An Essay on Sonny’s Blues by James Baldwin

Prompt: Sonny’s Blues begins “in medias res”. What does Baldwin achieve by beginning the story as he does? How does the order in which events are related later in the story affect your experience of reading it and interpreting its meaning?

 

James Baldwin begins the short story Sonny’s Blues with the narrator, an African-American man in 1950s New York City riding the subway to the school where he teaches, reading in a newspaper that his estranged younger brother has been arrested for selling and using heroin. The narrator, who remains unnamed throughout the story, “couldn’t believe it” (par. 1). In the first paragraph, the narrator repeats three times that he read the news and two times that he stared at the news. He states three times that he couldn’t believe the news.

 

The news absolutely shocks the narrator. His emotional reaction is so overwhelming that he feels extreme physical sensations in his body. He describes how:

 

a great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long…it kept melting, sending trickles of ice water up and down my veins, but it never got less; sometimes it hardened and seemed to expand until I felt my guts were going to come spilling out or that I was going to choke or scream (par. 2).

 

At the same time, though, the narrator admits that he cannot doubt the news either. The reality of Sonny’s drug use is something he had kept “outside me for a long time”. He “hadn’t wanted to know”. He “had had suspicions” but “didn’t name them” (par. 4).

 

Because Baldwin begins his story at the very moment that our protagonist receives this shocking and terrible news about his younger brother, the reader partly feels the narrator’s sense of surprise and horror. The reader does not feel as deeply rattled as the narrator, though, because we don’t know Sonny, not yet. We don’t have the familiarity and shared history with Sonny that the narrator does. We don’t love Sonny as the narrator does.

 

The first thing we ever learn about Sonny is that he has been arrested for “peddling and using heroin” (par. 3). Our first experience of Sonny is his brother’s anguish at this unfortunate turn of events in his life. Because his brother is anguished we are able to glean that Sonny is a person who is worth loving, who is worth worrying about. He is not an irredeemable villain. The narrator tells us “Sonny was wild, but he wasn’t crazy…he’d always been a good boy, he hadn’t ever turned hard or evil or disrespectful” (par. 4). So Sonny isn’t a bad person. However, the fact that the narrator doesn’t doubt the terrible news, doesn’t think it must all be some mistake, tells us that Sonny has probably been struggling with some demons. Part of the reason the news is so shocking to the narrator is that he has been hiding from the truth about his brother. This shows the reader that something has been obviously wrong in Sonny’s life. Unlike the narrator, the reader has no emotional investment in Sonny’s wellbeing and so no reason to avoid the truth of Sonny’s addiction.

 

Beginning in the middle of a scene, at the very moment that the narrator reads the news about Sonny in the paper, also gives the reader a sense of the estrangement between the narrator and Sonny. Instead of finding out directly from Sonny or Sonny’s possible friends or lovers that Sonny is in trouble, the narrator discovers the news by chance in the paper. Even though they live in the same city there is some sort of rift between the brothers that keeps them from regularly communicating or seeing each other. As the reader processes the first few paragraphs of the story, she begins to wonder what kind of person this Sonny is if he is “a good boy” but also in this serious trouble. She begins to wonder what happened between these two brothers that they are no longer involved in each other’s lives. And she begins to wonder what kind of person the narrator is. He has described Sonny but told us nothing of himself. We meet him in the middle of a very vulnerable moment. We see his fear for his brother and his desire for the truth about his brother not to be true. We know he is a schoolteacher. We are left wondering how he will handle this news.

An Essay on The Lives of the Dead by Tim O’Brien

Prompt: This story begins, “But this too is true: stories can save us” (par. 1). In what different ways does that prove true in this story? Why “but”?

