the room - or clues that it may not be a dilapidated nursery at all, but a room used to house mentally disturbed people. There are also hints that she may have been led to believe that it was a nursery by the managers of the house and her husband.

I picked this quote because it speaks to the physical appearance of the room, the relationship it has with the woman in the story and the physiological implications of the room as a symbol. I am struggling with figuring out what the "room" symbolizes in literature by women authors. In Virgina Wolf's A Room of One's Own and Professions for Women it is a symbol of liberation - a necessity and right that belongs to women who want to practice their craft. In Doris Lessing's To Room Nineteen, the room is a combination of freedom and entrapment, in that it is the only place Susan (the protagonist) is able to regain her autonomy, but in that sense, the true and happy her is sequestered to this small, cheap, shabby hotel room where she ultimately kills herself.

The Yellow Wallpaper by feralgrinnWhat's up with all the room stuff?! Why does it play such a central roll in these works by these famous women authors? It's also interesting to note, that their life times overlap - this makes me think that the whole "neurasthenia" diagnosis has a role in it, though I don't know enough about it to make a definite assertion for that being the case. In all of these works, a theme of depression can be found and it is dominant in To Room Nineteen and The Yellow Wallpaper. It would seem that depression then as well as now is generally dismissed and misunderstood. The room makes a good symbol for depression - an entity that envelops the individual suffering from it, becoming a barrier to the outside world.
The room also stands in as a symbol of society and rights. In The Yellow Wallpaper the room is the only place where the narrator is able to exercise her will, however encumbered it is by the intrusion of others. The room is a symbol of the narrator's subordination to her husband. He picked the room, he keeps her in the room, he enters and exits the room at his discretion. In the quote above, the narrator notes the windows have been bared - she assumes for the children's safety, but the reader is able to pick up on clues that the bars may be just for her and that they never have been for children, especially in light of the rings embeded in the walls.
The room also stands a symbol for the freedoms and rights of women. The room, being hers, is hers to do with as she pleases and more than that, she has a right to it. In A Room of One's Own and Professions for Women Virgina Wolf demands a room for women, but is that all we get? Just a "room"? What's worse is that there is a need to fight for that room. Men have the world at their disposal and all women want is a room of their own. Personally, I want a bit more than that.
This is where The Yellow Wallpaper stands out. It explores the binding and oppression of that room. What happens when women are granted the room, but also confined to it? I'm still thinking about it.
My Emotions Unfold by Obsidian Fox

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Reading Inside The Lines


"First they done a lecture on temperance; but they didn't make enough for them to both get drunk on." (Twain, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, p.356)


Here, Huck is talking about a pair of con men, Duke and King, that are forcibly traveling with him and Jim. The con men are making their way along the river, scamming the people in the villages they pass by and are at it again because they have traveled far enough away from the last place they were caught to start up again. Huck is relaying one of their failed attempts.

This sentence comes only five lines into chapter 31 of Huckleberry Finn and it is one of those lines that wakes you up from the fairy tail of the boy's summer adventure. It's quintessential Twain in that his point isn't superficially apparent, but it's there for the taking. At least something is. There are a few levels of meaning and that quality is another that makes it very Twain as well.

Here Twain is calling attention to the hypocrisy that plagues humanity in his classic humorist style, using Duke and King. Another thing going on here is the temperance movement of the 1800's was picking up steam in the time the Huck Finn was written and within the time frame it was set as well; this line in particular could speak to Twain's ideas about it, but not what side of the movement he was actually for. Finally, as with many of the writers we've looked at thus far, such as Bierce and Harte, this is another signpost that tells the reader that they should examine who the "bad guys" are in the story, and in a larger sense to pay close attention to what's happening.

King and Duke giving a temperance lecture in order to get money to get drunk is not only hypocritical, it's ridiculous. I think that right after that line is where you're supposed to pause for dramatic effect and follow it up with an naive look. If you were telling a humorous story, that is. The problem with humor, especially with a message behind the message is deciphering what that message is. Is it a prod to take all into moderation, including something thought to be good such as temperance? Could it be a reinforcement of why moral issues are legitimate concerns or how ethics fail us? Or could it be really just be a joke? I think, all of the above.

Gin Lane by William Hogarth

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Significance of 241's Agony



I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—

The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.

- Emily Dickinson

In the first stanza, Dickinson writes about the value of agony, or suffering in general. I don't think it is about actually enjoying seeing suffering on the faces of people but rather that it is valuble because it is an authentic human expression - one that can not be convincingly simulated. This idea is extended in the second stanza. The true look of death cannot be fabricated, especially when the death is hard and filled with pain.

This is the poem I always return to whenever I look at Dickinson. I am facinated by it, because it at first seems only a macabre little poem. Then you think about it, because in the 30 seconds it has taken you to read it, it has found a way seep into your mind. That is pretty powerful for a poem with only eight lines!

Knowing more about Emily Dickinson's life, it has become even more powerful and curious. She lead a solitary life - that is what they say, but then, where do these deep observations about life come from? Returning to the idea in the poem - that people are filled with fabrications and masks, disguising their feelings and thoughts from the world, and that there are few exceptions to this; agony and death. How striking is it, that a solitary woman, sitting in her room and peering out at the same landscape day after day, probably at birds and squirrel and trees, articulates this solemn and dark observation of life, and more than that, of human nature. It just knocks me flat, it is phenomenal.

Conversely, another conclusion that the analysis of 241's themes and comparison to the known experiences of Dickinson's life could lead to is that her life just could not have been as solitary as it is presented or thought to have been. Otherwise, would we even need to interact with each other if we could all possibly come up with the same observations without that experience or interaction? It sure takes the wind out of "write what you know."