Literary and Film Resources for the Let Freedom Ring Curriculum
by Brian Gallagher, Professor Emeritus of English, LaGuardia Community College/CUNY
PLAY, in film version (with a writing exercise): A Soldier’s Story, dir. Norman Jewison (Columbia, 1984). Based on Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, A Soldier’s Play (originally performed by the Negro Ensemble Company), with the screenplay also written by Fuller.
This “taut drama,” to employ an overused but here very accurate cliché, centers on the investigation of the murder of the veteran first sergeant of an all-black company training in Louisiana in the penultimate year of World War II, 1944. Sent from Washington to investigate—apparently because the base commander’s investigation was so shoddy—is Captain Davenport (Howard Rollins, Jr.), a lawyer and the first black officer the black troops (and, indeed, the white troops) have ever seen. Not only does he encounter hostility on the part of white officers, from Col. Nivens (Trey Wilson), the base commander, on down, but he also gradually realizes just how much information has been withheld from official reports for self-serving reasons.
The story is, among other things, an absorbing mystery, which begins with the murder of Sgt. Waters, a crime whose circumstances are re-created flashback-by-flashback as Davenport draws testimony from one “witness” after another. The first proposed solution—“Everybody knows the Klan did it” (this is, after all, the deep Deep South)--has great barracks currency, but soon proves unworkable. (As a sign of disrespect, the Klan would have torn off the sergeant’s stripes.) If you don’t know this play/film, I won’t spoil the series of surprises for you by blurting out the solution. (In fact, you might want to try for yourself the writing exercise I suggest at the end of this entry.)
Although the stalwart Capt. Davenport is the ostensible hero—he is played by the classically handsome Rollins in a somewhat stolid manner—and gets the most screen time, it is the snarling Sgt. Waters—brilliantly played by Adolph Caesar—who most holds our interest and attention. His outspoken scorn for “geechee niggers,” warm-hearted, fun-loving types impervious to the “clownish” impression they may be making on whites; his fervent belief in the “spit-and-polish” discipline of the army; his bragging memories of World War I service; his devotion to his wife and child; his sarcasm, cruelty and sadism; his drunken rants, filled with self-disgust at the bowing and scraping he has had to do to survive in an army run by (mainly racist) white men—all these, and a dozen other strongly pronounced traits, make him a welter of fascinating contradictions. In a sense, solving the mystery of his murder is, of necessity, also an exploration of his character—when we finally discover who he really is we—or, at least, Davenport—can finally figure why he was murdered and “whodunit.”
Accompanying the murder investigation is a multi-faceted debate about how best the black man should behave (or hold himself) to gain equality, specifically in the military and, more generally, in American society. Almost all the characters chime in at some point (with your students, you might want to work out a chart of all the differing positions and their interrelationships). Often, like Pfc. Peterson (Denzel Washington in his first major film role), they strongly oppose Waters’ autocratic notions, his publicly stated belief that the only way is to play the “white man’s game,” to outplay him at it. This debate gets more intense as the story progresses and ultimately fuses with the mystery plot in a clever way. (I am being purposely vague here.) Some sense of the complexity of the debate is that the two fiercest enemies, Waters and Peterson, both despise CJ (Larry Riley) for his easygoing ways and his “backward crap” (chap. 13), albeit Peterson less intensely so. The last question Davenport asks, “Who gave you the right to judge who is fit to be a Negro?”, could, in retrospect, be asked of virtually every character involved in the drama, white or black, including Davenport himself.
Unlike many films made from plays, A Soldier’s Story does a very good job of opening up the stage bound nature of the text. The many flashbacks turn the testimony of the soldiers from speech to action, recreating the scenes spoken of by the text. There are also several insertions meant to convey locale and weather. When Davenport is picked up by jeep at the bus station (the bus driver telling this “boy” he has reached his stop), we follow his jeep ride through a series of evocative “bayou country” scenes (actually, the whole film was shot in Arkansas ): a black farmer plowing with a mule, a small white country church, a bayou with dripping moss (chap. 4). The humid heat is tremendous and constant—shirts are stained with sweat, skin glistens, fans whirl uselessly. The many scenes involving the whole company are staged in a succession of areas—the barracks, the mess hall, the training ground, the ball field (the company is made up mainly of ballplayers from the Negro Leagues), in the local black “jook joint” (Big Mary’s, with Patti LaBelle as its full-throated proprietor). Thus, we get a real sense of the spaces and rhythms of army life, both on and off-duty. For black soldiers, of course, this pattern also includes dozens of daily humiliations, chiefly from abusive white officers, but also snide comments from white soldiers scorning black soldiers for their restriction to menial tasks. (Like the soldiers in Glory, eighty years before, these soldiers long to prove themselves in battle.)
