Excerpt from “The Souls of Black Folk” – W.E.B. Du Bois

After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, 1 the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, 2 — a world which yields him no true self-consciousness but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; 3 two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body 4, whose dogged strength alone being torn asunder.

The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging 5 he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would not Africanize America, 6 for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American, without being cursed and spit upon his fellows, without having the doors of Opportunity closed roughly in his face.

Excerpt from James McBride’s The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to his White Mother

When I was fourteen my mother took up two new hobbies:7 riding a bicycle and playing piano. The piano I didn’t mind, but the bicycle drove me crazy. It was a huge old clunker2, blue with white trim, with big fat tires, huge fenders, and a battery-powered horn built into the middle of the frame with a button you pushed to make it blow3. The contraption would be a collector’s item now, probably worth about five thousand dollars, but back then it was something my stepfather found on the street in Brooklyn and hauled home a few months before he died.

I don’t know whether it was his decision to pull out or not, but I think not. He was seventy-two when he died, trim, strong, easygoing, seemingly infallible, and though he was my stepfather, I always thought of him as Daddy. He was a quiet, soft-spoken4man who wore old-timey clothes, fedoras, button-down wool coats, suspenders, and dressed neatly at all times, regardless of how dirty his work made him. He did everything slowly and carefully, but beneath his tractor-like slowness and outward gentleness was a crossbreed of quiet Indian and country black man, surefooted, hard, bold, and quick. He took no guff and gave none. He married my mother, a white Jewish woman, when she had eight mixed-race black children, me being the youngest at less than a year old. They added four more children to make it an even twelve and he cared for all of us as if we were his own. “I got enough for a baseball team,” he joked.5 One day he was there, the next—6stroke, and he was gone.

I virtually dropped out of high school after he died, failing every class. I spent the year going to movies on Forty-second Street in Times Square with my friends. “James is going through his revolution,” my siblings snickered. Still, my sisters were concerned,7 older brothers angry. I ignored them. Me and my hanging-out boys were into the movies. Superfly, Shaft, and reefer, which we smoked in as much quantity as possible.8 I snatched purses. I shoplifted.9I even robbed a petty drug dealer once. And then in the afternoons, coming home after a day of cutting school, smoking reefer, waving razors, and riding the subway,10 I would see my mother pedaling her blue bicycle.

Excerpt from “Hole in My Life” by Jack Gantos

July 15: Today I took a photograph of Hamilton sitting at the wheel with the sun setting11 behind him. He frowned. “Now take a picture of me,” I said, and handed him the camera.

He flipped the camera over, unsnapped the back, pulled out the film, and tossed it over his shoulder into the ocean. “If I find any more film on board it will join that roll,” he said.

“It’s just a photo,” I replied.

“It’s evidence,” he snapped back. This is the first evidence I have had that he even thinks we could be caught.

“Let me see your wallet,” he said.

I gave it to him.

He threw away all my identification except for my fake Florida license. “Might come in handy,” he said.

 

July 16: Dead clam today. Hot.2  The sails hanging limply3  from the gaffs like sleeping bats. At one point I dove overboard and swam around the boat as if it were at anchor. Hamilton threw an empty bottle overboard and we bobbed along next to it for hours. By the end of the day we may have covered a mile. No more. Feel like a sitting duck. Said so to Hamilton. He drifted into a story about his biggest concern on the ocean being pirates, not police. Told me about friends in the business4 who were boarded by pirates who tied them to the masts, and then took their stash. Somehow I find this absurd and can’t stop thinking of Captain Hook and his crew of pirates in Peter Pan. Wish Hamilton would swallow a clock so5  I could hear him creeping.6  He stalks me like a mumbling crocodile.

Excerpt: “The Twelve Double-Hours of Night: Insomnia and Transformation in Gilgamesh” by Andrea Deagon

My ordeal, like most variations of personal hell, felt isolating, immense and unshareable. Some years later, when I reread the Gilgamesh epic7, it dawned on me that what I’d experienced was written there. In this ancient Mesopotamian poem, Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk2, expends vast energies in his city and in heroic ventures with his alterego Enkidu. When Enkidu dies3, the bereft hero, overwhelmed by the realization of his own mortality4, goes on an soul-purging, exhausting journey to the ends of the earth in a vain quest for eternal life.

What resonated with me was not the loss of a friend as close as a second self– though something like that had happened years before5; nor the terror of death, though I’m sure that such terror could take much the same form as what I experienced6. But the self-consuming energy, the vast exhausting world, the body as an engine driving toward final irremediable loss7 – that I understood. The epic of Gilgamesh came to represent whatever was wise and heroic in what I experienced at this great transition in my own life, as it speaks to many people about their own losses and transitions8.

