Posts in: CO200

Research and Pizza

The past two and a half weeks have been filled with various Chicago explorations but the nature of the block plan is bringing me back to reality. The pace of the class is definitely quickening as we wrap up third week.

All twelve of us spent most of today in the Newberry Library. While Lena braved the meat-locker temperatures in Special Collections, the more faint of heart set up camp on the second floor.

 

I definitely wish I spent more of the first two weeks familiarizing myself with the request process at the library. However, I  feel like I finally have a strong foundation for my research project. I am exploring the history of Chicago’s parks and to what extent they have served as vehicles for social and environmental change. Meanwhile, Mary is working on a paper about Gwendolyn Brooks. She even interviewed a man in Bronzeville who knew Brooks! Other projects include a look at the history of women and mental health, Jazz in Chicago, art and the Chicago Fire, and the Peruvian Amazon Company’s atrocious treatment of native Amazonians. Next week, we will present our findings to our classmates and turn in our papers.

 

It’s hard to believe we only have one week left in Chitown! Thankfully, we checked one box on my bucket list last night. Bill took us to Pequod’s, a pizza place in Lincoln Park that’s famous for its deep dish. While we munched on mozzarella sticks there was a contentious debate about what pizza to order. Some argued for a thin-crust option but Bill demanded that we order strictly pies because we are in Chicago. Unsurprisingly, the man footing the bill got the final word. I was just happy that I got cheese and carbs in various forms (somehow, our table was populated by mozz sticks, cheesy garlic bread, and pizza all at the same time). We finished the night with a fantastic view of downtown and a discussion about Michigan Lake vs. the ocean. Personally, I need the wild energy of the ocean to feel grounded. Others said that any water that extends into the abyss has a calming effect. The jury is still out I suppose.

 

 

A Trip to the Museum

In the past two weeks, my classmates and I have wandered through various parts of Chicago. From Uptown to the UChicago campus, we’ve passed walls of murals, popped our heads into random music venues, people-watched at Lincoln and Millennium park, and eaten nearly everything in sight. Nevertheless, visiting the Chicago History Museum illuminated many aspects of this city and helped me to see the various neighborhoods through a historical lens.

We visited the museum in lieu of class on Friday and were encouraged to take our time at each exhibit. I savored every moment, as I hope to do my final project on the history of Chicago. This coming week we are working on these independent research projects at the Newberry Library. While we are permitted to explore any topic that the library’s collection specializes in, I want to learn more about Chicago. I am particularly interested in the planning of the city. In what ways did city planners push a segregationist agenda? What measures have been taken to create more integration of race in class in this city? Do the lines that were drawn between neighborhoods limit certain groups’ access to public spaces? These are all questions that I want to explore by utilizing the Newberry’s collection.

The Chicago History Museum placed a focus on this topic through its various exhibits. One plaque read, “the contours of the city have been shaped by successive waves of people from various parts of the U.S. and other nations.” While this can be said of practically all of America’s cities, I found it particularly interesting because it connects to something we discussed in class during our first week here. That is, we learned that it’s important to understand that a city is a palimpsest. Like a piece of writing, cities often have a layered history wherein certain aspects of it may be erased but traces of its history remain. Each neighborhood has a legacy of its past. For example, a few students took the wrong bus one day and ended up in a neighborhood called “Back of the Yards.” We later learned that this name is an allusion to the area’s history of stockyards. Chicago is known for its meatpacking past. I learned in the museum that a combination of labor struggles and negative environmental impacts contributed to its demise.

Also in the museum was an exhibit about Chicago’s jazz scene. While jazz has its roots in New Orleans, it spread north to Chicago during The Great Migration and legends such as Louis Armstrong took the windy city by storm in the 1920s.

I scribbled various notes throughout my exploration of the museum. Each serve as a sort of “seed” for my research. I want to know more about A. Phillip Randolph and the Chicago Housing Authority. I hope to explore the intricacies of the 1996 “Plan for Transformation.” Most of all, I’m excited to delve deeper into this city’s influential figures. From Superintendent Ben Willis—who is notorious for school segregation in Chicago—to the admirable nurses and doctors at Provident Hospital, the first African-American owned and operated hospital in America. Overall, I learned a little about a lot of different topics at the museum which will serve as a broad base of exploration in the coming weeks.

