On My Bookshelf
Reading to Re-Imagine
By JoAnn Pavletich
My many bookshelves in Houston, Texas, are full of novels, history, and the miscellany of a life. Here, 15,000 miles away in Antananarivo, Madagascar, my modest collection of books is spread out on a long, narrow, two-tiered, bamboo table in the main room of my house. When I chose the books to fill the four boxes I was allowed to ship here as I prepared to take up my position as Fulbright Professor at the University of Antananarivo, I had little real idea of what books I would want or need. One year and much reading later, I have relearned American history and culture through the eyes of a wonderful group of Malagasy students who live in one of the world’s poorest countries.
My students’ vision of early America was pretty much limited to the three P’s: Pocahontas, Puritans, and Paul Revere. My attempts to broaden and deepen their knowledge have been aided substantially by Woody Holton’s provocative, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (1999). He shows how the American Revolution was not an inevitable groundswell of ideological longing for an abstract “freedom.” Instead, founders such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington were pushed into revolutionary action by the freedom movements and activities of Indians, slaves, and small merchants, all of whom had interests opposed to the elite class of Jefferson, et al. Holton establishes the existence and nature of social classes in the US from our beginning—something my students were somewhat unwilling to accept, having previously ingested many romanticized notions of a classless United States.
After one student asked me very sincerely if racism really existed in the US, I endeavored to break bubbles that enclose the United States within notions of idealistic and nonexistent equalities. An especially rich source for that piercing has been The Fair Sex: White Women and Racial Patriarchy in the Early American Republic (2001), by Pauline Schloesser. Schloesser investigates how privileged white women were elevated through their race and class affinities even as they were constrained by gender. As some attempted to transcend the limits of gender roles, they found themselves participating in and perpetuating a system of racial domination.
This dynamic echoed some of the issues we discussed in terms of second-wave feminism. All too familiar with the problems of class and poverty, my students nodded their heads gravely as we talked about the middle-class white women who sought the freedom to work outside of the home and the conflicts that arose between them and African American women who sought the freedom to stay at home, away from grueling less-than-minimum-wage jobs. To further explore the racial/sexual divide, I had the good sense to bring two classic texts: Angela Davis’ Women, Race and Class (1981) and Paula Giddings’ When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America (1984). Davis and Giddings’ combination of knowledge and wisdom has been invaluable to both me and my students.
It hasn’t only been my students’ bubbles that have broken, however. Gordon S. Wood’s celebratory The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1992), an elegantly and enthusiastically written examination of that period and the manner in which it transformed social relations among people, takes the reader from what he calls the “puny origins” of the country through a transformation that “brought respectability...to ordinary people long held in contempt and gave dignity to their menial labor in a manner unprecedented in history.” Wood’s text, along with my Malagasy students, broke through the cynicism I had developed in regard to the unfulfilled promises of the revolution to help me see again the importance of it to the US as well as to those who live in countries with feudal or totalitarian regimes.
However, comparing Wood’s history to the equally enthusiastic examination of contemporary US culture in Greg Palast’s, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy (2002), I no longer wonder why my students prefer Woods’ vision of early America. The current reality is too far removed from the potential of 230 years ago. Palast’s investigative reporting on issues as important and misreported as the 2001 election in Florida and Wal-Mart’s exploitation of its own workers and laborers in developing countries dims the vision of the revolutionary potential of the US and has kept my students and me in a fruitful, if vexing, balancing act.
Less vexing but no less enlightening has been my students’ embrace of texts by Native American and African American writers. Thomas Whitecloud, Luther Standing Bear, Linda Hogan’s poetry, prose, and fiction, and Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse, a personal favorite of mine, have inspired a number of students to examine Native American history alongside the colonial history of French domination in Madagascar. Fiction by Gloria Naylor, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright, and classic nineteenth-century texts by Booker T. Washington, W.E.B du Bois and Frederick Douglass have become important to many students, and, once again, to me. They are not only magnificent examples of rhetorical and literary genius; they manifest the complex emotional geography of human oppression, resistance, and redemption.
Steeped in this literature professionally, I had forgotten what it can mean to someone looking for a way to understand and articulate her own experience. Re-reading these texts, while reading my students’ writing and listening to them talk, I am moved to wonder if my students’ future may be the continuation of the Revolutionary Era’s potential. Here, in a country where literacy is low and hunger is common, there still may be the possibility of new eruptions of democracy and, perhaps, a new understanding of “liberty and justice for all.”
JoAnn Pavletich is associate professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. Since January 2006 she has been on leave from UHD, teaching, reading, researching, and wandering in Madagascar. Her publications include articles on twentieth-century US literature and culture. She may be reached at email@example.com.