The (Re)Birth of a Nation

I’m not sure if anyone has posted about a certain film that premiered during this semester and carries massive cultural implications in our current, racially charged climate. Since we’ve somehow not mentioned it in class, I’ll post here.

The Birth of a Nation is considered the movie that invented modern cinema.  The filming techniques it pioneered revolutionized the way films were produced.  Its huge release and marketing made it the first blockbuster film.  The Birth of a Nation is also famous for being horrifically racist, a fact that film experts have to dodge around when discussing the film, much to the delight of those who support racism.  For those who don’t know, the plot centers around two families who fought on opposite sides of the civil war uniting to end reconstruction in their corner of the south, by killing black people and preventing them from voting on election day.  The film features horrific racist caricatures, and portrays the violence perpetrated on freed slaves in the south, including lynching, as heroic actions.

This movie I want to showcase is The Birth of a Nation 2016.  Written, produced, directed, and starring Nat Parker as Nat Turner, the black priest who led the most violent slave revolt in the US, preaching a vision of ending slavery.  The birth of the nation was made with the goal of re-appropriation.  That is, taking a piece of pop-culture and stealing it back from the signification of racism.  The idea is to replace the image of the classic Birth of a Nation and the white supremacy it stands for with that of Nat Turner leading an uprising with the fury of a people locked in chains for two-hundred years by the old order.  Doing so will re-appropriate the cultural meaning of the image, and by doing so, alter American culture to a more tolerant standard.

Scapegoats, Morrison, and how a paradise can be ruined.

Today I read a pair of blogposts and attached articles analyzing Toni Morrison/Paradiso that I felt would go together wonderfully.

The first was by Hannah, and included this article describing in Zhizekian terms how tyrants create their oppressive regimes.  To summarize: the tyrants create an evil other, which they give responsibility for all their nation’s problems, (problems usually caused by themselves.)  they then set about violently destroying that other.  I feel that Toni Morrison’s application of this methodology within Paradiso is blatant and twofold.  first, the obvious assault on the covenant.  Second, 8rock’s ostracizing of any family or person with lighter skin, up to letting a pregnant woman die with her baby for that reason.  “Even with their wives begging they came up with excuses because they looked down on you,” (197.) Continue reading “Scapegoats, Morrison, and how a paradise can be ruined.”

Dante and Florence

While researching Dante and the Paradiso (I’m also taking Poetry and Cosmology, which employs Paradiso,) I stumbled upon some very amusing historical information that might give context to Toni Morrison’s relation to the text when writing her own paradise trilogy.  Dante isn’t buried in his home city of Florence, much to the agony of the Florentines.  Florence possesses a great shrine containing the likes of Florentine legends Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini, and Machiavelli.  There is a tomb for Dante, and despite the assurances of the tour guides, the tomb is empty.  Dante is buried where he died in Ravenna.  In 1302, Dante was exiled from Florence by the reigning Black Guelf party and their patron Pope Boniface.  Dante became a political party of one, alone against the papacy and the city of Florence.   Without any legal authority, he had to rely on his writing to forment various trouble for the black Guelfs, including convincing the monarch Henry VII of France to sack Florence and install a new governing political power.  I can’t help but think of the classic saying ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ when I read of the troubles Dante caused for the Guelfs.  Mere political warfare wasn’t enough for Dante, he stabbed at the Guelf’s and papacy’s base of moral authority.  When Dante wrote the Divine Comedy, he threw many Guelfs and former popes into the depths of the Inferno for their various crimes.  Dante gave the politically maneuvering Boniface up the honor of being an icon of sin, destined to be thrown into hell upon his death.  During canto XIX, the previous pope Nicholas III mistakes Dante for Boniface and calls him out for his greed, rape, and foul tongue;

I stood as does the friar who confesses

the foul assassin who, fixed fast, head down,

calls back the friar, and so delays his death;

and he cried out: “Are you already standing,

already standing there, o Boniface?

The book has lied to me by several years.

Are you so quickly sated with the riches

for which you did not fear to take by guile

the Lovely Lady, then to violate her?”

And I became like those who stand as if

they have been mocked, who cannot understand

what has been said to them and can’t respond. (Inf. XIX, 49-60).

Given that Dante is considered the greatest poet of all time, and his depiction of hell is the foundation of all subsequent depictions, I have to think that his immortal writing skills won out over the fleeting power of his enemies.

