Awkward gracefully strolls down memory lane

Michael Awkward, pre-dreads

Blame it on Mom.

On second thought, give Mom the credit.

It may be reductionist to put it this way, but if it were not for his mother, Michael Awkward (Gr’86, Hon’97) might not have become a feminist literary scholar.

“I spent my life trying to understand my mother,” the professor of English and director of the Center for the Study of Black Literature and Culture told a small audience at the center Feb. 3. “She is the most complicated text I have ever read or ever will read.” And, he said, it was her life that led him to become a male feminist and study the work of black women writers.

Awkward spoke about and read passages from his new memoir, “Scenes of Instruction” (Duke University Press, 1999), in which his mother looms large as both a positive and negative presence.

In addition to his mother’s experiences as an abused, alcoholic woman, “Scenes of Instruction” uses milestones in Awkward’s youth — in particular, graduation days from sixth grade and junior high in South Philadelphia, from a Massachusetts prep school, from Brandeis University and from Penn — as a means of exploring the issues of gender roles and racial identity that he examines in his scholarly work.

He wrote the book, he said, as a way to examine “how to approach issues arising from identity politics.” Awkward is no stranger to the pitfalls of identity politics: The book recounts incidents where female scholars challenged his claim to be a feminist and explores the author’s own feelings of awkwardness as a brainy boy in a black male culture that placed a low value on bookishness.

A member of the audience wondered about the role of nostalgia in writing a memoir. He stated that he did not share the current black middle-class “nostalgia for and glorification of the ’hood,” which in his case was the Southwark Plaza housing project in South Philadelphia. “I was scared as hell in the ’hood,” he said, adding, “It didn’t seem to be a place that was supportive of the kind of person that I was.”

Ironically, he did feel some nostalgia when Southwark Plaza was imploded two weeks ago. “When I learned that these projects that should have been destroyed long ago actually were destroyed, I felt sad.”

But just as this feminist seeks to bridge the gender gap, Awkward also wishes to bridge the gap between black and scholarly culture. In a passage from the book that he described as “a tribute to Houston Baker,” his predecessor as center director and the man who lured him to Penn for graduate study, he recounted a revelation that came when Baker spoke to him in a mix of standard English and black dialect.

“The notion that one could speak both right and black, could move effortlessly from proper to street discourse, from their to our forms of verbal address, hadn’t occurred to me,” he read.

Originally published on February 17, 2000