 

The narrator in The Lives of the Dead tells us that “by slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was” (par. 92). The “we” is soldiers in Vietnam, young men in their 20s, of which the narrator is one. The soldiers “slight death” in many ways. At the beginning of the story, the narrator describes a little village that was burned up in an air strike. After the bombs stop dropping the soldiers search the village and find the dead body of “an old man who lay face-up near a pigpen at the center of the village” (par. 2). One of the narrator’s comrades goes up and shakes the old man’s hand, offering him a greeting. This begins a ritual in which all the other soldiers go up and do the same thing. “One by one…they just grabbed the old man’s hand and offered a few words and moved away” (par. 4). Everyone except for the narrator, Tim, does this. The narrator is “brand-new to the war”, and just looking at the old man’s body makes him feel sick (par. 7). Tim resists the prompting and teasing of his comrades, refusing to go near the body. As he watches the strange ritual, though, he notes that “it was more than mockery; there was a formality to it, like a funeral without the sadness” (par. 14).

 

This odd formal mockery of shaking a dead man’s hand, speaking to him, proposing toasts to his “family and ancestors, his many grandchildren, his newfound life after death” (par. 14) creates a kind of buffer between the young American soldiers and the horror of their situation. They are in a foreign land fighting a war. They have just come under sniper fire, which could’ve killed any one of them, and then they watched as their own army bombed out the village the sniper fire came from, killing an old man who could have been just an innocent civilian, who could have reminded them of their own grandfathers back home.

 

The “funeral without sadness” that they have for the old man creates a story these young soldiers can tell themselves. They are in a situation where, even though they are armed, they are rather powerless. Many of them were probably drafted and did not choose to leave home and go fight a war. Some of them may be morally opposed to the war. They may not have an intimate understanding of the politics underlying the very war they are fighting. They follow the orders of commanding officers. They walk into dangerous situations where they never know if they will be surprised by sniper fire or if they will survive. They watch as friends, enemies and strangers die around them in terrible ways. This is the grim reality of their situation. This is their nightmarish unaltered story.

 

The old man’s body represents this story. The ritual of shaking his hand alters the story. Maybe there is an afterlife where this old man can find peace or justice. Maybe it’s not too late for this old man’s grandchildren to live good lives. Maybe his ancestors lived good lives before him. Maybe showing his dead body the same kind of cordial politeness you would show a stranger you meet on the street is a sort of apology the soldiers make for being part of the army that perpetrated the violence that took this old man’s life.

 

Interwoven with this narrative about the Vietnam war is another narrative about Tim’s childhood. As a nine-year-old child, when he was Timmy, the narrator fell in love with a classmate, Linda, who was dying of a brain tumor. When the girl died Timmy comforted himself by telling himself stories. Timmy is able to use his vivid imagination to bring Linda to life again in his mind, so much so that it seems real to him. He is able to have conversations with her.

 

On the day that Timmy receives the news of Linda’s death, he lays down on the sofa and calls out to Linda. “Linda, please,” he says, and she comes to him (par. 86). She walks to him down a familiar street, and she looks vibrant, happy and healthy. The signs of sickness that Linda showed in life, a bald head covered in scars and stitches, are gone. The Linda that Timmy has dreamed alive ask him why he is so sad (par. 87). When Timmy responds that she is dead, she looks at him with “something ageless in her eyes” (par. 89) and tells him “Timmy, stop crying. It doesn’t matter” (par. 91).

 

Tim tells the reader:

 

The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness (par. 40).

 

Young Timmy uses his dreams of Linda to create the illusion of aliveness that he needs to cope with her death. The illusion of Linda gives him more time with her, to go to parties, to go ice skating. It is time that they did not have in reality. In reality, when Timmy and Linda went on a date together they were too shy to properly speak to each other. They barely look at each other (par. 37). When Timmy does speak to Linda on the date it’s to rudely tell her to “step it up” (par. 39). Timmy’s inner feelings are a sharp contrast to his outer brusqueness. Even at his young age, he feels he knows that they are in love, feels that they are “sharing something huge and permanent” (par. 37).

