Teaching and writing in the Confederacy

My cushy job is supported by bequests from wealthy people. I knew some of that wealth must have been amassed in ethically fishy ways. However, I only learned for sure a couple of weeks ago that my home institution prospered directly and substantially from slavery. This unsurprising fact is still so shocking I can barely write about it.

Various news outlets recently featured the apparently controversial story that, in 2014, Washington and Lee University is becoming slightly less hospitable to nostalgia for the Confederacy. I’m happy confederate flag replicas are being removed from Lee Chapel—it’s a good change, if overdue—though the furious editorials in the local paper seem seriously overblown to me. C’mon, people. There’s still a recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee roughly where the altar should be. Our institution is still named after him.

On the same day the president was explaining to reporters what flags we would not wave and why, a timeline of African American history at W&L was circulated to the faculty. This, it seems to me, is the more interesting, disturbing, important story. The kicker comes under the heading “1826”:

“‘Jockey’ John Robinson dies and leaves his entire estate to Washington College. An Irish immigrant who had himself been an indentured servant, Robinson had amassed a considerable fortune as a horse trader, whiskey distiller, and plantation owner… Proceeds of the bequest, which was nearly as large as George Washington’s gift of canal stock, included ‘all the negroes of which I may die possessed together with their increase…’ Accounts different slightly on the total number of enslaved men, women and children whom Robinson owned at the time of his death, but it ranged from 73 to 84.” [emphasis mine]

The university is named after Washington as well as the Confederate general who presided here after the Civil War, while Robinson just gets a building. Yet Robinson’s gift was a defining one. Washington College profited from the labor of these human beings for years and then pocketed the proceeds from their auction. The last two slaves owned directly by my employer were sold in 1852. If you scroll down to that date you can download a senior honors thesis on the subject from 2007, so clearly I have been working hard to maintain my comfortable ignorance. It’s also clear my institution has not been advertising this part of its history very audibly, much less seeking to redress it.

I will sound dismissible to some readers, I know—another squawking Yankee. Twenty years ago, I packed up my New Jersey mallwear to move to Virginia, and the move did alarm me. Some of my fear concerned W&L in particular. There was national gossip about bad behavior in the English department: “snake pit,” one adviser warned. The campus itself was as pretty as a country club but while W&L was a highly selective liberal arts college—a great kind of place to teach—I could see right off that many students drove vehicles worth more than my starting salary. They were also uniformed in designer sundresses or navy blazers that marked me, by comparison, as an utter outsider. Aside from the challenges posed by the school’s strange little culture-bubble, I wondered, what would it really mean to live and work in the South? Could two Northern non-churchgoers ever feel at home here?

Some of my fears turned out to be based on stereotypes and bad information. The Virginians I’ve met are racist in the same proportions as the New Jerseyans. They’re not more hospitable than Northerners, either, though they tend to be more polite in casual encounters. A county with lots of artists, small farms, and multiple colleges has to be full of good and interesting people to break bread with, although I wish there were more poets around. I feel almost at home here, and “almost” is as good as it gets for the hypereducated first child of a first-generation immigrant.

As for W&L, even the most homogenous-seeming student body is full of secret difference, and those secretly different students need decent teachers more than ever when the pressure towards social conformity is high. I had a senior colleague who disapproved of the newfangled field of American literature, and whose prejudices began with an Episcopalian dislike of Presbyterians and extended who knows how far. I also had terrific mentors like Visiting Assistant Professor Claudia Emerson, who told a story about playing war as a child with her brother and not realizing for years that the South hadn’t actually won. Those tales helped me frame my constant disorientation about how present the Civil War seemed here—and still seems. In my family, for example, if you said “the war” you might mean World War II or Vietnam. No one ever talked or thought about 1865 outside of a weeklong unit in Social Studies.

Many narrow-minded or otherwise difficult old guys have moved on since, and I helped hire their replacements. And my very good job gets noticeably better every few years as new scholarships attract students whose academic seriousness is ever greater. We do lose people because of W&L’s problematic history and culture—talented students bail out for more diverse institutions, and at least one brilliant colleague whom I still miss terribly just wasn’t going to feel welcome or safe while Civil War re-enactors marched past her Main Street apartment window. People will keep leaving. This sucks.

Ritual reverence for slaveholding white men at various annual college events doesn’t help. I am tired of being asked to admire Robert E. Lee; I don’t. Yet that timeline drives home for me that while I may feel like an alien, I can’t stand apart from, much less above, this history. My ancestors may not have owned African slaves, they weren’t even here, but I have still inherited culpability, and in a much more specific way than white Americans who generally enjoy privileges rooted in centuries of exploitation and discrimination.

Because of this job and this paycheck, I have amends to make, and I don’t know how. My colleague Rod Smith recently pointed me to this Atlantic article on reparations, and yeah, I’d support HR 40. I vote and make donations, but I believe W&L’s specific history needs to inform my professional behavior, too. I’ve always taught and written about African American poetry. I talk about race when I teach white and non-white authors. And I will continue to make the department as hospitable as I possibly can for every literature whiz who dares walk in past those white, white columns. Every student ought to be able to find, in our curriculum, books that illuminate his or her identity. Every diligent person ought to enjoy enough warm support to do his or her very best work. But what else?

I have been wondering if I have responsibilities as a poet. I read Tess Taylor’s The Forage House this weekend. It’s a very good recent poetry collection concerning, in part, her slave-holding white ancestors in Virginia. I admire the book, and I don’t mean to pick on it particularly, but I’m dissatisfied by parts of it. There’s a certain kind of contemporary poem whose essential argument is that history is inaccessible to us, that it’s wrong to appropriate points of view we can never fully comprehend, and that a conscientious writer would never erase real but vanished stories by imposing her own constructions over their fragmentariness. It’s all true. I’ve written that poem and made those arguments myself. Besides, poetry needs to be its own purpose, or maybe to spring from obscure sources. If a poet’s primary goal is historical, the language tends not to go so well. I can’t just will myself to write about W&L’s history in verse and produce good art.

