Family History in Coleman’s Poetry

I was intrigued by “Another Strange Land: Downpour off Cape Hatteras, March, 1864” and “Negro Reverend of an All White Church” and the similarities between the two of them. Both are persona poems about Coleman’s ancestors, and in the descriptions of both poems he talks about learning more about his family’s history and highlighting Black history that is often erased. In an interview with the St. Louis Public Radio, Coleman said that poems “transform stories and memories into reflections, perhaps even epiphanies,” and in these poems what he’s transforming is his own family history and stories. I really like the idea of writing family history down in a poem format, especially considering that the relatives he’s describing are linked. Coleman’s great-grandfather who he speaks as in “Negro Reverend of an All White Church” is the grandson of his great-great-great-grandfather from “Another Strange Land,” meaning that the poems help connect different eras of family history. Furthermore, his Coleman’s use of  a persona makes the poems feel a bit like primary sources, making the family history feel more personal and accessible.

“Negro Reverend of an All White Church” also reminded me of Melba in Warriors Don’t Cry because of the reverend’s determination and spirituality. He ignores the white children’s harassment and instead asks God for help, much as Melba does when dealing with the harassment she faced at school. This sense of determination is also present in “Another Strange Land.” Coleman speaks as his great-great-great-grandfather and talks about his infantry bailing out their ship so they don’t sink, saying, “I say no to death now,” and “we the 25th/ Pennsylvania Colored Infantry, too alive and close to free/ to sink below this midnight water.” I think the determination shown in both these poems is especially interesting because their determination and survival is necessary in order for Coleman to exist.

You can find the interview with the St. Louis Public radio here.

Faith, Action, and Inaction

While Boycott and Four Little Girls present religion as being very connected to the Civil rights movement, “The Sky is Gray” and Nothing But A Man both present a conflict between preachers who trust God to solve their problems and the student and Duff who both view this form of religion as unhelpful and unconnected to action. In the article we read, this debate is described as a conflict about “waiting on God to deliver black people from racial discrimination or relying on logic to create socio-political change” (4). In Nothing But A Man, this debate is between Duff and Josie’s father, a preacher who doesn’t take action and is much more willing to appease white people than Duff. He tells Duff to be more reasonable and go along with what his white employers want, which Duff disagrees with, telling him “you’ve been stupid so long, Reverend, you don’t even know how to stand straight no more. You’re just half a man.” He takes issue with the Reverend’s willingness to go along with what white people want, rather than taking action to make things better and standing up for himself and his community. At one point even Josie comments on her father’s lack of action. When Duff says that he’s seen hundreds of men who sit around and don’t have jobs, Josie adds “and my father’s never done a thing for any of them.” In this film the preacher is shown as being useless and unwilling to take action to either help his own congregation or stand up for civil rights.

Duff and Reverend Dawson at the beginning of their argument

In “The Sky Is Gray,” the preacher is presented in a similar way, with the preacher and a student arguing about religion as they wait in a dentist’s office. The student tells the preacher, “a white man told you to believe in God. And why? To keep you ignorant so he can keep his feet on your neck,” and then later argues with the women next to him, telling them “words mean nothing. Action is the only thing” (Gaines 97, 101).  Throughout the scene, he is dismissive of the idea that God can help the Black community, instead advocating for people to take action to change their circumstances. However, he does make a distinction between the preacher he argues with and religious leaders who still choose to act. When one of the women asks if he means that all the people working to change things don’t believe in God, he says, “I’m sure some of them do. Maybe most of them do. But they don’t believe that God is going to touch these white people’s hearts and change things tomorrow. Things change through action” (Gaines 102). In the scene, the student condemns those who use their faith to justify being passive, rather than taking an active role in fighting for change. This quote describes some sort of middle ground where religious or civil rights leaders can be people of both faith and action as opposed to the preachers of “The Sky Is Gray” and Nothing But A Man who rely solely on God to help them.