Dante eventually was invited to Ravenna, where he finished his Divine Comedy, and died in 1321.  After realizing their lost son was the greatest poet in human history and the founder of modern Italian, Florence demanded Ravenna give his body back.  When Ravenna refused, Florence received Papal authority to retrieve Dante’s body.  They received a coffin filled with rocks.  True to Dante’s last wishes and sentiments of ‘screw Florence and the Pope,’ Ravenna had refused, and his body was eventually enshrined in a small church in Ravenna.  I have it on good authority to not remind the Florentines, or you won’t leave Florence in one piece.

That was the historical background of Dante; he was a writer who suffered severe wrongs in his life.  He was ruined by the dominant political and moral forces of his time and homeland.  When he resisted, all he had to fight against their overwhelming military and political power was his pen and paper.  I was wondering if anyone could draw a philosophical, or metaphorical connection in the conversation between Toni Morrison and Dante.

On Single Stories and The Sabotage of American Education

After watching Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk about the dangers of the single story, and reading Hannah’s blogpost, I can’t help but think of the education profession in this country.  My mother’s a fourth grade teacher, so I know how teachers and education as a whole is under siege by the right wing of this nation.  After reading Hannah’s blogpost, I can finally signify why the modern Republican party is at war with our teachers, and is out to destroy education, such as Scott Walker defunding the University of Wisconsin public university sysem.

The Republican party has been taken over a single story.  One about fearing minorities because of their difference to the average white American.  Hannah discussed how easy to perpetrate fear is, and how unfounded it is, and I see that fear here.  I watched this single story begin when Mitch McConnel declared in 2010 that he would make Obama a one term presidency, and proceeded to vilify and obstruct our President like no other President had dealt with.  This single story about fearing minorities has grown into a novel where the hard right wingers are the only patriots and minorities and other political ‘dissidents’ like liberals are out to destroy America.  Social politics dominate the party, and economic conservatives and moderate conservatives are being left by the wayside with accusations of RINO for not buying into the single story.  The culmination of this single story is the emergence of the Donald Trump to head the Republican Party.  His flaws would end any other person’s campaign, but I see that his base is deep in their single story where everyone not their political cult is out to destroy America.  So deep that they will follow him without question because he speaks to their fear.

To give statistics: people who haven’t reached high school or college diplomas are more likely to vote Republican.  That’s not stereotype, that’s statistical fact.  As Hannah said, our children are impressionable, and can be shaped by their education.  Education familiarizes children with the very differences the modern Republicans fear, and they come to respect our differences..  The Republican party in recent years has watched its base shrink as the older generation dies off and our generation, with our generally superior education, has risen into voting age.  Their solution has been to purge our educational system and dumb down our schools, in the hopes that more children will grow up not understanding, and fearing difference that the modern Republican Party has made its enemy.  Even worse, Republicans are attempting to redirect public school students to charter schools, which are public money funded, yet run by corporations, and are no better than public schools.  Without good education, their single story of fear and hatred will be passed onto our children, and our next generation will be ruined.  This is a deliberate choice by Republican leaders.

Given the political makeup of SUNY Geneseo, I’m preaching to the choir, but I must state that the Republicans are believing in a single story about fear and hatred of difference.  The Republican Party is destroying our schools to commit their sins of ignorance on our children.

On Grief

Unlike Sarah, I didn’t find A Mercy‘s twist ending to be a happy surprise.  I feel that the ending summarized the themes of grief that strike through every facet of the novel.   Floren’s character has been bent around her abandonment from her mother.  It destroyed her when she had to take care of Malik and culminated in her transformation from a flower into a wild animal that assaults people with hammers following her second abandonment by the blacksmith.  While the twist ending shined a new light on her origins to me, I know the twist doesn’t effect Floren’s destroyed state at the end of the novel.  While I now know the truth behind Florens being rejected by her mother, I can only think about how she will never know, and will always suffer as a wild, emotionally ruined woman.  The heroic gesture of her mother sending her away for protection, and tragedy and grief inherent in that same gesture, have resulted in a whole fresh well of grief for her daughter anyways, which ruined her as effectively as abuse could’ve.  I found the ending to be darkly ironic, as it showed that for all Florens’ mother’s efforts, her daughter was still destroyed by grief like she would’ve been destroyed by abuse back at the old plantation.  After summarizing the distilled grief I felt throughout the novel, I consider that irony to be an epitaph by Toni Morrison on the grief spread throughout her novel; the final failure of a mother due to forces beyond her control.

