Scenes of Instruction: A Memoirby Michael Awkward
Scenes of Instruction is the memoir of noted scholar of African American literature Michael Awkward. Structured around the commencement ceremonies that marked his graduations from various schools, it presents Awkward’s coming-of-age as a bookish black male in the projects of 1970s Philadelphia. His relationships with his family and peers, their struggles with poverty and addiction, and his eventual move from underfunded urban schools to a prestigious private school all become parts of a memorable script.
With a recurring focus on how his mother’s tragic weaknesses and her compelling strengths affected his development, Awkward intersperses the chronologically arranged autobiographical sections with ruminations on his own interests in literary and cultural criticism. As a male scholar who has come under fire for describing himself as a feminist critic, he reflects on such issues as identity politics and the politics of academia, affirmative action, and the Million Man March.
By connecting his personal experiences with larger political, cultural, and professional questions, Awkward uses his life as a palette on which to blend equations of race and reading, urbanity and mutilation, alcoholism, pain, gender, learning, sex, literature, and love.
In Scenes of Instruction, Awkward details his assent from the projects of Philadelphia in the 1970s, to his position at the University of Michigan where he was granted early tenure and his current position at the University of Pennsylvania, where what should have been a celebratory triumphant return of a native son was marred by controversy and the bittersweet memories of his deceased mother. Awkward has endured a fair amount of criticism because in his academic work he posits himself as a feminist scholar. Much of Scenes of Instruction is dedicated to demonstrating how a young black male can develop feminist concerns while living with an alcoholic mother who was severely abused by Awkward's father. He also details his internal conflicts with living up to the standards of inner-city black masculinity. The sections of the book that reveal Awkward's sometimes agonizing personal struggles with identity are by far the most interesting.
Much of the book, however, is devoted to personal feuds. He devotes several pages to criticizing an ex-girlfriend's poetry and musical performances. In a moment that will surely be controversial in some circles, Awkward attacks black intellectuals Michael Dyson, Gerald Early and bell hooks for producing works of limited scholarly utility, pandering to popular white audiences and lacking intellectual integrity. To establish his own credibility, he includes long sections of critical analysis of Richard Wright and other African American writers, complete with the jargon-ridden prose that is too often typical of that discipline.
Awkward's book is likely to appeal mostly to other academics.
“Each page of this book is filled with significance, each page a work of art. Awkward revisits his past from multiple perspectives—through his own body as a child or teen, and in a kind of outer body experience as a scholar reflecting on why things happened the way they did. Scenes of Instruction is one of those rare memoirs that will last a long time.”— Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Yo’ Mama’s Disfunktional! Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America about.]
“This account of the education of Michael Awkward is tender, thoughtful, and illuminating. Scenes of Instruction is a great autobiographical achievement.”—Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
“Unafraid of his own brilliance, Michael Awkward has given us a penetrating portrait of the growth of an intellectual, of a man, and of an African American. He uses his honesty to illuminate the wounds into which his keen intelligence slices, and his invaluable insights are a balm toward understanding. In dealing with blackness and gender and double-consciousness and class, Scenes of Instruction goes to the hearts of the matter.”—Randall Kenan, author of Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century
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Scenes Of Instruction
By Michael Awkward
Duke University PressCopyright © 1999 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
SECTION I * The Mother's Mark
I read voraciously in the autumns, winters, springs, and summers before I graduated from sixth grade. I consumed library books, magazines, newspapers, and trashy, sexually explicit novels that I borrowed surreptitiously from the shelf of my mother's closet. Later, during high school, two books—A Farewell to Arms, by Ernest Hemingway, and The End of the Road, by John Barth—emerged from the mountain of texts I'd encountered to become my manuals. Compelled alternately by Papa's brooding cynicism and JB's broad, bawdy satire, I vacillated between the two novels' disparate representations of their protagonists' lack of faith in modes of thought that had been normative for pre–World War I, premodern Western societies. Hemingway's novel seemed to emphasize the importance of limited human connection despite its difficulties, whereas Barth's suggested that even limited connections were, if not impossible, potentially disastrous.
