Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Just laying the line

We've reached my favorite part of the African-American Literature syllabus--Colson Whitehead's John Henry Days--and this morning we considered what an ordinary working person has to do to become a mythic hero. Why, for instance, isn't anyone writing a song about Dr. Hogue, the mythic English professor?

"Because she didn't die with a red pen in her hand" is the obvious answer, but that doesn't mean I don't deserve a folk song. I work my brain at least as hard as John Henry worked his body, so where's my statue? Where's my legend? Where's my postage stamp? Who will write the song about the thesis-driving woman drilling holes into mountains of prose to let the train of truth steam on through?

"It's only heroic if you die doing it," said a student, and that's one of the central paradoxes of Whitehead's novel. His main character, J., recalls seeing a filmstrip on the John Henry myth back in elementary school and wishes he could have asked his teacher a question: "Mrs. Goodwin, why did he have to die in the end? Mrs. Goodwin, if he beat the steam engine, why did he have to die? Did he win or lose?"

I ask myself sometimes whether I'm winning or losing. I drill right through one mountain of papers and another rises up to take its place, so it's hard to see whether I'm getting any closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. If the entire mountain collapses and buries me, will anyone even notice?

Days like today, though, I've shoved the mountain aside to spend some time discussing fascinating literature with students eager to play with ideas. It may not be the stuff of myth, but all the same, it feels like winning.

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