Tomorrow I'm going to be teaching Virginia Hamilton's The Magical Adventure's of Pretty Pearl
(alongside Donna Jo Napoli's Breath
and Robin McKinley's Beauty
), and I have to admit I'm somewhat terrified, as a white instructor in front of a classroom of (apparently) all white students. It's such a complicated book, and I just don't feel like I have the qualification or training to deal with the text's complications, such as its valorization of the mammy figure, or the way it presents phonetically spelled-out dialect. This is doubly complicated for me by some of Hamilton's own writings on the language. When she talks about it, she acts as if she's inventing a dialect out of whole cloth, albeit somewhat researched:
"I tried to imagine what the speech patterns would be like for the first generation of blacks after surrender. I decided that the African influence would still be there in some of the characters who were with the group just as in Roots there was the African influence always on the people of that family. I tried to figure out what the language would be like from my research into the narrations from the time done by blacks, from the Caribbean dialects that I had heard and understood were pretty authentic as to the way people talked for generations in the Caribbean, and also from the way Africans speak contemporaneous today. It seemed to me that the use of "him," of the pronoun in a certain way, changed the language to make it seem older or newer in a very special way. I wanted to use "de," pronounced "deh" in the way we say "red," not in the old-fashioned way that blacks are supposed to speak, "and de (dee) man said," not that kind of thing, but "deh" which has a more flowing sound to it. That's why I included the footnote for the pronunciation: I was afraid that when people saw "de" they would pronounce it as "dee" like in the old slave narratives, and that was not what I was getting at, at all. I was trying to do different things, and I used the pronoun "him" many times in a very different way, which changes the language somewhat. It is dialect, but I don't think it's difficult; it is more language structure that has been changed than the dialect."
-- (Apseloff, Marilyn. "A Conversation with Virginia Hamilton." Children's Literature in Education, 14:1 (1983), 204-13.)
She does identify her research here, and as a complete ignoramus even I recognize certain vocabulary and dialect in Pretty Pearl
having origins in Gullah, not made up entirely. But she self-identifies as an outsider to this folklore and language:
"The black folktales are uniquely southern. Many of you have known some of them all of your lives. As a northerner, I felt privileged to have got my hands on them. "
--(Hamilton, Virginia. "The Known, the Remembered, and the Imagined: Celebrating Afro-American Folktales" Children's Literature in Education , 18:2 (1987), 67-75.)
And then there are all the mammy issues, which in her own writing and talking about the book Hamilton identifies as strongly feminist, and I feel like my basic fandom/Internet-culture course in Intersectionality 101 hasn't prepared me for this. I feel like I need at least Intersectionality 201, and I probably need more historical context that I have.
You know how Zora Neale Hurston took a lot of crap for writing down oral traditions and making them available to white people? The more I prepare for this class, the more I feel like this is the kind of story which is a beautiful reworking of oral traditions for insiders, but in clumsy (my?) hands can just reinforce stereotypes among outsiders. I'm sure I don't have enough knowledge of musical history to be sufficiently lucid about the gorgeous call and response patterns the book evokes. I have only an academic knowledge of the John de Conquer stories, and though I was brought up on John Henry picture books like many American kids, they were decontextualized from their racial and class history, tossed in a pile with Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox and Johnny Appleseed. I've been spending the evening reading selections from Alan Dundes' 1973 Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore
, and the very fact that I've been finding so many of these incredibly dated essays (many from the 1930s) informative is excessively worrying.
I'm starting to think I'm not smart enough to teach Virginia Hamilton. Last year I tried to teach Justice and Her Brothers
. It's bad enough that the book makes no sense without the rest of the Justice cycle. I find that trilogy too difficult for me under any circumstances. I hoped that teaching it my students might bring some insights to it but they were fairly hostile and I felt too dense about the whole thing to bring any deeper understanding.
And yet at the same time, the more I read children's literature critics discussing Virginia Hamilton, the more uncomfortable I am with their overall treatment of her. Not because it's not deserved -- Hamilton is an artist, an author who writes beautiful books that frequently made me feel like a complete idiot because they are so rich and complicated. But because the towering pedestal on which Hamilton's work is placed in the context of decades lacking any critical praise for any other black writer of children's and young adult novels feels, well, icky. How much of the praise for Hamilton's work acts as a Band-Aid making people think it's unnecessary to confront the absence of critically praised black American writers for children? Yet by raising this question, am I implying the Virginia Hamilton has received praise she hasn't deserved? Because that's not what I mean at all.