TJ’s First Blog Update

Blog Update 1:

What I handed in for my first draft was a beat sheet of all 42 scenes that would take place in the film. Writing the first draft of that beat sheet definitely helped me better flush out my story, and figure out how it fits into the modern adaptation. One role that I think was the biggest addition was the father and grandmother that I added to Gilgamesh’s life. They sort of embody the tension between masculinity and compassion that I want to draw out in the film, and I think in the context of this movie I need characters who give that to the viewer, to make sure everyone is on the same page. I also had fun highlighting the absurd masculinity of teenage boys, like not wanting to go to the movies with a male friend, although now I realize it the scene is even more insightful and slightly funny if they end up going to a movie that is more of a romantic movie, without realizing it, and then refuse to go to a movie together on the second time.

Professor Dimmock’s comment about better developing Enkidu I think was also a really good one, and one I want to flush out more. I do think Gilgamesh is my protagonist, the film begins with him and ends with him, but Enkidu needs to be just as complex. I think what makes the most sense is having both characters fears/weaknesses mirror each other in a way, and using that to further develop their relationship. So for Gilgamesh, intimacy and compassion are things that have been conditioned out of him. I think for Enkidu, the representation of his masculinity comes from his physical strength. That is especially impactful because he then loses it with the concussion, plus I think him refusing to sit out after the first concussion represents that perfectly. I’m toying with Professor’s idea of him being an immigrant, I think where he comes from is important.

This weekend I also had the chance to watch Amateur, which is a film set in a similar context of the high school basketball court. What it reminded me was how much of the action on a basketball team takes place in the locker room/on the bus. As a result, I’ve reconsidered the location of some of my scenes, as I realize that those situations are a natural setting for a conversation.

Moving forward, my plan is to rework my beat sheet, and begin writing some of my more important scenes, starting chronologically. It’s a little tough to know when I should begin writing, because I want the freedom to make story changes, and once I begin writing that shift becomes more difficult/cumbersome. But I think with a little more work my beat sheet will be in a good place.


Blog Update 2:

Since my last blog post, I’ve made some major progress on my project. For one, I revised Enkidu’s character a bit to give him some depth. I decided I didn’t want to make him an immigrant, I think he has that outside factor just by being a transfer student. What I did do though was develop his family life a bit more, and highlight the importance of his physicality. By making his father a landscaper, and having Enkidu work with him on weekends, success becomes inherently tied to his body. I then draw out his fears, by having his father getting hurt on the job. For Enkidu, not being able to use your body is tied to failing your family, and so that becomes everything for him. I think that then makes his paralysis even more impactful, as he must come to terms with what it means to be a man. I also added in that last scene with he and Gilgamesh playing one on one, because it shows that he has come to terms with it, and offers a nice bookend to their relationship.

I also wrote out the scene for the mini-festival in class. At first, I wrote the scene where the two first meet each other because I think it’s one of the most important scenes in the script. However, after writing it, I realize it may not be the best scene to read aloud in class. Because it is very action heavy, there is not much dialogue, and there is a lot of basketball lingo that may not translate well to a non-basketball crowd.

As a result, I also wrote the scene with Gilgamesh and Enkidu’s first interaction. It is much more dialogue heavy, so it might be better to read aloud in class. In writing the scene, one of the challenges was conveying a deeper meaning while not being heavy-handed in the dialogue. Their conversation doesn’t seem to address anything too important, but in a subtle way it is Enkidu asserting himself, and Gilgamesh coming to terms with a shake-up of power.

I’m excited to go over the project at the mini-festival, I’m hoping I’ll get some good notes that I can implement for my final draft.

Blog Update 3:

Presenting for the mini-festival was really helpful, as it helped me to reconsider a few key story points. One of the hardest things for me to figure out has been Enkidu’s backstory. As I talked about in an earlier blog post, one of the things I wanted to add to the original story is I think Enkidu and Gilgamesh’s strengths and weaknesses need to mirror one another. So for Gilgamesh to be this king with can’t connect with his people, which I really like, I think Enkidu needs to be the opposite, and be personable. This obviously doesn’t work perfectly with the original text’s portrayal of Enkidu as a wild man, but I think I need to ditch that description in order to make the story more compelling. As I said, the theme that I really want to explore in my adaptation is masculinity, and so I think making that change is necessary.

With that being said, I do think there is room to play up Enkidu’s outsider factor. On top of making him a transfer student, an idea I really liked was making him come from a more rural/farm driven background so that adjusting to a city atmosphere is difficult for him. I think this still allows him to be personable, in fact, it can even encourage it, as Enkidu comes from a community where communication and greeting standards are a bit different. It’s important to establish however that his niceness doesn’t drown out his masculinity, at least at first. When Gilgamesh first approaches him and challenges him for the hoop, Enkidu can’t back down. He represents that balance between kindness and masculinity that Gilgamesh can’t find.

For next Friday, my plan is to write out a couple more important scenes from the film and make some revisions to the story as a whole. One thing that was mentioned in the festival was that a few of the scenes on my beat sheet I’m not entirely sure how to display yet. I know point A and point B, but I have to figure out how to get between them. I think I will try and do that with a few of the important scenes, but I don’t think I can do it for all of them, because I’m only handing in 30 pages out of what will eventually become a 120 page screenplay, and so I need to focus on the most important scenes and leave some of the smaller ones to be worked out later.

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Nyamal’s Presentation Outline


Nyamal Tuor

Am Lit

Wai Chee Dimock

Rita Dove’s Selected Poems



From Ohio, her father was one of the first Black chemists in the tire business. She was encouraged to read by her mother at a very young age and always attached to books. She attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Dove was the first African American to have been appointed the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, the second African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize, and has many other humanities and arts awards. Dove does not believe in strict genre and her writings cannot be easily categorized. A lot of her writings treat historical events with a personal touch and she’s written on topics like her grandparents’ marriage, highs and lows of Black Liberation, even on forgotten figures like Black violinist and friend of Beethoven, George Polgreen Bridgetower. She brings out the personal, private thoughts that are easily forgotten in history.


Adaptations/Work in Different Mediums:

  • Dove often marries different mediums of art such as music in Sonata Mulattica, and dance in American Smooth. movie trailer Sonata Mulattica Movie trailer for Sonata Mulattica (extended)


Pay attention to themes of:

    • Community


  • Yellow House on the Corner


      • Writes about her grandparents’ relationship in Thomas and Beulah
    • Race
      • Doesn’t really address race relations directly, rather speaks about slavery and about the mundane of the lives of slaves
    • History and Political Events
      • She ties history to the present


  • Museum section of book (pg 65) poems about personal relationships of historical figures, often forgotten



      • Ex: the wife of Han dynasty emperor pg 77


  • Integration of Different Art Forms
    • “For Dove, dance is an implicit parallel to poetry,” said Emily Nussbaum in The New York Times review of the collection. “Each is an expression of grace performed within limits; each an art weighted by history but malleable enough to form something utterly new.”


Discussion Questions:

    • Yellow House on the Corner:


  • Upon Meeting Don L Lee in A Dream pg 12
  • how can we understand Dove’s description of this historical. Why does Dove include inaccuracies? Why does Dove offer this poem as a dream?


Look at How Dove offers less mainstream perspectives/arguments/reasoning

  • Slave’s Critique of Practical Reason pg 38
        • Dove refers to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, the use of reason to act.


  • Parsley pg 133


    • How does Dove manipulate language in this poem, what does her focus on language both syntactically and in the content of the poem speak to the power of words?
    • “Cane”
  • → In contrast, how why does Dove stick to one side of master-slave relationship in Kentucky, 1833 pg 40? (1833 was the year in which Kentucky passed an amendment to the laws of the state, prohibiting the importation of slaves into Kentucky )
    • Deals with how self-realization can be obtained
    • Talk about the way Dove describes the young boys, why does she use that language, why does she use the word “sheep”, contrast with the way she describes
    • How does the myth of Jason build on the slaves’ wishes for self realization?


  • First Kiss pg 48


      • Discuss the language in this poem. The breaks between stanzas, could they represent the duality of this lover? The good and bad, never really measuring up?


