Monday, March 31, 2014


The theme of identity is depicted in Harris, Gates, and duCille’s articles. What I’ve managed to take away from these authors is that there are two different forms of identity: personal identity and a shared, public identity held to a particular group of people. These particular articles acknowledge that there is a struggle to reproduce a positive image of blacks in America through their shared identity. 
Harris harshly criticizes Walker, saying that novel is “a great disservice through its treatment of black women and a disservice as well to the Southern black communities in which such treatment was set” (155). She claims that Celie’s voice silences black women, and the “novel gives validity to all the white racist’s notion of pathology in black communities” (157). Harris seems to devalue Celie, and furthermore Walker. As duCille states, “Texts are transparent documents that must tell the truth as I know it. Failure to tell my truth not only invalidates the text, it also discredits, de-authorizes, and on occasion deracializes the writer. Truth, however, like beauty, is in the eye and perhaps the experience of the beholder” (2). Walker, as an author, has claimed her truth, and I find Harris to be somewhat disrespectful to Walker. Celie is one character, who happens to be a black woman; I do not think Walker is trying to suggest that all black women are quiet and submissive, nor is she endorsing this behavior. It’s the view of the reader that needs to change. That is exactly what these authors are seeking to do. 
In “The Black Person in Art”, Sandra E. Drake said, 
Any community needs all its art. A full portrayal of all segments of the community—in all their internal variety, in the variety 
               of their interactions with other groups, and in the variety of their individuals and their relations to individuals of other groups—   
               provides enrichment. Making art is the artist’s charge; and I am convinced no artist can produce valuable work to   
               prescriptions or under prescriptions. (326)

We have discussed in class time and time again, the importance of the personal experience and how we act based on these experiences. Quick backstory: I used to bartend at small neighborhood joint in a low-income community. Some night a few months ago, one of my regulars, Jay, walked into the bar. The bar was relatively quiet and so we got to talking. For whatever reason, we began discussing race.To be perfectly honest, I think about this conversation almost everyday. He said, “The difference between you and me is I wake up thinking I’m a black man. You probably go about your whole day not thinking twice about the color of your skin. I’m a fifty-year old veteran with a college degree and I still worry about that white cop in my rearview mirror pulling me over based on the color of my skin.” His simple but profound antidote has stuck with me. It seems that Jay, and many others, have learned to associate black with some sort of negative connotation. This negative outlook is carried among an entire race, an entire community. While I do not completely agree with Harris, I can understand her disapproval. I get that she fears Celie’s flaws be associated with all black women. It seems that Harris fears white Americans do not understand the plight of the Afro-American, and she wants what she feels is her universal truth, to be represented in the best possible way. 

The Beholder Metaphor

Catlin Castan
Dr. Ellis
Banned Books
30 March 2014
The Beholder Metaphor
            In the essays: “Phallus(ies) of interpretation: toward engendering the black critical ‘I’ , “On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence”, and “The Black Person in Art: How Should S/He Be Portrayed? (Part III)” writers Ann duCille, Trudier Harris, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.—respectively—all discuss the challenges we face when criticizing literature. Similar to many of the discussion we’ve had in class—particularly in regards to Vonnegut—duCille introduces the “beholder metaphor”; She writes, “Truth, like beauty, is in the eye and perhaps the experience of the beholder”(2).  However, duCille ultimately deems this metaphor as being problematic because of the individual reader’s “power and perspective” while encountering a text. Additionally, duCille explains that this metaphor, “invites us to question the authority of the critical I to constitute the Other it beholds, even in the midst of reading the Other’s celebration of its own subjectivity”(2). In other words, duCille--like Harris and Gates—is posing a central question that is frequently asked within literature: who possesses the authority to write about issues such as incest or racism? And does a writer like Alice Walker—a black feminist-- have the literary authority to write about the black male identity or the collective black culture? In response to this question, many black male readers feel that they have been misrepresented within literature as they struggle to accept “seeing themselves depicted as something other than the heroes of their women’s lives”(9). duCille later explains that these men “misread the refusal of a certain kind of male behavior [within a text] as a rejection of black men”(9) as a whole, as opposed to acknowledging the rejection of a specific behavior or attitude that may exist separately from their own selves. Here, we notice that the “beholder exceeds his authority as a reader”(9) and instead, “extrapolates a universal real—‘all black men’—from the particular fiction—‘a black man’ or ‘some black man’”(9). In doing so, duCille argues that the beholder is not only missing the point of the literature but that he is also “denying” a woman writer of her “creative imagination”(9).

