Lessons

This final entry about my San Francisco trip is painful to write, but I feel I must express my disappointment with one particular session.

Diane had pointed out “A Contending Force: African American Women Confront Racial Violence, 1890-1950.” The Southern California Society for the Study of American Women Writers organized the presentation, which included “ ‘She Was a Murderer:” Beautiful Liability and Violent Resistance in The Street.” Diane and I decided to attend.

The program started well. Tania Jabour, a graduate student at U.C. San Diego, presented “Ida B. Wells: Writing and the Spectacle of Race.” Having just finished Barbara Sicherman’s Well-Read Lives (review to follow next week), which includes a chapter on Wells, I was already reminded of this crusading woman’s struggle to make the rest of the world aware of the horror of lynchings that were occurring all over the United States, but mostly in the South. Jabour handed out copies of some horrific photographs and spoke about Wells’s ability to use those images to advance her cause. I learned that Wells marketed herself as what we these days call a brand, understanding that her beauty could attract attention, which she used to demonstrate the cruelty of white oppression of African Americans. Asked why Wells is less well known than others in the movement, Jabour noted that Wells died in 1931 before the struggle reached national (white) attention. I suspect, too, that by choosing lynching as her topic, she introduced a cringe factor that endures to this day. I noted during the session that more than one person in the audience either covered the images of the bloodied, hanging bodies or turned the papers over.

With this excellent start, I had high hopes for Lesley Wallace Wootton’s presentation on The Street. I was sorely disappointed. First, her paper bore no relation to the subject of her dissertation, which involves the nineteenth century novel. I had the feeling someone told her she needed to present a paper so she joined the racial violence theme and cobbled together “She Was a Murderer” for the event. Then she mispronounced “Petry.” The moderator pronounced it correctly, but I’m not sure Wootton noticed. She never did adequately explain why she called Lutie Johnson a murderer. Last time I checked the definition included killing with premeditation. Lutie had no expectation that she would take a life when she met Boots. In fact up to the point where he attacked her, she was expecting to borrow money to pay a lawyer to represent her son. While she went mad after the first blow, no jury in the country would convict her of murder. And then I lost Wootton in the convolutions of how Lutie’s beauty led inevitably to her fate.

Hoping that things had reached bottom, I awaited Michelle Stuckey’s “Hysterical Reconstructions: ‘Curing’ Racial Ambiguity and Reimaging the Black Family.” Stuckey, also at U.C. San Diego, was going to discuss works by Pauline Hopkins and Frances Harper, two writers of whom I know nothing. I learned that both women wrote rather melodramatic fiction and used the literary convention of the mulatta who overcomes hysteria by marrying a black doctor, in other words, accepting her blackness. And that’s all I learned. Stuckey spoke so fast and garbled her words so badly that I understood perhaps one word in eight. I also regretted that I had not listened to the presentation on Pauline Hopkins earlier that morning. P.S. “Reimaging” is tech talk for re-installing a computer system. Perhaps Stuckey means re-imagining?

Thank God the final presentation redeemed the session. Ayesha K. Hardison of Ohio University did full justice to her subject, “Living Jane Crow: Pauli Murray’s Song in a Weary Throat.” Again, I knew nothing of Pauli Murray but learned that she pushed Eleanor Roosevelt, and therefore Franklin, in the area of civil rights. Jane Crow was Murray’s term for confronting the extra burden that black women suffered, different from and in addition to the depredations suffered by black men. Interesting that she first encountered Jane Crow at Howard University, where she attended law school. Her struggles with mental illness, apparently inherited from her father, and an even more painful struggle with her sexuality made her a real-life tragic figure in the mold of the fictional nineteenth century heroines. Murray, however, went out into the world and fought for equal rights for minorities and for women.

For a quick recap: Maybe two good papers out of four ain’t bad for such a conference. But I submit herewith two recommendations. 1) Give the presenters old-fashioned speech lessons so that they can be understood. 2) Teach them editing so that they can fit their presentations into the allotted twenty minutes without speed reading.

And a final observation on the benefits of reading on paper as opposed to an e-reader when one flies. I have yet to be told to fold my newspaper or close my book because the plane is taking off or landing. I read happily from before wheels up to after wheels down.

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