  • Thomas and Beulah


    • Grandfather’s name is actually Thomas, grandma’s name is Georgianna. Does th

Sailor in Africa pg 119

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Rosa’s Presentation

Since this class is called “Performing American Literature,” I thought I might start with an adaptation of Walt Whitman from one of my favorite artists:

(3 minutes, 43 seconds)

After watching this music video, I want you to think about the following:

  • How do the song and the music video stay true to the themes of the original poem?

*Possible points of discussion:

  1. Its relation to the section title, “Children of Adam,” in which “I Sing The Body Electric” is published.
  2. The simultaneous sensuality/spirituality of the body and soul.
  3. The albino black man: a reversal of the racial master/slave hierarchy in Whitman’s poem.
  • To what extent does Lana del Rey’s song deviate from the original poem? To what extent is it a ‘Song of Herself’?

“The love of the body of the man or woman balks account, the body itself balks account, that of the male is perfect, and that of the female is perfect” (Whitman 81).

Yet, while both are “perfect,” Whitman’s poem places a greater emphasis on the male body, describing it predominantly in sensual terms, while the female body is framed in spiritual or functional terms. How does Lana del Rey reverse Whitman’s treatment of the male and female form in her music video?

If we have time:

  • Of the Civil War poems in “Drum-Taps,” a critical 22-year-old Henry James wrote,

“It exhibits the effort of an essentially prosaic mind to lift itself, by a prolonged muscular strain, into poetry.”

Do you agree or disagree with James? Admittedly, Walt Whitman’s poems do sound a lot like prose. What effect does the prosaic nature of his poetry have on its message and overall tone? Would Whitman’s depiction of the Civil War gain or lose potency if it had been written in traditionally metrical poetry?

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Rosa’s Proposal

Bernice vs. Marjorie: An Epic Rap Battle

I. Background

In the intricate social dance of courtship, wiser, experienced veterans often urge awkward newcomers to “just be yourself.” A typical cynic regarding human nature, F. Scott Fitzgerald advises otherwise. In a letter to his younger sister, Annabel, he writes, “Expression, that is facial expression, is one of your weakest points. A girl of your good looks and at your age ought to have almost perfect control of her face. It ought to almost be like a mask” – a show to the outside world, a performance of one’s charming social self, divorced from one’s true vulnerable character (Turnbull 67).

Likewise, the scenes in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” are all about performance. “The more parts of yourself you can afford to forget the more charm you have,” Marjorie instructs Bernice, in the same vein along which Fitzgerald advises his inexpressive sister (Fitzgerald 35). The story begins with an analogy that compares society functions to the stage: a judgmental middle-aged audience watches young people dance in the ballroom, “this critical circle…not close enough to the stage to see the actors’ faces and catch the subtler byplay” (26). The characters themselves are constant performers on the social stage, trained in the art of charm and artifice while interacting with a social other. When Marjorie learns that her derogatory comments have been overheard, she “was startled, but she showed only a faintly heightened color and her voice was quite even when she spoke” (32). Bernice, post-training, makes disingenuous claims of getting her hair bobbed, telling a captive audience, “Of course I’m charging admission, but if you’ll all come down and encourage me I’ll issue passes for the inside seats” (Fitzgerald 37).

In Fitzgerald’s fiction, as in social reality, appearance definitely matters. Instructing his sister to groom her eyebrows and “cultivate deliberate physical grace,” he writes:

You see if you get anywhere and you feel you look alright then there’s one worry over and one bolt shot for self-confidence—and the person you’re with, man, boy, woman, whether it’s Aunt Millie or Jack Allen or myself likes to feel that the person they’re sponsoring is at least externally a credit. (Turnbull 68)

Growing up as the “Ugly Chinese-Japanese Girl” (I’m Vietnamese) in a predominantly white small town, I know that, for people of color, certain physical features are less easy to “cultivate.” Strangers called me unattractive for not conforming to white beauty ideals, my nose “too flat,” my eyes “too small,” my body “too skinny.” Race, in fact, plays a role in distinguishing Bernice from Marjorie, who assumes her cousin’s “crazy Indian blood” makes Bernice a “reversion to type,” an Indian woman who “just sat round and never said anything” (31). When she finally does speak her mind at the story’s riveting conclusion, Bernice, having just depilated her cousin, shouts, “Scalp the selfish thing!”—a reversion, not to the silent Indian woman, but to the image of the scalping savage (47). The problem of Native American stereotypes abound in historical and literary representation—but in mixed-race Bernice’s case, it’s not clear whether her “reversion to type” at the end is genuine or performative. Is “Bernice the Indian” a product of Bernice the white girl’s internally racist stereotyping, performing the role of a “crazy Indian” not to a social other, but to her white self? Or is Bernice the Native American genuinely embracing Marjorie’s racist convictions to fire them right back her, as if to smugly say, “You’re right. I am a crazy Indian. That’s why I cut all your hair off.”

Thus does external appearance, at times, become indicative of interior life, or at least, one’s interpretation of the interior life of a social other. Something as seemingly trivial as hair plays a disproportionate role in social perception. At the first suggestion of Bernice bobbing her hair, her peers “paused in their conversations and were listening”— her controversial hypothetical hairstyle choice is enough for G. Reece Stoddard to ask her to dance (37). “Hair” is more than a surface attribute—the way it’s styled is often perceived by onlookers to be indicative of one’s deeper personal identity, whether long—revealing a conservative “Madonna-like simplicity”—or bobbed and “ridiculous, like a Greenwich villager who had left her spectacles at home” (43-44). In Japan, and most of Asia, black hair is considered the norm; an Asian with blonde hair (I know all too well) is considered a “delinquent.” Likewise, with the comeback of natural hair during the Black Power Movement, an afro represented liberation and genuine pride in one’s race, while straightened locks could be seen as an indicator of whitewashed conservatism.


II. Goals and Methodologies

If I was interested in playwriting (and I’m not), a stage production of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” would seem like an obvious choice, with the sheer amount of theatrical metaphors scattered throughout the text. But since the characters are so performative themselves, the audience would not have access to their inner lives, which, for example, Fitzgerald reveals when Marjorie “was startled” in spite of her calm appearance. A faithful, naturalistic adaptation of the story to the stage would lose the effect of internal/external contrast: part of the story’s appeal in written form is the reader’s dual, simultaneous access to both performer and the real person behind the mask.

The second problem I have with the stage is the inherent pretentiousness of the medium, the world of “theater” primarily marketed to white liberal intellectual elites. Rap music, on the other hand, appeals to a wider, more diverse audience, and can be used to convey ideological complexity without theater’s classist pretensions. In high school, I performed a rap about the French Revolution; I rapped an anti-slavery speech while playing abolitionist Charles Sumner, before my friend, an angry Preston Brooks, beat me over the head with a cane. Part of Hamilton’s appeal is its ability to take the lives of dead white men and adapt American history for a diverse, modern audience, performing the past in a medium that is socially relevant to the present.

For my senior project, I would like to film a series of rap battles

  • between Bernice and Marjorie,
  • between “Marjorie” and Marjorie,
  • and between “Bernice” and Bernice.

Since films have access to editing software, I can use split-screen whenever a character raps against her social “persona,” so the actress playing Marjorie and “Marjorie” can appear onscreen at the same time. This simultaneous doubling would be impossible to perform in a live theater (I don’t know anyone who can replicate in two and rap against themselves).

Both Marjorie and Bernice are white (I assume she is more white than Native American). However, when casting the actresses who will be performing in this rap battle, I want Marjorie to be played by me (because, like the character, I have blonde hair), and I want Bernice to be played by a black actress who, like Bernice, has dark hair. The reason: in 2010, rapper Wiz Khalifa released a chart-topping single called “Black and Yellow,” written in celebration of his hometown of Pittsburgh. Because Bernice is black (and I am yellow), it would be interesting for our rap lyrics (pre-written and rehearsed, of course) to address the social expectations that come with the color of our skin, in contrast with our actual interior lives. As an adaptation of Fitzgerald’s story, each successive rap battle between Marjorie and Bernice would be faithful to the plot and the characters’ established personalities—but the racial and social contexts have changed. Bobbing one’s hair is no longer seen as an act of radical liberalism—but keeping your hair in an afro, as opposed to straightening it with hair relaxers, expresses nonconformity with whitewashed ideals. Set in the 21st century, with a black protagonist, the story is now “Bernice Kinks Her Hair,” retold through a series of rap battles between black Bernice and her Asian cousin.

