Wednesday, August 5, 2009

From Cairo to Aswan

Today, we visited Saqqara, the tombs of Ptah Hotep and Kagemmi, the Pyramid of Teti, and Memphis.

Even though I’ve been to the tomb of Ptah Hotep, it was one of today’s highlights for me, that and my first view of a “Pyramid Text” in the pyramid of Teti.

Ptah Hotep (or Ptahhotep) was a vizier who lived during the reign of Izezi, a 5th dynasty per-uah (or pharaoh). One of Ptah Hotep’s many roles is that of scribe. He was the author of the earliest known book—the Instructions of Ptah Hotep. (For our short note on the “Instructions,” click on the link on the webpage.) School children not only learned to read using this text (what we would consider a primer); they also learned early on, through this text, how best to conduct oneself in life. As Wisdom Literature, the “Instructions” had those two significant functions—to foster and encourage written literacy (learning to read) and cultural or traditional literacy (learning how to live).

In so many ways, the “Instructions of Ptah Hotep” consistently challenges me to think differently about my own primary field of teaching and research—African American Literature. For one thing, it’s impossible for me to begin my graduate seminar, which covers African American Literature from the beginning to 1940, with Lucy Terry (as does the Norton Anthology) or with the slave or emancipatory narratives. My first task is to dismantle the notion of illiteracy among Africans (both on the continent and in the Americas). Doing that requires me to show how the earliest systems of inscription manifest in the Diaspora. Having removed the stigma of illiteracy among the early authors of African American literature (who in her right mind would really believe that Phillis Wheatley was illiterate?… the same person who believes in a limited idea of literacy I suppose…), I am prone to go back to the dual function of Wisdom Literature like the “Instructions” and to imagine how early African American literature adapted that duality. When we consider what was written and why it was written by Africans in the Americas, we begin to see more clearly that among the questions we need to ask more readily have to do with inquires into what was published and why what was published was published and promoted (as distinct from what was not). What happens to the narratives of enslavement, for example, that aren’t hell bent (pun intended) on selling Christianity or of using Christianity (even in the form of critique) as the lens through which to read “American” identities of enslavement? Why don’t we hear more about the many narratives written of men and women of varied faiths? How does awareness of and exposure to the oral narratives change our way of thinking about and reading the written and published ones? What does the mouth to ear narrative reveal that the emancipated to amanuensis to reader does not?

To me, revisiting the tomb of Ptah Hotep and remembering his function as scribe renews my commitment to asserting early African American literature (and some contemporary literature too) as something more than, or something other than, that which we have come to know it.

Is it clear yet that one of the folders I brought along contains the readings I’m supposed to spend time with to compose my opening lecture (to someday become a journal article about rethinking the discipline), that I’ve yet to work on that lecture/article (hence its infiltration here!), and that I can’t quite finish the syllabus (or add the books) for this graduate seminar until I know exactly where I’m going with the argument. One twist to the left or the right of either side of my contention means the difference between reading Delany’s Blake or simply texts by David Walker and Henry Highland Garnet. How much space am I trying to clear this semester? Can they (meaning I/we) handle Blake now, or is it a text for a Special Topics class that’s more focused?

Alas, I digress….

Class tonight was powerful in any number of ways. Interestingly, it was also the calmest by far. And tomorrow—our first day with a post-7am (7:30, whoopee!) wake up call and that’s not jam packed—will surely be our “calmest” day.

The students are to write two essays: one that considers either the theme of The Politics of Translation or the theme of The Eloquence of the Scribes. The second essay is more of a narrative expression since they’ll be writing their own False Door Confessions (mad love to Angie P, who shared hers tonight, inspiring us all!) or their own Declaration of Innocence (big ups to Jazelle and Sawdayah for sharing tonight). I suppose I shall too...

Part of tonight’s energy had to do with the beauty of Aswan (its land and its people, now and then). Part of tonight had to do with the energy these 20 have created by sticking together. At the airport in Aswan, for instance, Dr Carr and I were delayed and separated from the group. During the rushed walk to the gate, I kept thinking, I hope one of the guys (Ernest, Robert, or Nijel) gets on one bus (from the terminal to the airplane) with half of the group and the other two stay back with the other half of the group. I’ve been watching them as they look around to make sure everyone’s accounted for, all without any ones prompting. Turns out, they all refused to get on any bus to anywhere until we showed up. So, in addition to being relieved, I stuck my chest out because my babies stuck together... Part of tonight’s energy had to do with the fact that the thematic considerations, the writing prompts, the site visits, and the lectures are all coming together for them now. A week ago, it was little more than 250 pages (yes, 250 pages) of “stuff we got to read before we go to Egypt.”

Just watch what that stuff turns into tomorrow when they begin to share their responses to the prompts and readings. I’m willing to bet by the end of the day, you’ll stick out your chest too knowing that the future’s in some pretty good hands.

And maybe one of them will tell you about the Pyramid Texts since I didn't! Maybe tomorrow. It's after midnight yet again, yet already. Good night from Aswan...


Hakim said...

I received Queen Nzinga's message regarding this wonderful trip and timeless learning experience. It is truly a blessing to be African! I know my father is jumping for joy that so many young people continue to receive this life-changing experience.


Hakim Hilliard
Atlanta, GA

Dana A Williams said...

Glad you're following along and glad to have the honor of preserving the legacy.