Thursday, August 28, 2014

World premiere of New Souls tonight at The Senator

When Robert Douglas was in my 9th and 11th grade classroom, and later living in my house when he was homeless his senior year on the way to a Incentive Awards full scholarship at the University of Maryland, I always told him he had an old soul. Now, he's made a movie called New Souls, a documentary about life in urban America. It comes on the heals of two books (Fertile Concrete and Fertile Concrete II), a career as an educator, and plenty of activism. The film is having its world premiere tonight at The Senator, before it makes its film festival circuit. I'll be there and you should be too.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Book Review: King of Cuba

Cristina Garcia's King of Cuba was one of our summer reading selections for rising IB Seniors, chosen by the IB History of the Americas teacher and me based upon its description and reading the first few pages. I'd known Garcia from her great little novel Dreaming in Cuban, a finalist for the National Book Award in 1992, so I figured the novel would have literary merit; the IB History of the Americas teacher thought the focus on Fidel Castro and Cuba would help emphasize parts of her course.

I read the book this summer, and, while I've got some mixed feelings about it as a work of great literature, I do think it was a successful summer reading choice for these rising seniors. King of Cuba has two protagonists: a fictionalized version of Fidel Castro, who is turning 89, is concerned about his legacy, and is disappointed that young Cubans don't appreciate his continuing revolution against capitalism. His bad health has led him to give up some of the day-to-day operations to his charisma-free brother, Fernando, who lets Castro's great triumph be staged as Bay of Pigs, The Musical!, among other indignities. The other octogenarian protagonist is Goyo Herrera, a Cuban exile living in Miami who longs for revenge against Castro for, in his view, destroying his country but, more importantly, stealing and destroying a woman he loved. Goyo, like Castro, lives in a state of despair; a recent widower and the father of a prying single daughter and a 60-something drug addict, out-of-work son, he longs to outlive Castro or, if things work out like he wants them to, to die as the man who assassinated the tyrant.

Despite the heavy subject manner, the book is mostly a short, light, funny read -- it maintains a zany, comical tone throughout. The humor is pretty broad, with an assortment of penis and age jokes. Indeed, there's much broadness here; Garcia hits us over the head with the fact that these men are foils for each other; they're both womanizing, cigar-loving, cranky old men raging at the dying of the light. Both encounter strange, foreshadowing characters named Vasquez. Both have flashbacks to past disappointments. Both have current familial disappointments. They are, as she says in the author interview in the back of the edition I read, "two sides of the same Cuban coin" (a fact she definitely did not want us to miss!)

Garcia's structure is interesting. Besides moving back and forth between both protagonists and settings, she intersperses footnotes written by random Cubans (baristas, bloggers, hoteliers) who interject their views into the setting and sort of satirize what's happening. I don't think this part of the novel worked; in such a short novel, I think it was a lazy choice to try to tell the story of all of Cuba without having to work the "small guys" into the plot, just throwing some of their thoughts in their like a half-baked Greek chorus. Sometimes it gets too "look at me, I'm a writer", particularly when she includes footnotes written by "Cristina Garcia, novelist". Ugh. The whole book is already irreverent; I don't think we needed the footnotes as well (will be interested to hear what students think  about these in discussions next week).

I have some mixed feelings about Garcia's language, which sometimes I think tries too hard and ends up reading purply (such as in the opening pages describing the beach setting). However, other times, she can really hit a zinger; in a conflict with some hunger striking dissidents in Havana, she has the Castro character tell them, "We must make our peace with dying. But remember this: you won't create a solar system in which I am not the sun. Even after I'm gone, the heat of my presence will be felt." Yes, she captures the braggadocio of a fading tyrant pitch perfectly at times.

The pacing of the novel is erratic, and I was disappointed some of the characters didn't get more development, particularly Goya's daughter Adeline. However, I loved the melodramatic and improbable, but thoroughly entertaining, ending, and will definitely be interested to hear what students have to say about it now that we are ready to discuss it starting tomorrow.

All in all, I thought this was a good read for our purposes: a rather easy read for the summer, with some attempts to do interesting things with structure and genre (is it historical fiction? No, it's set in 2015. But it's something.) that should provide some routes for analysis and comparison with the other summer reading text, James Baldwin's Going to Meet the Man (my review here).

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

"Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"

The first day of school is something I anticipate for months. I ponder over the best books to teach, the seating arrangements most conducive to forming a classroom community, the assessments that will best show how well my students have learned. The night before, I get everything ready: laying my clothes out, making my lunch, packing my bags. Invariably, I can't fall asleep, as the butterflies churn in my stomach. This year, I was awake until 2:30 a.m. on Sunday night.

