In our group discussion of Big Machine yesterday, we were all left grasping for straws. How do we make heroin, monsters called, “The Devils of the Mash,” male pregnancy, and a suicide cult fit together? We all have our theories, but we were left with the feeling that even after we finish the novel, we won’t have the answers that we want.
I’ve recently become very aware of context. Specifically, how easily something can be taken out of context. A few semesters ago, I took a class on Northern Irish Poetry. It was–and remains–one of my favorite classes that I have taken here at Geneseo. Because I was so in love and absorbed with the content of the class, the themes began to carry themselves into other areas of my life. I started to see myself making connections with the course everywhere that I went. In this case, it wasn’t a negative thing! I stayed thinkING throughout the semester.
When talking about questioning quotidian things today in class, my mind went to a seemingly benign everyday habit that I’ve adopted: scan reading.
Everyday, I spend more time scanning emails, Instagram posts, text messages, etc, than I would care to admit. With social media, we are presented with an endless amount of consumable material about any topic that we wish to explore. Because of the frequency and over saturation of words that are seemingly unimportant, I’ve trained myself to scan read. Let’s be honest, does anyone really read though the whole caption for their fourth cousin’s baby’s birthday post? Perhaps even more dangerous than scan reading, I’ve unintentionally devalued words.
When I first saw the assignment to write down everything that we ate over spring break, I’ll admit that I was a bit stunned. Why in the world would I have to keep a food journal for a class titled African American Literature? I talked to some of my classmates, friends and family about the assignment, and they all had similar thoughts.
I’m a local. I was born in the greater Rochester area, and I’ve always lived in same house. Upstate New York has a lot of talent packed into its square miles. While browsing the anthology, Angles of Ascent, I flipped to the back of the collection to the biographical notes on the authors who are included in the anthology. The first line stuck out to me of Cornelius Eady’s note: “was born in Rochester, New York…” As I read further, I learned that he attended Monroe Community College and eventually ended up directing the creative writing program at Notre Dame University, along with teaching at many other colleges. To top off his impressive track record, in 1999, he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in the drama category, and in 2001 his book of poetry, Brutal Imagination, was nominated for The National Book Award in the poetry category.
On the Spring 2016 essay prompt for this course, a quote is given by visual artist, Glenn Ligon. Before reading the prompt, I had never heard of him before. Being a lover of all things art, I decided to dig a little deeper into who this mysterious artist is.
Octavia Butler’s short story “Bloodchild” freaked me out. When I first finished the story, I was left with this nightmarish feeling of uneasiness. As an avid fan of horror films and literature, this response was not a typical one for me. There was more to my uneasiness than just Butler’s take on the bot-fly description–albeit pretty gross. During our group discussion on Monday, other classmates shared similar reactions. It wasn’t until our group began to discuss the presence and absence of consent in the piece that I was able to piece together what creeped me: it challenges how we view consent.
The piece is not completely devoid of consent. There is an almost contractual agreement that the characters follow regarding T’Gatoi. The situation that is presented in the story is not a great one, but no one really tries to escape it. Our group jumped into the conversion of what makes consent consensual. Does lack of consent always equate a evil harmful situation? In some cases, like sexual consent, absolutely. Lack of consent is always harmful and damaging in that context. But what about our births? Does our lack of consent to be born harm us? What about the material that we as assigned for a class? I have found some of my favorite novels and poems in college. I did not choose them; they were chosen for me. How about being placed on the Dean’s List and other academic lists? As far as I know, students do not consent to being placed on a searchable list that credits their academic success. You just get an email informing you that you are now on the Dean’s List.
These all feel like instances were lack of consent is not necessarily a negative thing. Not being able to consent can protect us. For example, our consent laws in New York were not given to every individual in the state in order to O.K them before they became laws. Our consent laws are not consensual, but they give us the ability to give consent or take it away. Internet history functions in a similar way. There is no way–unless you are far better with computers than I am–to completely delete your internet history or what you post on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. We post on the internet with the understanding that we will never be able to delete our posts, but understanding does not equate consent. The alternative to that would be frightening, far more so than how things are now.
“Bloodchild” sparked a string of thoughts that I did not expect. I’m still trying to work out what the story is about; I could have used three class periods worth of talking it out. This theme of consent is one that will be sticking with me throughout the semester.
During the first two weeks of classes, I’ve developed a goal for myself as a student in not just this class, but all of my classes: I want to notice the small details that make a big difference. This goal was developed after reading one of our course epigraphs: “My job is to notice…and to notice that you can notice.”–Dionne Brand. While reading the first ten chapters of Victor Lavalle’s novel, Big Machine, I concentrated particularly hard on some of the intricacies of the text that might not have stuck out to me before.
Two of the recurring themes that I saw in the beginnings of the novel were self-hatred and self doubt. Right away, Ricky states he knew that Cheryl’s outing with him was indeed a date, but that the, “stink of failure had followed [his] relationships for years.” He does not even make an attempt to start a relationship with her; he has already made up his mind that it would end in failure. There is an element of mystery with the situation, but even the fact that Ricky leaves his job to jump on a bus shows signs of self-sabotaging behavior. That continues when he goes to toss salt onto the sidewalks. He neglects to protect his hands with gloves, and the salt makes his fingertips bleed. This physical pain is not something that he is upset about, however. If it is, it is not conveyed through the narrative. I have a feeling that these themes will continue throughout the novel. It has been a true test of my self control to not finish the novel in an afternoon.
After doing the straddling exercise yesterday, I noticed that I’ve been doing a type of straddling in my own life. I’m the first woman in my family to go to college. The only other person to go was my father. Most of my family members have been happy to complete high school and continue with their adult lives. As I neared the end of my high school days, I realized that I wanted to learn more, and that I did not want to be done with my schooling. After choosing English as my major, many family members did not understand it or value the decision of furthering my education at all. I found myself unable to talk about the biggest part of my life around the people who had been the biggest parts of my life. It has been challenging to figure out how to be myself with my family off campus, almost as difficult as walking those two little lines.
Bernice Johnson Reagon states at the beginning of her essay, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I see” that, “popular and academic chroniclers have a way of reshaping reality so that the warts and pimples get smoothed off.” She goes on to remind the reader that the “greats” that we read were humans with flaws too. This is such a simple concept, but it struck a chord with me. She claims that when we celebritize our authors/advocates to the point where they are no longer human, they are disconnected from the community/cause that they are trying to represent. I want to pay close attention to guard against that this semester. Instead of celebritizing the authors that we read, I want to notice that they are humans with human emotions and not devine literary gods and goddesses.