Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Not Resigned

One of the more controversial aspects of the controversy-saturated Common Core is the effort to infuse more non-fiction into the literature curriculum.   They're not adding more days to the school year, so when you welcome non-fiction aboard, some treasured fiction or drama has to walk the plank.  These compulsory sacrifices have led to bitter feelings among some English teachers.  The losses are unfortunate, but the necessity of purging the curriculum has always been part of the story of our discipline.  Thank goodness for that.  What a relief it was when I started teaching in 1990 that Silas Marner - a staple of the lit curriculum when I was in high school - was nowhere to be found in the Meadowcreek High School bookroom.   As for the increased presence of non-fiction in the literature classroom, count me among the already converted.  I’ve had the pleasure in recent years of teaching Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, Garry Wills’ Lincoln at Gettysburg, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, Henry Louis Gates’ Colored People, and Larry McMurtry’s Crazy Horse.   These books aren’t always to my students’ liking, but they are such rich texts, and non-fiction such a significant presence in the contemporary literary scene, that it seems imperative to take my students through books such as these.

The Wills book, a trenchant exploration of the intellectual and historical origins of the Gettysburg Address and the rhetorical qualities that characterize it, is one of my favorites.  I particularly like Wills’ section on evolving attitudes toward death in the mid 19th century (Perhaps the previous two sentences suggest why my students don't always like the non-fiction I choose, but we'll leave that alone).  Wills explains that the leaders of the so-called Rural Cemetery Movement, under the influence of Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists, endeavored to make cemeteries like parks, to locate them in lovely, pasture-like settings (as opposed to the usual gloomy churchyards) so as to make cemeteries not places of death but “schools for life.”  People who came to mourn the dead would see nature’s beauties – trees, flowers, etc. –, reflect on the ongoing circularity of life, and find their grieving mollified and their spirits invigorated.   As Wills puts it, “The associations of a picturesque rural site would instill healing truths of natural death and rebirth, in the cycle of seasons.”  Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta is a product of this thinking, as is Oconee Hill Cemetery in my hometown.  One can also hear such ideas in the Gettysburg Address (the Gettysburg National Cemetery, which he was dedicating, was itself designed according to the principles the Rural Cemetery Movement).   One of the motifs of that speech is life from death:  “those who gave their lives that this nation might live,” “from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause,” etc.    Attempting to rally his beleaguered nation to finish the fight, Lincoln - in a few brilliant rhetorical strokes - tapped into a hopeful philosophy that was not only circulating among the intelligentsia in his time but embodied in the very place where he was speaking 

The Rural Cemetery Movement was hugely influential, but not everybody accepts its premises.   For many Christians, to seek ultimate meaning in springtime flowers is to be in danger of disregarding an essential tenet of the faith.  In a brief essay on the Resurrection, Frederick Buechner writes, “We try to reduce [the Resurrection] to poetry: the coming of spring with the return of life to the dead earth, the rebirth of hope in the despairing soul. We try to suggest that these are the miracles that the Resurrection is all about, but they are not. In their way they are all miracles, but they are not this miracle, this central one to which the whole Christian faith points.”  I think Lincoln, who grieved so over the premature deaths of his sons, would probably concur with Buechner that a tree in blossom is not the empty tomb.

I came across another objection to the notion of cemeteries as places to find "healing truths" through another work of non-fiction that I teach, but in an indirect way.   With a colleague I have twice taught a short term course where my role is to lead our students through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Rebecca Skloot’s celebrated account of how a poor black woman’s endlessly replicating cancer cells have led both to revolutions in medical science and an ethical reckoning in the medical community about treatment of tissue donors.  This book is a great example of what can be special about non-fiction in the classroom.  I want my students to absorb and reflect upon the material from this text, but I also hope they learn from it something of what it is to let curiosity pull one deep into a subject, to master the subject, and to tell its story well.   This may be something that non-fiction teaches – implicitly – better than any other form. 

One of the key moments in Skloot’s book is when she gets her hands on a bootleg VHS tape of a BBC documentary about Henrietta Lacks and the story of her cells.   It is now available on youtube, of course.   The documentary and Skloot’s book both tell of a time in the sixties when researchers believed (erroneously, of course) that they were on the verge of discovering a "cancer virus" and that it would take just one big push to end cancer forever.  Part of the push was that staple of American mass effort, the star-studded telethon.   The documentary features clips from Crusade ‘67, hosted by Bing Crosby and featuring Sammy Davis, Jr., Jack Benny, and other late-sixties luminaries.  One of the most bizarre clips is of Joan Crawford, in all her "Mommie Dearest" over-the-topness, reciting part of a poem called “Dirge Without Music,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay.    

