There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe: Reading Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street as a Fairy Tale Retelling



Introduction

            In Sandra Cisneros’s novel The House on Mango Street (1984), we meet our protagonist/narrator Esperanza and witness her coming of age. A popular text among educators and casual readers alike, critics struggle to classify the novel. A general consensus stands that it can be classified as a bildungsroman, but there is also a debate concerning the subject matter and whether it is appropriate for young readers. Should we classify it as children’s literature simply because a child is the protagonist? Is it adult literature because of the adult subject matter? The intersection of the reality of Esperanza’s implied age (an exact age is never provided but her adolescent age has been inferred) is endemic of the necessity of these conversations. Childhood is after all not a monolith of experience but one that varies exponentially among culture and region. Strict consideration of literary conventions is a problematic approach and The House on Mango Street deconstructs them. My project is not to discredit one form or to elevate one over the other but to posit a new form and reading to add to the already expansive list of critical readings of the text a fairy-tale.

Fairy tale conventions appear within individual vignettes, and Cisneros makes connections between mythical tribulations and the real-world traumas with mythic proportions. I aim to examine Cisneros’s engagement with the fairy tale form, not just the breadth but also the significance as endemic of an intersection of literary genre. Considering genre is important to understanding how Esperanza comes of age and what she is coming into. The novel has appeal across age and genre. Like the fairy tale, Mango Street transcends convention because of and in response to social conditions. Fairy tales, though often relegated to children’s literature maintain significance throughout adulthood. The House on Mango Street is not a typical fairy tale, however. Cisneros uses the conventions in order to critique the disproportionate fantasies and expectations of femininity offered in fairy tales, challenging the genre and its portrayal of young girls and proposing methods of survival. Despite a plethora of fairy tale allusions, none are more prominent in the novella as the 510B designation according to the Aarne-Thompson classification of folk tales. That classification encompasses stories of the persecuted heroine and unnatural love and as a test subject will read Mango Street along with the Grimm’s “All Fur.”

Critics consider The House on Mango Street as a feminist text. Cisneros dedicates the novel “a las mujeres,” in English “to the women.” Women are the subject and object of the text; we view that objectification and the subsequent struggle for subjectivity through the lives of the women who live on Mango Street. In her article “Feminism and Fairy Tales,” critic Karen E. Rowe writes presents a critical argument against reading fairy tales as feminist. Rowe’s essay does not stand the test of time, particularly when it comes to fairy tale retellings. In her article published in 1979, Rowe asserts that fairy tales “glorify, passivity, dependency, and self-sacrifice as a heroine’s cardinal virtues” which suggests “that culture’s very survival depends upon a woman’s acceptance of roles which relegate her to motherhood and domesticity” (239). Ultimately, fairy tales rob their heroines and subsequently their female readers of their agency (Rowe 247). Liberated thinkers must therefore reject fairy tales as something that belongs in the past. I find Rowe’s conclusions interesting in light of the feminist retellings being produced contemporaneously to this essay, namely Ann Sexton’s Transformation and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Cisneros publishes Mango Street five years after Rowe publishes her essay, in the midst of this debate concerning feminism and fairy tales. The fairy tale retelling is a response to the assertion that fairy tales cannot be feminist.

In order to accomplish my analysis of The House on Mango Street as feminist, fairy tale retelling, I will embark on a new-formalist reading. New formalism as explained by Caroline Levine in her book Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy Network (2015) seeks to redefine traditional formalism and consider a formalism that considers aesthetics as well as politics. She writes, “the primary goal of this formalism is radical social change” (Levine 18). This social change can be found by studying forms and their affordances. The affordances of form encapsulate what forms are “capable” of doing (Levine 6). Traditionally, forms are considered independently of one another but Levine urges us to consider them in tandem, in concert. The usual definition of forms must be expanded to include “patterns of sociopolitical experience” (Levine 18). She continues writing that there is no “politics without form” (Levine 3). She advocates, “all politics, including revolutionary political action, will succeed only if it is canny about deploying multiple forms” (Levine 18). In literary criticism critics “have to take stock of the social and historical conditions that surround the work’s production” and “connect the novel’s forms to its social world” (Levine 1). As theorists we undertake this project by considering a work’s whole, rhythm, hierarchy, and network. Cisneros engages with the affordances of the fairy tale form in order to offer commentary on both the form and the necessity of that form.

Fairy tales are replete with monsters, dragons, and boogeymen that hide in caves and homes preying on good little girls and boys. We read them because of the assurance that in the end, the dragons will be slain. The dragons that plague Mango Street don’t fly, or breathe fire, or guard treasure troves. Instead, these dragons keep young girls like Esperanza trapped and expose them to sexual violence and manipulation, keeping women of all ages as girls touched with shame, exploitation, and abuse. The dragons prowl through Mango Street wreaking emotional havoc and destruction. Esperanza comes of age amidst dragons and monsters. Ultimately, The House on Mango Street is a conflation of a bildungsroman and fairy-tale retelling.

Adapting to the Fairy Tale Form

            In order to make a case for The House on Mango Street as a fairy tale, we have to consider the novel’s form. Many modern critics “resist the containing power of form” (Levine 25). New formalism, however, takes the “old formalist presumption that wholes are there to contain while continuing the deconstructive tradition of celebrating resistance and rupture” (Levine 26). The form of a work of art can be found in what theorist Caroline Levine calls “the unifying power” wherein “social unity” can be found (Levine 24,31). The unifying power, in other words, is the forms ability to hold disparate parts together. The parts of Mango Street bound in its form include bildungsroman, fairy-tale, and Latina-feminist literature. The novel is substantially longer than a typical fairy tale, longer than Angela Carter’s retellings in The Bloody Chamber (1979). However, the novel consists of forty-four vignettes more comparable in length to the traditional fairy tale. Cisneros binds all of these seemingly disparate forms into one volume. Mango Street is all of these forms at once and each is bound by social boundaries that in turn influence the form.

The social boundaries that shape fairy-tale narratives are also present in The House on Mango Street. The physical boundary of Mango Street encapsulates the tension of mobility or lack thereof of the women who liver there. Derek Brewer states “fairy-tales embody the social wisdom of their communities and an implicit morality” (Brewer 15). Esperanza moves to Mango Street at the beginning of the narrative. Her parents present the move, one that Esperanza does not agree with, as a temporary resting place as opposed to a final destination. Mango Street is painfully working class and famous for the limitations placed on its residents. The new house is a “real house” just not the one Esperanza wished for. The house with its “windows so small you’d think they were holding their breath” embodies what Brewer considers an essential of the fairy tale form, “unlimited wishes and limited horizons” (15). The limited horizons are not limited to Mango Street but consist of a spectrum, from the entirety of the community down to the small family drama. Throughout, Esperanza shifts from boundary to boundary and is all the while stuck. Esperanza dreams of a house of her own. She uses her dreams to explore her future but in this first vignette she is entrenched in her present. So we begin with once upon a time on Mango Street. Once upon a time as a temporal marker is another boundary Esperanza, just like any fairy tale heroin must contend with in order to survive.

Motifs and themes determine fairy tale content. Surviving a fairy tale means having to contend with “stereotyped characters and a certain predictability of event” (Brewer 15). Regardless of particular differences fairy tales are rife with “infinite variation with infinite repetition” (Brewer 16). The proliferation of fairy tales in Mango Street mirror the repetition and rhythm of what an adolescent Mexican-American girl can expect to experience. When studying fairy tales we have to consider the specific motifs. In 510B tales, unnatural love presents as wrong but possible. In the fairy tale form, the transgression is the catalyst for all subsequent action and the nature of the transgression of being female is a cyclical marker of institutional gender disparity. Brewer contends “there is always a case for interpretation of the fairy tale, and that retelling, which are themselves reinterpretations, along with other interpretations, are likely to flourish for some time yet” (34). In other words, All Fur will be retold because there is still a need for stories where heroines escape cycles of abuse and emerge into their own subjectivity.

Critic Jack Zipes asserts that the fairy-tale “genre has not been static” (171). He continues, writing “almost all critics who have studied the emergence of the literary fairy tale in Europe agree that educated writers purposefully appropriated the oral folk tale and converted in into a type of literary discourse about mores, values and manners so that children would become civilized according to the social code of that time” (Zipes 3). Retellings are therefore not merely repetitions but responses to contemporary values and mores. What’s more, these values and mores are not as universal as one might think. Retellings are born from “socialization through fairy tales” that manifest depending on the historical and cultural moment (Zipes 9). The retold fairy-tale form then is a response to internalized codes and is Cisneros’s novella is certainly making a statement for the necessity of retellings.

Rhythms of Social Experience

The relationship between retellings and an earlier literary tradition is symbiotic. They depend on each other, and reading them together betrays contextual links that are exposed over time. There is therefore a need for retellings. The narrator in “All Fur” asks the debased princess,

“What shall become of you?” (Grimm 240). All Fur does not respond to this query. The next line implies a passage of time with the words, “at on time” (Grimm 24). We never know what happens to All Fur between the question and the ball. It can be expected that she serve in the kitchens. The moral of course being that is that she endures because “misery can turn to joy if you are brave” (Windling 299). In her retelling of “Donkeyskin,” a variation of “All Fur,” Terri Windling narrates her Donkeyskin, Maria as she contemplates the temporality of her existence. Windling perhaps seeks to fill in the gap between the question and time. She writes, “the past stretched out behind her. The future stretched out before her. And she knew which way she had to go” (Windling 299). The temporality of Maria’s choice provides immediate pressure. Once upon a time becomes all the time. Regardless of past, present or future, Maria’s reality intrudes on the fairy tale.

Repetition and subsequently retellings perpetuate not only a cycle of time but of form. One significant aspect of fairy-tale heroines is their name. Names imply more than artistic choice. In many classic fairy tales, the heroine’s name suggests a vital characteristic or fate. Their names imply inevitability that they cannot escape from. All Fur is not her given name. We never learn her real name, the reader only knows her as All Fur, the name given by the huntsmen who find her in the king’s forest (Grimm 240). The name All Fur, the name given by the huntsman who find her in the king’s forest derived from the cloak she requests from her father “made up of a thousand kinds of pelts and furs” which “each animal in [the] kingdom” contributes their skin to. Her new name instead of hearkening a new beginning intrinsically ties her to her past and the threat of abuse. Her name is therefore a legacy that she must bear on her person.

The legacy of Esperanza’s name is a burden that would limit her if she allowed it to. The literal translation of her name in English is hope, but she insists that it somehow means, “sadness, it means waiting,” much like her grandmother, Esperanza’s namesake who “looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow” (Cisneros 10,11). The repetition of the name is a repetition of form. Her name was her great-grandmother’s name and now it’s hers. The burden seems at time inescapable, she says “I am always Esperanza” trapped in a name and legacy that other have chosen for her (Cisneros 11).

She expresses a wish to “baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me. The one nobody sees” (Cisneros 11). Esperanza seeks separation from the legacy because she understands how easy it would be for her to become one of the women sitting in the window. There is no indication that All Fur internalizes her name, she never refers to herself as such, and what it means, but then again the Grimm Brothers are more interested in the moral than psychological explanations so the though would not have occurred to her as they have written her. As a heroine in a fairy tale retelling however, Esperanza has agency. She insists that though she has “inherited her name” she will not “inherit her place by the window” (Cisneros 11). Esperanza’s next step on her path to liberation is moving form passive to active heroine.

Esperanza and All Fur undergo transformations in their paths to liberation. All Fur transforms from being the kitchen maid to the most beautiful girl at the ball. On the other hand, Esperanza’s transformation is psychological and in order to survive, she has to come to terms with her new reality. In the vignette entitled “The Family of Little Feet” is misleading, briefly convincing the reader that this vignette will be as whimsical and childlike as the previous ones. It begins under the same misconception as Esperanza provides a grocery list of names, characters, and their feet, and it reads like a nursery rhyme; there was an old lady who lived in a shoe but her children had tiny feet and tiny toes. The family with the little feet doesn’t actually matter. The mother, the only family member the reader interacts with gives Esperanza and her friends Lucy and Rachel a paper bag with three pairs of shoes and because of those shoes, the girls are confronted with their sexuality in a visceral and abrupt way. The shoes signify the girls’ sexual maturity and subsequently their sexual availability whether they realize it or not, whether they want it or not.

When the girls try on the shoes for the first time Esperanza exclaims, “Hurray! Today we are Cinderella,” conjuring up images of ball gowns, fairy godmothers, glass slippers and Prince Charming (Cisneros 40). Prince Charming has long been a template for romantic love, the purest and most childlike kind of love. The girls feel like Cinderella because in the shoes they feel beautiful, so beautiful that a prince couldn’t hope but fall in love with them. They walk down Mango Street with confidence; Rachel more than the others is advanced in this matter but not in others. Esperanza equates running in the shoes like “double-dutch” a child’s game. They are little girls playing dress up never imagining that things would ever ben any different.

