Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Readers and Writers Connect over Identity: Henry Louis Gates Jr. Jamaica Kincaid, and Alice Walker

Jessica Mason McFadden
ENG 380
Dr. Balderson -WIU
November 18th 2005

*Source citation not required for assignment

The Race-Romance:
Readers and Writers Connect over Identity

The relationship between readers and writers is unbalanced: readers have needs that writers satisfy, whereas writers have needs that most readers will never satisfy. A writer wants her work to be read and a reader wants to read a writer’s work, but the pleasure that the reader receives is often more abundant than the pleasure that the writer receives. Writers have to be exhibitionists if they want their work to be read, and readers depend on them to fulfill this expectation, but readers are seldom held to such high expectations. No one keeps tabs on readers—they come, they go. Readers may be indifferent, silent, reserved, loud, or critical. They may read in private or public, for a hobby or a class. They may read one essay, but skip the next. They may start a book and never finish. Readers have choices.

Writers have choices, too, but they are different. The reader is at ease in her position, and she may never think of the writer when she reads. The writer may be at ease in her position, but she must think of the reader when she writes. At some point and to some degree, a writer must consider her readers. The writer and the reader do share a common feature: they both think of themselves. The reader decides what she likes and doesn’t, what she cares about, and how she relates to the writing. The writer decides what to write about and how to write about it, and she often writes about her life. While the writer considers her reader, the writer’s identity (and perhaps soul) is her primary source of inspiration. Self is central to life, just as identity is to writing.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Jamaica Kincaid, and Alice Walker all have multifaceted identities, with at least two identifiable common features: all are writers and all are black. Race is a facet of their identities that has inspired and shaped their essays, and being writers allows them to communicate with a population of readers. Writing about race is one way that Gates, Kincaid, and Walker embrace their identities. They have stories that need to be written and read. Well-rounded readers need to read stories from multiple perspectives (familiar and unfamiliar). When writers write about race, they write about what it means to be human by sharing their experiences, interpretations, and perspectives. Writing about race also allows writers to look deeply into their experiences, giving significance to what might have remained unnoticed. By embracing their identities, writers are also honoring life.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. honors life by writing about his experiences as a black man in his informal essay, “In the Kitchen.” As a writer, Gates is vulnerable because he has put a story that he values on paper. At the same time, he is untouchable because once his work is published it takes on a life of its own. The subject of the essay is very personal to Gates, but he encourages readers to honor life by allowing them to observe and enjoy the details of his life, a life that may be unfamiliar to the reader.

Gates makes “In the Kitchen” accessible to a range of readers by writing with sensitivity. At first, he introduces names that are familiar to most readers regardless of racial or academic background, such as Crest, Colgate, and Walter Cronkite (233). He then introduces a vernacular that is less familiar to one audience (the non-black audience)—using names such as blue Bergamot hair grease—and subsequently introduces vernacular that is widely understood in predominantly black communities but unfamiliar to readers in predominantly white communities. Readers who aren’t familiar with black culture are likely to be unfamiliar with the kitchen and Jesus Moss, but Gates is sensitive to that unfamiliarity (234).

Gates eases into previously unwritten territory, progressing from cultural features that are trivial to those that are impressive. He explains each term, process, and hair style in detail. For example, when Gates explains that “straight hair with a hint of wave” is called a “Do-rag,” he includes background details and familiar names to provide an image for his readers (237). Sammy Davis, Jr. and Nat King Cole are widely recognizable names that support Gates’ credibility as a writer and representative of the black community in the United States. The images that central (unfamiliar) characters in the essay invoke are just as vivid as those that the famous characters invoke because they are all connected to the narrator.

Gates’ narrative voice is captivating. It is simple, approachable, and comical. Gates’ wit is one rhetorical strategy that successfully renders his writing accessible. His account of Mr. Charlie Carroll and the phrase, “a white man told me,” exemplifies Gates’ humorous perspective on life (234). Mr. Charlie Carroll’s validation of his words with “a white man told me” is disturbing from a historical standpoint, but Gates makes light of it, focusing on the meaning that it held in an intimate, familial setting. Many of the elements that Gates includes in the essay are realistic, and even so, he makes cheerful humor of the idiosyncrasies of his own and others’ communities. He placates academic readers with acceptable sentence structures and rhetorical strategies, and pleases nonacademic readers with his casual, nostalgic tone.

While many academic essays are written for an academic audience, Gates’ essay is accessible to both academic and nonacademic readers. Most academic writing produced in the United States caters to readers who are European American and speak Standard American English, but “In the Kitchen” caters to underrepresented, disregarded readers in black communities. Gates recognizes black culture in the United States as significant. He comfortably tells a story that is simple and close to his heart—one that hasn’t been told before. “In the Kitchen” honors Gates’ identity and offers readers a place to honor familiar and unfamiliar identities.

