“You ain nothing but a boy yit!”

February 4, 2012

Mississippi son Richard Wright

Mississippi son, Richard Wright, photographed in 1939 by Carl Van Vechten (Source: Wikipedia--click to view)

Richard Wright’s character Dave Saunders has five years on Faulkner’s Sarty.  Not surprisingly, then, this seventeen-year-old “Man Who Was Almost a Man” longed to escape the name “boy,” a descriptor bestowed on him by the store-owner Joe after Dave confesses his urgent need to buy a gun: “You ain’t nothing but a boy.  You don’t need a gun.”  Dave’s mother, stunned by Dave’s request to spend $2, his monthly pay as a field hand, on one of Joe’s guns, responds the same way: “Don yuh talk t me bout no gun!…You ain nothing but a boy yit!”

But after mom considers how Dave’s gun might benefit her husband as family protector, she gives into Dave’s boyish whining.  Predictably, Dave sneaks out with his new gun and decides to try it out when he and Jenny, his boss’ mule, have plowed “down by the woods,” far enough away that no one will hear Dave’s shot.  Just as predictably, when Dave, ignorant of the gun’s recoiling power, inadvertently kills Jenny, he conjures a boyish lie about Jenny stumbling onto “the point of the plow” and impaling herself.  No one, of course, believes Dave, especially his parents, who demand the truth.  After Dave’s tearful confessions, his father promises to beat him at home, his boss charges him $50 to replace Jenny, and, worst of all, Dave faces derisive laughter and, once again, the name he hates: “Well, boy, it looks like yuh done bought a dead mule!  Hahaha!”

To help my Kosovaran students reflect on this story on manhood, I will ask them to respond in their journals—before class discussion—to these prompts on the ending of Wright’s story:  “As Dave prepares to jump the Illinois Central train for Chicago, what evidence do you see of his continued boyishness?  Do you find any evidence that this decision has, in fact, moved him closer to manhood?”  No doubt, most students will point to Dave’s immature wish to shoot at his boss’ house, “Jusa enough t let im know Dave Saunders is a man.”  Some may argue, too, that Dave’s decision to run away from home shows a childish reluctance to accept responsibility for his own actions.  But other students may stress the courage required, however foolish, to jump a moving train, to cut ties to family, to live on his own.  They may remember, too, what they read in the introductory material on Richard Wright, about his own run from his home town, Natchez, Mississippi, to Memphis, then Chicago, precisely the same story that Wright tells in his famous autobiographical work Black Boy, a story about another boy whose run to freedom generates yet more suffering but also makes him a man.

After we have discussed Wright’s story, I will invite students to share their journal entries.  I will also ask them to reflect on the phallus at the center of this story, the gun, the assumed ticket to manhood, to power.  To what extent can we describe the USA, as reflected in its history and its literature, as a gun-culture?  To what extent can we describe Kosova the same way?  Such questions may well lead to students’ inquiries about the American Second Amendment, and if they ask for my views, I will say that I support the right “to keep and bear arms,” and that at 14 I belonged to the National Rifle Association and won badges for adolescent marksmanship.  I will make this admission to assure my students that in asking these questions I do not intend to campaign for the outlawing of guns in my country or in theirs.  Instead, I ask these questions to get students to ponder the implications of equating manhood—or womanhood—with guns.  What must become of any culture, its fine educational and legal institutions notwithstanding, that defines a “man” or a “woman” as the person with the gun?

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“To Your Own Blood”

February 2, 2012

The bitter cold continues in Pristina, and the snow has returned, though so far just flurries, no new drifts. I did face the elements long enough to get a haircut (which, alas, didn’t take long) and to buy more time for my local cell phone.

Serbian Empire 1355 AD

Serbian Empire 1355 AD (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

The rest of my day took place inside, where I continue to enjoy preparing for my American lit class. As I prepared a background lecture on psychoanalytic theory as a critical preface to Faulkner’s “Barn Burning,” I pondered several parallels between Faulkner’s 1938 tale and the current situation in Kosova. Though independent just four years, Kosova has always been cultural hub, not just in the old Yugoslavia but also in the ancient Balkans, a land where blood feuds have always continued because patriots on all sides, like Faulkner’s Abner Snopes, had and have a “ferocious conviction in the rightness of [their] own actions.” Of course, Snopes lays no claim to patriotism, having ‘served’—as a horse-thief—both the Federals and Confederates in the American Civil War. Still, Snopes feels justified in burning barns of rich white men like Major de Spain because his “wolflike independence” tells him that he has been unfairly labeled ‘trash’ and barred from wealth and power, the ‘phallus’ of American culture.

Former Yugoslavia

Former Yugoslavia (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Unfortunately for pre-adolescent Sarty, his father Abner’s strong character yields only destruction and therefore only fear for the boy, a fear as strong as the smell of cheese that fills the store where Abner, at the beginning of the story, stands trial, again, for burning a barn. A good Jungian, Sarty understands “the old fierce pull of blood” and the myth of fire that informs his clan’s survival; he therefore will lie if he must to defend his father. Sarty will also fight men twice his size who shout “barn burner” at his father as they leave the courtroom store, with Abner free again, owing to lack of evidence, to burn more barns, more symbols of the phallic power he has always lacked.

Yet Sarty, just like many Kosovarans, longs to escape the cycle of violence, longs for his father’s reformation, so that he can love him without fear. Suspecting Sarty’s disloyalty, Snopes beats his son, teaching him that being a man means sticking “to your own blood,” not cow-towing (as Freud might say) to his “superego,” the internalized values of justice that make Sarty hope his father can “change…from what maybe he couldn’t help but be.”

But Snopes, indeed, cannot change, as he proves when he sets out to burn the barn of his new employer, Major de Spain. When Sarty breaks free from his mother’s restraining arms, he knows that he must betray his father to de Spain, that he must betray him to save him. After the betrayal, as he runs away, Sarty hears repeated shots in the distance, knowing then that his intent has back-fired, that he has enabled the killing of “Pap…Pap…Father.”

Kosovo Today

Kosovo today (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)

Such names underscore Sarty’s love for his father, a man who he still believes fought in the cavalry under Colonel Sartoris. Yet he does his mourning on the run and does not “look back,” knowing the direction of freedom and peace.

While it may seem a stretch to make a Balkans allegory out of Faulkner’s post-Civil War story, the parallels seem compelling, at least as I sit here in Kosova, where fidelity to blood has assured its continued spilling. Yet an equally important difference stands out: Sarty did not look back; the Balkans must.

The Balkans

The Balkans (Source: Wikipedia--click image to view)