Venus/ dodo

I didn’t even know the Venus of Willendorf inhabited Vienna’s Natural History Museum when deciding to spend our last afternoon in the city there. My son was weary of paintings, so while Madeleine and Chris headed to the Leopold Museum, Cam and I staggered through flocks of taxidermied rare and extinct animals. The museum was mostly non-air-conditioned so we were dizzy and wilting, fascinated and sad. I’m attracted to natural history dioramas but find them gruesome, too–all those creatures killed and stilled in the name of learning. I don’t know why Venus was among the early human life exhibits rather than in an art museum, but I was awed to meet her there.

I’m still jet-lagged and processing, but the whole trip was like that: lucky and wonderful, tiring and tricky. The intense itinerary was arrived at by family negotiation. I don’t love Vienna and argued to go elsewhere, but then decided to go with the flow–museums, beer, and pastries in any European capital are pretty great, after all, for tourists with Euros. Earlier in the trip, seeing Prague through our daughter’s eyes was especially amazing. She’d been studying there for months and planned itineraries that included not only the obvious sites but her favorite vistas and gardens, banh mi and coffee houses. Then, during the middle 3 nights of our 10-day holiday, we visited Chris’ second cousins in Slovakia, driving from Bratislava to the eastern village of Hranovnica, where Chris’ grandparents grew up before moving to Pennsylvania coal-mining country. Everyone was kind and generous, toasting the Americans with shots of brandy before large meals, walking us round to the graveyard and then to more relatives’ houses for more brandy and sweets (sour cherry and cinnamon pancakes–a religious experience). The next day, we hiked to a lake at the foot of the High Tatras–some of the most stunning scenery I’ve ever seen.

There were stresses, too, and not just from having a headcold and being tired and itchy (Chris and I had bad rashes, probably allergic reactions to Virginia creeper, and still have them, despite rounds of cortisone and prescription creams). I have about ten words of Slovak now, and two of them are “black” and “white,” because of a racist joke at dinner about the Roma people and Obama that led to a long, irresolveable conversation in halting language. The US is notorious for a wide variety of human rights violations, but so is Slovakia, where the chiefest involve the Roma population: segregated education, forced sterilizations. Madeleine has been studying the crisis and knows way more than I do about its complexities, but trying to talk from that schoolwork just dropped us into an all-too-familiar education vs. life experience quagmire argument, deepened by tensions among the Slovak relatives themselves. It was hard to talk across our cultural and linguistic gaps, many of them springing from our relative wealth.

Even as we disagreed, I was feeling or imagining some hard-to-articulate connections. I was watching middle-aged and older women, most of whom spoke little or no English, work incredibly hard at making up clean beds in village houses without clothes driers, and feeding us elaborate meals cooked from scratch in small kitchens, although they, like the men, have demanding jobs. I was attending to them so closely that a couple of times, when someone said something in Slovak, I responded correctly in English and got accused of telepathy. There was lots of emotional eye contact, some of which I thought I could translate, although much is surely beyond my understanding: a mixture of pride, watchfulness, resignation to the hard work women do, and sadness at how family disperses further and further by the year, generations less and less intelligible to one another–perhaps a common frame of mind among postmenopausal Venuses.

In other words, I was thinking about race and gender the whole trip, just as I was before I left. I was also struggling with complicated emotions about a colleague’s angry reaction to my last blog post, particularly my sympathy with a commission‘s recommendation that changing the name of Washington and Lee, my university, was not as urgent as other transformations. After I caught up on that Facebook thread, I was kept awake by surges of horror that I’d hurt a friend who is undergoing difficult transitions. I also felt misread by him, suspicious that my defensiveness was an eruption of privilege, hurt at the harsh and public way he’d called me out, and a host of other messy things.

This is not a digression but the bedrock of my response to my friend, and my feelings about art and work and travel: I often wonder if I’ve wasted my life at Washington and Lee. I’ve been told by a wide range of people, in ways that are always demoralizing but occasionally frightening, that I’m not allowed to refer to my experiences at this university as harassment and discrimination, but I know how seriously I’ve been damaged by 24 years of employment here. I’ve done good work, too, and used my income to support two brilliant kids who are going to make the world a better place, when some of us old people finally go extinct. Complicity/ struggle, privilege/ damage–I’m riding the slash-mark, uncertain of the value of my work and the costs of my choices, undecided about everything except that talking, and writing, are hard but worth attempting.

Well, given how my private apology to that upset friend was received, and that it was followed up by a thinly-veiled and soul-crushing Facebook post criticizing white women who center conversations about race around themselves, I guess some of those attempts have failed and one friendship is toast. But to anyone who reads this blog who thinks I’ve been a dodo but perhaps one with redeeming qualities, please know I’m sorry for all obtuseness and bad translation. Also know that I’m listening, always. And writing hard, because I decided long ago that I’d rather fail by speaking than fail by silence.

As I reread that last blog, for instance, what seems most blameworthy is not what I wrote but the unspoken understory, how other oppressions surround but do not surface in the report and my response to it. The Commission focuses on cruel exploitations of black Americans and, to a lesser extent, the undervaluing of women, and begins to reckon the reparations due. Almost no one is talking about the Monacans and other area tribes whose lands and livelihoods were stolen, who were also segregated and sterilized and otherwise profoundly harmed, to my institution’s benefit. What reparations are due in that quarter? Or how about the Latinx population doing so much of the domestic and construction work in Lexington, on and off campus, often ignored but also frequently threatened by omnipresent right-wingers who think all recent immigrants should be deported?

Again, not a digression: there’s a theory that the Venus of Willendorf was carved from limestone and tinted with ocher by a woman artist, based on how the proportions and facelessness suggest a woman looking down at her own body. My delight at the notion doubtless springs from my identity as an obscure woman artist, increasingly pudgy and trying not to be depressed about it, looking down at my flawed self and wondering how to make something good from my life. That ringing question implies an ongoing journey rather than a destination, I suppose. Best take a few deep breaths and get some sleep before the next leg.

 

 

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