Chicago Transportation at A Glimpse

Hello there! I am reporting from Chicago, IL. Eleven other students and myself are taking “The City vs. the Country: Literature of Nature and Urban Spaces” with Professor Bill Davis. A huge part of the class is exploring Chicago independently, so I thought I would delve into the different ways of wandering the city.

 Subway

While our classes are located at Newberry Library, just a short walk away from our apartments, all the students have taken advantage of our 30-day subway pass. Bless the L! I grew up in Houston, where public transportation goes to die and you have to pry people away from their cars by their cold, dead hands. Thus, I do not take public transportation systems for granted and being able to get anywhere in the city without stepping into a car is very refreshing.

Becoming familiar with a subway map is also a very satisfying thing. I’m almost to the point where I can imagine it when I close my eyes. I can zip north or south on the red line from Clark and Division and I relish in the brown line route through the loop.

Yesterday afternoon, a few of us went to see a movie. When we emerged, it was pouring rain and subsequently, the L was packed with people. Each red line train that came was humid with hoards of commuters. We let three trains pass, hoping they would grow emptier. After waiting 15 minutes, Mary stepped daintily into the crowd and her body was absorbed into the tube of humans. I admired her assertiveness and the rest of us caught the next train.

But I love it. I love how everyone faces skyward, like fish out of water. I love that I can stand without holding on because the strangers around me hold my body up. I love the dank smell of sweat and cigarettes and exhaustion.

Jackie along Lake Michigan

Walking

 I took a 15-minute nap this afternoon; I fell asleep to rain pounding on my window and awoke to sunshine. The weather here can be very capricious, so walking around the city, one must be prepared for just about anything. Nevertheless, using my two feet just to meander around Chicago’s various neighborhoods is one of my favorite ways to see the city. After lunch is a prime time for excursions and students in the class have explored nearby Bucktown/Wicker Park, as well as Pilsen. One of the best parts about Chicago is that every neighborhood has its own personality so you can digest the city in bite-sized pieces by tackling a new area every day. Pilsen, with its colorful murals and varied history, has definitely been a class favorite. Bucktown is known for its delicious restaurants and “hip” vibe. Neighborhoods still on my bucket list are Hyde Park, Andersonville, and Lincoln Park.

Biking

 Ahh, lastly, we have my favorite mode of exploring the city. I borrowed a road bike from a family friend in Chicago but there is also a superb bike-sharing system in Chicago. What I love about cycling around Chicago is the independence and spontaneity it infuses into my days.

I have found that in the age of yelp and google maps, it is too easy to decide on a destination and get a sort of tunnel vision. Or in the case of the L, literal tunnel vision. Often, I find myself dropping a pin at a particular café or museum and then following the little blue dots on my map until I arrive without really seeing the places I’m traveling through. But with a bike, I get to see so much more of the city and stumble upon places that I would not have found otherwise. On Sunday, I biked past a skate park and spent half an hour watching scruffy teens sliding on rails and dropping into bowls. Today, I passed a bike shop that is female-owned and run entirely by women. I wandered in and they gave me a bunch of recommendations about various trails in the city. Biking helps me to see the different arteries of this city as a connected network, instead of a fragmented puzzle.

End of Week 4 and the Block

Happy block break everyone! I definitely meant to write this post either last night or this morning, but found that I needed to give myself a little bit of a break before writing this! Although our final paper for this class was fairly short (especially since my last block ended with me writing my thesis), the idea of writing yet another something right after I finished my paper was more than I really wanted to do! Anywho, I hope you’ve all made it through the end of the block and can take some time to relax and rejuvenate before jumping into the last block of this school year!
We spent all of this week work4ing on our final papers, so I don’t have much to talk about on the reading side of life! Over the weekend, we were originally supposed to read a novel called Trace Elements of Random Tea Parties, but our professor decided to make that an extra credit assignment (read it and write a reflection) because we wouldn’t have the time to do the novel justice. I (along with quite a few of my classmates it sounds like) decided to read the book, mostly because I’ve quite enjoyed the readings for this class, but also in part because I was already part way through it! I can’t say it was my favorite thing we’ve read this block (that award probably has to go to Brando Skyhorse’s The Madonnas of Echo Park), but it was still an interesting read! Of all the books we read, this book and the collection of comics, The Girl from H.O.P.P.E.R.S dealt the most explicitly with sexuality. I didn’t spend any time comparing how the two works grapple with the issue, but it would definitely be a good thought experiment! They’re both somewhat gritty representations, but beyond that I don’t really have anything to say!

