Occupation of Space

At the outset of ENGL 337, Beth informed the class that the texts and sources that we would encounter throughout the semester would often seem out of harmony, if not contradictory. She explained that the course material was selected intentionally to avoid the hazards of a single-story. The TED Talk by Chimamanda Adichie explains this issue  in depth, pointing to her own experiences growing up in Nigeria and then attending school in the United States. She found that her American roommate viewed the continent of Africa as a monolith of poverty and violence, for this was the only narrative to which the roommate had been exposed. In order to be informed on the complexities of a subject such as African-American Literature, we as readers must be exposed to diverse narratives on the subject.

While studying multiple perspectives, I’ve noticed that people are inclined to attribute a moral value to each view. This too is something that can be dangerous, because in order for one text or character to be elevated, it is done at the expense of another. Throughout this course I will be ever-cautious to avoid making evaluative claims as to the quality, accuracy, or authenticity of an author’s perspective. If I were to do so, I would be infringing upon the space that has been claimed by individual African-American authors. In the video The Songs of the Free, which we watched in class on Monday, Bernice Johnson Reagon explains how song has traditionally been used by African-Americans as a tool to position oneself and one’s community in the world. When land space was not available, people could fill the space of the air with their voice. Song and other forms of self-expression such as literature are a powerful way to announce oneself.

I think that one course epigraph attributed to Toni Morrison helps to clarify how this applies to literature. “Word-work is sublime, she thinks, because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference– the way in which we are like no other life. We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” By Morrison’s account, literature is a way of saying “I am here.” Throughout this course, my goal is to attend to the ways in which the African-American authors we study claim space using their literature. Additionally, I will attend to  the literal and figurative space that characters in the texts occupy.

Call and Response is structured so as to make the position of each author fairly clear. Instead of a linear projection in which data is contributed that always is adding to the previous, the texts are placed so that they are seemingly in conversation with one another. I will need to spend more time reading the texts, particularly texts that are placed together, in order to have a better understanding of the space each of these texts is taking up.

I am also drawn to the use of space/place in Big Machine, which begins with the statement, “Don’t look for dignity in public bathrooms” (3). To the discomfort of the reader, LaValle continues on to imply and viscerally describe the specific issues with this space, and it seems to speak to Ricky’s position within a broad social hierarchy. He is working in a public bathroom, where he will not find dignity. And then Ricky encounters circumstances that call for a change in setting and he arrives at Washburn Library. The Library is as of yet a mystery and I am not ready to speculate as to its significance, however I am certain that it is significant.

In attending to space throughout the course, I will view the texts that have opposing or disconnected views not in terms of more or less wrong but rather in terms of occupying separate space. I will welcome the both/and. I hope to form a deeper understanding of how the space occupied by authors and characters in texts is part of the study of African-American literature.

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