I argue that this vignette is a progression of the fairy tale structure. Previous chapters such as “My Name,” “There Was an Old Lady She Had So Many Children She Didn’t Know What to Do,” and “Alicia Who Sees Mice” establish the fairy tale tonal flavor. These titles invoke fairy tale conventions. Both Esperanza and Cinderella derive their names from circumstances beyond their control, the former as a manifestation of her mother’s hope and the latter because of where she sleeps, and indeed their very names betray their lack of agency (Cisneros 10). “There Was an Old Lady” gets its name from a nursery rhyme about a woman who has so many children and yet the excess only makes her love her children more. The Vargas children however are “too many and too much” bursting at the seams with destructive energy (Cisneros 29). These chapters and conventions locate us in the tradition, betraying their ties to the fairy tale form.

Rachel, Lucy, and Esperanza strut down Mango Street in their heels, prominently and proudly ignorant of the inherent risks to their childhood. They play adult without realizing that their make-believe is about to become reality. In most fairy tales, there is a moment of foreshadowing, where some entity, magical or not hints at the danger ahead. Mr. Benny at the corner grocery warns the girls that their “magic high heels” are “dangerous” but they don’t heed the warning and “just keep strutting” (Cisneros 41). Mr. Benny is like Pinocchio’s conscience willing to warn but unable to force the girls to heed his warning. He implies that the shoes have magical powers, powers that the girls now possess but like Cinderella; they won’t have that power for long. The next person they encounter after Mr. Benny is a boy on a homemade bike who calls them “Ladies;” ladies and not girls. The reader notices this shift though the girls do not. Despite the catcall, Esperanza insists, “there is nobody around but us” (41). Still in the haze of childhood revelry, they remain studiously unaware. They are unable to see the catcall for what it is, another warning, perhaps because the speaker is a boy, a child like them. They are children, after all, unmolested by adult things until they encounter the bum man. He calls them “little girl” and “pretty girl” which is especially perverse since he is, in fact, sexualizing children (41). The cloudy haze of childhood fun dissipates for Lucy and Esperanza when they encounter the bum man, but Rachel doesn’t yet understand the nature of the bum man and his request. When she does, it is heartbreaking to see the girls conclude that they “are tired of being beautiful” (42). They have encountered the social contradiction of feminine beauty as something to embrace within and protect without. What they really mean is that they are tired of being adults or at least tired of being seen as adults. They don’t complain when Lucy’s mother throws the shoes away because they are not ready to confront adulthood as it has been presented to them. This chapter marks a transition in the novella as Esperanza hereafter deals with more adult problems then previously but she remains a child.

Hierarchy in Power and Form

            Throughout the narrative, Esperanza emerges as a coming of age feminist heroine, one capable of fighting for the agency that her community would deny her. Her community wields considerable power in determining gender roles and expectations. Esperanza’s family history proves how difficult it has been for her mother and grandmother before her to break from the boundaries of gender. Esperanza, therefore, represents the generational hope for the women in her community. However, in order to truly consider Esperanza as a feminist fairy-tale heroine, we must also consider her ethnic background. Race, class, and age, as well as gender, are afforded the ability to, “arrange bodies, things, and ideas according to levels of power or importance” (Levine 82). It is in the intersection of Esperanza’s gender, race, class and age that she emerges a feminist heroine. The specificity of her “intersectionality” is indicative of the specificity of her inequality.

Esperanza’s specific inequalities manifest in her struggles to overcome objectivity. She has to overcome the “sheer variety of hierarchical structures that organize” her subjectivity (Levine 84). Previously, hierarchies were considered in terms of “binary oppositions” but there is so much more than male and female (Levine 82). As a feminist fairy-tale heroine in a feminist fairy-tale retelling, Esperanza must contend with fairy-tale tropes as an intersected woman of color, further complicating her relationship to All Fur. Feminist fairy-tale retellings created contemporaneously to the House on Mango Street are interested in inverting the inherent patriarchy of canonical, western fairy tales and aim to transform oppression into liberation for the female protagonists. The significance of this move is that it provides “girl children with more active and more positive role models” than Disney interpretations (Shippey 259). It would appear to be a universal project; after all, girl children of all backgrounds, cultures, and ethnicities endure abuse. Considering Esperanza’s Mexican heritage does not privilege her abuse over that of white children, but understanding the cultural impact on her Mexican-American body is required to understand the abuse she suffers because of it. Like Margaret Atwood, Angels Carter and Tanith Lee, Cisneros seeks to reclaim fairy-tale motifs, types, and structure and adapt it to a subjective that is female, Mexican, poor and young.

Cisneros makes these competing hierarchies explicitly throughout the novella. Contemporary retellings have a “taste for transformation” and Tom Shippey considers Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber as perhaps the best example of the emergent taste (269). One goal of the feminist fairy tale retelling is to “get back to an original or pre-patriarchal form of a tale, in which the heroine does not have to be rescued but rescues herself” (Shippey 257). It is also common for the postmodern fairy tale tradition to tackle sex and gender but Cisneros complicates that with race and economic status. In “My Name,” Esperanza declares, “Mexicans, don’t like their women strong” (Cisneros 10). What is at stake here is the cultural Mexican perception of women. But Cisneros narrows the scope, even more, constructing boundaries around the cultural Mexican perception of women who live on Mango Street. Mango Street is the literal and figurative frame of her feminist fairy-tale retelling. Brewer and Zipes argue that fairy tales can encompass more than bourgeois tales and it is in this affordance of the frame that Cisneros constructs Mango Street and within the boundaries of “once upon a time” and “happily ever after.”

Knowledge of fairy tale motifs informs contemporary work that is not strictly literary or bourgeoisie and therefore extends to working class circumstances. The House on Mango Street as a serious retelling as opposed to a parody operates in a similar vein to Angela Carter’s work in The Bloody Chamber. In their respective works, both authors view the fairy-tale form as having the potential means of social comment, social control, or social change” (Shippey 253). Both projects are clearly concerned with social commentary but because of hierarchical systems of gender and race, the parameters in which they must operate differ. Cisneros’s consciousness and thereby Esperanza’s are concerned with liberating Mexican American women. The Bloody Chamber does not speak to that specific subjectivity and is therefore too general to be as effective for Mexican-American girls and women. Angela Carter is concerned with sexual liberation and a return to agency but Cisneros’s concern can be found by looking more closely at Esperanza’s name. Her name means hope in English but in Spanish means “too many letters” (Cisneros 10). It also means “sadness” and “waiting” and she makes it clear that she is waiting for her name and her hope to manifest in freedom and a house of her own (Cisneros 10). Esperanza needs to escape Mango Street with a desperation All Fur wants to escape her father’s castle.

Fairy tales are ultimately pliable and capable of bridging the past and the present, breaking free of social parameters. Retellings by nature are pliant and multivalent (Shippey 258, 264). They operate on many different levels at once in order to fill in the psychological gaps. The vignettes in Mango Street operate individually and in tandem with each other to create a composite of the Mexican-American female consciousness. In “All Fur,” her (check) cloak is made up of “all kinds of fur” and it becomes her name (Grimm 240). The women of Mango Street suffer from epidemic if not identical forms of abuse, ranging from beatings, rape, isolation, and incest. Esperanza as a single character does not suffer from all of these but as a woman, the experience of all of the women on Mango Street informs her identity. All Fur’s abuse manifests in the skin she asks her father to make, whereas Esperanza must bear it in her name and consciousness.

The lives and consciousness of women of color are marginalized in conversations of literary criticism, particularly in fairy-tales. Cisneros is engaged with exposing the limitations placed on the women who live on Mango Street. Her stories are “suggestive of a social reality in which women’s lives are often constrained by social mores and male violence, these images are juxtaposed against the narrator’s own coming of age story” (Wissman 18). She accomplishes this with her revisionist fairy-tale and situates herself in the “discussion of a diversity of ways that gender is enacted and shaped by race, culture, and ethnicity” (Wissman 19). Cisneros has contended that she is writing “against the stereotypes of Latinas” and works to produce a new Latina, one that is not weighed down by cultural and societal expectations (Wissman 18). By using fairy-tale tropes Cisneros simultaneously incorporates Esperanza into the canon of feminist literary heroines and restructures the fairy-tale framework to include ethnic, racial and culturally diverse perspectives. Her work is not only to reveal the consequences of gender and race but also to facilitate personal and community transformation. This type of retelling is capable of offering options for liberation.

Out of the Fairy Tale and Back to Reality

            The need for escape and liberation is tantamount to feminist fairy-tale retellings. Cisneros, in particular, is interested in producing a feminist fairy-tale about coming of age through violence. There is no happily ever after, Esperanza does not marry a prince and she does not get a house of her own. There is no concrete evidence that she survives Mango Street, but there is, however, hope that she will. Esperanza is narrator, community, consciousness and ultimately an allegory of hope for the children who will survive their abuse and subsequently their childhood.

Fairy tales have the ability to provide agency by which children can survive childhood. In her afterword to her anthology, Terri Windling shares her own story of how she survived childhood and the heartbreaking truth that though she survived it, it will always be a part of her. The tension between those who leave and those who remain can extend to my interpretation of fairy tale retellings as a bridge between past and present that is inescapable (Windling 357). When confronting her sexual abuse in the presence of her mother and therapist, the therapist brushes the truth aside under the guise of leaving the past in the past, which Windling asserts is impossible (365). In reference to her survival, she writes that the past and present are “two worlds [that] mix together uneasily, like oil and vinegar, giving a distinctive flavor to my life” (Windling 367). Fairy stories were simply one of the tools of her survival. The very personal nature of Windling’s afterword hearkens to the personal narrative in The House on Mango Street in which Esperanza, who many critics believe to be a stand in for Cisneros, survives her childhood with her own retellings of fairy stories.

Esperanza is in many ways a manifestation of the networks of abuse running throughout Mango Street. She tells their stories and embodies their desire for houses of their own. We see the stories of women who will survive their childhood and those who won’t. There is a tangible connection to the past and the legacy of mothers and grandmothers who did not survive. Esperanza’s own grandmother “looked out the window her whole life” after her grandfather “carried her off” to be married (Cisneros 11). Her grandmother is described as having been wild in her childhood, wildness in this case connoting freedom and will. However, society constraints imprisoned her and the same chains manacle her own daughter, Esperanza’s mother. They did not survive and the onus is on Esperanza to break the cycle. Esperanza’s mother empowers her in “A Smart Cookie” telling her to “take care all your own” (Cisneros 91). All Fur’s unwittingly mother traps her daughter in the same cycle that she lived through, passing her legacy onto her daughter. All Fur overcomes her mother’s legacy by covering herself with another, a legacy of all kinds of fur and impossible dresses. She has to transform in order to alleviate the burden and so must Esperanza. And yet, it seems essential that these fairy-tale heroines carry the burden at least for a little while.

For the children who survive, survival is defined by “observing linkages between objects, bodies, and discourse” (Levine 113). Levine defines networks as patterns of interconnection and exchange that organize social and aesthetic experience” (113). The network that connects the women of Mango Street always come back to Esperanza because she is the witness and recorder of their stories. About Marin, a neighbor not much older than Esperanza, she says “we never see Marin until her aunt comes home from work, and even then she can only stay out in front” (Cisneros 27). Marin in trapped within layers of networks, first Mango Street and then her own front yard. Marin stands in front of her house because it is important to be seen. It is as though visual confirmation of existence is required in order to actually exist. All Fur works in the kitchen and is seen by no one, she only becomes visible when she is transformed. However, being seen comes with another set of problems.

Sally and Rafaela also live on Mango Street and they are so visible and so beautiful that it traps them. Sally’s father says “to be this beautiful is trouble” and he prevents trouble by beating her at every opportunity (Cisneros 93). He beats her because her sisters ran away, so she receives their punishment on their behalf. Rafaela who drinks coconut and papaya juice on Tuesdays has a husband who locks her in their house because “she is too beautiful to look at” (Cisneros 79). Esperanza comments that Rafaela is “still young but getting old from leaning out the window so much” the window thus becoming a micro-boundary for women on Mango Street (79). However, these are not boundaries that they place on themselves. Sally marries a marshmallow salesman in a state “where it’s legal to get married before eighth grade” to escape her father and maybe survive the rest of her childhood. She cannot, of course, her marriage ends her childhood and the very nature of that end could be used to argue that she did not. The marshmallow man won’t let her leave use the telephone or go to the window, but he doesn’t beat her. It is unclear if she will survive her adulthood. The means of All Fur’s survival is marriage. She marries the king and saves herself from incestual abuse, but will she survive her marriage? Esperanza witnesses these transformations and understands that in order to survive, she must escape.

The House on Mango Street is a story of childhood survival. Windling’s introduction to this collection contends that it is a “book about childhood; but, even though it is full of fairy stories, it is not a book for children” (13). Instead of projecting an ideal, fairy-tales can provide an alternative to being “stuck in the mindset of victimization” and encourage the “process of transformation” and ultimately survival (Windling 15). She refers to the Victorian idea of bucolic childhood as being more complex than the fairy stories might superficially imply. In reality, many childhood experiences consist of abuse, violence, and molestation. The necessity of diverse postmodern literary retellings comes from the proliferation of Victorian editors and Walt Disney which “ultimately creates a version of ‘how things should be’ which, when compared to the reality of how things are, can be very damaging” (Pilinovsky 1). The true tales of the women who live on Mango Street serve as warnings, of not seeing the truth in fairy-tales.

