Current weather and forecast for the Confederacy

track 1973

I’m often proud of my brainy, big-hearted students and colleagues, and I’m occasionally even proud of an administrator–when I hear, for instance, that someone deployed funds to help my advisee get through a crisis. Wealthy small liberal arts colleges can be very good places to work and study. And in ways I did not expect when I arrived in 1994, I’ve developed strong feelings for the land I live on. Sometimes, however, all the good resources make it harder to accept my college’s failings.

One of the strangest, most upsetting aspects of being at Washington and Lee has been the university’s uncritical reverence of that second namesake. I know many white southerners were raised to think of Robert E. Lee as an honorable, heroic leader during a terrible war, but most faculty, and a good proportion of staff and students, come from elsewhere and find the mythology alienating. I never really got over the shock I felt about those narratives at first–in fact, my shock has deepened, as it becomes more and more obvious that white supremacist ideals have not lost their grip on our country, that violence against people of color remains epidemic. I worried that white supremacy was in fact part of what my college was selling–come here, white students, and feel validated in your prejudices! I know that is NOT what happens in our classrooms, but nostalgia for the Lost Cause is nevertheless the lesson imparted by our architecture, some of our publicity materials, rhetoric at some events, and even by our name. I’ve felt despair about reconciling the goals of liberal arts teaching with the fundamental unkindness of, say, marching students into Lee Chapel for required events while denying that the building, standing above Lee’s actual crypt, is a shrine to the Confederacy. History is complicated and no one is innocent, but still, these are men who might have enslaved my students’ great-great-grandparents, lashed them, poured brine in the wounds. It’s that plain, that brutal–not something you can fairly ask a person to be politely silent about.

Which is why I want to use my last post before a ten-day trip to give a shout-out to two amazing projects. First: look at this report just issued by W&L’s Commission on Institutional History. It’s very long and detailed–I confess my first move was to read the prologue and then skip to the recommendations–but all of it is worth careful reading, if you’re at all interested in this corner of the world. The conclusions about renaming and repurposing certain buildings are spot-on, and the history the committee tells is the most honest and even-handed I’ve ever seen in a W&L publication. I’m just stunned by its scholarly fairness (oh, those hundreds of footnotes!).

The report does NOT recommend changing the school’s name, or at least not yet. I respect the opposing view, and I suspect we’ll revisit the issue eventually, but I’m personally in agreement with the commission here, even though everyone I meet, these days, hears my institutional affiliation, pauses for a beat, and says, “They’ll be changing that name.” I read the report on my phone between sessions at the Bridgewater Poetry Conference, where multiple people made that remark, in fact. But at the same conference, I also talked to a professor from Randolph College, who recounted how tough their name change has been. It’s a costly step in all kinds of ways, and I’d rather put resources into making more substantive changes, at least at first.

If we DO change. The report itself, posted online in its full glory, gives me hope, but will W&L act on those recommendations, and if so, at what speed? There’s a massive culture gap between trustees and current students, for sure, and since the former have the money…well, in my experience, change happens very, very slowly here, with many constituencies fighting it every step of the way.

A better place to rest that optimism is in the students themselves, and in how, generation after generation, they challenge the status quo and strive to push crucial conversations forward. Witness “The Black Experience @ W&L,” a website just completed by the 12 general-education students, from all years and a wide range of disciplines, in my spring term African American Poetry class. In addition to reading and writing about poems from four centuries, we heard from an archaeologist, a genealogical researcher, and a specialist in Black Arts; talked to a visiting poet; and worked in Special Collections. For this final digital memorial, one group conducted interviews with eight current black students (audio posted online) and compared them to a series of interviews conducted in 1997. They’re all worth listening to (the seniors are the most blunt), but the upshot is that while academics have changed in a positive way since the nineties, the social life hasn’t–black students still get kicked out of parties and challenged to show ID, as if they couldn’t possibly be enrolled here. “How can you explain what it’s like to live in Confederate Virginia with, like, 83% of your fellow students being white?” one interviewee laughed–explaining it pretty well, I thought. Another group investigated integration on athletic teams and discovered that while there was a big jump in the seventies, the numbers of black players on teams has stayed the same since then. Other individuals created exhibits on protests and controversies, from offensively-themed formal dances to peace marches. I’m proud of their hard work and, again, the unvarnished honesty of the stories they tell.

We can do better, but there’s no moving forward without remembering where we started, and being honest about who paid for the privileges we now enjoy, musing about Lucille Clifton in well-furnished, sunny classrooms.

My mother as live-in nurse, 1962

pat 1965
The photo’s from ’65, actually–best I could do

 

Numismatics, 1962

Strange to feel inferior, but that
was the job of live-in European servants:
to confer shine for a pittance. English nurses,
Scottish maids, Estonian women doing laundry,
German POWs pruning roses.

Out through glitter, back to the dock.

Mrs. Anthony motored around town
in a humble Ford wagon, but in her garage,
a Daimler banked its gleam. I had to study
eight degrees of grandeur for the table,
a bewilderment of china. Her daughter
Kitty curtsied to me once, a faux-pas.
Those manners were too silver for the help.

Economical strokes, green
folded neatly behind her.

