Black Like Me? Or, How I Learned to Embrace My Inner Emma -The Toast

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Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

Sometimes, when I want to find out whether or not my students have actually read their assigned Emma pages, I mention that I’ve been compared to Miss Woodhouse. Those who have read past the first page look absolutely horrified, and their expression is a perfect reflection of mine when I came to the sentence that gave me the first inkling that perhaps, just maybe, the man I was convinced was my destiny was not as interested in me as I was in him: “The real evils, indeed, of Emma’s situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.” It says a lot about me that at 20 (and at 30, and at 40+) it’s not the first part of that description (“the power of having rather too much her own way”) that made me cringe and wonder what my crush could possibly be thinking, but the second part (“a disposition to think a little too well of herself”) that gave me a start. I knew what that meant as sure as I knew that “handsome” meant attractive and that “clever” meant smart and witty. That description is the reason why it took me six years, my grandfather, and three cross-country trips to actually get through the novel.

I blame my failed destiny (also known as my undergraduate advisor Jeff) for the whole reason I avoided Emma, Harriet, Mr. Woodhouse and, especially, Mr. Knightley for years. I took film classes with Jeff, literary theory, and Southern Lit, so I don’t know why I imbued him with so much authority about nineteenth-century British literature. But I did. So until he recommended the novel, I liked Austen just fine, especially since my first introduction to her was Pride and Prejudice. Darcy was just brooding enough to remind me of a Brontë hero, and the upside was that he was someone a reader might actually still want to marry at the end of the story. The problem was that I misunderstood Jeff’s recommendation. Like almost every other student (female and male) at my small, southern liberal arts college, I had a full-on crush on him, so when he said offhandedly one day that I reminded him of Emma, I assumed this was his English professor way of saying he liked me too. My plan was to buy and read the book immediately, but I also wanted the whole experience of the declaration of his affections to be absolutely perfect. I didn’t buy my Bantam classics edition of the novel at some cold warehouse but at the charming, independent bookstore that had nooks and crannies instead of rows of impersonal shelves. I think they even had a resident cat. Knowing how I was back then, I probably started reading it under the large magnolia tree in my parents’ front yard. It would have been spring and the tree would have been in full bloom, its white petals similar to their more erotic siblings in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The first sentence of the novel thrilled me: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” The lethal combination of being an earnest English major with an imagination to rival Catherine Moreland’s meant that I understood precisely what Jane meant and Jeff intended. Like Emma, I was 20 and thrilled that my advisor thought I was pretty, smart, and had enough “class” to pass for wealthy. It didn’t matter that none of the other elements of the story fit the reality of my life. Emma, for example, has an older sister while I’m an only child. My mother is very much alive, and my father, rather than being a ninny with a persistent, phantom digestive problem, is a robust retired Vietnam veteran who is also a culinary daredevil (he made his own sausage a few years ago, using the shed where he keeps his riding lawnmower and weed-whacker to let it cure or set or whatever sausage does). Since we weren’t rich, there was no Miss Taylor. Emma Woodhouse is British and, as far as we know, white. I, American and black, am neither of those things.

Relating to fictional white women wasn’t new to me. As a girl, I’d imagined myself as Eliza Doolittle while listening to the “My Fair Lady” soundtrack with my mother. Laurie Williams in “Oklahoma”? That’s me. In my head, I’ve been all of the Von Trapp girls. This is not to suggest that I thought I was white, or that I wanted to be. Not at all. Until I was about the age of four, I didn’t know that I was “black” because I only thought of it as a color in a Crayola box, but I wasn’t confused about my racial identity; it was just incidental to how I saw myself. I am the child of a black man from New York and a black, Surinamese woman who is a citizen of Holland. I was born in Oklahoma and then moved almost immediately to Holland with my mother when my father was sent to Vietnam. My first words were Dutch, and I moved regularly with my parents, in the States and abroad. As a result, I didn’t grow up with a fixed notion of myself as “black” in the way that someone raised in this country might. I attended elementary school in Okinawa, Japan and graduated from high school in the Philippines a few months after Corazon Aquino unseated Marcos. In between, I lived in places like Cheyenne, Wyoming and Minot, North Dakota. Until my very late teens, my clashes with race in places like Biloxi, Mississippi were the exceptions rather than the rule of my life. As a result, when I met fictional people I wasn’t looking for connections via race but through things like language and conduct. So while I still remember the rush I got at first seeing Denise Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” and changing my entire wardrobe from preppy to Brooklyn funky almost overnight, my excitement about her wasn’t simply about her being black.  It was that she was black in a way that resonated with me. Denise was, in other words, black like me.