History and Memory in Boycott

While I found the ending of Four Little Girls emotionally compelling, I think that the ending of Boycott is more effective at helping us understand the movement as a whole. Four Little Girls ends with an uplifting message of gratitude from Alpha Robertson, and while her words provide an important guide for how to respond to tragedy and keep fighting, they don’t impact the viewer’s understanding of the movement or of history the way that Boycott does. Valarie Smith discusses the ending of Boycott in her article “Meditation on Memory,” noting that it revises the historical photograph of Dr. King and Reverend Abernathy both sitting at the front of a bus after the boycott was lifted. In the film, King refuses to board and instead the viewer is left with an image shot through the back window of the bus of King standing alone in the road. Smith says that this image references his assassination and serves as a reminder that his leadership during the boycott “launched him into the status, but also the isolation, of a remarkable public career and legendary place in history” (538).  The moment allows the viewer to reflect on King’s place in history as both as a man isolated by his work and a legendary historical figure.

Leaders of the boycott waiting for a bus following the end of the boycott in December 1956

In revising the depiction of a historical moment, the ending also serves as a reminder that history is constructed by the people who tell it. Rather than showing King on the bus as a victorious leader enjoying the results of his work, the film shifts the narrative away from this tidy ending, allowing the viewer to think more about King as a person and the Civil Rights Movement past the boycott. The way the film plays with time at the end has a similar effect. Just before the credits roll, King is shown walking down the street in the 21st century. Smith writes that this anachronism “reminds us that acts of memory are always the product of the profound and inextricable connections between the needs and demands of the present and the events of the past” (540). Placing King in the future makes the viewer think about those connections between past and present as well as how we remember King and the movement. His presence in the modern day helps the film extend past the story of the boycott and into the injustices that still exist today.

Black, White, and Read All Over

While reading Warriors Don’t Cry, one of the prompts I was interested in was the effects of other documents being included in Beals’s memoir, specifically the newspaper headlines. While I don’t know if I agree that the headlines are a character, I do think they are a vital part of the narrative. Whereas Melba describes her personal experiences and emotions, the headlines present a standard, dry summary of the current events going on throughout Melba’s account. These headlines provide some important basic facts, and they also present how people around the country would have been learning about integration in Little Rock from an outsider’s perspective. Having both the headlines and Melba’s own story presented side by side gives and in-depth look at how she and her community felt, but also what the people on the outside looking in were seeing. The headlines also help Melba sort through her own narrative. After a headline about rising tensions in Central High, she writes “reading the article made me shudder, but it also helped me know we weren’t imagining things. It was indeed getting more and more difficult to survive inside Central” (27). Throughout the memoir, the headlines are often the bearer of bad news or, as Sam describes in his blog post, a source of increasing pressure. Yet in other situations they validate what Melba knows to be true and help her frame her own story.

The headlines also help highlight the importance of journalists and the press more broadly in Melba and her family’s life. For example, Melba’s mom uses the press to draw attention to her unfair firing and when she succeeds, Grandma India says “praise the Lord, we got us some power now” (38). Melba goes on to become a journalist herself as an adult and at the end of her memoir she says, “I always remember that it was the truth told by those reporters who came to Little Rock who kept me alive” (41). The inclusion of the headlines foreshadows her own future as a journalist while acknowledging the importance of those news articles in keeping her safe and ensuring that people around the world knew what was happening. The power of journalism, whether good or bad, is woven through Melba’s personal experiences, and including primary source newspaper headlines helps weave it into the structure of the story as well.

Iona and a “Remaking of Home”

In “Exiled at Home,” one of the things that Cucinella and Curry discuss is Iona’s chosen exile, which is something I thought about in relation to question #5 about the resolution of Daughters of the Dust. Iona’s choice to leave with St. Julian Last Child is really interesting to me because throughout the film the characters generally discuss two options: staying at home on the island and maintaining the connection to the family’s ancestors, history, and culture, or leaving for the mainland in pursuit of what some characters deem a better, more modern life. While Iona doesn’t play a large role in most of the movie, her decision at the end presents a separate third option outside of what the family argues about throughout the whole film. Cucinella and Curry say that this decision “involves a remaking of home,” with Iona rejecting both other options in favor of creating a new life with St. Julian Last Child (215).

