My thoughts on “Once More We Saw Stars.”

I found it hard to finish this book, let alone to write something about it. Don’t get me wrong. It is a memoir that dragged my attention from the first line. “It hooked me,” as many experienced readers would say. However, there were plenty of moments I would stare at my phone, afraid that my Jacob’s nanny would call, or there would be many nights when I went to check if my son was breathing. Moments when I just held him tight in my arms, kissed him and told him “I love you.” He would whisper the same words. Almost two years ago, I was going through a grieving stage myself. My wife, Jan, had just been diagnosed with triple-negative and metastasized breast cancer and Jacob was only thirteen months old. I was a student, an immigrant, a new parent, and unemployed. I had thought that if cancer took Jan away, I wouldn’t be able to raise Jacob by myself. There were a lot of disturbing thoughts, which I choose not to mention here, but I can ensure you that there were the thoughts of a grieving man—despite my constant smiling and cheering up Jan. Many times Jacob would climb on me, smile and give me a faint baby-ish kiss, watering his lips with my tears. He is a sweet boy. As I was reading Once More We Saw Stars,  a question terrified me: “what my world would be without him? How would I be able to move forward as Jason and Stacy did? Are Jan and I this strong?”

What makes this memoir so strong and widely accepted by millions of readers is questions similar to mine. The memoir itself is a grieving biography or a way for Jason and Stacy to honor their daughter’s memory and move forward with loving and caring for Harry. Yet this memoir demonstrates the ambiguity of life as well as our ability to pick up the pieces and start over even after its most fragile moments. Jason and Stacy are looking for signs. It will be a balloon, or a dead bird, or a dream of an old man. They are the signs they are looking. The meaning behind those signs and the catharsis that comes with them show how things we consider ordinary can be ambiguous. I thought that for me a sign would be a fire truck, a dumb track, a blue shirt, and an orange bowtie. Every parent can thing of different signs and the ways that they would have reacted to the sudden passing of their child, and this is something achieved by Greene’s detailed writing. However, Jason and Stacy demonstrate an inner strength and an even stronger bond with each other that differentiate them from the rest of the lot. From the first moment, they make the decision to make Greta’s death matter by donating her organs. However, they go further than this most altruistic act. When they decide to have another baby, they decide to make their marriage and lives matter. When Jason decides to publish this book, with Stacy’s consent, they decide to make all the pain and grieving matter. By this way, they teach other parents that when tragedy strikes, make everything matter.

Finally, it is unknown if this memoir would remain in history like Julian of Norwich or Nat Turner did. If people, in other words, years from now will be reading it. However, the parents of today will read it, for we share in common the facts that we live in big cities where tragedies may happen and we—all of us new and old parents—are dread of something happening to our children.

The Five Stages of Grief for a Lost Identity: My reflection of last weeks discussion.

The Five Stages of Grief for a Lost Identity

The autoethnography of a nation is uttered by the artistic manifestation which originates from the experience of its various socioeconomic classes during a specific historical period. Each social class fosters one—or more than one—cultural group, the members of which communicate their daily endeavors through artistic expression. The way a cultural group experience an era depends on the historical events occurring during its time, the socioeconomic level of the group and the conditions of socioeconomic, gender and race equality of the country to which they belong. A recent article on Harlem Renaissance in Encyclopædia Britannica states that the movement was, “a phase of a larger New Negro movement…The social foundations of this movement included the Great Migration of African Americans from rural to urban spaces and from South to North; dramatically rising levels of literacy; the creation of national organizations dedicated to pressing African American civil rights, “uplifting” the race, and opening socioeconomic opportunities; and developing race pride” (Hutchinson). Far from a movement which strengthened the basis of the broader civil rights movement, Harlem Renaissance was an era of the U.S. history primarily illustrated by the “jazz” and “blues” colors of the African American community in New York.