And so, then, was Emma Woodhouse.

I aimed to be clever (and sometimes succeeded). I did not consider myself pretty, but handsome seemed reachable. In that first sentence that I read as an overture, Emma and I were more alike than we were different, and since I already knew that Austen’s heroines ended up married to suitable men, my heart soared (that’s what 20-year old hearts do—they soar). I was an English major who traded in themes and motifs instead of pesky things like textual evidence. Never has Pope’s claim that, “A little learning is a dangerous thing” been more apt.

When I got to that fateful sentence, I tried to push past the unfortunate description, but, even in my state, the accuracy hit straight to my heart. I may have been crazy, but I wasn’t delusional.

It got worse.

In Emma, Austen carefully and painfully lays out just what it means to think a little too well of oneself. Emma Woodhouse is an overbearing know-it-all and, worse, a snob. There is very little about her that is endearing. She is a pretentious busybody who ignores the common-sense rules of society—not because she has moral courage but because they simply don’t suit her deluded sense about what is and isn’t possible. If I had been a graduate student, I might have done a bit of homework and found comfort in the fact that Austen knew what she was doing when she created Emma, constructing a heroine “whom no-one but [herself] [would] much like” (Austen-Leigh, 157). But I wasn’t a graduate student. I was a young woman, under a tree, seeing her faults laid out end to end, narrated by one of the sharpest observers of human behavior to put ink to paper. In response, I did what every self-respecting person would have done in my situation. I put the book down and imagined all the ways I would glare at Jeff when I saw him again.

I can’t claim that Emma (or Emma) haunted me after that. It was all too easy to put the novel out of my mind. I started my senior year of college, preparing to be an underemployed college graduate with a Bachelor of Arts degree. A week after graduation, as I packed up to move to Chicago to find something that looked like a job, I chose carefully what books I could take with me. I was moving in with a college friend, to a corner of her living room, so I had little room for anything. I don’t remember all the books I took with me. I know I took Ernest Gaines’ A Gathering of Old Men, the Norton Anthology of Henry James’ short stories, a book with a yellow cover and orange writing (maybe I’ll Take My Stand), and Emma. Once in Chicago, I was sure that I had outgrown those unfortunate tendencies, and since trying to figure out what to do with my life had pushed all romantic thoughts about my advisor out of my head. I gave the novel another try. And, again, it was too hard.

It was difficult to pinpoint precisely what about Emma made me feel so ill at ease, but, in retrospect, I can see that it is her sure sense that she knows exactly what is best for everyone, including herself. I put the book down again, and ignored it for years. This is not the same as starting a book and not finishing it (Anna Karenina, As I Lay Dying, that Tolkien book that describes how Middle-Earth came into being). Those were daunting for different reasons. I wanted to get through Emma, to prove to myself that I was no longer like the young woman whose hubris threatened the social order of her little community. I kept busy in the meantime. I waited tables at Oprah’s restaurant in Chicago, moved back to my parents’ house in Louisiana, worked as an arts administrator, earned my master’s degree, and taught high school. Along the way I read and enjoyed other novels (Northanger Abbey and Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South and Cranford). I read Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde and Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy. For my master’s thesis, an attempt to connect a British female novelist (Gaskell) with an African-American one (Harper) through a Marxist literary analysis, I also read a lot of African-American literary criticism. Clueless came out in 1995 as I was finishing my M.A., but I had no interest in seeing a cinematic display of my flaws, and while I may have identified with Eliza Doolittle and the Von Trapp singers, Alicia Silverstone was a white girl too far.