As should be evident by now, this is a film well worth screening in its entirety. Certainly, the mystery strand would lose its impact otherwise. Still, there are moments that might be excerpted to illustrate the situation, the plight, of black soldiers just before the moment when the armed forces would be integrated. Not even the obviously intelligent Davenport, in his crisp uniform, with his aloof demeanor and steady calmness, escapes derision. Both the company commander (Dennis Lipscomb) and the base commander tell him his investigation is useless (chaps. 6, 5); the former tells him bluntly that white people in the parish won’t charge a white man with murder on “your say-so”; the latter calls him “boy” and gives him just three days to complete his investigation. Two white officers, who were placed at the scene of the crime right before the murder, swear as he questions them at the officers’ club, one cursing “this goddamn nigger” (chap. 22). As for the black enlisted men, their constant peril is epitomized by the base commander’s piece of advice to Davenport: “The worst thing you can do in this part of the country is pay too much attention to the death of an American Negro under mysterious circumstances” (chap. 5). And, of course, the many instances of Waters’ revengeful, abusive behavior towards his men illustrates that racism can often be transmitted by proxy—e.g., his taunting C.J. into slugging him after planting a murder weapon under his bed (chap. 19), and his callous comment after the despairing C.J. hangs himself in his cell: “One less fool for the race to be ashamed of” (chap. 21). He even treats his boon companion (and flunkey), Wilkie (Art Evans), with contempt: “Stop thinking like a nigger” (chap. 10), he snarls.
A question worth pursuing: if the integration of the armed forces was the right thing to do, should not gay men and women have the right to serve openly also?
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Writing exercise: stop the film every ten or fifteen minutes—whenever you feel enough new information has been added that might change interpretations—and ask students to write down their proposed solution of the murder and the motivation behind it. (This is an excellent chance to practice argumentative writing.) After each writing, have some students read, and the whole class discuss, what they wrote. After you finish viewing the film, have students re-read what they have written, then compose a concluding paragraph analyzing how and why they changed their mind as the story unfolded.
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Class exercise: you might also want to have students act out some scenes from the play text. If your students are like the students I have had, they will greatly enjoy and learn from the exercise (and have a good time doing it).
Afterwards, you might ask the students what they had learned:
a) about the character they impersonated, and b) about the historical context and themes of the play.
The disc also contains a short documentary, “March to Freedom” (narrated by Paul Winfield), which details the abuse black soldiers, and particularly black officers, suffered in World War II. Most effecting is the testimony of a number of surviving black soldiers who experienced that abuse—their presence on-screen is a reminder how relatively recently the American military was the site of blatant racism.
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ORIGIN STORY: Earth Making, American Indian Myths and Legends, sel. and ed. By Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz. New York: Pantheon, 1984, 105-07.
For instructors who want to try something more ambitious, I suggest exploring the Cherokee origin story in relation to the most prevalent origin story in our society, the book of Genesis, 1-2. The contrasts in the two narratives of creation—as well as certain parallels—can provide the deepest of backgrounds in understanding the clash of cultures that eventually led to the removal of the Cherokee westward.
For the Cherokee there is no identifiable monotheistic power figure behind creation—rather, like most Indian origin myths, the story begins when some part of creation already exists, though initially in a different form than humans presently know it: “in the beginning also, water covered everything. Though living creatures existed their home was up there, above the rainbow, and it was crowded. ‘We are all jammed together here,’ the animals said. ‘We need more room’.” (Notice: 1. Animals are, typically, sentient, speaking beings, 2. The sense of humor displayed here.) The Judeo-Christian story begins not with a multitude, but a single all-powerful entity: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Gen 1:1).
Because of overcrowding over the rainbow (who knew?), the animals send the Water Beetle (notice the key part played by this humble creature) to look around earth for more room. He skims along the water—presumably this ability was why he was chosen for the mission—but can find nothing, so he dives to the bottom and brings up some mud and “magically the mud spread out in the four directions and became this island we are living on—the earth.” Genesis, too, suggests, though more ambiguously, that earth began as a watery expanse: “And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters” (Gen 1:2).
For the Cherokee, the earth needs to be anchored in space: “Someone Powerful then fastened it to the sky ceiling with cords.” The animals initially are disappointed, for “In the beginning the earth was flat, soft, and moist.” They keep sending birds down to see “if the mud had dried and hardened enough to take their weight.” Eventually, Grandfather Buzzard is sent down. He finds the land still moist, but when he glided over what would become Cherokee country, he found that the land was getting harder.
