Monday, November 17, 2008

To Truman Capote

are you there?
Sometimes I hear
your next drink
sloshing in the shaker,
small ice crystals
frenzied in their swirl,
both numbing
and greasing at once.
An olive, Mr. Capote?
After all, where does a
mind like yours go
when a heart like yours
ceases to beat?
If I breathe deeply
enough, expanding
my nostrils for
maximum intake,
will one of the molecules
expelled by you find its way
into me?
Will I then be breathing in
a little of the Clutters,
a little more of Perry and Dick,
and some of the darkness you
carried with you to the end?
Though I don't have
94% recall, will some of you
bleed through my pen,
creating havoc on my yellow
legal pad?
If you could, Truman,
would you prime the pump
for me?
Unleash the words clogging
my brain, help them drip,
drip, drip into a pool of
wonder on the page.
I'll see your reflection
when I gaze upon it,
I promise.
In the meantime, Truman,
I'll continue to lead them
to the altar of you.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Liberty and Justice in American Literature

I'm going to have to change the way I teach ENG 295, Liberty and Justice in American Literature. For years, each new semester we've discussed the idea that every citizen of the United States isn't equally entitled to the pursuit of happiness, if at all. In the second section of the class, we undertake Toni Morrison's Beloved, a jazz-symphony of a novel about a woman, a family--in reality, a nation--haunted by slavery. Students are distressed by the brutal picture Morrison conjures for us, wincing visibly in class at the stories of children sold away from their broken mothers. We read sermons written by Northern clergymen, men of my God who used their Sunday preaching time to argue against the humanity of the slave. A little Countee Cullen, James Baldwin, and Langston Hughes takes us to Martin Luther King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail," and the long glass-topped wall built against civil rights that held fast into the turbulent '60s.

Being white, I can only imagine what Tuesday's election meant to African Americans, a people who have carried this legacy of sorrow on their shoulders for over a century. A point often raised in class is that we are so far removed from slavery--shouldn't we forget about it, move past it? I ask them then; how do we move past lynchings--Billie Holiday's heartbreaking "Strange Fruit," heat-swollen black bodies dangling from tree branches commemorated on "wish-you-were-here" picture post cards? Is it possible to move past segregation, the reality of grown white men hawking up their phlem to spit on a black pigtailed girl walking to her first day of classes in a new yellow dress? Can we move past three little girls wearing ankle socks and patent leather maryjanes who were blown literally to Kingdom Come in their place of worship because of their darker epidermis? Can we move past the ugly sneer of "damn niggers," ejected like a wad of clogging mucus from a tight-lipped, hateful face?

On Tuesday night, America made an attempt to crunch this nasty past with a twist of her heel. Barack O'Bama wasn't singularly elected by the African American population, after all. So many shades believed in his message of hope, a colorless hope, that our country leapt over the barricades, and we were one, all the past pain arching toward this one moment of true equality.

When I begin my lecture next semester in ENG 295, Liberty and Justice in American Literature, I will start not with the fact of Barack O'Bama's election, but with this story. A friend was awakened from her sleep the night of the 2008 Presidential election by a frenzied screaming, a crazed lament, a lathered repetition of icy words--"You fucking nigger, you'll never be my president!" Her neighbor's words were echoed by the metallic ring of a hammer used to nail a confederate flag to his deck. She was shocked at the ugliness of her neighbor's response, and the ugliness stuck to her heart, leaving a harsh handprint there.

There are other pockmarks in America's victory, angry warning signs that harken back to a darker past. On election night, my sixteen-year-old daughter engaged in a texting war with an Obama opposer, spitting logic across technology to counter thinly veiled racism. On the day after the election, emails describing Obama as the anti-Christ prophesized in the Book of Revelations clogged our inboxes. I can't tell you what those gross liberties in interpretation did to me as an English teacher or to our already sagging American dream.

This time in my literature class, the ugly story won't be where we end. This time we will end with a promise--albeit a promise undermined by a rumble of treachery, a possibly naive promise made by a majority seemingly indifferent to color, a clasping of so many hands across the great divide. Perhaps this tenuous unity will be enough to still the ugly voices.