Monday, February 1, 2016

I Was There: Experiencing Life as a Minority

             I am not a minority; I have a place of privilege in society as a white woman with a professional job. Yes, I may experience some gender inequality, but not as much as I could since I am in a predominantly female profession. So I don’t know what it’s like to be discriminated against or have people look down upon me because of the color of my skin or the accent in my voice. I don’t have stories of my ancestors fleeing persecution or fighting for their freedom. The worst stories I have involve walking to school in two feet of snow uphill in both directions. And that would be a lie. However, the first three novels that we have read—How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, Jazz, and Kindred—not only share the life of minorities in various time periods and locations, but the use of reverse chronology, flashback, and time travel put the reader and the narrator in the moment of the event that is best experienced rather than described.
            As an ELA educator, my curriculum has been restructured over the past few years to incorporate Common Core State Standards that include the comparisons between multiple versions of a narrative, between a text and a non-textual representation, and between primary and secondary sources. Students use these multiple representations and the primary sources to create a better understanding of the historical and cultural contexts. The primary sources are important even in literature because we readers create images based on the authors’ descriptions. For example, when Butler mentions that Dana is sleeping in the attic with the other house slaves, we think maybe they have a cot and at least it isn’t a dirt floor; we only learn later through Kevin that she, and the others, are sleeping on “rag pallets on the floor” (83). At that moment, I remember what it’s like to sleep or at least lie down on a floor, and I remember the uncomfortableness. Photographs, first-person accounts, and newspaper articles from a time period allow us to relate, or at least understand, better.
            In Kindred, Dana models this experience for us. Butler does not simply say, “The man was brutally whipped” in the early scene outside Alice’s mother’s cabin. Rather the whipping is portrayed in vivid imagery: “He began to moan—low gut-wrenching sounds torn from him against his will. Finally, he began to scream. I could literally smell his sweat, hear every ragged breath, every cry, every cut of the whip. I could see his body jerking, convulsing, straining against the rope as his screaming went on and on” (36). Dana reflects on her experience as a witness: “I had seen people beaten on television and in the movies. I had seen the too-red blood substitute streaked across their backs and heard their well-rehearsed screams. But I hadn’t lain nearby and smelled their sweat or heard them pleading and praying, shamed before their families and themselves” (36), but she is really telling us readers how we should be feeling and experiencing this trauma. She tells us, “You think you know, but you don’t. I’ve described the detail as best I can; the only other way to experience is to literally be here, and you don’t want to be here.” Later, at the whipping in the slave quarters on the Weylin plantation, we readers are again privy to the experience unlike many whites of the time period: “Kevin was in the main house somewhere, probably not even aware of what was happening” (92). By living a life of privilege as a white man, Kevin believes that the Weylin plantation “isn’t what I would have imagined. No overseer. Mo more work than the people can manage” because he hasn’t had to experience the dirt floors, inadequate food, and the lack of “rights and the possibility of being mistreated or sold away from their families for any reason—or no reason” (100. Kevin is the person not reading the book; he has learned about the 1800’s, but he is not experiencing it. Without the time travel, Dana could not have experience slave life; Kevin could not have experienced plantation life; and readers would have only read a more of a third-person secondary source account of this specific minority experience.
            Similarly, the accounts of life in the Dominican Republic are best related through the reverse chronology so that readers may identify with characters as they deal with the harassment and persecution from Trujilo’s men, rather than listen to a retelling clouded by age thirty years later. For example, when Papi/Carlos hides in the crawlspace in the first story of section three, the third-person narrator details every movement Papi makes to ensure his safety:
            He pushes to the back of the closet behind a row of Laura’s dresses. He is comforted by
            the talc smell of her housedresses mixed with the sunbaked smell of her skin, the perfumy
            smell of her party dresses. He makes sure he does not disturb the arrangement of shoes on
            the floor, but steps over them and disengages the back panel/ Inside is a cubicle with a
            vent that opens out above the shower in the bathroom. Air and a little light. A couple of
            towels, a throw pillow, a sheet, a chamber pot, a container of filter water, aspirin,
            sleeping pills, even a San Judas, patron saint of impossible causes [. . .]. The small
            revolver [. . .] is wrapped snugly in an extra shirt, a dark colored shirt, and a dark colored
            pair of pants for escaping at night. He steps inside, sets the flashlight on the floor, and
            snaps the panel back, closing himself in. (196-197)
This dense paragraph of detail allows the reader to feel the crampness of the space, as well as understand the amount of thought and preparation that went into the design of the hiding space. The reader also experiences the movement of walking carefully through the closet so as to not leave behind any clues that someone moved through there. And as someone who has not had to hide to protect myself from a dictator and his guards, a simple passing statement such as, “Carlos hid in the crawlspace behind Mami’s closes” wouldn’t allow me to share the experience.
            Finally, the flashback scenes in Jazz not only allow the reader to better understand how and why Violet and Joe have reacted so violently to the affair in 1926, but again the reader experiences the events of life in the South, especially during the Great Migration, as the characters experience them. For example, although in a rushed narration, Joe describes the hard times in the South in the late 1890’s:
            We got married and set up on Harlon Ricks’ place near Tyrell. He owned the worst land
            in the county. Violet and me worked his crops for two years. When the soil ran out, when
            rocks was the biggest harvest, we ate what I shot. Then old man Ricks got fed up and sold
            the place along with our debt to a man called Clayton Bede. The debt rose from one
            hundred eighty dollars to eight hundred under him. Interest, he said, and all the fertilizer
            and stuff we got from the general store [. . .]. Violet had to rend our place and walk the
            plow on his too, while I went from Bear to Crossland to Goshen working. [ . . ] Took
            five years, but we did it. (126)
The reader feels the burden, the hard work, and the sacrifice from the words of the man who lived it. The reader understands the eventual draw of “the City” that would provide a life easier than that of back-breaking work not to make money but just to survive.

            Butler does point out to the reader, through Dana, that neither Kindred nor any of the other texts is a true I-was-there experience. Dana reflects: “I began to realize why Kevin and I had fitted so easily into this time. We weren’t really in. We were observers watching a show. We were watching history happen around us” (98). The reader is only a reader, not a participant, but the same reader should learn to better appreciate what those minorities had to experience through these travels through time.

No comments:

Post a Comment