Then, paradoxically, the first day ends up being both the most exciting day of the year and the most boring. It's exciting, of course, because you meet the young people who will be in your classroom for the next year, but it boring because it's the most teacher-centered day of the year. Ironically on "the first day for students", the kids are in the background; none are really given a chance to make an impression yet. It's lots of teacher talk, my least favorite part of teaching; I grow tired of hearing my voice by the end of the 2nd period, and I surely speak more today than I do any other day. Every year, I try to think of different ways to do it, but it never really works out: syllabi need to be reviewed, attendance needs to be called out, class policies and procedures need to be described. I'm thankful for an administrator who, early in my career, stressed that it's important to do something on the first day of school, and to assign homework, so I always do that, but there's not much time for a whole lot.

This year, with my seniors, I was really happy with how a brief lesson and discussion over Mary Oliver's "The Summer Day" turned out. The poem, pictured at left, is really a wonderful little piece, with the speaker pondering some existential questions and then observing a grasshopper, which she uses as a catalyst for some direct questioning of the audience, and, urgently, with a "seize the day" type of attitude, asks the reader, "Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? / Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?".

The students ate up the poem, picking up on its dismissal of conventional religion, the speaker's view about what true spirituality entails, and its concluding, compelling question. (I can't wait to do other Mary Oliver poems with these students, like the powerful "Wild Geese" and "The Journey").

But as the extension assignment, I've modified my annual "send an e-mail to me with a brief biography" assignment that I always give on the first day (I need to capture their e-mails plus get to know them a little), I'm having students answer for me, via e-mail, Oliver's question at the end. So, all night last night and then throughout the day today, I've been getting e-mails with the subject heading, "re: my wild and precious life" and getting these really wonderful little e-mails from students who want to be social activists or educators or doctors. I keep reading them and getting goosebumps. True, a handful of the responses are short, clipped, I-need-to-fulfill-this-guy's-assignment replies, but the majority are happy to answer a broad and personal question about what they want to do with their life (I told them they could answer it any way they wanted to), and I couldn't be happier with how it all has gone. Thanks for the assist, Mary Oliver.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

English Department Ice Bucket Challenge

Andrew, our colleague and friend, also a wonderful teacher of writing and theater, was diagnosed with ALS about a year ago, so today, with his blessing, we were proud to complete the ice bucket challenge as a department in order to raise some money for ALS research.

When we planned this about a week ago, we were afraid that it might go too viral by the time we got to school (today was our first day back), but this is a pretty special #icebucketchallenge; I can't accurately describe how moving it was to hear Andrew's words and be a part of it, so take a look. I promise it'll be one of the best #icebucketchallenges you see.

And please make a donation to the cause to help fund research for this :

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Another August Curricular Dilemma: Choosing that Last Book for IB Seniors

We head back to school on Tuesday, and I'm still undecided about the last work of fiction I'll be teaching in IB English IV.

I have to choose from a list of about 100 authors from around the world and, for this part of the curriculum, the works need to be originally in English. My goal is, within these restrictions, to give students four great books, books that will see them off into the wider world. In high school English, we can't cover every area of the world or even most of them, but I want the literature to humanize different cultures, as well as reflect their shared experiences.

Last year, the four books were John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah, and Tim Winton's Cloudstreet. Two U.S. authors (and, I'd argue, the two most important of the 20th century, not read elsewhere in our school's 4-year curriculum), and two "world" authors, including a Nigerian author and an Australian author.

The problem is length. I had student read Cloudstreet (424 pages) as summer reading, and revisit it in the spring, but that didn't work out so well; kids really needed to re-read the challenging novel, and that was tough to do in the allotted time. Adichie's novel is nearly 600 pages, and, while it's a quick read, combining that with the 424 pages of Cloudstreet, 336 pages of Song of Solomon, and 160 or so pages of Cannery Row make for around 1600 pages of reading between Martin Luther King Day and the middle of April, as IB exams are the first week of May and students need to be finished with the books so we can practice some of the writing and connections before the exams.