Before the God of Genesis can separate the seas from the land, he must separate day and night (Gen 1:4-5 and 1: 14-18 ). Then dry land appears not by a natural process, but by fiat: “And God said, Let the waters under heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and so it was” (Gen 1:9). As Karen Armstrong says in In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis: “We find a single God in center stage, the sole source of power and life, totally in control of his creation.” The Cherokee myth, by contrast, makes creation more of a cooperative venture—e.g., after the earth has hardened enough to be inhabited, the animals find it difficult to function because they have no light, so “someone” suggests they pull the sun down from behind the rainbow, using persuasion to get Sun to serve them: “’Here’s a road for you,’ and [they] showed him the way to go—from east to west.”
Genesis 1:20-25 deals with the creation of “great whales and every living creature” (Gen 1:21)—whereas, of course, non-human creatures already exist at the beginning of the Cherokee story. Both stories, however, face a difficulty that all creation stories face, namely that “something” needs to be posited out of which the rest can be derived. For the Cherokee, it is the animals, the “beyond the rainbow” realm and a watery expanse that would become earth. For Jews and Christians, it is an omnipotent god and, apparently, a vast watery expanse that serves as raw material for his creation.
Most particularly, I think the two creation stories can be read as embodying two very different relationships with the natural world, domination for use in Genesis and adjustment for survival in the Cherokee story. When Genesis 1:26 has God say “let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” it means to set “him” up as, on earth, a sort of version of the creator: “let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth.” Also, Genesis suggests a direct correlation between the power of language and the ability to control the creation: “And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof” (Gen 2:19). And much of Genesis is concerned with the naming and locating of, and so knowing, places—e.g., “and the name of the second river is G?’hon; the same is it that compasseth the whole land of Ethiopia” (Gen 2:13).
The Cherokee story, by contrast, suggests an ongoing negotiation with nature – e.g., the animals have to get Grandfather Buzzard to stop flapping his great wings over the earth, for with each flapping he creates a mountain, and the earth cannot be “only mountains.” They must also get Sun to adjust, for it burns too hot—after finally getting Sun “up to the height of four men, he was just hot enough, Everyone was satisfied, so they left him there.” The Judeo-Christian story is rather atypical as an explanatory narrative—i.e., things are the way they are because an omnipotent god wants them that way, period. (Of course, the great drama comes when humans, again and again, “disobey” divine injunctions.) Most origin myths, by contrast, use different parts of the narrative to explain why certain things are the way they are. For example, the crawfish is bright red and inedible because it came out of the water before Sun was moved up to its proper height; Cherokee country is mountainous because Grandfather Buzzard did a lot of flapping over that area; only owls and mountain lions can see at night because of all the plants and animals instructed by the “Someone Powerful” to remain awake seven nights—another probable inflection from the Genesis story—only these two succeeded and were rewarded with night vision.
Although Genesis tells us of human creation, “in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” in the first chapter (Gen 1:27), it is the re-telling of the creation of Eve from a rib taken from the sleeping Adam (Gen 21-25) that everyone remembers. If that manner of creation is vaguely incestuous (at the moment they eventually couple), the Cherokee origin story, like many Indian origin stories, is directly incestuous: “After creating plants and animals, Someone Powerful made a man and his sister. The man poked her with a fish [a fine euphemism, that] and told her to go give birth,” certainly an indication that the first (Cherokee) man was no more mindful of women’s “labor” than most men, in general, have been over the millennia. But once again matters have to be adjusted, because the sister starts having a child every seven days, so “Someone Powerful, thinking there would be no more room on this earth, arranged things so that a woman could only have one child every year.”
I have not even touched on many other important elements in both these short (about three pages each) but extremely rich origin stories—e.g., the Cherokee story, like many Indian origin myths, describes an underground world, but not, as in Indian origin stories from the Southwest, as the initial source of life on earth. Rather than suggest a series of questions for students, instead suggest one sort of ur-question and derive the specifics from that:
WHAT SORT OF MINDSET, WHAT SORT OF WORLD VIEW, DOES EACH ORIGIN STORY IMPLY—AND DO HOW THE POINTS OF CONTRAST HELP EXPLAIN HOW THE “TRAIL OF TEARS” EPISODE HAPPENED?
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NEWSPAPER ARTICLE (with writing exercise): Ralph Blumenthal, “When Suspicion of Teachers Ran Unchecked in New York City,” The New York Times, 16 June 2009, A15-16.
Besides its brevity, this article has three other distinct advantages for use in the classroom:
POEM: Alma Luz Villanueva, “An Act of Creation,” Desire. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1998, 20-21. This poem is reprinted in Paper Dance: 55 Latino Poets, ed. Victor Hernández Cruz et al. New York: Persea Press, 2000.
“An Act of Creation” is an homage to César Chávez by a contemporary Latina poet. Students will, I think, find it very accessible.
