Natasha Adams

Blog Posts by CUNY Peer Leaders

What Children’s Books Teach Us About Race

Posted by Natasha Adams on

In the Tale of Despereaux, Kate DiCamillo tackles powerful themes such as power, conformity, and race. One of the key issues that concerns me is how rats are persecuted and confined to the underworld of society, and how their plight mimics the globalized oppression of people of color, specifically the African diaspora in the United States. There is a critical ideological element that governing bodies utilize to differentiate and categorize civilized bodies from non-civilized bodies, informing the way in which foreignness/blackness is interrogated, terrorized, and categorized. The rats in the text are symbolic of how prosecuted groups in Western societies are marginalized, thus such groups develop coping mechanisms and strategies to survive. Through systemic exclusion, racism creates “rat nihilism”, paranoia, and anti-self-issues which Roscuro develops as a strategy to cope with rejection from his society.

In the article, “Critical Race Theory Speaks to the Sociology of Mental Health: Mental Health Problems Produced by Racial Stratification,” Tony Brown lays out how racism and racial stratification are intrinsically linked to mental health. The author uses critical race theory in attempts to explain the way in which racism has negatively impacted Black individuals social, economic, political, and family life. This is an approach that is more concerned with placing critical race theory in dialogue with the sociology of mental health, and Brown hypothesizes five mental health issues that can arise because of racism. The problems tied to mental health that Brown identified were nihilistic tendencies, anti-self-issues, suppressed anger and inability to express oneself, delusional denial tendencies, and extreme racial paranoia. The nihilistic tendencies Brown addresses deal with how non-white communities engage in risky behavior, such as getting involved in a gun/knife fight, using alcohol/drugs excessively, or attempting dangerous behavior. The anti-self-issues that point to mental health issues are a Black person feeling estranged from other Black people and wanting to be Caucasian, and go to such lengths as bleaching one’s skin, or trying to be white by adopting white middle class behaviors, etc. The suppressed anger expression behaviors that point to mental health are Black people not expressing their racial views, pretending to be nice to Caucasian to get ahead, holding on to their anger and getting mad at themselves for not vocalizing their feelings. The last category, extreme racial paranoia, focuses solely on Caucasians and how “extreme racism” is a mental health issue and those indicators would be a Caucasian person feeling sick when around Black people, and when Caucasians telling black people to go back to Africa. I believe that these mental health disparities can be mapped over to rats, and how Chiaroscuro negatively responds to his oppression through rat nihilism and anti-self-issues.

In an act of deviance and resistance to rat conditioning, Roscuro makes a proverbial journey to the Kingdom (akin to Icarus journeying to the center of the sun). The sun in this case would be civilization, where the gatekeepers of civilization are not accepting or welcoming of rats. The purpose of Roscuro’s life was to answer his inner calling and inclinations that led him to the upstairs world of civilization, culture, beauty, music, and those things associated with light. Roscuro resisted his conditioning that told him that he was only his environment, and resisted Botticelli’s advice to only aspire to be a rat, whose purpose was confined to darkness/savagery.

Roscuro is unsuccessful in trying to recklessly defy his limitations and he is crushed and after his skirmish that leads to the queen’s death. DiCamillo notes, “In the darkness of the dungeon, he sat in his nest with the spoon atop his head. He set to work fashioning for himself a regal cape made from scrap of the red tablecloth. And as he worked, old one-eared Botticelli Remorso sat next to him swinging his locket back and forth, back and forth, saying, “You see what comes from a rat going upstairs? I hope that you have learned your lesson. Your job in this world is to make others suffer (Dicamillo 120).” The rejection that Roscuro experiences causes him to develop a nihilistic attitude because he cannot go against the prevailing beliefs and attitudes that construct rats as bad/undesirable.

Chiaroscuro’s anti-self-issues manifest early in the text when his self-conception begins to bump heads with his culture’s beliefs. When he gnaws at the rope like he is instructed to by Botticelli, he is apprehended by Gregory the jailer, who admonishes Roscuro and burns off his whispers with a lit match. This flame introduces Roscuro to the light, and radically alters his perception of his limited reality. DiCamillo interjects, “From that moment forward, Roscuro showed an abnormal, inordinate interest in illumination of all sorts. He was always, in the darkness of the dungeon, on the lookout for light, the smallest glimmer, the tiniest shimmer. His rat soul longed inexplicably for it; he began to think that light was the only thing that gave life meaning, and he despaired that there was so little of it to be had (DiCamillo 88).” Roscuro’s destiny is bound up in challenging his environment and the prevailing society’s belief about the status of rats, just as Despereaux challenges his fear-based culture. Roscuro is distinguished from his counterparts in other ways. He uses lofty, eloquent speech unalike his rat counterparts, and he can empathize with the plight of others. When he is addressing the prisoner, who sells his daughter for mere trinkets,

Roscuro is confronted with the man’s prejudice despite his genuine curiosity. Roscuro indignantly interjects, “Come now,” said Roscuro. “Close your eyes. Pretend that I am not a rat. Pretend that I am nothing but a voice in the darkness, A voice that cares. (Dicamillo).” Roscuro wants to overcome and transcend his rat heritage, so that other people can see him for who he truly is, an empathic being who desires to be surrounded by light.