So by the spring semester of my sophomore year at Brandeis, when I encountered The Bluest Eye near the end of a class on twentieth-century Afro-American literature, I was already passionate about, and familiar with, the secular art of close, personal narrative scrutiny. After a semester spent reading, discussing, and skimming critical writings on canonical texts including Native Son and Invisible Man, I knew that Wright's and Ellison's were at the top of a very short list of quintessential moments in black expressivity. Still, my cursory first readings did not lead me to recognize these novels as aesthetic accomplishments or savvy representations of black life as I'd experienced it.
However, elements of Toni Morrison's novel hooked me immediately: its critical appropriation of the Dick-and-Jane primer; its prefatory emphasis on reconstructing what Claudia, its first-person narrator, terms not the "why" but the "how" of black female degradation; and that narrator's failed efforts to intervene to save the degraded subject—Pecola—from psychic fragmentation and social death. Soon after reading this novel, I became desperate to understand the analytical implications of Morrison's formal experimentation. Precisely what were the motivations for and the impact of her use of two narrators? Her decision to name the four sections of the novel after the seasons beginning, like the calendar of school-age children—and their teachers—with autumn? Her prefacing each of the sections narrated by the omniscient narrator with one of the sentences from the primer? And how, exactly, are the dual narrative voices connected to Pecola's schizophrenic splitting into two voices after she is raped by her father?
Also, I was mesmerized by the self-conscious revisions by a now-mature Claudia of her life. Although I recognized that The Bluest Eye had much in common thematically with Ellison's and Wright's representations of the difficulties of black male maturation, the male-authored novels lacked for me what I found so vital in Morrison's novel: a quality of urgent, mournful, and revisionary remembrance.
That compulsion to reconsider the past is most clearly evinced early in the novel in a passage that Claudia offers just after describing a particularly difficult bout with the flu to which her mother responds in typically brusque fashion. Significantly, this reconsideration does not require that Claudia reject her childhood interpretation and, with it, any hope that the reader will seriously consider the plausibility of her youthful perspectives on a range of matters. Rather, it is offered as an expansion and extension of her previous views of the sources and consequences of her childhood pain.
But was it really like that? As painful as I remember? Only mildly. Or rather, it was a productive and fructifying pain. Love, thick and dark as Alaga syrup, eased up into that cracked window. I could smell it—taste it—sweet, musty, with an edge of wintergreen at its base—everywhere in that house. It stuck, along with my tongue, to the frosted windowpanes. It coated my chest, along with the salve, and when the flannel came undone in my sleep, the clear, sharp curves of air outlined its presence on my throat. And in the night, when my coughing was dry and tough, feet padded into the room, hands repinned the flannel, readjusted the quilt, and rested a moment on my forehead. So when I think of autumn, I think of somebody with hands who does not want me to die. (14)
In addition to the sorts of questions it raised about the novel's own designs, this passage suggested for me the potential psychological and emotional benefits of reexamining one's past as a knowledgeable, articulate adult armed with greater insight and a workable, clearly defined agenda. To revisit joyful and painful experiences with remnants of a child's heart and an informed angle of vision, The Bluest Eye suggested to me as an eighteen-year-old college sophomore, is to open up the possibilities of remaking myself and, perhaps, others.
Beyond her desire to find "fructifying" value in her painful experiences, this bruised, inquisitive child writes to recall her failed efforts to legitimize the life of her friend, Pecola, who goes mad because nearly everyone she encounters uses her as a scapegoat. She is mistreated by her shamelessly self centered parents, gossiping women who blame her for being the target of her father's perverse desires, a gang of boys who ritualistically surround and hurl racialized insults at her, and Claudia herself, who acknowledges her participation in the community's efforts to confirm its own tenuous sense of self worth by reinforcing Pecola's pronounced feelings of worthlessness. A narrative of strategic recollection, The Bluest Eye suggests that Claudia remembers the past because of her need to atone for her contributions, benign though they may have been, to Pecola's demise.
It hardly mattered to me that Claudia was a fictional girl, and I was not. That she came of age in the pre–civil rights forties, and I in the revolutionary sixties and seventies. That she lived in a small, nondescript city in the Midwest, and I grew up in Philadelphia, the cradle of American liberty, the place where assiduously preserved monuments of the nation's origins can seem to overwhelm the clearest signals of the wide gulf between national rhetoric and self-evident truths like slavery and sexism. What mattered was that Claudia thought, deeply, self-consciously, about the connections between the past and the present, between herself and Pecola. I loved Claudia because I recognized that her struggles were my struggles, including the struggle to figure out how to situate oneself in relation to a community's simultaneously self-protective and injurious values.