Our final day of class was a peer editing day. Whether intentional or not, I was partnered with another senior (not an English major though) and we’d both written our papers on the same short story. For all that it was a peer editing exercise, it was kind of exciting reading another paper about this particular short story. It’s all of ten pages, yet our papers went in two completely different directions! Although that can sometimes be a bit disconcerting, I think we both felt pretty good about it because we knew that at the very least, we’d picked a somewhat controversial, but definitely arguable thesis, which is kind of the whole point of those kinds of papers!

I hope you all have a wonderful week! With the class over, this is my last blog post, so thank you to everyone who has read it! I hope it’s been enjoyable and informative!

End of Week 3

Now that we’ve reached the end of week 3, almost all of the reading is done (we have one last book to read this weekend), which seems kind of crazy to me! After spending several years on the block plan, you would think that I’d be used to how quickly blocks come to an end, but the end of this block has definitely snuck up on me (maybe because I was in a double-block at the start of the semester)! To all my fellow students out there, good luck with your fourth week! We’re in the home stretch!

The readings this week have had a very different feel from the readings of the previous weeks, and the texts for almost every other English course I’ve taken. We started off the week with a collection of comics, which was definitely a new experience for me! I’ve never really read comics, even as a kid, so it took some getting used to because there is a very different set of skills involved in reading comics, especially when you read them through a literary lens. Although it was hard work in the beginning, I found it much easier and therefore more enjoyable once I settled into the rhythm of reading comics. Not sure I necessarily want to read more comics, but I’m glad I had the chance to experience a different medium and now I have a better idea of how to read comics if I ever need to do that again!

On Tuesday, we had a much-needed day off to read. As often happens around this time of both the block and year, a bunch of people are dealing with various illnesses, which, when coupled with the workload of English classes, make time off incredibly valuable! Reading days give us all a chance to recharge a bit, which helps out our discussions for sure! I always enjoy reading days because I have the chance to sit and read a book basically straight through. While most people probably think that sounds like a somewhat torturous experience, I think it’s a really interesting way to read books every now and then. Reading a book in one sitting helps me see connections that I wouldn’t have made if I had broken the book up into segments to read at various times. So if you have the time and patience, try doing it sometime! Maybe, you’ll see things a little differently too!

I think one 3reason the texts from this week felt so different to me is because they were more contemporary works. Although the comics were published in the late 1980s, the content deals with contemporary issues (modern relationships to land, the treatment of women and queer identities come to mind). Hernandez confronts these and other issues in a fairly head-on attitude, which seems much more like current-day approach than I would have expected from someone writing in the 1980s. Brando Skyhorse’s novel The Madonnas of Echo Park and Myriam Gurba’s collection of short stories titled Painting Their Portraits in Winter were both published in the last six years and depict a number of the same themes as Hernandez. Because the three works shared similar themes, I found myself tracking how the authors approached the treatment of women and queer identities. I haven’t had the chance to form any kind of conclusions from what I’ve noticed, but it’s been interesting to see the similarities and differences!

With fourth week upon us, I’m off now to read a novel and research articles for our final paper! To any of my classmates reading this, happy researching! To other students, happy fourth week! To everyone else, thanks for reading!

End of Week 2

Now that we’re at the end of our second week and more or less halfway through the class, people are beginning to feel more comfortable with each other and the course material, which means that we’re able to have deeper conversations with participation from a greater number of people! Yay! I’m really looking forward to weeks three and four and the discussion we’ll have then because we’ll all be even more comfortable and we’ll be reading more novels. This week we’ve focused on short stories, which has been fun because I think short stories are a really good way of developing analytical skills without overwhelming students with too much material to work with. But I almost always want more from short stories, so I’m definitely looking forward to novels because they contain a greater amount of complexity because they have more space and time to develop ideas, relationships etc!

