Well thank you so much for this extremely thoughtful geopolitical lesson and commentary. There is so much here to respond to, I don’t even know where to begin! But I much say you capture a Russia with far more breadth, depth and color then anything we can get from the mainstream media, or even literature — which typically can do a pretty accurate job at capturing the nuances, as well as the depth of an experience. But all the Russian literature, I’ve encountered makes Russia seem pretty bleak: Darkness at Noon, Sleepy by Anton Chekhov, Dr. Zhivago, Anna Karenina, all those stories are so sad, but also old. Contemporary Russia sounds like a totally different place! Glad to hear it.
I am aware of Russian serfdom, due to a very basic education in European history, as well as the short story “Sleepy” which I just love because Chekhov was truly a master of the short story form; and I’d put “Sleepy” at the top of my list for best short stories of all time.
It’s about a girl, obviously a serf, not treated well at all. She has to work for about 22 hours out of every 24 hour day, and one of her jobs is caring for an infant. Since her work allows her to get very little sleep, she’s always sleepy. Well…this is not sustainable, and ultimately she falls asleep, but the consequences are most severe.
I taught literature and composition at my local community college for ten years; and that was one of my favorite stories to teach. 1. Because the short story form was perfect and 2. Because living just outside of Washington D.C. Our community college attracts students from all over the world. In trying to engage an audience with so much diversity, (often English is the second language) I picked literature with basic universal themes. (Everyone knows what it is like to be sleepy.)
Which brings me to “Everyday Use.” I am familiar with the story. I’ve read it a few times, and I’ve even seen the short you attached. It is, like you say, a pretty decent rendering. I’ve never taught “Everyday Use” however and I am curious as to why you would. I’ve never taught “Everyday Use” because to me the themes are not universal enough. It’s basically about a pretty standard North/South division that exists in African-American culture. If you’re black in America, it’s a pretty familiar story…those country bamas v. those city slick negroes. It’s W.E.B. Dubois v. Booker T. or Martin Luther King, jr. v. Malcolm X. It’s about the drastically different ideas about the appropriate way to escape racial oppression in America, and there is a fair amount of resentment between the two groups about how this has been sought after and achieved and this tension exist to this day.
In “Everyday Use” Walker is clearly on the side of the country bamas, with obvious disdain for the sheer arrogance of the city slickers, who, for all of their book smarts, are deeply detached from their roots, their real connection to their African- American culture.
I think it’s a story the highlights one of the many facets of African-American intra racism and classism, but I wouldn’t choose to teach that story to Russian students because I assume their ignorance of African-American history would make much of the story meaningless, and the universal points that will cross over — family conflict for example — just aren’t powerful enough to be worthy of consideration. So I’m curious as to why you selected this particular story.
And don’t get me wrong. I love Walker. I think The Color Purple, was extraordinary; and one of my all time favorites by her is The Temple of my Familiar. But given the audience I was working with, I just don’t see “Everyday Use” or anything by Walker working.
I was able to teach Hurston though, who is similar to Walker. Hurston did a short on the marital affair…it had a universal theme everyone can relate to love and betrayal. In my selection of material to teach, I always tried to be as diverse as possible. But at the same time, one of my criteria was the story had to be universal, which is to say anyone in the world, could relate to it.
One of my more provocative selections was Rashomon, a 1950s Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa. I highly recommend it to almost everyone. The most fascinating thing about that film is how I would get such different responses to it from my students, but especially based on National origin and culture. Africans, for example, would see one thing, Asians quite another. Americans had a totally different perspective (and my perspective was included with the American one.) It is a film designed to get you to question a lot of things, about human nature, but not necessarily one’s cultural bias. However the cultural biases became clear to me, because in teaching Rashomon, I had to teach a little Japanese history and culture, so certain themes such as honor, in the context of Japanese culture, could be understood. Notwithstanding The Japanese cultural expectations, (that those who dishonor themselves should die, at their own hands), people had very extreme reactions to the film, based on cultural perspectives. (Although not Americans. We tend to see that film and go WTF just happened?) And ironically, as an American, I have a hard time seeing it any other way. To me the film is rife, with shades of gray, no clear answers to anything. I think it was designed to be that way; and yet people from other cultures find definitive answers within Rashomon.
Another great pick is Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn I Shall Redeem.” 😍 Love it!!!
In the course of teaching it to hundreds of students, never came across one who didn’t like this story! And that is quite an exceptional thing! It’s a story about a Native American who is a homeless alcoholic (and incidentally I think he is in the process of dying) on a quest to redeem his grandmother’s regalia. The story is very spiritual in nature, and that comes across no matter who you are and what culture you are coming from. But Alexie does this really complex thing where he’s actually telling two different stories. He is telling this mainstream American story, that if you’re American you believe will end tragically, but he is also telling an Indian one, that’s going to end well. But only the narrator knows this, because he’s an Indian, and he knows his culture and his ways and apparently he is doing everything he should to achieve a positive outcome. It’s a great underdog story, where the underdog wins against all possible odds. I recommend “What You Pawn” to everyone. Google it. It was published in The New Yorker. It’s an incredible read. It starts out, “one day you have a home and the next you don’t.” So many people in the world relate so deeply to that line alone.