But it’s in the battles between their interior and exterior selves that we can truly represent the duality and depth of these characters. In his ethnographic work, The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. DuBois writes:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (2-3)

In battling against a social other, black Bernice and Asian Marjorie’s insults can introduce, accept, or deny the stereotypes that they, and society, impose on each other—similar to Marjorie’s imposition of Native American stereotypes on Bernice, and her later acceptance of it. But when they battle against themselves, each half of the double-consciousness vies for attention: Marjorie the popular Americanized Asian she shows to the outside world, vs. Marjorie the stereotypical Asian nerd who has anything but a dainty mind—she can talk about “Russia, ping-pong, or the League of Nations” because she studies just about everything. Bernice the popular (still-straight-haired) black woman she becomes after her personality “makeover,” vs. the real Bernice, the timid, kind girl who wears her hair naturally.


III. Field Survey

Like Hamilton, in which white historical figures were played by people of color, my adaptation of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” reimagines literary plots through the under-represented perspectives of minority characters. Despite my aversion to adapting the story for the stage, there are many plays I could reread to better understand the craft of cross-demographic adaptation. My favorite contemporary play, An Octoroon, by black playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, was an adaptation of The Octoroon, an 1859 play by white playwright Dion Boucicault. Using often irreverent 21st century references and dialogue, Jacobs-Jenkins’s An Octoroon brilliantly addresses and reverses the racial stereotypes portrayed in the original melodrama. The play also pulls off a racial fluidity that I want to achieve: after the Black Playwright character dons whiteface, he plays both the White Hero and White Villain in his reinterpretation of the original play, a commentary on doubleness and the minority pressure to whitewash oneself for social perception. In terms of structuring, filming, and framing the rap battles, I could look to a YouTube channel, Epic Rap Battles of History, for guidance. The channel pits historical and pop culture characters against each other, reimagining historical conflict the way I want to reimagine the conflict between literary characters. Of course, my research would not be complete without a scholarly article on Hamilton: “Who Tells our Story: Intersectional Temporalities in Hamilton: An American Musical.” The reinterpretation of the past through the present medium of rap music is also explained in Samir Meghelli’s article, “Remixing the Historical Record: Revolutions in Hip Hop Historiography.”

To avoid cultural misrepresentation or appropriation, I could study the origins and cultural impact of rap in the context of African American history, reading scholarly articles such as “Hip Hop: Origins, Characteristics and Creative Processes” and “Moving the crowd, ‘crowding’ the emcee: The coproduction and contestation of black normativity in freestyle rap battles.” I could also read Reiland Rabaka’s book, “Hip Hop’s Amnesia : From Blues and the Black Women’s Club Movement to Rap and the Hip Hop Movement.”

To better understand and accurately represent the concept of racial doubleness faced by minority populations, I could further read The Souls of Black Folk, by W. E. B. DuBois. In addition to An Octoroon, which represents racial doubleness and fluidity in the form of a stage play, I could also study how rap, traditionally thought of as a black medium, has been represented across different cultural demographics. Contemporary rap battles bear shocking similarities to the medieval Scottish practice of “flyting,” in which two poets spar verbally, alternately insulting their opponent and boasting about themselves. A promising read on flyting and ethnicity is Jacquelyn Hendricks’ “A Battle of ‘Trechour Tung[s]’: Gaelic, Middle Scots, and the Question of Ethnicity in the Scottish Flyting.” To learn about the cultural appropriation of rap and know what to avoid, I can read Cutler’s articles on “The co-construction of whiteness in an MC battle” and “Yorkville crossing: White teens, hip hop and african american english.” For the purposes of developing my Asian-Marjorie character, I can read Jonghyun Park’s “Rap as Korean rhyme: Local enregisterment of the foreign” and Darren Brown’s “We Got the Power: Asian Americans and Hip-Hop Culture in the Bay Area.”

And finally, before I proceed with my rap battle depictions of “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” I would research other instances in which rap music has been used to reinterpret existing works of literature, or, in some cases, be considered as a work of literature in itself. I’m interested in reading “The Fine Art of Rap,” “Tit for Tat: The Canterbury Tales and “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy,” and “It’s Miller Time! Baba Brinkman’s Rap Adaptation of the Miller’s Tale.” But by far the most promising and relevant to my project is R. Collier’s “Xavier naidoo and double consciousness: Introducing afro-german hip hop to the american literature classroom.” Encompassing double consciousness, hip hop, and American literature, this article is a triple threat that will no doubt inform my project’s successful execution.


IV. Limitations

I am confident that I can portray the Asian American double consciousness accurately, but I am usually hesitant to depict other the experiences of races, for fear of accidental misrepresentation or cultural appropriation. Since race is a sensitive topic, I have to be very careful about how I structure this project, and since rap battles are a series of boasts and insults, I want to make a compelling social commentary without offending anyone. This research will help me take the necessary precautions to avoid misrepresentation, and in the spirit of collaboration, I will definitely consult with my black friends and classmates before proceeding with performance.


V. Bibliography

Fitzgerald’s Life and Work

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Bernice Bobs Her Hair.” Ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli. The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1989. 25-47. Print.

Turnbull, Andrew. “Chapter V.” 2004. Scott Fitzgerald. New York: Grove, 1962. 66-68. Print.

Rap Music in African American History

Neumann, Friedrich. “Hip Hop: Origins, Characteristics and Creative Processes.” The World of Music, vol. 42, no. 1, 2000, pp. 51–63. JSTOR.

Rabaka, Reiland. Hip Hop’s Amnesia : From Blues and the Black Women’s Club Movement to Rap and the Hip Hop Movement. Lexington Books, 2012.

Samy Alim, H., Lee, J., & Mason Carris, L. (2011). Moving the crowd, ‘crowding’ the emcee: The coproduction and contestation of black normativity in freestyle rap battles. Discourse & Society: An International Journal for the Study of Discourse and Communication in their Social, Political and Cultural Contexts, 22(4), 422-439.

Simpson, P. A. (2006). Battle rhymes: Measures of masculinity. In G. Bayer (Ed.), Mediating germany: Popular culture between tradition and innovation (pp. 18-36) Cambridge Scholars.

Cross-Gender/Cross-Cultural Uses of Rap and Performance

An Octoroon. By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. Polonsky Shakespeare Theater, New York. Mar. 2015. Performance.

Brown, Darren L. We Got the Power: Asian Americans and Hip-Hop Culture in the Bay Area, Michigan State U, 2012.

Cutler, C. (2007). The co-construction of whiteness in an MC battle. Pragmatics: Quarterly Publication of the International Pragmatics Association, 17(1), 9-22.

Cutler, C. (2003). Yorkville crossing: White teens, hip hop and african american english. In R. Harris, & B. Rampton (Eds.), The language, ethnicity and race reader (pp. 314-327) Routledge.

Hendricks, Jacquelyn: A Battle of ‘Trechour Tung[s]’: Gaelic, Middle Scots, and the Question of Ethnicity in the Scottish Flyting, Fifteenth-Century Studies (37) [2012] , p.71-96.

Park, J. (2016). Rap as Korean rhyme: Local enregisterment of the foreign. Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, 26(3), 278-293.

Rap in the Performance of History

Meghelli, Samir. “Remixing the Historical Record: Revolutions in Hip Hop Historiography.” Western Journal of Black Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, 2013, pp. 94-102, ProQuest.

Silva, Andie, and Shereen Inayatulla. “Who Tells our Story: Intersectional Temporalities in Hamilton: An American Musical.” Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education, vol. 24, no. 2, 2017, pp. 190-201.

Rap in Literary Performance

Beidler, Peter G. “It’s Miller Time! Baba Brinkman’s Rap Adaptation of the Miller’s Tale.” LATCH: A Journal for the Study of the Literary Artifact in Theory, Culture, or History 3 (2010): 134-50. ProQuest. Web. 27 Mar. 2018.

Collier, R. (2016). Xavier naidoo and double consciousness: Introducing afro-german hip hop to the american literature classroom. CLA Journal, 60(2), 209-224.