For me, this week has reminded me of two very important things. The first is the skills required for a strong close reading assignment. I don’t think I’ve done a legitimate close reading assignment since my first year of college, so even though I use close reading concepts every time I write a paper, I forgot the absolute attention to detail required by a close reading. While writing these close reading papers, I keep finding myself wanting to make connections to other parts of the text or to other texts I’ve read. Although those connections will definitely help me out in the long-term, they are NOT the point of a close reading where you’re meant to stay within a specific passage and flesh out what you have in front of you! So lesson learned! It’s always a good idea to go back to the basics even when those basics challenge you do to things differently!

The second thing I’m taking away from this week is that just sometimes disliking a text is actually a sign of a good writer! We read Tomas Rivera’s Y no se lo trago la tierra (And the earth did not devour him for those who need the translation) earlier this week and I really, really struggled with it! Although quite short, it took me quite some time to read it because I would get so frustrated with how destabilized I felt while reading! I honestly felt like I wasn’t understanding what Rivera was writing, but after a little bit of reflection I decided that the instability of the text and narrative is quite intentional and helps give readers a better idea of the lives of migrant workers. After a few minutes more, I realized that I’d learned this lesson earlier in the school year when I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for a class. Sometimes not liking a text simply means that the author has done exactly what he or she set out to do! As a reader and English major, we sometimes have to take a step back from our personal feelings and take a moment to appreciate an author’s craft.

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Lastly, I noticed myself thinking about religion and spirituality with regard to almost every single thing we read. Maybe it had to do with the fact that it was Easter this past weekend or maybe that was just a fun coincidence! Either way, I fixated on religion quite a bit and probably had a better time than I should have thinking about the various ways the authors and texts treated religion and spirituality. Both Rivera and Américo Paredes seemed to have a more cynical view of religion than some of the other authors we’ve read in the past few weeks, such as Sandra Cisneros and Jovita Gonzalez. The authors presented both traditional Catholicism along with spirituality not based on religion (i.e. curanderismo in Bless Me Ultima [we watched the movie]). Although I found the authors’ portrayals of Catholicism interesting (thank you to my roommate who is always willing to answer any questions I have about Catholicism!), I was more intrigued by depictions of spirituality, probably in part because it is something I am less familiar with. I thought the way of interacting with the world and forming an intimate connection with the earth and those around them really stood out in the texts and movie. We also went to the Fine Arts Center to look at devotional art on Friday, which gave us another perspective on religion and spirituality. I thought the art pieces we looked at and the activities we participated in while at the center reinforced what we’ve read. Seeing the themes replicated in a different medium and across several hundred years was powerful indeed!

On a note not really related to this class, I was recently informed that in my first post I erroneously wrote “blogging world,” when I should have said “blogosphere,” so my apologies for that! The same person also pointed out several writing errors (or at the very least slightly sloppy instances of writing that I should probably avoid), so I apologize in advance for any further “mistakes” in any of my posts! In my defense, blogging is fairly informal and I haven’t had any glaring errors to really embarrass me!

End of Week 1

Hello everybody! Full disclosure: this is the first time I’ve ever blogged, so please be patient with me as I learn my way around the blogging world! As with the start of every block, this week has been a whirlwind of activity! For the first time all school year, I’m in a class at or near full student capacity, which as a fairly shy person has been quite the adjustment. Although being packed into an Armstrong classroom was initially a little overwhelming, I’m actually quite excited to be a part of such a large class. For most of the year I’ve immersed myself in upper-level English courses where I’ve been surrounded by fellow English majors. In contrast to my previous six blocks, Mexican American Literature has a wide range of students representing every grade level and a number of different majors. Although we’re only a week in, I’ve really enjoyed the different perspectives of my fellow classmates. The variety of their viewpoints is incredibly refreshing and I think will help generate some fascinating discussions later in the block when we’ve all worked through the beginning-of-the-block jitters.