But I stare at those awful lists posted on the timeline and wonder: isn’t there any act of imagination that could honor these lost people? Maybe not. The dead are past our apologies. It doesn’t matter to them that I am thinking about them as I pace these red-brick pathways.

Albert, 13, appraised value $325. My son’s age.  What would he have wanted W&L to become? robinson_slaves_list

Good news makes me anxious

France June 2014 221The bad news: I am no longer in France. I know you’re weeping for poor privileged me—try to keep that under control. The other bit of tough luck, about which you may feel genuinely sympathetic: my one-year stint as acting Department Head of English has officially begun. My last term, from 2007-2010, was deeply demoralizing, but this time I have a supportive dean and a briefer sentence, so I’m not too worried. I hope I will not be punished for this blitheness. (“Blitheness” in me translates, by the way, to “slight apprehension only.”)

So we staggered home Tuesday night after only the mildest travel mishaps. With typical Gavalerian efficiency, the mail was sorted and the luggage emptied before we hit those cushy, much-missed mattresses. I had too much jetlag and administrative email to get much done on Wednesday besides hitting the farmer’s market and arranging Bretagne seashells on my office windowsill, but I did look over three poems I had drafted in France. By Thursday, I began working hard on the sixth chapter of Taking Poetry Personally (they’re short chapters, so this means I’m around the halfway mark). On Friday I read over the first five to get my bearings again and you know, it’s good stuff. I’m still on the fence about when, how, and where to query, but I believe in the project and feel a lot of energy about it.  

I’m a regular reader of Jeannine Hall Gailey’s blog about writing, health, and the po-biz, and she had just posted about how those inevitable rejections can hit you hard. Yep. I returned to a few disappointing messages, although the mail also contained contributor copies of two beautiful print magazines: Salamander and Sou’wester, both journals that deserve to be on your reading list. I particularly like the Michelle Boisseau poems that follow mine in Sou’wester. The magazines’ arrival helped cancel out the rejections, even though the Standard Post-Vacation Caloric Austerity Program was aggravating my tired irritability. Plus I’m catching up with friends, and looking forward to a Charlottesville reading next Sunday—there’s plenty of good stuff going down.

I think what lifted me most, though, was writing itself.  I forget this all the time, but whenever I’m low I should hit the damn keyboard, and not for social media updates. I was feeling out of sorts this morning, even as I performed Sunday morning rituals I generally treasure: walking downtown for a copy of the Times, drinking pots of chai. Then I read this little piece on motivation. The authors describe how, in their study of West Point cadets, those “with internal motives did better in the military (as evidenced by early promotion recommendations) than did those without internal motives and were also more likely to stay in the military after their five years of mandatory service — unless (and this is the surprising part) they also had strong instrumental motives.” Translated into poetry terms, this would mean that writing from love of the art will bring more success than writing for fame. Further, pure-hearted poets will ALSO be more successful than poets with mixed motivation, meaning those who love the art AND want to achieve attention for it.

I sort of knew this, but it was still helpful to hear. I just need to focus on the pleasure of putting lines and sentences together. When you’re grumpy about the mixed rewards writing brings, shrug it off and get back to the page.

My mood this morning seemed particularly ridiculous because I received an awesome piece of news yesterday. I can’t give specifics until the contracts are sorted, which will take at least a month, and there’s work ahead. But I’ve been on tenterhooks for six months while a publisher I admire was taking a hard look—multiple reader reports, the whole shebang—at my poetry ms, Radioland. On Saturday afternoon I finally received a yes. They’d like me to make some revisions, details pending, but if I’m game to work with them, they intend to publish it, likely in fall 2015.

My spouse teased me for skipping over the basking-in-joy part and going straight to solemnity. Maybe I’ll feel more pleased with myself when I can make the announcement fully. I could be experiencing caution because of editorial negotiations ahead, but I don’t think so—these are very smart editors, and when you don’t receive editorial advice on a long project, that’s a bigger problem, really. I wish they had proposed a slightly earlier date, and I wish I had editorial recommendations in hand immediately, but there’s no real urgency here. And while I don’t know any poets who love the book-promotion process, I’m up for it: I know what it is and why it matters. So why does a book acceptance rattle me?

As I write, I realize my unbounciness is probably due to that paradox described in the Times piece. Whether or not internally-motivated poets are more successfully than the ambitious ones (I’m not convinced military advancement is an exact analogue), I feel sure they’re happier. I’m a lot happier on writing days than on non-writing days. And apparently I’m more cheerful after a good weekday session of paragraph-drafting than I am on a holiday weekend during which I’m offered a book contract. The latter just shifts my attention too much towards instrumental thinking, measuring my achievements rather than immersing myself in the work.

With this revelation in mind, I include a picture of my kids above, taken over my shoulder by my spouse a couple of weeks ago. This was my favorite day of the whole trip. After a morning touring Lascaux II, we emerged into gorgeous weather and headed to a rental shack in Montignac. My daughter chose to kayak solo, the rest of us piled into a canoe, and we headed down la Vézère, past limestone cliffs and Château de Losse and lots of those tall narrow Van Gogh trees, whatever they’re called. I was initially so anxious about tipping over or running into some weird problem but you know, everything was fine. The process of floating along that river was utterly lovely. Who cares where you’re going, or whether you get there on time?