Iain Macleod Higgins (2013) Tit for Tat: The Canterbury Tales and “The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy”, Exemplaria, 16:1, 165-202.

Shusterman, Richard. “The Fine Art of Rap.” New Literary History, vol. 22, no. 3, 1991, pp. 613–632. JSTOR.







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Lauren’s Proposal

ENGL 438 Final Project Proposal2-2mq4p6s

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Nyamal’s Proposal

Nyamal’s Proposal 

Walt Whitman


Presenting the Individual, Dynamic Black Body


Introduction: Black Humanism and the Black Body Through the Lense of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman is one of America’s most prolific writers. His writings helped build and fortify the foundations of the American humanist, transcendentalist, and realist writing traditions. The focus of my project will be on Song of Myself and Leaves of Grass, in which Whitman celebrates individualism and appreciates the aesthetics of the individual body. A common thread that runs through these writings, and many of his writings not included in this collection, is creating the definition of the American spirit. In an effort to  go about this task, Walt Whitman confronted issues of race during and after the Civil War quite frequently in his writings.

The presence of Black bodies and Blackness in Walt Whitman’s writings is interesting to put in conjunction with the very American values he writes about, specifically individualism and humanism, because often Whitman deprives the Black characters of their individuality.

Furthermore, in section 51 of Songs of Myself, Whitman writes, “Do I contradict myself?/ Very well then I contradict myself,/ (I am large, I contain multitudes)”.  A significant part of the philosophy of individualism and humanism is recognizing and celebrating the dynamic nature of a person. Whitman fails to give the Black individual dynamicity, furthermore he presents the body as a spectacle for a static, political purpose.


Field Survey

I will begin my research by looking into the Walt Whitman archives to see the edits he’s made to conversations about Blackness in his writings. I will also look into materials from Walt Whitman’s time as a news writer and editor. Whitman served as the editor for The New Orleans Crescent when he lived in New Orleans. During his time as the editor, he saw the condition of slavery in the deep American South. After his time as the editor for The New Orleans Crescent, Whitman returned back to New York and founded the free soil publication, Brooklyn Freedom.  I aim to integrate these writings of Whitman and portions of Song of Myself, I sing the Body Electric, with Robin Coste Lewis’ Inhabitants and Visitors, a writing about the the free Blacks who created the community around the Walden pond that Henry David Thoreau writes about in Walden. I also hope to include Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man to speak to the erasure of Black individuality.


Goals and Methodologies

I will present my project through film because so much of Walt Whitman’s writings are about celebrating the physical. My film will be an art house style film that reimagines Whitman’s work as one that celebrates individuality and dynamicity. I aim to  re-humanizes the Black bodies in Whitman’s work as objects that are more than mere spectacle.

Whitman uses the word “electric” several times in his writings so I plan to incorporate the energy that Whitman portrays through this word in the same way in this film. If possible, I would also love to integrate visual themes from Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight, as I believe this film speaks greatly to the topic of Black individuality and coming into the Black body.



Belasco, S. & Price, K. M. & Folsom, E. & Belasco, S. & Price, K. M. & Folsom, E..Leaves of Grass: The Sesquicentennial Essays. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008. Project MUSE,


Ellison, Ralph. Invisible Man. New York :Vintage International, 1995. Print.


Peeples, Ken, Jr. “The Paradox of the ‘Good Gray Poet’ (Walt Whitman on Slavery and the Black Man).” Phylon 35 (1974): 22-32.


Price, Kenneth. “Whitman’s Solutions to ‘The Problem of the Blacks.'” Resources for American Literary Study 15 (1985): 205-208.


Sill, Geoffrey. “Whitman on ‘The Black Question’: A New Manuscript.” Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 8 (1990): 69-75.

Wilson, I..Whitman Noir: Black America and the Good Gray Poet. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2014. Project MUSE,

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A Palette: Final Performative Projec

Agnes Enkhtamir

Professor Wai Chee Dimock

AMST 475

10 May 2017

A Palette: Final Performative Project

Description of Final Project:

In the first four chapters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe introduces twenty-four characters. She describes the skin tone of just eight of them: Uncle Tom, Eliza Harris, Harry Harris, George Harris, Aunt Chloe, Mose, Pete, and Polly. For my final project, I’ve assigned created skin color sample squares made of leather for each those characters (much like a carpet sample squares that are given for free in home improvement stores). Each of the sample squares has a barcode etched on its back. When scanned by an barcode scanner in a store or in an app on a smart phone, a physical description and history of each character will appear in addition to an estimate of their market price in 1852, the date Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, as well as my best estimate of their inflation-corrected value in 2017.

I chose to combine the skin color sample squares with the online directory because the sample squares offered an experience for a viewer that the directory could not create alone. The sample squares require participation from a viewer; the action of searching through skin colors implicates the viewer in a way the directory doesn’t. Many people are familiar with the process of selecting a color of wood for their floors or wallpapers for their house. I wanted to draw upon that previous shared experience with a new one, that of selecting a slave, to make the viewer feel like they are participating in what a slave market would look like. The online directory accesses the information immediately available in a twenty-first century slave market. The layout is visually pleasing, as you can see, because I wanted my final project to be searching for a consumer instead of a viewer.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is an emotionally manipulative novel. Stowe constantly uses motherhood and femininity and the loss of those relationships and qualities to ignite empathy in her white audience. Even a Northerner in then 1800’s would feel implicated in slavery because Stowe describes a system of slavery wherein citizens are either complicit, like the relatively benevolent Mr. Shelby and Augustine St. Clare or against it. This is driven by Stowe’s narration style; she often leaves the narration in order to address the reader directly. I wanted my final project to invoke that similar style. The removed and mundane act of purchasing a good combined and the online directory addresses the viewer directly by forcing them to interact tactilely and digitally.


Providing an estimate cost for the characters was the most difficult part of the project. Stowe does not mention the monetary value of the salves as she describes them, except on one occasion: the Southern slave trader Haley mentions that Eliza Harris would be worth over a thousand dollars on the market. “‘You might make your fortune on that ar gal in Orleans, any day. I’ve seen over a thousand, in my day, paid down for gals not a bit handsomer.’” (6)

When Haley was estimating Eliza Harris’s worth on the market, he was considering her ability to work as well as her potential ability to please a master, sexually or otherwise. This additional market value is tied to her beauty. Stowe suggests that light skin color is correlated with beauty in a slave. “… that peculiar air of refinement, that softens of voice and manner, which seems in many cases to be a particular gift to the quadroon and mulatto women. These natural graces in the quadroon are often united with beauty of the most dazzling kind, and in almost every case with a personal appearance prepossessing and agreeable.” (12)

Haley also mentions that beauty, strong belief in God, and physical strength adds to a slave’s value on the market. These are all very vague points of reference as a monetary addition or subtraction is not specified with each trait. I approached the process of estimating worth by attaching values to the traits that are mentioned more than five times (in the context of valuation) in first four chapters of the book: beauty (and skin color), piousness, intelligence, loyalty, and physical strength. To add or subtract value to the worth of a slave, I had to have a reference point for how much a young beautiful quadroon in Kentucky would cost as compared to a darker, older man in Louisiana.

There are many variables that must be considered when creating an average value for a demographic of slave, including economic climate. Between 1804 and 1862, one hundred and thirty five thousand slaves were sold just on the New Orleans Slave Market (Kotlikoff), so I assumed that owning a slave was an “investment”; many slaveowners believed that it was worth the initial cost. I did not course-correcting the estimate with time.

Demand for all slaves is a derived demand because the value in a slave is what they can produce; the value of the slave is directly attached to the value of the product that the slave produces. (That product would be physical labor like picking cotton or doing the housework or cooking.) The amount or quality of product created changes with the demographic of a slave. Sex, health, age, location, economic stability, the price of the output, and chances of reproduction are all variables that go into the price of a single slave. Again, I do not have the mathematical skill to factor all of these variables into an estimate, so I must limit myself to adding or subtracting value based on an average price.

