- Mary Shelley in the South Bronx
Last year marked the fiftieth anniversary of Hostos Community College, a school founded by the City of New York as a concession to community organizers who argued that people of the South Bronx and Harlem deserved access to higher education.1 The school has endured as a beacon of hope in the poorest congressional district in the United States.2 Last year also marked the bicentennial of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, around which I developed a "Gothic and Horror" survey course for Hostos freshmen.
The creature's abandonment felt relevant to Hostos students: "All men hate the wretched," he tells Frankenstein during their Alpine confrontation.3 Most had read "wretched" as "bad" and agreed that the creature was "bad," given his crimes. A student who had had to look [End Page 148] up the word—only five of the twenty-five students speak English as a first language—said her dictionary defined "wretched" as "miserable" instead, and that we were being cruel. In his indigent state, the creature learned a dire lesson: people believe that those who suffer must surely deserve their misfortune. In a school where 70 percent of students live below the poverty line, this observation wielded power and provoked discussion about how our community is affected by these conclusions about misery: many students rely on food stamps and public housing, law enforcement targets them disproportionately, and even our school's local subway elevator has not been repaired since the 1970s, leaving people with disabilities or those wielding strollers barely able to access the campus.4
Our class's initial misreading of this conversation captured the sleight-of-hand—"badness" for "misery"—that those in power deploy to defund public services and maintain white supremacy, the effects of which we experience institutionally through budget cuts and which our students experience personally as housing and food insecurity.5 The effects are insidious and lethal: President Donald J. Trump calls asylum seekers "illegals," criminalizing misery.6 His Council of Economic Advisors argues that welfare inhibits "self-sufficiency," recasting poverty as indolence.7 Those targeted by racism see this violent rhetorical flourish as clearly as Shelley's creature had: Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the racist canard of "black-on-black crime"—one which Trump deploys regularly—as a way "to shoot a man and them shame him for bleeding."8 Safiya Umoja Noble describes the radicalization that led Dylan Roof to murder nine worshippers in Charleston: [End Page 149] he Googled "black on White crime" and the algorithm directed him to a white supremacist website which confirmed his racist beliefs.9 The sleight-of-hand happens even via algorithms, according to Noble, which "oversimplify complex phenomena" and "mask history."10 Shelley's creature reads this willful conflation of misery and evil as human nature: "all men" do this, he tells Frankenstein. However, those endangered by this interpretive sleight-of-hand—my students, for instance—are not fooled.
Alexandra L. Milsom, Assistant Professor of English at Hostos Community College, CUNY, studies the history of guidebooks and is at work on a book about the relationship between British tourism and Catholic Emancipation in the nineteenth century.
1. See the official website for Hostos Community College, CUNY; "The History of Hostos," https://www.hostos.cuny.edu/About-Hostos/The-History-of-Hostos.
2. On the 2010 US Census, see Richard Sisk, "South Bronx is poorest district in nation…" New York Daily News, September 29, 2010, https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/south-bronx-poorest-district-nation-u-s-census-bureau-finds-38-live-poverty-line-article-1.438344.
3. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, Or the Modern Prometheus, ed. Nick Groom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 70.
4. One woman carrying a stroller down the stairs at a station without a working elevator actually died this January in New York City. See Michael Gold and Emma G. Fitzsimmons, "A Mother's Fatal Fall on Subway Stairs Rouses New Yorkers to Demand Accessibility," New York Times, January 29, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/29/nyregion/mom-subway-stairsdeath-malaysia-goodson.html.
5. A recent report shows that nearly half of...