 

However, that fact is never communicated between them before Linda dies. After Linda dies and Timmy is dreaming Linda alive again, the Linda he dreams is able to have deep conversations with him about what death is like and why death is not permanent. “Once you’re alive you can’t ever be dead,” she tells him (par. 113). Later she likens being dead to being “inside a book that nobody’s reading” (120). You have to wait and hope that someone will pick up the book and begin reading your story. In this analogy, having your story told is like being brought back to life, if only for a little while.

 

So, Timmy keeps telling himself stories where and Linda spend time together, keeps bringing Linda back to life. He begins spending more and more time sleeping, going to bed earlier and earlier. His mother notices and asks him what’s wrong (par. 116), but he brushes off her concern. He doesn’t want to share the dream world he has created, because he’s scared that sharing this secret might mean losing it. To get to the stories, to bring Linda back to life, Timmy has to give up more of his connection with waking reality.

 

Perhaps that’s why the story begins with the word “but”. It is true that stories can save us. We need stories to comfort us when reality is so terrible that we can hardly cope with it. But, can the stories be something of a lie? Can we lose something if we immerse ourselves too deeply in story, like if we spend more time sleeping than waking, because we want to dream of a dead loved one?

 

Tim tells us about his “worst day at the war” (par. 108). He is assigned to help carry the bodies of dead enemy soldiers down a mountain and load them into a truck. The bodies have been lying there for more than a day and are bloated and stinking. As he and his fellow soldiers go about this hellish task another soldier, Mitchell Sanders, says to Tim, “Death sucks” (par. 111). He says it as if he is “awed by his own wisdom” (par. 110).

 

What Mitchell Sanders says, death sucks, is the stark truth that no amount of storytelling can provide an escape from.

An Essay on A Conversation with My Father by Grace Paley

Prompt: What different ideas about stories and storytelling do the narrator and her father seem to have in A CONVERSATION WITH MY FATHER? What might account for their different attitudes?

 

The narrator in A Conversation with My Father is a writer. We can tell that she has written many stories, because her father makes a comparison between the kind of story he wants her to write during the story and “the kind you used to write” (par. 2).

 

The narrator likes to have the element of hope in her stories. She feels that “everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life” (par. 3). She seems to write stories as if she is part of the audience. The story reveals itself to her as she writes it, and she is just as surprised by occurrences in her writing as one of her readers might be.

 

As she talks to her father about the main character in the story she creates for him, she tells him, “that’s the trouble with stories. People start out fantastic. You think they’re extraordinary, but it turns out as the work goes along, they’re just average with a good education. Sometimes the other way around, the person’s a kind of dumb innocent, but he outwits you and you can’t even think of an ending good enough” (par. 24).

 

The reader gets the sense that the narrator likes it when one of her characters “outwits” her. She doesn’t like to know how she will end a story when she begins it, because she enjoys the feeling of discovering the story as she writes.

 

So, when her father asks her “to write a simple story just once more…just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next,” the narrator seems to chafe at this (par. 2). She doesn’t want to write a story with a beginning “followed by plot, the absolute line between two points which I’ve always despised…because it takes all hope away” (par. 3). An “absolute line” stretching between the beginning and end of a story means that every detail of the story can be seen clearly from the start. The ending can be known just by reading the beginning of the story. It’s too predictable. The narrator doesn’t want this. She “despises” this kind of “plot”. As she tells the story she wants to experience twists and turns. She wants the line to go around corners that she can’t see around until she gets to them.

 

It’s like she sees writing the story as a kind of collaborative act between herself and her characters. She tells her father that sometimes “you just have to let the story lie around till some agreement can be reached between you and the stubborn hero” (par. 26). In this view of storytelling, the story itself and the characters in the story are lively and active participants in the act of writing. The narrator sees herself as just a part of the storytelling process. She doesn’t control it; she works with it.

