Moving on From the Either/Or to the Both/And

“My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice”-Dionne Brand

Something that I’ve always found myself doing is categorizing things as I’ve always thought I was making my life simpler by doing this. However, as I began to engage with the texts assigned for this African-American literature class this semester, I started to realize how incredibly difficult and dangerous it is to put a single definition on something or someone as it causes a sense of restriction on the person or object. As I look back at the incredibly varied literature that we have engaged with this semester I have noticed that we have been presented with different perspectives to look through and it is up to us, as the readers, to notice these differences and then notice that they are all just as valid as one another because there is not just one way in which we can define anything or anybody.

In the context of my semester, this is what I believe Dionne Brand is saying when she says, “My job is to notice… and to notice that you can notice”. One must first notice their own perspective or definition of things. Then, they must also notice that their perspective or definition isn’t the definitive one, meaning that things in life are always open to interpretation and are not to be restricted to a single definition.

This is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in her TED Talk, “The danger of a single story”. Throughout the semester I frequently found myself referring to it as I found it incredibly relevant to a lot of the literature we were working with. In this TED Talk, Adichie discusses how people often fall into the trap of believing that there is a single story narrative for things when in reality there isn’t. By defining experiences based on a single account, one does not get a complete understanding of people or places. For example, Adichie brings up how Africa is often categorized as a country that is full of catastrophe when in reality it is not a country, but a continent made up of different countries all of which have a different story to share with the world that isn’t related to catastrophe. There isn’t just one story that defines Africa, making it an either/or. There are a variety of stories that can be told about Africa which therefore makes it a both/and. Adichie is calling for people to be more open to accepting other’s perspectives and opinions in order to avoid the danger of the single story or the danger of the either/or. We must not restrict what something or who someone is and can be by placing them into binaries like the either/or, but accept that things can have more than one description or label to them making them a both/and.

In one of our discussions, we discussed how incredibly varied the English language is. As we would soon conclude, there is no category called standard English. No-one speaks standard English. For example, we went around the class and each said what we refer a sweet, carbonated soft drink as. There was a divide between calling it soda or pop. As I come from downstate New York, I call it soda. When I arrived here at Geneseo I would soon notice that most people in Western New York call soda, pop, which was a bit odd at first to adjust to but I have come to realize that it doesn’t matter what people call it, we are all still referring to the same exact thing. A sweet, carbonated drink can be called both soda and pop.

This either/or versus both/and obstacle is a similar one that writer, Paul Lawrence Dunbar had to struggle with during his career. In the preface to Dunbar’s work in Call and Response, the editors of the anthology describe his struggles by saying, “Paul Laurence Dunbar perhaps had the most difficult time defining himself as a writer and getting editors, reviewers, and readers to accept his definition”. He was faced with being a typecast for poetry written in the plantation vernacular when he really wanted to start writing other things that were in “standard” English (the quotation marks being necessary because as I mentioned earlier, there is no such thing as standard English). His editors and critics continued to praise his dialect poems which had then categorized him as being a poet who wrote in the vernacular. He became trapped in this categorization. As many of my peers and I noticed, Dunbar’s poem “Sympathy” seemingly could be about him and his experience of being locked in the category of a dialect poet and wanting to break free from it. The poem follows a caged bird who is singing, but the narrator never says why the bird is enclosed or singing. Could the caged bird be a metaphor for Dunbar himself, singing the poems that he wants people to hear, but is unable to because he’s been put into this box of vernacular poetry that he cannot get himself out of?

Later on in the class that we were discussing Dunbar, Dr. McCoy then handed us the poem “Lager Beer” written by Pffenberger Deutzelheim. The poem tells a stereotypical story about Germans who like to drink. The thought that this could be Dunbar writing under a pen name never even crossed my mind and as it turns out, this poem was indeed written by Dunbar. Why was the fact that this was written by Dunbar shocking to me? Was I feeding into the danger of a single story at this moment in time?

I thought that the story of Paul Laurence Dunbar was enlightening as it allowed me to notice that I did exactly what Dunbar was aiming for. He was trying to prove that he doesn’t only have to write poems in the plantation vernacular and showed me that through his German dialect poem. Dunbar was showing us that he doesn’t only have to be either writing the plantation vernacular poems that were expected of him or nothing. He can write both dialect poems and produce works that he wants to. He does not have to be defined by one experience.