Once I got over my astonishment at Crawford's delivery I looked up the poem.  It stood out to me immediately as a defiant rejoinder to the philosophical acquiescence counseled by the Rural Cemetery Movement.   The speaker will not turn her thoughts from earth to heaven, and perhaps that is what I love about this poem, how directly it expresses the outrage of those who grieve, those who refuse to accept the existence of flowers as consolation for great loss:  

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains — but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

Monday, July 06, 2015

A Bald, Grotesque, and Unwarrantable Usurpation



In the summer of 2004 my cousin got married in Richmond, at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the very church where Jefferson Davis was worshipping in April of 1865 when a messenger from General Lee informed him that he needed to get while the getting was good.   It is a glorious old church, one whose current ministry does honor to contemporary Richmond. We were delighted that my cousin and her fiancé had chosen our two girls (then six years old) as ring bearers.  During the rehearsal my job was to keep our son (then two) from causing too much of a ruckus.  His wanderings led me around the periphery of the sanctuary, giving me a chance to examine up close St. Paul’s legendary stained glass windows.  The most impressive of them depicted the scene from Exodus in which young Moses renounces his upbringing in the house of Pharaoh to side with the oppressed Hebrews of his origin.  A text noted that the window had been commissioned many decades ago to honor Robert E. Lee.

I kept looking at the window and piecing together the analogy it was suggesting – “So Moses sided with the Hebrews, Lee sided with Virginia” – and my awe at the window’s beauty quickly gave way to another kind of awe, the awe we often feel when confronted with the audacity of Confederate apologists.   I wanted to stop the rehearsal and call everybody over to the window.  “Hey, y’all, check this out!   Look what they’re implying with this window.  These people think slaveholders were the captive Hebrews and Abraham Lincoln was Pharaoh and Robert E. Lee was Moses.  The oppressors are the victims.  WOW!” 

Of course I did NOT disrupt the rehearsal, but I have not forgotten that window as a window into the upside down ideology of those who would ennoble the Confederate cause, their determination, in the face of all evidence and logic, to mask the antebellum South’s essential criminality behind a façade of victimization and honor, even to sanctify it with a Biblical gloss.  If you have read even a few pages of a slave narrative it is difficult to stomach this stuff.  I came across it again recently at a concert on the square in Decatur, Georgia.  It was a beautiful spring evening.  A fun retro jazz band was playing lively tunes for a few hundred wine-sipping Decatur Bobos spread out comfortably on blankets and lawn chairs.   The location of our seats gave me a good view of one side of the monument to the Confederate fallen that sits before the old Dekalb County Courthouse.   The monument explains the motives of Confederate soldiers thusly: 

These men held that the states made the Union, that the Constitution is the evidence of the covenant, that the people of the state are subject to no power except as they have agreed, that free convention binds the parties to it, that there is sanctity in oaths and obligation in contracts, and in defense of these principles they mutually pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Yes, that’s all they had in mind.  They were a million genteel Ashley Wilkeses who were merely dismayed that the Yankees hadn’t followed the rules like honorable gentlemen.  Maintenance of involuntary servitude didn’t even enter into their thinking.  And maintenance of Jim Crow certainly didn’t enter into thinking of the folks who put up the monument.  Riiight.


The most visible contemporary manifestation of this effort to sanitize the permanently shameful has been the officially sanctioned, conspicuous display of the Rebel flag in public places, under the preposterous rationalization that such displays are about honoring Southern heritage and have nothing to do the slavery and segregation of the past or subtler forms of racial subjugation in our own time.  Thankfully, this practice appears to be ending at last, but it has gone on for years.  From 1956 until 2001, the Rebel flag was the most prominent part of our state flag in Georgia.  In 1993, with the Atlanta Olympics on the horizon and the state flag rapidly becoming not just a national but an international embarrassment, Governor Zell Miller made changing the flag part of his legislative agenda.   Things got hot.  Much of the debate centered on the motives of the (100% white) elected officials who had placed the Rebel flag on the state flag in 1956.  The flag’s defenders contended the Rebel flag was there to honor Confederate bravery – “heritage, not hate” as they say.  The flag’s opponents argued that the timing of the change – in the midst of the South’s resistance to Federal directives to end racial segregation – told us all we needed to know about why the Rebel flag found its way onto the state flag in 1956.  The Rebel flag’s supporters won in 1993 - it wasn’t until eight years later that it was finally eighty-sixed from our state flag.  But Zell’s 1993 appeal to the General Assembly to change the flag, failure though it was, still resonates:       