The average price of young, adult males increased with strength, endurance, and youth. Young adult women’s price were valued on their endurance, youth, and ability to have children. Older and weaker slaves have low or “negative” prices because maintaining them (feeding, providing shelter, etc.) could cost more than the value of the product they were producing. Young children are also valued similarly (Williamson and Cain)

(Source: Historical Statistics, Table Bb212, Average Price of a Slave Over Time (price-adjusted for in 2011)

In 1850, the average market value for a healthy, male slave between the ages of 18 – 35 in Kentucky was $400. Converting that value into dollars in 2011 would yield about $82,000. Williamson and Cain). I found estimates for a healthy, female slave ranging from $157 to $950 from a similar time period (Carter and Gartner). Women’s prices seem to be more affected by variables than men’s prices are. The traits mentioned previously attached with a vague and non-binding value are as follows: beauty (+150 in women, +50 in men), piousness (+70 in men and women), intelligence (+50 in men), loyalty (+100), and physical strength (+100 in men, +40 in women).

This, in addition to Haley’s valuation, led me to price Eliza Harris at about $1300 in 1850, which would convert to about $266,500 in the twentieth century. Uncle Tom would be priced at $550, or about $112,750 today. Harry Harris, despite his youth, seems to be worth more than an average five year old child because of his temper and beauty, so I’ve estimated him at about $41,000 (assuming the average price of a young boy is $200 in 1850). George Harris, because of his beauty and intelligence would have received a high price, but his longing for independence would decrease it significantly, I believe. I estimated him to be about $350 or $71,750. I estimated Aunt Chloe’s price at about $390, or $79,950. Mose, Pete, and Polly are all very young and seemingly without Harry’s beauty. I’ve valued them Mose and Pete at $70, or $14,350 each. Polly is a baby, so I’ve priced her at $4,100.

Other considered final projects:

In the course of this school year, I’ve considered two other final projects, both centered around Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The first would have been three portraits of three characters’ hands. The second would have been a response to Professor Dimock’s remarks on my first idea.

The first was meant to explore the relationship Stowe creates between morality and femininity. Stowe frequently uses motherhood as a bridge between the slaves she portrays and her white audience; the fierce protection and love of motherhood is universal for Stowe and inextricably connected to Christian values, which is why her female characters are so often opponents of slavery and not as capable of violent and bitter acts as her male characters are. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, matriarchs rule over the domestic sphere so they are able to live their lives honestly and morally. Stowe’s men are not afforded the same freedom because the public sphere they operate in values money more than faith-based action. Striving to gain economic advantage is portrayed to be the reason why slavery exists.

I was interested in the potential of this project because I wanted to understand the way Stowe creates vulnerability and femininity in her male characters. Uncle Tom was most interesting to me; in the novel, he’s described as being night black, broad-chested, and powerfully built, characteristics that could be seen as violent and scary for her white audience. Uncle Tom is one of the few male characters that exhibit the feminine quality of living a life guided by the Christian God. He could be a threatening figure, but instead, he is gentle, submissive, pious, and self-sacrificing — all characteristics shared by the mothers in the novel.

I was most taken by how Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s reaction to the news that he is to be sold. “Here he turned to the rough trundle bed full of little woolly heads, and broke fairly down. He leaned over the back of the chair, and covered his face with his large hands. Sobs, heavy, hoarse and loud, shook the chair, and great tears fell through his fingers on the floor…” (90). Stowe often lingers on the hands of her characters. She describes the hands of characters often. On the first page of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she describes the hands of slave trader Haley as “large and course… bedecked with rings” (1). Hands also represent what a person is capable of. I wanted to paint Uncle Tom’s hands to emphasize the femininity in his character and the gentleness of his touch. To even out this exploration of hands, I was planning on painting the hands of Simon Legree and Augustine St. Clare because their characters, in addition to that of Uncle Tom’s, represented a sort of gradient of femininity; Legree is most lacking and the most violent and St. Clare has some of its values but is ultimately unable to yield to them in the face of economic advantage. A finished portrait of Legree’s hands and some sketches, along with the paint and string art I presented during the AMST presentation can be found in my work blog.

But the portraits are very stationary. I wanted to create something with a potential for other people to add onto it — the online directory allows for that because it can be used as a convenient resource for others. And the portraits would completely ignore the role of women in the novel; in creating this piece, I would only be searching for signs of the feminine in the men, ignoring women’s important role in Stowe’s work.


The values I’ve given to the characters very close to arbitrary. I just don’t know enough math for these estimates to not be colored by my own biases. I believe that Stowe believed that the plight of light-skinned men and women would be more persuasive and compelling to her white audience, so I’ve valued the light-skinned men and women more.

Looking to the future, I want to slowly catalogue my way through the book, creating a comprehensive color palette of every African American person in the book. I limited myself to the first four chapters — the chapters that established the status quo — because I did not trust my abilities to provide ballpark estimates for so many characters. I also want to post the leather samples online with the directory on a website. It would remove some of the experience I wanted the viewer to have, but the number of people who would be able to access and maybe use this project would increase significantly.

Works Cited

Carter, Susan B., Scott S. Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright.Historical Statistics of the United States: Earliest times to the Present. New York: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.

Kotlikoff. “New Orleans Slave Sample, 1804-1862.” New Orleans Slave Sample, 1804-1862 [Instructional Materials]. N.p., 1979. Web. 10 May 2017.

Mancall, Peter, Joshua Rosenbloom, and Thomas Weiss. “Slave Prices and the Economy of the Lower South.” The Cliometric Society. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.

Officer, Lawrence, and Samuel Williamson. “Measures of Worth.” MeasuringWorth, 2008. Web. 10 May 2017.

Soltow, Lee. Men and Wealth in the United States, 1850-1870. New Haven: Yale UP, 1975. Print.

Williamson, Samuel, and Louis Cain. “Measuring Slavery in 2011 Dollars.” Measuring Worth. N.p., 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.

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Final Project Work Updates

April 15, 2017

I started rereading Uncle Tom’s Cabin last week. As I’m making my way through it, I’ve started to realize how ambivalent I am towards my final project. It was meant to be a series of three paintings of male hands, emphasizing how interconnected femininity and morality is for Stowe and the women in this book. I believe that Stowe believes that if maternal and feminine qualities ruled the hearts and minds of men, slavery wouldn’t exist because money is masculine and kindness is feminine. And, curiously, Stowe often lingers on the way men moved and used their hands, describing where their skin was worn in and what kind of rings they wore. (Especially striking is when she described Uncle Tom sobbing into his big, potentially powerful but ultimately passive hands.)

My project proposal would have allowed me to combine my fascination with her usage of femininity and motherhood to inject a sense of morality in the reader and the ways masculinity and femininity play out in her men. I was going to paint portraits of the hands Uncle Tom, Simon Legree, and Augustine St. Clare because they all perform their masculinity to varying degrees. They all greet what I think are moments of violence with a stifled stillness.

But I’m not sure that that’s what I want out of this class. There are so many limitations to just painting three portraits. It would highlight black, male femininity in Uncle Tom, the impotence of St. Clare, and Legree’s corruption. But it feels still to me. And it also would completely ignore the women in the novel. I would literally be searching for signs of women in only the men.

I also want my final project to be interactive, something that implicates the player the way reading Stowe made me feel like I was participating in slavery.

I want to create something I can feel in my hands, but I’d also like for it to have some sort of online component. I’m thinking about changing my project altogether. I want to think about the idea of a color palette. I’ll talk to Professor Dimock next office hours.

April 20, 2017

I met with Professor Dimock during her office hours yesterday. We talked about my initial project idea — before I had decided on a series of three portraits — and what I wanted my project to accomplish. It was really helpful.

I think I’m fairly settled on the idea of a color palette that someone can flip through. In some home furniture stores, like Home Depot, a customer is able to customize a couch or their hardwood floors by flipping through swatches bound together by a ring. If I can go back through Uncle Tom’s Cabin and catalogue every single character mentioned and descriptions of their skin color, I can put together a book of skin tones. Buying leather (or something that feels like leather — I want that tactile experience) in different shades and putting them together in a sort of book shouldn’t be too difficult, though it will be costly.

I like how impersonal the idea feels, and the act of flipping through shades to pick the one you want, the person you want, would be an interesting way of experiencing a part of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

May 2, 2017

I’ve been thinking about the digital component to my project. I want to create a few mockups of a sort of online directory that has everything each character said and when they were referenced. Cataloging each interaction for every character in all of Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be too time consuming. I think I’m going to limit myself to the first three chapters of the book.