Structurally, the poem breaks exactly in half, with twenty-five lines in each. The first half deals, in general, with the unending, seemingly unstoppable list of atrocities that constitute history for far too many people:
They keep rounding them up
through the centuries, killing
the innocent, so easily—
What links these victims is often the single thing left to them:
The persona (the speaker) of the poem evidences a growing despair, having realized, over time, that innocence holds no warrant against persecution:
When I was a young mother, I
didn’t fully realize this—
in my stupidity, I thought
the children were spared.
Experience has shown her that history is, unfortunately, cyclical, that the locale may shift but the suffering remains the same:
Now, twenty years later, they
still round up the innocent, or
corral them (as in South Africa),
slowly starving their flesh and
spirit to death. The enemy
kills the enemy’s children.
The second half of the poem shifts directly to Chávez. Immediately suggesting that he was a leader who refused to accept the inevitability of social and economic exploitation:
A stubborn man fasts for
The big conceptual leap in the poem is linking Chávez’ fast (an act symbolically linked to death, for without nourishment, the body dies) with various types of “creation” (all, in a sense, types of birth):
is an act of creation.
Like painting a mural, a
watercolor, like composing
a symphony, like writing
a story, a poem.
Chávez, that “stubborn” man (the adjective is repeated in the penultimate stanza) is one who, by his emblematic (and literal) actions, stood witness to the view that “Love” may indeed prevail, sometimes soon to give way, but alternately possibly inspiring a new way of seeing things:
Until the next round-up.
Or until we learn better—
The poem functions very well as a sort of “reading” of the curriculum unit. What additional insight, you might ask your students, does the poem provide? In what specific ways was Chávez “stubborn?” Do movements for social justice suffer when a charismatic leader passes on?
You might also want to discuss a few structural points, for this seemingly casual poem is actually tightly structured. You might begin by asking why the dedication is at the end, not, as is conventional, after the title (as in the Nikki Giovanni in the Revolutionary war section). Also you can explore the whole “wolf-lamb” analogy imagery in the poem. (I have not quoted any lines that embody that imagery.) Finally, you might ask what the theme of the poem is (i.e., what point is the poem making about its subject?).
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NON-FICTION: Letters of Two Revolutionary War Era Women, in The Roots of National Culture, ed. Robert E. Spiller and Harold Blodgett. New York: Macmillan, 1949, 326-34.
Looked at in conjunction, these two sets of letters remind us that the Revolutionary War was by no means supported by all Americans. Anne Hulton (?-1779), although British (her brother was Commissioner of Customs for Boston), well represents the views that roughly one-third of the American population remained Loyalists, i.e., supporting a continued colonial relationship with Britain and decrying the actions of their upstart neighbors. Abigail Adams (1744-1818), wife of “Founding Father” John Adams (and a brilliant writer in her own right), captures the idealism behind this colonial revolt. Since these letters are out of copyright (and, as far as I know, those of Hulton are unavailable), I have reproduced below extensive excerpts, enough material, I think, from which to work.
Hulton’s most revealing letter (Jan. 31, 1774) is her alarmed reaction to the Boston Tea Party, a letter full of misspellings, scrambled syntax and erratic capitalization that well reflect her sense of panic:
. . . really the times are too bad & the Scenes too shocking for me to describe. . . . The Commissrs of the Customs & the Tea Consignees were obliged to seek refuge at the Castle. . . .the violent fury of the People [has] subsided a little. One would have thot before that all the Malice that Earth & Hell could raise were pointed against the Governor. . . . The Tea Consignees reamain Still at the Castle. Six weeks since the Tea was destroyed, and there is no prospect of thier ever returning & residing in Boston with Safety. . . .It is indeed a severe case, & can hardly be credited, I think, that the Govrs Sons sho’d be treated as fugitives and outlaws in their own country. . . .[when] a Gentleman [and his wife arrived] at Plymouth 40 miles from Boston. . . .the Town Assembly instantly went to the House demanded that [they] depart immediately out of the Town. . . [even though] it was so late at Night, & the Weather so severe. . . .[They were allowed stay the night, but next morning] the Young Couple Sett off in a great snow storm, & nobody knows since where they are.
But the most shocking cruelty was exercised a few Nights ago, upon a poor Old Man a Tidesman one Malcolm. . . . Tarrd, & feathered. . . .he was dragd in a Cart with thousands attending, some beating him with clubs. . . . This Spectacle of horror and sportive cruelty was exhibited for about five hours. . . . It is impossible that this poor creature can live. They say his flesh comes off his back in Stakes.
These few instances amongst many serve to shew the abject State of Government & the licentiousness and barbarism of the times. There’s no Majestrate that dare or will act to suppress the Outrages.
