What Huckleberry Finn teaches us about seeing past race and status

In this blog entry, John S.W. Park, author of Illegal Migrations and the Huckleberry Finn Problem, uses Mark Twain’s character to address lessons about illegal and undocumented immigrants

Huckleberry Finn has two interrelated problems: first, when he discovers that Jim is a runaway slave, he can’t bring himself to tell someone, and so he can’t seem to send Jim back into slavery even though he thinks that he ought to report fugitive slaves; and second, throughout Twain’s novel, Huck can’t seem to see Jim or other black people as full persons, as persons who deserve to be free.  Even at the end of the story, it’s not clear that Huck has changed his mind about slavery or its underlying morality, and Jim is free not because white people thought that slavery was wrong or that it ought to be abolished, but because Miss Watson had died and she had freed (just) Jim in her will.  Unlike many characters in 19th and 20th century novels, Huck doesn’t change in any fundamental way as a result of his adventures, nor does he reflect on what he’s experienced.  He doesn’t “solve” either aspect of his problem: Jim is free, so telling on him is moot, and when Jim saves Tom Sawyer, Huck concludes from this act of sacrifice that this black man was really “white inside.”  Huck never sees past Jim’s race or status.

Illegal Migrations_smThe primary arguments within my book, Illegal Migrations and the Huckleberry Finn Problem, reflect on both aspects of Huck Finn’s problem. I’ve tried to show how these dilemmas have been and are still so intertwined.  After slavery, law continued to define people as “unlawful,” as out of place, and the example of illegal Chinese immigrants is but one example among many from the 19th century.  They were not the only unlawful people during that time: Native Americans were sometimes described as “off of the reservation,” and so often that “off of the reservation” became a colloquial phrase in English to denote anyone who was dangerous, out of his mind, and out of place.  In the original meaning, it referred to a Native American who should have remained within a federal prison system designed for conquered Native American people.  “Reservation” had two common meanings: the first referred to Native American settlements controlled by the federal government; and the second referred to areas where wild animals were protected from hunting.  A Native American who was “off of the reservation” could, in theory and in practice, be killed, as if he were a wild animal.

A great many (white) Americans have had problems seeing people of color as people.  People of color have also had trouble seeing one another as people, as they too are often infected with white supremacist ways of thinking.  American law—once it defines a group as “illegal” or “unlawful” or “out of status”—can and did blind a great many people to the common humanity of the other, so much so that they can come to tolerate a level of abuse and degradation against the “illegals” that is shocking and unconscionable.  Law dehumanizes before it kills.  Because law and legal institutions can have this power, the objects of the law have attempted to hide their status, their stigma, and they have tried many different ways to “cover” their illegal status or to “pass” as someone who doesn’t have it all.  By the mid-20th century, thousands of illegal Chinese immigrants lied about who they really were, all in attempts to “pass” as American citizens or legal residents.  Many people who are out of status now try to “pass,” too, and the ones who drive well below the posted speed limit or never mention legal status at all are doing their best to “cover,” just like other generations of “illegal” people.  Meanwhile, many Americans who complain about these “illegals” rarely bother to question the morality or justice of a system that gave them citizenship simply because they happened to be born here, which really isn’t an “achievement” nor reflective remotely of any kind of moral desert.

We all love Huckleberry Finn, especially when he decides to go to hell and to save Jim, but we should endeavor to be the opposite of him.  We should look past race and status, even if this means ignoring some of our own laws.  We should see and acknowledge, first and foremost, the humanity of everyone around us.  We should be reflective of our common history, and we should realize that we now celebrate people who have resisted American laws that once reduced people to things, or framed some immigrants as though they were a form of pollution or a dangerous kind of “problem” rather than a group of people.  We should stop criminalizing people for crossing international boundaries in search of a better life.  We should take seriously our common obligations to one another as human beings, either by helping to make a better life possible for all people irrespective of where they are, or by showing compassion to people coming among us when their homes and countries fall apart.  In other words, unlike Huck, we should grow up.

