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The Boogieman of African American Literature

 

What is a boogieman, but an age-old tale, told around a campfire, so common to children and adults alike, designed to give people a fright. African American writers tell stories about the several incantations of a boogieman and its omniscient presence in their lives. In African American literature, a boogieman can be dated as far back as the first writings of slaves. The boogieman in Margaret Walker’s Miss Molly Means, published in the 1930’s, is told through poetry as a “hag and a witch,” who’s “hair hung thick in ropes.” (Young, 1996) In Amiri Baraka’s Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, published in 1959, the boogieman is told through poetry as well and is a tale told to fear death coming too soon. The ever omniscient and looming presence of death that will someday cause the “ground to opens up and envelops me.” (Young, 1996). Followed by Al Young’s Somebody Done Hoodoo’d the Hoodoo Man, written in 1967, this is a short story about a boy who’s older family members told him stories to put fear into him, describing the boogieman as, “magic, but it’s the Devil’s magic,” and people going around putting the “hoodoo’d” into people. (Young, 1996) Regardless of style or decade, the boogieman is a literary device commonly used to convey the fear that was commonly felt by African Americans. Walker, Baraka, and Young take a look at the character of the boogieman, but do so springing socio-political events that are occurring in society at the time, into the poems and short stories they were writing.

In the 1930’s Margaret Walker wrote Miss Molly Means, about a witch who conjured up a spell on a young bride who moved into a house near the witch. When her husband came home to find her like that he and the neighbors knew it had to be Molly Means. Swearing to find a way to break the charm put on his wife, who now was on all fours and barking like a dog, he rode off into the night swearing Molly Means would die from what she did to his wife. The boogieman of this story Molly Means lived on through time to “bring terror to the young and the old.” (Young, 1996) Prior to Walker writing this story it was common for slaves to tell stories of a witch or boogieman that would wield magic to protect them from their abusive masters. “Quite often that same power could be used against other slaves,” such as Molly Means, even though she was not a slave, but a fellow African American. (Maryemma, 2001) By the time Miss Molly Means was written, slavery had been legally ended, but the traditions and stories were not so far removed in their histories. The 1930’s were a time in history that kept them segregated and limited access to all of America. Citizenship was not equal and by proxy still thrived a boogieman. Believing in Molly Means was an innocent and naïve act, but one that existed within the African American community at that time.

By 1959 politically, most African Americans were engaged in the Civil Rights Movement and struggling to be recognized as full American citizens. Despite slavery being abolished, some areas of the country still did not welcome African Americans into their communities. The laws had changed, but for those still clinging to an antebellum way of life, slavery should still be the law of the land, despite the date on the calendar. When Amiri Baraka wrote Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note he became part of the movement to continue the struggles of the African American community to be equal in all arenas, socially, politically, and economically. Baraka can be “counted among the few influential political activists who have spent most of their life time fighting for the rights of African-Americans.” (Amiri, 2011) In his poem, Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, Baraka writes of a boogieman that lingers on the consciousness of the African American community. The daily threat that any day could be their last day, despite many years removed from slavery the African American community lives in fear of being killed by the overseer. However, instead of this boogieman being a slave owner or a voodoo witch Baraka talks about his daughter praying before bedtime to God. God is omniscient and is taken on faith as being there, making him Baraka’s boogieman. Everyone lives their life knowing there is a date in which they will cease to exist and if they have faith in God, they will go to heaven to meet him/her. Baraka writes this poem to his daughter Kelli Jones, letting her know that by his estimation the boogieman will come and open up the ground and swallow him as his time will be over on earth, which he anticipates to be in about twenty years. By Baraka giving his daughter proper notice of his impending death, he is letting her know that he is in control and not the boogieman. This is a transitional concept in African American Literature from the previous decades. He is choosing not to live in fear. Baraka declares a death by suicide because he will chose when he leaves this earth and not live in fear of the boogieman that his daughter prays to at her bedside. Instead, Baraka is conscious of his own mortality and not trying to ignore it like the slaves who sang in the fields just trying to ignore the looming death that waited at the drop of a hat. Baraka told the boogieman who was in charge.

