English Department Recommendations

Kindred

Octavia Butler

Recommendations:
Kindred written by Octavia Butler
Watchmen adapted from the graphic novel for television by Damon Lindelof, starring Regina King

At first glance, the historical fantasy Kindred (1979) by acclaimed sci fi novelist Octavia Butler and the limited superhero series Watchmen (2019) adapted by Damon Lindelof for HBO, appear to have nothing in common. And yet, both genre-bending fantastical texts use the concept of time travel to explore the trauma and violence that have been intentionally inflicted upon Black Americans since America’s founding. In Kindred, Butler uses the familiar framework of a slave narrative and its emphasis on first-person storytelling to contrast our modern perceptions of American slavery with the experiences of the Black men and women who lived through it in the early to mid-nineteenth century. At the outset of the novel, a young African-American writer, Dana Franklin, is magically transported back through time, from her home in Los Angeles in 1976 to a Maryland plantation in 1815. There she will meet two of her ancestors—a Black freewoman and the white plantation-owner who has enslaved her. As Dana moves frighteningly (and without warning) back and forth between her own present and the antebellum plantation of her forebears, she becomes more and more deeply entangled in the lives of both the enslaved people who live and work the plantation and the family who keeps them in bondage. Dana’s struggle to survive there and to come to terms with her (and our) history is the ultimate focus of Butler’s emotional tour de force. I have taught Kindred (and its graphic novel counterpart) for this very reason. While we should not need to be reminded that the legacy of America’s violent, racist past is still with us today, Kindred possesses the power to move us seamlessly between both worlds, that we might come to understand ourselves and our country’s history better, and to see a way forward more clearly.

Watchmen, by contrast, is based on the famed DC comic book series and graphic novel of the same name, first published by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, and John Higgins in the late 1980s. In the original graphic novel, Moore deconstructed (and satirized) the concept of the superhero figure in part by writing an alternate history for America in the twentieth-century. The new limited television series is what showrunner Damon Lindelof has described as “remix”--a sequel, of sorts, if also a reimagining of the source material of the original comic but set in our present day, 34 years after the comic’s conclusion. Starring Regina King as a hooded, masked police officer who fights crime as the vigilante figure Sister Night, Watchmen is a reinvigoration of the superhero genre, but one that puts race and the legacy of racial violence at its center. The opening scene of the series takes place in 1921 during the oft-forgotten Tulsa race massacre. We are shown how white mobs attacked Black families and businesses in the Greenwood District of the city, which was at that time one of the most prosperous Black communities in the country (otherwise known as “Black Wall Street”). Over the course of the series, we see how the trauma of the violence of that day impacted subsequent generations of African-American men and women. Admittedly, unlike with Butler's novel, Watchmen is far more difficult to follow initially if you have little to no knowledge of the plot and characters of Moore’s original comic book series. Yet, just by reading a summary of the show’s source material, I was able to become immersed in the world (and to come to understand its characters and history) despite my lack of prior exposure. As in Kindred, some of Watchmen's most profound insights occur when characters travel back in time—either within their own memories or within those of others. While a viewer of the series won’t be rewarded with some of these moments until the latter half of its nine-episode arc, it is well worth watching, if you enjoy the superhero genre and/or are at all familiar with the original graphic novel.

Both fantastical texts contain frank—and at times graphic—treatments of racist violence and the trauma it causes for survivors. Just as significantly, however, they also present complex, righteous protagonists fighting to protect those they love from further harm, from experiencing all that they have been forced to endure. In this way, Kindred and Watchmen very much speak to our present moment; they offer powerful portrayals of courageous Black heroines using historical memory and their own experience and insight to fight white supremacy and the violence it perpetuates.

 

---Rachel Heffner Burns

Family

J. California Cooper

J. California Cooper's novel Family (1991) is a neo-slave narrative that follows an African American family from the 1840s to the 1930s, narrated by the family matriarch even after she has died. The 90-year scope of the novel shows how the shadow of slavery continued to follow African American families long after emancipation. As recent events in 2020 have shown, the last 90 years of history have also suffered from the persistent legacy of slavery and white supremacy in the United States.