BEA 2013: ‘PW’ Rep of the Year: Bruce Joshua Miller

This week in North Philly Notes, we reprint Publishers Weekly‘s April 26 column honoring Temple University Press sales rep Bruce Miller as PW’s Rep of the Year.

Last summer, many industry observers considered Bruce Joshua Miller to be rather quixotic, vigorously tilting at the University of Missouri’s administration by leading a letter-writing and social media campaign after the university’s May 24 announcement that the 54-year-old University of Missouri Press’s scholarly publishing program would be dismantled and its editor-in-chief, Clair Willcox, fired.

Bruce MillerSince Missouri rescinded its decision on August 28, and reinstated Willcox six weeks later, however, Miller has been lauded throughout the academic and book publishing worlds as, in the words of Johns Hopkins University Press director Greg Britton, “our David against a formidable Goliath.” And he’s PW’s Sales Rep of the Year.

PW received a record number of nominations for the 2013 award; the most impassioned, by far, were those for Miller, 58, a commission rep based in Chicago, who does business as a sole proprietor. Miller Trade Book Marketing represents 26 scholarly and independent presses to the trade in the Midwest—including, for the past 20 years, UMP, which publishes about 30 titles annually.

The words “hero” and “heroic” appear repeatedly in Midwest booksellers’ nominations, as well as those from less typical nominators for this award—university press directors and their marketing managers. UMP’s consulting director, Jane Lago, notes, “He served this press, and simultaneously all university presses, as an informed, engaged, articulate champion of what scholarly publishing does best.”

To read the rest of the article click: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bea/article/56991-bea-2013-pw-rep-of-the-year-bruce-joshua-miller.html

Wayne Brady, Bill Maher, and Black Men Who Remain Invisible

In this blog entry, Adia Harvey Wingfield discusses the themes and examples about black masculinity that form the basis for her book No More Invisible Man.

Several news headlines recently highlighted the relatively long-running tension between political comedian Bill Maher and actor/singer Wayne Brady. Maher, known among other things for questioning whether mogul Donald Trump is descended from monkeys and for using explicit epithets to describe politician Sarah Palin, has made several comments suggesting that Brady’s clean-cut, easygoing persona makes him antithetical to “real” black masculinity (a point Brady mocked in 2004 on an unforgettable episode of The Chappelle Show). Brady has responded by critiquing the racialized and gendered assumptions behind this statement, but also by suggesting that if Maher wants to continue this line of discussion, he would be willing to embody these stereotypes and “beat [Maher] in public.”

WingfieldFinal.inddThe dialogue between Maher and Brady reflects two of the images of black masculinity that I try to counter in my recent book No More Invisible Man: Race and Gender in Men’s Work. I argue that in cultural imagination and even in much sociological research, black men are often cast as either tough, dangerous, and threatening, or as high-level elites who must be easygoing and appear completely assimilated. Yet these depictions represent two polar opposites, leaving the experiences, lives, and realities of middle class, professional black men understudied and ignored. No More Invisible Man attempts to correct this by drawing attention to these men who are invisible in sociological research, media, and much of America and highlighting the challenges, obstacles, and opportunities they face in professional, white male-dominated occupations.

In my book, I build on Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s classic theory of tokenism to understand black professional men’s work lives. Kanter argues that those in the numerical minority encounter certain perceptual tendencies that affect their interactions with members of the dominant group. These include increased pressures related to their performance, dominant group members’ efforts to emphasize their differences from those in the minority, and challenges subordinate groups face assimilating into the majority. In my study, however, I found that intersections of race, gender, and class, coupled with the gendered characteristics of the male-dominated occupations in which these men worked, meant that black professional men imperfectly fit the tokenization paradigm that Kanter describes. Instead, I argue that they experience a phenomenon I describe as partial tokenization, which impacts their interactions with women of all races, with other men, their performances of masculinity, their emotional performance, and their general challenges within the work environment.