Perhaps reading Morrison's first novel placed me irretrievably on the road to becoming a scholar of Afro-American literature. Certainly, after reading Claudia's efforts, I began self-consciously to consider the pliability of the meanings of the past.
While Morrison's The Bluest Eye uses the cyclically of seasons to structure its narrative, I've organized the sections of my own acts of autobiographical recall around occasions of institutional disengagement. These occasions, called alternately graduation (emphasizing the division of one's academic career—one's life in school—into marked, measurable categories) and commencement (the commemorative recognition of a new scholasticbeginning), invite reassessments and recollections of the self one was and the self one has become as a result of experiences in institutions from which one is about to depart. My sense of the interpretive significance of commencements began at the end of sixth grade, when I first arrived at the inescapable conclusion that, like the past, present, and future, my personal and institutional lives were inextricably bound together.
On the mid-June 1970 morning of my graduation from George Washington Elementary School, I looked as good from head to toe as I ever had. My typically unkempt hair, which I'd gotten cut into an attractive short Afro the evening before, was oiled and combed. My brown Easter suit pants had creases so sharp I was sure that I could use them to slice any neighborhood hardrock who crossed my path. My chocolate brown shoes were polished and shining, and my brown clip-on tie topped off what I thought was an impressive ensemble. Looking me over, my mother nodded approvingly, and Carol, who switched effortlessly from older sister to maternal surrogate when our mother was drinking, marveled at the fact that I'd remembered to lotion my typically ashy face and hands. "See you at graduation," my mother said to me as I left the apartment to gather with my classmates before our mile-long walk to historic Mother Bethel Church.
Bethel, the "mother" parish that spawned hundreds of African Methodist churches across the country, was founded in 1816 by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, black Philadelphia ministers who'd objected to the confinement of black worshipers to the balconies of white churches. I'd heard that Reverend Allen, in particular, was so beloved by his congregation that the church's members saw fit to encase his mummified remains in a crypt in the basement of the church. Apparently because of Bethel's historical significance and Rittenhouse Square location, the local ABC television station had assigned a camera crew and a reporter to cover the proceedings. When we heard this news at our final rehearsal, my classmates and I whispered excitedly to one another, thrilled that our graduation would serve as the concluding, feel-good section of the broadcast.
Mother Bethel is located four blocks from where I'd lived until I was nine, and about a block from McCall, the elementary school my siblings and I had previously attended. McCall served, in addition to some poor black kids who lived on the borders of the district, a ritzy Rittenhouse Square population, the children of doctors, lawyers, and various other affluent white professionals. Walking the final four blocks between George Washington and Mother Bethel—institutions with distinct parental claims on me (as an American citizen who hadn't begun to question the nationalistic rhetoric I'd been force-fed at school and elsewhere, and as a black Philadelphian who was at least vaguely aware of the self-righteous ferocity of civil rights and Black Power battles)—I traversed familiar streets, passing familiar stores, bus stops, and the newly refurbished playground whose former state of disrepair had made me hesitant to enter it before we moved.
The familiarity was comforting. Assuming the role of tour guide, I was uncharacteristically talkative, pointing out landmarks to my classmates, for whom these streets were largely unexplored territory, and to Miss Davis. Miss Davis was a thin woman with shoulder-length blond hair that she wore in a ponytail. She came to class decked, as the fashion of the day dictated, in wild-colored miniskirts and dresses and thin black boots that reached the bottom of her bony knees. She was a marvelous teacher blessed with boundless energy, a smoky, southern twang like Liz Taylor on a hot tin roof, and the gumption to use any and all standard teaching paraphernalia—especially thick, unfinished yardsticks and pokers—to keep the most rambunctious boys and, on occasion, girls in line.
I'd come to Miss Davis's class a year ahead of schedule because in the fall of 1968, during my first term in George Washington, my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Robinson, recognized that I already knew all of the material she was supposed to teach me that year. I'd been a good student at my previous school, McCall, but I knew that a number of my classmates there were probably more intelligent and certainly more studious than I was. I got skipped not because I'd become appreciably smarter during the summer between third and fourth grade but because I'd moved from the outskirts of a largely white, upper-middle-class school district with an excellent elementary school to an overwhelmingly black housing project and school where the resources, parental involvement, and scholastic expectations were palpably inferior.
