Upon reading the title of George David Clark’s poem, “Washing Your Feet” my mind involuntarily brought forth images of Pope Francis in thick white linens, bowing his head to kiss the soft skin on soaked feet. This motif of intimacy and purity captured in these reverent moments introduced by the title, do not halt when we enter the poem, but rather continue into the first quatrain — in which the speaker addresses us stating, “Reader, they are dirty, you’ve come so far” ( L 1). The ambiguity presented via “dirty” and “far” is explained later in this stanza, through the descriptions of the filth humanity tends to tread through, and via the reference to the sandals of Jesus, that carried him on his journey through life. However, before Clark provides us with these bouts of concrete images and biblical references, he suspends us in our own truth, asking us to consider where we have come from. Clark does this well by paralleling our sins to the smut we’ve sunk our feet in.
“The first chapter is going to be hard, that’s the point, stick with it.” The Friday lecture before we were due to begin William Faulkner’s The Sound and The Fury (TSATF), my professor warned us of the complex narration provided by Benjy Compson — a 33 year old male, with the mental capacity of a three year old. Heeding his advice, I dove into the four part novel based in post – Civil War Mississippi, and attempted an analysis of Benjy’s, (also known as Maury Compson) narration; I failed. The constant repetition of “he said” and “she said” was exhausting, and the meaning behind why “Caddy smelled like trees” was lost on me (Faulkner 28). I begrudgingly tried again.
Last week I finished Zora Neale Hurston’ s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and have been thinking about the protagonist, Janie Crawford, ever since. In one, she’s a woman with two failed marriages and mounds of hardships — the abandonment by her raped-mother, the strong hold of her grandmas desires, and the confessed murdering of her third husband Tea Cake among them; However, she is also a black woman who discovers the essence of life, by abandoning the expectations of those around her and establishing herself, what she desires. These three aspects that shape Janie — marriage, family, and desire — left me pondering on the importance of living according to one’s personal needs. When Janie marries her first husband, Logan Killicks, she does so in order to honor the sacrifices her grandmother had made as a slave. The grandmother beg’s Janie to marry, after discovering the young girl has shared a kiss with a boy named Johnny Taylor. The grandmother states, ” Put me down easy Janie. Ah’m a cracked plate” (Hurston 19). This last sentence comes after a bitter and emotional testimony explaining why Janie needs to be more than the “mule” her grandmother was for others. But once the marriage is done, and the sixty-acres Logan so often boasts about doesn’t make Janie feel anything for him, Janie cries to her grandmother, stating, “ But Nanny, Ah wants to want him sometimes. Ah don’t want him to do all the wantin” ( Hurston 22). This line by the then sixteen year old Janie, is where we as readers discover that though she means well, the grandmother’s desires for Janie are not enough to give her life, and are instead stunting Janie’s growth.
Black history month always prompts me to reflect on the history that is responsible for my position in society. I strive to understand what it is that we are still seeking as African Americans and, moreover, how one goes about discovering the self in the midst of it all. However, this year I was privy to how often African Americans are misunderstood. In American society the position of the African American individual is complex, and many are so far removed from black history, that the struggles African American’s face are often mind reeling for those on the margins of our culture. In 1968 poet and activist, Nikki Giovanni, was one writer who understood this, as is apparent in her poem “For Saundra”. Faced with the failure of the new frontier proposed by then president John F. Kennedy, coupled with the uproar over segregation ending, writers like Giovanni were faced with the task of using their voices in order to fight against the injustices in America.
Early in my studies I stumbled across, “I, Too” by Langston Hughes and have returned to the poem many times since; discovering each read some new emotion or reality that was not there before. In his novel, A History of Reading Alberto Manguel discusses these new discoveries, and attributes them to the development of our reading skills. At first glance the chapter, “Learning to Read” intrigued me, but I was unsure of what to expect.
As an avid reader I like to think the array of tools and resources I have learned to use throughout the years, have been sufficient in guiding me in my dissections of literature. Upon diving further into his insights, however, it is clear that learning to read is not the discussion, but rather the focus is on why we read the way we do. This explanation guided me in discovering the old habits of teachers whose primary responsibilities, consisted of educating publics in order to obtain, “a common social history of [shared] politics, philosophy, and faith.” (Manguel 83).