I can etch small carvings into or draw a barcode on the bound pieces of leather. I chose a few shades online from an Etsy store that only sells small pieces of leather for craft projects by working myself backward from Uncle Tom. The act of having to pick out each character’s skin tone — choosing between two very similar shades of white or brown or black — is a very different way of interacting with these characters.

I’ve been trying to find primary source documents for a couple of weeks because I want the online directory to be able to price how much each slave would be. There are a lot of secondary sources, and the consensus so far seems to be the lighter the better for women and the darker and stronger the better for the men.

If I had more time, I would want to find a friend who can help me create some sort of mathematical formula — to actually be able to look at a whole, living person and assign them a monetary value. This is math that’s still being done; I remember reading that the EPA doesn’t take spend the money to regulate a pollutant unless it harms so many people in so much time. I’m excited about this project. I’m glad I’ve moved away from the paintings, though I had already completed one when I decided to change course.

May 3, 2017

I found a primary source! This is very exciting. I didn’t think I would be able to find one that very specifically differentiated between subtle shades. I’ve also finally finished the mock up of my online directory! All that’s left to do is etch in the barcodes.

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Open City Soundscapes: Reflections

Victoria Wang

Professor Wai Chee Dimock

ENGL 438

8 May 2017

The Project

I collaborated with Amanda Chemeche on a project based on Open City by Teju Cole—specifically, the historical references the narrator Julius makes with regards to lesser-known, often quite horrible events that happened in Manhattan’s past. We were both interested in how a single geographic space, such as the streets of downtown New York City, could be the location of so many dramatic events over the course of time; each successive generation erases so much to make room for new buildings, new streets, new cultural traditions; but at the same time, elements of the past can still be seen in the bones of the contemporary city. Pearl street, for instance, got its name from oyster shells left by the Lenape, when the waterline still reached that far. Broadway and Wall Street existed when Manhattan was still a Dutch colony. The city may be a palimpsest, but erasure is rarely so clean-cut as to leave nothing behind.

I was inspired by Amanda’s presentation on exploded axons, and together we proposed a location-based phone app which overlays historical maps, with significant locations marked, onto the modern map of New York City. Users can choose which historical map to follow on their screen, then seek out marked locations in real-life Manhattan. Once they walk close enough to a marker, they will then be able to access visuals and sound recordings that reveal some facet of the site: cultural, historical, or simply self-reflective. Amanda and I chose four watershed events in Manhattan’s past to create maps for: the Lenape seasonal trails, the founding of New Amsterdam, the Draft Riots of 1863, and 9/11. My particular focus was finding and curating sounds specific to the time period and location. Amanda focused on images, documents, and building the maps.



My original intention was to use all sorts of sounds—animal calls, people on the street, laborers at the docks, multilingual dialogue, music, even pertinent literature or first person accounts—but though I succeeded to some extent, sound recordings for everything except the 9/11 layer were very hard to come by. Recording technology was not readily available before Thomas Edison invented the mechanical phonograph cylinder in 1877. And even when recordings do exist, how do I select sounds related to the incident I am trying to comment on? When there are modern recreations based on historical documents describing the sounds, how do I use them as intelligible commentary past violence? Each layer presented unique challenges.

Researching Native American music provided fascinating insight on the diaspora of the East Coast tribes. It also forced me to confront how ignorant I am about Native history. While many Native songs contain the stereotypical elements of drumbeat, dance, and chants, there are obvious distinctions between music from, say, the Plains (what most Americans think of when they think Indian) and the Northeastern Woodlands: first of all, Northeast music is performed indoors, in wooden longhouses, and it uses a totally different language group. There do exist descendants of East Coast tribes like the Lenape throughout the country, but finding recordings of Lenape music specifically was a trial. YouTube videos of ceremonies in modern reservations tend to be poor quality in terms of actual sound, and DRAM, Smithsonian Folkways, the Yale Music Library, and Alexandria Street turned up almost nothing. Iroquois music, however, is relatively abundant. The nations of the Iroquois were mortal enemies of the Lenape, but they belong to the same language group and share many cultural and musical traditions, so for convenience’s sake I conflated the two tribes. I found Iroquois music recorded in the 1900s from New York, but also from Canada, from California, and from New Mexico, reflecting both the way East Coast Natives were forced to scatter during European expansion and the cross-cultural spread of music as diverse tribes had contact with each other in reservations. I was also lucky to find work on natural sounds from the time period that had already been done by the Calling Thunder project. In fact, this project brings to life the same concept I had, but only with four marked locations in 1609 Manhattan, with a much higher quality of video and sound production—which is probably a hint that I was overambitious to go for four whole layers. It’s exciting to know that many other people have shown interest in this concept of mapping historical sound.

The first settlers of New Amsterdam were not typical Dutch citizenry: about half were actually French Walloons, and all of them were fleeing religious persecution to practice Reformed Protestant Christianity. As such, religious music was my dominant focus—I have a dozen recordings on the topic that I cast out. I picked a recording that actually sounded like I was overhearing a Dutch or French congregation singing the Genevan psalms of the Reformed Church. As the settlement grew, it became a major port city, and a priest visiting the city in its heyday reported hearing 18 languages. There were so many forces tangled in that small tip of Manhattan: the various Native tribes, their own intertribal conflict intensified by the introduction of rifles, trying to navigate a tenuous trade relationship with Europeans. The Dutch and the English vying for control over the land. A Protestant, puritanical schout frustrated by rabble-raising sailors who kept the taverns and brothels in booming business. Since Julius doesn’t mention a specific event from the time period, I tried to capture the general atmosphere of the place. I looked for movies or dramatizations that accurately depict New Amsterdam, from which good sound recordings would follow. But it seems that, while there are many first person accounts of the settlement, nobody has tried to recreate it in film or sound yet (at least that’s available in America). Certainly something I wish Hollywood would capitalize on.

Speaking of Hollywood, Gangs of New York is a three-and-a-half-hour movie about the exact event I was researching, the Draft Riots of 1863. Who would have thought Martin Scorsese could help me in a research project? The movie privileges the Irish perspective and indulges in gory violence among the Five Points Gangs, but it shows the sense of fury and futility inspired by the Civil War drafts in some very effective short clips, and its soundtrack contains both music that would have been played in NYC in 1863 and modern music that could provide commentary on the violence. One thing I discovered is that the clips of the actual riots did not seem useful for the project at all. The sounds of the riot were either unintelligible or predictable: shouting crowds, breaking glass, gunshots. I could mix the same thing with clips from There’s a reason Scorsese mostly buried the sounds of the riot in music, narration, or significant dialogue: by itself, sounds of chaos inherently don’t make sense. I cannot find the intellectual significance of forcing my audience to listen to a mess of angry shouting. Perhaps if I visit the actual Five Points site in NYC I will reevaluate my position, but for the project, I found it much more interesting to focus on the music, with the composers’ clear intent and cultural context.

The most recent layer was easiest in terms of finding material, but most difficult in terms of the moral implications of what I was doing. There are countless audio recordings related to 9/11, mostly in the form of phone calls sent to and from victims of the attack. Everyone trapped in the building was calling 911. These civilian phone calls—quite possibly the speakers’ last words—are still archived but not open to the public due to privacy laws, except for the recording I used in my project. For the first time, my material consists of the terrible deaths of people who could easily have been me, whose families and friends still survive. You, reader of this reflection, probably remember seeing the news hit on TV. I was just barely too young to remember now, and I admit that the weight of the tragedy didn’t hit me until I visited the 9/11 museum and heard a voicemail left to a firefighter who had died when the towers collapsed. “I know you’re probably out there helping people,” said the firefighter’s friend. “But call me when you get back, so I know you’re okay.” Earlier, I had snuck my phone out and recorded other sounds in the exhibit: people recounting what they saw that day, the shrill PASS distress signals coming everywhere from the rubble in the aftermath. But I did not record the voicemail. I could not. It was not for me to own in the palm of my hand.


Narratives of Trauma

I brought this upon myself. “Sound could immerse and transport the app player into aspects of a location,” I arrogantly proclaimed in my project proposal. And then I listened to people die.