My gregariousness during our graduation day walk seemed to surprise and please Miss Davis, whose constant prodding of me to answer questions in class suggested that she thought of me as shy or as someone who preferred anonymity to the pressures of ostentatious display. Certainly, I was typically quiet in class as I pondered with equal seriousness such topics as how to improve my basketball game and why my mother drank so much.
In many ways my activities were "normal"—I played freeze tag and climbed the always chilly dome-shaped monkey bars; I played basketball until I was bone tired, collected all of the cards the loose change I could find would buy, and paid close attention to radio broadcasts and Daily News stories about the 76ers, especially my favorite player, Hal Greer; and I dreamed sweet dreams nearly every night about my classmate Denise. I greeted Denise each school day with a quick wave, a shy smile, and an unexpressed longing that one day she, too, would recognize that we were soul mates.
Despite that surface normalcy, I was always aware of feeling what one of my friends recently called, in describing me, a profound sense of melancholy I was a pouty teary-eyed boy, unable to assume a happy-go-lucky attitude or to shake the sadness of remembered and unremembered life experiences. I was aware of constantly trying to prepare myself for the next trauma, the next disappointment, the next conflict, resigned to the inevitability of serious, all-consuming, long-lasting pain, and hoping merely for the wherewithal to survive it.
That is not to say that I was unmoved by subtle and not so subtle pleasures of my life: there was the repressed delight I felt during an exhibition in my neighborhood when Hal Greer observed my jump shot and told me that I had "good form"; the tantalizing chill of waking from unremembered wet dreams; the soothing shelter of the unconditional love of my grandparents, whose laughter—hers a sweet, girlish chuckle, his an infectious, high-pitched, down-home cackle—continues to represent the sounds of joy for me; the salty sting of Wise potato chips, four bags of which my mother purchased for her children during each late-night trip with Mr. Freddy to find "some cold beer"; the sadistic satisfaction of squashing pregnant roaches; and the camaraderie my siblings and I shared as survivors of our ongoing war with my mother's alcoholism.
However, none of these pleasures penetrated my psyche for long or deepened my understanding of what it meant for me to be alive in the world. More often than not, even when I was luxuriating under its influence, I would ponder the appropriateness of my lingering too long over anything that suggested pleasure. Was Hal's comment about my form his stock line for ghetto urchins? Were my grandparents really as happy with each other or with us as they seemed? Should I eat potato chips purchased during my mother's journeys to satisfy her alcoholic urges? Did unborn roaches, huddled uncomfortably together in their tannish rectangular sacks like frightened slaves in the bowels of menacing ships, feel pain when I squashed the life out of their mothers? And would my siblings and I have been as close if our mother didn't have a drinking problem?
But more than any other subject, I pondered the origins, appearance, and consequences of my burn. Other mothers (and fathers) in my neighborhood abused alcohol, other families were on welfare and were as poor as mine, other fathers had deserted their families, other mothers lived with abusive men to whom they were not married. While my poverty and our familial situation were painful, certainly they weren't unique. But my burn was, or at least seemed to be. It was my distinguishing mark, what I learned in high school to think of as my Hemingwayesque wound, a tangible standard of deviation, a symbol and a partial explanation of my deep childhood suffering.
Despite my physical imperfections, I'd been told often enough that I was cute by adult female relatives and friends of my mother to believe that I probably was. Certainly I never felt traumatized by the prevalence of images of standardized white beauty. (I had sleep-disturbing crushes on white girls in my predominantly white second- and third-grade classes, and I developed equally intense and generally unrequited feelings for black girls when I was a student at predominantly black elementary and junior high schools.) More debilitating than being poor, and certainly more of a problem than being black, was the fact that I was permanently disfigured when I was two years old.
Excerpted from Scenes Of Instruction by Michael Awkward. Copyright © 1999 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
Michael Awkward is Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania. His previous books include Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality and Inspiriting Influences: Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women’s Novels.
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Dr. Awkward searched his soul and poured out himself so that all could see what makes him tick. He is highly retrospective, sensitive and honest. I truly enjoyed his book and recommend that may young black inspiring writers take the time to read his book. Much can be learned from the rags to riches story and can take some of his influences and use it to their advantage. e.l. Jihad