So in my teaching, I always attempted to stick to the Universal, otherwise me and my students could get lost within a certain subcultural context that holds deeper meaning for only a few students — and I might not even understand the context or ramifications. This happened to me when I taught the film Romero. A film I used to provide a context to provide a frame of reference for the importance of human rights. Well it was a lightning rod for my El Salvadorian students who were witnessing the actual history of the destruction of their country. They had a much richer and deeper context to add to the film and so much to say about what had happened since.
As for the guy whining about not being “black enough,” I tend to agree with the commenter who said he was just trying to exchange one tired trope for another. The guy is telling a story that the typical Jack and Jiller loves to tell. If you are wondering what a Jack and Jiller is, it’s a group of extremely affluent African-Americans. They have literally been around for centuries. Jack and Jill is a club to which they belong. What they love, love, love to do is tell everyone how they are so much better than almost all African-Americans and definitely any whites less affluent than they are.
He has soft-pedaled that particular trope, but if you had ever spent anytime with the Jack and Jills (as I have), you’d say, “oh here we go again with this!”
I say all of that to say this, race and socioeconomic status are two different things — and most white Americans assume -incorrectly, that EVERY African-American has been forever confined to the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, in desperate urban poverty. This is not true and is utterly ridiculous. African-Americans mimic the socioeconomic status of white Americans, just in much smaller numbers. We are only 10% of the national population.
The Jack and Jillers get extremely frustrated when they get lumped in with other less affluent African-Americans and are forever trying to educate people as to how extraordinarily affluent, cultured, refined etc. etc. that they are. And they have a point. They don’t fit in well with the American narrative on race, which is generally that all Blacks are in economic distress. They are not.
And I would also add that in most cases, their money does inoculate them from the thorn in one’s side, that racism represents for most African-Americans, although not entirely. Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was harassed by police while entering his own home, and when things like this happen to the Jack and Jillers even they are forced to concede that racism does still exist; but that group really works hard to distance themselves from the typical African-American experience, similar to a manner that very affluent whites distance themselves from lesser affluent whites, especially the poor ones.
I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and attended a prep school with extraordinarily affluent people. It was there that I observed the behaviors of the very affluent towards those that are less so. The very affluent seem to despise the poor who are of the same race; and I guess this is because it calls into question (or in the case of blacks confirms) notions of racial superiority/inferiority. Poor blacks are the bane of the Jack and Jill’s existence, because they reinforce stereotypes of African-American economic inferiority that they desperately want to escape. But poor whites? Well they are equally despised by wealthy WASPs — and why should this be? I think it is because these whites don’t reinforce the stereotype that White equates to automatic wealth and economic superiority; and if any of us were really willing to truthfully examine the typical American narratives and stereotypes around race, class and wealth, we would have to acknowledge that the reality is drastically different than the narratives we have been fed.
And honestly, I think America is coming to a reckoning around all of this. There are plenty of poor white people in America, especially in the South, a region that never economically recovered really from the Civil War, as well as many other places. Many white Americans have been soothed and comforted by the fact that, regardless of their economic circumstances, they were still better of than most people of color. As this is no longer necessarily the case, the American racial narrative is struggling to reassert itself and/ or redefine itself. It would be interesting to observe from say, Russia, but prettying uncomfortable to live through over here. People are being forced to pick a side; and people are not necessarily picking sides based on “political correctness” or any particular moral stance other than one’s own self interest. Which is to say, over here, things are heating up quite a bit and getting ugly. And, unfortunately this is affecting the entire world.
Well you have certainly given me a lot to think about with regard to the state of contemporary Russia. It seems quite different than what I imagine it to be. I really liked what you said about mutually beneficial relationships between powerful countries…if only! I am well aware of the astonishing hypocrisy of US policy, domestically and abroad. I love considering the more unbiased observations around what is going here in America. John Hopkins , over in the U.K. has such astute observations, And I will ask him things like, “how do you think this Trump thing is going to end up?” He’s like there’s just no telling!
But I was reading an interaction between him and another, about us Americans, our narratives our policies…and John aptly surmised that we spout all this liberty and justice for all dialogue, but we don’t truly mean it or care if this is in effect beyond our own borders — and really John didn’t say this, I did, we don’t really care so much about it within- or our powerful don’t. And most Americans are so willfully ignorant about our own system of governance, how it is designed with elaborate checks and balances to prevent tyranny and corruption, they don’t quite understand what is at stake, with the way it has been compromised for many years now.
Right now Trump is testing that system to the limits, and really, it’s not him, so much, as it is the times. If it weren’t Trump, it would just be another cult of personality jumping into exploit the breakdown of our system.
But I say all of that to say this, it is completely feasible to me, that with regard to Russia, we Americans have been fed a lot of useless propaganda, and I really appreciate having this access to an entirely different perspective, one that is clearly more authentic. Thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It has been quite the eye-opener. Thank you!