We Are Who We Choose To Be

One of my favorite movies of all time is the animated film the Iron Giant. This movie follows the path of a young boy who befriends and influences a gargantuan, sentient giant made of metal. In the movie, the boy name Horgarth teaches the giant the importance of self identification, and that “you are who you choose to be.” This particular quote spoke droves to me when I read a particular line in Everyday Use from Alice Walker’s In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women. The narrator reads “I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley cake. (Walker 48)” While she states this, she goes on to talk about her adventures as a rural woman of the land, living a pastorale life, much different then how her daughter wants her to be. In truth, it is a shame people, literary or not, are constrained by society to carry on as someone that they do not recognize in the mirror. One of the greatest gifts that we as a species posses is the innate ability to go about choosing a path that is higher then simply eating and continuing our species. We can forge our own destinies and choose to be whoever we want, although, if only it were that simple. It seems that another facet of society is telling us where to go and who to be. I thought that this aspect was just a trait of today’s society, but Walker’s tale takes place in the turn of the 20th century. It seems that as long as human beings interact with each other, we will forever strive to be someone who society approves of, rather then be the person of whom we want and choose to be. (SPOILER ALERT) The Giant did choose who he wanted to be, a savior, and if we can use it as an example, both in literature and in reality, then perhaps we can too choose who we want to be

Understanding Heritage

“‘You just don’t understand,’ [Dee] said, as Maggie and I came out to the car.

‘What don’t I understand?’ [Mama] wanted to know.

‘Your heritage,’ [Dee] said.”  (p. 59)

Everyday Use is a story about roots and heritage and this passage, which  appears on the final page of the story, encapsulates the struggle of understanding them.  In Everyday Use, we are introduced to  two radically different characters with two radically different views of heritage. The character and narrator, Mama, is introduced as a strong woman from humble beginnings who while she is a smart woman, she lacks a formal education. As a result, she appears simpler than her daughter Dee, an equally strong but formally educated woman who has changed her name from “Dee” to “Wangero” as part of her conversion to Islam.

While the two have lead very different lives, their friction is properly played out in the passage above. Up until that point, Mama and Dee showed signs of a clash with regards to the household objects like the benches made by their father, or the butter churn topper and the dasher carved by their uncles Buddy and “Stash” respectively. Mama views these objects as practical tools given to her by family so she may benefit from their use. Dee, on the other hand, views these objects as mementos representative of her heritage. They are not tools, but staples of her family history. For this reason, Dee asks if she can have these objects, not for their practical purposes but so she may remember her roots.

Ultimately, Dee goes rummaging through Mama’s bedside trunk and pulls out a couple of quilts made of old clothes dating back to the Civil War knitted by her grandmother (also named Dee) and asks Mama if she can have them. When Mama asks what Dee will do with them, Dee responds by saying she plans to hang them up. To this, Mama responds by taking the quilts from Dee’s hands and giving them to Maggie, Dee’s timid little sister. Mama tells Dee that Maggie should have them because she actually uses them; she gets “everyday use” out of them unlike Dee who would simply have them as a sort of trophy. At this point, Dee exits the house and goes to leave with the man she came with. She tells Mama before she leaves that Mama does not understand her heritage; their heritage.

This then begs the question, what is heritage? Is it based on culture and the origins of a people, or is it based on the relationships between close family members?  Is it about trying to reach back to an era that predates even your great-grandparents like Dee is trying to do? Or is it about making use of the lessons,  tools, and skills imparted on you by your family like Mama and Maggie do by using the objects as they were meant to be used.

