The older I get, the more I need poetry. I need to read, hear, teach, write, and evangelize about it. I don’t know if it’s my age, or the years of teaching, or these more than just trying times. I’m not sure what makes me turn increasingly to volumes of poetry I read years ago and others that are brand new. I don’t know why I’m experiencing verse in a more physical, visceral, emotional way than I used to. It’s a little bit like a drug at this point, and I need my fix.
Enter Lesley Wheeler’s latest poetry collection, The State She’s In. Wheeler is a friend and colleague. We are close to the same age and live in the same state. And so, in many ways, the state her poetic voice is in is the same state I’m in. Even with my already very proximate relationship to this collection, the book surprised, delighted, and nourished me at every turn. I remember a French professor who said imperiously from her high teaching bank at the Sorbonne, “Mais ce livre est fantastique. C’est un must-read.” Unfortunate though it may be that I only remember her hilarious look and tone, and not the fantastic book itself, I want to adopt her same posture as I say to you all, glasses at the end of my nose, voice forceful, Wheeler’s book is a must-read.
When I read a single poem, I tend to perform close-reading: reading out loud; listening for rhyme and meter; understanding the flow from stanza to stanza; seeking words and images that repeat; coming to grips with poetic voice; deciding if the poem tends more towards metaphor or metonymy; slowly unraveling the theme. It’s a delicious savoring of an accomplished writer’s carefully wrought offering. It is a gift.
When I read a whole collection of poetry, I read it like a novel. The collection’s sections are chapters, the titles an invitation to keep moving. The poetic voice, so different from poem to poem or section to section, becomes like a shifting narrator, guiding me through the collection and giving an overall impression of its contents. I end up sensing the overall coherence of the work, the logic of the poet (and her editor) as she edits and compiles works drafted over time. When I finish the collection, I can almost narrate what happened, as if I had just read a plot-driven work.
This is not really how poetry should be read, and so I always go back to read the collection again—usually not in order. I pick poems and reread them, close-read them, seeking the lyricism, solace, humor—the focus I would normally lend to a single poem.
Last Thursday, I devoured Wheeler’s fifth poetry collection like I would a gripping novel. When I finished, I sat with the flow of blood, assonance, and indignation that marked the collection for me. I loved that each section was titled “Ambitions,” allowing the reader to think of the many ways—semantic, semiotic, musical—in which this word can map meaning. The poems that treat racial history, which in this state is also the racist present, are centered in the second “Ambitions” section and include “Blue Ridge,” “American Incognitum,” and the “Unremembered settlements” series, which disappears right before the reader’s eyes, effectively de-mapping the settlements of the Algonquians and Iroquois who lived in this state before it was a state. “John Robinson’s List, 1826” considers the enslaved persons owned by Lexington resident John Robinson. “Some of the entries hint at stories. Creasy, / 68, twenty dollars, but the note, / in a column usually blank, offers a hard ‘worth / nothing.’ The cursive relaxed but well-groomed.” The insistent enjambment moves the reader forcefully from real person to half-bared truth—the buying and selling of human beings, and the multiple erasures of their stories. Wheeler imagines lost stories without stealing voice, a feat she masters through careful archival work and an earned frustration with the state of race and gender where she lives.
Many of Wheeler’s poems present the blood of erased peoples, the reality of invisible people, the frustration and indignation of collective existence snuffed out. It is no accident that many of the poems in the third “Ambitions” section are dated 2016. Together, these poems decry the ever-increasing power of an-almost president who, down the line, would be impeached. “Bleeding on the street’s not too good for her, / thinks forty-plus percent of my broken / country. The liar calls her liar and the smear / sticks. After all, horror’s ordinary. The thirteen-/year-old boy just killed for holding a BB gun. / An an open-mouthed woman—well, blood’s her career” (“Inside Out”). The blood of racial violence and the blood of the vagina dentata, presumed mysterious, dangerous, and unworthy. In “Inappropriate,” Wheeler writes, “…Just her bad / inhospitable secret vagina, delivering plans. / Can’t see what she’s got up there’s / what they can’t stand.”
The poet weaves these themes through artfully wrought poetic forms, with evocations of the natural world reminding the reader to breathe—to activate the senses in order to sort through the themes (to experience the meshing of forma y fondo [form and meaning]). Wheeler writes with an urgency about pain and passages as she considers collective metamorphosis and personal, intimate transitions. I was particularly moved by “Pushing Toward the Canopy,” which appears towards the end of the collection. The allusions to trees, branches and leaves, and then to “water, water” are gently astounding and combine with the profound “I” of the poem, who asks at the end, “What do I want, if not dirt and rain / and friends who turn to me and wave?” As does the whole collection, this poem communicates both vulnerability and power, and, for those of us living decades in small towns, it reminds us of the intensity of union and disjuncture as life unfolds, as we “push towards the canopy.”