Throughout the week, our readings have given us all a glimpse into some important US history surrounding the settling of the West. Although a decent chunk have some background knowledge on how the West was settled, especially with regard to land acquisition, this is the first time we’ve learned about it from a non-white perspective and the differences are pretty astounding! I certainly never imagined the legal battles landowners became involved in that resulted in the destitution of a huge number of Mexican landowners. Silly me figured that the US gained the land through the same violent measures used against Native Americans in previous years! Long story short, I already feel like I’ve learned a lot and never expected to learn so much history in a literature class!

Yesterday, as part of class requirements, we attended Kristen Iverson’s lecture on Rocky Flats and the book she wrote about growing up in that area. For anyone who doesn’t know the significance of Rocky Flats (and believe me, yesterday I was one of those people), it was a facility in Arvada that produced plutonium triggers for nuclear weapons during the Cold War. The area is profoundly contaminated and many people lived or live nearby in complete ignorance of the health risks associated with the plant. As a native of Denver, Colorado, the information Ms. Iverson talked about was shocking and horrifying. Plutonium has contaminated soil, air, and water and there is almost no clean-up happening in large part because of expense. Although the plant was shut down a number of years ago (interestingly after the FBI raided it, which has one government agency investigating another government agency), numerous employees and local residents are experiencing debilitating health problems, including cancer, as a direct result of their exposure to chemicals from the plant. Even though I was a little unsure about the talk, I’m so happy that we all went because it taught us important facts about Colorado, but also helped us draw parallels between current issues and what we’ve been reading about in class.

Lots to think about and discuss after this week! Like I said at the beginning of the blog, I’m new to this, so still exploring what I can do, which means pictures or something along those lines will appear in my next post once I’ve figured more things out!

On Migritude

I have finished my final paper (mostly). There are no unread books in the pile on my desk – all of them contain copious penciled-in notes. This afternoon, I will flee into Colorado’s vastness, once again, to confront whatever anticipated bad weather awaits me with some kind of joy. Soon those of us who have collected to look deeply at poetry, to carefully investigate the world, to reconsider ourselves, will scatter again. The approaching change feels sudden, abrupt, too soon. Yet to move and grow is natural; this class has been an experience of change, a moment of growth.

Our study of Shailja Patel’s Migritude, then, is remarkably appropriate as we move in a multitude of directions from this central place of study. Patel’s engaging book is simultaneously a transcript of her one-woman show and an anthology of her explorations of herself. It is a political statement, a study of race and acceptance, and a magnificent work of art. Her blackness is unique among those we’ve studied; she is a Kenyan of Indian heritage who has lived in Britain and America. Yet none of this makes her any less black. Indeed, her “migritude” is a play on the earlier ideological negritude movement; it allows Patel to simultaneously identify as black and as almost identity-less, a member of a group of people whose very roots lie in their rootlessness.

This apparent contradiction was not an unusual encounter. We proceeded to read Ezekiel Mphahlele’s essay “Voices in the Whirlwind,” which presents (helpfully) a plethora of arguments about black poetry. The unfortunate aspect of this abundance of arguments is that many of them seem to contradict one another. Perhaps, though, this confusion is a fundamental part of black poetry.

Michelle said this morning, after we had read the poems we created to mimic the voices of those we studied (which also managed to reveal an array of ridiculously incredible word-workers with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to rub shoulders for the last three weeks), that she hoped the class had managed to confuse us further about the meanings of the words in its title. I am not meant, I think, in the end, to understand the meaning of the word “black” or of “poetry,” and even worse, I don’t think I will ever be able to define black poetry. Luckily, though, the point is not to define. The point is to learn and grow and change and move, and in that, I think, I have succeeded.

 

p.s. I discovered a few more photos from Baca. They’re not particularly fitting, here, but they’re lovely. Many thanks to the most fabulous Michelle Decker, for the photos and for everything else.