 

 --- Ed Whitley

The Bondwoman's Narrative

Hannah Crafts

Hannah Crafts' The Bondwoman's Narrative is not only an amazing novel, but it is also an impressive testament to the kinds of archival gems hidden in personal collections. The novel's manuscript originally belonged to African American scholar Dorothy Porter, before Henry Louis Gates Jr. bought it at auction from her estate in 2001. The novel follows an enslaved woman, Hannah, as she escapes Lindendale plantation with her new and unnamed mistress. The two flee after it becomes clear that the mistress' mixed-race heritage will be revealed to her husband by Mr. Trappe, a lawyer who follows Hannah and her mistress at every step. After the death of her mistress, the plot then follows Hannah as she passes in out of the hands of several enslavers, finally kept in bondage by the Wheeler family. It is from the Wheelers that Hannah escapes again, making her way North. The end of the novel finds Hannah rejoined with her mother and married to a Methodist preacher in New Jersey.

 

While The Bondwoman's Narrative is a significant historical discovery (its manuscript predates the publishing of Harriet Wilson's Our Nig), I chose this text because it decenters whiteness in the Gothic canon. Crafts' novel does play with and pay homage to that canon, but she reconfigures the Gothic castle as a southern plantation and the standard Gothic return of the past to demonstrate the abject terror of the centuries-long curse of enslavement. Crafts' riffs on and nods to the Gothic canon expand our understanding of the applicability and appeal to the genre while also firmly establishing Crafts' voice within that tradition. Crafts deftly uses the Gothic genre and its tropes to her advantage, but she also uses this text to reveal the prevalence of "well-meaning white people"--white people who may do good deeds on behalf of black people but do little to actually question, disrupt or tear down systemic racism. Throughout the novel, Hannah comes into contact with white people who are willing to be kind to her and do the bare minimum of acknowledging her humanity, but who don't see it as their place to take a hard stance against slavery. I think this aspect of the book speaks to our current racial climate quite well, as many of us are being asked to examine how we are implicated in systemic racism and exactly who our "good deeds" benefit.

 

-----by Shelby Carr

Sojourner Truth's April, 1851 Speech

Sojourner Truth

For my post, I chose Sojourner Truth’s April, 1851 speech, delivered at the Akron Woman’s Right Convention, popularly and erroneously known as the “Ain’t i a woman” speech. I chose Truth’s speech not because of its content--though the speech is well worth the read. Instead, it is the speech’s textual history and deformation by the hands of white abolitionist writer Frances Dana Barker Gage that I want us to focus on. Gage, though an ally to the abolitionist, feminist, and other progressive social causes of nineteenth-century America, commits a form of editorial violence against Truth, turning the words of a fugitive slave into minstrelsy.  In her original speech, Truth opened with the following question: “May I say a few words?” In 1863 Gage took those words away. For a good part of the twentieth century, one of these versions was reprinted and anthologized. I am sure you can guess which one.

Truth’s words were originally published in June of 1851 in the Anti-Slavery Bugle—you can see the original printing here. In her speech, Truth rhetorically dismantles the claim of woman’s frailty while asserting her own place as a woman of color to be included in discussions and advocacy for women’s rights. As readers, we should also examine just how much space in the Anti-Slavery Bugle Truth’s speech takes up. Sandwiched between much larger articles on the final page, Truth’s words are set against screeds on popular fashion, a short moral tale concerning children, a poem double the length of Truth’s speech, and a reprinted legal review of a popular court case. In short, while her speech was new to the reading public, it was not given front-page access even in an abolitionist paper.
Gage’s version received a much more telling treatment when it first appeared in the New York Independent in April of 1863. While Gage did retain some of the form and key words from Truth’s original, she heavily modified most of the speech. Now in stereotypical southern slave dialect, Truth’s words became a spectacle. Gage removed Truth’s voice, altered her words, and turned the convention hall into a minstrel stage. This version continued to be popular as Gage’s work was often reprinted in collections in the late nineteenth-century and well into the twentieth. Her title: “Ain’t i a woman?” continues to be associated with Truth’s speech, though that phrase never appeared in the original. The most disturbing element of this history is that Gage’s version is still taught outside of editorial context. For example, my first exposure to Truth was through Gage’s text and this happened in the 2000s. Such an editorial history should give us pause and it should also be a warning. Our ally-ship, whether intended or not, can easily silence the voices of those so desperately trying to speak.