In the end, Roscuro is not able to express his anger outwardly towards those who have humiliated him and caused him suffering. The real target of Roscuro’s anger is the system of oppression that prosecutes the rat community. Instead, he declares to get revenge on Princess Pea, because of the nullifying power of her gaze and its power to vilify, which shatters his sense of self.  

The Tale of Despereaux. Turtleback Books, 2015.

Brown, Tony N. “Critical Race Theory Speaks to the Sociology of Mental Health: Mental Health Problems Produced by Racial Stratification.” Journal of Health and Social Behavior, vol. 44, no. 3, 2003, p. 292., doi:10.2307/1519780.

Blog Posts by CUNY Peer Leaders

The Quiet American, Democracy, and Gender in Vietnam

Posted by Natasha Adams on

In the Quiet American, Greene explores the interiority of a war-stricken Vietnam that is caught in a multifaceted battle that includes the struggle for national sovereignty. The book centers on Thomas Fowler, who is an Englishman and reporter whose remarks are colored by cynicism which represent England’s old colonial knowledge. Fowler’s character is juxtaposed to Alden Pyle’s character, who Fowler takes on as a mentee of sorts and whom Fowler has the need to shield from the atrocities of Vietnam.

The opening chapter of the book begins with Pyles death, and his body is retrieved from a river. Fowler is questioned by the authorities and when talking to one of the policemen Fowler describes Pyle as a quite American. Fowler goes on to say, “Yes. They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly, and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about, and you gave him money and York Harding’s books on the East and said, Go ahead. Win the East for Democracy. He never saw anything he hadn’t heard in a lecture hall, and his writers and his lecturers made a fool of him. When he saw a dead body, he couldn’t even see the wounds. A Red menace, a soldier of democracy (Greene 28).” This sums up the character Pyle and the reference that Fowler makes over and over again, stressing the importance of remaining uninvolved, which is a colonial position of neutrality. One that Fowler himself violates when getting intimately involved with a young, Vietnamese woman who speaks poor English and French, but who is keenly aware of her situation while seeking an opportunity to better herself.

Phuong is character central to the novel, and she symbolically represents Vietnam as a nation caught inbetween the old colonial rulers of France/Europe, and the new order of American backed democracy. Phuong is strikingly sober throughout the novel and aware of her surroundings and exercises her agency as a woman who has many means to rise above the political turmoil gripping her country Phuong is depicted by Fowler as a delicate flower, who needs his constant protection from the boisterous soldiers who associate all Vietnamese women with prostitution. Despite Fowler’s best efforts to remain uninvolved, and experience Vietnam from behind his type writer, he is anchored in the territory and possesses a new knowledge of Vietnam that is at odds with the old colonial knowledge that relies on those cultural and political facts established by the project of orientalism. Fowler imposes a sense of helplessness on Vietnam, and in this way, Vietnam is effeminized, and one cannot help but to get involved because of the irresistibility of the act. Pyle is also effeminized in this manner and is a recipient of Fowlers sympathy when Fowler remarks, “That was my first instinct-to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm (Greene 34). This innocence is characterized by Pyle (and Phuong), who at first appears in need of the old colonial agent/authority to guide him and school him on the ways of the land. As well as Phuong’s preconceived innocence, and she is to be saved from the whorehouse or the House of Hundred girls. But the old colonial order is ill equipped to deal with the reality and complexity of Vietnam as represented by Phuong who has both the old order (France/England) and the new order (America) to choose from.

Phoung is willing to get what she needs for her own ends, regardless of which colonial power.

Blog Posts by CUNY Peer Leaders

Legacies of Democracy, a People’s History of Cuny

Posted by Natasha Adams on

Completing my first Bachelors degree in Gender, Sexuality, and Social Justice Movements with the CUNY Baccalaureate for Unique and Interdisciplinary Studies program, has encouraged me to engage in pedagogies that has allowed me to blend, mix, and combine diverse elements in a way that created something new and even more valuable than its separate parts. I had the opportunity to be a part of varied learning environments that have given me the opportunity to plug into student activism while being an active witness to the changing landscape of higher education. The most daunting challenge that I faced as a student organizer was during The City College of New York (CUNY) illegal raid and seizure of the Morales Shakur student and community center without warning, which was met with student and community outrage.

The names of Guillermo Morales and Assata Shakur were banners for students aligning themselves with democratic principles and histories of protracted struggle. By raiding and seizing the center, the administration was complicit in the displacement of students and community members coming from disenfranchised neighborhoods. Instead of securing the resources that this center had provided, the college administration issued an illegal takeover of a space that contained 24 years of a people’s history. The illegal taking over of the Morales Shakur space signified a violation of the contract between The City College of New York and the center, which reflected the corporatization of the campus concretized by the Board of Trustees measure to limit political expression on public universities. These early experience have opened my eyes to the complexities of student organizing and made me aware of my own naiveté when it came down to the politics of higher education. While the battle to save the Morales Shakur center was lost, I had the opportunity to develop an intricate understanding of a connecting web of issues which informs my understanding for the need for a more intersectional framework in academic spaces.

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