Monday, May 13, 2019
May 13, 2019: Spring Semester Reflections: Hurston and Beyoncé in 20C Af Am Lit
[April showers bring May flowers, and May flowers bring, besides Pilgrims, the end of another semester. So this week I’ll share a few reflections from my Spring 2019 semester, leading up to a special weekend post on what’s ahead for the summer and beyond. I’d love to hear your Spring reflections in comments!]
On adding African American women’s voices into our collective conversations more fully.
The last half-dozen years have been an incredible time for African American filmmaking. Starting with the phenomenal success of Twelve Years a Slave (2013; I know any “starting point” for this kind of trend is simplistic at best, but I do think McQueen’s film was a hugely influential one in this recent period), and continuing through such disparate films as Selma (2015), Moonlight (2016), Get Out (2017), Black Panther (2018), and BlacKkKlansman (2018), these African American-made and –focused films have consistently achieved both critical acclaim and financial success. Yet despite all their differences, I would argue that all of those films have focused more on African American male characters than on African American female ones; although Black Panther in particular did feature a number of compelling female characters, it still boiled down to a conflict between its two central men. While the wonderful recent film If Beale Street Could Talk (2018) did feature an African American female co-lead and narrator (Tish, played by the very talented newcomer KiKi Layne), as well as an Oscar-winning supporting character played by the great Regina King, I would still argue that the film’s central story is that of its male protagonist, Stephan James’s Fonny.
I was thinking about all of these things quite a bit in the course of my 20th Century African American Literature class, perhaps especially because I had chosen four main texts by male authors and two by female authors. By the time I started to really question that ratio (not the individual choices, but the overall balance), it was too late to change out any main texts; I made sure to include more supplemental readings by female authors than male ones to help redress this balance, but also made sure to foreground questions of gender, sexuality and sexual preference, and other parallel threads throughout our conversations (of all our texts). That was made significantly easier because our second main text was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), one of American literature’s most potent examinations of African American women’s experiences, perspectives, and identities. From its famous opening paragraphs, an extended metaphor about the similarities and differences between men’s and women’s dreams, on through its protagonist Janie’s concluding argument (to her best friend Phoeby) that “You got to go there to know there,” Hurston’s novel engages with women’s lives and communities on both the broadest and the most intimate levels. It’s no coincidence that Richard Wright, whose works I greatly value but who was not the most progressive thinker when it came to gender, had such issues with Hurston’s book.
Throughout the semester I complemented our shared readings with class-opening multimedia texts, leading up to a series of stunning student presentations on such texts and artists in the course’s final weeks. For our first day with Hurston’s novel, I shared “Redemption”/“All Night,” one of the songs and short films from Beyoncé’s ground-breaking Lemonade (2016) visual album. As often happens with paired texts, that work’s images of grandmothers and granddaughters, Southern settings and histories, and familial and cultural legacies spoke to and were informed by Hurston’s opening chapters in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined until we were in that space and encountering those texts together. And if I’m being honest, that moment powerfully affected my perspective on Beyoncé—I had always felt that her towering cultural presence was a bit more about overall image than artistic power; but through re-examining this particular text of hers, and putting it in conversation with Hurston’s novel, I realized that no small part of my own failure to engage sufficiently with Beyoncé’s works has been a reflection of the need in my own perspective and life for more African American women’s voices. I hope that this class helped push me as well as my students in that direction, but I have more work to do to be sure.
Next reflection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Spring reflections you’d share?