Not at ALL What You Thought

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Freestylin at the HBCU

Last Tuesday, I gave a "paper" on Morrison's A Mercy at Hampton U's annual Read-In. The entire occasion began hilarious and got better.

I came in the library meeting room and found one of my favorite former professors. She was grading papers, but upon noticing my considerable shadow, she looked up, grinned all over herself, and then hugged me.

The meeting room was packed with college students, many of whom had bought the hard-cover copy of the novel and were asking questions or giving their thoughts on it. There were so many students, some were sitting on the floor. Soon, my panel buddies --a best friend and her son's godmother, both former colleagues-- showed up. Best Friend had brought the baby (actually he's 1.5 yo), and he was raring to go (read "really, really sleepy"). Godmama pointed at me and said, incredulously, "She brought a paper!" Goobs' godmama, also a former colleague and the one who'd invited me to sit the panel, replied, "Well, I told her to give a paper!" Best Friend pulled out a sheaf of papers and said, "I did what you did!"

The panel before us started and we all listened, nonplussed, at the panelists talking about shoes in the novel.

Yes, shoes. Or, more properly, a shoe motif. I guess. At one point, another favorite former professor came over and stood in front of me. He's now chair of the English department at HU. He just grinned all over himself, too. "If I stay, do I get to hear you speak?" he asked.

"It's entirely possible," I said.

That panel ended, there was a break, and the moderator found Best Friend, Godmama and me and made us take seats at the head of the room. I was very, very nervous. I could see my heart beating through my blouse. Best Friend read her paper, which she announced (inaccurately) as "incoherent"; it was about the orphans in the novel. Students and colleagues applauded, and then I read my "paper"; it was about the ruthlessness in the novel. Godmama, who had been taking notes during BF and my papers, talked about Rebekka. "In case you haven't noticed," she began, "I'm supposed to represent Rebekka in this panel." Students and colleagues rotfl: Godmama is white. (I guess I represented [Messa]Lina, the Native American: I was wearing really long feather earrings with little turquoise beads.)

Godmama is also smooth. I listened in awe of her.

Then we fielded questions, but, mostly, we did what we had planned to do: talked to each other. When other folk disagreed with our interpretations, and not many did, we shouted them down. There was much laughter and joking, many insights and analyses. My favorite part was when a professor in the back of the room posited that some witch-burning characters were talking about the blacksmith (the one black male character in the novel) when somebody says they saw "The Black Man" in the woods. And I pointed out that "The Black Man" was a euphemism, in Puritan parlance, for the devil. (Now, this is not to say that Morrison wasn't talking bout the blacksmith. She's slippery like that. But her characters --these characters-- were too clueless, and the blacksmith too smart to have hung out in them parts.)

Our panel ended too soon. At the end, we were walking around in the meeting room, shaking hands and answering students' questions, when I got to meet the professor in the back of the room. He still wanted to argue that "Black Man" stuff. I responded, "You're wrong. You're wrong." And he said the sweetest thing: "It's fun being wrong with you."

Ah, he's probably married.

Goobs' godmama said I behaved as if I was at home. I replied, "I felt like I was among friends." And I was.

Dear Jesus, my brother, help us influence the children to read --and then talk about what they've read.