 

The interesting thing about the story the narrator tells her father is that the narrator took the story from real life. It’s actually the story of one of her neighbors and “had been happening for a couple of years right across the street” (par. 4). The narrator tells the story twice. The second time is lengthier and has more detail, but both times the general gist is that a mother and son start using heroin together. The son starts dating a girl who gets him to stop using, but the mother is unable to stop using, so the son and new girlfriend cut ties with her until she gets clean. The story ends with the mother alone and crying.

 

The narrator has taken the tragic turn of events in the life of one of her neighbors and made it into a story for her father. Her intention is to tell the kind of simple story that her father has requested, where one event follows another in a clear plot. However, the father is not satisfied with the story and feels that his daughter has not told the kind of story that he asked for. After the first telling, the one that is so short that it is only a short paragraph and includes almost no details, the father complains, “You left everything out.” The narrator misinterpreted her father’s request for a straightforward plot as a desire for brevity.

 

The father doesn’t want brevity. He rather seems to want the events in the story to logically follow one another. He criticizes one of the narrator’s other stories, because it contains nonsensical elements like “people sitting in trees talking senselessly, [and] voices from who knows where” (par. 8). In the current story he wants to know details like “what were her [the mother] parents like…that she became such a person” (par. 13). Knowing such a detail helps the father feel like he can make sense of the mother character. To the father someone’s family background can help explain why they would make the choice to become a drug addict or not. Instead of the elements of surprise that the narrator desires, the father wants a logical and clear series of events.

 

Four times in the text the father complains about the narrator’s sense of humor and/or constant joking. He goes so far as to say that his daughter’s “main trouble [as a writer]” is that she “[doesn’t] want to recognize [tragedy]” (par. 42). To the father, sometimes the events in a story are clearly leading to an unhappy ending, and that ending cannot be avoided. As the narrator tries to write in a surprise that will give the story a happy ending, the father insists that the tragic ending must be faced. In fact, the final lines of the piece are the father asking the narrator, “When will you look [tragedy] in the face?” (par. 51).

 

To the father, the narrator’s joking, in the story and in their real lives, is a symbol of her refusal to deal with the real facts of life, even if they are unpleasant. As they share this moment of storytelling, the narrator and her father are in the midst of dealing with a very unpleasant situation: the father’s illness which is leading to his impending death. The piece begins with the narrator describing her father’s heart as a “bloody motor” that is “old and will not do certain jobs any more” (par 1). The father himself is eighty-six years old. He no longer has the strength to walk, and he is propped up in bed offering “last-minute advice” and making requests. Even though she doesn’t do it to his satisfaction, the narrator tries to fulfill her father’s request for a simple story, because you don’t deny the requests of someone who is dying. The narrator tries to listen to her father’s criticisms of her story, because the advice someone gives out as they are dying, especially if they have lived a long life, is often considered sage wisdom.

 

The narrator can’t quite bring herself to listen, though. She feels a “responsibility” to the character in her story and to the real neighbor woman the character is based upon. The narrator says of the mother character, “She’s my knowledge and my invention. I’m sorry for her. I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying.” (par. 45). If she can’t save the real woman she can at least give the character a happy ending, and she does. She allows the mother character to surprise us. Against all odds, she triumphs over her addiction. She becomes “the receptionist in a storefront community clinic…most of the customers are young people, some old friends” (par. 46). So, even though her son never comes home again she finds meaning and fulfillment in helping others who are in the same predicament she was in. The head doctor at the clinic admires her, and she becomes a hero of sorts.

 

It is a hopeful end, which is the exact opposite of what the father wanted from the story. He wants a story that starts out with such unhappy events to end unhappily. In the end he feels there should be “no hope” (par. 42). It could be said in his own story there is no hope. He is in old age, and his body is failing him. By his side is a daughter who he knows will soon be without him. His impending death is the tragedy that he knows is coming for the narrator. In her stories, the father sees the narrator avoid the unavoidable by adding happy endings to situations that seem impossible. The father knows, though, that there will be no avoiding the pain that will come when he inevitably dies.