I loved this collection in part because it recalled the interstices of anger and frustration of my joints and tissues. It reminded me of political outcry and resistance and of gentle community-building—the to-and-fro of denouncing evil-doing and attempting to model something like radical love. C’est un must-read.
In Gender Shrapnel, I highlight the ways in which harassment accumulates without our noticing the steps along the way. I talk about how we absorb harassment for weeks, months, maybe years, and then experience high-consciousness, or “last-straw” moments. During these last-straw moments, we look back and string together all the harassment events and all the symbols that accompany them. We put it all together, we synthesize and analyze and, yet, we can go through this cycle repeated times. Our resilience allows us to take the blow and carry on, kind of like forgetting the pain of childbirth or setting aside trauma.
This month’s “blue wave” in Virginia, which, for the first time in 26 years, boasts Democratic control of all sectors of state government (WAMU; The Atlantic; Salon; The Washington Post) has happened in the White House’s backyard. Serving as a possible bellwether for other state elections and the 2020 national elections, Virginia has thumbed its collective nose at the President and the prostrate GOP. These weeks since November 5th have brought blue euphoria and, I believe, red revenge. We are on the node of built-up harassment and resultant resilience. November has been the month of impeachment hearings, clear-as-day proof that Trump ordered Giuliani to negotiate to hold back hundreds of millions of state-approved aid to serve Trump and his reelection aspirations for 2020, and noble testimony from respected and respectful state officials like Fiona Hill and Marie Yovanovitch. November has signaled our national divisions.
November has reminded me that we Democrats should be at a last-straw moment. We should have had enough, more than enough, by now. Each careful little step, each overly cautious accusation in the face of real harm, each mostly uncelebrated victory. Barack Obama was belittled and threatened and attacked, and the GOP chose to undermine every common-good initiative of his platform. Hillary Clinton was harassed and trolled and threatened, blamed for all that Trump was actually engaging in at the time, told repeatedly and menacingly that she’d be locked up, and then, in essence, she was. These messages and actions told Democrats that we were too black and too woman and too caring of our neighbors and countrypeople, that we too should be locked up. We were told not to tread, not to tread at all, because there is punishment for stepping out of line in a white, male, cis, hetero supremacist nation.
Don’t tread on me. That’s what about one-sixth of the license plates in my state tell me. The license plates peer out from the back of giant trucks that take up more than half the road and more than a single parking spot. The giant trucks tread on everything, everywhere they go, imperiously declaring their greater size and might. The Don’t Tread On Me trucks roll through the streets like tanks, claiming their right to everything, their willingness to fight, for their God-given right, to dictate and rule. They are not asking to foment and share in democratic principles.
“Don’t tread on me” is the motto of the Gadsden Flag, described in thisThe New Yorker piece as “a favorite among Tea Party enthusiasts, Second Amendment zealots—really anyone who gets riled up by the idea of government overreach.” The great irony here is that Tea Party enthusiasts have paved the way for ultimate Trump control of the GOP, and Second Amendment zealots allow for the gigantic NRA lobby to have a major hand in government rule. “Don’t tread on me” ethos actually has brought major government overreach. Tariffs on China, withheld aid for Ukraine, immigration policy, prohibitions on women’s bodily autonomy, and ever more limited rights for the LGBTQ community all come to mind as particularly heavy-handed government control.
Here in Virginia, red counties are pushing for so-called “Second Amendment sanctuary” resolutions, through which counties pledge to defy any new common-sense gun legislation coming out of Richmond in 2020. This past Monday night in Rockbridge County, dozens and dozens of people lobbied the Board of Supervisors for just such a resolution. I feel tread upon, and I think that is the desired effect. We Virginia progressives are supposed to feel punished for a resounding November victory.
The Virginia Tech campus massacre happened in 2007. In 2017, Charlottesville witnessed a group of armed people overtake its downtown and kill a peaceful protester, while white supremacists marched and chanted, “You will not replace us.” The Virginia Beach shooting took place in May of this year. “You will not replace us” is another way of saying “don’t tread on me,” especially when the Second Amendment arms people to the teeth and allows them to increase their own threatening footprint.
On this day in this month of November in this state of Virginia, I want us to let go of “don’t tread on me” threats and the “you will not replace us” chants. I want us to prioritize how we can walk together, tread together, towards common-sense gun legislation, stronger education reforms, and greater civil rights for all.
Over the past three years, the Groping Old President and his Groveling Old Party have sown so much discord, chaos, and danger that we are now reminding each other “to focus on what’s important,” to “not get distracted” by the latest illegal comments and behaviors of the man who stole the White House. This is both good and misleading advice. Good, in that political resistance to Trump must rely on documented facts, data, and coordinated resistance efforts focused on the actions placing the greatest number of people in danger. Misleading, in that every so-called “distraction” also represents an illegal speech-act and/or behavior of the Groping Old President. As a person who has researched and written copiously on harassment and assault, I hear every utterance and read every tweet of the White House occupant as an accountant tallies debits and credits. The accumulation of racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic (combined with numerous other –isms and phobias) behaviors amounts to a pattern of harassing behavior by the most visible workplace supervisor in the most iconic workplace of the United States.
