Wednesday, April 25, 2018

thou red thing

Southern Night

by D.H. Lawrence

Come up, thou red thing.
Come up, and be called a moon.

The mosquitoes are biting to-night
Like memories.

Memories, northern memories,
Bitter-stinging white world that bore us
Subsiding into this night.

Call it moonrise
This red anathema?

Rise, thou red thing,
Unfold slowly upwards, blood-dark;
Burst the night's membrane of tranquil stars

The red Macula.

I had to look up "maculate," which turns out to be a verb. So the final two lines can be translated as, more or less, "blot out the red blot." I'm not sure what Lawrence means here. Is he asking the moon to blot out some other red blot? If so, what blot, the blot of "northern memories"? Or is he asking for some other force to blot out the red moon? No, I think it's the former: the red moon is to blot out the memories. I assume "northern" here means "English," and "southern" means "Italian," as Lawrence wrote this poem in Sicily. This is one of the less Whitman-inspired poems in Birds, Beasts and Flowers. By "less Whitman-inspired," I guess I mean that it's a little more self controlled, less rambling. Shorter, certainly.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Shadows Uplifted

I've been reading Frances Harper's 1892 novel Iola Leroy, or, Shadows Uplifted. Harper lived from 1825 to 1911, and her only published novel (she was the successful author of books of poetry, theology, and social criticism) encompasses the Civil War and the early days of Reconstruction, as told from the point of view of African-American slaves. Sort of.

Iola Leroy is a light-skinned woman who was raised as the privileged daughter of a white Southern plantation master; at the outbreak of the Civil War, Iola's black ancestry is revealed and she is sold into slavery and probably raped by a series of men who sell her on. When Iola is rescued by the Union Army, she refuses to pass as white even though it means enduring the prejudice of white culture (Harper, a free black woman who was raised in the slave state of Maryland, points out repeatedly that despite a hatred of the institution of slavery, Northern abolitionists generally had no more love for black people than did Southern slave owners). A white physician falls in love with Iola and, after having learned of her ancestry, offers his hand in marriage (with the caveat that Iola must keep secret from his family the fact of her black grandmother). Iola, beautiful and intelligent, is after all any New England gentleman's idea of the perfect wife. I wondered, as I read this novel, why a black writer, in a novel about slavery and the Civil War, creates a protagonist who looks like a white woman, was raised and educated as a white woman, but who is--according to the ideas of the day--a black woman, and therefore not allowed the rights and privileges of white America? Why doesn't Frances Harper write the story of a black slave woman instead?

For the longest time I thought that Harper had merely accepted the aesthetic prejudices of white America, that white skin and northern European features are the epitome of beauty, and that Harper considered the struggles of a woman who was otherwise indistinguishable from a northern European to be more compelling and important than the struggles of a woman with black skin. After all, Tom Anderson (a black-skinned slave who yearns for Iola) lists her white skin, blue eyes, straight black hair and delicate soft hands as signs of beauty. Another slave, Robert Johnson (the son of a black slave raped by a white man), has white skin and European features; when he escapes a Mississippi plantation and joins the Union army, he declines a post with a white unit despite being told that no one would ever take him for a black man, which is intended as a compliment and is not presented ironically by Harper. The adoption by a black author of white ideas of beauty, I thought, was an interesting if disturbing historical/cultural aspect of Harper's novel. But I have come to realize that I'm wrong about all of that.

I thank Elizabeth Young* for inspiring the idea that Iola Leroy (whose physical presence--her body--is more closely described than that of any other character in this book) represents not slaves, nor African Americans, but America itself: an ostensibly "pure" white body that contains within it black blood that it cannot deny forever, that it must come to terms with, live with, accept as part of itself. For America to despise the freed slaves is for America to despise itself; to debase and dehumanize black citizens is to debase and dehumanize America itself, because it is all of a piece. Pretty strong stuff for 1892. This metaphor is neatly disguised by a domestic novel, a search for missing family, and a marriage plot.

*Young, Elizabeth. "Warring Fictions: Iola Leroy and the Color of Gender." American Literature 64, no. 2 (1992): 273-97. doi:10.2307/2927836.