            While the conflict that exists between the critical I and the Other may be on-going, I tend to side with duCille, I believe that the true challenge “of our critical practice is to see both inside and outside our own assumptions”(10), because as we all very well know--as English majors-- “Texts have a way of becoming what we say they are”(10).


Trudier Harris argues very strongly that The Color Purple is essentially a fairy tale. She is right, it has all the requirements. An abused passive character ends up with a happy ending where everything turns out as it should. Yes, it does have the makings of a fairy tale, but it also has reality. It shows the darker side of the fairy tales where the suffering is in the words. It exemplifies a story of conquering that many people never obtain. The story shows how far a human mind can be pushed, but yet it can still recover. It shows that even the down trodden can achieve the American Dream though so many people, of multiple races, were never able to catch the carrot of success they were chasing.   
Celie is much like a princess from a old time Disney movie. She does little to save herself and it is not until some magical ideal (Shug/ Fairy Godmother) comes into her life and allows her to realize her true potential. It works. The reason there are fairy tales is because everyone wants to believe in their own grandness. Everyone wants to believe they can achieve something. This is not limited by race, it is a human desire to be recognized by other human beings. So it is not fair for Harris to critique that aspect solely on race. Even  Disney has only started realizing it’s fault in sexism and has begun creating more independent female characters. 
Just like fairy tales there is often an unglamorized version. For example in Cinderella one of the step sisters cut off her own toes so the glass slipper fit her. Walker creates a time placed Cinderella, a woman who bleeds and suffers at the hands of those who are supposed to aid her self worth. She takes the glitter off the mass told story and give Celie something to over come internally before she can ever be seen as human by others. She has been beat down and taken advantage of, but it is her inner self esteem that has truly been stifled. 
Harris is arguing there is some falsity in what Walker is doing, creating this fairy tale. That she is simply continuing a lie, “The fable structure thereby perpetuates a lie in holding out to black non-existent or minimally existent hope for a piece of that great American pie.” (pg 160). What she is seemingly forgetting is that no one really got the pie. That is why, even still today, the one-percent is only one percent. Not everyone can be the wealthiest and people of all races came to America, or were liberated in America, with hopes that things would change. Hopes that they would no longer be the oppressed and that they would gain more than their previous situations allowed. Most of these people never even saw the pie, they only heard rumors of if in the mills they worked away in. 
Walker was not pandering to any race, sexual orientation, or nationalists. She was simply turning her own social situation into a fairy tale. Whether you believe the myth that any part of it is true is the magic. The point of the story is to see a character that is relatable being pushed past her point of suffering but still recovering. Celie conquered her situation, her suffering, her inner struggle to find herself. 