We should not be distracted from recognizing our border policies as crimes of the highest order: separation of families; isolation of children; children in cages; rape and molestation of migrants and refugees; deprivation of basic needs; denial of legal services. The concentration camps created by the White House occupant and supported by the GOP make us a brutal and punishing nation. These concentration camp gurus complement their crimes at the border with ICE raids. We must remember that targeted raids, round-ups, and concentration camps were the cornerstone of the Third Reich. At a family party three years ago, I called Trump a fascist, evoking the ire of family members for my too-heightened rhetoric. Well, here we are, three years later, with a president whose fascism becomes more textbook with each act and utterance. The United Nations has appropriately weighed in on the human rights abuses enacted in the country that claims to be the strongest democracy in the world. When Trump says about Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayana Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib, “Why don’t they go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came,” he is unwittingly describing his country, the United States of America, as “a broken and crime infested place.” Yes, that’s one fact he has right after three years of the destruction he has wrought.
We should not be distracted from the fact that Trump lost the battle over the citizenship question on the 2020 Census and wants us to forget that he lost. Of course, his unconstitutional attempts to add it brought him some success, in that some people had to respond in the test census and many people fear responding at all at this point.
(*Read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends. An Essay in Forty Questions.)
We should not be distracted from criminal justice reform, needed more acutely than ever to decolonize, deracialize, and decriminalize, and to restore full humanity and rights to all peoples. Here is just a small sampling of the challenges and injustices of “living while black,” published by CNN.
(*Watch Ava Duvernay’s Selma and 13th. Read Jesmyn Ward’s edited collection, The Fire This Time. Read Ta-Nehisi Coates. Read Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy.)
Three years ago at this time, we learned of the Access Hollywood tape. We learned that the GOP candidate articulated rapist desires and revealed a rapist past. Russia and the GOP elected him anyway, and now we have a criminal in the White House whose rap sheet is as long as were Mueller’s days investigating him. While we’re at it, let us not forget that Mueller will testify on July 24th. In Gender Shrapnel in the Academic Workplace, I link sexual and racial harassment to assault, stating that if we don’t address damaging behavior on the harassment end, then we will never address criminal behavior on the rape-assault end of the spectrum. Trump’s Access Hollywood tape already told us everything we needed to know about how his tenure in the White House would go. By election time, he had already harassed Miss Universe participants, Rosie O’Donnell, Carly Fiorina, and Hillary Clinton. This list includes, up to 2017, “every offensive comment in one place.” In this month alone, July of 2019, the criminal has harassed Megan Rapinoe and the United States World Cup Soccer Champion team and Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, Pressley, and Tlaib. The harassment is intersectional, based on race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Trump is Trump, and he is also the company he keeps (Roger Ailes, Roger Stone, Jeffrey Epstein, Billy Bush, and the list goes on and on).
We have all the data we need. For any workplace in the United States, this documentation would be more than sufficient for bringing a Title VII case. It is time, way past time, to initiate impeachment proceedings. I have never cared if it is politically expedient to impeach, thinking that impeachment is simply the right thing to do. At this point, impeachment seems both politically expedient and the right thing to do. Representative John Lewis tweets: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way. #goodtrouble.” Impeachment might just be the “good trouble” we need.
Let us not be distracted from any of these profound injustices, explicit crimes, and dangerous words and actions. It is time to act.
My Spanish 240 students and I just read Pablo Neruda’s poem “Explico algunas cosas,” remarking on the poet’s call to the world to see the bloodshed on Spanish soil during the Spanish Civil War, the three-year struggle that would define the violence and alliances of World War II. We commented on the title, literally translated as “I explain/I’m explaining some things,” but perhaps more aptly saying this, “I’ve got a few things to say,” or, “I’m putting some things on the table,” or even, “Listen up, people, there’s some bullshit in the world.” I love this poem’s no-nonsense title, and I am particularly grateful for an era in which a poem’s verses can move people, groups, and nations to think and act.
Over the past two or three weeks, I have had several luxuries in my own little town and little time to sort through my impressions and opinions surrounding them. This blog post is simply about getting a few things on the table, trying to understand my own reactions to the brilliant and creative work I have heard delivered or performed live in this short time.
I have heard Joy Harjo read her poetry, establishing voice and cadence and connection to the past and to Oklahoma, lamenting colonization and genocide and the willful ignorance surrounding these purposeful conquests. She highlighted the Monacan Indian Nation as an important part of Virginia history. As I sprinted from Harjo’s reading to Rebecca Traister’s presentation focused on her book, Good and Mad. The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, I thought again about how poetry packs a wallop, how it doesn’t have to be angry to show anger, how it doesn’t have to say, “This bullshit happened again,” to communicate that the bullshit did indeed happen again. As I jumped into the Traister talk, I was struck by how the author’s style changed when she moved from her prepared remarks to speaking off-the-cuff. Her prepared remarks slowed things down, stated an academic case, supported it with evidence. When she spoke off-the-cuff, which really was not off-the-cuff but rather a brilliant demonstration of how much Traister holds in her head and how quickly she constructs the most lucid of arguments, you saw Traister allow the fire and anger to emerge. You saw her live the academic argument she has made so often. You saw her fatigue and frustration forged into smart fury, each comment building to the next, each example eliciting knowing nods from most of the audience.