 

The father says to the narrator, “In your own life, too, you have to look [tragedy] in the face” (par. 44). If the narrator cannot deal with sad consequences in the stories she tells, how will she deal with the sad consequences of her own father’s death? No doubt the father is wondering this as he listens to his daughter’s storytelling.

An Essay on Flight Patterns by Sherman Alexie

So, I definitely wish that I had been an English major in college. I always thought that majoring in English meant that you were throwing away your career prospects and failing to gain employable skills. Well, I did that anyway by majoring in “International Studies” but I didn’t even learn anything useful from my “interdisciplinary” degree. At least if I’d majored in English, I would’ve done a ton of my favorite things: reading and writing.

 

Well, rather than waste any more time on regrets, I’m doing it now. I’ve decided that I’m going to read The Norton Introduction to Literature and The Norton Reader in their entireties. That will give me a thorough survey of the four main genres: fiction, poetry, drama and non-fiction. These collections are filled with short stories, poems and excerpts and essay prompts for each one. After reading each piece I will write an essay for it. It will be like crafting my own English major. When I’m done, I won’t have official credits or a degree to show for my trouble, but I will have a feeling of deep personal satisfaction.

 

This blog seems like the perfect place to share my essays, so without further ado, here is the first one:

 

Prompt: William tells himself a variety of stories to cope with his feelings. How do these stories relate to his dialogue with the taxi driver and the stories the driver tells?

 

 

William is a person who spends a lot of time thinking about the world around him and his own inner world. He is thoughtful, but sometimes that thoughtfulness tips over into anxiety. Organizing his thoughts and feelings into stories about himself and about the world help William to cope. Throughout the story, many of William’s thoughts are punctuated by exclamation points to show how deeply he is thinking and feeling inside his mind. Twice, the story refers to William as exaggerating (par. 2 and par. 36). Twice, the story refers to him as romanticizing something (par. 36 and par. 105). Twice, the story calls him obsessive (par. 2 and par. 6).

 

Immediately upon waking, the song that comes on William’s clock radio makes him think of a story about the singer Donna Fargo and how her “birth name was the infinitely more interesting Yvonne Vaughn” (par. 1). William does not seem to intentionally tell himself this story. It just pops into his head before he is even fully awake. His mind immediately ties this story in his mind about a decades old song, to all of the “formerly famous rock- and country-music stars” who played the “Indian casino circuit” (par. 1). We find out that William is a Spokane Indian, so seeing these oldie acts perform was part of the story of his childhood.

 

William is a businessman who is leaving his beloved wife and daughter behind at home to go on a business trip. William travels, “so often, the Seattle-based flight attendants [know] him by first name” (par. 39). He is picked up by a taxi driver who is a man of color and whose accent is ambiguous (par. 41). William and the taxi driver begin talking, and the taxi driver tells William he is Ethiopian (par. 75). They discuss William’s own ethnic ambiguity (par. 86). The driver tells William that his name is Fekadu, that he was a fighter pilot in Ethiopia who “dropped bombs on [his] own people” (par. 155). He tells the story of how he defected, abandoning his family, because he “could not do it anymore” (par. 157).

 

Fekadu’s story resonates deeply with William. Fekadu found himself torn between staying in his country with his family and continuing to kill as part of the military or running from both the killing and his family. Before getting into the taxi, William was deeply conflicted about leaving his own family, something he does constantly for business trips. As he kissed his wife, Marie, goodbye he wondered if she dreamt about “a man who never left her, about some unemployed agoraphobic Indian warrior who liked to cook and wash dishes” (par. 19). When he says goodbye to his daughter, Grace, she cries. He already feels like “only an adequate husband”. His daughter’s tears make him wonder “if he [is] a bad father” (par. 29). Whenever William leaves his family he knows that it is only a business trip and not a permanent separation. Still, while he is away from his wife and daughter he has “nightmares about strangers breaking into the house and killing and raping Marie and Grace. During longer business trips, William’s nightmares became more violent as the days and nights passed” (par. 43). These are all stories that William tells himself, about what kind of husband and father he is, about whether or not his wife and daughter are safe when he leaves them.