There is much arguing over the representation of the black male in The Color Purple. The way the black men are portrayed is very interesting; they are depicted as abusers and rapists, both are truly awful offenses and understandably no one wants to be associated with such acts. Walker was a black artist working in her predominately black world, that is what she wrote about. I think the more important concern should be her representation of men in general. Celie had no real white male interactions, yet she shied away from all men. Her rejection of all men shows a bigger seeded issue than just black men. 
Henry Louis Gates wrote down a definition of the role of Afroamerican literature. Ultimately it states, “:to create a morality for Blackfolk in America, to force Black people to look at themselves.” (pg 322). Walker did him one better, she made all of man kind look at themselves. Yes, her literature only dealt with black men, but she was simply writing what she knew. And what she knew was for rape and assault to be common. Walker’s world was a stand in for the society in general.
Celie does not lust after a white man to ride in and come steal her away from all of the black men who are abusing her. She instead shuns the entire sex and idolizes a strong female to aid her. Shug is the one who helps her realize her beauty. Walker very carefully finds all men responsible for the rape culture. It could be argued that it would have been much too far fetched for Celie to be involved with a white man, but the book itself proves that it has happened before with the existence of Squeak. And if Squeak’s mother was raped by a man (assuming her mother was black because her white uncle disowns her), he would have had to been white, therefore disproving that Walker only degrades black men. 
Rape culture is something that exists today and has nothing to do with race, it is about sex. It is how women and men are portrayed by society that hides the truth of it. Walker is exploring the same idea that Celie is literally seen as less than a human and that is why it is excusable. It is not because Celie is black, but it is because she is a woman in a society that condones the idea that she is lesser. Walker is making all of man kind look back at is self, not just the men of color. Unfortunately works that concentrate on mirroring society and pointing out what is wrong is still happening. Recently I viewed a youtube clip title “Rape Poem to End all Rape Poems”. Clearly the culture where exerting dominance on someone else is still viewed as acceptable. The problem is not racial or purely male, the problem is how people view themselves. Walker writes a story of how Celie learns that she actually has self worth and control over her own body. It is her job to tell men no, just as much is it for men to appreciate her common humanity. Walker has a dismal view of all men, not just black men, which should be concerning for all men and not have works solely concentrating on the racial aspect.

There Is No Absolute Experience

There Is No Absolute Experience

I found all three articles to be extremely engrossing. They each provoked strong reactions within me. The article that I responded the most positively was “Phallus(ies) of interpretation: toward engendering the black critical ‘I’” by duCille. The author challenges the idea that there is one universal truth and history. She states that “Truth, however, like beauty, is in the eye and perhaps the experience of the beholder”(2). I agree with this idea of a subjective truth in relation to experience. When reading The Color Purple, I never once thought that this was the exact experience of all black people of this time period. Foremost, I realized that this was a work of fiction. Secondly, I understood that if this did represent an experience, it did not represent all experiences. Yet just because this experience is not universal does not mean that cannot represent truth.

            In regards to the article “On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence” by Harris, there were some points I agreed and some that I did not at all. On the first page I was immediately disturbed by the quote, “What sane black woman, I asked, would sit around and take that crock of shit from all those folks?” (155). For some reason this stuck me as insensitive to Celie’s experience. The way I read this was that because Celie did not react she is less of a black woman. What she dealt with was extremely traumatic. She had to learn how to be a strong woman, which she eventually did. Yes, I agree that sometimes I was frustrated with her passivity, but I never thought of her as less of a woman because of it. I do not think that any woman, whether white, black, etc., needs to fit into a particular mold. I felt that Celie’s character represents the struggles (maybe not exactly, but in figurative sense) that some women deal with. Celie’s experience is no less the truth than the experience of a “strong” woman like Sofia.

            An underlying theme that all articles dealt with was the idea that the novels can negatively affect the image of the black race, whether it be the men, the women, or the whole. As discussed in the article “The Black Person in Art: How Should S/He Be Portrayed?” there is a delicate balance between the artistic voice of the writer and the freedom of the black race from stereotypes and oppression. I agree that stories can feed the stereotypes that are present. Yet I also think that each story represents its own interpretation of the truth. Just because a novel does not represent a group in the most positive of light does not make it a universal truth. I think that this becomes the responsibility of the reader to recognize the lens from which they are reading as well as the fact that the experiences of the characters do not represent the experiences of everyone. Every author has the right to express the truth as they see it or even just a particular part of the truth they have seen. I think that books are often meant to cause frustration in the readers. I do not think that it is bad that women are frustrated with Celie’s passivity or that men are upset with portrayal of black men. Books are not always meant to make every person happy. They are sometimes ways to open up discussion or to express one’s own thoughts.