To reproduce violence is, in some ways, itself an act of violence. So long as this peculiar form of psychological violence is seen as productive to the audience, it’s an important experience because it destabilizes perspectives that we take for granted. In a certain level of pain, there is a strong stimulus for growth. But when the violence outweighs the usefulness, the project is labelled “scandalous,” “truly despicable,” “insensitive,” “crass,” “crossing the line,” or if you’re being polite, “controversial.” These are all phrases used to describe the original cover art of Steve Reich’s album “WTC 9/11.”

Reich’s album is a perfect example of two ways real trauma can be reimagined and profited from in art. The visual reeks of using shock value and real horror to sell content; it’s unimaginative and tacky, and it leads nowhere beyond “Look at what happened! Isn’t it horrible?” The music itself is a different story. A Slate article by Seth Colter Walls puts it succinctly: “The majority of ‘WTC 9/11’ focuses instead on dealing with the tragedy after the fact…Reich’s composition is clearly the product of a mind working on several tracks with respect to 9/11. City-dwellers (as well as cable news watchers) naturally retain distinct memories of watching the buildings fall. But the variety of sources used in the piece suggests we have other intellectual and spiritual concerns about 9/11 worth investigating, beyond the re-enactment of trauma.” The profit we gain from listening to Reich’s music is the type of profit I’m trying to give my audience, and myself.



I mostly kept out of the actual map-making process due to my unfamiliarity with architecture software, only offering aesthetic advice and supporting historical research. Neither Amanda nor I predicted how complicated making the four historical maps would be. Since what I had in mind was a more Pokémon Go type game, I was very excited when Amanda suggested using WalkJogRun and VisualEyes as interactive platforms to overlay archival maps on modern Manhattan and create digital pins to attach our files to. But then the archival maps proved inadequate, and Amanda decided to rebuild the entire city of Manhattan four times over with architecture software—and the work involved was so extensive that the concept of using interactive platforms was thrown out entirely, and the final project was presented as a PowerPoint, a research tool in book format.

I wish I had been more proactive about finding ways to help with the mapping and to keep the project’s format interactive. I find the end result impressive, but regrettable for the purposes of my focus. A book works best for the way the historical maps were built, and suits the visuals well, but I curated my sounds with the understanding that listeners would be standing on site, engaged 360 degrees with the world around them, and would be able to view the images on their phone simultaneously. Sound recordings just don’t work when you have to stay on the same PowerPoint slide for five minutes to finish listening. I am also aware that more time was spent on building the maps than I spent researching sounds, and I regret that there was not a more even distribution of work. Of course, it’s too late to change the way the maps were built. But if we continue working on this project, I hope we will at least redesign the format to integrate the sound in a way more conducive to listening. I also hope to have room to include more background information for each image and sound recording we attach to the maps.



Finally looking at the finished project, after months of listening to records and doing historical research, I can’t help but feel that my work is vastly incomplete. The tip of Manhattan, tiny compared to the rest of the world, contains a web of influences that feels massive in proportion to the history of America: the chaotically conflicting powers in the colonial era, the explosive rage of Irish immigrants in the Civil War, the sheer disbelief that accompanied the horrors of 9/11. Each of these historical events has entire volumes dedicated to recording and analyzing exactly what happened. My research was just skimming the surface, a wildly haphazard journey through the history of sound. But the experience of making this project with Amanda has taught me so much about the DNA which makes up Manhattan and the rest of my country, as well as strategies of approaching national and personal trauma.

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Summary of initial concept:

The very first iteration of this project was an anthology of folktales that examined what exactly an African-American horror tradition would look like. After reading The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which includes the chapter “An Authentic Ghost Story”, both of which represent a kind of white nightmare of the past and of the nonwhite other, I started theorizing about ways in which what we think of as American horror is actually white American horror. Both Arthur Gordon Pym and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are canonical American texts, the first investigating a fear of the nonwhite other, the second exploring a fear of past misdeeds, both personal and systematic. A quotation I’ve returned to over the course of this project is from D.H. Lawrence, who writes,

America hurts because it has a powerful disintegrative effect on the white psyche. It is full of grinning, unappeased aboriginal demons, too, ghosts, and it persecutes the white men. (qtd. in Redding 165)

Although this is simplistic, it’s fair to say that white Americans fear persecution from the other that they, historically, have persecuted — whether this takes the form of ghosts, monsters, or serial killers (there are, as I mentioned in an earlier blog posts, many other genres of horror, like gorey tales, psychological thrillers, and zombie apocalypses, but I do not have a theory of their relation to whiteness at the present time). Consider works like The Shining, where the haunting is a result of an Indian Burial Ground, or Amityville Horror and Pet Semetary, which use the same trope. Many other stories of haunting and possession are centered around ghosts who have been wronged in the past, and so take vengeance on the new occupants of the house — here we can look to novels like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (although this is, to be fair, not supernatural and instead a kind of gaslighting), or many of Edgar Allen Poe’s short stories, or recent horror films like Drag Me to Hell (in which the white female protagonist is haunted by an ambiguously racialized older woman after denying her a loan), or American imports of originally Japanese films like The Grudge or The Ring, in which women who were wronged in life, terrorize the living in death.

This is all to say there is a robust white horror tradition, but I wondered if Black Americans, had their own distinct cultural fears, and if these would manifest in some kind of literature. As this is a class on American Literature, I did not look to films (notably, African Americans have historically been underrepresented in film. In his foreword to Horror Noire: Blacks in American Horror Films, Steven Torriano Berry jokes “Why are there no Black people in horror movies?…Because when the ominous voice says, ‘GET OUT!,’ we do!”), nor did I look to novels. Instead, I turned to folktales. I justified this choice in two ways. Firstly, it is easier to read almost one hundred folktales, as I did for this project, than it is to read one hundred novels. Secondly, many theorists have argued that folktales and folklore are, in fact, the basis of much of African American culture and fiction. In an earlier blog post I quoted Trudier Harris, an English professor at UNC who argues “African-American folklore is arguably the basis for most African-American literature” (qtd. in Prahlad 565) and Molefi K. Asante who writes, “no art form reflects the tremendous impact of our presence in America more powerfully or eloquently than does folk poetry in the storytelling tradition” (qtd. in Tolagbe Ogunleye 435). What I hoped to find was some unifying theory of African-American ghost stories.

Overview of Project:

At the start of the project I intended to write my own versions of short stories I found in multiple collections, creating an anthology with my own definitive versions of regionally specific tales. As the project progressed, and I read more folklorists, I decided the project should be oral instead of written. As I discussed in Blog #2,

Folklore is worlds away from representational texts found in collections. Rather, it is a part of the body, the unconscious and conscious mind, the spirit, the air that is breathed, the smells, sounds, sensations, and the totality of elements found in given moments of dynamic social interaction. It is a corporeally based, expressive, and artful language and system of thought of which spoken or written words are only a part (Prahlad, 167)

and “the text of a folktale is not ‘the folktale’: but the transcription of an oral performance” (Daniel Barnes qtd. in Prahland 165). If I was going to rewrite stories anyway, why not present them in a new (old) way: as a series of podcasts, one per story, each containing the text of a story, either a composite I’d created or the direct text from one of the various anthologies I’d collected, and some background information. I intended these recordings to be informational, informal and fun, artifacts that could be listened to casually, played for children, or used by students and scholars.

For this project I read over eighty stories from five collections, most of which pulled their tales from dozens of conversations and oral interviews. I tracked common themes and story structures, and eventually settled on seven basic stories and story types I wanted to record (although in the end I only created three recordings). It is important to say that these are not the only seven types of stories; instead, I focused on tales that fell into easy to define clusters and appeared multiple times across the anthologies, or that were especially indicative of a specific motif or tone, even if the story itself was unique.

The Stories Themselves:

I made three audio recordings — two about specific story clusters, and a third I felt compelled to include because of an essay I read connecting it to Igbo ethnic group, arguing that the “African” in African American folktales can be carefully traced across the Atlantic.