----by Kyle Brett

The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas

The Hate U Give
Angie Thomas

T.H.U.G L.I.F.E- “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody.” - Tupac Shakur

The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, breathed new life into the Black Lives Matter Movement when he breathed his last. Recent efforts nationwide to fight against racism, systemic oppression, and police brutality have provided a poignant reminder that these incidents are ongoing and change has yet to come. Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is inspired by Tupac Shakur’s acronym of thug life. The hate in this world is the creation of a system designed against the oppressed. The lack of opportunities for minorities pushes them towards the mentality that selling drugs or gangbanging is the only escape from poverty and when the oppressed youth grow up rebellious, they’re assumed to be dangerous. Just as Tupac educated and empowered Black lives with his words, Thomas does the same through her presentation of a Black female protagonist whose spoken truth becomes the greatest weapon.

The novel begins with teenage Starr Carter and her childhood best friend, Khalil, driving away from a shoot-out at a Garden Heights party. When they get pulled over by a White policeman, Starr is instantly reminded of the mantra her father instilled in her at age twelve, “Do whatever they tell you to do. Keep your hands visible. Don’t make any sudden moves. Only speak when they speak to you” (20). When Khalil deviates from these warnings, he’s forced out of his car by the police officer and as he turns to Starr to ask if she’s alright with a black hairbrush in his hand, he’s shot dead. The rest of the novel centers around Starr’s efforts to speak Khalil’s truth, her own, and in extension her community’s in an effort to get justice for a life stolen. When the decision not to indict the police officer for murder is released, all of Garden Heights breaks out in protests and riots. In this chaos, Starr realizes that anger spawns violence, and no single reaction is the correct one in a society never meant to hear voices like hers. Despite this brutal realization, she’s keenly aware that there will always be a cause like this to fight for like Aiyana’s, Trayvon’s, Rekia’s, Michael’s, Eric’s, Tamir’s, John’s, Ezell’s, Sandra’s, Freddie’s, Alton’s, Philando’s, and the list goes on. The naming of these victims are testaments to their lives, and George Floyd is only one more case to add to the list. The reality is that Floyd’s murder is not the end of this cycle and there is still much more to be done than what we’re doing currently. Thomas’ novel is a call to solidarity, where the oppressed must never give up on fighting for our people, which still rings true and is especially relevant today.

---by Paige Pagan

"Ear Hustle" Podcast

https://www.earhustlesq.com/

Since it’s summer, I’m recommending a podcast: Ear Hustle, a brilliant exploration of the human side of the American prison system. The podcast started in 2016 as a collaboration between two inmates in San Quentin State Prison, Antwan Williams and Earlonne Woods, and visual artist Nigel Poor. Alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, episodes focus on topics ranging from how birthdays are celebrated in prison to what it’s like to spend years in solitary confinement. In this moment of reckoning with America’s history of structural racism, Ear Hustle shows the impact of a broken system on individual lives. It is also, for me, a hopeful reminder of how story-telling can effect change: since it began, the podcast has garnered rave reviews in publications including The New York Times and The New Yorker, and been nominated for a Pulitzer prize. More importantly, the light the podcast shines on incarcerated populations has made an invaluable contribution to the prison reform and abolition movements. In fact, one of its hosts, Earlonne Woods, who had been serving a life sentence for non-violent offenses under California’s three strikes law, had his sentence commuted and was released in 2018, in part because of the attention garnered by the podcast.

Long story short: listen to this podcast. You won’t regret it. If you’re looking for something lighter, start with the first episode, “Cellies,” about how to  negotiate sharing a tiny cell space. Or for a timely discussion of being in prison during the COVID-19 pandemic and BLM protests, try the most recent episode, “Nobody Comes Back.”

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Michelle Alexander

Anti-Racist Summer Reading

Recommendation: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Michelle Alexander) and “The House I Live In” (Eugene Jarecki)

Summary and Analysis:

In the fall of 2015 I began teaching English 001 at Lehigh University, and I recall one particular class where my (mostly white and male) students argued that racism didn’t exist anymore; racism was an individual problem, confined to older people and the South.

After a day of unproductive dialogue I vented to my husband, who recommended we read excerpts from Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Every year since I have used Alexander’s text, and every year students are persuaded by her arguments to acknowledge that systemic racism exists and continues to harm black people in the United States.

Alexander is keenly aware her argument, that American mass incarceration policies have recreated the Jim Crow racial caste system, is not one most people want to hear. She uses statistics to devasting rhetorical effect and makes the complexities of the American legal system (and all its racism) accessible to a wide audience.

It was not surprising to discover after reading The New Jim Crow that Alexander is featured in another text I often teach at Lehigh: the documentary “The House I Live In.” Director Eugene Jarecki explores the war on drugs and shows how American political, economic, and social institutions work together to criminalize and destroy black communities. Using personal stories to explain systemic injustice, the film is accessible to a wide audience and a good starting point for people who want to begin having a conversation about systemic racism.