This matters because we know so little about the occupational experiences of black professional men. As the United States becomes an increasingly multiracial society, it is important to be aware of the persistent challenges that remain for racial minorities in various sectors, and to be mindful of the ways that structural processes like partial tokenization may perpetuate inequalities. Having a clear sense of the ways black men experience the professional workplace can help to address ongoing patterns that make their occupational ascension more (or less) challenging than comparably situated others.

In writing No More Invisible Man, I hope to do several things. One is to add to the literature that explores the experiences black men face in the United States and to document the sociological realities of those who are not part of the urban underclass that generates the most attention. Another goal is to highlight that even though black professional men enjoy material and occupational success relative to working-class and poor blacks, they still undergo very particularized difficulties in the workplace. Finally, I hope to demonstrate that black men’s experiences at work and in society at large reflect not just race but the ways that race is shaped by gender and class, and that understanding the ways these categories overlap is essential for making sense of issues of power and inequality that persist in America today.

Lance’s Sins, Our Forgiveness?

This week in North Philly Notes, Erich Goode, author of Justifiable Conduct, applies his knowledge about how writers neutralize their wrongdoing to the case of Lance Armstrong.

Why were we so surprised?

The steadfast denials. The defiant stares. The self-righteous attitude. The attempts to destroy his opponents and accusers. The seven Tour de France triumphs—withdrawn. The awards, the accolades, the medals—tainted, erased, invalidated. Dust in the wind. The heroic survivor of a toxic, potentially fatal case of testicular cancer? Stigmatized by scandal. The altruistic booster of charitable foundations and causes—discredited; the organizations themselves undermined, their very existence in doubt. Now facing an eight-year ban from the sport, and possibly barred from competition forever. His legacy, a pile of rubble. A proud man humbled; his supporters and endorsers aghast; an army of fans baffled; a nation bamboozled.

It was much worse than we could possibly have imagined. The USADA report, which concluded that Lance Armstrong ran “the most sophisticated, professional, and successful doping program” the sport of cycling has ever seen, is now regarded definitive, incontrovertible. Lance Armstrong did not passively allow a trainer to administer drugs to himself; he ran a doping ring. A big one. A highly organized one. He gave others dope. He pressured them into taking dope.

It takes one’s breath away.

Lance Armstrong wanted to win. Desperately. So do all of us—some of us, admittedly, more than others. And Armstrong’s doping scheme was grander, badder, more spectacular than any act of knavery most of us could have come up with.

But what happens when we get caught breaking the rules? What do we have to say for ourselves? And what did Lance Armstrong have to say for himself?

Justifiable Conduct_smWe try to explain away our cheating. We self-exculpate. We offer strategies of redemption—“acceptable utterances” that account for what we did. We neutralize the stigma of our behavior. “Lots of others did the same.” “I didn’t run the show.” “The system is unfair.” “I’ve been through some rough times.” “I apologize for my sins.”

“Hollow” efforts at redemption? Yes, we call these strategies “rationalizations,” and true, they are rhetorical devices. But I sense a measure of heartfelt emotion oozing from these contrivances. Wrongdoers typically believe that the acts they exculpate are not as bad as their detractors claim. These are not simple lies to get away with wrongdoing; they represent efforts to ingratiate themselves with audiences. They reflect an all-too-human quest for forgiveness.