I've decided that the massive success and turnpagability of Americanah, the briefness and depth of Cannery Row, and the brilliance and accessibility of Song of Solomon made them shoo-ins for any curriculum done this year, so I'm left trying to replace Cloudstreet, a bold, soulful, incredibly moving book I love but don't think I can fit in.
The Turning might replace Cloudstreet in my curriculum.
So I've been reading authors from the IB list to try to fill that space, and have been really interested in finding a short story collection, to explore a type of fiction that my students haven't really been able to explore yet in their time at our school. Partly out of guilt for removing Winton's Cloudstreet, and partly because I think he's awesome, I've been devouring his 2005 short story collection, The Turning, which features a bunch of interrelated short stories full of gritty, low-income characters in West Australia. I am enjoying the collection -- so far, just one story has been a dud out of the five or six I've read, and some are really powerful -- so it's definitely a contender. The fact that the stories are somewhat interrelated also makes it a contender; that's something that I think students will have a fun time investigating, seeing characters at different times in their lives in different short stories. However, The Turning is over 300 pages, meaning I'll save just around 100 pages (however, it's easier than Cloudstreet, so that helps), plus it's expensive on Amazon ($16.49 for paperback), and in a public school where students have to buy their own books, this is a factor. Other texts I'm considering: East West by Salman Rushdie, The World and Other Stories by Jeanette Witherspoon, and Dubliners by James Joyce. or Runaway by Alice Munro.  All are shorter but, so far, the Witherspoon work seems too inaccessible, the Joyce feels a little dull. I'm also considering short novels by one of the authors on the list: That Eye, The Sky or Breath by Winton, Portrait of an Artst as a Young Man by Joyce, Written on the Body by Winterspoon (too sensual, I think).

The world won't end if I don't decide by the end of the long weekend, but it sure would be nice to have this firmed up so I can move onto other dilemmas I love and that I think way too much about.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Disheartened to Learn that the NEH Declined to Fund Steinbeck Institute for 2015

Our instructor for the Steinbeck Institute, Dr. Susan Shillinglaw  recently told us over Facebook that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) had declined to fund the Steinbeck institute for 2015. (Click here for all my posts about The Steinbeck Institute while it was happening... it's what inspired me to start up this blog again)

I'm so disappointed by this news, and devastated that other teachers won't be able to have the sort of impactful professional development that I was able to have last summer.

I don't know the particulars about why the funding was denied, but I will say this: the 2013 Steinbeck Institute had a profound influence on my teaching and I'll continue to draw on it for years to come.

Last year, our 9th grade team taught The Grapes of Wrath to our students. Based upon a proposal I wrote based upon my experiences at the Steinbeck Institute, the Children's Bookstore donated 350 copies of the book for all of our 9th graders. We started the unit with the reading of Steinbeck's non-fiction research (very Common Core), The Harvest Gypsies, which I learned about in the Institute. Throughout the unit, we engaged in several of the teaching methods I learned at the institute, such as using adaptation and live performance to explore the book. Then, at the end of the unit, based upon a lesson I wrote at the institute, we had students write their own intercalary chapter, based upon research about a local Baltimore issue. The resulting pieces of writing were often revelatory, an inquiry-based project that had students showing a keen insight into Steinbeck's style as well as his dedication to social justice.

Steinbeck Institute participants tidepooling.
What I think is most valuable about what I took from the Steinbeck Institute and incorporated into my classroom instruction is how much breadth our students' learning experience was. The Grapes of Wrath wasn't just a book the kids read in English. We taught the text in conjunction with the Social Studies department, which was teaching a unit on Human Scarcity, about how people around the world react to times of scarcity. Kids were learning about push and pull factors, environmental factors ,and other concepts that contribute to Human Scarcity, while learning about this very specific manifestation of scarcity in Steinbeck's fictional work from the Dust Bowl and Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath, thus, contributed to an examination of social issues around the world and, later, a springboard for research-based reflection about the students' own experiences in their home city. Without the Steinbeck Institute, I wouldn't even have had the guts to tackle such a challenging text with 9th graders. Instead, it became one of the richest experiences of teaching literature that I've ever had.

It's going to continue, too. Our Grapes of Wrath unit will be even better next year, tighter and with more cross-curricular communication. I look forward to incorporating two texts I learned about at the institute: Under the Feet of Jesus by Helena Maria Viramontes and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, and to making more links with the idea of movement with August Wilson's Fences, something else I learned about during Dr. Persis Karim's lecture during the institute. I'm excited about the continued possibilities of this unit in our 9th grade curriculum, a direct result of my learning at the Steinbeck Institute.

