Altruism and Personal Sacrifice in Kristof and WuDunn’s Half the Sky: A Call to Action

Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Current and former New York Times reporters, respectively, Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, authors of Half The Sky, ( it is also a PBS documentary and is available on Netflix) paint a picture of women and girls throughout the developing world who are both victims and overcomers of rape, domestic violence, vaginal and rectal fistula, lack of education, genital mutilation, and sex trafficking. They have testimonies from women throughout Southeast Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa who have had many devastating events occur in their lives, but through intervention, have been able to overcome these tragic events, most of which are not dauntless. Most of these women are indigent, uneducated marginalized women who have been victimized because of their lowly station in life. Both Kristof, and his wife, WuDunn explain with depth, clarity, and immense compassion, the root causes behind some of these horrific practices, as well as possible solutions to reducing these systemic cultural practices within the developing world.They persuasively undergird their book with research that supports their theories, while stating arguments in support and acknowledging those against the possible solutions. Kristof and WuDunn ultimately come to the conclusion that grassroot efforts in which both liberals and conservatives work together to help educate women and girls, rather than legislate to change laws, work best. Laws can be changed, but if there is neither will to enforce nor power of enforcement, what good is the law? Volunteers who personally sacrifice their time by engaging in lofty, yet noble altruistic goals, change one life at a time, thereby impacting the world resulting in global change one day at a time. The work is neither easy nor glamorous, but it may be the most fulfilling work that one can do.

As a Teacher, I daily preach education to my students. I tell them that it is the great equalizer. I often say it is power and it is! Yet, an overwhelming majority of girls in the developing world are uneducated. Many of them have never attended school because the parents lack the financial means to send them to school. In the developing world, education is not free. Although it may not be expensive in our eyes, it is expensive in the developing world where people earn less than one dollar a day. When educated women in the developing world educate young girls, (women are usually needed as teachers because of Islamic laws prohibiting the mingling of the opposite sex) they empower the girls to become independent and goal oriented. The girls will then develop personal responsibility, and strive toward success, instead of having a defeatist attitude. When education takes place, the women and girls are able to make decisions for themselves and see the harm of some of their actions. When women are empowered through education, the family stabilizes, and both pregnancy and domestic violence decrease.

Sex trafficking of impoverished, uneducated women is a problem worldwide, not just in the developing world, (Thailand, Cambodia, Congo, India,etc.) and many police officers fail to enforce laws against sex trafficking. Many of the police are bribed, and often take advantage of the brothels in these countries. Many young girls from Cambodia are forced to be sex slaves, and are taken to Thailand, duplicitously, with the hope of securing employment to help support their families. When they arrive at the brothel, and are noncompliant, they are beaten brutally into submission, and many of them are forced to continue for years drugged to the point of addiction in order for the brothel owners to keep them docile.  Many of them contract HIV/AIDS and become further stigmatized and are labeled as prostitutes.  If they are fortunate to be rescued by a humanitarian worker, they are often, upon returning home, rejected by their families and therefore, return to trafficking. Humanitarian workers often establish, at the grassroots level, education and economic programs designed to help these women become self-sustainable so that they will not return to sex trafficking because of having no financial support. 

Men often rape and gang rape women in horrific numbers in the developing world. If women are raped by men other than their husbands, their families no longer want them and they are often forced into the street. These women do nothing to cause themselves to be raped. The rape traumatizes them, and they sometimes become infected with HIV/AIDS. Usually women who have financial means or have been educated go back to their communities to help other women whom the rape victimizes. When women are empowered, their husbands are less likely to rape and abuse them.

One of the most common problems in Africa, is vaginal and rectal fistulas.  Many of these women who suffer with this are impoverished and never receive medical care. They suffer fissures during childbirth because of a narrow pelvis and because they do not go to the hospital for delivery. They are no longer welcomed in their homes because of the odious odor emitted from both the leaking urine and feces. These problems can be prevented through Cesarian Sections instead of through vaginal deliveries. But, because of their indigent status, these women are not treated, and many of them die because of infection. To combat the problems, there are hospitals specializing in fistula repair and birthing centers ensuring safe delivery, both of which often are established by non-governmental organizations. This reduces the infant mortality rate, the morbidity rate, and the maternal mortality rate!

Another threat to the health of women is genital cutting (the term mutilation is an offensive term to those who practice it) that is performed on young girls to prevent them from having sexual intercourse before marriage. This cultural practice is deeply embedded in African culture and it ensures that their girls will be able to marry because they will be virgins. In order to change this practice, women must be educated about the risks of the practice, and make decisions for themselves. The entire community, however, must prohibit this cultural practice in order for all of the women to be eligible for marriage. If a woman has not been cut, then she will be presumed to not be a virgin, and thus, she will be ineligible for marriage. The issue of genital cutting is a complicated one that is not easily changed.

