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“it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair” July 21, 2020

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“… she has, over time, changed her politics about race and gender differences. This Emersonian political shift — ‘Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again’ (McQuade 1 : 1148 ) – is one measure Morrison ‘ s developing sensibility as a woman and as an artist. Two examples immediately come to mind. In 1974, Morrison cautiously spoke of what she considered to be ‘a male consciousness’ and ‘a female consciousness’ as totally separate spheres. She then stated, ‘Black men – and this may be way off the wall because I haven’t had time to fully reflect about this – frequently are reacting to a lot more external pressures than Black women are. For one thing they have an enormous responsibility to be men.’ Morrison went on to reinforce her conviction: ‘All I am saying is that the root of a man’s sensibilities [is] different from a woman’s’ (Taylor-Guthrie 7). Morrison slightly modified this view when she spoke of her construction of Sula as a rebel, as a masculinized figure, and an equal partner in sexual relations in the 1920’s and 1930’s. She stated that Sula did not depict ‘as typical black woman at all’ (Septo, “Intimate Things” 219).”

 

– quoted from Toni Morrison: Playing with Difference by Lucille P. Fultz

This is a tale of two writers. Both born today – one in 1899, the other in 1944 – one was male, the other was female. One was White, the other was Black. We can get into nationalities later, but…. One won a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and a Nobel Prize in Literature, while the other was designated OBE. Both have foundations named after them. One you have studied, probably in high school, maybe in college (even if you weren’t a literature major) and one you may have never read (let alone studied – even if you studied literature). She was born on his 45th birthday, when he was in Germany (curiously attached to an infantry regiment and doing things that would eventually bring up charges against him by the Geneva Convention). Both are recognized as successful authors and both wrote from their own experiences. However, so far as I can tell, only one of them has (as of today) ever been featured as a Google Doodle. (Spoiler Alert: It’s not the one you’ll be thinking when their identities are revealed.)

Let’s start with the man – one, because he was born first and second, because he is considered to be the model of a man’s man. In fact, he made his living as an author writing about characters who are considered to be the epitome of masculinity (even when, as it sometimes was, very obviously toxic masculinity). He went to a public high school, in a major U. S. city, but did not attend college. He was married four times, traveled the world, fathered three children (all boys), and spent his 26th birthday starting his first novel – which would also be one of his most famous works. (I think) he smoked and he (definitely) drank for most of his life; however, his drinking became excessively excessive after a couple of plane crashes in Africa. He was devastated when his first wife lost a suitcase full of manuscripts and (towards the end of his life) super paranoid that the American government was keeping tabs on him. They were; the FBI had a file on him – in part because of his ties to Cuba. He received electroshock treatments/therapy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota and committed suicide, just like his father, sister, and brother (as well as one of his father-in-laws). He was 61. It’s possible that his paranoia and suicide were (in part) caused by the same thing that caused his father’s paranoia and suicide; they bother suffered from hereditary hemochromatosis, which causes the body to absorb too much iron and leads to physical as well as mental deterioration. He is often quoted as saying that in a man must do four things in his life (in order to be a man): plant a tree, fight a bull, write a novel, and father a son (although some have said “raise a son”).

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because this first author is Ernest “Papa” Hemingway. (He has not been featured as a Google Doodle – but he has been quoted in reference to Google Doodles for Josephine Baker and René Maran.) Hemingway started off as a journalist, who served in World War I (as a Red Cross ambulance driver, because the U. S. Army diagnosed him with bad eyesight), and somehow (see “curiously” note above) attached himself to a U. S. army infantry regiment during World War II. His work includes novels, novellas, short stories, non-fiction, articles, and published letters. He referred to his minimalist style of writing as “the iceberg theory” or “the theory of omission.”

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

– quoted from Death in the Afternoon by Ernest Hemingway

As I mentioned before, the woman also wrote about what she knew – of course, what she knew was very different. She wrote, for example, that “you are simply not allowed to commit suicide in peace, because everyone is responsible for the other person.” Her gender initially meant that she would be kept at home; however, she convinced her parents that there was a benefit to her going to school. She attended private primary school, earned a scholarship to a private secondary school, and eventually attended the University of London. However, she was also engaged by age 11, married and pregnant at 16 years old, and separated and pregnant with her fifth child by the age of 22. By all accounts, she not only gave birth, she also raised her children and managed to earn a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree in Sociology by age 28 and a PhD by the time she was 47 years old. She received a second, honorary, doctorate from a second University a year later. Her marriage was unhappy, violent, and punctuated by her husband’s paranoia about her writing. He burned her first manuscript. She rewrote it, but five years passed in the interim. She worked as a library officer for the British Museum in London, as a youth worker and sociologist, and as a community worker – all while writing, publishing, and raising her children. Her writing eventually enabled her to travel around the world (including to the U. S.) as a guest professor and visiting lecturer. In addition to working a variety of cultural and literary organizations, she and one of her sons ran a publishing company (that printed some of her own work under her own imprint). She was made an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in 2005. She suffered a stroke in 2010 and died 7 years later. She was 72. She once said, “I work toward the liberation of women, but I’m not a feminist. I’m just a woman. My books are about survival, just like my own life.”

If none of this sounds familiar, you might be surprised that Buchi Emecheta was celebrated with a Google Doodle a year ago today (on what would have been her 75th birthday). She reportedly started writing as a way to deal with the troubles in her marriage and went on to write novels, children/YA books, plays, articles, and an autobiography. Her son Sylvester, who established a publishing company to ensure his mother’s work stays in print, said that Emecheta was the descendant of storytellers who passed down to him and his siblings the “Moonlight tales” that she learned from her aunts and father.