Steinbeck Institute studies agriculture of Salinas, CA
With my seniors, we read Cannery Row, one of the most interesting little books I've ever taught. I never even would have thought about teaching this novel before the Steinbeck Institute, but the institute helped reveal its complexities and helped me guide the students to begin to analyze these complexities. This is an entry I wrote while teaching the novel, using Dr. Shillinglaw's techniques of examining Steinbeck's war language, one of many lessons during the reading of that book that were amazing for Seniors on the cusp of graduating high school. Students, by and large, loved the book, and loved all the photos I showed them from the actual Cannery Row. We had great discussions about it, about Steinbeck's structure and craft, and students wrote very well about it. These same students rocked the IB exams in May, beating the world average, scoring more 7s and 6s than in the history of our school, and I'm sure many of the methods and skills I learned at the institute contributed to this.

This November, myself and several other participants at the Steinbeck Institute will be presenting at the National Council of Teachers of English conferences in Washington, DC, in a presentation called "John Steinbeck and the Story of America". At the conference, we will be sharing our experiences at the institute and teaching methods for various Steinbeck texts and how to teach them in the age of the Common Core. I look forward to trying to spread the lessons from the Steinbeck Institute, and am saddened that no more teachers will be going to Monterey unless the NEH reverses its decision.

To conclude, I'm very disappointed in the NEH for declining to fund the Steinbeck Institute for 2015, and urge them to reconsider their decision or, at the very least, to fund the institute in its entirety in 2016. The Steinbeck Institute's focus on fiction as well as non-fiction and science (agriculture which helped us learn more about migrant workers and The Grapes of Wrath, marine science which helps us understand the central metaphor of Cannery Row and Ed Ricketts, who was the model for its central character of Doc) helps develop teachers' instruction in the age of the Common Core, as does its focus on independent analysis of rigorous texts.

The Steinbeck Institute was one of the greatest professional development events of my career, and is something that will continue to inspire my instruction for years. Please bring it back, NEH!

Book Review: Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin

While I've enjoyed Go Tell It on the Mountain and If Beale Street Could Talk, I am amongst those who believe that the most important contributions of James Baldwin are his non-fiction essays, which document and, it could be argued, helped galvanize the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Over the last several years, I've taught these essays -- starting with Notes of a Native Son, and moving on through Nobody Knows My Name, The Fire Next Time, and No Name in the Street -- in a hefty 6-week unit that strives to make my students James Baldwin experts and fulfills the non-fiction requirement in the IB curriculum.

I've assigned his short-story collection Going to Meet the Man a few times, usually as summer reading, and mostly so students could be exposed to the great short story "Sonny's Blues" and a little bit of Baldwin's voice before we study his essays during the school year. I don't feel like I've closely read the book as a whole for a few years, and, over the last couple of days, devoured the 8 short stories in the collection again.

And, wow, these short stories sure are good, though it opens with one if its weaker moments, "The Rockpile", which seems like a sketch for Go Tell It on the Mountain. It feels a little incomplete, but probably because I know the novel and the characters well, but we do see Baldwin's strained relationship with his stepfather (not revealed in this story that Gabriel is his stepfather), which we also see manifested in his essays like "Notes of a Native Son". I did like how the story ended with a moment of trembling courage from Elizabeth, John's mother and Gabriel's wife, who stands up for her son -- who we discover in the next story is gay -- in a conflict about the titular rockpile. Overall, the story that resonates with some echoes of Cain and Abel but otherwise seems a little too small.

The next story, "The Outing," is a standout. With his pen wielding like a camera, Baldwin shows us several vignettes within an outing of a Harlem Baptist trip --  the religious festivities, the revival, the individual church members being "saved" -- as a backdrop for (and here's the double meaning of the story title) a young man's coming of age, including the subtle realization of his gayness and his jealousy at his best friend's attempts to give a girl he's got a crush on a gift: "As soon as he was alone his pace slackened; he leaned his forehead against the bark of a tree, shaking and burning as in the teeth of a fever. The bark of the tree was rough and cold and though it offered no other comfort he stood there quietly for a long time, seeing beyond him -- but it brought no peace -- the high clear sky where the sun in fading glory traveled; and the deep earth covered with vivid banners, grass, flower, thorn and vine, thrusting upward forever the brutal trees. As his back he heard the voices of the children and the saints. He knew he must return, that he must be on hand should David at last outwit Sister Daniels and present her daughter with the golden butterfly. But he did not want to go back, now he realized that he had no interest in the birthday present, no interest whatever in Sylvia -- that he had had no interest all along. He shifted his stance, he turned from the tree as he turned his mind from the abyss which suddenly yawned, that abyss, depthless and terrifying, which he had encountered already in his dreams. And he slowly began to walk, away from the saints and the voices of the children, his hands in his pockets, struggling to ignore the question which now screamed and screamed in his mind's bright haunted house." Baldwin's language here is full of the conflicts Johnnie is feeling, between religion and his awakened feelings, between innocence and experience. Many of the students don't realize the protagonist's gayness while reading, and this is the type of story that begs discussion. The last line of the story -- "But now where there had been peace there was only panic and where there had been safety, danger, like a flower, opened" is so powerful for me. Baldwin, of course, writes about the conflicts between homosexuality and Christianity throughout his career, especially with "Down at the Cross", but rarely as vividly as he does here.

