Tag Archives: The Souls of Black Folk

Highlights of T.S. Spivet author interview; update on summer reading

21 Jul

Really great interview by Book Slut with Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet:

Interview with Reif Larsen

Larsen writes from the perspective of his 12-year-old protagonist, somewhat of a genius map-maker, to create a highly original and experimental text, according to Book Slut.

Great quotes from the interview —

“I, for one, am seduced by arrows and diagrams. There’s something about the traveling along that path, the movement from one space to another using an arrow. I kind of think that’s how my brain works at least. I think a key part of this book and T.S.’s character is the arrows. The disparate leap of logic from main text to stomping grounds margins is where he gives himself permission to let his mind loose, which is also where in the beginning he makes his reveals. As he gains a little more solid footing and moves into more of a player in the field some of that language, that more adult emotional language, migrates into the text.”

Larsen is expanding upon why the story is told mostly in margins. I love the idea of the story moving from the margins into the actually text as it progresses, mirroring the journey that the character has undergone. I think a lot of writing is like mapping — trying to sequester and understood some given territory (of thought) at the contour of one’s mind.

Speaking of, another quote; Larsen’s “definition” of map/mapping —

“I think a lot of people are married to a map is a geographical object. For me a map is a way of making meaning of the world around us on some kind of paper or screen or whatever it is. It’s that meaning making, or the translation, that’s the important part. I love maps often because they show so much about the mapmaker. I realize the book is kind of gently pressing up against the definition of what a map is. I hope in some ways it expands the conversation. I think a very good map or a personal map is very personal or emotional.”

Talking about doing experimental writing: “I’m allergic to bells and whistles just for bells and whistles sake.”

“I almost can’t write anything too autobiographical or too close to home.” I am the OPPOSITE.

And finally, he bashes Kindle, thank God —

“Do you see the book as an object in addition to the story inside it? For instance, I can’t imagine readers trying to read your gorgeously laid out novel on a Kindle. It just doesn’t seem like it would be the same as having the book itself.

I think so, and hopefully there will be more books that are like books as artifacts. I really think the book is such a physical and beautiful technology that really fits into how we as humans are set up. We have laps, our elbows bend in a certain way. The way we interact with a book is so elemental that we don’t even think about it. At least for me, when I think of books and when I think of where something is in a book, I think of the real physical geography of the book. With a Kindle the whole three-dimensions of the book and the whole touch of the book is lost. I don’t think the technology is there yet to replace a book and I don’t think they will ever be replaced. This book will not be available on the Kindle. Even an audio book, I don’t know how we’re going to do that. I really like books that are meant to be books. I like how this book can function both as that and also a novel that is enjoyable to read.”

What a lovely way to think about books, Mr. Larsen.

If you read my summer list (first post), you will notice that T.S. Spivet is on it. I’m still weary about shelling out the cash for this huge hardback book, but maybe if it is that great… However, I have read a couple reviews (in passing) saying that the book starts strong, but gets a bit convoluted towards the end. Also something about it was way too long? Maybe I’m making this up.

Speaking of summer reading list, here’s an update of what I’ve read so far (most recently, going backwards):

– Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida

– The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Dubois

– Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington

– With Her in Ourland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (research-related)

– Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (research)

– Without a Name and Under the Tongue by Yvonne Vera (research)

– A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

– Butterfly Burning by Yvonne Vera (research)

– Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi (research)

Currently reading the Selected Poems of James Tate, among other books.


Thoughts on Black America — and its history

11 Jul

Check out this interesting essay by Taru Taylor (on turnrow’s Web site):

Native Son for President

The essay deals mainly with Obama and his autobiography Dreams of my Father, arguing that Obama echoes the self-reliant attitude of Booker T. Washington in Up from Slavery and rejects W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk.

Having recently read Up from Slavery, I found myself disagreeing with Taylor on many points. I haven’t read Dreams of My Father, and I’m like three pages into The Souls of Black Folk, so I’m not able to comment on the whole essay; but, maybe once I’m finished with DuBois, I’ll revisit the essay and see what else I have to say.