Additionally, “honor killing” is a cultural practice in the islamic world in which women are killed if they are suspected of sexual impropriety. Dozens of men kill the woman, often by stoning her to death, even if there is no independent proof of fornication or adultery. Women must be educated and given legislative, parliamentary positions so that they can have a voice in legislation.

One must first understand the culture, before she can work on changing any attitudes or beliefs that are staunchly held; however, there are actions that can take place that can initially impact a developing nation. Sometimes it is not always the largest institutions that have the greatest impact. Those individuals who understand the culture, who have the stamina, and have a personal investment in helping often have the greatest success with empowering women and girls. Religious organizations, according to Kristof and WuDunn have the greatest success because they do not have a legislative agenda. Individual people can help through giving donations, through giving their time, and through writing letters to both congressmen and senators urging financial support to combat world problems such as sex trafficking. Encourage students and children to start student organizations in which the focus is to shed light on the concerns in the developing world, and have the students fundraise and donate the money to worthy organizations. In addition, spend some time volunteering in the developing world to relieve some of the heavy burdens that the workers face. Workers are needed more in the countryside, not in the large cities (help is often concentrated in large cities). Why not help today?  Not only will someone’s life be enriched, but your life will be better for giving. The more one gives, the more he receives (you do not have to be a Christian to benefit from this biblical principle).  Listed at the bottom are some suggestions from Kristof and WuDunn for giving ( I personally vouch for Plan International, an organization to which I for one year gave a monthly donation to sponsor a girl from India. I am going to resume my monthly commitment starting in October).

This book is worth reading. It will galvanize both women and men to act now! Please read it and see the documentary on Netflix.

Suggestions for Helping

http://www.globalgiving.org

http://www.kiva.org

Sponsor a girl or a woman through Plan International, Women for Women International, World Vision, or American Jewish World Service

Examining One’s Conscience in Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman

What is the purpose of writing a novel? Is it to entertain, to inform, to expose? Go Set a Watchman ( I will often refer to it as Watchman) does all three well and more! It holds one’s attention, its rivets at times, it exposes vices, it entertains, and it informs the reader by giving historical context to the novel, and greatest of all, it allows for thoughtful rumination on one of the greatest issues that seeks to still divides us all- race. For months leading up to the release of Go Set A Watchman, Harper Lee’s companion novel to To Kill a Mockingbird, I was not sure whether I desired to read it. When it was revealed that Atticus Finch, the father and attorney in both novels, was a segregationist, I admit that Watchman began to pique my interest. I wanted to know his thoughts, and what led him to hold such views.  I heard some English teachers talking about how disappointed they were in the social stance that Atticus Finch was now taking, and they were not sure that they wanted to teach the book. Their ambivalence further propelled me toward reading it. I ordered a copy soon after its release date, and it sat on my table for several weeks before I had the opportunity to read it.

I began to realize, while reading, that this novel resonated with me on many levels.  It spoke to me as: a Christian, as an individual, as an African-American, as a teacher, and as both a Northerner and a Southerner.  It caused me to reflect on my own upbringing, and to reflect on a historical tour that I took of the Deep South ten years ago this month (we managed to fly out the day before Hurricane Katrina hit land!).  If a historical novel’s purpose is to entertain, to inform, and to expose uncomfortable truths, then Watchman does its job.  Yes, this novel will make people uncomfortable, whether one is black or white, Christian or non-Christian, and an individualist, or a conformist. It will rivet the reader especially if he himself participated in conversations and activities that mirrored those discussed in the book, or whether he silently sat by without opining about his own thoughts on the subject. Many people of the last sixty or more years have had strong opinions on integration and on segregation. We often fear what we do not understand. We tend to not understand cultures that are different from ours, and we tend to place value judgments on some of their behaviors that directly conflict with ours. We can only see the impact of either segregation or integration on us individually instead of the impact on society as a whole. In Watchman, Jean Louise, the main character, helps us to ruminate, and with hope for tomorrow,  take action regarding our attitudes toward race and class, and toward conformity and individualism.