"The Man Child" is a departure for Baldwin, a story with white characters and a focus on an 8-year old protagonist. The story is creepy, with so much left unsaid, and raises many questions: What is the relationship between Jamie and Eric's mother? Why does Eric's father openly display so much hatred for his oldest friend and the man who he gets drunk with every night? The ending -- a gut-wrenching twist ending -- will definitely lead to some interesting discussions in a couple of weeks when my students come in.

The fourth story, "Previous Condition", is about liminality: Peter, the Black protagonist, eschews his own race in many ways, turning down a lead role in the play version of Native Son, steering clear of Harlem, and exclusively hanging out with his white friend and his white girlfriend.  But he knows how to navigate the precarious racist waters of the U.S.: "Like a prizefighter learns to take a blow or a dancer learns to fall, I'd learned how to get by. I'd learned never to be belligerent with policemen, for instance. No matter who was right, I was certain to be wrong. What might be accepted as just good old American independence in someone else would be insufferable arrogance in me. After the first few times I realized that I had to play smart, to act out the role I was expected to play. I only had one head and it was too easy to get it broken. When I faced a policeman I acted like I didn't know a thing. I let my jaw drop and I let my eyes get big. I didn't give him any smart answers, none of the crap about my rights. I figured out what answered he wanted and I gave them to him. I never let him think he wasn't king." Not only are these lines reminiscent of lines throughout "Equal in Paris" and other essays of Baldwin's, they are also depressingly germane to today; I hope my students see the echoes of Michael Brown and Ferguson and note the continued relevance of Baldwin's words. Peter's attempts to survive beyond stereotype lead to an existential crisis when he is thrown out of a rented room for being Black and looked at fearfully by white passengers on a bus, leading him into a Harlem bar he doesn't feel a part of and subsequently to declare, in the closing line of the story, "I got no story, Ma." It's a satisfying, ironic end to a story.

Of the next story, "Sonny's Blues," I've written quite a bit already. It's my favorite short story, a story that still charges my senses and makes me think about such profound human issues like addiction, suffering, grief, and redemption. I love this conversation, after listening to a blues singer. The younger brother, a recovering heroin addict, begins talking to the upstanding teacher older brother, the unnamed narrator:
"While I was downstairs before, on my way here, listening to that woman sing, it struck me all of a sudden how much suffering she must have had to go through -- to sing like that. It's repulsive to think you have to suffer that much."
I said: "But there now way not to suffer -- is there, Sonny?"
"I believe not," he said and smiled, "but that's never stopped anyone from trying." He looked at me. "Has it?" I realized, with this mocking look, that there stood between us, forever, beyond the power of time or forgiveness, the fact that I had held silence -- so long! -- when he had needed human speech to help him. He turned back to the window. "No, there's no way not to suffer. But you try all kinds of ways to keep from drowning in it, to keep on top of it, and to make it seem -- well, like you. Like you did something, all right, and now you're suffering for it. You know?" I said nothing. "Well you know," he said, impatiently, "why do people suffer? Maybe it's better to do something to give it a reason, any reason."
"But we just agreed," I said, "that there's no way not to suffer. Isn't it better, then, just to -- take it?"
"But nobody just takes it," Sonny cried, "that's what I'm telling you! Everybody tries not to. You're just hung up on the way some people try -- it's not your way!"

This brother vs. brother conflict has a beautiful and powerful and ambivalent resolution in the last scene, when we see the narrator gaining insight into what Sonny is talking about and engaging in some grief for the first time over the loss of his daughter. Sandwiched in the middle of the story is a similarly powerful flashback involving the boys' uncle, and these words from their mother: "I ain't telling you all this to make you scared or bitter or to make you hate nobody. I'm telling you this because you got a brother. And the world ain't changed." Cycles of racism, suffering, and redemption, all culminating in a final scene with a relatively obscure biblical allusion in the last line (the glass of liquor "glowed and shook above my brother's head like the very cup of trembling"): it's an English teacher's dream. Love this story.