Looking back, Rebekka is also a grief-stricken failure, who has turned to god as a crutch for her empty life.  All her children are dead, her husband is dead, and his ghost haunts the mansion sitting on his property.  I compare Rebekka’s failure to that of Floren’s mother, as she too, lost her children to forces beyond her control.  Her daughter Patrician was kicked in the head by a horse used to build Jacob’s house.  In a poetic way, Jacob is responsible for his daughter’s death, and Rebekka’s sorrow.  I feel the last line of Rebecca’s passage, where Rebekka first bemoans being alone, then says “How long will it take will…is it already too late?  For salvation,” shows how she’s so lost in grief she’s hanging onto everyone else for support.  She does end up becoming a bitter church-going woman, using god as a crutch.

I think of Sorrow’s story as an example of a mother trying to defeat grief.  I’m not sure if the ending of her story, with her taking her daughter and changing her name to Complete, is intended by Morrison to be a sign that her life will truly improve when she flees the Vaark farm, or that she’s making another futile gesture and another tragedy is just down the road.  Sorrow’s story line was my favorite either way, as unlike Rebekka, she has a chance for a fresh start.  I liked how despite the murder of her firstborn by Lena, she didn’t give in and become bitter like the other women, but kept struggling to pull her way out of the mess.  My favorite quote to summarize her drive to escape, and survive with her mind intact is “Twin was gone, traceless, and unmissed…She had looked into her daughters eyes; saw in them the gray glisten of a winter sea…My name is Complete,” (158).  In that line, she summarizes what enables her to put her grief aside and make a positive transformation instead of a negative one.

I feel that Toni Morrison is using her heroines to make a commentary on grief, its nature, and its effects on humanity.  Her final verdict, I feel, depends ultimately on Complete.  Not even her success, but her survival in such a precarious world.  I think she’s a symbol of how, as destructive as grief is, people can always rebuild from the remains of their life.

Tony Morrison on Black Oppression and Cynicism

After our discussion of racism and reading on the first day of class, I did some research on Toni Morrison and her views on slavery.  I came across this guardian article on her views.  I paid particular attention to the part on her critique of American history.  I say that in the second chapter, Morrison makes a statement on the reasons behind the acceptance of oppression of black people, and the ideology that leads to its continuation over centuries.  Jacob Vaark is offered a payment and states “flesh is not my commodity,”(25) which gives his disapproval of the transaction, despite his eventually acceding.  I say that Toni Morrison did not use this exchange to indicate a moral superiority from Vaark.  I say that she’s in fact demonstrating Vaark’s tacit approval of slavery, and relaying to the reader the cultural and economic reasons that permitted slavery to continue for centuries before ending in the civil war, and for oppression to continue for years after.

I present French philosopher Slavoj Zhizek’s work to inform Morrison’s statement on slavery.  Zhizek discussed the concept and danger of cynicism as an ideology.  This ideology occurs when someone disapproves of an ideology (slavery for ‘A Mercy,), but participates in the system anyways due to their economic benefits from participation,  The ruling class in particular, would refuse to change a system they believe is wrong simply because they’re secure while in the current ideology.  A summary of Zizek’s writing that I am using can be found here.  Though Toni Morrison’s work never directly connected with that of Slavoj Zizhek, I say she intended to the same concept of cynicism in ‘A Mercy’ with Vaark, to demonstrate the hopeless situation blacks were thrown into with slavery, in concision with her theme of hopelessness for black people.  Zizeks’ stated ideas are merely the best quantification of that concept of cynicism I could summon.

By verbally rejecting slavery, Vaark represents moral high ground for those empowered by the system.  However, Vaark ultimately does accept a slave girl in payment, which I say is Toni Morrison’s indication that disapproval in a system but continued participation without action is tacit approval.  I’ll dig even further for Morrison’s meaning.  Vaark is also a merchant.  As stated by Hannah Embry in her post, he obeys the system by purchasing goods produced by slaves in the triangle slave trade (Africa-Americas-Europe,) and therefore gives profit to the system of slavery, therefore he’s engaging in cynical ideology by acknowledging his principled disapproval of the system of slavery, yet participating anyways.  I say that by developing Vaark, the white protagonist’s character, in this way, Morrison uses cynicism to show the way the endless cycle of slavery and greater black oppression continues.  Since the enslaving class profits from slavery, they are unwilling to change the even if they morally oppose it.  As a result, powerless black people like the narrator in Mercy are forever swept up in the apathy.