[Source (Excerpt begins on the bottom of page 462)]

Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell

But 9 at that moment I glanced around at the crowd that had followed me. It 2 was an immense crowd, two thousand at the least and growing every minute. It blocked the road for a long distance on either side. I looked at the sea of yellow faces above the garish clothes-faces all happy and excited over this bit of fun, all certain that the elephant was going to be shot. They were watching me as they would watch a conjurer about to perform a trick. They did not like me, but with the magical rifle in my hands I was momentarily worth watching. And suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all. The people expected it of me and I had got to do it; 3 I could feel their two thousand wills pressing me forward, irresistibly. And it was at this moment, as I stood there with the rifle in my hands, that I first grasped the hollowness, the futility of the white man’s dominion in the East. Here was I, 4 the white man 5 with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd — 6 seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalized figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the ‘natives’, and so in every crisis he has got to do what the ‘natives’ expect of him. 7 He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. 8 I had got to shoot the elephant. I had committed myself to doing it when I sent for the rifle. A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing — no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.

[source]

book excerpt — ‘What Made Maddy Run’ by Kate Fagan

The best four years of her life. That’s what Madison expected. Four years just like high school, except better — because now she’d be living on her own. 9

Actually, not quite on her own, living with a roommate. 2 At first, the room she shared with Emily in Hill — the Penn dormitory — seemed just fine, cozy even. For the first few days, they both kept the room meticulous, desperately preserving the image of college life they’d carried around for years: pictures of high school friends above desks, shampoo and conditioner tucked neatly into a plastic carrying case, roommates moving easily around the shared space with laughter and smiles, music blaring, preparing for a big party. 3

This image soon dissolved. In its place appeared something more real: 4the messiness and claustrophobia of two people who don’t really know each other sharing two hundred square feet, of wet towels left on beds, of books and clothes covering every surface, of neither roommate living up to the expectations of the other, because, well, how could they? This disappointment mattered, of course, but then again so many spaces existed outside that little room in Hill: classrooms, coffee shops, the city, frat parties, restaurants, the track.

… The track.5

In high school, track was fun. That was essentially its point: it was a form of cross-training that kept Maddy from burning out on soccer. Track came after school, and she spent much of the time running with Emma, her high school best friend, who competed for Boston College. Pressure eventually arose, once she became one of the best in the state, but she started without any kind of wild expectations. She just enjoyed running. She loved waking up on the weekend and going to the Celery Farm nature preserve, where she could churn through however many miles and whatever thoughts were on her mind.

But track in college was a different beast. For one, it was not just track; it was also cross-country. For another, it was not just one practice after school; it was also scheduled in the morning before classes. 6 It was, like most Division I sports, a job — with time commitments, with demands, with expectations of performance. 7 And nothing turns enjoyment into dread faster than obligation.

For all of Madison’s life, late summer and fall had meant soccer. It meant walking onto a grass field, cleats in hand, laughing with friends she’d known her entire life. 8The work was hard, but it was collective work, with friends to connect with between sprints with a nod (“We got this”), or a laugh (“Coach is crazy”), or an exhausted grimace (“How many more?”) –each person pulling weight toward a larger goal. 9 Now, late summer and fall meant waking up at dawn in a cramped dormitory room, in a new city, to trudge to practice and run long distances, the person next to you living inside her own head, considering her own times, responsible only for her own motivation. Maddy didn’t have anyone she wanted to show up for.

Maddy just wasn’t enjoying it. The training was so different. In high school, she had been a middle distance runner. She had wanted to stretch to the mile at Penn, but cross-country included races four times that length. Also, when she ran races in high school, she usually won. There were only eight lanes, just seven opponents, but still, Madison routinely finished first. 10 On the other hand, a college cross-country meet included hundreds of runners, all literally corralled at the starting line, released onto the course in a wave of humanity — dense lines of people jostling for running room, fighting to prove themselves with each stride.11 And each of these runners was just like Maddy: used to winning.12

http://www.espn.com/espnw/culture/article/20175159/exclusive-book-excerpt-made-maddy-run-kate-fagan

My Mom Couldn’t Cook by Tom Junod

My mother was a good mother. I was a good son. My mother was a betrayed woman—I think I knew that, from an early age—and so I was careful never to betray her, as she, by instinct, never betrayed me.13 But now I felt betrayed, and I betrayed her in return, by learning to cook. No: by cooking. No: by marrying a girl who had no interest in cooking, and cooking for her. No: by cooking for my wife as I wished my mother had cooked for me.2 No: by cooking as my father would have cooked, had he taken up the toque—by cooking unyieldingly, despotically, ball-bustingly, hungrily, not just selflessly but also selfishly, as an assertion of prerogative.3 When my mother came to visit, I made her chop, according to specification. “How’s this?” she’d ask, showing me the cutting board of haphazardly chopped broccoli, and when I’d say she had to chop it smaller, finer, more uniformly, she’d say, “You’re some pain in the ass” or “What a pill.”4 I was perversely proud of her exasperation, perversely proud to be addressed in terms heretofore reserved for my old man. A pill? I had never been a pill before. I had always been, in my mother’s estimation, “a good egg,” but now I’d become a pill by insisting that my eggs taste good. My mother wasn’t college-educated, but she wasn’t stupid, either. She knew what was going on. When, much later, I wrote a flattering profile of my father for a magazine, she dismissed it tersely: “Don’t forget who raised you, kid.”5 But my cooking—my decision to cook—was a rejection of the way I’d been raised, a rebuke of the way she’d raised me.6 I had been on my mother’s side, but now, unforgivably, I was on my father’s, by taking my mother’s job.