“Living entirely off writing is a precarious existence and money is always short, but with careful management and planning I found I could keep my head and those of my family, through God’s grace, above water.”

 

Head Above Water by Buchi Emecheta

Ultimately, we are taught what someone has decided it is important for us to learn. We may not have any reason to question why we are taught one thing and not another, one author and not another. And, if we are not big readers, we are unlikely to read outside of our primary society’s canon. Maybe, as we get older, we turn to mass market fiction (or non-fiction) as a form of escapism. Maybe we turn to award winning literature – but we don’t really question why one author gets published but not the other, why one book makes the short list but not the other. Since many of us have grown up in society where we were encouraged to learn/do/teach (or see/do/teach) this means that we teach what we were taught – even if we are not teachers. Furthermore, as has happened recently, when we start to question and explore… we start with what (and who) we know – even if the authors we know are not experts in our latest field of study.

This paradox reminds me of Newton’s Laws of Motion (particularly, the law of inertia: an object in motion remains in motion, an object at rest remains at rest – unless something disrupts its condition). It also reminds me of college.

I studied English Literature at a major U. S. university. There had previously been some pretty prestigious guest professors over the years; however, when I started, in the late 1980’s, there were no African, African-American, Black British, or Black anything modules in literature. You might read a writer here or there in a 20th Century survey class, but you couldn’t (as I did with Russian literature) sit in what was essentially an oversized closet with a professor and three or four other students and learn about literature written from the perspective of the African diaspora. (Honestly, in college, I probably didn’t even know how to write a sentence like that – that’s how far African-American literature was outside of my wheelhouse!)

Dr. Lucille P. Fultz joined the faculty my senior year and, with some new awareness, I decided to take one of her classes. She had graduated from Spellman College (a historically black university for women) and completed her graduate degrees at the University of Iowa (which is known for its writers) and Emory University (which is just known). I remember her as my own personal stereotype of a Spellman woman: mature, petite, dark-skinned, natural, knowledgeable (in a seriously erudite way), well-spoken (but also soft-spoken), and dressed to the nines. In my head, she wore white gloves – but honestly, I think I made that up. I may also have made up the idea that she did not original study literature with the intention of teaching African-American literature. I say “I may have made up the idea” because she is now recognized as an authority on Toni Morrison (whose history as a writer/mom/publisher in some ways mirrors Emecheta’s history as a writer/mom/publisher) and she got me to read The Bluest Eye, which was quite possibly the only Toni Morrison book I had not read on my own.

My alma mater now has a history department with “a strong team dedicated to the history of Africa, the African diaspora, and African-American Studies” and a newly established Center for African and African American Studies. Curiously (and going back to the idea that we learn what we are taught and teach what we learn), two of the six members of that dedicated team are easily recognizable as people of color – and they are the only ones on the team who graduated (as undergrads) from the school where they now teach; one graduated just before me, the other attended after Dr. Fultz was firmly established at the university.

“Everyone’s life ends the same way. It is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”

 

– Ernest Hemingway

“[I write] stories of the world…[where]… women face the universal problems of poverty and oppression, and the longer they stay, no matter where they have come from originally, the more the problems become identical.”

 

– Buchi Emecheta

Hemingway wrote about war, sex, love, loyalty, fishing, bullfighting, and the feeling of being lost in the middle of an adventure. Emecheta wrote about sexual discrimination, racial prejudice, sex, love, changing nappies, being a single parent, and religion. They both wrote about culture clashes, their experiences in Africa, as well as about the roles and relationships between men and women, but much of what they wrote looks and feels very different – even when, occasionally, the wrote about the same situations. Take Africa, for instance. To Hemingway, the continent of Africa was an exotic land of (physical) danger and adventure. To Emecheta, Africa (and specifically Nigeria) was home and a land (socially and physically) dangerous in the way it marginalized women.

As I mentioned above, they had different ideas on suicide (even different ideas about why one might consider suicide) and they had very different ideas about education. In her autobiography, Emecheta wrote, “An uneducated person has little chance of happiness. He cannot enjoy reading, he cannot understand any complicated music, he does not know what to do with himself if he has no job. How many times have I heard my friends say, ‘ I want to leave my boring job because I want to write, because I want to catch up with goings on in the theatre, because I want to travel and because I want to be with my family.’ The uneducated man has no such choices. Once he has lost his boring job, he feels he’s lost his life. That is unfair.” On the flip side, Hemingway had significantly less (formal) education than Emecheta, struggled with depression, and stated that when he started writing his first novel, “Everybody my age had written a novel and I was still having a difficult time writing a paragraph.”

“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

 

“She, who only a few months previously would have accepted nothing but the best, had by now been conditioned to expect inferior things. She was now learning to suspect anything beautiful and pure. Those things were for the whites, not the blacks.”

Second Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta

Please join me today (Tuesday, July 21st) at 12 Noon or 7:15 PM for a virtual yoga practice on Zoom featuring two different perspectives. Use the link from the “Class Schedules” calendar if you run into any problems checking into the class. Give yourself extra time to log in if you have not upgraded to Zoom 5.0. You can request an audio recording of this practice via a comment below.

Tuesday’s playlist is available on YouTube and Spotify.

“If every one said orders were impossible to carry out when they were received where would you be? Where would we all be if you just said, ‘Impossible,’ when orders came?”

 

For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

 

“Just keep trying and trying. If you have the determination and commitment, you will succeed.”

 

– Buchi Emecheta

 

### Everybody: PLANT A TREE ###

 

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