Six months later (July 8, 1774), Hulton writes with more hope, certain that the popular push toward rebellion is losing support, although many are still led astray by mendacious leaders:
Those who are well disposed towards Government. . . . daily increase, & have made some efforts to take the power out of the hands of the Patriots, but they are intimidated & overpowered by Numbers, & the Arts, and Machinations of the Leader, who Governs absolutely, the Minds & the Passions of the People—by publishing numberless falsehoods to impose on their credulity. . . .by writing [they] inflame the Minds of the ignorant Country People.
At roughly the same time (Aug. 19, 1774), Abigail Adams expressed her great anxiety and “horror” of the probable bloodshed ahead, but argued from history for its inevitability:
The great anxiety I feel for my country, for you, and for our family renders the day tedious and the night unpleasant. The rocks and quicksands appear upon every side. . . . Did ever any kingdom or state regain its liberty, when once it was invaded, without bloodshed? I cannot think of it without horror. Yet we are told that all the misfortunes of Sparta were occasioned by their too great solicitude for present tranquility, and, from an excessive love of peace, they neglected the means of making it sure and lasting.
What Hulton saw as cruel mob rule, Adams sees, with a comic eye, as the popular exuberance of a people sensing their freedom (Sept. 14, 1774):
This town [Braintree, MA] appears as high as you can well imagine, and, if necessary, would soon be in arms. Not a Tory but hides his head. The church parson thought they were coming after him, and ran up the garret; they say another jumped out of his window and hid among the corn, whilst a third crept under his board fence and told his beads.
Adams also captures very evocatively the confusion and uncertainty of the situation at the outset of the war (letter of May 24, 1775, a month after hostilities began):
I. . . found the whole town in confusion. Three sloops and one cutter had come out and dropped anchor just below Great Hill. It was difficult to tell their designs; some supposed they were come to Germantown, others to Weymouth; people, women, children, from the ironworks, came flocking down this way; every woman and child driven off from below my father’s, my father’s family flying. . . . We expect soon to be in continual alarms, till something decisive takes place.
As the fighting starts, Adams seems to be writing bulletins from the front, ripe with emotion (June 18-20, 1775):
The day—perhaps the decisive day—is come, on which the fate of America depends. My bursting heart must vent at my pen. I have just heard that our dear friend, Dr. Warren, is no more, but fell gloriously fighting for his country; saying, Better to die honorably in the field, than ignominiously hang upon the gallows. Great is our loss. . . . The battle began upon our intrenchments upon Bunker’s Hill, Saturday morning about three o’clock, and has not ceased yet, and it is now three o’clock Sabbath afternoon. . . . The constant roar of the cannon is so distressing that we cannot eat, drink, or sleep. May we be supported and sustained in the dreadful conflict. . . . ten thousand reports are passing, vague and uncertain as the wind. . . . The spirits of the people are very good; the loss of Charlestown affects them no more than a drop in the bucket.
Obviously, discussing the significant contrasts in the views of the two letter writers will be easy—and fruitful. However, because Abigail Adams has both literary art and historical suasion on her side, it might be worthwhile assigning a group of students to argue Hulton’s position, to create some sense of historical balance. Also, you might ask what similarities exist between the writers, especially as women in a country moving towards war.
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POEMS: Phillis Wheatley, “To His Excellency General Washington” (145-46) and “On Being Brought from Africa to America” (18), The Collected Works of Phillis Wheatley, ed. John C. Shields. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Nikki Giovanni, “Linkage (for Phyllis Wheatley),” The Collected Poetry of Nikki Giovanni 1968-1998. New York: William Morrow, 2003.
Phillis Wheatley (c. 1753-84) is, without doubt, a remarkable poetic case—whether or not her poetry is itself remarkable is another issue.
Wheatley was brought to Boston as a slave (probably from present-day Senegal or Gambia) when she was about eight. Eleven years later, she produced a volume of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, which evidenced a full command of metrics, rhyming patterns (like many 18th century poets she preferred couplets), and poetic form. She also demonstrated a full acquaintance with many major English poets, especially the 17th century poet, John Milton, and the 18th century poet, Alexander Pope. In fact, if anything, she was almost too well-acquainted with literary tradition, for it seems to have hampered her originality.
Her poem written during the early months of the Revolutionary War, “To His Excellency General Washington,” is rife with the inflated rhetoric of the poetic times:
Columbia’s scenes of glorious toils I write,
While freedom’s cause her anxious breast alarms.
The poem is also full of grand mythological allusions and inflated rhetoric that almost obscure the reality of the rather ragtag battles (including several lost battles and retreats) that the American army had fought to that point:
Muse! bow propitious while my pen relates
How pour her armies through a thousand gates,
As when Eolus heaven’s fair face deforms,
Enwrapp’d in tempest and a night of storms;
Astonish’d ocean feels the wild uproar,
The refulgent surges beat the sounding shore.
In the middle of the poem, she uses the poetic device of apostrophe (direct address), imploring Washington to be the nation’s protector:
Fam’d for thy valour, for thy virtues more,
Hear every tongue thy guardian aid implore.