The Power of Interpretation

            All three of the critical essays that were assigned focused on one main concept – how African Americans are portrayed.  In Ann duCille’s “Phallus(ies) of interpretation: toward engendering the black critical “I,” the author states that there is not an essential black experience, an absolute historical truth, and that art absolutely must tell the truth.  She asks readers to reflect on our own gender, race, age, and more in order to recognize the lenses in which we read and analyze texts such as Walker’s The Color Purple.  While one person may read the novel as depicting antagonistic male characters, another may read the novel as depicting empowered female characters.  It’s all up to each individual’s interpretation of the work.
            In Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s “The Black Person in Art: How Should S/he Be Portrayed? (Part II),” the author reiterates and responds to W.E.B. DuBois’s question of how anyone should be portrayed in art.  He responds that the artist should portray his/her subject as truthfully as s/he interprets the subject.  While the artist may truthfully interpret the subject in one way, the viewer may interpret the subject in a different way, according to their version of truth.  Again, one person’s interpretation is not any more right and true than another’s interpretation of the same work.
            In Trudier Harris’s “On The Color Purple, Stereotypes, and Silence,” the author interprets Walker’s novel as negatively stereotyping African Americans.  She depicts the men negatively and Celie as a submissive and static character, which contrasts duCille’s interpretation of the men in the novel as the root of society’s problems.  Harris is more concerned that people believe that Walker’s depiction of African Americans is considered the truth to those that read the novel rather than one type.  She believes that this interpretation by readers is more danger than the contents of the novel itself.  She, like duCille and Gates, believes that interpretation is a powerful force that can positively or negatively shape society’s opinions of a subject, such as the African American community.

Why can't we all just get along?

While reading the three essays for class I paused for a second to think about how much our subjectivity plays a role in reading a novel. In particular I focused on the pieces by Ann duCille and Trudier Harris because their reading of The Color Purple led to very different and opposing interpretations.
Harris critiques the novel for many different reasons. One prominent concern was the negative depiction of black men. Harris, to some degree, has a point; the black male characters in the novel are depicted poorly. Another qualm Harris takes up is with Celie submissiveness. Despite repeatedly being raped and abused by both her stepfather and Albert, Celie does not do much to change her situation. Again there is some truth behind this claim but I feel Harris’ view of the novel is missing some key facts, which is why I tend to lean towards the piece by, Ann duCille.
I agree with duCille in regards in viewing the novel as a more empowering piece. It raises issues of sexism within the black community, specifically black men against black women. It is pointed out in duCille’s essay that many black males find, The Color Purple Offensive, which is reasonable, as it does portray males negatively. My problem though, is the idea that this work is somehow an affront to the community in general. Men and women in the black community have not been treated equal and duCille points this out, While I can hardly quarrel with the point that both black men and black women have been victims of American racism, the "we're okay" rendition of African American history carries with it a decidedly masculine bias that factors out the sexism which has indeed made some black men the enemy”. I feel this is a key element in the novel that is often times overlooked. The men are deliberately depicted negatively to make obvious the problems in society. In the end, though I understand how the book can be read as offensive, I do not agree with the criticism. The novel is a great work of art and serves to empower black females.

Truth in Lies

Fiction is, by definition, not entirely true. Novels are in many cases based off of true events and almost always seek to uncover some kind of truth, but they are still fiction. Many critics of art and literature, however, assert that art and literature, to be considered worthy of such titles, must offer up some sort of truth. In “ The Black Person in Art,” both Lloyd Richards and Eugenia Collier insist that the artist is obligated to display the truth as he or she sees it. Collier writes, “An artist must tell the truth about he world as he/she sees it, must be absolutely and mercilessly truthful (and this is not easy, is often painful but purifying), must filter out wishful thinking, personal conflicts that are unresolved, ego trips.” Is something lost, however, if the artist is limited by the truth that they see? Are artists not given license to raise questions without giving answers as they may see them? In limiting the artist’s function to one of obligated truthful recitation, I believe that the reader is in some cases deprived of his or her own opportunity to draw conclusions and learn from the artist’s creation.
In Trudier Harris’s criticism of The Color Purple, she voices concern that people will take the presentation of the characters as the truth of all black people, therefore perpetuating negative stereotypes of black men and women alike. This mentality is why many books are banned in the first place. There is distrust in the reader, which develops into a fear of what can be learned from the novel in the wrong hands. To Harris, there is a danger in not explicitly reporting the truth of the society between black men and women. Harris fears that what Walker displays as true for Celie and those in her community will be taken as true for the black community at large.