All Fur is not the only fairy-tale at work in The House on Mango Street. References to Rapunzel, Snow White, and Cinderella abound. However, All Fur and other Donkeyskin stories encapsulate the totality of the narrative. Donkeyskin is according to the Aarne-Thompson classification a tale type 510B also known as “unnatural love” (Pilinovsky 2). It is important to remember that while the heroine of tale type 501B does face the possibility of sexual abuse, she is portrayed as being able to avoid it through a combination of unlikely luck” and “and unrealistically achieved accomplishments” (Pilinovsky 3). I would argue that the luck and accomplishments aren’t unrealistic or unlikely. Cisneros deals with the taboo because it is necessary and Esperanza wishes for a house of her own because it is possible.

Conclusion: Fairy Tale Endings

                        Esperanza’s narrative ends with a reaffirmation. Like All Fur, the details of her future are unknown; there is always the possibility that she may not survive. Perrault’s tale “Donkeyskin” is “aimed at those who have need of warnings, and those who, terribly, have the experience to provide them” (Pilinovsky 15). The House on Mango Street is one such lesson in survival. In her final Esperanza hopes to “one day [sic] say goodbye to Mango. I am too strong for her to keep me here forever. One day I will go away forever” (Cisneros 110). If she does manage to survive, she will not do so unscathed. Survival, after all, does not mean that nothing bad ever happens but that one is able to endure and move past the inevitable bad. All Fur survives and proves that it is possible. But “All Fur” is not interested in psychological manifestations the way that Cisneros is. It is not enough for Esperanza’s mother to hope for survival, Esperanza must make the psychological choices that make survival possible. A house of her own is her fairy tale ending and her hope lies in its possibility.

Works Cited

Brewer, Derek. “The Interpretation of Fairy Tales.” A Companion to the Fairy Tale, edited by Hilda Ellis Davidson et al., Cambridge, 2003, pp. 15-38.

Cisneros, Sandra. The House on Mango Street. Vintage, 1984.

Grimm, Jakob and Willem. “All Fur.” The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm.       Translation by Jack Zipes, Bantam, 2002, 239-242.

Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton, 2015.

Pilinovsky, Helen. “Donkeyskin, Deerskin, Allerleirauh: The Reality of the Fairy Tale.” The Journal of Mythic Arts, endicottstudio.typepad.com/articleslist/donkeyskin-deerskin-             allerleirauh-the-reality-of-the-fairy-tale-by-helen-pilinovsky.

Rowe, Karen E. “Feminism and Fairy Tales.” Women’s Studies, vol. 6, 1979, pp. 237-257.

Shippey, Tom. “Rewriting in the Core: Transformations of the Fairy Tale in Contemporary Writing.” A Companion to the Fairy Tale, edited by Hilda Ellis Davidson et al.,   Cambridge, 2003, pp. 253-290.

Windling, Terri. The Armless Maiden and Other Tales for Childhood’s Survivors. Tor, 1995.

Wissman, Kelly. “Writing Will Keep You Free:” Allusions to and Recreations of the Fairy   Tale Heroine in the House on Mango Street. Children’s Literature in Education, vol.38,          2007, pp. 17-34.

Zipes, Jack. Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion. Wildman, 1983.

 

 

 

 

The Politics of Time: Neo-Slave Protest and Post-Race Consciousness in Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred

Introduction

In their 2013 exhibit entitled “Black Kirby: In Search of the Motherboxx Connection,” comic artists John Jennings and Stacey Robinson included a painting of Octavia E. Butler done in the style of the late comic artist, Jack Kirby. The exhibit sought to introduce audiences to varied ideas of black storytelling using comics as a technology to communicate multivalency in black identity (Jennings, Robinson 8-9). The painting is entitled simply, “Octavia” and portrays her smiling and there are what appear to be stars strewn in her hair. Octavia E. Butler, largely considered to be the mother of Afrofuturism, a literary aesthetic that “combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, speculative fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western beliefs. In some cases, it’s a total re-envisioning of the past and speculation about the future rife with cultural critiques” (Womack 16). The purpose of the “Black Kirby” exhibit was to remain conscious or as Jennings puts it, “DOUBLE consciousness” (9). Jennings and Robinson negotiate space within a larger discourse of the American consciousness, as Butler did before them. In 2013, Jennings commenced work on a graphic novel adaptation of Butler’s novel Kindred (1979) along with longtime collaborator Damian Duffy that was published in early 2017. Their adaptation is another attempt to engage with the double consciousness that in many ways defines Kindred and a graphic novel adaptation exposes new facets to the original work. Kindred is a novel abounding with doubles which in turn define the novel’s form and function.

In order to decode the doubles and determine their function, I will look to W.E.B. Du Bois’s theory of double consciousness to provide the vocabulary for this project. W.E.B. Du Bois posits his concept of double consciousness in his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk (1903). In it he writes “the negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world-a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world” (Du Bois10). He refers to this peculiar sensation as “double consciousness” (Du Bois 11). He goes on to say that those who experience double consciousness are also suffering from “the contradiction of double aims” (Du Bois 11). The Souls of Black Folk is known for being one of the first sociological works, one that considers every facet of African-American society and culture. It is therefore important to note the relevance of doing a sociological reading of Kindred because of its sociological implications though this project will focus on close reading to delineate the doubles function. The doubling is as inevitable as it is troubling and African-Americans suffer from it due to interests and conditions far outside their control. It is impossible, he argues to attempt to rectify the two sides of a double consciousness. To do so would wreak “sad havoc” and it is therefore better to accept the doubling, sad state that it is (Du Bois 11). It is necessary for those living with double consciousness to straddle them, not to combine them. He admonishes that the African-American “must be himself, and not another” (Du Bois 14). In Kindred, Butler takes Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness and complicates it. There are multiple examples of “double consciousness” within the novel but they do not gain narrative traction by how the doubles work independently but how they work in tandem, creating in application if not in theory a new formalism.

Deconstructing Kindred’s form has many aims. First is to determine how they function individually as well as in conversation with one another. Butler packs Kindred with doubles of every conceivable form including but not limited to genre, time, consciousness and character. My second aim is to determine the purpose of the doubling and their affordances as they pertain to our contemporary moment. In the greater conversation about forms of social justice and activism, I argue that Kindred is one such submission in the archive of protest literature. Butler’s moves normalize the doubling which is necessary to orient the reader in the fluid, continuous temporality and form of protest literature.

Whole: Kindred as Science Fiction and Slave Narrative

In Kindred, Butler seamlessly blends the slave narrative tradition with a time-travelling science fiction novel. The protagonist and time-traveller, Dana, a black woman, lives in San Francisco with her husband in 1976 but travels back to antebellum Maryland whenever her white ancestor Rufus Weylin is in life-threatening danger. We have to consider the individual parameters of each genre as well as the effect of combining them. The slave narrative genre was born of a need for a new type of social protest. Abolitionists commissioned former slaves to write their experiences in order to convince a sympathetic white northern audience of their anti-slavery aims. White abolitionists heavily edited the slave narratives and writers subsequently had to adhere to a narrative framework dictated by white sponsors. However, the writers found ways to subvert the very form that they were creating. Butler writes Dana’s slave narrative but she is not beholden to the 19th-century form but has freedom of form. This freedom should render any subversion unnecessary but Butler subverts it. She takes up the tradition of subversion from the pioneers of the genre including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. The question is how best to subvert the slave narrative genre now that institutional slavery has been abolished. And furthermore, is it even necessary to subvert it? By doubling the slave narrative with science fiction, Butler subverts the historical implications, which would limit the form and thereby limit our conversation surrounding it.

The slave narrative genre or tradition consists of the written and auditory experiences of former slaves. A slave narrative is “an autobiographical and biographical accounts about enslavement, written or narrated by fugitive or formerly enslaved persons” (Rone 583). Abolitionists commissioned them to persuade Americans of the anti-slavery cause. Former slaves such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and Solomon Northup all composed slave narratives and in the case of Douglass went on tour, sharing his experiences to predominately white Northern audiences. The slave narrative form is one of the first forms in African-American literature with each narrative following certain narrative and structural conventions. One such convention was that each writer had to authenticate their experience and in the process, their very existence. This was realized in two ways, by a white abolitionist vouching for them, validating their existence and providing some sort of proof that these former slaves actually wrote them. The writers, almost to a one, began their narratives with some form of the statement “I was born.” This statement was followed by as much documentation of their birth as they could assemble. Solomon Northup goes as far as providing the location for where documents of his birth and life could be found. In terms of narrative, abolitionists and other commissioners encouraged these freedwomen and men to share the horrors of slavery in as personal a manner as possible, however they cautioned them not to be too condemnatory of southern whites for fear of insulting their northern relatives. Political purpose and gain determined the early slave narrative form. Deviation from this form was unlikely and politically damaging. However, early slave narrative writers found ways around the pre-determined form, using subversion to create a form within a form.

In order to understand the historical implications of the slave narrative form, we have to situate it within the American literary cannon. There is a critical debate about whether the slave narrative form is a form of literature. Due to their autobiographical nature, critics describe them as declarations of independence the connotation being that sentimentality and gravitas define the genre more than literary merit (Meer 78). Their production entails a very particular discourse with specific intentions. Slave narratives had political implications and were produced for a political purpose so what happens when you make that literary? I would argue that the very structure of a slave narrative, as well as its political implications makes it literary Slave narratives “posit relationship between literacy, identity and freedom” (Meer 73). It is literary because it engages American society on all of these levels.

Slave narratives are not uniquely American but establishing its place within the American literary canon can help us situate Butler’s project as a bounded whole consisting of many parts. One aspect of the slave narrative form that assisted in the authentication process was the author’s ability to engage with the literary canon. Olaudah Equiano alludes to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667) in his Interesting Narrative (1789). Inter-textuality exposes literary awareness and the awareness goes both ways (Meer 74). Just as slave narrative authors were aware of literary discourse so to was the discourse influenced by slave narratives, which critics consider to be the genesis of the American autobiography and memoir genres (Rone 584). But even calling slave narratives, American literature is problematic because the authors, at the time of inscription and for many years after were not considered to be American citizens. So they are contextually American but not so legally. By engaging with the textual community, slave narratives authenticate their American-ness. There are temporal implications of this relationship between authentication, citizenship and form. The implications can be found in the historical record rendered from their first-hand accounts.

The historical implications of the slave narrative form can be found in its unifying power. Caroline Levine describes the unifying power as having the capacity to hold together disparate parts” (Levine 24). My project is interested specifically in how the historical implications manifest within Kindred as a bounded narrative. Within the bounded whole of the novel, there are disparate forms at work, however, no one form emerges as the pre-eminent form, rather, a new form takes shape. Kindred is not merely a slave narrative, but a neo-slave narrative. Neo slave narratives comprise an “array of genres” including but not limited to science fiction, fantasy, horror, gothic and historical fiction (Dubey 332). Kindred emerges during a renewed literary movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Dubey 332). In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries slave narrative exist acts of resistance against the institution of slavery but by the time period that Butler and others are writing neo-slave narratives, slavery has been abolished and African-Americans rise from the tempestuousness of the Civil Rights Movement with a promise of a brighter future. Slave narratives were politically successful and achieved their intended goal, so what is the new generation resisting? It is important to understand that neo-slave writers are not interested in rewriting slave narrative but revisiting the era of slavery. They revisit it because though slavery has been abolished the need for such a form has not abated. Critic Bernard Bell writes that neo-slave narratives detail “modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom” (Dubey 332). So the question becomes, what bondage do modern slave narrative writers feel they are bound in? In academic circles, interest in revisiting slave narratives and thereby slave experience arose from the debate about how slavery should be represented “in the realm of historiography, literature and popular visual culture” (Dubey 333). They are “recovering the authentic perspectives of slaves on their own experience” (Dubey 334). Neo-slave narratives are recovery missions, reclaiming the narrative agency as the original slave narratives while addressing modern implications.

Perhaps one of the best methods for engaging in modern implications is to use a modern form. Science fiction appears “antithetical” to slave narratives but in reality it is able to reject the “boundaries of narrative realism” (Tucker 250). By writing neo-slave narratives, the writers betray skepticism of the heretofore-accepted historical record. They are interested in subjectivity and temporal boundaries of the original slave narratives. This is due in part to the “the instability of our narrative representation of the past” (Tucker 251). Science fiction, as a modern genre is able to call attention to the inadequate modes of storytelling. It can create anachronism and conflate time periods. SF is suited to the slave narrative tradition because it’s “as much about the environment, the constructed world, as it is about character” (Tucker 253). In Kindred, character and environment is delineated through Dana and her time travel. As Dana toggle back and forth, so does her temporal reality and subsequently her environmental awareness. Other genres are limiting and unable to fill in the gap between the end of slavery in 1865 and present struggles with freedom and agency. As a form, science fiction can eschew “realism, objectivity, and linearity” all of which neo slave narratives are suspicious of (Tucker 251). Butler’s neo-slave narrative demonstrates two discourses, science fiction and slave narrative in conversation and a new form emerges, the female neo-slave narrative.