Our Nig or Sketches from the Life of a Free Black

Harriet E. Wilson

Summary and Analysis by Joanna Grim


Despite being lost for over 100 years,* Our Nig’s narrative force testifies to the deep roots of the Black Lives Matter movement. Our Nig tells the story of Frado, the daughter of a white mother and Black father. After her father’s death, Frado’s mother abandons her to indentured servitude. Frado endures extreme physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her white mistress, Mrs. Bellmont, until she is released at the age of 18. Permanently disabled by Mrs. Bellmont’s abuse, Frado struggles to gain financial independence and to build a life for herself and her son. Wilson’s novel condemns the brutal racial and economic inequality that free Black women like herself faced in the Antebellum north. Our Nig also exposes the hypocritical racism of the abolition movement, as Frado’s abuse and oppression occurs in Milford, New Hampshire, an abolitionist center.


Our Nig’s representation of a young Black woman’s fight for self-determination in the face of both systemic racism and the “help” of white women with connections to abolitionism remains pertinent. Wilson’s novel confronts today’s readers with the active role of even well-meaning white women in Black women’s oppression. As Wilson’s title alone argues, white northern women, the Karens and Beckys of today, can no longer hide behind the myth that they or the north are free from racism.


Wilson’s Our Nig provides historical context for the debate about the role of white people in the ongoing struggle for racial justice in America. Her novel also foreshadows many of the issues that the Black Lives Matter movement currently highlights, including the relationship between systemic and interpersonal racism, the link between economic and racial oppression, and the intersectional nature of Black women’s oppression.


Suggested Reading:

Harriet E. Wilson’s Our Nig or Sketches from the life of a Free Black: https://archive.org/details/ournigorsketches00wils

The Harriet Wilson Project: http://www.harrietwilsonproject.net/

Boggis et al., Harriet Wilson’s New England: Race, Writing, and Region (2007)

NPR, "Early Novel Written By Free Black Woman Called Out Racism Among Abolitionists"


* Henry Louis Gates Jr. rediscovered and republished Our Nig in 1983.

Let it Fall

Los Angeles 1982-1992

John Ridley

I watched LET IT FALL: LOS ANGELES 1982 - 1992, directed by John Ridley and released in 2017, in my course on disaster film. I had realized that the 1997 film VOLCANO, about a volcano that erupts in the middle of Los Angeles, was actually about the 1992 protests in LA. It’s a straightforward but effective metaphor: magma surging underneath the city, pressure building and finally erupting. And if you miss, that, an African-American character calls himself the “volcano version of Rodney King” at one point. So, I went to the documentary LET IT FALL—a brilliant exploration of the beating of Rodney King by four white LA police officers, their subsequent acquittal in a jury trial, and the resulting six days of mass protests and violence in Los Angeles.
Here are just two of the reasons I strongly recommend LET IT FALL. First, the story Ridley tells is uncannily similar to George Floyd’s murder and the aftermath. While the film is thus thoroughly disheartening, making us realize how much further we should have come by 2020, it is also a striking instance of how the past can illuminate the present. And second, Ridley’s storytelling is just brilliant, which is precisely what makes his film so incredibly illuminating. The timeline of his film begins nine years before Rodney King was stopped and beaten (a beating caught on video) and ten years before those officers who beat him were acquitted. Ridley thus makes us realize that causes are not only near and direct; they are longstanding, and they spread their roots far and deep. Ridley also tells his story largely by means of those who were involved—black, white, Korean—and he insists that their histories, which go back even further than 1982, matter also. Understanding is a long journey. LET IT FALL is on Netflix.

Don't Call Us Dead

Danez Smith

"Award-winning poet Danez Smith is a groundbreaking force, celebrated for deft lyrics, urgent subjects, and performative power. Don't Call Us Dead opens with a heartrending sequence that imagines an afterlife for black men shot by police, a place where suspicion, violence, and grief are forgotten and replaced with the safety, love, and longevity they deserved here on earth. Smith turns then to desire, mortality—the dangers experienced in skin and body and blood—and a diagnosis of HIV positive. "Some of us are killed / in pieces," Smith writes, "some of us all at once." Don't Call Us Dead is an astonishing and ambitious collection, one that confronts, praises, and rebukes America—"Dear White America"—where every day is too often a funeral and not often enough a miracle."

-Recommended by Laura Marciano