Similarly, in “Phallus(ies) of interpretation,” Ann duCille expresses the concern about which story is the “true story” about the relations between black men and black women in contrast with white men and white women. For Lerone Bennett Jr., the “true story” is one where “Black men and women—despite slavery, despite segregation, despite everything—created a modern love song in life and art that is the loveliest thing dreamed or sung this side of the seas.” This story is in direct conflict with the world we see in The Color Purple. Does this make one less true than the other or one false altogether? The answer must lie in the interpretation of the audience because even when a story is full of lies and fantasy, there is still a chance for an audience to see a truth never even conceived by the artist.

Conditions of Identity

The three articles read for today’s class all bring up identity in one way or another and discuss the nature of race and gender while taking a critical look at the portrayal of such identities – male, female, white, and black. 

In Phallus(ies) of Interpretation: Toward Engendering the Black Critical “I” duCille  discusses what is considered by others “an essential black experience.”  Although duCille dispels this viewpoint, the issue remains that many black male critics would say that “one can be black or a woman, but claiming both identities places one on shaky familial ground.” These critics require and demand better black male characters – male characters who would not fit the stereotypical mold upheld by the white community. The works of black feminist authors are snubbed. They are told that they put “their gender before their race, their (white) feminism before their black family.” Suddenly, to be feminist is to be white and is, therefore, a form betrayal.

Trudier Harris also makes reference to identity but by critiquing Walker’s portrayal of the African American woman. Harris says that she was enraged; she could not identify with Celie and knew no black woman who would. She claims that a stronger Celie – a Celie more like Sofia – would be more identifiable, and that the acceptance of suffering that Celie upholds for most of the novel is more akin to the white fairytales of Cinderella or Snow White. Celie, through her feminist – or even victimized feminist – portrayal, has been white washed.

These two articles seem to associate an identity with a set of characteristics. The identities of black and woman have been pit against each other, but to what end? It seems that rather than lifting the other group up, they work to tear them down, working against rather than together. In The Black Person in Art: How Should S/he be Portrayed?, we encounter different responses to questions regarding the criteria for true representation of the black male or female. Many commentators created a set of requirements for proper representation. Lloyd Richards specific response had piqued my interest. He answered with a question of his own: “How should any person be portrayed in art?” Identity was stripped: there was no black or white or female or male. There was simply ‘person’ – the ultimate identity that both critics and authors should not forget. It is important to view the struggles of a group of people, but it should not be at the expense of a well-rounded character. An identity is not a personality. 


The Author Function in a Rainy Place

Both Harris and Gates discuss the invisible line that is meant to be challenged by a tantrum against imposed limitations. The invisible line in Harris’s criticism is that which sets off the security alarm that holds The Color Purple on a pedestal, deemed untouchable by popular media. Popularity seems to make a work impermeable to criticism. In support of this idea, Harris states, “We [black women,] were all faced with the idea that to criticize a novel that had been so universally complimented was somehow a desertion of the race and the black woman writer” (155). In my opinion, if a novel deserves praise, it also deserves criticism and challenges to delve into its issues; to silence certain issues is to deny the existence of controversial truths. There is such pressure in being so specific as to say “the black woman writer.” If the “black woman” identity of authorship is erased, and Walker is just considered “writer,” I wonder if the novel would still receive reluctance from black women to present their opinion openly. Harris describes the double edged sword of popularity also falls on Walker when she states that “Walker is put in the peculiar position of crying out against her own popularity or watching the onslaught of distortion continue” (159). The Author function begs consideration when discussing criticism for The Color Purple.
One of the multiple viewpoints in Gates’s criticism suggests that the publisher is to be held accountable for the circulating controversial material. I find it surprising that there are different lengths in the answers. Some responses to Du Bois’s questions are one word answers, like that of Sandra E. Drake. What stands out to me is Werner Sollors’s response which alludes to William Melvin Kelley’s comparative observation of the white man and the Negro man on the subway. This reminds me of the idea that “just because you or someone else is holding an umbrella over your head does not mean it isn’t raining all around you.” This metaphor suggests that the reality of power structures, which has been woven into history since colonization, still affects present day. If someone feels that he/she is not affected by power structures (like that of race, for example), he/she is ignorant, by choice or by privilege, to the rain (predetermined categories) that is still an issue. As an Asian American in a predominantly white school who started noticing this rain freshman year and only knew the words to explain it junior year, I'm still struggling with this idea.

