Self-discovery

Let’s Discuss — Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin

But he dropped his eyes, suspecting a flaw in his argument. ‘I just don’t want him beating on me all the time,’ he said at last. ‘I ain’t no dog.’ She sighed, and turned slightly away, looking out of the window. ‘Your Daddy beats you,’ she said, ‘because he loves you.’ (21)

One cannot read this book and overlook the concept of the father. In this story, paternal influence, more specifically, fatherly love is crucial to the process of self-discovery. The absence of that particular kind of love damages every single character. Yes, the father; protection, guidance, love. And when said influence is scarce or non-existent, it is sometimes replaced with a different source; a different paternal institution, a different Father. The Lord.

But this paternal connection does not work for everyone. It’s a source of conflict for the fatherless and loveless. Central character John is the best example. John cannot love the Lord because his father loves the Lord, yet the father does not love his son, John. It doesn’t make sense to John. Because of his confusion he refuses to be part of anything his father is devoted to…What’s the reason? Why can’t a father love his son?

Sin.

John’s father, Gabriel, cannot accept what John represents. John is the embodiment of Gabriel’s sin. A younger Gabriel, impregnated a young woman, and out of fear and shame sent her away. She died young, as did her son—his son. To make up for his sin and to seek redemption, he decides to raise John as his own. You see, Gabriel believes he has been forgiven, that God knows his life, but Gabriel cannot forget. His hate of his former sins, emerges as hate for his sons.

And he felt his father behind him. And he felt the March wind rise, striking through his damp clothes, against his salty body. He turned to face his father—he found himself smiling, but his father did not smile (291)

When John finally accepts the Lord, he accepts his father. He accepts their dynamic, his fate and ultimately himself. And this is very interesting because it is exactly what his father did–accepted the Lord, but somehow continued to live in denial.

Let’s Discuss — A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula LeGuin

…a man: who, knowing his whole true self, cannot be used or possessed by any power other than himself, and whose life therefore is lived for life’s sake and never in the service of ruin, or pain, or hatred, or the dark (195)

A Wizard of Earthsea is a fantasy bildungsroman* and origin story of Sparrowhawk (also known as Ged) the greatest voyager of Roke. Readers follow Ged from his humble beginnings as a nobody to his first adventure as wizard.

Ged, is very interesting character; he’s the last born and a natural loner. Left to his own devices in a small village, he finds creative ways to cultivate his mind. His magical roots begin with learning charms from his witch-aunt: calling goats, healing spells, patching leaky roofs etc.  However, simple charms aren’t enough for Ged, future dragonlord and Archmage. Eventually he takes up an apprenticeship with a Master Wizard, but impatience and immaturity rule over him. The Master Wizard sends Ged to the Roke School of Wizards, famous throughout all of Earthsea.

Ged begins his adventure talented but immature and flawed. Along the way, he learns the importance of balance, not letting one side overwhelm the other.  He develops the courage and wisdom to finish what he started. Major conflict starts when ego leads Ged to summon a power he doesn’t understand and cannot control. He creates a gateway for a shadow to enter the world. But this is not just any shadow–it’s everything dark. On his journey to understand the shadow and his connection with it, he matures greatly. What begins as a source of self-inflicted damage and destruction of Ged becomes a passage to wholeness and adulthood.

There were many elements and little details in this book that intrigued me. I like the idea of limits; knowing them and testing them–be it the power of a spell, or sailing the seas to the edge of the world. This is relevant because Ged is a wizard, but he is also human with weaknesses. I also like the dark invitations: the elder dragon on the isle and the stone that was before all things. Both had knowledge of the shadow (knowledge that Ged needed) but their power was sinister and untrustworthy. I also like the importance of names. Knowing someone or somethings true** name grants one the ability to speak to, connect with, and in certain instances control them. I’m looking forward to the next book in this Earthsea series by the always impressive, Le Guin.

* I don’t know why I didn’t just say Coming-of-Age…

**Ged is Sparrowhawk’s true name.

 

Let’s Discuss — Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nuthin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his women folks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so far as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd! (14)

This book is about the ‘love life’* of Janie Crawford…her three marriages and her development of self. But now that I’ve finished reading about this brief segment of her life, I still ask–who is Janie Crawford? The reader never gets a sense of her intellectual or emotional capacity, only physical. She’s a beautiful, light-skinned woman, with a long braid of hair which fascinates many men. But other than that I’m not sure. Her marriage and relationship with three different men says more on a societal level of analysis than a personal one.

In her first marriage, Janie is subservient to a husband who sees her as another beast of burden, a vessel, a workhorse. She marries for protection, not love.  In her second marriage to Joe Starks, she’s subservient but instead of being an instrument, she’s a trophy. She marries Joe Starks to escape her first marriage…I have to say I hated Joe Starks. I hate his character and what he stands for. I actually wished ill upon a fictional character.** The thing is, he’s actually the best written character in the book. He is so disgusting in his thirst for envy and status among others in the black community.

Her marriage to Tea cake was the most normal of all three marriages. It had the most ‘love’ and more egalitarian qualities. The whole, ‘through sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part, blah, blah, blah’ applied to them…sort of…especially when Tea cake contracts rabies. But even in this most love-filled marriage, she’s still somewhat subservient, content even, and the lack of character development is disappointing.

“Tony won’t never hit her. He says beatin’ women is just like steppin’ on baby chickens. He claims ‘taint no place on uh woman tuh hit,” Joe Lindsay said with scornful disapproval, ” but Ah’d kill uh baby just born dis mawnin’ fuh uh thing lak dat. ‘Taint nothin’ but low-down spitefulness ‘ginst her husband make her do it.” (75)

Folkloric charm gives this book a spark of life…and interest for that matter. And the gravity in the thoughts of secondary characters, those outsiders looking in, the gossip, is all revealing of the time.

“You’se different from me. Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hatin’ em cause Ah can’t stand ’em mahself. ‘Nother thing, Ah hates tuh see folks lak me and you mixed up wid ’em. Us oughta class off.” (141)

This book makes many ‘must-read’ lists but honestly, I’m having a hard time seeing why. Maybe it’s because it’s uncovering a truth about intra racism that I already know exists. Maybe because I personally reject the old-fashioned gender roles and power struggles between black men and black women. Maybe because I’m a northern, black woman that inevitably comes from the same southern, black heritage. I don’t know.

But I feel as though I’m missing something. Someone tell me…what am I missing?

* In the comments section, someone informed me this story was not so much about her love life as it was her love of life. Important distinction.

** Thankfully, the plot didn’t disappoint on handling Mr. Starks.