Jamaica Kincaid, like Gates, honors her identity in her writing. Although Kincaid shares some common beliefs with Gates, she also presents her readers with bold statements that aren’t always easy to digest. Born on the island of Antigua, Kincaid’s ideas are important to local and international populations. In the essay, “Garden of Envy,” Kincaid honors her identity by connecting her personal experiences with the impersonal qualities of gardening. She is led by a confident inner-voice, which is obvious to the reader because her thoughtfulness (innovations, contradictions, and indecisions) inform the essay.

Kincaid’s narrative voice is declarative, even when she is unsure. The first sentence of the essay, “I know gardeners well (or at least I think I do, for I am a gardener, too, but I experience gardening as an act of utter futility),” is an example of her declarative device (379). After she claims that she knows gardeners well, she thinks about her claim. It doesn’t seem as though she is second-guessing herself, though, because she is still in charge and she is not afraid to change her mind as long as she can decide for herself. Kincaid also generalizes, claiming that “gardeners always have something they like intensely and in particular, right at the moment you engage them in the reality of the borders they cultivate” (379). This technique of generalizing is not obvious because her narrative personality is strong and honest.

Kincaid’s generalizations have a place, but they do not dominate the essay. She also includes specific images, such as the “memory of that smell of the rose combined with the memory of that smell of the grandmother’s skirt” (380). Kincaid’s thoughtfulness is evident in her prolific paragraphs of careful details and significant meanings. The alternating structures of commentary, emotion, detailed imagery, and gardening terminology give readers a sense of balance when they approach Kincaid’s unabashed writing. She hides nothing and she is true to herself, qualities that protect her from having to defend every opinion. Kincaid’s hardened tone suggests that she takes her ideas seriously, and therefore, respects herself. Her writing expresses elements of her identity with strength and confidence.

Identity is central to Alice Walker’s work. In her essay, “My Daughter Smokes,” Walker addresses the consequences of smoking from a very personal standpoint. The topic of smoking may not interest readers, but Walker addresses smoking through a comfortable framework—the family. Walker’s essay is primarily concerned with the impact of smoking on intimate relationships, although she also includes lighthearted details from her experiences with smokers that casually carry the reader into the vital messages. Like Kincaid’s “Garden of Envy,” Walker’s essay is very personal. Her thoughtful nature is apparent in the balance of ideas she creates to convey the intimate relationship between family and smoking. Walker’s self-disclosing title, “My Daughter Smokes,” sets the mood for the essay and demands attention from a diverse population of readers because it implies elements of personal testimony that Walker includes.

Intimate characters are the primary influence in Walker’s essay because they allow Walker and her readers to empathize, despite the negative consequences of smoking. Walker’s intimate characters also make “My Daughter Smokes” a timeless essay because she includes two distant generations of people who are connected by a struggle with smoking. She describes what her daughter looks like when she is smoking, with “her feet on the bench in front of her and her calculator clicking answers to her algebra problems,” before she passionately admits that seeing her daughter smoke is painful (688). While Walker could have chosen a negative image of her daughter, she didn’t. Instead, she introduced her daughter and the act of smoking with an innocent, loveable image of a young woman doing her homework. The image warms the reader up to Walker because sensitivity and compassion are at the heart of her concerns about smoking. Walker isn’t threatening to readers because she isn’t judgmental. She doesn’t scold or nag smokers for their choices, and this earns the reader’s trust (especially if the reader happens to be a smoker). Walker’s sensitivity to her readers is evident in the identifiable natures of characters in the essay, but it is also evident in her ability to relate to the characters. Walker has an insider’s perspective on smoking, not only because her father and daughter smoke, but because she, herself, smoked in eleventh grade. With honesty, Walker is able to look each of her struggles with smoking. Just as Walker empathizes with her daughter and father, readers empathize with Walker. Her compassionate personality and ability to relate with people are qualities of great leaders, leaders who radiate flexibility, understanding, and goodness. As an influential writer, Walker is interested in human connections, and this connects her to readers because they can sense her desire to connect across difference (whether generational, racial, ethnic, or sexual). She presents readers with relationships that people share, good and bad, and in this essay she focuses on two intimate relationships in her life. By narrating human interactions, Walker requires that readers reflect upon the delicate aspects of life and the importance of identity for experiencing dignity in life.

Each facet of a writer’s identity provides a format for perspectives to be formed, changed, supported, or criticized. Race, class, gender, and sexuality are lenses through which writers analyze and discuss life. The writer’s identity inspires and shapes her ideas and rhetorical decisions. While identity isn’t evident in every genre or style of writing, it is always a part of the writing process, and it is clearly an important element in essays by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jamaica Kincaid, and Alice Walker. Being both a writer and reader are aspects of a writer’s identity, which explains why writers often write about their personal writing process. As humans, we form self-concepts and perspectives on life through our intuitions and social interactions. Our complex and ever-blooming identities are projected through our self-expressions. We express identity constantly, as we communicate with our earthly surroundings (material and human). Identity is the thing that grounds us and the thing that allows us to let go; it is our center.

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