[source]

 

Introduction to Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our age is retrospective.7 It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. 2 The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. 3Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? 4The sun shines to-day also. There is more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and worship.

Undoubtedly we have no questions to ask which are unanswerable. We must trust the perfection of the creation so far, as to believe that whatever curiosity the order of things has awakened in our minds, the order of things can satisfy.5Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put. He acts it as life, before he apprehends it as truth. In like manner, nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design. Let us interrogate the great apparition, that shines so peacefully around us. Let us inquire, to what end is nature?

[source]

Preface from The Soloist by Steve Lopez

The Soloist by Steve Lopez

Preface

I’m on foot in downtown Los Angeles6, hustling back to the office with another deadline looming. That’s when I see him. He’s dressed in rags on a busy downtown street corner, playing Beethoven on a battered violin that looks like it’s been pulled from a Dumpster.

“That sounded pretty good,” I say when he finishes.

He jumps back three steps, eyeing me with suspicion. I see the name Stevie Wonder carved into the face of the violin, along with felt-pen doodles.

“Oh, thank you very much,” he says, obviously flattered2. “Are you serious?”

“I’m not a musician,” I answer. “But yes. It sounded good to me.”

He is black, just beyond fifty, with butterscotch eyes that warm to the compliment. He is standing next to a shopping cart heaped over with all his belongings, and yet despite grubby, soiled clothing, there’s a rumpled elegance about him.3He speaks with a slight regional accent I can’t place. Maybe he’s from the Midwest or up near the Great Lakes, and he seems to have been told to always stand up straight, enunciate, carry himself with pride and respect others.

“I’m trying to get back in shape,” he says. “But I’m going to get back in there, playing better. I just need to keep practicing.”

“So you like Stevie Wonder?” I ask.

“Oh, yes, certainly. ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life.’ ‘My Cherie Amour.’ I guess I shouldn’t have written his name on my violin, though.”

I write a column for the Los Angeles Times. The job is a little like fishing. You go out and drop a line, cast a net. I’m figuring this vagrant violinist is a column. Has to be.4

“I’m in a hurry at the moment,” I tell him, “but I’d like to come back and hear you play again.”

“Oh, all right,” he says, smiling appreciatively but with trepidation. He looks like a man who has learned to trust no one.

“Do you always play in this spot?” I ask.

“Yes,” he says pointing across the street with his bow to Pershing Square5, in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. “I like to be near the Beethoven statue for inspiration.”

This guy could turn out to be a rare find in a city of undiscovered gems, fiddling away in the company of Beethoven.6 I would drop everything if I could, and spend a few hours pulling the story out of him, but that will have to wait for another day. I’ve got another column lined up and not much time to shape it. The deadlines come at you without mercy, even in your dreams.

“I’ll be back,” I say.

He nods indifferently.

Back at the office I seat out another column, scan the mail and clear the answering machine. I make a note on the yellow legal pad where I keep a list of possibilities.

Violin Man.

It’s got potential. Who knows where it will go?

“Fish Cheeks” by Amy Tan

I fell in love with the minister’s son the winter I turned fourteen. He was not Chinese, but 7 as white as Mary in the manger. For Christmas I prayed for this blond-haired boy, Robert, and a slim new American nose.

When I found out that my parents had invited the minister’s family over for Christmas Eve dinner, I cried. 2 What would Robert think of our shabby Chinese Christmas? What would he think of our noisy Chinese relatives who lacked proper American manners? What terrible disappoint-ment would he feel upon seeing not a roasted turkey and sweet potatoes but Chinese food?

On Christmas Eve I saw that my mother had outdone herself in creating a strange menu. She was pulling black veins out of the backs of fleshy prawns. The kitchen was littered with appalling mounds of raw food: A slimy rock cod with bulging eyes that pleaded not to be thrown into a pan of hot oil. Tofu, which looked like stacked wedges of rubbery white sponges. A bowl soaking 3 dried fungus back to life. A plate of squid, their backs crisscrossed with knife markings so they resembled bicycle tires.

And then they arrived – 4 the minister’s family and all my relatives in a clamor of doorbells and rumpled Christmas packages. Robert grunted hello, and I pretended he was not worthy of existence. 5

Dinner threw me deeper into despair. My relatives licked the ends of their chopsticks and reached across the table, dipping them into the dozen or so plates of food. 6 Robert and his family waited patiently for platters to be passed to them. My relatives murmured with pleasure when my mother brought out the whole steamed fish. Robert grimaced. Then my father poked his chopsticks just below the fish eye and plucked out the soft meat. “Amy, your favorite,” he said, offering me the tender fish cheek. I wanted to disappear.

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