As I walked from Traister’s talk to a group discussion of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, I sorted through how anger works in, for, and against me. Anger shows on my face (friends often remind me that, even if I’m silent, people can actually still see my face), knots in my belly, and pumps blood through my body. It drives me to a clear outline of the points I’m mad about and forces me to take some kind of action. I’m sure it works against me in a whole host of ways that I don’t usually slow down long enough to analyze or to halt. I arrived at the building where the book discussion was scheduled and laughed out loud thinking of my daughter when she was about four years old. We had been at a 4th of July fair until too late. She was in a tie-dye dress, had red, white, and blue popsicle stains across her face, and wild curls across her head. She was four, and she was pissed. When we got home, and I was drawing a bath for her, she stood over me imperiously and announced that she was mad, mad for three reasons. “Number one,” she yelled, index finger in the air. “You didn’t let me cross the street by myself.” “Number two,” she continued, new finger up and waving in my face. “I wasn’t allowed to have another popsicle.” Third finger up, the trifecta of her ire. “And, number three. I am NOT taking a bath.” I watched anger galvanize her thoughts and her forceful articulation of them. I remembered thinking, “Yep, apple, tree, and all that.”
The White Fragility discussion challenged those of us who were present. I realized immediately that I often approach social events and community gatherings too much as an academic. I wanted to talk about the book—what I liked, what I didn’t, what I had learned, what I still needed to know, what my weaknesses are—and had little patience for those who just wanted to talk about the issue. I was still in Good and Mad mode and had to let it go and just listen. The next hour and a half reinforced for me the fatigue people of color must experience as they hear iteration after iteration of white people coming to terms with their own racism, sometimes in the most stroking and least aware of ways. It also reinforced the challenge of living at various intersections and having to watch this play out in many different contexts every day. Nevertheless, it is also clear that working in and as community means living these iterative processes and hoping that, slowly but surely, we are circling back to a more advanced point in our development.
Three nights ago, many of us heard the story of the 8-person local group who traveled to Tijuana in December to offer legal aid to migrants at the border. The group provided excellent information on international human rights, immigration law, asylum procedures, and specifics about migration through Central America, Mexico, and the U.S. They also shared the ways in which they were struck by, undone by, worried about, tenderly addressing all the need and tension and preoccupation about further separation and economic hardship. A colleague talked about being touched again by the power of the law and the need to help people shape their narratives. As the whole group discussed the “credible fear” interviews for asylum, I could not stop thinking about the additional credible fears our own country has created through detention, separation, and general dehumanization. An excellent lunchtime presentation yesterday about the forthcoming documentary film The Burning allowed me to draw parallels between the migrant and refugee crisis in Morocco, Algeria, and Libya and the one addressed by the Tijuana group. The mighty hypocrisy of it all, the unnecessary trauma of it all. We are living this vaivén, this back-and-forth between evil enacted by powerful people and desire for good brought about by people on the ground.
Two nights ago, again on campus, I joined a packed house to watch BlackkKlansman. I saw most, but not all of the film, but thought it was incredibly powerful in its unflinching portrayal of racism and its institutions, of hatred of an entire race, layered with profound anti-Semitism and misogyny. I hope to hear about the discussion after the film. Maybe it was a few steps ahead of the white fragility discussion of a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, across town at our local public schools, some great and worrisome events have taken place. The high school boasts a state champion, Danielle Crawford, in the shot put and the state championship academic team (I can’t yet find a link announcing this), along with outstanding performances in the state championships by several swimmers. At the same time, though, the high school had planned to hold one of its few assemblies for the whole school. The assembly, just now scrapped, but only due to some necessary consciousness-raising, was to feature a preacher named Bob Holmes, who sees public schools as “mission fields,” hopes to guide students to Jesus, and states that girls who have been raped can find forgiveness from Jesus. A local middle school also this week witnessed one of its teachers making racist and sexist remarks to a student.
There is so much work being done, and so much work still before us. Of course, as a nation, we have also just witnessed the theater of the absurd of the GOP defense of Trump through their attack on Cohen. The racist, conman, and cheat-in-chief continues to exercise his white supremacist, misogynist, dictator power. The more we “explicamos algunas cosas,” the more cosas there seem to be. In the meantime, I am profoundly grateful to the many people across the globe who are finding ways to ask us to see the bloodshed on our lands and do something about it.
Let me start with the active shooter who last night roamed the halls of my father’s assisted living facility, and then we’ll see how much more “all of it” I can cover.