I think that the ending does provide some resolution in the sense that you get to see the characters make their final decisions on whether to stay or go, but Iona’s self-exile shakes things up and left me wondering what long term impact her choice has on her as well as her mother and the rest of the group going to the mainland. I also found it notable that while Haagar references the meaning of Iona’s name, calling out “I own her,” Iona’s choice allows her to chart her own future independent of the others. In the end, she is owned neither by her mother and her goal of making her daughters “decent somebodies” on the mainland, or by the traditions Nana is trying to uphold. She instead makes a decision outside of the options the other characters’ discuss, introducing a third possibility for how members of the family can choose to live.

Who Died and Made Him King?

Judith Weisenfeld’s chapter “’Taint What You Was, It’s What You is Today” describes the making of the film Hallelujah! and how director King Vidor shaped the film and drew connections between black religion and sexuality. I found this chapter very interesting, especially in how it laid out Vidor’s claims about the film’s authenticity. He discussed the film as if it were an ethnography and presented himself as the right person to create it because “he considered himself an authority on ‘the negro,’” and grew up in the South observing black life (20). Other details from the production, however, show how audacious this assertion is. For example, his assessment of the actors in the film as “essentially untrained, naturally emotional and religious” reveals his deep biases and lack of understanding about how the black people and the black press viewed the actors and their reputations (44). Similarly, I found Vidor’s reassurance that the film wasn’t intended to have political impacts or push for social change almost comically ridiculous because it both entirely ignores political and social movements in the community he claimed to know so much about and because his own social and political views are in the film. Furthermore, the fact that the film had a segregated premiere in it of itself is a social and political issue, whether he wanted to recognize it or not. Despite claiming authenticity, stories from behind the scenes help illuminate that Vidor’s control over the film and his choices resulted in a film that frequently depicts black people in the south from his viewpoint, rather than how said people actually viewed themselves.

One of the other things that stuck out to me was how much debate surrounded the film even at the time it came out, and how some of the controversy seems similar to debates about representation in Hollywood today. I particularly noticed the description of how the cast of Hallelujah! protested lines in the original script that included the n-word and other slurs and were eventually successful in getting it changed. This example again shows just how little King Vidor understood about the community he was supposedly authentically portraying. It also reminded me of stories I’ve read about how people of color or women in Hollywood have had to fight their directors in smaller ways to try and make their characters less stereotypical and portray them the way they feel is necessary. For example, in light of Chadwick Boseman’s death, I’ve seen this story going around online about how he had to fight Marvel to be allowed to use an African accent when filming Black Panther rather than a British or American accent.

A Capella and Speech to Song

After reading “Hallelujah!: Transformation in Film” by Jessica H. Howard, I was most interested in Howard’s discussion of how the film uses a capella singing and the transition from speech to song to crate a sense of natural transition. Howard writes that “the film’s reliance upon a capella singing…enhances the primary relationship of singer to song, and folk to folk expression, and yields the accompanying spontaneity this implies” (442).  A capella is one way that music is made to seem naturally incorporated into the film, and the “transitions throughout Halllelujah! between narrative and number are progressive and seamless…particularly regarding those numbers which come through the transformation of speech into song” (444). These numbers often occur when Zeke is discussing religion, with the music mirroring Zeke’s own transformation.

This article gave me more insight into how the film accomplished Zeke’s religious transformation and how the transformational numbers themselves work. One of the scenes that really stood out to me was the scene after his brother’s death. In that scene, Zeke goes from speaking about his grief and guilt to a mix of chanting and singing, with the natural seeming musical progression corresponding to Zeke’s own religious transformation. The a capella singing and gradual transition into singing makes Zeke’s behavior seem naturally spontaneous and his transformation itself feel more real.

This article also made we wonder how other musicals have used a capella, and I found this article about a modern musical done entirely with just a capella singing. I would be really interested to see if this musical or other musicals with just moments of a capella use it to achieve a similar effect as Hallelujah!