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Michael Awkward , Scenes of Instruction: A Memoir

Framed as a memoir, Michael Awkward’s Scenes of Instruction narrates influential events in his childhood and adolescence that lead to the formation of his academic self. Using memoir rather than autobiography circumvents issues of truth in autobiography, since the term memoir connotes a text less strictly factual than does autobiography. It is the record of a life as the author chooses to remember it. Awkward’s own reflections on the meaning and significance of past events are an interesting analysis. “Because, as recent theorizing on the subject of autobiography has demonstrated, acts of discursive self-rendering unavoidably involve the creation of an idealized version of a unified or unifiable self, we can only be certain of the fact that the autobiographical impulse yields some of the truths of the male feminist critic’s experiences” (45).
He begins his narrative with his 6th grade graduation ceremony when his mother arrived late and drunk, causing Awkward to cry as he sat on stage. This early example typifies the conflict between his home and his academic life that becomes the theme of the book: the $5 check Awkward received for winning the George Washington Medal became not a prize, but a curse. His mother cashed the check to buy more alcohol. Inevitably, school and home life are bound up together, and a boy’s relationship to his mother cannot be denied or ignored. Because he has often chosen to write about African-American women novelists, Awkward has come to define himself as a “black male feminist scholar.” But the term “male feminist” is an oxymoron to many female feminists, and Awkward is often called upon to justify how a man can understand and promote women’s issues. In Scenes of Instruction he also addresses why he adopts this controversial identity by reflecting on the social and academic moments of his youth that lead to his beliefs. His early critical work in Negotiating Difference: Race, Gender, and the Politics of Positionality (1995, University of Chicago Press) also addresses this issue in Chapter 2, “A Black Man’s Place in Black Feminist Criticism.” His work here is almost entirely theoretical, except for a brief mention of his father’s treatment of his mother without exploring the deeper effects on himself. Scenes of Instruction is the expansion on the personal side of the theory already published. “If one of the goals of male feminist self-referentiality is to demonstrate to females that individual males can indeed serve as allies in efforts to undermine androcentric power-and it seems that this is invariably the case-the necessary trust cannot be gained by insisting that motivation as such does not represent a crucial area that must be carefully negotiated” (44).
Awkward’s memoir stumbles when he attempts to extend his analysis of his mother to other women in his life. When he attempts to analyze what his ex-girlfriend Lisa Manning meant to his emotional and academic journey he comes across as unsympathetic and unfeeling of her situation. Although Awkward claims to have her best interests in mind, revealing her alteration of age in Vibe magazine smacks of exposé rather than critical analysis. In feminist terms, he is right to criticize Manning’s biography for “…perpetrat[ing] this age-old fraud (whose calendar-defying precursors in the black literary tradition include Zora Neale Hurston), and…represent[ing] herself as a young(er), natural wonder from the hood” (160), but the criticism is ultimately personal rather than universal. It seems as though Awkward cannot forgive the coldness with which she broke up with him and so his side of the story is biased. Even though he says that “[i]n the final analysis I’m more compelled by the existence of these works than I am frustrated by their glib surfaces and the bold liberties they take with the truth” (164), it sounds disingenuous. As he says in the introduction, it “explores [his] coming of age as a black American male in the wake of social, political and cultural changes inaugurated during the turbulent 1960s” (1). The educational system he ultimately prevailed in was at odds with his identity. The book is worth reading in conjunction with other such narratives, such as Richard Wright’s Black Boy, but Awkward has read these accounts too and thought through his relationship to them before writing Scenes of Instruction. Ultimately, Awkward succeeds in exploring a black man’s place in feminist theory through personal examples without coming across as defensive. The final words of the memoir, “I don’t know,” (202) are part of a dialogue with his wife about whether he is ready to leave his mother’s grave, but also extend to the issue of black male feminist scholarship. Awkward does not claim to know what the proper place for a man is in feminist writing, but remains firm in his belief that his work with feminist theory is meaningful. His memoir is a reminder that while theory serves a purpose, it cannot be meaningful when entirely divorced from real life, and a reminder that since both genders are inextricable bound up with each other, there has to be a place for male scholars in the feminist movement, although that place is often shadowy and undefined.

Kara L. Andersen

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