It is October, which means it is time for a September recounting. And in the words of the late, and untimely-appreciated poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, what does it all matter? Asked, as often is the case, upon the heels of some deeply felt (if universally unimportant) perceived or apparent rejection, the question might more honestly be phrased: and what do I at all matter? Does what we do matter, if it is never acknowledged, affirmed, embraced by others as meaningful? Here are some matters worth embracing, or contemplating at least, for the month (in my opinion...but what do I at all matter?):
I, too, read "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman when I was 16, and I, too, immediately forgot everything about it other than the vague, papery sense of smugness that settles around obligatory high-school level literature. Re-reading the story this month, I discovered that Gilman, whose writing was foundational to first-wave American feminism, was a master of gothic horror:
Sometimes I think there are a great many women behind, and sometimes only one, and she crawls around fast, and her crawling shakes it all over.
Then in the very bright spots she keeps still, and in the very shady spots she just takes hold of the bars and shakes them hard.
And she is all the time trying to climb through. But nobody could climb through that pattern--it strangles so; I think that is why it has so many heads.
A sad thing about obligatory high-school level literature is that we almost never revisit it as adults--once our ironic smirks have ossified into grim rictuses of resignation, and decades of disappointment and disillusion have scraped the arrogant scales from our eyes, rendering us finally capable of reading horrific tales of domestic entrapment with appropriate glee and/or terror. We are also more capable, as adults, of taking in the longer context of a writer, beyond their canonization in literary anthologies and thus in certain well-lit verandas of the U.S. collective imagination. I came across Gilman in my deep dive into utopian writers and thinkers, and discovered that not only was she a utopian; she was also a bona fide racist. Among her lesser known writings include:
At last the suggestion [to the Negro problem]: Let each sovereign state carefully organize in every county and township an enlisted body of all negroes below a certain grade of citizenship. Those above it--the decent, self-supporting, progressive negroes--form no problem and call for nothing but congratulation. But the whole body of negroes who do not progress, who are not self-supporting, who are degenerating into an increasing percentage of social burdens or actual criminals should be taken hold of by the state.
This proposed organization is not enslavement, but enlistment.
She was a woman ahead of her times. Today, rather than "enlistment," we have incarceration in jails and prisons across the country, for "the whole body of negroes who do not progress, who are not self-supporting, who are degenerating..." And this from a woman so concerned about bars, and the horrors of confinement and unjust exercising of power.
Tillie Olson's Silences--about the long gaps in literature where the writings of oppressed classes of people should be--has been on my mind a lot these past weeks. Perhaps a companion piece could be called Silencings, in which outsized pieces of literature are shouted down from their pedestals, or ushered from their well-lit verandas, to make room, make room, for what comes next. Consider this a first installment.
Instead revisit (or more likely, visit) this deliciously rich story by Ann Petry, Harlem. Her novel, The Street, was the first novel written by a black woman to sell more than a million copies. And does it matter!
Alice Walker's recently published journals, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, is delightful. Early drafts of The Color Purple; her love affair with Tracy Chapman; her efforts to ensure that Zora Neale Hurston's work was not only attended to, but deeply understood. On Toni Cade Bambara's biographical film of Zora Neale Hurston (and of silences--the film project, meant to be shown on public television, never came to be. How much is lost? How much brilliant, thoughtful, considered work is lost to the ages, while "The Yellow Wallpaper" remains...):
My primary concern is with the ending. It is impossible for me to believe, after all her struggle to achieve wisdom, Hurston saw her quest as mainly a literary one. For a person of Hurston's sensibility, the literary quest is really a manifestation of or "mask" for the spiritual. Personally, I think Hurston knew that one day her literary gift would be well received, and that she would be remembered along with Hughes and Wright. When your gift to a people is themselves, they're bound to have to accept it sooner or later.
And so, what does it all matter? What do I matter? When your gift to a people is themselves, they're bound to have to accept it sooner or later. And when your gift to a people, whether they know it or not, is a fractured and fragmented version of themselves--a utopia from which a whole part of humanity is barred--they are bound to have to reject it, sooner or later.
The Woman King! Obviously! Here is the trailer.
Until next month,