Breaking Down Barriers

“‘What’s integration mean?’ Tim asked Grover.
‘The opposite of differentiation,’ Grover said, drawing an x-axis, y-axis and curve on his greenboard. ‘Call this function of x. Consider values of the curve at tiny little increments of x’ – drawing straight vertical lines from the curve down to the x-axis, like the bars of a jail cell – ‘you can have as many of these as you want, see, as close together as you want.’
‘Till it’s all solid,’ Tim said.
‘No, it never gets solid. If this was a jail cell, and those lives were bars, and whoever was behind it could make himself any size he wanted to be, he could always make himself skinny enough to get free. No matter how close together the bars were.’
‘This is integration,’ said Tim.
‘The only kind I ever heard of,’ said Grover.” (186-187)

In “The Secret Integration,” Pynchon draws an analogy between racial integration and Grover’s explanation of the term used for integral calculus. According to Pynchon’s analogy, racial integration breaks down the barriers between whites and blacks so that they become a community, just as the young boys have initiated Carl Barrington into their group. The young boys exemplify a judgment-free, ideal, classless group. With the forthcoming civil rights movement, the young boys struggle to understand the meaning of integration and their parents’ stubborn racism while growing up in a generation of change and acceptance as they instinctively invite Carl into their gang. Although Carl Barrington is revealed to be a figment of the young boys’ imaginations, his acceptance into the group of young boys shows the hope of a new generation’s first step toward racial integration.

In his analogy, Pynchon demonstrates not only the importance of integration and racial tolerance, but also the innate humanity that a younger generation can demonstrate. The lines of Grover’s graph, as he points out, can be seen as bars of a jail cell. Racial integration allows blacks to be free of those bars.

The young boys occupy their time playing practical jokes while also plotting a large-scale anti-institution revolt. Grover hates institutions and any “scaled-up world adults made” that they live in without him (143). He also hates the world “uneducable,” which he refuses to explain to his friends, because it suggests inequality as he compares it to derogatory terms (150). The young boys, especially Grover, are clearly aware of discrimination and see it as the fault of higher institutions, which are led by adults, but they are also surprised by their own parents’ stubborn racism. Although the group may seem rowdy, they are political minded youth looking to reverse a system that they view is wrong. And with the surprising twist that Carl was a figment of their imagination, it is revealed that Carl was their secret integration. For the adults, Carl is not there, and they never want him to be there. Carl is a playmate the young boys can spend endless hours with because he is a collection of phrase and images “that grownups had somehow turned away from” (192).

Almost is Never Enough

“‘Grovie,’ said Etienne, ‘are we still integrated? If he doesn’t come back? Hops a freight somewhere or something?’ ‘Ask your father,’ said Grover. ‘I don’t know anything.'” Page 192.

From the beginning of the story, the characterization of Grover, a major character, is that he is a very intelligent boy. It is established that he has more academic comprehension than the rest of his peers. He uses big words and can answer any question that his friend’s throw at him.  His friend Tim asks him what integration means. After he explains what integration is, Grover makes the conclusion that their school is integrated due to Carl, an African American student and member of the friend group, attending their school.

Unfortunately, the adults, which also included Grover’s and Tim’s parents, did not want to reside in an integrated society. The adults made awful phone calls to Carl’s parents, used “dirty words they got so angry with kids for using” (Page 188), and trashed their front lawn. These uncivilized acts eventually lead to Carl to keep a low profile and gives an indication that he might just leave the town altogether.

The characterization of Grover and the racist events that happen to Carl and his family tie together. Grover is so confident in his intelligence that he never doubts himself or the information that he studies. This was no different when he came to the conclusion that his school was integrated and there was nothing that the adults could really do about it. As it turns out, the conclusion the Grover made was wrong. What’s interesting is that this one answer that he got wrong impacted the way he portrays himself. Never once has Grover ever said that he didn’t know anything.

This may be because Grover is so used to the answers being concrete, permanent, and rational. Definitions of words will always stay the same, math has a set of rules that people abide by, and the correct answers will never be considered incorrect. Because of this mindset, it is understandable why Grover is so shaken by everything that happened to Carl.

Time

“Time is just common, it’s like water for a fish. Everybody’s in the water, nobody gets out of it, or if he does the same thing happens to him that happens to the fish, he dies.” (Part One, Chapter Two)

Giovanni’s take on what time is in his conversation with David is a reflection of David more than of other people.  The novel is made up heavily of David’s own memories,  the only other sections (for lack of a better word) seen so far are snippets of his own musings on them.   David himself is very aware of the connection that lies between him and Giovanni, and of the futility of any attempt to sever it.  This makes David the fish.  Just like his relationship with Joey, his encounter with Giovanni will always be an important part of his identity, like water is to the fish, for an individual is made up of his past experiences and the people surrounding him.