Last night a gunman shot two people at the Pennsylvania retirement community/assisted living facility where my father lives. The news reported his “active shooter status,” which remained in effect for hours. The assassin killed his parents, who lived in the apartment across from the one where my dad’s best friend lives. Let me repeat: an active shooter took two lives last evening and moved freely through this assisted living facility.
There is more to the story, of course, besides my siblings’ and my anguish about our 84-year-old dad being alone in his apartment, unaware of what was going on in the hallway outside, and not schooled in the world of text messages. The gunman had first gone to the home of his ex-wife, shot at her in her driveway (he did not succeed in killing her), and then proceeded to the retirement home/assisted living facility to kill his parents. It turns out he had received divorce papers yesterday. Here we are, then: yet another incident involving a man angry at a woman and attempting to control her—her decisions and her physical movements–through profound violence and supported by—let’s just say armed by—his country’s love of guns. (*See this Gender Shrapnel Blog post on gun violence.)
We know it is all linked: the hatred of women, and especially of women who make their own choices, and the need to control those women through violence, often sexual violence, often murder; the hatred of people of color, any person of color doing any daily action in any private or public space, and the need to control people of color through violence; the Islamophobia directly fomented by United States’ leaders and the careful, steady encouragement of U.S. Christian heteropatriarchy (yes, I went there); the dog whistles and direct calls to violence against women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and non-Christians; the reduction of full human beings to less than human beings through violence enacted on their bodies; the love affair with the NRA lobby and guns, guns, guns; the KKK; the United States government. We have rapists, abusers, and/or harassers in all three branches of the government, that’s how thorough we are. One simple and startlingly tragic headline exemplifies our nation’s fascism: “Detention of Migrant Children Has Skyrocketed to Highest Levels Ever” (reported on 9-12-18 in The New York Times). Read this paragraph from the article, and take special notice of the word “quietly”: “Population levels at federally contracted shelters for migrant children have quietly shot up more than fivefold since last summer, according to data obtained by The New York Times, reaching a total of 12,800 this month. There were 2,400 such children in custody in May 2017.” I think “quietly” translates to “chillingly.”
I usually try to write in measured tones in this blog. I like having readers of all sensibilities (who love curse words, who hate them, who believe it’s worth it to reach across the aisle, who think that’s folly, who identify in many different and open ways, who choose no labels, etc.). I have no measured tones to offer today, though. Boiling mad, hopping mad, flummoxed, frustrated, exhausted, yes, these terms all work. But I am also absolutely fucking seething about the state of things right now. I am fucking seething at the goddamned patience too many people are demonstrating.
Enough people have already written far better than I can on Brett Kavanaugh’s bid for the Supreme court and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s bravery in coming forward to make sure the U.S. public understands the kind of person he is. (*See for example this op-ed by Anita Hill and this performance by Samantha Bee; I also want to recommend this piece by David Roberts for its appeal to “dudes” and its nuanced explanation of #MeToo.) By the way, make sure to see Samantha Bee’s clip of Kavanaugh joking around in 2015 (that’s three years ago, not 36, for you folks paying attention at home) that “what happens at Georgetown Prep stays at Georgetown Prep, and that’s good.” I have written on a few occasions on Trump and Thomas (for example, here) and our not-so-subtle ability as a nation to get rapists and harassers into the highest offices of the land (for example, here and here), rewarding them for their many outstanding contributions to the Christian heteropatriarchy.
In the meantime, Serena Williams also had to apologize again for being a black woman in a white space. It was not enough for the French Open men and women to infantilize Williams by, as my high-school-aged children would say, “dress-coding her.” Then the U.S. Open officials also had to attempt to force obedience through unexplained point and game penalties, a $17,000 fine, and a press conference in which Williams could address only the gender disparity in behavior expectations and not the race disparity. (See Claudia Rankine’s Citizen for a full analysis of this, as well as her op-ed in The New York Times.) I say this all the time, and I do not know how it strikes women of color when I do, but Jesus Christ, what privilege I have to manage only the gender piece. There is such weight, such unrelenting weight to bear. Hurray for Serena Williams, and hurray for Naomi Osaka, too. They both kick freaking ass.
On my own campus, we continue to play nice with racism, refusing to make any serious progress on the recommendations made so thoughtfully in the wake of the August, 2017, events of Charlottesville by the Commission on Institutional History and Community. We are so patient and so nice with the people who still really like our institution’s legacy of slavery, demonstrated through such hallowed names as George Washington, Robert E. Lee, and John Robinson, names that identify the school and are celebrated on many of its buildings. As the recumbent Lee lies in state in the back part of the altar of Robert E. Lee Chapel, we count on invitations to esteemed speakers of color to disrupt the white, sacrosanct monumentality of it all, rather than taking steps ourselves to dismantle the space for university functions. Oh, it’s so nice to be nice, isn’t it? Such a relief? Nothing like again using the bodies of people of color to do the work that can and should be done by white people.