In 1967, Al Young writes Somebody Done Hoodoo’d the Hoodoo Man about his happy childhood, full of storytelling, happy memories, and imagination. Young’s story did not begin with a character that lived in fear of a dreaded boogieman, but he sets out on a mission to “learn, by ear and by heart, the nature of the world that lay beyond my childhood walls and fields.” (Young, 1996) Young tells a story about a homeless man who visits his childhood home and as a result, he learns about Hoodoo from his mama, introducing the boogieman into the story. Young learns about a boogieman that lives in his life without him ever realizing it had taken up residence in his home. Hoodoo was told to him as being the ying to the yang of God. Hoodoo was the dark underbelly on the flipside of the coin of God’s light. Hoodoo was used to write off anything unexplainable. If something happened and it seemed to make the hairs stand up on the back of ones neck then it was certainly Hoodoo. Young’s character grew further in the story and learns to acknowledge a contemporary boogieman that had evolved into the unseen presence of power by man. “Even now in the Nuclear Era when we’re constantly only a micro-chip blip away from graceless extinction,” Young learns that it is the power of poetry and words, knowledge in between the lines of poetry that keeps the boogieman at bay. By the time Young writes Somebody Done Hoodoo’d the Hoodoo Man, in 1967 the African American community had evolved far enough away from the slave stories that the boogieman is to be confronted instead of run from.

Confronting the boogieman brings closure to its open license to haunt those who hear its tale. Tracing the steps from early African American literature of slave stories, to Miss Molly Means, to Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, to Somebody Done Hoodoo’d the Hoodoo Man readers can learn not to fear the boogieman. As time ticks on access and means gave way to a broader worldview of African Americans, resulting in putting the boogiemen into its proper place. Told around a campfire, in schoolyards, or at late night children’s sleepovers, a boogieman has its place in storytelling, but as any adult knows it is with life experience the veils are lifted and fantasy drips away. Similar to Orson Welles radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938, innocence and naivety create facts out of fiction. The boogiemen of African American Literature are fiction to us in contemporary society but were wholeheartedly facts to those innocent enough to think it so.

 

References

Amiri Baraka . (2011). Retrieved from http://www.amiribaraka.com/

Back When. (2005). ““SOMEBODY DONE HOODOO’D THE HOODOO MAN,” Al          Young, April 6, 1995” Retrieved from             http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2005/apr/07/back-when/

Maryemma, G. (2001). Fields Watered With Blood. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia          Press.

Walker, M. (1975). The Poetry of Margaret Walker: Read by Margaret Walker. Retrieved from             http://media.smithsonianfolkways.org/liner_notes/folkways/FW09795.pdf

Welles, O. (2010, October 16). Orson Welles – War Of The Worlds – Radio Broadcast 1938 –        Complete Broadcast. [Video file]. Retrieved from YouTube website:       https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xs0K4ApWl4g

Young, A. (1996). African American Literature: A Brief Introduction and Anthology.          Berkeley, California: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc.

 

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Antebellum, Civil War, Post Bellum Ethos, Pathos, and Logos of American Literature

 

             The role of plays, essays, and fiction in literature during an antebellum America served to provide proof, trust, invoke emotion, and add value to the experiences and lives of those authoring the pieces. Writers such as Fanny Fern, Black Hawk, Harriet Jacobs, and Emily Dickinson wrote through antebellum America, the Civil War, and post bellum eras documenting, defining, highlighting, and changing view points to readers looking to understand and heal through a tumultuous time in American history. Can you relate? I know I can. As we look at the news and wonder how we got to where we are, we must remember everything started somewhere. Knowing who spoke up before us means having a rock to lean against when the seas get rough and push us against the rocks. Here are just a few of those people who shared their stories and spoke up when as a woman or a Native was considered taboo and unholy. Which sadly, is not so different today.