The limits of bounded wholes expand when two separate unified wholes operate within the same work. Kindred links “aesthetic, philosophical, and political domains (Levine 27). I am interested in the affordances brought on by a bounded unified whole and “how different and bounded wholes might collide to generate ideologically intriguing results (Levine 37). Considering multiple bounded wholes might “help us to rethink historical contexts (Levine 39). It is important that we as literary critics determine historical voices when considering historical fiction. The question of voice as a mode of authentication is answered by Dana’s first person narrative and her voice is a composite of the female slaves whose voices have been lost to history. And we trust Dana, and authenticate her experience by following her back and forth from her temporal present to the past, which may not be as far in the past as history tells us. Original first person accounts of ex-slaves were written under severe constraints and therefore cannot be fully trusted to reveal the authenticity if slave experience” but we trust a time travelling contemporary woman who claims to have lost a literal part of her, her arm, in transit from past to present (Dubey 339). Neo slave narratives deal with the critique and “suspicion of historical knowledge” (Dubey 338). These narratives are not concerned with rewriting history but exposing the neo slave experience.

When Butler writes her version of a slave narrative in Kindred she continues the tradition of challenging form and convention. Traditional slave narratives track a person as they traverse from bondage to freedom. Butler tracks Dana from freedom to bondage and back to freedom again. The affordance of this reversal of form is capable of reconfiguring the concept of freedom. Freedom to a man who only knows bondage is limited, but freedom lost and then regained provides a more nuanced freedom. Traditional slave narratives comprehend freedom as a trajectory, something that needs to be achieved. In Kindred freedom is much more temporal, here one day and gone the next. Dana’s freedom is not guaranteed as she teeters between freedom and bondage. The boundaries of her time in 1976 are not enough to ensure her freedom in 1818.

The slave narrative, though studied for its literary merits are historical records of a time far removed from our own. Contemporary readers might be tempted to regard a historical record as being confined to the time in which it was composed. By blending science fiction with the slave narrative, Butler removes that temporal barrier, affording her the opportunity to redefine freedom. She makes a political statement about the temporal limits of freedom. But the temporality of freedom is more than simply free in 1976 and slave in 1818. Understanding the temporality of Dana’s time traveling is integral to understanding the boundaries of time and how they function. Butler combines the politics of freedom with the aesthetics of time travel.

Dana’s neo-slave experience is not concerned with changing history, as many a time traveler is wont to do, but with maintaining it. She has to keep Rufus alive, ensure that he rapes Alice and birth a generation of people burdened with that same history. The material past permeates the present because “slavery is not yet a matter of history” (Dubey 344). The temporal markers of American slavery (from 1619-1865) are not as rigid as history would seem and neo-slave narratives are suspicious of strict temporality and seek to dismantle temporal barriers.

Rhythm: Layering Past and Present

Time travel as a form, affords aesthetics and politics to coexist, a coexistence that Dana must contend with throughout Kindred. Dana calls the effects of her time traveling to be a “time distorted reality” (Butler 127). As a time traveler, her reality is an amalgamation of future and present. She lives an anachronistic existence that she has to adapt to in order to survive. On her first trip back in time, she is caught unawares. She describes her initial feeling of being pulled back in time as dizzying and nauseating, everything seeming to blur and spin right before her existence in 1976 vanished (Butler 13). In the next moment, 1818 is before her and the past has become her present. She only spends a few minutes in the past her first time; she saves the boy Rufus before being once again pulled forward to what she considers to be her own time. However, time as she had come to understand it had changed. She perceives that she has been gone for a “few minutes” but her husband Kevin rebuts that she has been gone for a “few seconds (Butler 15). The rules of time travel dictate that the present time often slows down exponentially in order for the past to progress naturally. After her second trip back, Dana begins preparing for her inevitable time travels. Kevin packs a canvas tote bag with clothes and “the biggest switchblade knife [she] had ever seen” (Butler 45). Dana wakes to find it tethered to her waist with a length of cord. The clothes she brings betray her time but they also provide her with a measure of control of time. Her simultaneous presence in the past and the present creates for Dana a perpetual present, which is layered and continuous. While she may exist in the 19th century she maintains some of her own time by the clothes that she wears. Her blue jeans, blouse and under clothing act as a figurative cord that keeps her tethered to her own time though for Dana time becomes obsolete.

Butler deconstructs time in Kindred where past, present and future no longer exist, instead there is a perpetual present, which is dualistic in nature. As a result of her duality of time, Dana is afforded a perspective unique to her situation. Being from a future where people of African descent are free (a relative freedom, but freedom nonetheless) affords her hindsight, which she uses to navigate her uncertain and at times treacherous past. In between trips back in time, Dana makes sure to study the history and politics of the time. Dana is aware of the historical significance of patrollers, freedom papers, and fugitive slave laws and ultimately the timeline of events. She knows that freedom; the very limited freedom available to African Americans following emancipation is still a long way off. There is to be no relief for she has travelled back to a time in American history where the institution of slavery is ingrained in every aspect of society. Her race as well as her gender leaves her vulnerable to the particulars of the time and so in order to survive the time she must study it. On her trips back to her own time, she takes time to read books on history and procure maps of Maryland. The maps are not as helpful because they are over one hundred years removed from the antebellum South. Eventually, the back and forth rhythm of Dana’s time travel becomes natural to her though she realizes that no amount of preparation can protect her from time. When at first she is nauseous and dizzy when time travelling, she gains control of her ability/curse and while she cannot stop Rufus from calling her to the past she has some control over her role in his life and in her own.

Time travel usually comes with certain affordances but also comes with restrictions, chief among them that said time traveler not alter anything while in the past. More extreme thoughts on time travel dictate that even the smallest alteration in the past could cause catastrophic changes in the future. The “unifying order” that Levine discusses in her section on “rhythm” can be applied to the pressure Dana feels. Her temporal existence is both past and present and her presence unites them. Dana’s presence in the past is not incidental. She travels back to the antebellum South when Rufus, a white man and her ancestor calls her forward. She deduces that he is in fact her ancestor because of a family Bible that lists the names of all of her relatives stretching back to Reconstruction. Her great-grandmother many times over, Hagar is her direct descendant, the first in her family born free (Butler 28). It is therefore Dana’s charge to ensure that Rufus lives long enough to father Hagar and thereby ensuring Dana’s existence. She is not brought back in time to change the world, quite the opposite; her mission is to ensure that events remain the same. Dana questions the morality of her crusade once she realizes that Hagar might not have been conceived consensually (Butler 29). Dana soon realizes that the moral implications of her future self being present in the past means that slavery and all of its atrocities must run its course until the determined time as foretold by history. The ripple effects of what she knows and what she has seen could alter the destinies of future abolitionists. She remarks that a young Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Nat Turner live not too far from the Weylin plantation and their trajectory as pioneers and activists had to be protected (Butler 141). There is a lack of power in her ability; her foresight provides her with the mental fortitude but with few tangible tools for survival. Dana’s lack of action is necessary and intentional and through this, Butler reminds the reader that in order to consider the present we must consider the past.

In order for Dana to survive in the past, she must always remember that she is from the future. This becomes increasingly difficult the more entrenched in antebellum Maryland she becomes. Her time on the plantation forces her to adapt to the time: a black woman in the antebellum south meant that she was a slave or at risk of becoming one. Dana is not a slave though she survives by fulfilling the role of a slave.

Historical memory informs Dana’s actions in the novel but through the temporal doubling Butler casts doubt on the veracity of that same history. Butler can write about a time she is so removed from because she uses “science devices to re-present African American women’s histories” (Yaszek 1053). Lisa Yaszek seeks to unpack “afro-feminist projects to interrogate the relationship between historical memory and commercial culture by appropriating and adapting the commercial form of science fiction” (Yaszek 1054). Historical memory is also historical subjectivity and Butler returns agency to the female slave. A Rushdy as quoted by Yaszek writes, “history was made not solely by the imperial powers of a nation but also by those without any discernable institutional power” (Yaszek 1054). The memories and experiences of black female slaves are integral to American history. Women in slave narratives are reduced to the “stock conventions of the suffering enslaved woman” (Yaszek 1056). Dana is the embodiment of that move from object to subject. In many ways, the African American woman’s neo slave narrative is African American’s women’s history. Butler revisits that history so that it will not pass out of historical memory.

Understanding the historical moment during which the original slave narratives were written is essential to understanding the implications of the form. So too, it is essential to understand the historical moment of Butler and Morrison as they grappled with reclaiming a lost history. This post Civil Rights Movement, rising Black Power coincides with revolutions in the universities and a demand for black history. Caroline Levine writes in regard to rhythms, “institutional time manifests in historical record” (Levine 57). Butler, Morrison and others are aware of the temporal implications of their neo-slave narratives. After all, there are “rhythms of social experience” (Levine 51). Dana establishes a rhythm when she travels back and forth between the temporal past and her present, as she understands it. Some might argue that Kindred is disrespectful of the history and the experience by “insisting [on] and exploring the gaps between public fantasy and personal history” (Yaszek 1056). The goal is to represent historical memory in a way that acknowledges the impact of slavery not just on isolated individuals but on entire families and networks of kin” (Yaszek 1057). However Butler is providing an “alternate family history based on newfound understanding of historical representation” that poses as historical fact when in fact being subjective interpretations (Yaszek 1064). It is after all, significant that Dana goes back to her ancestors as opposed to a random slave because the familial connection is the strongest double in the narrative. Understanding familial ties translates to deciphering one’s historical memory. The time traveling and the doubles ultimately force Dana to recognize that she is a black woman with a particular familial history and so the time travel translates into memory travel.

One aspect of Dana’s time travel that makes her especially vulnerable is her lack of control. Even more, is that she does not know when it is going to end. She knows that she must remain until her great-grandmother many times over Hagar is born, but has no concrete indication of how long she must endure toggling between times. The rhythms of her time travel are pervasive resulting in social and temporal cohesion of her experience (Levine 49). Her lack of control becomes normalized. These institutional temporal rhythms are really social rhythms at work that Dana is unable to break from until history is realized. Dana gets caught up in the rhythm and in the back and forth, becomes accustomed to it. The repetition lulls her into acceptance until Rufus and his historical record jolt her back into consciousness. When Dana goes back to Maryland for the last time, her adjustment is quicker than any other time before. There’s no mention of dizziness of sickness instead she brushes herself “off quickly” (Butler 247). The historical implication of Dana’s travels back and forth betrays the cyclical nature of historical memory and experience. There is power in the repetition of experience with the significant advantage of ensuring that history does not repeat.

The cyclical nature of history appears to be insurmountable and Butler’s project might appear to be speculative history at best. But speculative history affords space for subjectivities that have been ignored to unpack into a wider historical consciousness (Levecq 525). Historiography, the body of work and literature dealing with historical matters comes to us historicized and privileges certain subjectivities over others (Levecq 525). What saves Dana from being caught up in the historical rhythms is her subjectivity, which she never loses no matter how many times she travels back and forth. The paradox of Dana’s particular subjectivity as a black female alternately endangers and protects her. It is only when Dana discovers her subjective history that she is able to use it to survive. However, she is unable to keep subjective distance from her experience, embodying the same body in two different times. Through Dana’s travels the past becomes her reality. Reality and experience become memory and memory becomes history. The historical records and documentation Dana are riddled with faulty memories. Dana and Kevin are unable to find more than ten books on African-American history in their home, which Dana notes is filled to the rafters with books. The ten books they do find are unable to adequately prepare Dana for the history she experiences.

Neo slave narratives of the mid to late 20th century were concerned with the black family and looking for comprehensive historical connections. Butler eliminates subjective distance in the novel, making historical slave experience a perpetually present one (Rushdy 237). Critic Ashraf Rushdy notes that by the diasporic nature of slavery African American families “contain a multitude of others” (Rushdy 238). Dana discovers that her family history is riddled with secrets, as the nature of the relationship between her ancestors Alice and Rufus is hidden until she discovers it. Their relationship, a coercive sexual relationship, is a tragic family secret, one that Dana understands is a possibility but her historical knowledge is not sufficient to prepare her for the historical reality. The Black family is “not an isolated kin group” and the slave experience is subsequently not isolated to black people, white people experienced it as well (Rushdy 239). The repercussions of slavery are generational and Butler’s experiment proposes what happens when a descendant experiences those repercussions in real time and history hurts. Her family history is painful and irrefutable; Rufus’s blood is Dana’s blood. Blood history informs Dana’s consciousness. And to survive she must rectify her historical consciousness with her biological one.

Hierarchy: Double Consciousness

Dana understands the tenuous circumstances she faces as a freed woman with no proof of that freedom. Rufus knows who she is, that she is free, but his worldview prevents him from seeing anything but her skin and its consequences. Their relationship is complicated, more than mere friendship, but racial-political lines prevent them from having a true friendship based on equality. There is an ingrained hierarchy along racial and gender lines that no amount of familiarity can overcome. Whenever Rufus is angry or scared, he lashes out and his preferred method punishment is to remind Dana by sending her into the field, pointing guns at her and threatening her life that her freedom is subjective, and consequently reminds her that the hierarchy exists. The shock of slavery isn’t initially shocking. Dana quickly adapts to life on the Weylin plantation and remarks “how easily we seemed to acclimatize” (Butler 97). During her third trip to the past Dana and Kevin (who accidentally comes with her) assume the identity of slave and owner respectively. Before this trip, they had ben looking for something they could pass off as free papers for Dana, which would afford her some measure of freedom. Freedom papers were not foolproof however, as courts often contested and disregarded especially in south. However, Kevin’s presence affords Dana more freedom because as a white man, he can protect her far better than a legal document. Kevin pretends to be her master but the nuance of their relationship protects her even more. While they do not say it explicitly at first, they imply it to the residents of the Weylin plantation slave and free that their relationship is intimate and equal which upsets the hierarchical integrity. Kevin would prefer to keep Dana with him at all times in case she returns home and to keep her safe. He tries to shield her from the indignities of slavery and is not entirely successful. Though Dana is Kevin’s slave, Tom Weylin, Rufus’s father expects her to work for her keep. She summarily becomes a house slave, a fate Dana considers to be less horrific than the alternative.