Please know that I am not saying that all members of my community are idle in the possibility of real change. Quite the opposite is true. Good people are tackling these issues from many different angles, expressing their views in sensitive ways, and insisting upon a change that just seems too long to come.
There are real and metaphorical active shooters on the loose, and the level of vigilance required takes its toll. How many of these good, thoughtful people inhabit bodies that are less healthy than they were two years ago? As we battle the criminality and utter lack of ethical standards of our nation’s leaders, how can we also find time to take care of ourselves and each other? This question is plaguing many groups of which I am a part, and I believe there are few ready answers. The only thing I know to do is to keep at it, all of it.
Major Stonewall Jackson and his sister Laura had a disagreement, the Stonewall Jackson House guide tells us. Laura stayed with West Virginia, she supplies reluctantly. When I ask directly if Laura was a Unionist, the reply is snapped back, Yes, she was. Now, can you please open that door and direct us back to the foyer?
Although I’ve lived more than half my life in the United States South and my two children were born in none other than Stonewall Jackson Hospital, my Philadelphia accent and blunt demeanor usually give me away as a Yankee. The soft, drawn-out syllables of the guide remind me again that I’m an intruder, a carpetbagger. Stonewall Jackson’s home is not mine. Su casa no es mi casa, even after decades of life in Virginia.
It’s much easier to navigate the silences of other countries’ civil wars. Without a grandfather thrown inhumanely into a common grave or a great-aunt forced into exile, you read avidly about the two sides of the war: atrocities, political motivations, tremendous loss of life, depths of economic crisis, despair. You care deeply about what you read and learn about others’ civil wars, and you even take sides, but you can’t claim true blood-involvement or kin-cache. Despair—desperation—the emptying out of hope. In Spanish esperar, a loaded verb, means to hope, to wait for, and to expect. Is civil war somehow the opposite of hoping, waiting for, and expecting?
I’ve been researching, writing about, and teaching the Spanish Civil War for two and a half decades. This three-year war set the stage, in a bone-chilling way, for World War II. Francisco Franco infamously sold off a Basque town, Guernica, to Adolf Hitler and his murderous bombs, while the Republican army, supported in part by Russia, struggled mightily to get aid from the future Allies. The war inspired thousands of writers to attempt to capture the global political shift, the absurdities of warfare, and the violence and loss in one little European country. Even before the war, Dolores Ibárruri (la “Pasionaria”), famous Communist labor organizer from the northern Asturias region of Spain, was penning memorable radio broadcasts, which would later be aired clandestinely and then archived carefully by the Communist Party.
Monumental Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s life neatly frames a cataclysmic era in Spanish history—his birth in 1898, when Spain lost the last of its colonies and could no longer call itself an empire, and his death in 1936, when Francisco Franco’s forces were sweeping through the south of Spain and stopped right outside of Granada to murder an outstanding poet and playwright who was “out.” García Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba, which debuted the same year as the Spanish Civil War, forcefully captures a society’s fear of beauty, passion, non-conformity, and change and presages the claustrophobic enclosure imposed by Franco in the early years of his regime. César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and George Orwell are just a few of the non-Spanish writers who wrote so movingly of the war, during the war. No one can forget Neruda’s call: “Venid a ver/la sangre en las calles/Venid a ver la sangre en las calles” (“Come to see/the blood in the streets/Come to see the blood in the streets”). And then to think that iconic Spanish poet Antonio Machado fled to France in 1939 to protect himself from the violent reprisals of the Franco victors, only to find that France, also now complicit with Hitler, was no longer a safe haven. Some people say that Franco killed García Lorca and left Machado to die. These legendary figures reveal a nation unafraid to make heroes of its teachers and its literati. They also make it easy to understand Spaniards’ deep connections to their literary and political pasts.
The many authors who wrote during the Franco regime from the shadows and out of the silences of the Spanish Civil War float across Spain’s postwar landscape. They portray familial violence, death and loss, extreme hunger, the emptying-out of the small pueblos into the big cities, and fear, lots of fear. Their own battles with the official censor speak through and around the edges of their fictional works, so fiercely populated by armed guards and frightened, tiptoeing almost-citizens. These authors—both the ones who remained in Spain and those who went into decades of exile—are the pallbearers of the Second Republic. In the literary coffins they put into the world we find dashed hopes of the separation of church and state, the voting booths that wouldn’t be needed for 36 years, women’s rights, open education, hope for laborers. These notions lie alongside the very real skeletons of the mass graves that would be exhumed well into the new millennium, when it was finally time to excavate for DNA and silence.
As a non-Spaniard, I, too, have been drawn into this narrative of change, of grand potential for peace, love, and literature—and how it was removed from its cradle in an increasingly violent world.When I teach the Spanish Civil War to classes in the United States, I usually have students from Mexico or Venezuela whose grandparents or great-grandparents were forced to leave Spain right after the war and then forged new lives in exile. I have other students who have lived for a time in Spain, whose “madres españolas” complain of a lack of order and respect in today’s Spain and express a longing for the “order” imposed by the Generalísimo. Inevitably, the students are pulled in by their familial links (by filiation or affiliation, as literary critic Sebastiaan Faber writes), the unfortunate attraction of atrocity, the international character of the conflict, the social, political, and religious implications, and, most of all, the impact of loss, love, and silence that seems to linger through several generations.