 

Fanny Fern (Sarah Willis Parton) fannyfern-300x300

Under the pseudonym “Franny Fern,” Sarah Willis Parton wrote about and addressed the issues that faced “women writers who were also wives and mothers.” (Baym, 2012) Parton applied “Franklinesque and Emersonian notions of industry and self-reliance to women’s lives,” when she wrote as a novelist and a newspaper columnist. (Baym, 2012) Issues such as marriage, divorce, politics, prison reform, inequality, poverty, gender, and “woman’s suffrage” were yet to be accepted as topics to be written about, much less by a woman. (Baym, 2012) Eventually mastering the “ironic vignette,” Parton addressed issues that were considered taboo, forcing them into the spotlight in order to change their social status.

Parton challenged her brother and all other patriarchal ideologies that boxed in the idea of what it meant to be a woman in antebellum America. Instead of waiting for permission or listening to the rhetoric, Parton used her pseudonym to gain access to the male-dominated field of journalism and publishing to showcase her talents. Parton provided proof, invoke emotion, and add value to her experiences gaining the trust of her readers in a way that had not been done before. Franny Fern was born.

 

blackhawk2-169x263Black Hawk

            Black Hawk “dictated his autobiography to Antoine LeClaire, a government interpreter living at Fort Armstrong. The Life of Black Hawk was published in 1833.” (Black Hawk, n.d.) In 1828 life around Black Hawk changed when “white settlers began to move into Saukenuk and its vicinity.” (Black Hawk, n.d.) Black Hawk saw himself aligning with the British time and time again during the battles that overtook the Native American’s.

Unhappy with the land and tribe losses, Black Hawk wanted to retake his lost lands and in 1832 ignored all laws put into place for assigned reservations for his people and sparked the war in his own name. Black Hawk was considered an outcast to his own people he was also considered an admirable character by the European Americans changing how they saw Native Americans. During one of the battles of the war in his name, Black Hawk was taken prisoner and moved east. The Civil War time in America brought unlikely strangers together, such as Black Hawk with “President Jackson,” which lead to his return to his people to be a productive citizen. (Baym, 2012) Black Hawk had a way of working with the Europeans throughout his life and a rapport was already established with how he would conduct himself with the founding fathers of the new America. Black Hawk established an ethos with the Europeans that was not precedent prior to this. When Black Hawk decided to write about his experiences and have his experiences documented and shared, his addition to American Literature was a game changer. Native American stories had previously been documented, but not of this caliber. Black Hawk took storytelling and autobiography techniques and told his story, which included many sides of the coin in his experiences. Black Hawk created a dialogue that had been missing from American Literature until he added himself into the literary cannon, quite possibly without even realizing it at the time.

 

Harriet Jacobsrt_main_jacobs

Since Jacobs was tasked with trying to bring light to a dark areas of taboo subjects, such as rape, she had to tread carefully to construct her literary voice. When Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in 1853, it was under a pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861. Jacobs needed to bring her narrative to the attention of anti-slavery white women. Something the founding fathers nor the slave narratives previously did. Inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Jacobs wrote her narrative story to change the social acceptance of men that were forcing themselves upon women. Something beyond what Stowe had addressed with her novel.

Jacobs encountered several advantages throughout her journey that led up to her publication. “Born into slavery, Jacobs still was taught to read at an early age,” then worked in New York in an “antislavery reading room above Frederick Douglass’s newspaper, the North Star.” (Harriet, 2015) Once she refused upon becoming an orphan to become a concubine, Jacobs battle to become who we know her to be today was an all out war on her simply because of her heritage. Jacobs did not write her stories to change the patriarchal system by attacking the men who were attacking the women, but instead appealed to the white women who had elevated privilege above her own skin color and who possibly could relate from a maternal source within that ultimately would change the patriarchal system.