The emphasis in reconceptualizing “the Negro” white stereotypes, brought a plethora of African American voices on the surface of the artistic community of that time, in every art form possible. Artistic waves such as Jazz music, Blues, and literary wonders emerged quickly, which have survived until today and are still studied by scholars of multiple disciplines. However, there were African American artists who tried to separate themselves from the movement and state different opinions than those of the “New Negro” movement. The movement’s influence on the masses was so vast, though, that these artists were eventually marginalized and gradually lost their voice—one of them was Zora Neale Hurston.

Despite her marginalization, Hurston did not lose her value as a writer. In 1975 the author Alice Walker published “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. magazine, reviving interest in Hurston’s work and helped the world discover a strong female African American voice. Reading Hurston’s work, a reader may distinguish the utterances and positions which made the Harlem renaissance community frown upon the author. This essay is focusing on Hurston’s autobiographical How It Feels to Be Colored Me, where she utters several opinions which indicate they could have been the reasons behind her marginalization. However, what makes this specific text thought-provoking is the fact that although is read like an autobiography, it displays evidence of a broader autoethnography. By narrating artistically the five stages of grief for her lost identity through her lifetime, Hurston makes the reader wonder whether her initial intention was to write about her life or to illustrate various differences among the African Americans of that era.

Hurston’s voice followed the rhythm of the jazz mood. However, reading the How, It Feels to Be Colored Me a reader might get the feeling of a “blues” humming in the background, despite the humorous comments. The text begins with the loss of her mother at her 13 years of age and the dramatic changes the event brought to her life. She narrates how she left Eatonville, Florida being “Zora of Orange County,” to become eventually “a little colored girl” in Jacksonville (Hurston). Then, she states that she is “not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes” and that she doesn’t “belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all but about it” (Hurston). This utterance demonstrates a position which creates a gap between Hurston and the general African American population of that era. In addition, later she says that “the position of my white neighbor is much more difficult. No brown specter pulls up a chair beside me when I sit down to eat. No dark ghost thrusts its leg against mine in bed,” and she transforms the gap she has created with her community into a political argument—which she loses with her later marginalization. Uttering that white Americans have a worse position toward the race issue, while the “New Negro” movement is trying to reconceptualize all the ideas about race imprinted deeply into U.S. society’s mentality, brought Hurston against the African American community—to the point the community turned its back to her. This unfortunate result would explain why although there are plenty of moments in the text where Hurston describes her life with humor, her tendency for isolation and the denial of her identity paints the theme of the text with a “blue” color, rather than “jazz.”

According to the definition of autobiography given by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, How It Feels to Be Colored Me belongs to the genre under the specter of “self-life writing” (1). However, it is not the chronologically well-ordered life moments which make the text an autobiography—it is the emotions that define each small marble and stone of a colorful mosaic. Hurston describes with each image of her life and a stage of grief which is not affected by her mother’s passing, but by the further loss of her identity as “the Zora.” Denial is demonstrated with her utterance not being as colored as the rest of her generation. The emotions are so strong that she calls the rest of African Americans the “sobbing school of Negrohood” (Hurston). The stage of anger is demonstrated with her stating, “I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife,” and that the remembrance of slavery is old news for her. Her anger is a continuous rising action with irrational statements such as “slavery is sixty years in the past,” as though sixty years it was a long time, “The position of my white neighbor is much more difficult,” and reaches its climax when she listen to Jazz music and wants to “slaughter something–give pain, give death to what, I do not know” (Hurston). Then the music stops, and with its end comes the stage of bargaining, where Hurston realizes that the white man seated next to her is “so pale with his whiteness then and I am so colored” (Hurston). The stage of depression comes right after. Hurston utters that sometimes she has no race; she is just her. She compares herself to the statues of lions in front of the Forty-Second Street Library, alone, cold, and cursed to never express their ferocity. And then, “The cosmic Zora emerges. I belong to no race nor time. I am the eternal feminine with its string of beads” (Hurston). The stage of acceptance that follows goes beyond of Hurston’s realization of her identity—it is universal. Hurston utters that race does not exist and that all people are bags which carry the same package demonstrates an inner transformation. At that moment, the cosmic Zora is not the Zora who left Eatonville years ago—she is a hero who has reached the end of her bildungsroman.