Somehow, I’m at home with the Spanish Civil War.
Although I had studied my own country’s civil war in middle and high school, I didn’t give it enough thought until I saw, on the first day of my first year of college in Charlottesville, Virginia, a large Confederate flag hanging on the wall of a first-year student in a neighboring dorm. I am white and from Philadelphia, Betsy Ross land, and, while I had seen various versions of the 13-star flag, I had never seen a Confederate flag “live” before. Being white brings with it many spoken and unspoken privileges, as we know all too well in “this land of milk and honey” (Grandmaster Flash), and one of them must be that I was able to scoff at the Confederate flag, to write it off as a relic, a silly recollection of a loss, a weak rendering of bygone days. But then I started to realize how that flag’s weight distributed itself across the campus—in its code of civility, the Kappa Alpha tradition of the “Old South” gala, deep networks of money and power, and daily contradictions in the very figure of Thomas Jefferson himself. While I naively appreciated neoclassical, Enlightenment ideals of education for all, public libraries, and predictable architecture, I also felt beneath those Jeffersonian layers, emerging from the orderly, white columns, a Confederate embrace—something of a warm, inner-circle hug that I could sense but not join. And certainly black friends of mine were even more distanced from that white man’s embrace. Being poor kept me out of the inner circle, but being white certainly brought privilege.
Two years later, when I became a Resident Assistant in a dorm known as one of the most Southern on campus, a fellow RA and I walked down the first-floor hallway and saw not just a large Confederate flag on the wall of one of the residents, but a large Confederate flag with nooses hung on either side of it. The shock I had felt two years before shot exponentially through my body, as the starkest possible link of Confederate flag with race-based murder somehow blithely decorated an 18-year-old’s walls. I froze, staring at this scary-ass symbolism, and slowly realized that my fellow RA, a black student from Washington, D.C., had run, run away from this display and the idea that he would live for the next year right down the hall from it and its owner. Even if the display were to be removed (as it was), its ghost remained, floating menacingly through the halls and insinuating its race-based threat.
This is my country’s civil war.
Twenty years ago, when I moved to Lexington, Virginia, I understood that Thomas Jefferson’s analog here was Robert E. Lee. His legacy was everywhere—street names, yearly celebrations in his honor, the Robert E. Lee Museum in the campus chapel, quotes on fraternity t-shirts, and, again, Confederate flags decorating the “recumbent Lee” in the Chapel. I started reading the stones and placards and obelisks on and around campus—all to men who, as a friend framed it, “had gotten their asses kicked in the Civil War.” I had lived in the South at that point for a good number of years and had grappled with Mason-Dixon cultural differences and my own biases. In part, moving to the south had galvanized my own liberal sense of self—my awareness about race, religion, gender, sex—and had challenged me to sift through what could be cherished, combatted, left alone, or discarded in my new culture. I cherish the landscape and the local pride in it. I combat the blind adherence to tradition and the love of the status quo. I try to understand (and come to grips with my own hypocrisies about) why friends and neighbors love to hunt. And often I must discard—the constant barrage of racist, sexist, locally produced text whose content is morbidly predictable.
I always come back to Lexington’s hero Stonewall Jackson as a strangely compelling symbol of a politics of defensiveness. This man, celebrated as a war hero and strategist, was shot by his own troops when he had gone on a re-con mission and told them to shoot anything they saw.
I met Laura Jackson Arnold at her brother’s house on Washington Street, but barely. The guide so insisted on everything Thomas (“Stonewall”) Jackson that it was hard to find Laura there at the house. Laura seemed to be everything Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was not. It seemed that, while Thomas was slow to learn and dull to others’ ways, Laura was quick as a whip and notably perceptive about the world. Folks said that Thomas was always the last in his class, but that severe self-discipline and handy connections helped him to find a place in his college class, a commission in the army, and not one, but two, women to agree to marry him (at different times, of course). Thomas muddled along to prove himself competent for and worthy of the posts and spouses awaiting him, while perhaps his sister Laura was busy reading every book in the family library. I imagine her learning the natural sciences (she did become a nurse) and mastering French. Maybe she also learned to play the harp and gave serious thought to the politics of the day.