The main problem with this essay, for me, came about in the third section:

“Douglass truly was fighting for his freedom. His moral fervor was on point. We, us Blacks, can only empathize for him and appreciate his struggle when we first of all understand that we are indeed free. Any Black American who nowadays says that he is not “free,” who fails to understand that his people have been free since 1863, insults the freedom-fighting legacy of Douglass. I say again that Dr. DuBois and his so-called “Talented Tenth” are anachronisms. The farther back 1863 recedes from our present, the more and more out of turn they speak. “Equality” is a dead letter. “Equity” names the game. Thus is Washington our archetype for manhood; Tuskegee Institute, our prototype for civilization. Up from Slavery is our narrative point of departure, with all due respect to Douglass’ autobiography. The conventional wisdom of the civil rights movement insists that the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which occasioned the Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” doctrine, legitimates its emphasis on “equality.” Its tortured logic insists that “separate but equal” is a contradiction; that white facilities and institutions and Black facilities and institutions can’t be separate and at the same time equal. It insists that the “whites only” water-fountain and the “Negroes only” water-fountain are inherently unequal. Its “struggle for equality” has amounted to a process of assimilation. The polite word is “integration.”
The writer does not see why a “whites only” fountain and a “Negroes only” fountain can’t be “separate but equal.” Of course the Supreme Court’s turn of phrase meant to connote segregation. It was a code for white superiority and Black inferiority. Facilities and institutions have tended to be unequal. But Booker T. Washington and his disciples have insisted upon the denotation of “separate but equal:” equity. They took the Supreme Court at its word. Their complaint, for example, was not that schools were separate, but that they were separate and inferior, with shorter terms than those of white children, nor were public school funds equitably distributed.
The zero-sum game that is American politics had morphed from slavery, which ended in 1863, into Jim Crow segregation, less blatant since the 1960s, but still ongoing. The civil rights activists thought to solve the problem by means of integration: Black society assimilating into white society in order to bring about social equality. Booker T. Washington had a better idea. In his Atlanta Exposition Address he said, “In all things purely social we can be separate as the fingers, yet one as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress.” He meant to build up Black society as a parallel civilization, with Tuskegee as its prototype. Malcolm X captured what Booker T. was up to when he distinguished “separation” from “segregation.” He said, “Segregation is that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors; separation is done voluntarily by two equals.” He went on to describe Black control of politics, of economics, of business, and of civic organization as criteria for separation as opposed to segregation.
Of this zero-sum game named Jim Crow, the civil rights activists seem to think that it’s rigged: whites win, Blacks lose. “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” they’ve concluded. A token few, that is. Booker T. Washington was more thoughtful. We can win, eventually. We can beat ’em, the white supremacists. In Up from Slavery he remarks upon slavery’s destruction of white initiative, so reliant had the whites become upon Blacks. He saw how it had eroded all sense of discipline amongst the whites of the south. White and Black were codependent. He concluded that slow, methodical, generation-by-generation uplift, of the “nation within a nation” as he called Black America, would bring about its independence. Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare is what he seems to have had in mind. Dr. Du Bois and his followers have emotionally reacted against the connotations of “separate but equal.” Thus, they have agitated. Washington and his disciples advocated for its denotation. Thus, they have built.”

When Taylor discusses Washington, she uses words like “manhood,” “equity,” and “independence.” In particular, she focuses on Washington’s push for self-reliance in Up from Slavery, and Taylor argues that he wanted to build up an equal, independent black society right up beside the white’s society.

That’s not the way I read it. True, Washington is arguing for self-reliance; he harps upon it constantly, using the example of the students at Tuskegee making their own bricks and building their own buildings. To have a solid foundation, you have to be self-reliant, Washington says. Yet, at the same time, Washington criticizes those blacks who want to learn Greek, Latin or obtain any other kind of education in the classics. When he does this, it’s as if he’s a flashing yellow traffic light in each of their faces: slow down, don’t catch up to the white man too fast. He — the white man — scares easy.

In other words, Washington wants blacks to be self-reliant, but only when it comes to bricks. Not medicine. Not law. Don’t reach too far, or else they’ll slap your wrists.

Sure, I definitely believe that Washington was trying to be realistic. Let’s think about the times. There’s the Klan, there’s a lot of poor whites seething in rage at black men moving right from the shackles of slavery into local politics, there’s a whole race of people who can’t get farther than 10 miles up the road from their former owners, if that. And, while some people read Washington as a power-hungry white (black) man, I think he was geniunely acting in the only way he thought his race could overcome their history. He created an institution, from the ground up, that offered education to people who could only dream of it before.

But to say that Washington created a program that would allow blacks to obtain indepence from whites, that they would be equal with them: I cannot agree with that. Washington might have wanted progress for his fellow blacks, but was he really obtaining it? One could argue no — in fact, he set them back. Tuskegee taught students to make bricks, to farm land, to repair clothes: it continued an education in doing the white man’s work — something former slaves were well acquainted with! Washington’s institution pre-packaged new workers, with the illusion of self-reliance, and sent them out to work below the white man. And this made them economically indispensible; so please, white man, realize you need us and eventually, when you’re used to the idea, we’ll learn some Latin. What progress.