Eventually, America (Columbia) will have its bloody triumph over the cruel indifference of Britain:
Anon Britannia drops the pensive head,
While round increase the rising hills of dead.
Ah! cruel blindness to Columbia’s state!
Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.
What has given both scholars and general readers pause about Wheatley’s verses is less its stilted quality than its seemingly full, unquestioning acceptance of white Christian values and a consequent acceptance of her own slave condition. There does not appear to be any irony when she refers, in her Washington poem, to America as “The land of freedom’s heaven-defended race.” Nor does any irony seem to abide in the poem in which she argues the ability of her “sable” race to be Christianized and thereby saved from their “benighted” original “pagan” condition:
On Being Brought from Africa to America
‘Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Savior too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye.
“Their color is a diabolic dye.”
Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,
May be refined, and join the angelic train.
One unavoidable question—and one students will want to discuss—arises from these two poems, namely, why did a Revolutionary War era slave so thoroughly identify with the values of a society that held her legally in bondage. Was she not aware that abolitionist sentiment was much stronger in Britain than in America (and would lead to abolition of the British slave trade in 1807)? Or did she sense something that, in the very long run, might mean more “freedom” for blacks in America than elsewhere? (I think it will be a long time yet before a black man or woman is elected Prime Minister in Britain.) For instance, it could be argued that Britain essentially replaced slavery with colonialism, which produced a de facto form of slavery in Africa, in India, around the world over the last two centuries. We don’t know, because we have no notion what Wheatley thought—all that survives is the poetry, plus a few biographical details.
The contemporary African-American poet, Nikki Giovanni, has a prose poem—a very useful one for pedagogical purposes—in which she defends Wheatley by trying to imagine her experiences, from capture to death, from the inside. It begins:
What would a little girl think . . . boarding a big . . . at least to her . . . ship . . . setting sail on a big . . . to everybody . . . ocean.
What would a little girl think . . . leaving Senegal . . . for that which had no name . . . and when one was obtained . . . no place for her.
In the new world where she arrives, “the children of Hester Prynne” [heroine of Hawthorne’s novel, The Scarlet Letter, set in 17th century Puritan Massachusetts] put her on the auction block:
Phillis . . . a little Black girl . . . chosen by Wheatley . . . looked intelligent . . . make a cute pet . . . for the children.
Throughout, Giovanni is attendant to the terribly disorienting procedures of slavery for the slave:
Are you grateful to be bought . . . or sold . . . What would you think . . . of a people . . . who allowed . . . nay encouraged . . . abetted . . . regaled . . . in your chains.
Then in what is a crucial turn in the imagined story, Giovanni posits desperation behind Wheatley’s choice of verse—over prostitution:
We cannot be surprised that young Phillis chose poetry . . . as others choose prostitution . . . to express her dismay.
From here, Giovanni, alluding to the two poems quoted above, goes on to excoriate those “critics” who take Wheatley to task for not, more than two centuries before, thinking just like them now:
The critics . . . from a safe seat in the balcony . . . disdain her performance . . . reject her reality . . . ignore her truths . . . how could she . . . they ask . . . thank God she was brought . . . and bought . . . in this Land . . . How dare she . . . they decried . . . cheer George Washington his victory . . . Why couldn’t she . . . they want to know . . . be more like . . . more like . . . more like . . . the record sticks.
At the same time, Giovanni argues poetically, Wheatley’s case relates to other societal instances, like the “bondage of duty” that is marriage for so many women:
Their own desire submerged . . . into food . . . dishes . . . laundry . . . babies . . . no dreams this week thank you I haven’t the time.
The final stanza opens with words which suggest that even today women in a patriarchal society (any patriarchal society) always experience the same sense of exclusion that Wheatley experienced:
What is a woman . . . to think . . . when all she hears . . . are words that exclude her.
Giovanni’s prose poem is both provocative and very discussable, most particularly, for our purposes here, because it links colonial slavery to modern feminist sensibilities. Although it is fairly long, the poem probably should be used complete, to get the full intellectual rhythm of a modern poet trying to imagine herself into the person of a colonial poet. The result is, I think, very interesting.
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I realize that many of you will be using elements from this curriculum strictly within the context of United States history. But for those who can treat the issue more broadly (e.g., at the community college level) , I have listed four possible sources that would help give the issue of “freedom” some international dimension, as well as foreground issues not as prevalent in American history. Needless to say, these four are just representative of the thousands of such sources you could utilize.
FILM: Kiss of the Spider Woman, dir. Hector Babenco (H.B. Filmes/Sugarloaf Films, 1985—available through City Lights Films).
