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IN ADDITION TO CARVER, NELSON HAS ALSO WON MUCH ACCLAIM FOR TWO OTHER NON- FICTION VERSE TEXTS FOR TEEN READERS: A Wreath for Emmett Till AND Fortunes Bones: The Manumission Requiem
A WREATH FOR EMMETT TILL BY: MARILYN NELSON Emmett Till was a 14 year old black teenager who was lynched for whistling at a white woman. The woman, along with others, perceived this as flirting. Flirting with a white woman as a black man was unacceptable at the time. However, Emmett was not actually whistling at the woman; he had a stutter and his mother told him to whistle when he couldn’t get his words out. Although this text is in picture book format (illustrations by Philippe Lardy), this book is marketed to young adults. Emmett Till was a teen at the time of his death, and the biographical and historical content organized by Nelson is not sanitized in the way children's non-fiction typically is. The idea of a wreath is important because a wreath is a political statement trying to make peace between the races at the time while also serving as a symbol for justice for the unacceptable murder of Emmett Till. This text is composed in sonnet form, “fourteen line rhyming poem[s] in iambic pentameter” (np). The rhyme scheme is Petrarchan.
FORTUNES BONES: THE MANUMISSION REQUIEM BY: MARILYN NELSON Fortune was a slave. He had been a slave all his life with the rest of his family. He had a wife and four kids. His owner was a doctor, and when the doctor died he wanted to use Fortune’s bones to further study the human anatomy. Fortunes bones were passed down in the Porter family for generations teaching them about anatomy. The bones were eventually put into a museum. The people in the museum did not know whose bones they were; they called the bones “Larry.” It’s not until the 1990s that it was discovered who “Larry” really is, and it is decided that Fortune’s bones deserve peace and are laid to rest. A requiem is used to honor the dead, while a manumission is the formal release of someone who has been a slave. In essence this book is celebrating the release of Fortune from slavery. This text is accompanied by drawings, photographs, and copies of documents; Pamela Espeland is credited with the notes and annotations.
CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES Each of these novels is written in a poetic format. Poetry is sparse; the content relayed is often abstract. Every person has different emotions and can have different responses to the same thoughts and ideas. Each person’s response can be different due to the different circumstances of an individual’s life, such as their upbringing or personal preferences. Nonetheless, all books invite the reader to take on a certain reader position. This is called the implied reader position. The author constructs the implied reader in the way that s/he tells her story, the information that s/he leaves out and includes, tone, etc. Each of these documents plays with narration. There is not one consistent point of view to tell the story of Carver or Till or Fortune. For example, the poem “The Perceiving Self” in Carver was written from the perspective of a flower. In Fortune’s Bones, Fortune’s owner’s widow narrates the first poem; later, the poem “Kyrie of the Bones” has multiple narrators who know the bones in different ways (in an attic in a wooden box, boarded up in a wall, hanging in a museum) over many years. While each of these novels presents problems for Carver, Emmett Till, and Fortune, these are not problem novels because they are not actively looking for solutions to these problems. Cultural racism is the problem that underscores all three of these novels. Unlike drug abuse, culture cannot go to 30 days of rehab to stop being racist. Emmett Till and Fortune changed the world with their deaths, while Carver changed the world with his life.
MORE CRITICAL PERSPECTIVES In the poem “The Perceiving Self,” dual consciousness is explored. The poem starts out with the flower being comfortable in nature, but then feeling threatened after seeing the lynching. Through this, Nelson explores Carver’s perceiving self, or how he sees himself, and his perceived self, or how others see him. Carver is threatened because of who he is (his perceived self). In “From an Alabama Farmer,” Carver is perceived by the farmer the same way he sees himself. The farmer refers to Carver’s idea as “a miracle,” which reflects Carver’s wish to help others, not make money. Even though the farmer was illiterate, he clearly was affected by Carver enough to write to him even though he did not know how to spell most of the words in his letter correctly. Identity and dignity are both central to the construction and perspective of Nelson in Fortune’s Bones and A Wreath for Emmett Till. There are objective and depersonalized facts about all of these people, and then there are loving treatments that ask us to resee the facts from a personal place.
“‘GENIUS, SCIENTIST, SAINT’: CARVER AS HAGIOGRAPHY” BY EMILY CORMIER In Emily Cormier’s article “’Genius, Scientist, Saint’: Carver as Hagiography,” Cormier explores how one might see Nelson’s depictions of Carver as saintly. The way the novel is structured is reflective of the style of a hagiography. A hagiography is simply the biography of a saint. Carver gives credit to God for his innovations and ideas. Scientists discredit him due to the institutional separation of science and religion. However, Nelson also depicts Carver as a flawed human. Carver’s relationship with money makes him live in a Christ-like way. In “Mineralogy,” he puts a diamond he receives in his mineral box. He refuses to accept its worth. He wants to live outside the racist and flawed economic system, partially because it put a price tag on his mother (in the poem “Bedside Reading”). Carver did not see his inventions as money-making inventions; he just wanted them to benefit humans. This allows him to live in a Christ-like way.
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PROMPTS According to the article by Emily Cormier, children’s poetry scholar Richard Flynn would call Carver "challenging" poetry, meaning that it neither "condescend[s] to” nor "underestimate[s] children's ability" (78). Below is an excerpt from a poem in Fortune’s Bones : “Not My Bones” I was not this body, I was not these bones. This skeleton was just my temporary home. Elementary molecules converged for a breath, then danced on beyond my individual death. And I am not my body, I am not my body. What would you argue are Nelson’s assumptions about the implied reader and what s/he is capable of when it comes to understanding her works? Consider both form and content. After watching the first video and hearing about Emmett Till’s murder, then hearing Nelson’s reading of poems from her book A Wreath for Emmett Till, consider the following: what is the effect of flowery Romantic sonnets about the dark truth of Emmett Till’s murder? Optional: What else needs to be said about Nelson’s oeuvre ?
WORKS CITED Cormier, Emily Cardinali. “’Genius, Scientist, Saint’: Carver as Hagiography.” Children’s Literature 38 (2010): Project MUSE. Web. 24 February Nelson, M. A Wreath for Emmett Till. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, Print. Nelson, M. Carver: A Life in Poems. Asheville, North Carolina: Hachette Book Group USA, Print. Nelson, Marilyn. Fortune's Bones: The Manumission Requiem. Asheville, North Carolina: Front Street, Print.