Go set A Watchman, begins with Jean Louise Finch ( she is rarely referred to as Scout in the novel) returning home to Maycomb, Alabama for her fifth annual visit.  She has been living in New York for the last five years, and her views of people have been informed by her environment, although the majority of her learning came from Atticus, her father. She knows that her ways and her attitudes are in stark contrast to those of her fellow Maycombians, but she continues to behave in a manner contrary to most of its citizens.  Her behavior, however, is tolerated because she is a Finch. Her friend, Hank, wants to marry her, but she is ambivalent toward wanting to marry him and refuses ultimately because they do not share the same views regarding both conformity and race.  He is considered white trash, and it is hard for him to rise above that station in life, although he tries. In the first third of the book, Lee sets the stage for the differences in behavior that Jean Louise displays, and that of its Maycomb citizens. She dresses differently, she behaves in an uncouth manner at times, and the expectation that she has of others is different from what they have of themselves. The action rises when she finds out that both her father and her friend, Hank, have joined a council that has been promulgated to maintain the status quo that the white citizens of Maycomb have enjoyed for many decades. They are against the NAACP legally fighting for the rights of blacks since the U.S. Supreme Court declared, In Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, that separate but equal was not equal, and therefore was unconstitutional. At that juncture in the novel, the action become less but more reflective through the verbose conversations that Jean Louise has with her uncle, her father, her aunt, and with Hank. Not one of them makes apologies for his or her beliefs; Each one tries to validate his or her position by giving historical context for the views.Image result for go set a watchman

Unlike Jean Louise, many of us do not want to acknowledge our thoughts on these racial issues because they may not be accepted, because they may not be politically correct, and because they may make us feel uncomfortable. Some of us are like Jean Louise or like Atticus, Dr, Finch, and even Hank. We either covertly or overtly discuss our thoughts. Jean Louise says that she is color blind. I admire that quality. How many of us have used the words “white trash, or nigger, or cracker? The ability to see people based on character alone is the best way to judge a person. It allows us not to prejudge. Jean Louise’s color blindness, however, causes her to question her home community. She realizes that she no longer fits in with her community. Jean Louise in the novel on page 150, questions ” What was this blight that had come down over the people she loved? Did she see it in stark relief because she had been away from it? Had it percolated gradually through the years until now? Had it always been under her nose for her to see if she had only looked? No, not the last. What turned ordinary men into screaming dirt at the top of their voices, what made her kind of people harden and say “nigger” when the word had never crossed their lips before?” My thought is that the townspeople’s ideas had always been there, but the political events of the time had brought their feelings to the forefront. We should all strive to be like Jean Louise. Her uncle said to her in the novel, “You’re color blind, Jean Louise,” he said. “You always have been, you always will be. The only differences you see between one human and another are differences in looks and intelligence and character and the like.  You’ve never been prodded to look at people as a race, and now that race is a burning issue of the day, you’re still unable to think racially. You see only people. She acknowledges, though, that she does not want to “especially …run out and marry a Negro or something.” Jean Louise shows her humanity and how she is still affected by race.

Through these conversations, one can see fear, conformity, and individualism as each one staunchly defends his position on the issue of equal rights in the United States as these rights relate to race and class structures that have been established through centuries of societal norms, laws, policies, and regulations.  In the end, Jean Louise learns that she must maintain her beliefs and her values, and that if she is to effect change on the masses, she has to surround herself around people whose values conflict with her own. How shall others hear her thoughts, if she only surrounds herself with people who think like she does? According to the novel’s definition of bigotry, (“obstinately or intolerably devoted to his own church, party, belief, or opinion”) are we all either big or little bigots?

Although this book was written over sixty years ago, it still has relevance to our lives because issues of race and class permeate every aspect of life. It impacts education, employment, housing, and even our coteries. Because most of us are not color blind, we tend to see color as a stumbling block in almost every aspect of life. Lee in the novel, puts the NAACP in context, because it was a feared organization at that time. It fought for the rights of African-Americans.  Although the NAACP was founded in 1909, it did not gain prominence until many decades later. The NAACP was founded to help blacks secure rights that had heretofore been denied.  Lee helps us contextualize this organization and the rampant fears it generated.

Although one may not agree with everything in the novel, the ideas espoused are now part of the marketplace of ideas that allows us to thoughtfully and somewhat painfully debate the ideas and actions behind the main characters in this novel. The question that everyone must ask himself is whether he is a conformist or an individualist. He must ask if he values people based on both race and class, or based on character. Regardless of the answers, we must all ponder our behaviors so that we can move forward as people, regardless of nationality, race, class, creed. gender, or sexual orientation. There are many issues discussed in the book, and I cannot do them justice in this space. Please read the novel, and feel free to opine about the issues discussed in the novel. Perhaps in years to come, we can learn to evaluate people based on character instead of on artificial distinctions. We should be individuals. The color of our skin and how much money we have should not determine our outcome in life, where we can live, the quality of education, our friends, and whom we should marry. Let’s aspire to build better character within ourselves and to encourage our friends to do the same.