While Giovanni’s take on time defines it as eternal and static, while David defines time (or well, Giovanni defines “American time” for him) as progress. He tells him they define time:

“as though with enough time and all that fearful energy and virtue you people have, everything will be settled, solved, put in its place. And when I say everything I mean all the serious, dreadful things, like pain and death and love, in which you Americans do not believe.” (Part One, Chapter Two)

This take on time, however, is not reflective of David (even if it is of his values).

David and his attempt at self-discovery

“Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced. I think now that if I had had any intimation that the self I was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which I had spent so much time in flight, I would have stayed at home. But, again, I think I knew, at the very bottom of my heart, exactly what I was doing when I took the boat for France” (p. 21).

Through going abroad, David attempts to find reconciliation in who he is; David hopes to determine his sexuality without the pressure of his family.   Hence, Baldwin chooses to write from a retrospective point of view to incorporate details that David—at the moment he chose to go to France—did not know. Through Baldwin writing in retrospect, David admits to “…think[ing] now that if [he] had had any intimation that the self [he] was going to find would turn out to be only the same self from which [he] had spent so much time in flight, [he] would have stayed at home” (p. 21). This admittance is crucial to the plot of the novel, as David focuses upon his fateful night with Joey throughout the first twenty pages or so; this was the night that David discovers that he enjoys the company of men as much, if not more, than women. Thus, the narrator is inserting details that allude to David going to France to discover his sexuality in an environment with no outside influence.

David attempts to set off on a voyage of self-discovery when he begins to sense that his dad “… thought [him and David] were alike [and David] did not want to think so” (p. 17). David fears being confined to what his father is; he fears being compared to his father because he knows that he is nothing like him. David enjoyed his sexual encounter with Joey; his father enjoys the company of women. David utilizes alcohol to stifle the pain caused by his inability to be like his father; David wants to be straight and fears that he is gay. Therefore, when David goes to France, David and his father “… got on quite well, really, for the vision [he] gave [his] father of [his] life was exactly the vision in which [he himself] most desperately needed to believe” (p. 20). The vision being that David is straight. Thus, the retrospective narrator comments that “… [he] think[s] [he] knew, at the very bottom of [his] heart, exactly what [he] was doing when [he] took the boat for France” (p. 21) because David knew that he would need to escape the pressure of conformity to be happy; David knew that, if he were to discover his true self, he would need to be free from judgment.

David’s (and everyone’s) Contradictory Transformation

“We will ride through the same changing countryside north-ward, leaving behind the olive trees and the sea and all of the glory of the stormy southern sky, into the mist and rain of Paris.” (3-4)

This quote come within the very first pages of Giovanni’s Room. The narrator, in first person, describes how everything on his return to Paris from a house in the south of France will be the same; the people, the train, his whole life will be unchanging. In this quote, though, there are the beginnings of contradiction, which is prevalent throughout the rest of Part One. Our narrator says the “same changing countryside”, which begs the question how can something be the same and changing? If it is the same countryside, then it has not changed. Conversely, if it changes, then the countryside is never the same. This discrepancy is our introduction into the life of our main character and narrator David. In the remainder of this section, we see how many contradictions arise in himself and his life. He at once loves and is cruel to Joey. He can be extremely drunk but appear composed and sober. He dates Hella yet seems to immediately fall for Giovanni. It is in these inconsistencies that Baldwin reveals the truths about growing up. The transformation that David is going through is characteristic of growing up. All young people encounter contradictions in who they are, how they feel, and what they want to be. David believes he has made decisions about who he wants to be, such as when he decided he would never sleep with a boy after Joey; and yet, by page 6 we learn that that is untrue because he sleeps with Giovanni. Young people are full of contradictions as demonstrated not only by these opening pages but also by many of the protagonists we have encountered thus far. It is not to say that David, or any other human (or character) in the midst of growing up, lies or imagines things but rather that this is a part of what it means to become an adult.