Friday, September 3, 2010

Allison Joseph's Imitation of Life

Allison Joseph. Imitation of Life. Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2003.

In this collection, Allison Joseph explores the ways in which identity is constructed as black or white, female or male, poor or rich, powerful or powerless. She looks at childhood as the beginning of the search for an understanding of the world and the self, what the beautiful, rich, and powerful look like in contrast to the faces we see in the mirror. The questions at the heart of this volume are: What is beauty? What is success? Who creates the images of greatness, and how do we come to accept those images, even as they undermine our own sense of worth?

Two poems, “Searching for Melinda’s Magic Moment” and “Questions About Toys,” attempt to look at the ways that acceptable behavior and images of perfection or beauty are instilled in black girls from early childhood. Melinda’s Magic Moment, a children’s book in which a young girl realizes her dream of acting on stage only after she uses a wig and make up to become white, conveys the message that in order to be admired, accepted, and applauded, one must embrace the white ideal, in this case Shirley Temple, and consciously hide any trace of black heritage. As an adult, the speaker seems to realize the damage that such a book can cause to a young black girl and asks the reader: “..if you find this book/ … / …send it to me. / I’d like to read it again, touch it, see / if it’s like I remember. And then, / I’d like to burn it.”

“Questions About Toys” explores the ways in which boys are encouraged to be active, “believing your strength superhuman / your aim flawless, your arm / propelling that bit of the world / forward, forward, over the highest / fence, the furthest gate?” while young girls are forced to “…care about keeping your doll’s / limbs clean, intact…” Thus, even as children, girls are meant to be caregivers while boys can engage in adventures. By asking “didn’t you ever wish,” Joseph reveals the ways in which gender identity is taught, if not forced on girls and boys, rather than a natural inclination toward GI Joes or Barbie Dolls.

[Emily Phillips]

Related posts:
Allison Joseph and Creativity
Allison Joseph's Worldly Pleasures
Allison Joseph's Voice: Poems
Looking for Allison Joseph

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