Come summer, I decamped with the Anthonys
to Fishers Island. Another empire. Eight more
sets of china. Kitty and brothers buffed
by swimming, boating, tennis. Another domestic
and I liked to steal an early hour
on the courts, a pretty German girl
who volleyed dares: ask for a raise, learn
to drive. Sporty in hand-me-down whites.

I didn’t know who Susan was. Mr.
Anthony’s aunt, maybe. Unmarried. No fuss.
She swam every day, climbing down the ladder
from the quay. I wobbled over with tea.
Thought eighty, but I was too young to gauge.
Craggy-featured, slim, her metallic bob
tucked into a rubber bathing cap.
She urged me to paddle out, but I clung
to the ladder. Which one of us was the nurse?

Out and back, resisted and
supported by the water.
If the sea had corners.

She asked: You traveled to America
to remake your life. Why linger here?
Women’s roles are changing. Later I guessed
she was Susan B. Anthony, but the dates
were wrong. Her circulation, she hinted, had been
limited. She left me a tip: five Liberty dollars.

I left the job before my year was up.
Nicer to tend babies for less wealthy
Jewish families. Funny how they worshiped
Winston Churchill, the political failure. I
was welcome at their dinner tables while
their black maids went home for the night.

Somewhere it’s still happening—
four springer spaniels jingling into the car,
bound for the ferry in New London. Harvard
boys trade books for boat shoes. Servants
fly in from poorer countries to chip
gilt dessert plates in the stainless sink.
Another Susan, having withdrawn
from the exchange, launches herself seaward.
Her issue is impervious to salt.

*

That’s a poem I wrote about five years ago, submitted to magazines for a while without success, lost track of, and just searched through old files to find again. I brushed it up a bit for the occasion but I don’t really know how well it works as a poem. I just love the story–my working-class mother having her first real encounter with serious wealth and snobbery in the supposedly democratic U.S., and that independent elderly feminist with the suggestive name. I dedicate it here to my mother, my daughter, and daring women everywhere.

Onto the last week of classes here, followed by the Bridgewater International Poetry Festival, where I’ll read on Saturday morning at 10. Have a liberated week!

 

May the river/ remember you

bricks

“In Berlin, you can’t go anywhere without seeing stones and markers dedicated to the Jewish and Roma residents who were forced from their homes and taken to the concentration camps,” Bryan Stevenson, a civil rights lawyer, says in “A Lynching’s Long Shadow” by Vanessa Gregory. “And that iconography creates a consciousness of what happened that I think is necessary for that society to recover. In the American South, we’ve done the opposite. We’ve actually created symbols designed to make us feel great about our history, about the 19th century, about the good old days of the early 20th century.”

That quote from Stevenson, also a MacArthur winner and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, really struck me. We should be tripping over memorials for enslaved people here in the south, and for descendants of those enslaved people, who were subject to decades of terrorism while huge portions of white America stood by. Those lynchings were, instead, cheered on by white audiences, who brought their children to the festivities and collected souvenirs (read some basics about lynchings in Virginia here, but know in advance this Encyclopedia Virginia article contains upsetting pictures). It’s not that I think memorials would fix racism. But it’s pernicious how centuries of racist oppression are not just under erasure, where I live. They’re actually celebrated as “heritage” in a way I will never get over.

So what do I do, aside from the occasional march, phone call, editorial, donation? I’ve been deliberating these questions mostly through my poetry and in my classrooms. During our four-week May term this year, I’m teaching African American poetry with an emphasis on history, and the class will culminate in a digital memorial project framed in some way by excerpts of poems. It’s a talented group of students, mostly non-majors, and I’ve been working hard to introduce them to resources like our university’s wonderful Special Collections, but what they focus on will ultimately be up to them. This is a public project, so I’ll post a link in about two weeks, when it’s done.

At the moment, we’re waiting to scrutinize the report of the Committee on Institutional History, which was released to the president last week but not, yet, to the community. We’re also reading Kevin Young’s amazing long poem Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, from 2011. I think my students are struggling with it, much more so than with the shorter poems we’ve read, and I understand why–Ardency is not only long (250 pages), but Young steadfastly refuses to simplify this vast, complicated, powerful story. Instead, the book riffs on the languages and structures of religion, education, and music, with a section each focused on Covey, the free Mendi translator; Cinque, a captive who came to lead the rebellion; and a chorus of survivors on trial, often represented through letters. For a sample from Cinque’s extended “Libretto,” listen to “Choir (Morning).” Or read 1/250th of the book below. (I prefer to link to poems if I don’t have permission to post them, but I can’t find anything to link to. Just read this and buy the book, please. I believe Ardency will be judged one of the top poetic achievements of the century.)

Confession

The rage I have
not felt till now is not

what is, here,
called red–raw, rare

meat it is not.
Instead, steady green.

Is no flowering,
not a sudden thing

but the tallest tree.
Not the swift climb

to the top–or, timber
the chop–

But the termite’s steady rot.
-Kevin Young, from Ardency

Can a poem be a monument? I think so. A book doesn’t have the simplicity of a pillar or the accessibility of a garden, but there’s a public role, too, for the productive difficulties of intensely patterned language. We need to read poetry, alone and together, because it helps us remember (and imagine) what’s lost and imagine (and remember) a way forward.