This film, based on the Argentinean novelist Manuel Puig’s fine novel of the same name, deals with issues of freedom in that most quintessentially un-free of environments, prison. (To emphasize this dislocation, the door of the cell is almost entirely covered by metal, giving only the most fragmentary views of the near environment [chap. 3], while the window shows the sparkling lights of the distant, but unreachable night city [chap. 4].) Confined in the same cell in a unnamed Latin American country (location shooting was done in Brazil) are two fortyish social “deviants”: Luis Molina (William Hurt), a flamboyant, determinedly apolitical homosexual convicted of statutory rape, and Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia), a grimly committed revolutionary arrested for anti-government activities. The development of the narrative gives truth, though a grim truth, to words of the seventeenth-century English poet, Richard Lovelace: “Stone walls do not a prison make,/Nor iron bars a cage.”
The arc of the narrative, which might seem didactic but which is very subtly handled, shows that each man is not only literally a prisoner, but also a “prisoner” of his own limited ideology—and that each must learn from the other to make himself a whole man. For instance, Valentin’s adamant political focus misses the value of Luis’ hedonism, i.e., that the freedom he seeks for his country and its citizens must ultimately encompass the freedom to enjoy life, even in its trivial pursuits, like cheesy, clichéd films. (“How can you remember all this crap,” Valentin asks sourly early on [chap. 4].) Conversely, Luis must learn that, to paraphrase Aristotle, all art, properly understood, is political, that, for the main instance, the “fabulous” 1940s film he narrates in loving detail is actually a work of anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda and has unavoidable ideological consequences. Luis’ haughty credo—“I do not explain my movies” [chap. 2] is gradually proven unworkable. As Valentin eventually makes him understand [chap. 7], the Nazis as readily slaughtered “faggots” as they did Jews and other “undesirables.”
It would be most effective, I think, to screen this film in its entirety, for the developing relationship between the two men, with each filling the gaps in the other’s life, shows something important about how freedom of mind can be achieved in even the most constrained of physical circumstances. That development, quite realistically, includes several lapses—e.g., when the ill Valentin turns on Luis for trying to “run” his life, lashing out at him as a “damned faggot” (chap. 12). However, if you only want to show one section, I suggest chap. 10 (of 16), although you would need to summarize the action to that point to situate the section in context. Here, inspired by Luis’ sympathy and kindness (“It breaks my heart to see you like this,” Luis has said shortly before [chap. 9]), Valentin reveals that he is not the hardened revolutionary he seems, dedicated only to “the struggle” (chap. 5), relentlessly doing push-ups to build up strength to face his torturers. Rather, he tells Luis, he really loves Marta, an upper-middle-class woman who lives a very comfortable life, a woman who rejected him when she discovered his political leanings, rather than his ostensible girl friend in “the movement.” He confesses that he hates the idea he must sacrifice himself for his politics: “I can’t stand being a martyr.” And shortly after, he puts the matter even more simply: “I don’t want to die, Molina.” In sum, this chapter epitomizes a major theme of the film, that the characters are as much “prisoners” of the strictures they place on themselves as they are literally prisoners of a corrupt, brutal regime. Luis’ weary comment not long after—“I’m tired of suffering” [chap. 13]—is as much about the growing emptiness he feels in his circle of “aging queens” as it is about the rigors of imprisonment.
The concluding chapters of the film (14-16) present something of an enigma, one well worth discussing with students. Luis is about to be released from prison, and, after much coaxing from Valentin, he agrees to deliver a vital message to the revolutionaries. This mission is a tragic failure—mistakenly thinking he has shaken the police detail tailing him, Luis actually leads them to the revolutionaries, who, believing that Luis has betrayed them, shoot him. Back in the prison, Valentin is shown in the hospital after a brutal beating that will probably kill him. (A doctor surreptitiously administers morphine to him.) But then the film shifts to a fantasy vision: Marta magically appears before his bedside, takes his hand and leads him from the prison, the doors swinging open as they approach, to a pristine, empty beach. They step into a rowboat and are seen moving outward across a crystalline blue sea as the film ends. What, you may ask your students, does this double ending (failure or transcendence) show about the nature of freedom?
What I like about this film as a teaching tool is that it is likely to push students to deal with the issue of tolerating extremes in trying to envision a truly free society. Valentin is clearly a chronically dyspeptic, personally unpleasant revolutionary—and one who has, ironically for a “freedom fighter,” a very controlling personality: e.g., early on, he tells Luis “no food and no naked women” [chap. 1] will be allowed in Luis’ film descriptions. Similarly, Luis is such a preening “queen” that he can only be accepted as he is, not simply as someone like “most people” except that he just happens to be homosexual. Moreover, the climactic moment in the film, both narrative and literally—the moment when Valentin and Luis become lovers for a night (chap. 13)—will provide a difficult moment, and some very enlightening class discussion, for those many students who maintain a lingering homophobia, often in contrast with their more tolerant interpretations of freedom in other spheres.