The 6th story, "This Morning, This Evening, So Soon", is a long one, but a good one. The Black protagonist is famous singer/actor (I was thinking about Harry Belafonte when I was reading) with a white French wife and an 8-year old mixed child who is content living as an expatriate in France as he has for the last 12 years, where he doesn't feel the racial struggle he feels while in the U.S. However, a great film role and other job offers pull him back to the U.S., and the story takes place in the days leading up to the family's departure. The plot is built with a few interesting flashbacks -- one to the protagonist's childhood, another to the making of a film the actor is in, another to a visit back to the U.S. after 8 years in France -- and its themes are reminiscent of Baldwin's ideas about being a Black American in Europe, as my students will later study in such essays as "Equal in Paris," "The Discovery of What It Means To Be an American," and "Stranger in the Village." Additionally, with its discussion of other Black people in France, especially North Africans, I thought about "Take Me to the Water," Baldwin's long 1972 essay that, in part, examined Algerians living in Paris. That comes up towards the end of the story, when an Algerian friend of the (unnamed? I went back and couldn't find his name) protagonist is accused by the Black Americans they have befriended of snatching 10 francs out of one of the American girl's purses. I was having a hard time figuring out what the whole thing was about, because there's so much here: the Black father not wanting his son to have to be a Black man in America, the reflection and insight that comes with being an expatriate ("The Americans on the boat did not seem to be so bad, but I was fascinated, after such a long absence from it, by the nature of their friendliness. It was friendliness which did not suggest, and was not intended to suggest, any possibility of friendship. Unlike Europeans, they dropped titles and used first names almost at once, leaving themselves, unlike the Europeans, with nowhere thereafter to go"), even the nature of falling in love ("During all the years of my life, until that moment, I had carried the menacing, the hostile, the killing world with me everywhere. No matter what I was doing or saying or feeling, one eye had always been on the world -- that world which I had learned to distrust almost as soon as I learned my name, that world on which I knew one could never turn one's back, the white man's world. And for the first time in my life I was free of it; it had not existed for me; I had been quarreling with my girl. It was our quarrel, it was entirely between us, it had nothing to do with anyone else in the world. For the first time in my life I had not been afraid of the patriotism of the mindless, in uniform or out, who would beat me up and treat the woman who was with me as though those were the lowest of untouchables. For the first time in my life I felt that no force jeopardized my right, my power, to possess and to protect a woman; for the first time, the first time, felt that the woman was not, in her own eyes or in the eyes of the world, degraded by my presence."). Then the last line gives us something, though, as the protagonist and his son go up in an elevator described as a "cage", we see that there's something in here about the cages that the world creates for us, that exist no matter where we try to run. It's powerful stuff.

"Come Out the Wilderness" is another strange one, this one with a Black female protagonist involved in a desperate and unequal relationship with a white guy. A Black superior at her job invites her out to lunch and then to a club, and she's excited by it, but eventually confused by it. She heads home from her job to a bar, not knowing where her boyfriend is, and we get a flashback to another relationship in which a white guy liked to pretend she was a slavegirl on a farm. She leaves the bar, drunk and disoriented. I didn't really like this one too much: is this a critique of interracial relationships? Of the power dynamic that stems from them in relationships? I couldn't really tell, but the female protagonist was too passive for me. I did, however, love this examination of secrets in relationships: "To tell everything is a very effective means of keeping secrets. Secrets hidden at the heart of midnight are simply waiting to be dragged to the light, as, on some unlucky high noon, they always are. But secrets shrouded in the glare of candor are bound to defeat even the most determined and agile inspector for the light is always changing and proves that the eye cannot be trusted."

The last story is the title story, "Going to Meet the Man," and it doesn't get much more disturbing than this one; basically, the white protagonist uses the memory of a vicious lynching he witnessed on the shoulders of his father as Viagra so he can "get it up" and have sex with his wife. The imagery of the lynching is horrifying and tear-inducing; it's no "mere" hanging, but a roast and the hanging and torturing of a Black man over a huge fire, and the cutting off of his genitals. I read echoes of "Many Thousands Gone" in the themes of sexual repression and white men's emasculation of Black men, and the whole thing is one of the most disturbing and powerful short stories you'll ever read.

All 8 of these stories deserve conversation, and I'm looking forward to talking about them in the first couple of weeks of school!