Saturday, March 15, 2014

William Blake
If I told you William Blake was my nemesis; I spent some restless hours when I should have been sleeping wondering how I would tackle him in class; I listened to hours of podcasts from Blake experts to try to get a handle on his thoughts and beliefs; I struggled for months to understand him for myself -- it would not be hyperbole.  William Blake is one of the hardest writers I have taught.  Was it worth it?  I think so, but you'd have to ask my students to get a better answer.

What makes him so difficult?  His poems are deceptively simple upon first glance.

Who made the lamb?  God made the lamb, and Jesus is the lamb and the lamb is Jesus.  The poem reads like a catechism. But what is important to understand about Blake's poetry, is who the narrator of the poem is.  In this case, the narrator is a child.  The child asks and answers the questions, putting the child in a position of knowledge and power, and removing the adult from the equation altogether.

Blake was a theist; he believed in God and identified himself as a Christian, holding the bible to be the best literature written, but was not a Christian in any traditional or orthodox sense.  He believed humans all manifest God and the kingdom of heaven is within all.  Blake believed in good and evil, but again, not in any traditional sense.  For Blake, the way in which we grasp reality can be evil, evil is in the mind. and we are all responsible for the evil in the world.  This is the just the fringes of his beliefs.  Blake was a mystic, and had visions of angels and God beginning at a very young age. His theology is so uniquely "Blake-ian", I imagine it would take a scholar years of study to fully understand and be able to explain it.

Now do you see what I mean?  Though I found teaching this class very challenging, it was rewarding.  When we finally got down to discussing the poems -- we discussed "The Chimney Sweeper"in both Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience -- the students had wonderful observations and enjoyed dissecting the poems.

If you dare (!) click on the link below and listen to a podcast from a lecture by U.C. Davis Professor Timothy Morton.  You will need to download iTunes University to listen.   My students listened to it on their own, and then we listened to it together, with a power point presentation I created to help them follow it and explain terms.  Please let me know what you think.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

  As the class read and discussed Equiano, we saw the perspective of a male slave.  This past week we read Incidents int he Life of a Slave Girl. Harriet Jacobs, whose real name is Linda Brent, wrote her story after some serious persuasion exerted by abolitionist friends.  You see, Linda was embarrassed by parts of her story, and did not want to expose herself to ridicule or judgment.

Linda was born a slave, but didn't realize she was a slave until her mother died, when Linda was 6 years old.  She was sold to the daughter of her mistress's sister, and from the age of 12 was sexually harassed and tormented by her master, called Dr. Flint in the book.  He never raped her, but his constant harassment, including whispering lewd things in her ear, and writing foul notes, left her in a state of constant fear.

Her solution -- a white man in the town showed compassion and concern for Linda, and they began a consensual relationship.  Over the next few years a daughter and a son were born.  Of course, her master was furious.  Eventually Linda escaped, and ended up living in a small attic space above a shed in her grandmother's house - her grandmother was free.  Linda lived for 7 years in a space 7 feet by 9 feet, and only 3 feet high.  Assailed by heat in the summer and cold in the winter, and bugs and rodents all year long, Linda suffered many illnesses. She found comfort in seeing her children through a small peephole she had carved into the wall -- they lived with her grandmother.  After 7 years Linda escapes north, and is reunited with her daughter, while her son goes to sea.

The class found the story easier to read than Equiano's narrative; it was written about 50 years later.  After a good discussion about the memoir, the class enacted a trial.  We set up the room in a mock trial format

Dr. Flint was on trial for sexual harassment.  The defense attorney performed admirably, and the jury concluded that he was innocent (though we all know he was guilty).  It occurred to me how realistic the trial was, as many times those who are guilty are found not guilty, and sometimes the innocent are found guilty.  All my students were great - from the jury, to the judge, to the attorneys, to the witnesses, defendant and plaintiff.

Every week we learn from the writers and their texts, from each other, and we learn a bit about ourselves.
Stay tuned for next week's class . . .

To learn more about Linda Brent's story, view this PBS clip - in class we watched from 1:52 - 2:13 (time in video).  Enjoy!