It might also be worth looking at the source novel (wonderfully translated into English by Suzanne Jill Levine) for additional points that might contribute to class discussion. For example, in the novel, Luis summarizes in loving detail not one but seven films (like the cult horror classic, a truly elegant “b-film,” I Walked with a Zombie) and not the ersatz (and much more overtly political) film-within-in-film we get in the cinematic version. Puig’s point is, I think, more subtle than the filmmakers’—namely, that commercial films are enjoyable precisely because they appear to eschew the political, rather than because they directly use popular formats to inculcate political views.
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FILM: Daresalam, dir. Issa Serge Coelo (Le Sept Arte, 2000—distributed by Kino Video).
Daresalam is a straightforward, compelling African film, one that, in the words of Françoise Pfaff in Focus on African Films, “questions the uncertain and sometimes disheartening aftermath of independence and civil wars.” It also raises a question, both in terms of past history and contemporary events, faced by many people in the world: how can a viable kind of personal freedom be achieved in an environment almost entirely shaped by warring political factions? (Appropriately, in the bloody, confusing skirmishes—e.g., in chap. 5—it is often difficult to tell one side from the other, and, indeed, to tell who is winning the conflict until it is over.)
Set and filmed in Chad, Daresalam, in one sense, is a story of dawning political consciousness in a society shaped by the continuous struggle of ordinary citizens with corrupt, bloodthirsty government forces—e.g., the government soldiers viciously and contemptuously treat villagers (chaps.1, 9) and the Minister of the Interior has the village chief summarily shot for an unsatisfactorily specific answer (chap. 2). The rebel forces, to be sure, are more idealistic, but ultimately they show a controlling, anti-democratic spirit too—e.g., at one point four rebel officers walk off to confer privately on the next military step, totally uninterested in hearing from the regular soldiers who have risked everything to fight with them (chap. 7).
In such an environment, ordinary citizens are forced to choose sides—often at their peril. Many characters die in the course of the film, but as the main surviving character suggests at the end of the film (chap. 11), all this “misery”—his mother and best friend (his “brother”) have died, his village has been almost totally destroyed—seems to have brought no greater share of freedom, nor a better life.
The story focuses on the fate of two young men, Djimi and Koni, friends in a small village, who must come to terms with the larger political forces which are struggling to control the destiny of their country. At the same time, they must also come to terms with the forces of modernity which are impinging on the traditional ways of African village life, ways that have heretofore almost entirely shaped their view of the world. Thus, their quest to attain some measure of freedom is bounded both by a society at civil war and by a larger world, with its deadly weaponry and an often unbridled love of killing. (The rebels’ rallying cry, “We shall conquer or die [chap. 6],” could, indicatively, just as easily be that of the opposing side—and shows what each side is willing to inflict on the other.) The result is a life, to quote the philosopher Hobbes, that threatens to be in a state of constant warfare, and, thus, always “ugly, brutish, nasty and short.” Certainly, it proves so for Koni, who eventually deserts the rebel forces for a position of some power and income with the government forces, a decision he justifies to a distraught Djimi as a practical matter of survival—although the regular radio reports we hear from FRAP, the revolutionary group, suggest that perhaps the rebels are slowly winning. That it is so difficult to tell is emblematic of the confusing atmosphere in which ordinary citizens must choose sides.
Djimi, too, suffers, and not just the sorrow of seeing his best friend turn “traitor” and learning, at the end of the film (chap. 11), that rebel forces have captured and executed him, but he also suffers directly. Djimi was badly wounded in the leg and left behind (presumably to die) by revolutionary forces, but he slowly recovered, but will walk with a severe limp for the rest of his life. The precariousness of life in such a society is shown by the last shot in Daresalam, where the film moves from realism to fantasy. As we track Djimi crookedly walking across the village to get the midwife for his pregnant wife, he passes the major characters who have died during the course of the story—at the bottom of the screen are their names and the manner of their death. The shot concludes with Djimi limping into the distance; the title reads: “Djimi/Still Alive.”
The film has a startling visual quality that often functions as something of an ironic comment on the intractability of human beings, on their seeming insistence on violence and disharmony. White-clad camel riders, their robes flowing, sweep into a desert town (chap. 6); a woman in a bright orange dress moves gracefully against a monochromic beige background (chap. 6); the beleaguered and recently defeated rebel band holds up in a canyon watering hole of surpassing beauty (chap. 8); in unison, a group of villagers elegantly lifts a large thatched roof onto the walls of a circular adobe hut. It is almost as if we in the audience must appreciate these visions, for the frenetic and dangerous events so distract the characters that they can only absorb details directly related to their survival.
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