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This week, we’ve studied a set of texts that spotlight narrators, speakers, and characters actively engaged in struggles to make space and find place within their NYC neighborhood, and more broadly, within their nation. Taken together, Ralph Ellison’s essay “Harlem is Nowhere” and the Prologue to his novel Invisible Man raise questions about who is visible and can earn recognition in the streets and corners of NYC. Whose neighborhood counts as a ‘somewhere,’ and how do people negotiate a sense of self and community in the marginalized spaces of the American metropolis? As Ellison’s writings work alongside James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” to push us to consider questions like these, Willie Perdomo and María Teresa ‘Mariposa’ Fernández’s poems function like odes to the neighborhoods that would never make the cover of a NYC postcard and the black and brown bodies that create diasporic Nuyorican ways of belonging in a country that grants Puerto Ricans only limited citizenship.
Our discussion this week will coalesce around the ways our Module 3 texts work to negotiate and articulate relationships to space, place, and the tensions between.
Choose one or two texts from this module, and write a 300-600 word post that closely analyzes at least one concrete example from the text/s you choose. (For example, highlight one stanza from a poem or a passage from a short story.)
Once you have concrete pieces of text to engage, apply Yi-Fu Tuan’s (admittedly far-too) broad question to the text/s and example/s you’ve chosen: “[I]n what ways do people attach meaning to and organize space and place?” (Tuan 5). In other words, how do you see the text/s and example/s you chose specifically ‘attaching meaning to’ and/or ‘organizing’ space and place?
Remember that your post shouldn’t repeat or synthesize the lectures or materials we’ve already covered. Also, your Discussion-Board post should analyze at least one passage that’s different from the one we engaged in this week’s Close-Reading Collaboration.
Once you’ve made your post (by Thursday), read over your colleagues’ posts and respond to at least two (by Saturday).
Quotes & Concepts from Yi-Fu Tuan’s Space and Place
If you need a refresh, here are some of the key concepts related to Yi-Fu Tuan’s theory of space and place that we introduced in Module 2. (Note: you don’t have to agree with or extend Tuan’s vocabulary or theory. In fact, some of the materials that we’ve studied in this course could be approached as complicating or challenging Tuan’s ideas.)
“’Space’ is more abstract than ‘place.’ What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with value” (6).
“Space and place are basic components of the lived world; we take them for granted. When we think about them, however, they may assume unexpected meanings and raise questions we have not thought to ask” (3).
“The ideas ‘space’ and ‘place’ require each other for definition. From the security and stability of place we are aware of the openness, freedom, and threat of space and vice versa” (6).
“Places and objects define space, giving it geometric personality. . . A neighborhood is at first a confusion of images to the new resident; it is blurred space ‘out there.’ Learning to know the neighborhood requires the identification of significant localities, such as street corners and architectural landmarks, within the neighborhood space. Objects and places are centers of value” (17-18).
- Post your response to the discussion prompt by Thursday 11:59pm PDT.
- Respond to two students’ posts by Saturday 11:59pm PDT.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.
Ralph Ellison wrote this essay in 1948 but didn’t publish it until 1964, when it appeared first in Harper’s Magazine and then in Ellison’s collection of essays Shadow and Act. Ellison envisioned “Harlem Is Nowhere” as a kind of photo-essay, and he partnered with friend and photographer Gordon Parks to produce images of Harlem to illustrate the piece. Ellison and Parks also collaborated on an article promoting Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, but for reasons unknown, Harper’s chose to feature Roy DeCarava’s photos in the original publication of “Harlem is Nowhere.”
“I’m thinking about my future,” said Sonny, grimly. “I think about it all the time.”
I gave up. I decided, if he didn’t change his mind, that we could always talk about it later.
I wanted to say more, but I couldn’t. I wanted to talk about will power and how life could be—well, beautiful. I wanted to say that it was all within; but was it? or, rather, wasn’t that exactly the trouble?
Both of these passages I’ve written above were taken from the short story “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. The story tells the tale of two brothers who have very different ideas of what it means to escape the nightmares that often await African American children growing up on the streets of Harlem, like they did. The two brothers frequently have disagreements upon their ideas, with Sonny seeing refuge in music and doing what he enjoys while his brother, the main character, views a successful academic career and getting a good job as the means of escape.
The first of the two paragraphs above was taken from the start of the short story, while the second was taken from the end. In both, the two brothers re arguing, however, the passages highlight how the main character has changed and grown more open to other perspectives throughout the novel. In the first passage, the main character gives up on trying to convince his brother of his point of view. He says that he “gives up”, and dismisses Sonny’s perspective altogether, simply assuming that if he does not conform to the main character’s viewpoint naturally, they will speak about it again until he does.
However, by the time of the second paragraph, the author has grown a lot more open and perceptive to what other people may be thinking. This time, when in an argument with Sonny, the main character holds back from imposing his point of view like he did in the first quote, and even questions his own thoughts, considering Sonny’s side of the argument in his own thoughts as well.
When applying Yi-Fu Tuan’s question to these passages, I see a clear way they attach meaning to and organize space and place. Here, undifferentiated space represents an area within someone’s mind, open to growth and ready to be filled by new informations and perspectives that the person may encounter and draw ideas from. Place on the other hand, less abstract, is brought into the picture when this space in one’s mind is filled with this new idea or thought, and value has been given to the thought. Then, the mind has gone from just containing space that can be filled to containing a place, holding onto a specific thought, idea, or value.
The way that I see this text attaching meaning to space and place is by acknowledging that an idea may be valid or make sense. In this way, the main character has space in his mind, as everyone does, but attaches meaning to Sonny’s perspective by first beginning to acknowledge that Sonny may have a point in his different way of thinking. Then, when he has put enough thought into it and fully accepts the other perspective, it forms a place in his mind.
Although I didn’t pick any passages from it, the same idea can be applied to the invisible man in the “Prologue” by Ellison. There, since nobody has acknowledged the main character, he has had no meaning attached to him, and has not found a place in anyone’s eyes, remaining in the space that he hopes to one day fill.
Post of classmate 2:
“Most of the houses in which we had grown up had vanished, as had the stores from which we had stolen, the basements in which we had first tried sex, the rooftops from which we had hurled tin cans and bricks. But houses exactly like the houses of our past yet dominated the landscape, boys exactly like the boys we once had been found themselves smothering in these houses, came down into the streets for light and air and found themselves encircled by disaster. Some escaped the trap, most didn’t.” (8, Baldwin)
In Sonny’s Blues, James Baldwin explores how the neighborhood of Harlem serves as both the backdrop and an active oppressor of the black community in New York City through the experiences of the two brothers in the story. The physical space of Harlem has changed, as has the relationship between the brothers at this point in the narrative: both of the brothers escaped the trap that was Harlem, yet both feel compelled to return. This space exists more as a character in the narrative than it does simply as a cityscape, as even though “most of the houses in which we had grown up in had vanished,” the place, or personal essence, of Harlem had remained.
This place within the shifting cityscape is not characterized in such a positive way as Yi-Fu Tuan describes in his writings on space and place. Rather, the personalized characteristics of Harlem, the intense and ever-present nature of the neighborhood “dominated the landscape” and “boys… found themselves smothering in these houses.” It was in these streets and clubs that Sonny succumbed to drugs and the memory of that pain continues to live in this place. Thus, in returning, the two brothers who consider themselves ones who have “escaped the trap,” their return to the place, regardless of whether the space is the same as they left it, returns them to the danger that they left behind as younger men.
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