Trouble Begins Lecture Series Continues With A Discussion on Race, Law, and Satire

The spring portion of the 2017-2018 The Trouble Begins Lecture Series, presented by the Center for Mark Twain Studies, continues Wednesday, May 16 in The Barn at Quarry Farm.  The lecture begins at 7:00 p.m., and is free and open to the public.

From the 1899 Harper & Brothers Edition of Puddn’head Wilson

The second lecture, “Raising the Bar: Satirizing Law in Puddn’head Wilson and The Sellout” will be presented by Rebecca Nisetich from the Honors Program at University of Southern Maine. This lecture explores how American writers use satire to expose the ways that “race” operates in our political institutions, social practices, and cultural discourses. In Puddn’head Wilson, Twain shows what happens when legal discourse is taken to its logical extreme. Contemporary novelist Paul Beatty similarly satirizes America’s racial structure and—like Twain—he takes aim at the legal system that support it. Twain’s novel is produced in the legal wrangling leading up to the Plessy v. Ferguson decision; Beatty’s novel responds to the present-day nadir of African American jurisprudence: the 2013 Supreme Court ruling which overturned critical aspects of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the effect of the subprime lending crisis on African American homeowners, and the spate of “Not Guilty” verdicts in the deaths of African American men. As Twain, Beatty, and others demonstrate, we cannot escape these fundamentally racist legal and social structures until we have created other viable options. As racial satirist Patrice Evans writes, “When we laugh…we are making light, but [we are] also setting the groundwork for raising the bar.” For these American writers, satire becomes a powerful means for undermining racist narratives.

Nisetich directs the Honors Program at the University of Southern Maine, where she teaches inter-disciplinary courses on race and identity in the U.S. Her manuscript, Contested Identities, explores characters whose identities are not clearly articulated, defined, or knowable. The project underscores indeterminacy—as opposed to ambiguity or “mixture”—as enabling writers to undermine the “one-drop” conceptions of race that dominated the discourse on race in early twentieth century America. Her essays have appeared in African American ReviewStudies in American Naturalism, and elsewhere.

About The Trouble Begins Lecture Series

In 1984, the Elmira College Center for Mark Twain Studies initiated a lecture series, The Trouble Begins at Eight lecture series.  The title came from the handbill advertising Mark Twain’s October 2, 1866 lecture presented at Maguire’s Academy of Music in San Francisco. The first lectures were presented in 1985. By invitation, Mark Twain scholars present lectures in the fall and spring of each year, in the Barn at Quarry Farm or at Peterson Chapel in Cowles Hall on Elmira College’s campus. All lectures are free and open to the public.

Dispatches from Quarry Farm: Huck! Speak Up. We Need You.

Caretaker Steve Webb and his son are the only year-round residents of Quarry Farm. Steve provides us with occasional, not always altogether reliable, updates from the premises.

The word and all it carries.

My son and I live in the space where Huck and Tom were called into existence. He’s nine and quickly approaching age that the boys were in Mark Twain’s stories. So it only seems appropriate that I’d read the great novels to him here at Quarry Farm. But how do I explain the struggles and cruelty, the dehumanizing hate and ignorance, the misguided belief and responsibility that is all packed into that one word—a box that will bust open, I know, the first moment it reluctantly passes over my lips as I read.

When I was young I was inadvertently armed with that word—definitely old enough to know better, but I didn’t. I just assumed it ranked somewhere near the “F-word” on the scale of words I don’t say in front of my mom. I was sitting at the lunch table with my little school buddies and I flung it out like it was funny, like just the word itself was a punch line. The table went quiet. They all looked down and through the tops of their eyes, at me, then over at Matt. His brown face darkened with red and his eyes shot me with shock, pain, anger and a cutting finality all in a split second. He grabbed his books and he left. He never came back to the lunch table again for the rest of the year. My apology later in the locker room was a jittery, stuttering, failure that he didn’t even turn to acknowledge. I never saw him again. Yes, we were in classes together and passed in the hallway but all I saw was a stoic black face looking straight ahead. When I see that same look on people of color today, I can’t help but think about it; it’s probably not a coincidence.

The real tragedy is that I didn’t even mean it in any malicious way. I was merely insensitive and ignorant. I was irresponsible. I think Matt took it so hard because I was nice and shy and smiled a lot. He had known me for years and probably trusted me as someone wasn’t a racist, then out of nowhere I let that word fly. It probably made him question his sense of judgment. Is everyone a racist?

More than twenty-five years later I still think about this nearly everyday. How do I prevent my son from making the same mistake? For him it’s not even the deeper problem of unlearning obvious prejudice that has been conditioned by school, church, and society, as Huck chose to—and as an unfortunate segment of our population still needs to. It’s the conveyance of responsibility and empathy and the willingness to stay open and teachable. It’s the awareness that society and culture still place those biases in our heads like air, invisible and everywhere, and as a white man raising a little white boy the responsibility to know them and correct them as they arise is as important as any lesson I teach him. But how do I convey all this to a nine-year-old boy who displays, as I try not to cringe, more traits of a young, outspoken, mischievous, Tom Sawyer than of the sensitive and thoughtful Huck Finn? How the hell should I know?

Again, jittery and stuttering—apparently my default—I explained the word he will soon hear me read over and over. My language smoothed out and I tried to be objective. I told him that this word was not mine or his or any other white person’s word and outside of this story you’ll never hear me say it. I told him it was the ugliest and most hurtful word in the English language.

“Worse than the F—word?”

“Not even in the same league.” I said in a low gravely whisper that pulled his attention closer.

I think he got it. His stare was intense and earnest as he lay tucked into his little bed with a look of impending punishment. Too much? In this case too much is better than too little. Too much may not be possible.

As I began to read and I settled into the best Hal Holbrook drawl I could muster he began to lighten. See, a mischievous boy will quickly recognize a fellow artist when he sees one. He fell into Hannibal and the “hymn to boyhood.” I had to explain much of the language, unfamiliar to a 9-year-old in 2017, but as I got into the flow of reading, he got into the flow of hearing. I just hope he heard everything.

Weeks later when I was picking him up from school he had a story to tell me. He started off jittery and stuttering: hyper, not scared.

“You know Zach in my class? Not my cousin Zach, but the Zach from my class.” (He clarifies this every time….I get it.)

“Yep.”

“He said that word today! The word from Mark Twain (I know, one step at a time.) He called Mariah that right to her face! I got up and said ‘You can’t say that!’ and told the lunch lady. He got suspended.”

Most of the time the job of parenting haunts me with two questions. First, How am I screwing this kid up? I have a long list of unfavorable answers. And second, What kind of world am I leaving him with? I rarely have even one good answer. I wish that Matt hadn’t had to experience my ignorance way back then, but at least it helped Mariah see that she wasn’t alone and she didn’t have to leave the lunch table— and I hope she never adopts that stoic stare.

As for those two haunting questions of parenting, with about the frequency of Haley’s comet you get ‘em both right.