 

William loves his wife and daughter intensely. He tells Fekadu, “I miss them so much I go crazy…Sometimes I worry their love is the only thing that makes me human” (par. 72). William struggles to leave his family for constant, short-term business trips. As he is embarking on one of these trips, he struggles to bid his family farewell and then his taxi driver turns out to be a man who chose to escape war by completely abandoning his family without even saying goodbye. As he talks to Fekadu, William imagines the pain and horror of never being able to see his family again. When Fekadu first mentions that he fears he will never see his family again, William doesn’t want “to be having [the] conversation” (par. 80). Fekadu’s reality is so terrible to William that his mind wants to reject it completely. Fekadu’s heartbreaking story is like the worst case scenario of William’s personal fears and anxieties about his own family.

 

Fekadu’s story is not just about abandoning his family. It’s also about the nightmarish job he was given to do as a jet-fighter pilot. Fekadu tells William that he was born into a family that had connections to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie, who was a “great and good and kind and terrible man [who]…loved his country and killed many of his people” (par. 142). Selassie recognized that Fekadu was an extremely intelligent student and sent him to study physics at Oxford in England. He learned to fly and returned to Ethiopia to fly jets in “Selassie’s army” (par. 147). Fekadu confesses to William, “I dropped bombs on my own people…For three years, I killed my own people…and then, on the third of June in 1974, I could not do it anymore” (par. 155, 157).

 

William is simultaneously drawn to and repelled by Fekadu’s stories. When he first gets into the cab and Fekadu starts making small talk with him, “he didn’t really want to talk…he needed to meditate in silence…to put his fear of flying in an imaginary safe deposit box and lock it away” (par. 60). When Fekadu tells William that he can fly planes, William feels “very doubtful of this man but fascinated as well” (par. 104). Before Fekadu tells William about his past as a fighter pilot and his abandonment of his family he asks William, “do you want to hear my story?” (par. 140). Out loud, William says, “Yes, I do, sure, yes, please,” but “he was lying” (par. 141). When Fekadu comes to the point in his story where he’s about to reveal whether he killed or not, “William wanted to know the terrible answer without asking the terrible question” (par. 152). By the time they make it to the airport, William finds that “he didn’t want this journey to end so soon…[he] wanted to hear more of this man’s stories and learn from them, whether they were true or not” (par. 160).

 

As Fekadu and William talk and Fekadu shares his stories, William’s opinions of Fekadu change. At first, he sees Fekadu as a blue-collar taxi driver who is probably from a poor background. Fekadu’s deference to him by calling him “sir” makes William, who is conflicted about his middle-class-American status, uncomfortable (par. 42). William sees that his taxi driver is a black man but can tell by his accent, “a colonial cocktail of American English, formal British, and French sibilants added to a base of what must have been North African,” that he is not African-American (par. 41). William tries to erase the class difference between them by also calling Fekadu sir and helping Fekadu load his luggage into the taxi, which makes Fekadu uncomfortable (par. 52). It is notable that at this point in the story, for one short paragraph, the third person POV switches from William’s perspective to Fekadu’s.

 

As William sits in the back of the taxi heading to the airport he wonders about his work. When Fekadu asks him, “What do you do, sir?” (par. 61), William laughs and replies, “You know, I’m not sure” (par. 62). He works for a “think tank” and thinks of his job as “[selling] ideas about how to improve other ideas” (par. 62). William’s work is profitable and has allowed him to create a comfortable and respectable life for his family. His work is also cerebral. William recalls a product his company designed and sold that was never actually manufactured and would probably be a prototype forever. It was a financial success, because William’s company made “a few hundred thousand dollars” from the idea alone (par. 62).