Being a house slave affords Dana relative freedom compared to the slaves who work in the cornfields. In the plantation hierarchy, Dana exists below the Weylin family and the white overseers but above the slaves forced to work in the fields. Instead of hard labor, Dana works in the cookhouse with an older slave named Sarah (Butler 76). Dana understands immediately the affordance of her position. She reassures Kevin “I’m not being treated any worse than any other house servant” and that she is “doing better than the field hands” (Butler 83). She is still a slave but it is understood that there are tiers to enslavement. The work in the cookhouse isn’t as physically strenuous as work in the fields. In the cookhouse, the slaves work at their own pace and so long as the food was cooked and served promptly and well, the Weylins and their guests didn’t bother them overmuch. There was no white overseer, the slaves in the cookhouse worked under Sarah’s watchful eye. Sarah who has been a slave all her life and was victim to her former master’s sexual perversion and hypocrisy serves as a necessary guide for Dana and helps her to understand the nuances of the hierarchy. Dana initially dismisses Sarah as a template for the mammy stereotype, a figure to be ridiculed and pitied. She comes to understand that Sarah works within the hierarchy in order to survive. If that means assuming the mammy cloak, then so be it. In the cookhouse, Dana became comfortable, so comfortable that it frightened her. She remarks, “see how easily slaves are made” (Butler 177). She is shocked by “how easily we seemed to acclimatize” and “for drop-ins from another century, I thought we had had a remarkably easy time. And I was perverse enough to be bothered by the ease” (Butler 97). Dana never realizes before she lives it “how easily people could be trained to accept slavery” (Butler 97). Had Dana gone immediately to the cornfield to work, her ready acceptance wouldn’t have been as swift. The state of slavery is not a rigid structure though the enforcers purport it to be so. Here we have the fluidity of freedom, the hierarchy within the institution. In the big picture, the men and women working on the Weylin plantation are not free but situation and placement afford them slivers of freedom. Nigel a young slave who grew up with Rufus comments on getting “some time of freedom” working in the cookhouse and overseeing fellow slaves (Butler 203). But partial freedom is not freedom.

Dana realizes the affordance and her privilege remarking that she does not have the endurance of her ancestors and her “time of freedom” or her place within the hierarchy depends on the institution as much as it does on the individual. When Dana is unable to prevent Tom Weylin from succumbing to illness, Rufus punishes her by sending her to the fields (Butler 211). It is her hope that her work in the factory and warehouse in her own time would make her “strong enough to survive” (Butler 212). The strength she refers to is physical strength as opposed to the mental strength to do her work in the cookhouse and in the master’s house. There are few threats to her physical person; though other female house slaves are at risk for sexual violence, they are at lower risk for brutal beatings and other tortures. Dana struggles with the fieldwork and the current overseer Evan Fowler beats her again and again until she collapses amidst the cornstalks. Dana never considers herself to be a slave but she understands that she is not truly free, even in her own time. She mentions the state of South Africa and the multitude of similarities between the white supremacist government in 1976 and the white supremacist government in the United States in 1819 (Butler 196). Freedom is a fluid concept even in her own time and the hierarchy determines who has it and who does not.

Dana’s double consciousness is steeped in paradox. The scientific mechanics of time travel bind her in a series of metaphysical laws compounded by her gender and her race. The intersection of her race and gender is indicative of the many hierarchies operating within the novel. Hierarchies “arrange bodies, things, and ideas according to levels of power or importance” (Levine 82). Dana’s position within the hierarchy on the Weylin Plantation complicates the inequality that she experiences. The novel begins at the end, and so we know that Dana survives the antebellum South in her black female body, but what is interesting is how she survives, how she adjusts to the hierarchy. There is evidence to suggest that she didn’t have to try very hard. In order to survive, Dana has to adjust her historical consciousness. Critic Saidiya Hartman argues that in order to become historically conscious while inhabiting a black body, we must reckon “ with our responsibility to the dead necessitates not only our remembrance but also a promise to forswear the injustice that enabled this crime against humanity to occur” (Hartman 757). Butler makes explicit this process using science fiction as a tool for Dana to literally get to know the ghosts in her attic. History depends on us remembering correctly, the “dead depend” on it (Hartman 758). Perhaps Dana hadn’t remembered, the ghosts of her past by necessity seep into the present and supernatural forces make sure that she does, she has to remember to grieve and she has to grieve in order to be truly liberated.

There is a link between memory and liberation. Dana is immersed in the slave experience, which is the black experience in America and ultimately “the key to [her] identity” (Hartman 758). Dana was at risk of losing her history and consciousness and her time travels enable her to re-sew the “the fabric of [her] own experience” (Hartman 758). Dana experiences slavery because she is the descendant of slaves and we are our history. The affordance of this remembrance is that is exposes the “artifice of historical barricades or the tenuousness of temporal markers like the past and present” (Hartman 763). Dana’s performance, as black woman in antebellum America transcends past and present because at some point it stops being a performance. And her performance is key for the reader because Dana acts so that we don’t have to. She bridges the past and present for the reader, bringing us closer to that lived experience. Acting out the past is the best tools to working through past implications that have leaked to the present.

Dana cannot deny her double consciousness, her existence as a traveller between time demands that she remain conscious at all times, her survival depends on it. Butler in her novel, is interested in in history, politics, and culture in the United States and the particular role that gender and racial identity plats in history. The survival of the black female body is at stake here, “the role of the body plays in Butler’s understanding of political difference” (Robertson 363). What’s more important is that double consciousnesses cannot be separated. The double consciousness of a body that is both black and female stands in direct opposition of whiteness and maleness (Robertson 370). “Double-subjectification” hinders political access, which ultimately translates to double consciousness. In the antebellum South, Dana is black, female, American and slave. The sum of these parts “opens Dana’s body, her flesh, to stories of marginalization, to norms, that could ever involve any other woman and/or black” (Robertson 370). Dana understands that she must remain in the double consciousness because as she says, “if I was to live, if others were to live, he must live. I didn’t dare test the paradox” (Butler 29). Double consciousness and the institutional hierarchies that produce them are paradoxes manifest through bodies. Robertson argues that “bodies are a link to history, and one’s knowledge of bodies, one’s own and those of others, rises in the novel to the status of historical fact” (371). Dana survives because she understands the bio-political hierarchy of her identity. The seemingly separate spheres work together to inform that identity.

The project of Kindred is preventative, the doubles aren’t operating in separate spheres, the tether of history intrinsically links them. Remembering alone does not set right the wrongs, you have to admit that the past is part of your present and future, you have to embody it. If experience can transform history into the present then “memory can prevent atrocity” (Hartman 774). Remembering can “potentially enable an escape from the regularity of terror and routine violence constitutive of black life in the United States” and allow the consciousness to work through the tragedies of the past (Hartman 774). Connecting the threads of doubling within the novel increases the potency of each individual double and exposes the network that ties them together.

Networks: Doppelgänger at Work

Whole, rhythm and hierarchy appear to operate independently of one another but when we apply this new formalism to Kindred. They are bound by links that interlace into a wider network of form. Network appears to be the “antithesis of form” because it is formless (Levine 112). They are defined as “patterns of interconnection and exchange that organize social and aesthetic experience” (Levine 113). Butler’s neo-slave narrative is a palimpsest of overlapping networks. This manifests in a palimpsest familial history. Even if Dana never goes back in time, the connections remain. Dana’s does not forge the links she exposes them. Dana “discovers the family secret that her own genesis is entangled in a violent history of rape and miscegenation” (Dubey 337).

The networks between the double consciousness of present and past, slave and free extend to the individuals caught up in the dualities until they become dualities themselves. The doubling manifests in Dana/Alice and Kevin/Rufus. The relationship between Dana and Rufus evolves, as he gets older. The relationship built on mutual understanding as well as an exchange of services maintains the status quo even when either Dana or Rufus seeks to change it. Dana first meets Rufus as a young boy drowning in a river. She saves his life continually over his life until circumstances and Rufus’s own choices cause Dana to end the life she so assiduously protected even to her own detriment. Dana endeavors to “maybe plant a few ideas in his mind that would help both me and the people who would be his slaves in the years to come” (Butler 68). She ultimately fails at this task. In the end, she is able to convince him to free his children with Alice, a freedwoman Rufus schemes to become his slave. To do so, she appeals to his links to Alice who he loved in his own twisted way, a love that perhaps in a different historical moment would have been pure and good, but instead was full of violence and hatred. She wants to change Rufus but cannot. Much of her efforts are on Alice’s behalf as well as her own. Dana understands her place in the network of her genealogy. She is the product of rape and violence, this history intrinsically linked to her very existence. Dana does not seek to change institutional beliefs or systems, she knows that slavery will be abolished and civil rights defended. Instead, she seeks to make changes on a personal level. She doesn’t show the same hesitation in trying to turn Rufus’s mind towards equality as opposed to expediting the abolition of slavery.

I find it curious that Butler chose to make Dana’s husband a white man in light of her relationship with her white ancestor Rufus. Kevin does not entirely believe that Dana is time travelling, despite her seconds long disappearance followed by her reappearance in a different place in their home. When she shares her experience, he is sympathetic and enraged on her behalf but it is not until he experiences the time jump that he is able to empathize. Due to his gender and his race, placing him high in the hierarchy, he has an easier time in the antebellum south, afforded the same freedom in 1819 that he has in 1976. He acclimatizes quicker than Dana and it is his first time in the past and her third. After her third trip to the past, Dana and Kevin are separated and she is propelled into the future while he remains behind. Eight days for Dana is equal to five years for Kevin and the changes to him are subtle but permanent. He brings the past with him and carries it with him into the present. She does not mention if this change is permanent, in fact she doesn’t mention it again. When they finally return to their own time together, Dana, by this time experienced in the back and forth duality bounces back while Kevin struggles to readjust to 1976 (Butler 190). Rufus struggles to comprehend the message of equality that Dana tries to communicate. He assents in small parts (freeing his children) but the relative little time he spends in Dana’s company and influence cannot combat a lifetime of immersive conditioning. Rufus seems to lack the ability or at the very least the perspective to understand. Kevin likewise fails to understand Dana’s perspective even though he lived during the same time she did (Butler 246). His whiteness precedes his time.

Dana’s black skin and hyper-visibility marks her from the beginning, but it is her physical resemblance to her great grandmother many times Alice that extends the network of double consciousness. Many characters in the novel remark upon how much the two women resemble each other. During Dana’s second trip a patroller seeking to rape Alice’s mother, attempts to rape Dana accepting her as a surrogate based on their resemblance alone. Barring their physical resemblance, their attitudes are divergent with Dana having the affordance of foresight. Alice however can only see as far her circumstance and seeks to break free by any means. They are both of them born free, only to have that freedom ripped from them, Dana by supernatural means and Alice by Rufus’ sinister and licentious machinations done in the name of love. Despite their abundant similarities they occupy different levels of the hierarchy. They each achieve ultimate freedom by self-inflicted violence though Alice does not survive her wounds.

Rufus conflates the two women and relies on them tangentially. Upon coming across Alice and Dana together, Rufus exclaims, “behold the woman!” and then to himself says, “you really are only one woman” (Butler 228). After he toddles off, happily, Alice morosely admits that Dana “gentle[s] him for [her]” (Butler 228). She continues, “He likes me in bed, and you out of bed, and you and I look alike if you can believe what people say” and “we’re two halves of the same woman-at least in his crazy head” (Butler 229). But Rufus isn’t crazy, the affordance of his upbringing, race and gender makes him capable of compartmentalizing human beings in terms of what they can do for him. With Dana, he is able to satisfy his emotional yearning and with Alice, his physical ones. However, once Alice kills herself, Rufus is left with a gaping hole. Dana realizes almost immediately that without Alice, there is no one to “take the pressure off any more” (Butler 256). Within days of burying her Rufus seeks to fill the void with Dana. In the face of his sexual aggression Dana reflects that she has two choices; she can either accept it and avoid further assault or defend herself to the death. She concludes that she could “accept him as [her] ancestor, [her] younger brother, [her] friend, but not as [her] master, and not as [her] lover” (Butler 260). She stabs Rufus, killing him after her vow to keep him alive; it was after all her only purpose in being there. In death Rufus holds on to her arm so tightly that when she returns for the final time to her own time, her arm remains in the past still clasped in Rufus’s dying hands (Butler 261). The link between them proves to be nearly unbreakable as her connection to the past and the men and women who endured slavery as she had for a time.