Supplemental Stuff:

The discussion of race in Gates’s criticism reminded me of the following article I had read last year, when I first started to understand how to predetermined categories.
Allan G. Johnson’s essay, “Privilege as Paradox” presents how perceptions are shaped by social arrangements, or “reference groups”. The reference to Viola in Shakespeare in Love, a woman who aspires to act on stage, despite the fact that acting was a privilege reserved for men, supports Johnson’s argument. She achieves her goal by “successfully presenting herself as [a man]” (118). The reference communicates that in order to achieve objectives that are deemed more suitable for the more privileged group, “successfully presenting” oneself as belonging or able to take on the role that is reserved for the privileged group can prove effective. This example, along with the succinctly put statement, “what matters [when it comes to privilege,] is who other people think we are, not who we really are” signifies that being perceived to belong to certain categories can be the key to accessing, or being denied of, privileges.
Johnson encourages the consideration of both individual as well as communal experiences with privilege and discrimination. On page 119, Johnson references a reflection he sometimes hears a woman say: “I’ve never been oppressed as a woman.” In response to this, Johnson presents a diction thread in the same paragraph to analyze how one woman’s subjective experience could allow for such a reflection. The diction thread in “avoided,” “overcome,” “denial,” “unaware,” and “internalized” communicate the ways someone may deal with or experience social realities. “It’s like living in a rainy climate and somehow avoiding being rained our yourself. It’s still a rainy place to be” (120). The metaphor captures the idea that there are individual experiences and then there are larger social realities, both of which are shaped by predetermined categories.
From the standpoint of being Asian, I have recognized both privilege and the lack of it. When I studied abroad, I went on a four day trek through the jungles of Chiang Mai, Thailand with 39 other Loyola students. On the last night of the trek, we stayed with the Lahu tribe. During dinner, the trek guide invited me to eat, drink, and relax in the kitchen with the other trek guides, the cook, and a few other people who live at the village. “You get VIP access,” the trek guide said, smiling. “It’s because we should look out for each other. Your people and my people, same same,” he said. I considered it to be a great privilege to have been able to have had experienced that warm, sense of belonging, with good company, drinking  and listening to Lahu songs with a fire in the middle room and a full moon above.
On the other side of the spectrum, at Loyola, I don’t quite get the “VIP access” I had when I was abroad. Like the woman’s reflection in Johnson’s essay who states, “I’ve never been oppressed as a woman,” I’m wondering if I can say, “I’ve never been oppressed as an Asian.” I’m still trying to put my finger on it. I wonder which method among Johnson’s presented diction thread of dealing-with-things I’m doing, if any (the aforementioned diction thread being “avoided,” “overcome,” “denial,” “unaware,” and “internalized”). To be honest, coming from a racially/culturally diverse high school, and having been raised in the Philippines, and living in a racially/culturally diverse neighborhood, attending a predominantly white college took me out of my comfort zone. Loyola talks about studying abroad to “get out of your comfort zone,” but for me, studying abroad nestled me back into it. I think it is the privilege of the warm sense of belonging that I feel I’m denied here perhaps because of me being Asian, or maybe there’s just something wrong with me that hinders me from experiencing that sense of belonging here. I’m still trying to figure that out, because before Loyola, I’ve always felt an ease navigating socially. *shrugs* I don’t know; I’m struggling with this. Does Johnson suggest that I present myself as white to feel a sense of belonging?