Harried Jacobs was “the first African-American woman known to have authored a slave narrative in the United States. “ (Baym, 2012) Even though her writings were viewed as fiction until verified as autobiographical many decades after her death, Jacobs wasn’t discouraged or deterred from writing her narrative. Even the Civil War did not stall her books excitement, but it did push it off to the side temporarily as the country saw the war as a more pressing issue over woman’s rights. Jacobs relationship with Amy Post, who was Quaker was a lifelong friendship that began her journey as a writer and ultimately was there for her throughout the war and up until her death, where she “worked with the Quakers in an effort to help freed slaves,” by helping organize and establish access to schools, homes, health care, and assistance of all necessity. Jacobs was more than just her years as a slave and as an American Abolitionist, she was an icon of the antebellum, Civil War, and post bellum America that is referenced till today in academia and social activists circles.

 

emily-dickinson-quotes2Emily Dickinson

            Emily Dickinson’s parents were Calvinists, “a faith centered on the belief that humans are born totally depraved and can be saved only if they undergo a life-altering conversion in which they accept the vicarious sacrifice of Jesus Christ.” (Emily Dickinson, 2015) Dickinson’s father help found Amherst College in Amherst, Massachusetts as an alternative to Harvard and Yale, which were liberal in comparison to Calvinist philosophies. The founding fathers wrote from a point of view of prosperity, liberty, and possibility. Dickinson wrote from a place of death and aftermath. So while the American Renaissance was in love with the world and all its beauty, Dickinson was peeling back the layers of society to show the ugly side of all that utopian idealism.

During a time when reading and writing was around the school of thought that it was enriching one’s life or documenting it, Dickinson took a different approach. Studying independently she read the “Bible and classic English authors, such as Shakespeare and Milton.” (Baym, 2012) These influences affected the style of poetry Dickinson was writing alone in her room. Sometimes autobiographical, but mostly taking on first person point of views but from different perspectives from her own, her poetry had an elevated skill that was not established or used by others of her time period.

Dickinson used death as a theme for most of her poetry, but not all of it. She wrote about what she saw day in and day out from her bedroom and within her own house, where she lived with her parents. Dickinson had a keen observation about the world around her. Playing with themes of immortality, death, life, love, everyday business, Dickinson wrote her poems with a lyrical style to them, as if she was musically trained to do so. Dickinson’s poetry was able to weave the ethos, pathos, and logos in and out of each poem leaving a mark on the reader. While Transcendentalists were writing about self-reliance, Dickinson was completely dependent on her parents to finance her recluse lifestyle.

Conclusion

Franny Fern, Black Hawk, Harriet Jacobs, and Emily Dickinson used their writing in the antebellum, Civil War, and post bellum America era’s to form arguments based upon reason, trust, credibility, emotions, and values. Placing themselves at the helm of change from what had previously been established by the founding fathers, Native narratives and slave narratives. Stemming from a place of establishing what would become America and then romanticizing its potential, these writers saw a different perspective and enabled their readers to see it too. Like any good speechwriter, these writers saw a vision and conveyed it through storytelling to sell their vision. Antebellum America did not see what these writers were and as visionaries they showed everyone the reality of possibilities, leaving the romantic ideals and utopian societies to other writers. For without the realists of literature readers could never be grounded.

 

 

References

 

Baym, Nina. Levine, Robert S. (2012) The Norton Anthology of American Literature.                                 W.W. Norton & Company. New York, NY.

Black Hawk State Historic Site. (n.d.). Retrieved from                                                                                      http://www.blackhawkpark.org/History/Black_Hawk.html

Dowling, D. (2008). Capital sentiment: Fanny fern’s transformation of the gentleman                          publisher’s code. American Transcendental Quarterly, 22(1), 347-364,381.                                         Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/222375293?                        accountid=458

Emily Dickinson. (2015). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from                                             http://academic.eb.com.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/EBchecked/topic/162174/Emily -Dickinson

Harriet A. Jacobs. (2015). In Encyclopaedia Britannica. Retrieved from     http://academic.eb.com.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/EBchecked/topic/299067/Harri  et-A-Jacobs

Mielke, L. L. (2002). “native to the question”: William Apess, Black Hawk, and the                                  Sentimental Context of Early Native American Autobiography. American Indian                               Quarterly, 26(2), 246.