I didn’t try to read the novel again until the University of Massachusetts at Amherst offered me a fellowship to begin working on my doctorate. I wanted to teach college students, though I had no plans or desire to teach Austen, and the doctorate was the necessary credential to do so. I had a research project, a focus on underread women novelists of the nineteenth century, but it was the call of the university classroom and my unmitigated failure as a high school English teacher that lured me to New England. I was invited to visit the campus, and, although my acceptance to the doctoral program and the fellowship offer were guaranteed, I became convinced that if I didn’t finish Emma before that visit, they (some odd collection of people I imagined would have extraordinary powers of perception or judgment) would know—as if some scarlet E would appear on my chest (or my forehead or somewhere people could see, point, and shake their heads sadly at). I still had the same Bantam edition, which had now traveled from Bossier City, Louisiana through Memphis (and Graceland) to Chicago and back to Bossier City and then to Nachitoches, Louisiana and then back to Bossier City. When I read that first sentence, I knew what was coming and had the familiar feeling of unease, but this time I believed I had really changed. I was no longer a deluded coed, or an underemployed college graduate. I was on the cusp of pursuing a long-time dream I first imagined as a high school senior when my English teacher Mrs. Mitchum told me I had a gift for literary analysis, and the possibility of life in a new part of the country more than balanced the discomfort of seeing my faults through Austen’s eyes. I figured that if I hadn’t exactly changed I would eventually. I thought of my Emma problem as a transitory one and believed I would outgrow those tendencies. It took a cross-country trip from New Jersey to Los Angeles to help me understand that my Emmaness, my Emmanity wasn’t a phase and that, it turned out, I knew a lot of women who were like Emma and me—overbearing know-it-alls bent on “fixing” the lives of everyone around them. They just happened to be women of color. It would take a few years for me to imagine how to narrate the story of a black Emma, but the final attempt to get through the novel was a step in that direction.

What finally pulled me through the novel was the side trip I took during my trip to Amherst to visit my grandfather in Jamaica Queens, New York. He was quietly thrilled that I was pursuing a doctorate, and when he found out I was reading Emma, he asked me to read it aloud to him. In that reading, the novel ceased to be about me. I wanted to read it well, and that meant reading the text slowly so that I could capture Austen’s humor. Further into the text, I could see distinct differences between us. Most specifically, I could see that although I was (and still am) head-strong and bossy, I was also a lot nicer than Emma, especially to the elderly women and men I encounter. Emma’s nastiness at Box Hill, when she makes fun of Miss Bates’ tendency to ramble is not something I, or any black woman I know, could relate to. We might get annoyed and be snippy with our mothers, but the Miss Bateses of our world are almost revered. It was in recognizing this incident and Knightley’s scolding of Emma that I started to see her community as a nineteenth-century British version of the black culture I’d come to know. While I couldn’t quite imagine an African-American man getting away with scolding Emma the way that Knightley does (“it was badly done”), the idea that older black women, specifically those in a certain economic bracket, were to be treated with compassion and respect while not unique to black culture is certainly one of its distinct characteristics. I encounter versions of Miss Bates on a daily basis, and whether I know them or not, we exchange greetings and comments on the weather. A “have a good day, dear” from one of the Miss Bateses in my neighborhood (now it’s Ms. Grace, who I see almost every warm day on my way out for the day) has the feel of a formal blessing to it.

The idea to actually rewrite Emma as a black woman came to me while I was sitting with a group of graduate students of color, and someone mentioned a South Asian character in a movie (or perhaps a novel) whose name was Pagoda. We all laughed, and a friend said that naming an Indian character Pagoda was like naming a black man from the ’70s Car Wash Jones. She then turned to me and said, “you know, that’s what you should do. You should do a black Jane Austen movie.” Before I knew it, the name “Emma Jones” slipped out of my mouth. In that moment, Miss Woodhouse became my friend, my well-intentioned misunderstood sister, a character to explain and protect. Putting aside her class privilege, the real evils of Emma’s situation are that she has found a way to be happy outside of marriage, busying herself by caring (or at least trying to care) for those around her. The novel may think that Emma needs marriage to keep her out of trouble, but she doesn’t necessarily need one to be happy, and this is a truth that many black women know with a solid certainty. Like Emma, we are often scolded for being too headstrong or overbearing, and like us, she is the “other” in her community—a woman whose primary goal is not to “get” a man.