For four brief years - that's 1.5 percent of our state's entire history - Georgia was a member of the Confederate States of America. Yet it is the Confederacy's most inflammatory symbol that dominates our flag today. We all know why. And it has nothing to do with the bravery of the Confederate troops. You may quibble all you want about who said what in 1956. It is clear the flag was changed in 1956 to identify Georgia with the dark side of the Confederacy - that desire to deprive some Americans of the equal rights that are the birthright of all Americans, and yes, the determination to destroy the United States if necessary to achieve that goal . . . We maintain as a symbol of our state a flag that challenges the very existence of the United States of America. And a flag that exhibits pride in the enslavement of many of our ancestors.


When it comes to the matter of enslavement, Confederate apologists are fond of pointing out that most white Southerners, perhaps two thirds of them, did not own slaves.  Fair enough.  But it stands to reason that a great many of those non-slave owners aspired to be slave owners someday, given the economic status that ownership signified.  Moreover, considering the way things went down over the hundred years after slavery ended,  there is no way to plausibly argue that the great mass of  Southern whites were not heavily invested in a brutal system of white supremacy.

As for me, I don’t have to wonder whether any of my ancestors owned slaves.  I know.  A few years ago, one of my boredom-inspired late-night Google searches brought forth a troubling document.   Below are portions of the last will and testament of my great-great-great-great-great Grandfather (on my mother’s side), Pleasant Robertson, of Oglethorpe County, Georgia, recorded in 1859:

Third, I give and bequeath to the children of my son Elijah D. Robertson one seventh part of my estate for one mule heretofore advanced to their father valued at sixty dollars, also one hundred dollars - and also one Negro girl named Jane, advanced to his daughter Victoria valued at Three hundred and fifty dollars, in the distribution of their portion of my estate among themselves, and I hereby appoint G.G. Milner trustee for the said children of my son E.D. Robertson to take in hand their portion of my estate and see that it is distributed among them as before specified, as they may become of age or marry ---

Later:

Fifth, I give and bequeath to the children of my daughter Susan Milner and to the children together and borne of her body, one seventh part of my estate, requiring them to account to my estate for one Negro girl named Ann heretofore advanced to my daughter Susan Milner valued at three hundred and fifty dollars.

If you are a white person with deep roots in South (as I am), you probably suspect that if all the information about your ancestors were at hand, there would be something like this in it.   Some Robertson genealogist made my suspicions real, replacing the abstraction of slavery with real people, with names, with prices.  As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in his celebrated letter to his son, "Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh.  It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, who mind is as active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own . . . For this woman, enslavement is not a parable.  It is damnation.  It is the never-ending night.  And the length of that night is most of our history."  Yes.  And if I could read the wills of all my ancestors from that generation and the ones before it, I’m quite sure there would be more Janes and Anns for me to reckon with.  What am I to do with this knowledge?  Noting the date of the will, I could reflect with a smile that Jane and Ann’s days of bondage were about to end, but everyone knows that liberation did not lead to equality or security for freed slaves or their progeny. I could hope that Pleasant Robertson was a kind master, but Frederick Douglass taught me the cruel folly of trying to use the humane behavior of individual slaveholders to mitigate the moral taint of slaveholding.   I could tell myself – and I do – that my more immediate ancestors were forward-thinking and forward-behaving on race, atoning somewhat for my distant ancestor's participation in the “the bald, grotesque, and unwarrantable usurpation” that was slavery, as Mark Twain put it.  But that’s not enough.  I’m standing on the shoulders of all my ancestors, Pleasant Robertson among them, and my parents, progressive as they were, profited from white supremacy, notably in the well-funded segregated schools they attended.  They passed a legacy of privilege on to me.   I can keep Jane and Ann in mind in my daily interactions with African Americans and in my engagement with problems of racial injustice.   That may help.  I don’t know.  

I’m confident of this:  the very least I can do is never attempt to dignify or justify or excuse or sugarcoat the slaveholding of my ancestors. 

The idea that people like Pleasant Robertson were about “sacred honor” is hokum.   He was about keeping his $700 worth of Jane and Ann.