Personal Note

In August 2005, I had the privilege of meeting and having dinner with Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, James Meredith, the first African-American to integrate Ole Miss, Charles Evers, the brother of Medgar Evers, and the parents of one of the girls bombed in the church in Birmingham, Alabama. I also toured Alabama, Mississippi, Little Rock, Arkansas, Memphis, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia. During those ten days, I had the opportunity to learn experientially, concepts that I had only read about. Going to museums and historical sites impacted my life, and I will forever remember what I learned and will turnkey the information. Prior to this trip, offered to me gratuitously, I probably would have never gone to the Deep South.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me: A Review

The US government is quick to acknowledge and disdain ethnic divisions that have spurred civil conflict throughout the world; however, we fail to confront seriously the ethnic divisions in our own home. Although we may not have had any ethnic cleansing in the US, we have had and continue to have contemptuous practices that put to shame our status as a developed nation. Both race and color are difficult topics for anyone to discuss. All of us are touched by these issues and we cannot escape the ramifications of the labels that have been placed on us.  America, unlike other countries of the world, identify people based on race and not nationality. Groups in the minority will always fare worse than the majority. As a result, no matter how much we try to see people as individuals, the issue of color is always looming overhead. We have had over four hundred years of this classification, without escape. Honestly, but unfortunately, I notice race when I first meet someone. It’s not to discriminate, but it’s an identification marker. Moreover, race is especially a big issue for me because my brother was the victim of a racial incident in Connecticut twenty years ago. He was severely attacked because of a relationship that he had with a white woman. Amazingly, he was able to move on and work through the issues that the attack caused. I also on many occasions have been questioned by whites when I have been the only person of color at an event. I have been asked whether I had a ticket to attend the event. I have been asked what I do for a living when shopping at a high-end store.  These questions are all based on race.  Many of us have read many articles on race relations. Some we agree with and others we discard. Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and the author of Between the World and Me,  has put forth his theory on race relations in America.

When I received my copy of New York magazine two weeks ago, the cover featuring Ta- Nehisi Coates intrigued me. Much to my chagrin, I had  never heard of Coates prior to the featured article and his image gracing the magazine cover, and I only had a cursory knowledge of the Atlantic magazine for which he writes. A few days later an article by David Brooks appeared in the New York Times about Coates and his new book.  I read both articles in their entirety. I became intrigued to hear his theories on race relations in America. Coates has been featured on news programs in which he has discussed his ideas as well as his new book.  In this book he examines some deep-seated causes for the racial unrest that has been plaguing our country for centuries.  He explains his theory on the root causes of behavior of African-Americans as well as the causes of behavior of whites or those who “call themselves white.” Prior to its release, his publicist sent a copy of the book to Toni Morrison who stated, “I’ve been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates. The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive.  And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory.  This is required reading.” Thus, with this endorsement in mind, I decided to read Coates’s view on race in America. Coates states at the inception of his book that the success of America is based on violence and on stealing.  He says that the progress of those in America who are white or who want to be what America calls white have prospered from America’s history, and those who are not white have suffered because of it.

Coates book is a letter to his fifteen year old son that discusses his worldview on race and how he came to formulate his opinions. His parents taught him to read and write well so that he would be able to think for himself instead of regurgitating other people’s thoughts.  He had to be able to develop his own ideas and support those ideas with evidence. At an early age, he learned how to navigate the crime ridden neighborhoods of Baltimore. He also learned how to take pride in himself and in people of African descent. At Howard University, his Mecca,  he gained strength through his camaraderie with people from the African diaspora. He learned from his parents and from fellow students to value his skin color and the physical traits of his blackness. Coates opines on black hair, and the lengths that many black women go through to camouflage their hair so that they can blend in with the rest of society.

According to Coates, fear is the major emotion that drives people’s behavior.  He says that people live in fear of what might happen.  Black parents beating their children, he says, is a result of fear. They fear that if they do not beat them, then someone else will if they engage in negative or criminal behavior.  This fear explains why the woman during the recent riots in Baltimore beat her son in plain view when she saw that he was about to take part in the riots. She was vilified for beating her son.  Few people understood her actions. She was trying to save her son from future harm.  Her actions might not have been appropriate, but they were understandable.  Black people fear the police because the police have not been there to protect them.  Coates cites numerous recent incidents such as Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others.  These individuals were either not protected by the police departments or they did not receive justice because those responsible for their deaths were not criminally charged or adjudicated to be criminally responsible. Furthermore, Coates acknowledges that black cops as well as white cops are just as likely to kill black men.  He looks at the structure of the police department in Prince George County, Maryland.  There are many black officers within that police department, yet they were responsible for the death of Prince Jones, an unarmed black man, who should never have been pursued by the police.  Jones came from an affluent family, and was not a criminal. His mother, a radiologist, is the head of her department at the hospital where she works. Her economic status could not shield her son from death. Fear caused the officers to overreact, thereby killing him. Officers, justified or unjustified, fear the effects of nonconformity to a code of police behavior.

Additionally, Coates also examines the school system. He says that schools place more shackles on African-American boys through punishment, while trying to force them to conform to a model of behavior that does not fit many African-American boys. Coates outlines that African-American children are expected to behave according to rigid standards of conduct.  They are often punished for nonconformity, and he says that schools do not adequately educate African-American children They are just gateways for punishment.