The doubling of character in the novel functions as a mode of embodiment. Dana’s embodied experience is more effective because of the structures of interconnectedness. New formalist criticism observes “linkages between objects, bodies, and discourse” (Levine 113). Rushdy identifies “three kinds of neo slave narratives, “the third-person historical novel of slavery, the first-person narration of the life-story of a slave, and the recounting of the traumatic legacy of slavery on later generations” (Vint 241). I contend that Kindred contain all three; it is not only Dana’s story, it’s a neo-slave narrative of every occupant, white and black of the Weylin plantation. The collective narrative contains “elements of the fantastic” (Vint 241). We therefore have to reconsider what we consider to be fantastic. In Beloved (1984), Toni Morrison posits that there was something supernatural about slavery, replete with ghosts and hauntings that linger long after slavery has ended. In Kindred, Dana’s embodies experience allows us to understand through her a history that is so far removed from ourselves (Vint 242). Dana bears physical marks of her embodied experience and she brings the marks from the past into the present. Her back bears the stripes of her beatings by the Patroller and Thomas Weylin, her wrists bear the deep self-inflicted cuts she made to save herself from a past that had begun to blend into the present. But Dana also bears Alice’s abuse and Sarah’s shame of being the master’s woman, victims of sexual degradation. Their suffering bodies authorize and authenticate the bound true history of female slaves (Vint 242). Dana “struggle with the consequences of being black female bodies in a racist and patriarchal system, and both must learn that denying their embodied selves only allow the wounding of slavery to continue” (Vint 242). Through this exercise, we can come to terms with the collective network of embodied experience. It is important that this be told in a first person narrative voice because of the authority needed for the networks to operate.

Dana’s slave experience needed to include physical violence; she needed to carry the scars with her into the future. The future is the next link in the chain, connecting the muddled past and present to the future and to contemporary readers. It becomes a collective network of experience.

Reclaiming the narrative requires admission and acceptance of the networks and has to come to terms with the fact that the network of slavery extends to present day. Dana’s body is the “mechanism of her time travel” she embodies the network of slavery (Vint 248). Butler exposes the networks of the bounded wholes, rhythms and hierarchies that characterize the black experience in America, past, present and future. Coming to terms with the embodied experience means becoming a witness.

One answer to the call for embodied experience and answering witness is the graphic narrative adaptation of Kindred by Damian Duffy and John Jennings published in 2017. It is a kinetic example of separate but overlapping networks, networks that consolidate disparate parts (Levine 122). The graphic narrative’s form on its own, affords multiple networks in one bounded whole. Comic artist Scott McCloud defines comics as “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce and aesthetic response in the viewer” (9). Graphic novels are the perfect medium for aesthetic and politics to converse and overlap. The political and aesthetic connotations of adapting a pre-existing literary work can be found in the original work but also in the adaptation and the creative choices made as a work transforms from original to adaptation.

One way in which graphic novels communicate context is through what McCloud calls “amplification through simplification” (30). Damian Duffy for his part, abridges the novel’s original text for logistical reasons, a word for word graphic novel adaptation would translate to an immense tome. One aspect of the novel that is absent in the adaptation is Dana’s emotional responses to the stimuli on the Weylin plantation. Instead Jason Jennings uses visual art to communicate and fill the wordless void. Words and visual representation reconcile on the page and find balance within the adaptation. Many panels contain no words at all and instead allow for the visuals to communicate anger, fear and resignation on the faces of the characters brought to life in this adaptation. During Dana’s second trip, Jennings illustrates Dana and Rufus’s first conversation. We see Dana reprimand Rufus for setting fire to the drapes as in the novel, but instead of reading words of Rufus’s fury over being told what to do, by a black woman no less, we read the fury on his face. An entire panel is devoted to Rufus’s expression, the furrowed brow, splotches of color on his cheeks betraying his temper and his lips etched in a scowl (Damian et al 25). We see adult Rufus make a similar expression in “The Fight” (Damian et al 148). The only difference is that her is older. His expression is in response to her father’s admonition that he should sell Alice after the beating she receives from the slave catchers renders her incontinent and unable to take care of herself. In this narrative move, the graphic novel uncovers another connection within the greater Kindred network of doubles. Dana bemoans that she is unable to change Rufus and steer him from a villainous role in their family history. In the original text, she expresses hope until the end, but in the graphic novel, Damian and Jennings put forth that such a change is impossible and as immovable as Rufus’s expression.

Graphic novels deal in concepts while simultaneously evoking visual senses, none more provocative than a sensual conception of time. The panels act as indicators of time as does panel shape (McCloud 94). Ultimately, they allow the reader to reframe memory (Wolk 359). Days in Dana’s time on the Weylin Plantation pass in between the panels on the page. McCloud writes, “space does for comics what time does for film” (McCloud 7). Use of color and reliance on conceptual art as opposed to finely detailed depictions complicate Butler’s stance on historical temporality. The panels where Dana is home, in her present are colored in monochrome and sepia unlike the vivid slashes of color used in the panels in the past. The past panels also contain more details than the present suggesting that for Dana, the past is more fully realized than the present, a consciousness that the reader now implicitly shares. Here Duffy and Jennings converge with Butler in a joint effort to force the reader to experience the double consciousness of the slave experience. McCloud lists the six elements of any graphic novel or comic: idea/purpose, form, idiom, structure, craft, surface (170). Duffy and Jennings are more concerned with the first two, idea/purpose and form. Why adapt Kindred now? What historical moment are they responding to? Kindred was needed in 1979, Butler proves this through her doubles, but there is still a need in 2017 according to Duffy and Jennings. While it might be too soon to determine what they are responding to with any certainty, that there is a need speaks to slave narratives relevance not only across time, but also across form.

Conclusion

Butler produces doubles in every facet of Kindred, resisting the limits of form and reveling in its affordances. The prevalence of doubling doesn’t serve a mere narrative purpose but is done in order to normalize it. The doubles work from the outside in, moving concentrically towards a point where the reader’s consciousness is able to accept the novel’s double consciousness. In Butler’s narrative of social justice it is vital that the reader understand the duality of slavery. Butler has to use doubles in order to instruct the reader in the dialogue of social justice, which has a much to do with the past as it does with the present. The doubling has to become normal for the reader to engage in activism and they must adjust their concept of time.

By combining the slave narrative with science fiction, Butler subverts literariness. It is “perverse” to do so and even more so if we read Kindred as a protest novel. Then again, subversion is the lifeblood of most protest. The need for protest has not diminished in the intervening years of Kindred’s publication and present literary discourse. This year, Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad won both the National Book and Pulitzer Awards for fiction. The novel, a neo-slave narrative, is a response to the historical moment of police brutality and a political moment rife with racist and xenophobic language. The need for neo-slave narratives like Kindred has not diminished it has changed. The form will therefore remain a political tool so long as there is such a need.

Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. Kindred. Beacon, 1979.

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Norton, 2016.

Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. Norton, 1999.

Dubey, Madhu. “Neo-Slave Narratives.” A Companion to African American Literature. Gene       Andrew Jarrett, ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010, pp. 332-346.

Duffy, Damian and John Jennings. Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Abrams, 2017.

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Broadview, 2001.

Hartman, Saidiya V. “The Time of Slavery.” The South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 101, no. 4, Fall     2002, pp. 757-777.

Jacobs, Harriet. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Norton, 2000.

Jennings, John and Stacey Robinson. Black Kirby: In Search of the Motherboxx Connection.          Create Space, 2013

Levecq, Christine. “Power and Repetition: Philosophies of (Literary) History in Octavia Butler’s            ‘Kindred.’” Contemporary Literature, vol. 41, no.3, Autumn 2000, pp. 525-553.

Levine, Caroline. Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network. Princeton, 2015.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Harper Collins, 1993.

Meer, Sarah. “Slave Narratives as Literature.” The Cambridge Companion to Slavery in    American Literature. Ezra Tawil, ed. Cambridge UP, pp. 70-85.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Norton, 1993.

Olney, James. “I Was Born.” Callaloo, no. 20, Winter 1984, pp. 46-73.

Robertson, Benjamin. “Some Matching Strangeness: Biology, Politics, and the Embrace of            History in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Science Fiction Studies, vol.37, no.3, November         2010, pp. 362-381.

Rone, Tracy R. “Slave Narratives.” Encyclopedia of African American Education. Gale Virtual      Reference Library, 2010, pp. 583-585.

Rushdy, Ashraf H.A. “Slavery and Historical Memory in Late-Twentieth-Century Fiction.” The             Cambridge Companion to Slavery in American Literature. Cambridge UP, pp. 236-249.

Tucker, Jeffrey Allen. “Beyond the Borders of the Neo-Slave Narrative: Science Fiction and         Fantasy.” The Cambridge Companion to Slavery in American Literature. Ezra Tawil, ed.             Cambridge, pp. 250-264.

Vint, Sheryl. “Only by Experience: Embodiment and the Limitations of Realism in Neo-Slave       Narratives.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 34, no. 2, July 2007, pp. 241-261.

Wilburn, Reginald. Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African   American Literature. Duquesne UP, 2014.

Wolk, Douglas. Reading Comics: How Graphic Novels Work and What They Mean. Da Capo,      2007.

Womack, Ytasha L. Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture. Lawrence         Hill Books, 2013.

Yaszek, Lisa. “A Grim Fantasy: Remaking American History in Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Signs,             vol. 28, no. 4, 2003, pp. 1053-1060.

 

 

 

Olaudah Equiano’s Subversive Reading of Milton’s Paradise Lost

Part I

In the final book in Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), the archangel Michael tells the newly fallen Adam of not only his fate, but also his children’s fate and so on culminating in the history of the world. In his account of human history, Michael tells the story of Nimrod. Nimrod, a footnote in the scope of the Biblical cannon is likewise minimized in Milton’s epic as an emergent figure in the history of mankind. Like the source material, Nimrod’s narrative emerges from a litany of names and events. Nimrod is important enough to mention but after his brief appearance, he disappears into the annals of history. Why does the Biblical author mention a man only to never mention him again? Why does Milton choose to include this narrative? The poet writes of Nimrod’s emergence:

till one shall rise

Of proud ambitious heart, who not content

With fair equality, fraternal state,

Will arrogate dominion undeserved

Over his brethren, and quite dispossess

Concord and law of nature from the earth. (Milton 12.24-29)

Milton’s Nimrod is a villain, a slave master, the enemy of freedom and reason. He subjugates and enslaves his fellow man, not only upsetting the laws of nature, but the laws of God which determines that God is above man. His great sin is against God and reason, for Milton one and the same. It is under his tyrannical rule that men construct the Tower of Babel, forcing God to execute his divine judgment, confusing the tongues of the people and thereby restoring order. It is this divine justice and order that Milton seeks to justify and champion in his poem.

In his own justification of justice, Olaudah Equiano, a former slave composes The Interesting Narrative of The Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789). Equiano writes his narrative on the eve of great political change and upheaval. In the eighteenth century, Abolition movements in the United States and the United Kingdom sought out former slaves to share their experience, orally or written. In 1789, Equiano became the first in a long lost of men and women who penned “spiritual biographies” (Costanzo 9). These spiritual autobiographies consisted of a three-part structure “depicting a person’s enslavement to sin, harrowing conversion experience, and subsequent state of spiritual rebirth” (Costanzo 9). Equiano purported himself to be a devout Christian whose faith carried him through the horrors of slavery and into the freedom of salvation. Therefore it is not surprising that Equiano would be familiar with John Milton’s epic poem. In fact, he adopts Milton’s words and inserts them into his own narrative, an editorial choice in line with his belief as well as the historical moment Equiano has to navigate.

In addition to the stylized structure of the spiritual autobiography cum slave narrative, Equiano had to adhere to two conventions. One such convention was that each writer had to authenticate their experience and in the process, their very existence. This was realized in two ways, by a white abolitionist vouching for them, validating their existence and providing some sort of proof that these former slaves actually wrote them. The writers, almost to a one, began their narratives with some form of the statement “I was born.” This statement was followed by as much documentation of their birth as they could assemble. Solomon Northup goes as far as providing the location for where documents of his birth and life could be found. In terms of narrative, abolitionists and other commissioners encouraged these freedwomen and men to share the horrors of slavery in as personal a manner as possible, however they cautioned them not to be too condemnatory of southern whites for fear of insulting their northern relatives. Political purpose and gain determined the early slave narrative form. Deviation from this form was unlikely and politically damaging. However, early slave narrative writers found ways around the pre-determined form, using subversion to create a form within a form.

That Equiano would make allusions to Milton and Paradise Lost is indicative of the times. According to Reginald Wilburn in his article “Black Audio-Visionaries and the Rise of Miltonic Influence in Colonial America and the Early Republic,” Milton had extensive influence over 17th and 18th century national politics, education, and religious culture and was widely read, assuming a role in the early canon (103-104). For this reason, black audio-visionaries such as Equiano understood the power that invoking Milton could have on an audience. In the slave narrative tradition, the invocation of Christian principles and ideas was done to appease the intended audience: white, Christian abolitionists and sympathetic Northerners. By invoking Milton, Equiano assured that he would reach his audience.

