Even though it happened over two weeks ago, I keep thinking back to the moment in class when we were discussing vocabulary in Zone One. Dr. Beth had asked us (the class) each to pick out a word we didn’t understand in the text and look up its definition; as we were going around the room and reciting our words, I noticed that a lot of us (including myself) started with a variation of “I don’t know if I’m pronouncing this right.” A while later, as we were all debating on the “correct” pronunciation of “elementary” and other words inside our small groups, Dr. Beth said something that really made me think: “Pronunciation differences can be a basis for identifying people as different” (these are not the exact words Dr. Beth spoke). I found this very interesting because I’ve never considered this possibility, but once Dr. Beth pointed it out, I realized that she’s right. Within my small group, we were talking about the pronunciation of “data” and “either,” and I noticed I felt more disconnected from those who pronounced the words differently than I do. What Dr. Beth said about pronunciation differences made me realize how easy it is for people to find differences; differences are often more evident than similarities. This realization is what made me want to return to the question Dr. Beth asked us at the end of our class session about Octavia Butler’s Clay’s Ark: “What draws and binds people together?”
As I was looking through Morrison’s Home while writing my blog post last week, I picked up on a few interesting moments that relate to Dr. Beth’s question. The first is the moment when Frank is attacked and robbed of his wallet by five people in an alleyway. Frank is hit on the head with a pipe and props himself against the wall to wait for his vision to return; as he is waiting, a stranger approaches and asks Frank if he needs help. He offers to call the police for Frank and, after Frank rejects the offer, “[stuffs] a couple of dollar bills in Frank’s jacket pocket” (Morrison 107). When Frank tries to reject this, the stranger tells him: “Forget it, brother. Stay in the light” (Morrison 107). Although the stranger leaves soon after, he shows kindness to Frank and calls him “brother,” indicating that they’ve managed to forge a connection despite the short interaction. The stranger was drawn to Frank because Frank was suffering and could use kindness in his life. This isn’t the first instance where suffering is shown to be a method by which individuals are drawn or bounded together. Earlier in the book, as Frank eating at the diner and sharing stories about his life and sufferings with a stranger (Billy Watson), us readers are told that the other inhabitants of the diner join in on the conversation: “Up and down the counter there was laughter, loud and knowing. Some began to compete with stories of their own deprived life in the thirties” (Morrison 28). It’s the talk and stories of suffering that manage to draw these strangers together; despite not knowing each other beforehand, they were all able to connect by finding commonalities in their suffering.
Suffering as a unifying factor is also shown in Marilyn Nelson’s Fortune’s Bones (The Manumission Requiem). In the “Author’s Note” section, Nelson specifies that, by calling it The Manumission Requiem, she’s attempting to “[set] grief side by side with joy” (Nelson 9). Nelson also mentions that she’s drawing inspiration from a “New Orleans brass band jazz funeral” where mourners, after they leave the cemetery, do a “second-line parade”: they dance to joyful music to celebrate the life of the person who has passed (Nelson 9). Here, suffering not only brought people together for the funeral but also brought people together in the “second-line parade.” Nelson notably mentions that, while the mourners are doing the parade, “crowds of people, passers-by, strangers, come out and join [the mourners]” (Nelson 9).
It’s interesting to see here that suffering somehow manages to get almost transformed from a purely negative aspect to something that holds both negative and positive aspects (because while it causes grief, it can also bring people together). In a world where differences are a dividing factor, being able to bind people together is very important, even if it is through something that can also cause hurt. Suffering’s ability to draw and bind people together could particularly hold an importance in relation to social justice work. At the end of Medical Apartheid, Harriet Washington suggests: “African American and other health organizations must continue to expand the work of [ally] groups, and much of this can be done close to home, through…community activism” (Washington 403). Drawing and bringing people together is essential because it allows for a community that can stand strong in the fight for inclusion.