 

Despite his professional and personal success the intangibility of Williams work makes him worry “that his job-his selling of the purely theoretical-wasn’t a real job at all” (par. 105). As Fekadu drives them down the highway they pass various industrial yards where “blue-collared men and women drove trucks and forklifts, unloaded trains, trucks, and ships, built computers, televisions, and airplanes” (par. 105). William compares himself to “so many men and women working so hard” (par. 105). He compares his work to the kind of work that leaves “calluses on the palms of hands” (par. 105), and he feels torn. He has everything that anyone could want: a loving family, a comfortable home, financial security, a prestigious job. However, he still yearns for and romanticizes what he doesnt have. He wants his “comfortable and safe life to contain more wilderness” (par. 105).

 

Then Fekadu tells his story. Fekadu’s story doesn’t exactly contain wilderness but it does contain wildness. As they drive past a field of planes Fekadu says, “I can fly any of those planes…I am the best pilot in the world” (par. 103). Being a pilot is tangible and physical in a way that William’s work is not. The life of a fighter pilot who defects from a tyrannical regime is wild in a way that William’s life is not. Listening to the wildness of Fekadu’s life is fascinating for William. However, Fekadu’s story is also an extremely painful one. Fekadu’s story seems to confront William with the fact that adventure in life can come at a high price. William spends so much time in his head, worrying about the ways that his life could be different, for better or for worse. This time spent worrying is time taken away from appreciating the reality of what his life actually is, which is pretty good.

 

When Fekadu drops William off at the airport he feels “unsure [and] afraid” (par. 180). Fekadu makes a joke about he is a much better jet pilot than taxi driver and then laughs “loudly and joyously” at his own joke (par. 177). William cannot believe that a man who has endured such pain “could be capable of such happiness, however temporary it was” (par. 178). Fekadu, if his stories are true, has suffered great loss and been faced with terrible choices in life. Yet, he is able to laugh and smile and joke. William, the one with the enviable life, is the one feeling fraught.

 

Standing at the curb of the airport, William seems to have an anxiety attack. He “[can’t] breathe well” and wonders if he might “fall over from a heart attack or stroke right there on the sidewalk” (par. 182). He doesn’t fall over. He leaves his bags right on the curb and runs inside the terminal. He runs and he searches until he finds a pay phone and calls home. As the phone “rang and rang and rang and rang…William worried that his wife and daughter were harmed, were lying dead on the floor, but then Marie answered” (par. 182).

 

Hearing Fekadu’s story transported William out of his own life for a while. It transported him into a world of unimaginable destruction and loss. In his own life, William is constantly beset by anxieties that are unfounded based on the extremely low levels of danger facing him and his family. They are secure and fortunate. Confronted with the story of a man who has lived through real danger and chaos, William sprints back towards the safety and comfort of his life. His wife’s voice comes through the phone, and it anchors him. It reminds him that even though all is not well with the world, all is well with his life right now.

 

The True Meaning of Chitlins

The indignities and frustrations of being the only black child in your class are many. There are so many things that you are forced to explain to your white classmates. One of the things that I had to explain was chitlins (chitterlings).

 

What!? You don’t know what chitlins are? Sigh.

 

Okay, chitlins are the intestines of a pig, but really they’re so much more than that. They’re a delicacy and a legacy that has been handed down through the black generations. If you’re sitting there saying to yourself, “Ew, gross, how can pig intestines taste good?” you need to open your mind and then prepare to have it blown.

 

Chitlins are fucking delicious. They just are. Like most delicious things, they are also terrible for you. I’m not exactly sure why. I think they’re, like, really fatty or something. I guess most pork is really fatty. I could look this up on the internet, but I’m not going to.