Lastly, Coates tells his son that we must struggle against the climate of the country. We must try to work through the challenges we face.  He acknowledges the difficulties, the hindrances. He says that we must struggle for our ancestors, struggle for our families, and hope and pray (he is either an atheist or an agnostic. He appears to waffle of which one best defines himsel) if one is moved, for those who willingly participate in the activities that continue to divide us and destroy our country. One must never give up the struggle. Using the words of Frederick Douglass, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”

Prayer will help us work through these difficult challenges that Coates discusses. We must be willing to tackle these issues and see people as individuals.  We have to be willing to step out of our comfort zones and meet and befriend people of other races. We must form bonds with people who come from diverse backgrounds. If we can do that, there will be hope for tomorrow. Fortunately, or unfortunately, Coates is moving with his wife and son for one year to Paris, a city where he feels that he will not be evaluated based on race.  He is truly following in the traditions of Baldwin, Richard Wright, and other black  writers of the twentieth century. I hope he writes about his experiences. I highly recommend this book. Excerpts can be used as informational texts in a high school classroom.

Taking Flight in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings: A Review

Sue Monk Kidd, the author of The Secret Life of Bees, captured my heart when I first read that novel.  She was both creative and ingenious to write a story that was incredibly metaphoric and touching about the life of a young girl as it relates to the life of a bee.  I read her second novel, The Mermaid Chair, but it did not “wow” me.  Most recently, however, I read her latest novel, The Invention of Wings.  After I finished reading the novel, I said to myself, “That was a great novel.” The story had an even greater effect on me than The Secret Life of Bees.  The Invention of Wings enthralled me from its first page.  It is a historical novel set during the first half of the nineteenth century in South Carolina.  Kidd, a South Carolina native, often sets her stories in South Carolina, and uses South Carolina from a historical perspective. South Carolina, unlike the other states in the union had the largest concentration of enslaved Africans, and Charleston was the port of entry for many Africans who became enslaved.  As a result, Charleston was among the wealthiest cities within the original thirteen colonies.  As many as forty percent of the enslaved arrived in Charleston where they were bartered.  Many continued to arrive in South Carolina because of the need for free labor to produce rice.  Africans from Sierra Leone were experienced with planting rice. Thus, their knowledge of planting rice inadvertently fostered the slave trade in South Carolina.  It is with this backdrop of enslaved Africans in Carolina, that Kidd begins her story.  Kidd’s historical novel is about both individual purpose and resolution, alternatingly told through the eyes of Sarah Grimke, the prominent promoter of women’s rights at that time in America and Hetty Handful Grimke, an enslaved woman on the Grimke plantation and Sarah’s personal maid.  The story is told with historical accuracy as it infuses authenticity into the story through historical figures and through historical events that transpired during the first half of the nineteenth century in America. Kidd uses superb metaphorical and lyrical language throughout the text that draws the reader to each page.  She builds the story through both internal and external conflict experienced by the characters that results in the reader rooting for the main characters.  The metaphoric language allows the reader to take the story of the enslaved family’s “invention of wings” folk tale to great height. Both Handful and Sarah both take flight at the end as if they had wings like an eagle enabling them to soar to great heights, accomplishing the unfathomable.  The novel ends with a stunning denouement that makes the reader say, “brava” to Sue Monk Kidd.

The Invention of Wings is historically based on specific events relating to the Grimke family, a prominent planter family in Charleston, South Carolina, during the nineteenth century.  The family was affluent and owned many enslaved Africans on their plantation.  The story is based on the lives of two women and how their lives intersect at different points in their development.  It is also about how these women impact the lives of others around them because of their steadfastness in pursuing their dreams.  This is a story about women’s rights, about abolition, about individual determination, about heartbreak, about love, and about not losing sight of one’s dreams and goals.  Both characters work through what seem to be insurmountable odds.  This story is set during a time in which South Carolinians were staunch slave traders and when women were prohibited from gaining stature through education.  Kidd weaves her story through the abolition movement with Denmark Vesey, with Lucretia Mott, with William Lloyd Garrison, and with the Quakers.  The story includes a foiled slave revolt organized by Vesey, an African American Episcopal Church leader; however, the rebellion was preempted by two enslaved individuals who conveyed the plot to their master. Vesey was later hanged along with several other slaves.  The novel details the inhumane treatment suffered.