Baca at Dusk The Mountains

On Humiliation and Being Humble

There is a certain stillness that settles in the air in this fragment of mountainous desert where I have almost surprisingly found myself for the last three days. In this temporary escape to the Baca campus I have a sense of being contained in some dusty snow globe, mysteriously separate from the familiar. But I am not contained; the sky is vaster, the mountains rise up sharply from the yellow plain to reach broadly upwards. To the south and west, the land extends endlessly. In the midst of these immensities, I am small. I am small and humble in the silence of vastness, captured as I walk slowly against the wind on a dusty road in this singular moment. It is precisely the place to submerge oneself in poetry, in this physical manifestation of the instant-occupying lyric.

We encountered newness not only in geographical location but in the words we studied. As we continued moving forward in time, we met artists of prison cells and protest in writing and music. Wole Soyinka of Nigeria wrote of his imprisonment, both in prose and poetry, in books smuggled to him during his detainment. He described the humiliation of imprisonment as an emotion of dignity in that it creates an environment of solidarity and suggests a previous and consistent uprightness and dedication to a cause or mentality. We explored other poetries of prisons that depicted the struggles of entrapment and brief glimmers of hopefulness. In Robert Johnson, legendary singer of blues, we looked closely at the relationships between white and black music, notably the capitalization of black music by white people and other similar appropriations of black culture for primarily white gain.

The song “Strange Fruit” and a podcast considering it further forced us to examine racism in the northern parts of the United States and how whiteness creates value – the photograph of inspiration for the song is immediately shocking not only because of its explicit interest in two hanging black bodies but also because of the grinning white faces beneath them. “Going to Meet the Man,” the story of a lynching, was disturbing. It incited discussion regarding the sexualization of blackness and the dialectic of simultaneous desire and disgust for other bodies. We considered Bob Dylan and “Hurricane” – both the song and the film – to investigate our perceptions of who can write black poetry.

In light of this, I think I’ve decided that perhaps a definition of black poetry does not exist. It is ambiguous, defined by each moment that chooses to take on blackness and poetry simultaneously. I am humbled and delighted in every instant that I learn and change. I am also humbled by the world that both contains and frees me. I’m not sure that I have Soyinka’s humility – in fact, I’m quite sure that I don’t – but it remains humbling to engage with his dignity.

The Sangre de Cristo range near the Baca campus

On Change

We have moved away from the epic. No – we’ve abandoned it. We’ve left Son-Jara in Africa to leap forward in time and spread ourselves across the continent and the ocean. In only three days, we have changed.

More precisely, maybe, I have changed. Or the poems have changed. Or everything has changed; the moody skies seem somehow more reminiscent of spring than the summer-like sunshine of the weekend. In any case, our literary window has broadened to include colonialism in Africa, that vast and unpleasant (to use the most mild word applicable here) thing that roughly coincided with slavery and oppression in the Americas. To continue with uncouth generalizations, the political and theoretical freedoms of blacks on both continents were achieved with arguable success in somewhat similar eras, resulting in altogether new poetic possibilities.

A study on the legendary Shaka (or Chaka, depending on who you ask) and his varying permutations throughout time led us violently into an investigation of perhaps earlier white engagements with South Africa. We read of nostalgia and repression and God in 19th century Africa and looked closely at the imitation of European poetry and form. To read these mimicries begs questions: can oppression be discussed in the language of the oppressor? Is there a certain power in copying form but twisting words to contradict the very creator of the arrangement?

As we traveled closer yet to ourselves in time we encountered America and the Harlem Renaissance in conjunction with the concept of negritude, which found its origins in a collection of African writers (mostly) in France and describes a literary and ideological movement of, in exceptionally brief summary, black pride. We read Léon Damas and Helene Johnson, Léopolde Senghor (who was the first president of Senegal, in addition to being a prolific writer) and Langston Hughes. They approach freedom and its absence in their works, speak of ancestry and of a future but they all recognize and embrace their blackness in the light of the lingering effects of imperialism and colonialism.

Aimé Césaire’s play, “A Tempest,” looks, too, at the remnants of colonialism that lingered still in the 1960s and which, truthfully, continue to drift almost unrecognized through our lives today. So while it may seem that we have changed, that in the last three days we have moved into and through and out of imperialism, perhaps we haven’t really changed and I haven’t really changed (much) and, in the end, even this abnormally cloudy weather still carries us forward towards more seasons, the same as always.