Equaino’s engagement with Paradise Lost appears to be limited; he only excerpts from the first two books of the poem, sparingly, including a mere twenty lines altogether, a negligible amount in his expansive narrative. I aim to deconstruct the passages he includes as well as the ones he does not. Though Equiano does not quote beyond the poem’s first two books, he is in fact engaging with the entire poem. Wilburn asserts in his essay that Milton heavily influenced Equiano’s narrative, which in turn influenced the narrative of freedom, which would become the slave narrative tradition, a genre associated with abolition and the fight for civil rights. That Equiano would connect with Milton as inspiration could imply a fundamental similarity between their crusades. However, just because Equiano uses Milton to advance his antislavery argument does not mean that they are preaching the same message. Wilburn writes that Equiano’s engagement with Milton amounts to his fashioning of what he refers to as a “satanic gospel” through Milton and subsequently through his own narrative (144). This “satanic gospel” is an inversion of Milton’s intended gospel of righteous justification. However, though Wilburn provides the language for the discussion about Miltonic influence in Equiano’s Interesting Narrative and the work of other black audio-visionaries, so-called because “of the oral/aural “performative” nature of their works, he does not provide a frame for reading Equiano’s subversion.

Equiano’s moves don’t amount to a mere subversive reading but to an institutional revolt. He preaches “the gospel of revolt” the kind of revolt that Milton preaches against (Wilburn 114). He subverts the message of Paradise Lost by presenting a satanic gospel reading of the poem. Equiano’s inclusion of excerpts from Paradise Lost in his slave narrative is one such subversion. He cites from a text that is not only widely read during the time in which he publishes his narrative, but one that appeals to the Christian ethics championed by the very people he was hoping to appeal to. However, though Equiano only quotes from books one and two the reason for why he chooses to enter into conversation with Paradise Lost can be found in book twelve. Equiano makes a strategic choice to appeal to Milton’s readers while simultaneously undercutting his influence because he understands the political moment. While Wilburn provides the vocabulary of Equiano’s relationship to Milton, he fails to prove his thesis by his own interpretation of either Milton or Equiano, merely noting that there is a relationship. The nature of the relationship between Milton and Equiano is not only adversarial but extends beyond the scope of the three passages Equiano cites in his narrative. Equiano’s “satanic gospel” is a manifestation of the tension between Milton and Equiano’s reading of him.

Part II

The story of Nimrod, the son of Cush, the son of Ham, the cursed son of Noah appears in book twelve of Paradise Lost as a cautionary tale against reason and freedom. Milton, in his final book, restates his philosophy of “Rational liberty” or “true liberty” (12.82, 83). This “true liberty” is at the heart of Milton’s thesis about God’s divine justice, which He carries out in the service of man, His greatest creation. Milton’s rhetoric resembles the rhetoric of Enlightenment thinkers, Equiano’s contemporaries who would champion reason and freedom. It would appear as though Milton sets a precedent for progressive thinking. Like Equiano, Milton is aware of his contemporary moment and where the conversation about sovereignty is headed. Mary Nyquist in her article, “Slavery, Resistance, and Nation in Milton and Locke” writes about Milton and his contemporaries working to define “natural freedom” which appears in the “literature of popular sovereignty” (356). Nyquist admits that there is disconnect between emerging Enlightenment thought and widespread chattel slavery (357). Equiano plays on this tension.

Nyquist writes that compared to more revolutionary writing, Milton in Paradise Lost restrains his language. He delivers his philosophy of “true liberty” perhaps more softly than in other instances. However, by close reading Equiano, we can see that he does not accept the “restrained language” of Paradise Lost. Instead, he implicates Milton in the institutional hypocrisy and the institutional rationalization of slavery. In chapter five of his narrative, Equiano writes about the “Christian master” who drips sealing wax on the back of a fugitive slave (123). Considering he italicized phrase “Christian master” Equiano blatantly questions the validity of this title. Equiano names the slave, an Emanuel Sankey, but does not name the “Christian master because it is the title that is significant. Equiano challenges the Christian institution using the example of the cruel master who purports himself to be a Christian. He is representative of the whole, as Milton is representative of true and rational liberty.

The vocabulary of emerging Enlightenment thought establishes a hierarchy to freedom. In book twelve, Michael vilifies Nimrod for his tyranny and his sins against his fellow man. On this surface, this admonition could read as a condemnation of slavery when in truth it is a condemnation of only one type of slavery. Nyquist identifies three modes of tyranny: internal, outward and justified (365-368). The real difference is between figurative and literal slavery and political slavery versus actual bondage (Nyquist 357). The way to rationalize slavery with emerging thought about liberty is to promote internal slavery as the real threat. Nimrod’s tyranny extends to “political subjugation” which is metaphorical (Nyquist 369). He threatens the first two modes of freedom. In the hierarchy, outward freedom is not as essential as internal freedom. This thought, prevalent during Equiano’s historical moment have rise to the slave narrative, which championed internal freedom found in God, and reason, which is also God’s.

The classification of Nimrod’s tyranny is further evidence of hierarchical modes of slavery. Paradise Lost then sets itself up as a rational argument for internal freedom in lieu of outward freedom. Milton’s language teeters on the line of being outright pro-slavery which is perhaps why Nyquist calls his language restrained but Equiano does not absolve Milton’s passivity. For Equiano, Milton’s passivity makes him complicit. It is because of this passivity that Equiano seeks to dismantle the notion of hierarchical slavery through Milton who he regards as representative of the wider institution. Paradise Lost has an “emphasis on human resistance to subjection” which Equiano questions (Nyquist 360). Reading Equiano’s narrative reading of Milton has to begin in book twelve in order to understand how he deconstructs the racialized rationalization of outward versus internal bondage. The notion of racialized liberty is fundamental to Equiano’s reading. Nyquist argues that Milton’s true aim is to protect political and rational liberty against tyranny and disorder (361). Milton’s thesis sets up Christianity as a protector of rational liberty, aligning his work with institutional Christianity. Milton is thus inseparable from the institution. Christian theology, Nyquist argues, systematically privileges “inward states” (365). Equiano indicts the hierarchy by mocking the vocabulary Milton and his contemporaries use to justify their rationalization.

In the beginning of chapter five, Equiano writes about a “new slavery” more harsh and wretched than any other form he has endured. But what lies beneath the “new slavery?” Does Equiano really believe that one form of slavery is preferable to another? Nyquist highlights a passage in book twelve (lines 79-104) of Paradise Lost where Milton “organizes degrees of servitude hierarchically, with the most completely interior coming first and the most exterior last-the last being, of course, actual bondage” (365). In this passage, Michael implies that “enslavement has a divine origin” galvanizing “Noah’s curse” as grounds for God’s divine justice (Nyquist 368). It is at this moment that Equiano makes the connection with Milton, God’s divine judgment and the subsequent rationalization for outward bondage. Milton excludes institutional slavery from his judgment of tyranny and consequently legitimizes human bondage (Nyquist 371). We can therefore find justification for human bondage with God’s judgment. If outward bondage is a punishment for sin then it is justified. Equiano appears to lament the possibility that he has done something, has sinned against God to deserve his state of bondage. However, his subsequent reading of books two and one of Paradise Lost undercut the possibility that he truly believes that slavery is a just punishment. Equiano would not conceive that there is any sin that could justify human bondage even God’s divine judgment.

Part III

In book two, Milton records the great debate in Pandemonium, a debate over what is to be done after the Son expels the fallen angels from heaven and fulfills God’s divine judgment. At Satan’s behest, three fallen angels make their cases regarding their current state. Moloch urges war, Belial advocates for slothful peace and Mammon argues for proactive acceptance of their fate and for making a virtual heaven of their hell (Milton 2.43-283). The great debate, held before all the inhabitants of hell, mirrors the debate on both sides of the Atlantic between colonizers and colonized, enslaved and free. Equiano chooses to invoke this debate between the fallen angels who are victims of God’s righteous judgment in part because his cause mirrors that of the fallen angels. Equiano chooses this debate over the equally great and equally staged debate in heaven. He is doing more than simply relating to the fallen angel struggle, his choice declares the justice of the satanic debate and thereby the justice of the satanic gospel. The debate over slavery, according to Equiano more closely resembles the satanic debate because the state of being of a fallen angel and an enslaved person share fundamental similarities.

In his fictional recreation of the events in hell, Satan’s will, through Beelzebub, prevails rendering all other debate meaningless. Only Mammon’s case for sustained survival can contend with Beelzebub’s but he quickly dissembles it. To remain in “strictest bondage” is not an option, revolt is their only course (Milton 2.321, 326). Satan and Beelzebub elect subversion as the path to their version of righteous judgment. It is not total war and yet neither is it surrender, but rather a different type of war. The war for heaven never ends, it adapts. Likewise, the slaves must also adapt to the “state of war” that they live in (Equiano 128). He quotes from Beelzebub’s argument that “no peace is given/to us enslav’d” hearkening to Satan’s refusal to quietly accept the judgment “from Heav’n’s high jurisdiction” (2.332, 319). Equiano then uses Milton to pose the question to justify his judgment, “what peace can we return?” (2.335). Equiano’s moves here operate in two, seemingly contradictory, ways. On the one hand, he advocates for rebellion and declares that insurrection as an inevitable response to the state of slavery. Like Satan and the fallen angels who continue to revolt even after they have been defeated, slave insurrection will become the new state of war. On the other hand, Equiano simultaneously advocates for peace, peace that can only come by “treating your slaves as men” and not fallen angels (128). Though Equiano may advocate for peace, he does not truly believe in Mammon-like acceptance. Revolution is the only answer to inequality under divine justice’s umbrella. Equiano twists Milton’s words to make his own rationalization for revolution. He is not only targeting Milton’s rationale but also the entire philosophy of Paradise Lost.

Ultimately, we come to book one of Paradise Lost in which Milton first posits his philosophy of divine justice. Milton’s aim in composing Paradise Lost is to “ assert Eternal Providence / And justify the ways of God to men” a resolute undertaking (1.25-26). The footnotes of the Norton Critical Edition supplies the Latin root of the word “assert.” Asserere in the original Latin means to “put one’s hand on the head of a slave to set him free or protect or defend him” (Norton 9). Asserting Eternal Providence for Milton is about asserting the faithfulness of all who would believe in God as a good and just God. Milton also wants to assert protection of metaphorical freedom, freedom from political tyranny. In opposition, Equiano asserts protection of outward freedom, freedom from bondage. The intersectionality of Equiano’s divine reading of Paradise Lost and his state of slavery alters the gospel message that Milton intends. Equiano creates his own hierarchy of freedom, one where outward freedom ranks above internal freedom. By questioning Milton’s metaphorical freedom, Equiano also questions God’s judgment.

As Equiano approaches Montserrat, after attempts to free him fail, he acknowledges, “what fate had decreed no mortal on earth could prevent” (114). He refers to Montserrat as his “destined island” and accepts that forces outside the earthly realm preordain his fate. In lieu of actual descriptions of his “destined island”, he instead invokes Milton’s first description of hell. This hell cast in “sorrow [and] doleful shades” is the land of his new bondage (Milton 1.65). This new land is cast in stark contrast to his previous bondage, which Equiano yearns for in the face of his new, hellish circumstance. This is his hell on earth. In anguish, he calls upon “God’s thunder, and his avenging power” to right the injustice but doesn’t seem to believe that God will according to his judgment avenge him (Equiano 115). Equiano does not question God’s presence in the ways of men, but challenges His role with regards to justice for all men. Equiano ends his first quotation of Milton with the lines “but torture without end/Still urges” cutting the Miltonic verse in the middle of the line. Immediately after this quotation, Milton once again invokes “Eternal Justice” confirming that God ordained a hell of this nature and magnitude (1.70). In the debate for slavery, those who supported it often argued that slavery was God’s will and Equiano seems to be echoing that sentiment. The God who ordains slavery therefore cannot be just. This is what Wilburn is talking about when he refers to Equiano’s reading of Paradise Lost as that of a satanic gospel (114). Equiano determines that God is not just if his judgment is not. After establishing the unjust nature of God’s judgment, Equiano moves to justify his own state of being. Equiano is in full control of this contradiction, he deliberately constructs a test for God’s divine judgment which he knows will fail in order to attack the religious case for slavery as a divinely-sanctioned state. God is not Equiano’s intended victim but Milton’s God and the institution.

In chapter five of his narrative, Equiano reflects on the state of human bondage. This reflection, which comes halfway through his narrative, requires a close reading because it attempts to break down the philosophy of the institution of slavery as well as the state of the enslaved. In this excerpt, Equiano reflects on his sale to Mr. King on the island of Montserrat and the despair it causes him, notably for the pitiable circumstances where he finds himself, bound on a ship for bondage. He writes, “I must have done something to displease the Lord, that he thus punished me so severely” (Equiano 111). He further speculates “God might perhaps have permitted this in order to teach me wisdom and resignation” (Equiano 111). He invokes heavenly judgment perhaps to reconcile the reality of his situation and to rectify the miscarriage of earthly judgment. But he does not absolve heavenly judgment from his censure. Instead, he puts into perspective the purported righteousness of heavenly judgment and seeks to test its merits.

Equiano highlights distinctions between earthly and heavenly judgment, but what on a superficial reading might seem as ready affordance to the righteous judgment of God, which has allowed for his suffering, it is, in fact, tacit resistance to an ideological order that encompasses heaven. Equiano writes that God “permitted” his bondage. He posits that his transgression might have been his “presumption in swearing” and is quick to beg forgiveness (111). The punishment for his transgression is slavery, something that he seems to consider, might be for his good, again citing God’s omnipotent judgment. He freely admits that he has no answers on that score and leaves it to the reader to come to their own conclusion. We are left to ponder the righteousness of a God that would shut up a man, born free into slavery. On the surface, Equiano seems to suggest that by questioning his state of being, as a man reduced to bondage labor, and the righteousness of God in that matter, God’s judgment is justified. If the judgment of God is just then God justifies slavery. However, Equiano is not making a case for the protection and proliferation of slavery. In fact, this very narrative seeks to dismantle arguments against it. He uses the word “transgression” implying that he might in some way have to atone for a past sin. But he knows that there is no past sin, no transgression, only an accident a birth. His current circumstances are the result of “judgment of Heaven” which he has established is questionable. Equiano determines that his only recourse is to dismantle the institution that props up flawed interpretations of God’s judgment.