Additionally, the novel reveals the individual grit that both Handful and Sarah maintained to work toward achieving freedom, abolition, and women’s rights.  Historically all of these aspirations were eventually achieved at great person cost to Grimke and to others like her.  Kidd elaborates on the difficulties that Sarah and her sister Angelina both faced and endured with the Quakers because the Quakers were not keen on combining the Abolition Movement with the Women’s Rights Movement. The two sisters quickly realized that abolition did not mean equal rights. Kidd incorporates the sentiment of the time that women were only meant to be homemakers, and that any other aspiration was denigrated. “Handful’s resolution to escape the shackles of slavery resulted in brutal treatment.  Some of the exact details of Handful’s life are fictionalized, although she did exist on the plantation and Sarah did teach her how to read and write.  Kidd in her comments at the end of the novel, details to the reader the fictionalized elements used to tell the story as well as the historical documents that she used. She unwaveringly tells us the triumphs and well as the both the obstacles and disappointments that the sisters as well as Handful experienced. It gives us a great picture of the events of that time as it lyrically transports us back toward another time and place. This is a great book for adolescents and for adults of all ages. This book is an excellent companion to James Mcbride’s The Good Lord Bird, a historical novel.

My Personal Connection to South Carolina

My maternal grandmother, Rosamae Hill, was born in South Carolina in 1911 and was a descendant of the enslaved Katy Dawkins. William Dawkins, the slave owner of the plantation in Union County, South Carolina where Katy Dawkins resided had children with three enslaved women: Katy, Millie, and Rosetta Dawkins. Katy Dawkins died in 1870 and William Dawkins died in 1872.  In William Dawkins’s will, he left the entire plantation, 750 acres of land, and all of the farming equipment to the other two women who remained on the plantation.  Dawkins’s white family contested the will.  He did not have a legal wife or any other children outside of these three enslaved women.  His family did not prevail, but the ‘wives” in essence won because their children were legal heirs to the property. (It is not known why Katy’s son, Randall, did not try to gain any of the property, but we know through my grandmother that the family was aware of the property.) As a result, many of the beneficiaries became college educated.  They became physicians, teachers, ministers, and attorneys.  Their descendants went on to achieve financial prosperity seven years after emancipation – a time in which it was difficult for most “Negroes.” It truly “reconstructed” their lives.  My branch of the family did not initially fare as well both educationally and financially.  It was about five generations later before the descendants of Katy Dawkins saw its first college graduate.  Having a level playing field makes a difference.  The plantation is still in the “family.” Currently, the descents of Millie and Rosetta Dawkins, have been meeting annually since 1926.  Next summer in July, the ninetieth reunion will take place on the plantation in Fishdam, South Carolina in Union County.  For the last six or seven years a few of the descendents from Katy Dawkins have joined the rest of the family in its annual meeting.  Thanks to my second cousin, Eleanora, a genealogist, the family history was unearthed and is being preserved.  Possibly in 2020, the reunion will take place in New York City.  Just maybe we can get the descendants of Katy Dawkins to fully participate.

The Color-line and Sexual Abuse in Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child: A Review

After reading the first seven novels that Toni Morrison wrote, I declared a personal moratorium on her novels.  I enjoy complex novels, but I decided that I needed a respite from the great complexity. That respite, however, lasted eighteen years. I recently decided to purchase her most recent novel, God Help the Child.  The title grabbed me, and the first page transfixed me. Sweetness, one of the characters in the novel says, “I’m light-skinned, with good hair, what we call high yellow, and so is Lula Ann’s father.  Ain’t nobody in my family anywhere near that color.  Tar is the closest I can think of yet her hair don’t go with the skin.”  Because of these issues, Lula Ann wrongly accuses a woman of sexual abuse.  She desires her mother’s attention, and therefore, engages in mendacity to achieve it. Unmistakingly, Morrison is making social and political statements within the novel in reference to both the color line in America, and to sexual abuse, and she makes it plain enough for everyone to comprehend. Frederick Douglass first coined the term the color- line and W.E. B. Dubois, later in his book, The Souls of Black Folk, expounded on the issue that was plaguing the world, not just America. The color-line is the relation of the darker to the lighter races of people throughout the world.

The first page of the novel riveted me because I myself have felt a fair amount of disdain from within my own race because of my skin color, although, my parents loved me and never made disparaging remarks about my color. My mother is a light brown complexion and my father and I shared a similar complexion. I still, however, felt the contempt from school children and from others within my own home for the color of my skin.  As a result of my adolescent experiences, I have during adulthood and continuing, put myself on a journey to like every aspect of myself including both my hair and my skin color. I tend to show both an increased amount of love and affection for darker skinned children because I know that they are not often esteemed as lighter skinned children. I wish that I did not feel as if I had to treat children differently based on skin color.  I am a victim, and equally a contributor to the issue still plaguing the world. Thus, when I began reading the first page of the novel, I easily identified with the main character in the novel. I hesitate to call her the protagonist, because in many ways she is no hero, but is a victim of the tragic mistakes that parents often make with their children. Although these issues are prevalent within the black community, I am sure it is not restricted to the black race. Through her novel, Morrison is making a statement about how childhood trauma, sexual abuse, and neglect, often leave long-lasting scars on children that affect them for the rest of their lives. The novel ends with the statement, “God, help the child.”  Indeed, God help the child!

