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.

 

Extinction burst?

Last Monday, I found a KKK recruitment flier on my front lawn. Just a week or so earlier and a few blocks away, the first physical memorial to enslaved African-Americans was meminstalled at Washington and Lee University, an institution that benefited financially from slavery but, until recently, bruited that terrible fact much less than, say, its debt to certain slave-holding generals. (See this post from last
year on a virtual memorial that, for me, marked the beginning of a better-informed conversation.)

I find myself trying to draw a line between those two opposing gestures, the plaque to honor the dead and the dishonorable flier. Maybe my sense of meaningful patterns is just a poet’s delusion.

The flier was one of many found in my neighborhood. It was protected from rain by a plastic baggie and weighted with a handful of rice. (White rice, and yes, I’m working on a poem with that title.) My more immediate media responsibilities, however, were to fire off a letter to the local paper and alert the police. Before that, like a real twenty-first-century American, I posted a query on Facebook, wondering how to respond given that the terrorist literature was probably legal–the threat of violence is latent, all right, but the flier doesn’t overtly advocate physical harm to others. The picture of a broad-shouldered, masked, accusatory Klansman carries a frightening charge, as do the all-caps format and the hateful associations of the initials themselves, as well as the not-so-metaphorical phrases “White Power” and “Join the Fight.” The flier certainly scared me; I went inside and locked the doors. But the organization itself is legal, and the politics it advocates are too, despite the KKK’s history of atrocities.

It was interesting how people responded via social media. Many recommended I contact the Southern Poverty Law Center (they never returned my call KKKbut I know other locals had already reported the fliers there). I learned that one local trigger for this flier-bombing was a day of memorial services for the Rev. LaVert Taylor, a black Civil Rights activist. But it’s not just a local thing, and in fact, friends reported similar recruitment efforts in other parts of the country. A certain Republican front-runner is, through toxic rhetoric, empowering white supremacists and other haters to come out swinging, everywhere. The state of U.S. politics, at the national level, is just dire beyond belief.

I’ve since given the flier to a student journalist trying to report the larger story, and there’s a rally against racism arranged for this Monday at 5 pm in Lexington’s Hopkins Green. So maybe this abhorrent attempt to rouse “white pride” is a wake-up call of a useful variety. And I look forward to the dedication ceremony for W&L’s memorial, at 4:30 pm on April 5th, around the side of Robinson Hall (though that back-door location does make me wince–I hope there will be a lot more remembering in the next few years, much of it front-and-center).

When another FB friend, a psychiatrist, said he hoped the flier was an “extinction burst,” I got excited, realizing what the term must mean. When a conditioned behavior stops receiving the expected reward, it gradually dies out–but before it decreases, instances of the undesired behavior might increase for a while. I’m glad to have an official-sounding shorthand for a phenomenon I’ve observed. Does this surge of KKK malevolence represent desperate flailing of a group about to shrink right out of existence? I like that idea, but am not counting on it.

I see a lot of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudice in daily life, but those biases are less socially acceptable now than in my childhood, or than they were in the 90s, at the beginning of my teaching career. My first-hand experiences of prejudice involve not racism but sexism, sometimes vicious and sometimes quietly insidious. I’ve been discriminated against, harassed, and assaulted. But I have many more opportunities than my mother did, and my daughter lives in a freer world than I knew at 19–and maybe all 3 of us will be able to vote for a female presidential candidate this fall, a development that has been absurdly long in coming. It’s obvious that the revolutionary reality of an African-American president and the possibility of a female one have created a lot of backlash. The whole Drumpf-o-rama extravanganza of the last few months, including the poisonous trash I found by my doorstep, could be a sort of final or near-final tantrum of some ancient varieties of stupid.

I don’t actually believe racism’s on its way out, rationally, or sexism, for that matter. If recent eruptions constitute an extinction burst, it’s extinction on a glacial time-frame, with many more explosions of hatefulness still to come. My seasonally recurrent hope for us all, though, isn’t entirely irrational, either. The Darth Cheneys, Grand Dragons, and other super-villains of this all-too-real world are getting pretty creaky in their cyborg parts. They won’t be pulling puppet-strings forever. And I don’t think this W&L memorial, small and belated as it is, could have gone up twenty years ago.  We haven’t made nearly enough progress, and making any gains at all seems incredibly, insanely, criminally difficult, yet I’ve seen growth happen. Happy spring equinox, friends. Imperfect closure, I know, but I’ll keep trying to rhyme with it.

kkk letter