The same can be applied to the fugitive slave narratives that we studied. In Call and Response we encountered two slave narratives, one being by Frederick Douglass and the other by Harriet Jacobs. Before reading Jacobs’, I had only known of Douglass’ story as I read it last year for another class. I was unfamiliar with Jacobs’ story, or as a matter of fact I was completely unfamiliar with the female slave’s experience altogether. Throughout my education, I had never received any information on the experiences of a female slave which left me with this single story definition as to what a slave experienced and I did not realize it until we were assigned to read Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life a Slave Girl. As we discussed, both narratives follow an arc that begins in the south, hits rock bottom (also known as nadir) and then ends in the north with a notion of freedom. Although they both follow this arc and are classified as fugitive slave narratives, they both tell different stories about their experience of being enslaved.

As the anthology points out, Douglass and other male narrators “focused on the physical battle for attaining their freedom” while “Jacobs focused on the sexual and the psychological”. Slave narratives were often prefaced by a white man in order to tell readers that what the authors had written were valid. Douglass’ was prefaced by William Lloyd Garrison and a letter from Wendell Phillips, but Jacobs’ preface was from herself. She did not get prefaces from white men like Douglass did. During our discussion, Dr.McCoy pointed out several things that were disheartening to hear about. Jacobs faced many critics who did not believe that she had even written her story. They thought that her publisher, a white abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child had. There were also critics who believed that the whole story was pure fiction as they didn’t believe someone could hide for several years the way that Jacobs did. Why was Jacobs’ story seen as less valid than Frederick Douglass when both told a story of being enslaved to then becoming free? Is it because Harriet Jacobs was a woman and Frederick Douglass a man meaning that people did not see women’s stories as important? Is it because she told the truth of the sexual abuse that she experienced and people did not want to confront that?

What my peers and I also noticed during the course of reading Jacobs in the anthology was that Chapters 3-5 were skipped in the publication. Why would the editors choose to skip three chapters of Jacobs’ story? As Dr. McCoy would point out, it would be to shape what is important versus not important to the story, but shouldn’t the whole story be important?

There is no single story as to what defines enslaved people. Everybody experienced different things. Jacobs may not have faced the physical abuse or fought physical battles for her freedom in the way that men often did, but that doesn’t mean her experience was any better or less important than theirs. We as readers must first notice that the two experiences are different from one another, but then we must notice that they are both just as valid as one another because being enslaved, just as everything else in life, cannot defined by a single experience.

In addition, I also ran into being confronted with how to categorize a book into a genre. During one of our group discussions during the reading of Big Machine by Victor LaValle, my group struggled with trying to define what genre LaValle’s work falls into. Is this scientific fiction? Cult fiction? Horror? Religion? We found that it was incredibly difficult to definitively place LaValle’s work into a genre as it has many different components to the story.

When I first began the book back in February, I thought this was going to be a nice, little realistic fiction story about Ricky Rice and his journey at the Washburn Library. However as I continued to read the novel throughout the semester, my initial impression quickly faded as more of Ricky’s past and present were revealed. Although there are many realistic elements, such as homelessness and addiction, other things were not so realistic including the supernatural Devils of the Marsh and Ricky being impregnated. As these details were revealed, I quickly shifted to categorizing this novel as science-fiction because these things aren’t things that I would encounter myself today.

Once I started hearing my peers’ ideas on the genre of the book though, my perspective changed.  Why should Big Machine, or any book for that matter, be restricted to being classified under one genre? As there are such a wide range of topics addressed in this book, one cannot simply put one label or genre on it. Putting it into an either/or situation wouldn’t be fair to the rest of the topics the book discusses. Big Machine can be classified as both realistic fiction and scientific fiction and religion and horror all at the same time.

This semester I have learned that it is time to move on from being in an either/or mindset and move toward being more open minded with a both/and mindset. By placing anything or anyone in categories, I realized how restricting it could be for someone or something trying to adhere to the definitions given to them. After having this opportunity to reflect on the semester in class, I hope that I am able to apply this realization to my life outside of class by looking at the things with an open mind. It is my job to notice that my story is important, but then to also notice that everyone else’s story is just as important.

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