Though Equiano seeks to dismantle the institution, he does not mean to abandon it altogether. Like Milton, Equiano seeks to transplant his philosophy of justice through a Biblical reading. Milton invokes similarities between himself and the Biblical prophets, specifically, the patriarch Moses. When Milton invokes the heavenly Muse in book one, he alludes to “Oreb, or of Sinai,” Biblical places of inspiration for Moses (1.7). On these mountains, Moses hears the voice of God and receives divine inspiration. Likewise, Milton seeks divine inspiration from the “Aonian mount,” the place of the muses (1.15). By linking Moses’s mission with his own, Milton succeeds in elevating his work by divine standards. This move ties his project intrinsically with Christian theology and institution. God chooses Moses to lead his people and execute judgment and justice in the name of God, a mandate Milton believes he shares with the prophet of old. Equiano complicates this Miltonic invocation by subverting the Moses ethos. Equiano refers to the “just cause Moses had in redressing his brother against the Egyptian” as cause for Equiano and his fellow brothers and sisters in bondage to “look up still to the God on the top” (127). Equiano also seeks inspiration from the mountaintop, but the inspiration he receives is of a different strain than Milton. Equiano’s Moses is not the prophet, but the revolutionary, the man who led his people out of bondage in Egypt. Equiano draws parallels between himself and Moses, subverting the parallel Milton makes. This is the Moses adopted by the antislavery movement as a symbol of revolt and freedom, the Moses adopted by a slave girl named Harriet Ross who would become Harriet Tubman. He is a catalyst for the change and justice that eludes enslaved peoples. Equiano is like Moses, ready to lead his people from the bondage of slavery.

Conclusion

Nyquist and Wilburn occupy two concurrent spaces in the discourse surrounding Milton’s influence on early African American literature and politics but they do not intersect. The politics of slavery overlap both arguments however, and this paper sought to bring these two divergent theories in conversation through Equiano. Though Nyquist does not discuss Equiano, her reading of Milton deconstructs the tension between philosophy and political action. Equiano subverts the subversion of Enlightenment thought, which is what truly makes him an audio-visionary. What makes Equiano’s subversion so significant is that he uses the very institutional parameters of Christianity and theology to dismantle the very same institution. Equiano’s “satanic gospel of revolt” is manifest in his narrative. Subsequent black audio-visionaries, particularly in the slave narrative tradition take up the mantle of subversive writing, which Equiano establishes, in his pioneering narrative.

Works Cited

Equiano, Olaudah. The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano. Broadview, 2001.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Norton, 1993.

Nyquist, Mary. “Slavery, Resistance, and Nation in Milton and Locke.” Early Modern Nationalism and Milton’s England, ed. by David Loewenstein and Paul Stevens, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. 356-397.

Wilburn, Reginald. Preaching the Gospel of Black Revolt: Appropriating Milton in Early African   American Literature. Duquesne UP, 2014.

 

Shuffle, Repeat

harlem-renaissance-dancing

History repeats. Time progresses, people are born then die, nations rise and fall and then repeats. Time shuffles, then repeats.

America emerges from the Enlightenment so sure that she will break the cycle, that she, a modern Republic will stand the test of time and endure as others have failed to do. The American Revolution stood for the hope of liberty in the face of tyranny; it was the first wave of progressivism in the fledgling nation. It was a narrow view of freedom, only rich, white men could truly let freedom ring and that was enough, for now.

Then the slaves revolt, white Northerners grow concerned over their moral culpability. How would they explain to their God? So they fight the war and die, Antietam and die, Gettysburg and die, rest. Lincoln dies for their sins. For freedom, sort of. Reconstruction for all for a time. 40 acres and a mule. Hayes wants to be president and so stops time. Second wave of progressivism.

Billie Holiday sings “Strange Fruit” and America applauds because they don’t have to see it. Emmett Till floats to the surface and America recoils because they do have to see it. Photography. Four little girls in a Christian church in a Christian nation, Evers, King, Hampton. Then. Hendrix, National Anthem, freedom. Maybe. But the 13th amendment and mass incarceration. Reagan. Third wave of progressivism ends.

In the middle of time, Bill Cosby shows the black family as it would have been if not for history. A Different World shows the black youth as intelligent, compassionate, silly, serious, human. Black can mean human now. Martin, Living Single, Family Matters, Fresh Prince, Will Smith. But super-predator. Bush again. And again. Fourth wave of progressivism ends.

Barack Obama. Hope. We could touch it, let it pour over our striped backs where scars grow like trees, roots set firmly in generations of pain, branches reaching towards the light and still we rise but he was black. They hate him, they hate us, they hate themselves. Change. Is not enough to quiet the white rage built up, out of the time in between the time when we dared fight for our right. Fifth wave. ends.

Birth Certificate. Build a wall. Mexicans rape. Muslims cheer. Losers. Long Form. Those brown boys must have been guilty they must have. Kill them. Pussy. Illegals, a noun not a status.Putin is a former KBG. Are we really surprised? What do you have to lose? National registry. Haven’t we done this before? Why is it happening again? The blacks. The gays. Two genders motherfucker. Kick ball change. Shuffle repeat.

The sixth wave begins. Now.

Uncanny Blackness I

marsh_keeping-the-culture

Kerry James Marshall, “Keeping the Culture (2011)”

Uncanny Blackness is space. It’s space for me to think, question, rage and somehow find absolution. Uncanny, because I claim the mysterious and the weird as my birthright. Blackness, because I denied it, even though the history is written all over my skin and in my hips and on my lips.

Uncanny Blackness is science fiction, fantasy but it’s my reality and I revel in it. I exceed the moderate expectations that our society places on black women, as an other, as an alien, as a stranger in a strange land. I supersede limits placed on my body and my mind. I am automatic,  supersonic, hypnotic, funky, fresh.

Uncanny Blackness is Afrofuturism. It exists in the in between of the past and the uncertainty of the future and at present. It is endurance in the face of forces that would rather we lay dormant. It is sitting for the National Anthem and standing in the face of a militarized police force because we have hope for tomorrow.

Uncanny Blackness because they don’t see me as Human so I might as well be an Android.

 

Am I Or the Others Crazy?

multicolor blue eyes cyborgs digital art science fiction wires rod_www.wall321.com_91

Note: The following poems were found scribbled on the walls of a patient’s room in the Palace of the Dogs Asylum in the city of Metropolis. They are believed to be the work of Android TMS-656, who was arrested and institutionalized in the year 3033 for attempting to flee with her lover, cyborg HC-208. By falling in love, they broke the most sacred of edicts and became fugitives from The Rule. State police discovered them hiding in the bowels of Neon Valley aided by known insurgent Cindi Mayweather. Android TMS-656 remained imprisoned in the Palace of the Dogs until approximately 3060. Historians only have an approximation because no definite time could be determined. Attendants claim that the Android, by this time going by Tamsin, was simply there one minute and gone the next. These writings are collected here to give insight into the minds of rogue androids and the current location of Android TMS-656.

I.

Shuffle, Clank, Sold!

for

however much it costs to own

and for which the price is always too low and

how do you know if you got a bargain at

a pubic auction;

how do you choose

cyborg, android, robot

to be sold and let

paid for with electronic cash

play money

and many moons shine over the auction block

shuffle shuffle I

strut down the runway towards bondage

with a smile on my face and a swish of my hips

and my chains rattle to remind me that they

are here to purchase

me

Shuffle

 

II.

Magnificent cyborg dancing on stars spinning, spinning, spinning until

we forget that stars don’t spin, we do. Take me to it. Rummage in the

romance of yesterday while we wait for our time time. Time that does

not belong to us, keeping time as we dance faster faster faster into

Wondaland where we are all so different, we are all the same, like you

 

and me and our love. Hallelujah! The time is now! I’ve waited forever

and for no time at all for galaxies to be born and die for us, and we

dance across stars and some don’t applaud us for our courage, they

turn their backs but we dance anyway one-two-three

one-two three.

 

Positronic, supersonic brain but are our hearts in our feet or do we

walk the line between love and hate so well that they become

one as we were once upon a star and now they know and we have to

hide that which cannot be hid. Stop dancing or die

 

III.

dance. damp, dizzy, decaying, dehumanized, desperate, dirty, dying, dystopia

almost, android, abomination, accelerate, asunder, artificial, apocalyptic, acrid

naked, notorious, nationwide, noxious, numb, normal, narcotizing, nauseous

caught, cadaverous, calm, chaos, cannibal, cybernetic, cyborg, cold, criminal,

electric, emaciated, epic, explosive, experimental, exhausted, exposed. end

IV.

I was made to believe-can’t feel freedom

I was made to believe-I came out wrong?

I was made to believe-robots can’t cry

I was made to believe-no justice-no

I was made to believe-I was made

I was made to believe-not to think

I was made to believe-believe

I believe-I can taste love on my lips

I believe-in Wondaland-take me there

I believe-I change direction from stasis

I believe-therefore I am, let it be written

I believe-therefore I dance dance dance

I believe-and I am free free free

The Tail Cannot Wag the Dog

 

Hisstationand4aces-coolidge

“His Station and Four Aces” by C.M. Coolidge (1903)

If familiarity breeds contempt and strangers are friends you haven’t met yet, then its only a matter of

time. She had contempt for me, but I couldn’t take it personally because everything isn’t about me. From her mouth sprang words like sabers; sliced skin till blood seeped from a million lacerations that don’t leave scars unless you look for

them.That’s why I don’t look people in the eyes, preservation. Looking a person in the eyes invites them to look back at you with precision and at length, and I don’t want them to look at me that long because they will

know. They will know how uncertain I am, how sad I am, how lonely, how ugly and utterly worthless I feel when I step into a room and remember. How when I push against a brick wall and it doesn’t move, I don’t blame the wall. If

they look closely, I become exposed and I don’t think I will ever be ready for that kind of exposure.

The Day I Almost Jump Off a Bridge

"Charing Cross Bridge, London" by Claude Monet (1899-1901)

“Charing Cross Bridge, London” by Claude Monet (1899-1901)

is an uneventfull dark, quiet; there is no drama playing

out in the sky that night, no ominous gray clouds,

no Van Gogh stars because its Pittsburgh and therefore too contrary

to accommodate the mood. I look over the precipice and feel a little

underwhelmed, this drop won’t kill me,

at best I will have a compound fracture in my left leg and a splint in my right.

I should have chosen another bridge, but this one is convenient,

near the apartment.

That’s when I

 

remember. I swing my backpack around and dig

my hand into the side pocket, and find a crumpled

juicy fruit wrapper, three pennies and one nickel.

The other pocket has a tissue. Used? I don’t check before

I toss it. Then I reach into the front pocket, not the main

pocket but the pocket in front of the big pocket and pull out the

play-doh. Reweina gave it to me with a story

of a young man who tried and failed forty three times

to come up with a recipe for his gooey gobbledygook.

44 was his lucky number. I pull out the

green putty, rolling it between my palms, making heat;

a Prometheus is my own right. I lean against the bridge, pull

it apart and put it back together, not caring that

the little bits creep under my fingernails. I craft

an oblong sphere with cracks wrapped around its

circumference, using the pad of my index fingers and

thumbs in a halfhearted attempt to seal them.

I let the finished product roll around in my palm;

The cold cuts grooves in the surface so it isn’t a smooth journey.

I toss it over the bridge and walk home.

The Sun is New Each Day

Pieter_Bruegel_de_Oude_-_De_val_van_Icarus

“Landscape with the Fall of Icarus” by Peter Bruegel (original) (1560s)

I want to die in my sleep. I think that makes me a coward and I will wear that cowardice on an emblem across my chest and damn the critics. When death crosses my mind, it doesn’t linger, passing only in a stream of consciousness. I don’t dwell on death but I do think about my last meal.

If I have it my way, I won’t know that it will be my last meal. The day I die should be unremarkable in every way (except that it’s to be my last of course). I want to wake up the morning that I die, thinking about all that I have to accomplish that week. I want the illusion of one more day. I want to grumble over social and professional obligations that I won’t have to fulfill because I will be, as previously stated, dead though I won’t know it at the time.

Did Icarus know?

As he flew home, was he counting the ways and who he would see first? Maybe, just maybe, he flew too close to the Sun that day because he missed the taste of the apples that grew near his home. As he flew higher and higher, maybe he imagined the tang and tart of the fruit and how the first bite is the best and all subsequent bites pale in comparison, and maybe he imagined that the sun looked like an apple that day and wasn’t that something and maybe he simply forgot that pride goeth before the fall.

I don’t want to die like Icarus did.  I’ll probably never fly and the sun, giant apple or not, is too far away for it to be anything other than an idea. And I can’t eat apples. I’m allergic. And wouldn’t that be something, killed by an apple.