It took a while but I eventually ended up writing the screenplay with a young writer and actor I’d met one summer in graduate school. He was white and grew up in Amherst, which meant that he was thoroughly steeped in an appreciation and understanding of African and African-American culture in that super-earnest-Amherst-Berkley way. He was also hilarious. The combination of these qualities made him a good partner for the project. We sketched out the screenplay while we drove across country one summer from New Jersey, where I was a brand new Assistant Professor, to Hollywood where he planned to launch his career in the entertainment industry. Our Emma works as an editor at a publishing house with Harriet as her intern and Knightley is political science professor in the mold of Cornel West with Mr. Martin as a UPS delivery man. (To be clear, the Cornel West we had in mind was Race Matters West not the Cornel West who wrote this description of his ideal woman: “The basic problem with my love relationships with women is that my standards are so high — and they apply equally to both of us. I seek full-blast mutual intensity, fully fledged mutual acceptance, full-blown mutual flourishing, and fully felt peace and joy with each other. This requires a level of physical attraction, personal adoration, and moral admiration that is hard to find. And it shares a depth of trust and openness for a genuine soul-sharing with a mutual respect for a calling to each other and to others. Does such a woman exist for me? Only God knows and I eagerly await this divine unfolding. Like Heathcliff and Catherine’s relationship in Emily Bronte’s remarkable novel Wuthering Heights or Franz Schubert’s tempestuous piano Sonata No. 21 in B flat (D.960) I will not let life or death stand in the way of this sublime and funky love that I crave!”)

Churchill is a lobbyist, and Jane Fairfax is a producer of a local news show with Elton as the principal of a local middle school. The organizing event of the story is the planning of a literacy fair to support Elton’s school. We played with the tensions not only of class but also with the tension sparked by the various ways that black people move through the world (Emma’s hair is relaxed while Jane wears a natural style, for example). We eventually finished the script, called it “Emma Jones” as a nod to Otto Preminger’s 1954 remake of Carmen, and waited for fame. What we got was feedback like “can you make the characters more urban?” And “it’s not clear from this story that the characters are black.”

The screenplay sat in a drawer until Tisch’s School of the Arts at NYU (my friend’s alma mater), showcased it in a series of staged readings at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. The 75 or so people in the audience laughed so loud that it was sometimes difficult to hear the actors, and those who know the story well gasped at the surprise changes in plot. It was such a wonderful experience that afterwards I was able to keep a kind smile on my face when a budding playwright came up to explain that he had figured out the formula of our screenplay’s success: the white guy, had brought the funny and I had brought the blackness. We received requests for the script, some of which came from major studios, but no offers were forthcoming. I had a lot of theories about why, most of them rooted in the flaws of the Hollywood Industrial Complex and the lazy, casual bigotry reflected in those first comments, but I recently reread the script, and I was surprised at what I found. It’s not good. Really. It isn’t. I’ve read good scripts, and I’ve written good stories. “Emma Jones” in its current state does not qualify. It’s entirely possible that no one optioned “Emma Jones” because of Hollywood’s addiction to overworked formulas. Or maybe we were simply too new to be taken seriously. But the other entirely plausible reason is that the writing is not good and since the readers were more interested in seeing a specific, narrow representation of blackness, we never got real feedback on the actual writing. There are moments in the script that are good, and there are scenes that I still adore, but the script suffers from the same malady Austen saw in Pride and Prejudice—“it wants a certain shade” (Austen-Leigh 203). So while there are things that we got right (Harriet, for example), the script paints too much by Austen’s numbers.

The last I heard, there were plans for a hip-hop Emma, featuring black people dancing and singing their way through the story.

Jeff and I have kept in touch over the twenty years since we first met. He is a treasured friend, and we make every effort to see one another whenever we are in the same city. Having a drink with him is always a highlight of my visits to Louisiana. We talk about books, movies, and writers. Sometimes we talk about how I’m still pretty bad at dating. He was chagrined and blushed when I teased him about his casual comparison so many years ago. One day I e-mailed him to let him know I’d be in town, and he wrote back to tell me he’d gotten married to a woman named Scarlett. Long past my crush on him, the very first thing that came to mind was a joke, and I wrote back immediately, “Please tell me that you did not marry a white, Southern woman named Scarlett. Promise me she’s black and bossy.” I wanted her to have dreadlocks or braids. When I repeated the joke on the phone, he laughed. “You’ll like her,” he promised. And I do. She’s not the Scarlett of the book I read one year in middle school just to prove to a skeptical Mississippi schoolteacher that I could. She’s too kind-hearted for that. She does have Scarlett’s steely determination, but most Southern women (of all hues) that I know do. I have on my desk at home a quirky little picture holder she gave me for the first Christmas we met and instantly because friends, and she has on her bookshelf a novel I gave her for her birthday. The novel is not Emma.

Patricia A. Matthew is a writer and English professor living in Massachussetts. Her book, Written/Unwritten: Diversity and the Hidden Truths of Tenure, is forthcoming from UNC Press.

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