 

I was on the phone with my best friend right before Thanksgiving, and we were talking about what we were going to have at our respective holiday meals. She teasingly asked if there would be chitlins. Unfortunately, there would not be. I would definitely nominate my best friend for “woke white person” status, but I still have not been able to convince her to try chitlins. As we talked about chitlins, though, I realized that there’s so much cultural significance wrapped up in these fatty pig organs.

 

When I tried to explained chitlins to the white kids I grew up with they were all pretty much dicks about it, and I was embarrassed. It was tempting to relent and say, “Yeah, you guys are right. My cultural foods are nasty. Assimilation, huzzah!” But, tiny me stood her ground amidst the jeers and cries of “gross”. Still, my fledgling heart was filled with doubt: maybe my family and I were just gross? Now, full-grown me knows enough to say, “Hell no! We are not gross!” I’m not going to let those little kids judge me. Half of them don’t even know what hummus is. You know what’s gross, Brittany? The way you drink Rockstar like it’s water, that’s what!

 

Chitlins take work. When you get them from the grocery store, they’re half-frozen in this huge bucket. You crack ‘em open, dump ‘em in the sink, and it stinks. It stinks throughout the whole house. It’s not like a bad stink. It’s not like poop or dead squirrel on the side of the road. It’s just not a smell you normally smell in the house. You get used to it, though. Trust me it’s worth it.

 

The smell is just the tip of the blubbery iceberg. Next comes the cleaning. Cleaning chitlins takes forever! Intestines are basically feet and feet of tubes rolled up and stuffed into the body. When you get the chitlins the tubes have been sliced open, but they still have a bunch of grit in them. The grit is the leftovers of the pig’s food moving through its intestines. Okay, I hear you that you have a weak stomach and this is really not what you want to hear about your food before you eat it, but life is hard and you have to toughen up at some point. Worthwhile things do not come easily!

 

Alright, so you’ve spent the last couple of hours picking grit out of icy pig intestines. Way to go, champ! Now it’s time to season, toss in some onions and boil for a very, very long time. Good things come to those who wait!

 

Oh, did I mention that the smell isn’t going to go away? Actually, as they cook it’s going to intensify. I swear it’s not that bad, and I swear the end result will be worth it. It’s kind of like a weird candle is burning. You’ll get used to it.

 

The time that you spend over a sink full of raw intestines and then a pot full of boiling intestines is really time to reflect on what chitlins mean. In the olden days, slaves ate chitlins, because their owners didn’t want to waste what they considered the good parts of the pig on their human chattel.

 

Well, the joke’s on you, white people, because this shit is delicious! To be more precise, this organ that used to have shit in it is delicious!

 

Historically, black people end up with the short end of the stick. America has been around for 241 years. The Civil Rights Act that outlawed racial discrimination passed in 1964. That means black people have only had 53 years of not being officially second-class citizens. So, it’s not that shocking that black people are statistically more likely to have more difficult lives and face more injustice than their white counterparts.

 

What chitlins mean to me is that you can give black people what you think is the worst part of the pig, the worst possible situation in life, and we’ll prevail. We’re awesome! We’ll make something delicious and amazing out of what should have been a raw deal. You can’t keep us down!

 

Going through day to day life as a black person can get pretty discouraging. I have to deal with the fact that as a black woman, no one wants to date me. I’m not sure how we’re going to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. I’m worried about how black people are going to start accessing the behavioral health services we so desperately need. It’s nice to just take a moment and remind myself that everything about being black is not all doom and gloom and shootings and incarceration. We made chitlins. We can keep going. We can persevere. Jews eat the bitter herbs on the Seder plate and remember the suffering that their ancestors endured without giving up. As we let fatty pieces of pig dissolve in our mouths, black people can remember that our ancestors, amidst their suffering, turned intestines into something cherished and exquisite. That’s beautiful to me.

 

Also, if all else fails, we still have hip-hop. Guys, we can claim the most popular music genre. #Winning!