God Help the Child is centered around a woman, renamed Bride (Lula Ann), and her friends who each have suffered a traumatic event in his or her childhood. She renamed herself Bride because of the connotations associated with brides. Brides often wear white. Bride, at the suggestion of a friend, began wearing white to reflect the beauty of her own black skin. She wears every shade of white and only white.  As a child, she was often alienated because of her “blue-black” skin. She has had difficulty working through all the conflict that her color produced.  She was rejected not only by both parents but by others in her community.  She spent her entire childhood trying to get her mother’s love, but not without detrimental effects. Bride and her friends also spend their lives trying to work through both the abuse and the trauma they have either witnessed or experienced. She and her two friends are all connected by some form of trauma, even though they are unaware of their connection.

The name of the characters in the novel all symbolize some trauma of their lives, and reflect their coping strategies. Bride’s best friend, Brooklyn, rescues her from a severe assault from the woman Bride wrongly accuses of sexual abuse.  The name Brooklyn is symbolic of the original Dutch name, “Breukelen” meaning “broken land” and even the American meaning for “brook” is significant; it means water or stream. Brooklyn is indeed broken by childhood abuse, and she provides herself as a lifeline for Bride. Water, is a sign of life. Bride’s lover, Booker, as his name implies, is concerned with books and with writing (He is broken too.). He is a deep thinker, which negatively impacts his ability to work through the trauma of losing his brother because of a sexual predator’s actions. He relives the trauma of his brother’s death, and cannot forgive his parents for their ability to move forward.

I wish that I could say that this story ends on a positive note.  At first glance it does. Bride is pregnant out-of-wedlock. The Bible says in Proverbs that “Children are a treasure from the Lord.” Unfortunately, neither Bride nor her lover have worked through the trauma of their lives for this child to feel the treasure that she will be.  They have not reconciled with their parents and with the events that have shaped their lives. The reader knows through the words of Sweetness, Bride’s mother, that the path for her unborn grandchild will be fraught with challenges. Sweetness says silently in her thoughts, “Listen to me. You are about to find out what it takes, how the world is, how it works and how it changes when you are a parent. Good luck and God help the child.”

The novel provides subject matter that causes the reader to pause for reflection.The novel is both somber in tone and in content; it allows for both personal and powerful rumination for both parents and their adult children. Do not expect the typical Toni Morrison style of unfettered complexity, but perhaps upon careful meditation, one may accept the challenges of parenthood with both alacrity and God’s help. I recommend it, but the reader must know, that the novel is thought-provoking, with the hope that it will spur both parents and children toward positive action.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch

The Use of the “N’ Word: A Review of Faulkner’s The Sound And The Fury

I must admit that I was challenged when reading Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in preparation for its theatrical production by the Elevator Repair Service ( I do not know the significance of their name).  The novel was first published in 1929. Having read Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, (one of my favorite novels in high school) I was excited to hear that a play was going to be made of The Sound and the Fury, one of Faulkner’s greatest works. I wasted no time purchasing my ticket because I knew it would be a hot seller. I knew that I would have to read the text to better understand the play because Faulkner is a complex writer of southern literature who uses dialect and stream of consciousness to a great height to convey his themes. Thus, I approached The Sound and the Fury with great excitement and courage. I had about six months to read the book once I purchased my ticket (One would have thought that this would have been more than enough time).  Even though I had the novel for months, I waited until a few weeks before the show to start reading it. Unfortunately, as I started reading it, I knew that I would not finish the book in time.  The complexities of the characters and the stream of consciousness in which Faulkner wrote proved at first to be a hindrance to comprehension and to maintaining my interest.  imageWhen I saw the play, I also had great difficulty maintaining concentration because it followed the first chapter verbatim, with all its stream of consciousness and narration. I decided after the show that I would look back at the text and finish it no matter the difficulty, and that I would see the show again (Had I just disciplined myself the first time, I would have saved $55).  I am proud to say that not only did I complete the novel, but I am revisiting the first chapter again to see if it was as difficult as I first thought. Needless to say, since I now understand the character development, the first chapter now makes complete sense.