Smith and Watson define autoethnography as “a hybrid term,” which focuses on “the ethnos, or social group…rather than on the bios or individual life” (157). Reading How It Feels to Be Colored Me under an autoethnographic spectrum, we might discover a social presentation of the multiple opinions of the race issue during the Harlem Renaissance. First, Hurston describes Eatonville, a town exclusively inhabited by African Americans where white Americans are just passing by. Then, through her own experience brings forth the African Americans of Jacksonville, who feel “warranted not to rub nor run” (Hurston). By uttering phrases such as, “no great sorrow dammed up in my soul,” “I do not mind at all,” and “slavery is sixty years in the past,” the author describes that part of African American population which had decided to remain neutral in the issue of race (Hurston). She even brings forth a minority of African Americans who were still sympathizing with their oppressors by saying that her white neighbor is in a more difficult position than her. In the New World Cabaret scene, she brings forth the part of the African American community that wants to defend what is rightfully theirs by giving pain and death. She describes herself willing to go back to her roots, uttering, “My face is painted red and yellow, and my body is painted blue,” ready to defend her African heritage. Her last message and the universality it carries with it can only be described as ethnographical. Hurston puts all people, regardless of race and gender under the same roof, created by the same “Great Stuffer of Bags” (Hurston). This successful metaphor of an ethnos of bags whose contents are “a jumble of small things priceless and worthless,” finalizes the fact that the text could be more autoethnographic than autobiographic (Hurston). After all, the ethnos part of the complex word autoethnography surpasses in supporting evidence that of the bio.

Even though Hurston was marginalized, her rediscovery brought forth a voice of the Harlem Renaissance era that was not heard as much as it deserved. Either her opinion on the race issue was right or wrong, Hurston narrates five stages of grief which could refer to the loss of her identity and the discovery of a new one, or it could refer to the hero-quest (bildungsroman) of the African American community of that time. This Jazz element with Blues notes makes the text a mixture of voices uttered by one author. Is it autobiography or autoethnography? Depends on who reads it and during what time of history—it always does with any artistic sensation.


Works Cited

Hurston, Zora Neale. How it Feels to Be Colored Me. 1928. Web.

Hutchinson, George. “Harlem Renaissance.” 21 June 2019. Encyclopædia Britannica. Web. 15 September 2019.

Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010. Document.

 

How It Feels Be Colored Me – Discussion Guide

Let’s read the first three paragraphs!

Let’s watch this video!

Now let’s reread the first three paragraphs!

How important is to know the author’s actual voice when we read a biography or a memoir?

As much as an author conveys her message in her voice, the reader creates a different voice in his mind based on the overall “mood” of the text.

Questions:

  1. Can you guess Julian’s actual voice?
  2. What are the elements that give How It Feels Be Colored Me a “blues” mood and not a “jazz” one?

Reading the next passages, think:

  1. How many changes does Zora Neale Hurston’s identity go through? Does this change make her text a memoir?
  2. What is Zora’s opinion on white and black Americans? Why stating her opinion is important for the memoir?

“But changes came in the family when I was thirteen (her mother died), and I was sent to school in Jacksonville. I left Eatonville…a Zora. When I disembarked from the river-boat at Jacksonville, she was no more. It seemed that I had suffered a sea change. I was not Zora of Orange County any-more, I was now a little colored girl. I found it out in certain ways…”

But I am not tragically colored… I do not mind at all…I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world–I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.

Someone is always at my elbow, reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful, and the patient is doing well, thank you.

I do not always feel colored…I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.

When I sit in the drafty basement that is The New World Cabaret with a white person, my color comes… In the abrupt way that jazz orchestras have, this one
plunges into a number. It loses no time in circumlocutions but gets right down to business…I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop; I shake my assegai above my head, I hurl it true to the mark yeeeeooww! I am in the jungle and living in the jungle way. My face is painted red and yellow and my body is painted blue. My pulse is throbbing like a war drum. I want to slaughter something–give pain, give death to what, I do not know. 

At certain times I have no race, I am me.

I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored.

