Academic journal article South: A Scholarly Journal

Taste as Emotion: The Synesthetic Body in Monique Truong's Bitter in the Mouth

Academic journal article South: A Scholarly Journal

Taste as Emotion: The Synesthetic Body in Monique Truong's Bitter in the Mouth

Article excerpt

             "An' they chased him 'n' never could           catch him 'cause they didn't know what           he looked like, an' Atticus, when they        finally saw him ... he was real nice ..."         His hands were under my chin, pulling up                 the cover, tucking it around me.                "Most people are, Scout, when you                               finally see them."       --Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird                            My genius from a boy,       Has fluttered like a bird within my heart;   But could not thus confined her powers employ,                             Impatient to depart.                           --George Moses Horton,                   "George Moses Horton, Myself" 

George Moses Horton, the self-described "Colored Bard of North Carolina," was born into slavery in Northampton County, North Carolina at the turn of the nineteenth century. Denied a formal education, Horton taught himself to read through the illicit study of cast-off schoolbooks and by listening in on the spelling lessons of local white children. As described in his eponymous poem, his genius "fluttered" from a young age, but as a black man living in the Antebellum South, he was physically and emotionally confined by the laws and stereotypes of his time. The biological "justification" of Horton's captivity relied on a racialization of bodies that distinguished and categorized individuals along lines of subordination and domination. Rarely were the emotions of slaves considered, as their temperament, like intelligence, was often regarded as "childlike," and therefore not capable of complexity or nuance.

Horton's use of the feminine to portray the "powers" of his genius--his poetry--is telling, as he, himself, relies on familiar tropes, writing of his poetic yearning, "she like a restless bird, would spread her wing." As a racially marked subject, Horton divorces himself from the creative impulse, referring to his genius as "she," and endowing his poetry with associations of feminine, white beauty. In doing so, he draws attention to parallels between poetry and femininity that see them as delicate and gentle, but also trapped and disenfranchised through these connotations. These characterizations also extend to emotions, where historical binaries categorizing the relationship of gender to reason have posited femininity with whiteness, and women squarely on the side of sentiment. (1) As 'leaky' subjects held sway by tides of tears and menstrual blood, white women, through their associations with emotion, have been devalued in comparison to stereotypically masculine traits of intellect and objectivity. The consequences of this structuring work alongside similar lines of mind-body dualism, privileging those emotions connected with knowledge and the faculties of the mind against passion, "feelings," and other baser affective qualities associated with the physical body.

With regards to race, this structuring mirrors the "disturbing ease with which emotional qualities slide into corporeal qualities in the case of racialized subjects, reinforcing the notion of race itself as truth located, quite naturally, in the always obvious, highly visible body" (Ngai 573). Given white femininity's "adherence to a code of piety, purity, submissiveness and domesticity--virtues believed to be inherent in feminine nature [...] African American women's lives and labors in the antebellum South contrasted sharply with this iconic womanhood" (Harris-Perry 55). As a result, false notions of hypersexualized black femininity were created "as a way of reconciling the forced public exposure and commoditization of black women's bodies with the Victorian ideals of women's modesty and fragility" (Harris-Perry 55). Horton's notion of freedom and the use of the feminine pronoun in his poetry, then, draws attention to the ways in which race and gender, and the divisions within and between these identities, are not only sites where social hierarchies are enforced, but also where their similarities are made visible. …

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