The title, The Sound and the Fury, is taken from Shakespeare’s Macbeth when Macbeth says, “…It is a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury Signifying nothing.” Indeed this is a tale told by “an idiot and others, but it signifies everything. Faulkner creates a story in four chapters, with each chapter having a different narrator. The first chapter is told by Benjy, the “idiot”; the second chapter is told by Quentin, an obsessed older brother; The third chapter is told by Jason, a bitter and angry brother, and the last chapter is told by Dilsey, the “Negro” maid and child-rearer for the Compson family. This story is about the economic and social loss that a family faces as a result of some devastating events.  It is a story about the prejudices that people have toward others who are different from themselves ethnically, nationally, racially, and intellectually. It about making judgments about people without knowing anything about them. It’s about people believing that your genetic makeup automatically predisposes you toward either good or evil. Pejorative terms for blacks, whites, developmentally delayed people, and women are all used in the novel to give the reader a sense of the sentiment of the time toward people of various backgrounds. The novel is extremely detailed, and I cannot do justice in this blog to the many motifs of the novel. The use of the “N” word in the text will be the focus of this post. In keeping with the novel, I will use the word Negro when referring to African-Americans from the text. I will use nigger when it is used in the text, and I will use African-American when speaking of blacks during the current time period.

Faulkner exposes racial prejudice thoroughly. Throughout the text, he shows how deeply it is embedded within the American culture, not just southern culture. Quentin states in the novel,

I used to think that a Southerner had to be always conscious of niggers.  I thought that Northerners would expect him to.  When I first came East I kept thinking You’ve got to remember to think of them as colored people not niggers, and if it hadn’t happened that I wasn’t thrown with many of them, I’d wasted a lot of time and trouble before I learned that the best way to take all people, black or white, is to take them for what they think they are, then leave them alone. That was when I realised [sic] that a nigger is not a person so much as a form of behavior; a sort of obverse reflection of the white people he lives among.

In spite of these thoughts that Quentin espouses, he continues to use the “N” word contemptuously. Consciously he knows that people should be evaluated individually, but he still sees people collectively rather than individually. Is it possible for Quentin to cease this behavior? Webster’s dictionary defines nigger as a disparaging word for black people. If nigger is a behavior, and not a specific group of people, why do many African-Americans continue to use the word? African-Americans of various socioeconomic classes use the word as a term of endearment (As far as I am concerned there is no distinction between niggah, nigger, or any variation of the word). Throughout the novel, the blacks continue to call each other niggers. They never seem to see themselves as anything other than what they have been called. This is a case of art imitating life.

If a group of people have been called a pejorative term for hundreds of years, is it realistic for them not to think of themselves as the very thing that they been have been called? When a person is called something, it becomes normal to call oneself that very thing. It takes much self-determination to call oneself something other than what he has been called for centuries.  It takes even more self-determination to think of oneself as something else. If we as African-Americans are not able to see ourselves as something other than a nigger, how will anyone else see us for the intelligent people we are? How can we change the collective attitude of the masses? Is it even possible? According to Jason, the angry brother, “When people act like niggers, no matter who they are the only thing to do is treat them like a nigger.” He is referring to Miss Quentin’s (she is white) behavior. His comment about her reminds me of a black man on the train who said to a white man, “You are a dumb white nigger.” That was the first time I ever heard a black person call someone white a nigger. Clearly this was not based on the color of his skin, but based on the behavior. The comment, however was still disparaging.

Additionally, even the Negroes disparage each other. Dilsey, the African-American maid is no exception. When talking to Lester, she says, “Dont [ sic] you lie to me, nigger boy.” Furthermore, more evidence of racial prejudice toward the blacks to each other is depicted. For example, on Easter Sunday, “the Negroes” are expecting a great Negro speaker for their service. They have high hopes that this speaker will be someone great. Dilsey, the narrator, gives us a glimpse into the thoughts of the Negro congregants about the appearance of the speaker. She says when they see him, however, he is “…undersized, in a shabby alpaca coat. He had a wizened black face like a small, aged monkey.  The congregation looked “…at him with consternation and unbelief when the minister rose and introduced him in rich, rolling tones whose very unction served to increase the visitor’s insignificance.” We also know from the narrator that “When the visitor rose to speak he sounded like a white man.  His voice was level and cold.  It sounded too big to have come from him and they listened at first through curiosity, as they would have to a monkey talking.” Faulkner, thematically is saying that the “Negroes” too, judged a person by appearance.  Because the man’s voice sounded to big, the congregants thought he sounded like a white man. The narration reminds me of the many times when I hear African-Americans say that when, we, African -Americans talk “proper” we sound white.  African- Americans have expectations of each other based on race. When black or white people fall short of our ideals, we disparage them.

Faulkner was very ingenious in how he wrote the novel.  He makes serious statements about humanity’s prejudices from various angles.  The questions that we are left to ponder include the following: Is it possible for African-Americans to stop using the ‘N” Word? Is it too deeply embedded within our culture? Is there anything that can be done to make the word obsolete? Is it possible to stop prejudging people based on artificial classifications that do not determine character? Is character in any way determined by one’s blood? Let me know your thoughts. Comments welcome. A review of the play will be posted after I see it again on June 18, 2015.

Deirdre M. DeLoatch
Deirdre M. DeLoatch