Identity and society

I want to do something different this quarter, a unit on identity and society. Students will choose one book to read from a short list of books, interview a United States resident born outside of the United States, and write (among other things) a profile of that person.

Which books, though. The college just approved my syllabus using Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake. My thought was that students would choose between (and as a class compare) the experience of a member of a minority citizen and that of an emigrant.

But as I’m reading Invisible Man for the third time, I’m struck by how some of my high school seniors (it’s a dual-enrollment course) or their parents might be offended by it. If it were purely a college course, I wouldn’t think twice. My plan all along was to give them fair verbal and written warnings. ┬áIt’s funny: more and more these days I feel like a troublemaker when I put certain works from the accepted American canon in a course.

To replace Invisible Man or to supplement the two choices, what about Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son? Anne Michaels’s Fugitive Pieces? Truman Capote’s The Grass Harp? I’m even considering Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, which also deals with the individual and society, mostly from a political standpoint.

Prove your humanity

Every time we log onto our blogs, we WordPress bloggers (the .org ones, anyway) are required to prove our humanity. The solution of a simple addition problem constitutes acceptable proof. It seems a low standard of proof. I admit that humans are the only animals that can add using numerals, but I always wonder, logging on, why I’m asked to do something the bots wishing to take over my blog can surely do.

I must be missing something about bots, but bigger questions remain: doesn’t being human mean more than mastering simple addition? Shouldn’t I have to do more, or shouldn’t I have to be more, to prove my humanity?

These are two different questions, and I won’t address the first one. The second question, I discovered this morning, is at the heart of the Baldwin gospel. I was rereading the first essay in Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, which distinguishes works that Baldwin has grouped into “the American protest novel” genre from more well-rounded novels. The former genre includes Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Despite their different epochs and tones, the two works, Baldwin believes, are two sides of the same flat coin because “they are locked together in a deadly, timeless battle; the one uttering merciless exhortations, the other shouting curses.” Protagonists in these two novels use entirely different strategies, but they fight for the same end — their humanity.

Wright supports his protagonist Bigger Thomas’s tragic quest to prove his humanity, but to Baldwin this exercise is what makes Wright’s and Stowe’s characters two-dimensional and their novels theologically (and therefore politically) flawed:

For Bigger’s tragedy is not that he is cold or black or hungry, not even that he is American, black; but that he has accepted a theology that denies him life, than he admits the possibility of his being sub-human and feels constrained, therefore, to battle for his humanity according to those brutal criteria bequeathed him at his birth. But our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it.

In “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” employing the guise of literary criticism to explore human identity and its conflicts with society (see Baldwin’s The Devil Finds Work for an entire book pulling off the same trick with film criticism), Baldwin previews his gospel. He would later retreat from its purest form after the social and political disappointments of the 1960s and 70s. But he never ceased to recoil quickly from society’s trap of proving one’s humanity to oneself.