Thursday, February 15, 2007

Hawthorne does it big...

Hawthorne has some issues with Puritanism, to put it mildly. The self-rightceousness, the meanness, and the penchant for fanaticism are all anathema to Hawthorne on a deep level. "Young Goodman Brown" takes this theme, Hawthorne's distrust of the Puritan church, and plays with it. It's a very, very scary story. I found this much scarier than the readings we were assigned on Poe because of the uncertainty. Is the entire thing a dream? Is Goodman Brown the lone Christian in all of Salem? The illusion forces one to confront their own prejudices about Puritans. If you think Puritans are self-rightceous fascists, then you would probably sympathize with Goodman Brown. If you stand on the other side, then Goodman Brown is simply a crazy old dude with too active an imagination. But, what makes this story all the more intense is that Hawthorne can play with his reader regardless of their sympathies or faith.

Goodman Brown plays the role of the dupe/cuckold, regardless of your sympathies or thoughts about Puritanicalism. Hawthorne makes it such that if you are a hardcore Puritan, then it becomes very hard to dismiss the thought that Goodman simply suffered from a bad dream. Salem was an area known for its legacy of witchcraft and it is well known in Puritanical thought that the devil actively corrupts the soul. On the other hand, if you are not Puritan or devout, you can mock Goodman's delusions as the result of a person forced to consume terriffying religous poppycock and believing in it so absolutely that it causes one to fall into insanity. Either way, the reader loses, and Hawthorne wins.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

The Troubling Ambiguity of Identity in Wheatley

Is Phillis Wheatley a sell out? When one reads her poems it is very easy to come to the conclusion that she enjoys or at least celebrates her being captured and being saved. But is this the whole story? I believe that Phillis Wheatley may be one of the first documented cases, if we assume that her works reflected her actual viewpoints in even some minor ways, of a truly brainwashed/self-hating African-American. One of the first documented cases of American slavery's ability to steal, not only the body of the African, but her heart, mind, and identity also.

In "On Being Brought from Africa to America", Wheatley praises her captors for releasing her from a "pagan" land and bringing her into "salvation". And yet, in the same line she criticizes those Americans that hate blacks and she tries to remind them of blacks' own humanity, but only through the lens of Christianity. She says,"Remember Christians, Negroes black as Cain/ May be refined, and join the angelic train". Here Wheatley is trying to reconcile one of the inherent contradictions and weaknesses of the justifications for American slavery and, by extension, American racism. If a reason for slavery is the christianizing of Africans, then why are they not seen as human or "saved" after they convert and have proven their faith? This poem is Wheatley begging America to accept and love her as one of its own.

There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be accepted in one's adopted society, even a slave can have and probably should have that desire. What is disturbing in Wheatley's works is the denial of the value in her African-ness. She believes in the American lie of African inferiority, but she desires to be accepted by America and to be seen as a human. But, in order to be read by the publi she must publicly declare her inferior status. It is a catch-22 of epic and dangerous proportions. Wheatley, in her desire to recognized and accepted must deny the self. She must cast off her blackness, her supposed savagery, her paganism, and she must pick up the affectations of her white overseers and owners. But, in the end, she is still black.

This sentiment becomes even more telling when she decides not to mention race. For example, in "To S.M., A Young African Painter, On seeing His Works", Wheatley mentions nothing of race or the shared African heritage that the two artists share. The total lack of a mention of race is very jarring, especially since she has little reservations in talking of Africa in other works, usually under a negative context. Now, does it not seem a bit weird that Wheatley would explicitly not mention race in a poem dedicated to another talented artist of African descent in America? Why does she deny or outright ignore not only their shared race but also their shared condition? It is this omission which is most startling and saddening to me.

Wheatley is so brainwashed that she cannot or will not recognize the shared condition of a fellow African artist. Combine this with her negative portrayals of Africa, her desire to be accepted in a society that excludes her because of a trait she cannot change, and her inability to truly speak up for justice for other black Americans, and one can only conclude that Wheatley suffered from immense self-hatred and confusion. In this sense, she becomes an even more tragic figure than the one that is already portrayed by the general community.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

The Original Hustler

There have been those who have claimed that Benjamin Frankling can be called the Founding Father. The one individual who embodied the classical ideals that make America. But I would disagree. Benjamin Franklin to me is not the the Founding Father, he may be the original American. By this, I mean that Benjamin Franklin is the perfect embodiment of the Protestant work ethic and the slimy "get ahead" attitude that infuses American life. In other words, Benjamin Franklin can be accurately characterized as the original hustler.

What characteristics would you say enable Franklin to hold this title?

The first, and most important feature, is that Franklin did not grow up in a privileged household. Franklin understood from a young age that he would have to make a name for himself. He could not depend on his family to care for him always, so he knew he'd have to get a trade and make a go at it. At the same time, though, Franklin cannot be limited by working for another person; and this is the second aspect of being a hustler. The desire to be independent is the principal driving force behind the hustler.

The drive for independence is what differentiates the hustler from the employee. Whether you look at a simple corner drug boy compared to his lieutenants and mid-level dealers, or a cubicle dweller comapred to upper management, the dichotomy exists. The hustler seeks autonomy and influence. If he can do his own thing, he will. And it is this drive that truly makes the hustler unique, and is one of the principal driving forces of Benjamin Franklin. His desire to be free of his father's and brother's influence, his ability to lead those around him, and his almost boundless intelligence all lead him to the life of the hustler. And hustle he does.

Franklin takes his skills and parlays them into real influence. From publishing Poor Richard's Almanac to acting in service of the colonial government in Europe, Benjamin Franklin finds a way to separate himself from those around him and to gain influence where one should not have it. In essence, he hustles. In this sense, Franklin is the original, and maybe the best, American hustler.