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

5 thoughts on “Teaching and writing in the Confederacy

  1. I think your poem is somewhere in the last line (although maybe not literally).

    Last weekend I picked up an early Camille Dungy book from the perspective of Virginia slaves. I haven’t read it yet, but look forward to it.

    I once searched for white poets writing about race, and didn’t find much. But my motivations rose from a familiar environment to yours. A 10 year old girl was beaten to death “for insolence” at one of the most familiar intersections in my home town, crossing from the university to the commercial district (by the Episcopal church). One of these days I will figure out how to write about that.

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  2. Yes, there are some white poets writing about race–I like Cynthia Hogue’s Or Consequence, and my friend Nat Anderson has a good project in the works. You should read Tess Taylor. The history of race in the U.S. belongs to every U.S. writer, but it’s incredibly hard to be intelligent and clear and just about any complicated issue in brief, sound-driven forms. Even in Taylor’s book, I think a prose piece in the middle is one of the best. I hope you keep trying to remember that murdered girl, whatever genre that subject leads you to.

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      • It only deals with male poets, but it might be interesting: works with poems of Rodney Jones, Andrew Hudgins, Jake Adam York, and Steve Scafidi, Jr. and deals with how close York walked to appropriation. Rod Smith and Sarah Kennedy were my thesis advisors. Hope you are well.

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