  • “Waiting Tales” — There are a number of stories with essentially the same plot, and just a few key details altered each time: a man is traveling, and spends the night in a house. As the night progresses three strange creatures, each larger than the last come to see him. After each one arrives it remarks it is “waiting for [       ],” — a name which is sometimes Emmett, sometimes Martin, sometimes Rufus, or, as Hamilton writes in her version, occasionally John, Caleb, Whalem-Balem, or Willy. The man in the house gets increasingly disturbed, and finally leaves, never meeting the story’s central entity. Versions of this story are “Better Wait Till Martin Comes” from The People Could Fly, “Waiting for Rufus” and “Waiting for Martin” from American Negro Folktales, and “Wait Til Emmet Comes” from African American Folktales. Dorson categorizes these are “Scare Tales,” and describes the anticipated response, how “The armchair listener laughs hugely at [the protagonist’s] increasing trepidation…because he, the listener, is far away” (320).
  • “Eating Tails” — Unlike the “Waiting” cluster, which is tense but in the end humorous, I found this cluster to be genuinely spooky. Two stories that genuinely belong are “Taily Po” in Talk That Talk and “The Peculiar Such Thing” from The People Could Fly, but I’ve also included “Eating the Baby” from American Negro Folktales, which centers around the consumption of a different body part, but follows the same basic rhythms as the other two tales. These stories all involve the protagonist consuming some body part (or, in “Eating the Baby”, an entire child), only to have the consumed individual return to reclaim its lost limb. In the first two stories an unnamed monster loses its tail to the protagonists dinner, and in the third a mother, who has prematurely eaten the raccoons her husband brought home for dinner, cooks their baby to avoid censure. In the first two stories the monster returns for its tail night after night, and eventually claws to pieces the man who ate it. In “Eating the Baby” the woman’s husband discovers her deceit, and kill her. Dorson writes how “Eating the Baby” is an international tale, although this tale type, described as “My Mother Slew Me; My Father Ate Me,” specifically resonated with African Americans. I was reminded immediately of “The Juniper Tree,” a German fairy tale, which includes the refrain, “My mother, she killed me, / My father, he ate me, / My sister Marlene, / Gathered all my bones” (, a refrain similar to that present in “Eating the Baby” (“My mama kilt me/My papa ate me /My sister going bury my bones”) and those in “Taily Po” and “The Peculiar Such Thing,” where the monster chants, “Taily Po, Taily Po, I’m coming to get my Taily Po,” (Goss) and “You know you got it. I know you know. Give me back my tailypo” (Hamilton).
  • “The Yellow Crane” — The last of the stories is “The Yellow Crane,” in which a mulatto doctor who had experimented on and killed his black patients dies, and his is soul captured in the body of an enormous crane. Although I only encountered this story once as a folktale, I encountered it before in Jennifer Hildebrand’s essay, “’Dere Were No Place in Heaven for Him, an’ He Were Not Desired in Hell’: Igbo Cultural Beliefs in African American Folk Expressions”, which argues that elements of the Igbo ethnic group’s culture was transmitted across the Atlantic and remained embedded in African American culture. Hildebrand writes, that the transmigration of the spirit from a human body to an animal “represented and reinforced the spiritual worldview that was unique to the Igbo ethnic group, encompassing birth, death, reincarnation, the world of the ancestors, and the fate of individuals who violated the rules of the community” (131). Stories like this served as a warning. Hildebrand continues,

    “The Igbo people believed in reincarnation … However, this privilege was not guaranteed; one must have lived a good life and died a good death. After death, the soul of a good person generally became a spirit and traveled to the world of spirits to await reincarnation within the souls of kinfolk. This helps to explain Igbos’ strong emphasis upon community: they maintained a strong connection to their clan because they expected to return to it. Since reincarnation was a privilege not extended to all, however, there had to be an explanation of what happened to spirits not reincarnated. One possibility was that, for any number of reasons, the body that had previously housed the spirit did not receive a proper burial, dooming the spirit to wander as a ghost. The Igbo also believed that as a punishment for extreme sins against the community, a man’s spirit could transmigrate, or transfer, into the body of an animal rather than being reborn in human form. Each of the four tales considered here contains a significant indicator of the presence of the Igbo belief in transmigration, namely the depiction of a recognizably human spirit trapped inside an animal as a punishment for wickedness in his most recent life” (133).

Future Expansion:

Although I did not record podcasts for these stories, I wanted to include in this reflection other folktale clusters that did not make the cut. Were I to continue this project, and create more short episodes, I would definitely discuss the following texts:

  • “Running From the Devil” — As exemplified by “Devil’s Daughter” from Dorson’s American Negro Folktales, “The Devil’s Bride Escapes” from Green’s African American Folktales, and “John and the Devil’s Daughter” and “Jack and the Devil,” both from Hamilton’s The People Could Fly. Green notes in his introduction to “The Devil’s Bride Escapes” that it in built around the common theme of a human’s marriage to a supernatural being (this collection also includes the stories “Courted by the Devil” and “Married to a Boar Hog”). Dorson describes the stories as part of a larger genre, “The Devil’s Daughter and Magic Flight” (269), and notes that a primary motif is “obstacle flight,” which I find useful, especially when including “Jack and the Devil,” which does not include the Devil’s daughter nor does it rely upon a marriage plot.
  • “Witch Tales” — I was never fully able to describe this category, as many stories have witch characters, some of whom are benevolent, but I was struck by the recurring image of a witch who shed her skin during the night to transform into an animal or spirit and make mischief. Two examples of this are “Ridden by the Night Hag” in Green’s African American Folktales, and “The Ways of a Witch” in Talk That Talk. Green notes that night hags, or witches who come at night, are internationally feared. Night hags are predominantly European, while the shedding of skin is related to African folklore (144).
  • “Becoming a Two-Head” — This is a short story, just five sentences long, that nonetheless seemed significant to me. If I were to do a longer project I would want episodes to focus not just on specific folktales, but also on lore generally. To be a “two-head” or possessor of two spirits, was to have a second sight, which meant a person might be able to see sprits, or might have some kind of magic ability. In Dorson’s version, “Two-Heads,” also called “Hoodoos,” learn their magic from the Devil. In contrast, Green presents a story in which power is bestowed to children who are born with a double caul. The origin of supernatural sensitivity is interesting to me, and I’d like to delve deeper.
  • “Horrors” — I did not include any of this tales in this category, a subgenre described by Dorson in his anthology. As opposed to the ghost stories I’ve already discussed, these were tales about real life horrors, slavery — whippings, escapes —  murders, and suicides, most ostensibly true, beginning with dates and names to add authenticity (“A white fellow from around her, named Demings, committed suicide in his car back in 1939” or “Now this ain’t no joke. It happened in Clarksdale, Mississippi, when I was about sixteen…”). I hoped to find ways in which these “true life” tales intersected with the more traditional stories of ghosts and devils, but unfortunately did not.

I think this was my greatest missed opportunity during the project  — I hoped that there would be some clear relationship between the horrors of slavery and horrible tales told for entertainment, but, in fact, there is such a wide range of stories, from supernatural fiction to ostensibly true memories, that I found it impossible to create a single unifying theory of African-American ghost stories.

In Conclusion: Shortcomings & Setbacks & Looking Forward

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, one of my biggest setbacks has been that I am not an ethnographer. Although this seems obvious now, 20th century African American culture was not homogenous, and even though stories reoccur across time and across region, it is difficult to make sweeping conclusions about a 200+ year story telling tradition. There was also a huge volume of stories, and I didn’t have time to give each one the attention it deserved. Although my research felt extensive, I know I only scratched the surface of available tales.

Based on my initial proposal this project was, technically, a failure. I did not create a unifying theory. However, I think this is only the beginning. I feel confident that there is more work to be done, and that by looking at elements of “true tales” of slavery, and comparing them with more typical ghost stories, some kind of interesting conclusions could be reached, although I have not yet reached them. I think it would also be worth expanding this project to include fiction — Arthur Redding’s wonderful essay considers Toni Morrison’s Beloved and the way it uses African American folk traditions to tell a ghost story about African American history — and see how ideas of Black horror are operating in the present.

As I’ve said, I’d be interested in recording more versions of these stories, and increasing the production quality on those I have recorded. A final form of this project could potentially be a website, with an audio version of the tales embedded, in addition to an annotated transcription, and links to other, similar tales. I’d also like to continue to read, and continue to theorize about how (and if!) we can make any generalizations about the African American horror tradition.

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