Autobiographical statements brim with recitations of absolution for one’s sins and transgressions. They represent the conclusion of morality tales—its illegitimate love-child, so to speak. They bring their audience into the narration and manage to lift a sickly pallor from the narrator’s person. Apologies, justifications, denials—all constitute clay for sculpting one’s self-portrait. St. Augustine’s abasement before God for stealing a few of his neighbor’s pears and for fathering an out-of-wedlock child, and Lance Armstrong’s declaration, “I will spend the rest of my life trying to earn back trust and apologize to people,” are fraternal twins: Both of them address and seek absolution from an audience, and hence, both are rich with empathy. Their narrators use a conventional vocabulary to apologize for unconventional behavior; they acknowledge the common ground between speaker and audience, agree that the speaker has sinned, and recognize that said speaker has vowed to atone for past sins. They have entered into a kind of social contract that we can liken to a morality play, with the speaker playing both protagonist and antagonist. “I have sinned, but I have been sinned against, and I will sin no more.”

Armstrong has gotten our attention. Many of us hear his apologia—his version of an apologia—and hold damnation in abeyance. The hair shirt, the speaking engagements, the PR machine, the skillfully placed, orchestrated op-eds—they are likely to follow a well-worn path toward ultimate redemption. This is a human drama that sinners and audiences have played out multiple times throughout history. Accounts of wrongdoing subsequent to public revelation serve to reknit the damaged social fabric and reintegrate the sinner with the society at large. If Lance Armstrong has not perfectly played out his role as the ideal repentant sinner, neither is he the perfect monster we love to hate. He reminds us of our frailties and entreats us to readmit him to the flock. How can we say no?

All of us wait, with enormous anticipation, to hear and read Lance’s elaborated rhetorical shift from denial to apology; we can be sure it’ll be interesting and revealing. We can count on that full account in his inevitable, forthcoming memoir. I’ll be one of his first readers.

The secrets behind Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent by Beth Kephart

This week in North Philly Notes, Beth Kephart, provides a self-imposed interview, and tells the story behind the story of her new book, Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent

drradwaybigWhat is the working title of your book?
The title of this book, for real and for good, is Dr. Radway’s Sarsaparilla Resolvent.  See the cover above?  We’re not changing it. 

Where did the idea come from for the book?

William, my hero, is obsessed with the medicines of the time, for he is searching for a cure for his heartbroken mother.  Dr. Radway lived in Manayunk and his Sarsaparilla Resolvent was world-renowned for curing everything, perhaps even sleep insufficiency, in which case I am ordering me up a bottle.  Today we know this medicinal magic as root beer.  Does anybody have a glass of ice handy? 

What genre does your book fall under?

This lady, who is not a fan of labeling fiction, would, if forced to do it, describe Dr. Radway as historical fiction for middle grade/young adult/adult readers with two teen male protagonists at its heart.  Simply and non-boastfully put, Dr. Radway is a good book for everyone.  I am so good at non-boastful. 

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

There’s a young prostitute, named Pearl, who is integral to this story.  She’s tough, she’s big-hearted, and she saves the day.  Jennifer Lawrence is my Pearl.  William has a grieving, beautiful mother—Marisa Tomei or Amy Adams.  As for William and his best friend, Career, Alex Shaffer (Win Win) and Josh Hutcherson (Hunger Games)  Josh looks exactly like my Career (so long as you give him a pipe to suck on).  Alex was brilliant in Win Win, which is, by the way, one of my favorite indies and the brain child of my friend Mary Jane Skalski.  But I digress.  There are others in the story—the ghost of an older brother (not yet cast), a father in prison (Sean Penn, but younger), and a little sprite of a girl who lives next door.  Let’s give that role to Mackenzie, the youngest dancer in that whacky reality TV show, Dance Moms.  She’s so cute I have to stop myself from reaching through the TV and pinching her cheeks.  But why am I watching that show anyway?  And, since we are on the topic, Are mothers really like that?  Have you ever met anyone like any of those moms?  Okay, back to the topic.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Since this book is a prequel to Dangerous Neighbors, my 1876 Philadelphia Centennial novel, I have been working with my lead character, William, for more than seven years.  A requited love affair, fictionally speaking.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I try not to compare.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

My love for Philadelphia history.  My absolute love for William.  I could not let him go.

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