But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall. Against a wall in company with other bags, white, red and yellow. Pour out the contents, and there is discovered a jumble of small things priceless and worthless.

Final thoughts:

  1. The text has a lot of opinions and not that much “life” moments. Is it a confession or a memoir?
  2. Zora decides to finish the text with the message, “there are no races and colors, we are all people who carry the same package.” How does this message change the genre of the text and why? (re-reading the text, I got the impression that the text changes purpose after the first paragraphs; “more broadly, collaborative life writing generally has an ethnographic aspect (textbook 159)).

My Discussion

Since both texts were short in length but rich in prompts for discussion, I am posting questions I would like to discuss in class on Friday on both of them. If I don’t have the time, I will skip one or two questions. Each parenthesis contains a link either to an interesting essay or to a video I found while I was researching.

A. Nat Turner (Nat Turner’s rebellion and the aftermath):

  1. Religious Leader and his revelations:
    1. Leading question: was Turner a prophet or an intelligent leader who knew how to motivate the other slaves to revolve against the masters?
    2. “What is African Christianity? What caused the formation of this particular religion, and why? How is it relevant to Nat Turner? At first, the European enslavement of Africans was only economic. Eventually, Europeans justified their participation in the slave trade by declaring that their economic interest was also evangelical. Europeans contained a demand for African labor,
      which also included the goal of converting Africans to Christians. The result was the enslavement of African people and the merger of African religions with European Christianity, a form of Christianity that satisfied both Africans and Europeans” (The Journal of Pan African Studies 127).
    3. “The dynamics of African and European “religious knowledge and philosophy” and the “reevaluation of basic concepts and sources of knowledge of both religions” to find common ground made this religious merger satisfactory to the “religious understandings” of both parties…This common ground is the concept of “revelation.” (The Journal of Pan African Studies 127).
  2. Military leader leading against the “enemy.”
    1. Leading Question:  Many rebellions and revolutions happened during the era of 1800 to 1900. Is Nat Turner’s rebellion one of them?
    2. William Lloyd Garrison, in response to the Southampton Insurrection, stated that the “excesses of the slaves . . . Deserve no more censure than the Greeks in destroying the Turks, or the Poles in exterminating the Russians, or our fathers in slaughtering the British. Dreadful, indeed, is the standard erected by worldly patriotism!” (82).  Therefore, it is only a black slave’s audacious application of the principle of resistance in the United States that elicits the charge of illegitimate enthusiasm” (Nat Turner and the Work of Enthusiasm, 1349).
  3. Memoir or Confession?
    1. Leading question: Having read the Smith and Watson’s textbook and with an idea in mind of what is a memoir or autobiography, would you say that the Confessions of Nat Turner can be categorized in any of these genres?
    2. Why Nat Turner’s confession is essential for African American literature?
    3. “In the afterward to the 1992 edition of The Confessions of Nat Turner, Styron defends the work as a novel and distinguishes between “the roles of the historian and the novelist” (445). He says nothing about the influence of autobiographical writing, nor does he allude to any interest in the memoir” (A Mighty Clamor to Know”: Rhetorical Power and Memoir Fiction in Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner 49).

B. Zora Neale Hurston (quick bio):

  1. I suggest you watch at least the first ten minutes of this video and re-read the story. It will change the way you read it initially!
  2. Identity: what do we know about Zora’s identity development?
  3. What do we know about her opinion on race?
  4. What were your thoughts on her quick biographical story to be the colored me?

9/6 Free writing

The only lie I would accept by an autobiographer is the one with which s/he protects another person’s privacy. The moment we [writers] decide to write our autobiography, we are committing toward the reader that we will be HONEST. Now,  we can forget. God forbid we are allowed to forget. No one can recall every single moment of his or her life. However, we are not allowed and we ought not to choose what to forget. In Revelations, Julian of Norwich is honest, by her own point of view. She has an experience that no one else has, and she narrates it with zeal. I could not feel betrayed because through her captivating writing she creates this feeling of the divine presence which warns me to doubt it not. In some way, I [reader] feel that I would not be a good believer if I thought for a moment that she lied.