Sunday, March 28, 2021

"Heads of the Colored People"

For class on Wednesday, please read Nafissa Thompson-Spires’s story “Heads of the Colored People: Four Fancy Sketches, Two Chalk Outlines, and No Apology.”  Here is the audio recording of that story. 

(The PDF also includes two other stories that I find especially captivating and brutal, “Belles Lettres” and “Suicide, Watch”; both of these are optional, but I think you will enjoy them if you have the wherewithal.)

My main purpose in lecture will be to give you some tools to name and notice important features of this story’s narration, terms that we will use to develop a fuller description of and argument about the story as a whole.

Our understanding of Thompson-Spires’ narrator will be clarified by some attention to the effect of the story’s densely figured network of allusions.  Though I was tempted to write you a module page that glosses every reference in the story’s pages, I rapidly abandoned that project as too time-consuming.  I will share just a selection here, for fun rather than because you need to follow the threads; taken together, this would give you a sense of the body of cultural references with which the story’s narrator is familiar.

Here’s a link to a PDF of William Wilson’s "Afric-American Picture Gallery" (p. 8) – note that these are prose sketches, not drawings. And here’s a great biographical sketch of James McCune Smith, author of the “Heads of the Colored People” sketches that give Thompson-Spires the title for both the story and the collection as a whole; I couldn’t find this text online, but here's a scholarly article that gives a good sense of it. This is now only very obliquely related to the story, but I can’t resist giving you this link to a book about the eighteenth-century "Lecture on Heads" that forms part of the earlier culture discourse on “heads” – note the fact that we really can’t separate periodical print culture from theatrical performances in a variety of settings.

Flannery O’Connor’s story "Everything That Rises Must Converge" is an important intertext for the story’s conclusion, and so is Donika Kelly’s poem "Arkansas Love Story".  I’ll say more in class about intertextuality, and you can also check out this definition of mise en abyme beforehand if you like (all three references on p. 14).

A few other bits I like: Why the narrator snags on the fact that Brother Man’s birth name is Richard Simmons (p. 6); the 90s song "Say My Name" (p. 11); "Best of Bruh Man" clips from TV show Martin (the “wish sandwich” bit is right at the end).

Finally, two visual references for the opening pages.

Sonic the Hedgehog spikes (p. 1):

Tamaki Suoh, president of Ouran Host Club, the character Riley’s dressed as in the story (p. 3):


Friday, March 12, 2021

COVID impact

Pictured, L to R: Theresa, Helena and Caroline Richards in the late 1940s.  

You can't see it in black and white, but Theresa's hair is at the intersection of light brown and blond, and Helena and Caroline both have the most brilliantly red hair.

(When my brothers and I were little, my mother would tell us the story of how often random strangers spoke to her on public transit to compliment her extraordinary hair; she was puzzled because red hair was so strong in her mother's side of the family that it didn't strike her as anything out of the ordinary.  And yes I do think I have an unexpressed red-headedness gene....)

Fourth sister Penny had not yet arrived, but there would be four Richards girls altogether. Now there are three.  

Theresa was born in London on the night Coventry Cathedral was bombed, and the Blitz and its ramifications provided the conditions for Theresa and my mother Caroline's earliest childhood (my mother was born in a town I will not name because it is the answer to a common security question on the internet but to which she has no connection other than that her mother and baby Theresa were evacuated there during the worst period of bombing). 

Theresa's health declined significantly in her seventies, partly perhaps because of her aversion to the dentist (I don't think she had any teeth left in her mouth in her final years).  About eighteen months ago she moved into an assisted living facility outside of London.  She was quite happy there, with regular visits from her son and granddaughter and an enjoyable habit of having a gin and tonic at the end of the day.  The pandemic shut down visiting and I do not imagine this past year was easy for her, with communal dining shut down and virtually no opportunity to leave her room or receive visitors.  

I still don't know the sequence of events - I'm not sure anybody does - but she went into hospital some weeks ago with heart trouble.  And whether she contracted COVID at the home beforehand or it happened during her hospital stay, she got it and it hit her hard.  They stopped treatment finally and she went into hospice and struggled to breathe for another week before she died.

She was eighty years old.  On the basis of family aging patterns, there is every reason to think she should have had five or seven or nine more years of ticking along pretty happily with family visits periodically and a reasonable quality of life.

Her funeral took place yesterday. I watched it over the internet.

COVID impact.

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

Getting started with August Wilson

 It speaks to the nature of my workload right now that as I sat down this morning on the middle day of our one-week spring break, I decided to write the module page for the next couple weeks rather than doing any of the many other tasks that are perhaps more pressing!  As noted previously, I am going to keep this up once I'm teaching in-person again, but oh yes it does increase workload....

(Had to delete links due to formatting issues, but yes it's nice to be able to put them in blog-style!)


We will treat August Wilson's great play Joe Turner’s Come and Gone over the two weeks following the break. 

Reminder: no seminar meeting on the Monday immediately following spring break.

I've asked you to read act one for lecture on March 10 and act two for March 17.

I would like everyone to experience this play in its entirety, and I am lucky to be able to give you a really great way into it: this high-quality full audio recording of a "staged reading" of the play. 

(Recording courtesy of the personal archive of Wilson scholar [redacted] - I did pursue it via legal channels but came up short, and a mutual friend put us in touch.  A staged reading, by the way, is much cheaper to put on than a full production of a play; it doesn't have the same oomph, perhaps, but you get something pretty amazing for a fraction of the resources.  Here's a funny and helpful blog post that gives good advice for anyone who is wanting to put on a staged reading themselves, including an explanation of the distinction between a staged reading and a read-through or "table read".) 

Hre's a short video clip of the reading we have in audio, though I think that the audio recording on it own brings the world of the play incredibly vividly to life - I'm looking forward to hearing what you think.  I rode in the back seat of a Carmel car service round-trip to Philadelphia yesterday to have a (FREEZINGLY COLD!) ninety-minute outdoor visit with my mother in her back yard, and I listened to it with my eyes closed and felt transported to another world - the only thing that would have been better would have been if I were actually lying down in a fully horizontal position...

So at a minimum, you could listen to the full play (it's a little over two hours) and leave it at that.  Ideally, though, you listen to it this week while you have a bit more spare time, perhaps in a single sitting or maybe in 2-3 forty-minute chunks, then read act one with your eyes and mind for seminar on 3/15 and act two ditto for seminar on 3/22.

There are two critical readings on the syllabus for week one, but I will suggest that you consider them optional.  I'll draw on them for the lecture, perhaps sharing a mini-anthology of passages, and your seminar leader may bring a paragraph or two to class for you to read together as a group, but please don't worry about them otherwise.  These are as follows:

  • an important theoretical discussion by Joseph Roach, “History, Memory, and Performance,” the introduction to his extremely influential book Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance
  • the overture and introduction ("overture" being the instrumental introduction to an opera, oratorio or play ) of a really great book by Harry J. Elam, Jr., , The Past As Present in the Drama of August Wilson (the full book is available through the Columbia library system).

In the second week, I will ask you to read August Wilson's short manifesto “The Ground on Which I Stand” for discussion in seminar on 3/17.  You will also write assignment #5 for seminar that day (it's two full weeks after the break), and this assignment will be designed not by me but by your own particular seminar leader, so that they can customize the questions with a view to directing the discussion they'd like to have in class.

Bonus picture: my happy mother and myself in her back yard with high winds and temps in the 20s!  If you're not so lucky as I was to catch a glimpse of a much-loved person this week, fortitude, and I hope that the chance will come to you sooner rather than later.