When I first encountered Laura, I saw her as the firecracker of the family, and I understood right away that no one—not Thomas and Laura’s parents, not Thomas’s teachers, not the local church preacher, not the stern family friends—would pay Laura enough mind to perceive the differences between her and her increasingly famous brother. Thomas was The One, The Chosen One, The Military Officer, The Church Deacon, The College Professor. Nevertheless, Laura watched her brother scrape his way up the ladder from 99th (out of 99) in his military school class to 17th (out of 59; can you say ‘attrition’?). Thomas also lobbied his friend the minister to allow him—finally—to read in church, as he believed was his due. Reluctant to acquiesce to this uncomfortable social request for a favor, the minister subtly told Thomas that he was a weak reader and would have to work on his style. I imagine Laura knowing the minister would give in, knowing that Thomas’s dull, dutiful voice would get its day in the sun every single Sunday in that stark, cavernous, greystone Virginia church. Laura watched Thomas give gifts that he himself wished to have—pedestrian, fairy-tale blue-sky paintings of children in school and of children praying together. He gave these gifts to loved ones, and they remained in his home for him and all to see.
Laura’s Bible seemed to be just such a gift. Thomas could have given her oilcloth, an item she dearly needed, but he insisted on the Bible. It might have been something he believed his wayward sister needed, but it seemed something she didn’t want. That extra-large, old, leather-bound holy book inscribed by her brother and intended for her was never actually delivered to Laura’s hands—yet another of Thomas’s gifts for others that was tagged for (and by) Thomas himself.
In Thomas’s house, where I met Laura, few talked of Laura. I learned of Thomas, his two wives, the infant children buried nearby, the enslaved people owned by Thomas, his teachers, his minister, his students and neighbors, even his physician, but very little about his sister Laura. Laura’s life exists in the opposite spaces of Thomas’s—not like a chessboard, where the black makes the white more visible and the white throws the black into sharp relief; not like the Ying/Yang symbol where the one so clearly relies on the other; not even like the sun and the moon, where one illuminates the day and the other the night. No. Laura’s opposite spaces are shadowy, dusty corners covered over by the muted reds of the centuries-old wall-to-wall carpeting of that house on Washington Street. Even today, 155 years after the death of Thomas and 107 years after the death of Laura, Laura’s name in that house is a whisper.
The Stonewall Jackson House foyer leads to the gift shop, where Major Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson is celebrated as a sort of small-town, Main Street muse. You can buy replicas of his letters, uniforms, and photographs. You can visit the small kitchen of his house to see the plastic representations of the breads, cakes, and pies that Major Jackson was too stern, and maybe too hypochondriac, to eat. The gift shop even has a Dover Thrift Edition of a coloring book titled Famous Women of the Civil War. But you can’t find Laura—not in the coloring book, not in the house, not in most histories of the United States Civil War.
That Bible intended for Laura, the holy book that sits in the family dining room of the house on Washington Street, holds tight the Stonewall signature dedicated to his upstart sister. There exists a copy of a rather quotidian letter from Thomas to Laura, in which he exhorts her to take good care of herself:
April 16, 1860
My dear Sister,
I have been desiring to write to you for some time, but have been prevented from doing so. I am sorry to learn that your eyes trouble you so much. I wish you would try the simple remedy of washing them with cold water, lifting the water to the face in both hands and washing the face until a little water gets into the eyes and they commence smarting. Do this at night just before going to bed, and again immediately after getting up. I hope that you are improving, and that Mr. Arnold is likewise. Anna is suffering from a very bad cold. She has been confined to her bed for nearly a week, but is up this afternoon…
I hope that the children are all doing well. Anna joins me in love to you all.
Your affec. Brother Thomas
This same website tells us that a Pennsylvanian Cavalry officer recounts that Laura is saddened by the news of her brother’s death in May of 1863, but that she would rather know that he was dead than to have him a leader in the rebel army. Laura Jackson Arnold: faithful nurse to the Union soldiers, mother of four, honorary member of the Society of the Army of West Virginia, affectionately named “Mother of the Regiment” of the 5th West Virginia Cavalry. We in Lexington aren’t allowed to learn of her abolitionist leanings.
The Bible didn’t even become a ghostly representation of Laura’s and Thomas’s fraternal relationship, for Laura cut ties with her Confederate brother and, later, with her unsupportive husband. One of the few women known to have formally divorced in the late 1800’s, Laura knew her mind. She would serve the Union and care for Union soldiers until the end of the war or her life, whichever came first. Her steadfast devotion to the Union was one element in her permanent split from both her brother and her husband. A local Beverly, West Virginia, attorney said this of Laura (also from the Civil War Women blog): “Mrs. J. Arnold—sister of Gen. Jackson—went off with the Yankees. Arnold stayed at home, says he is a good southern man, that his wife is crazy, but Hell he says, could not govern a Jackson.” I want to meet Mrs. J. Arnold for real, see a statue to her, know what she ate for breakfast, understand how she became a nurse, learn what her children called her, find out what kind of artwork she liked, research her religious preferences. I want her to have a grave and a statue and a celebrated horse, a museum, a biography, and a place in history. Civil war often means familial strife. The Unionist manifestations of the Jackson clan are not to be explored, much less celebrated, in Lexington, Virginia, one of the homes of the United States Civil War.
My nation’s civil war in contemporary times includes some overwhelming battles—mass incarceration of black men and women, illegal traffic stops, rounding up of brown-skinned peoples, gun violence in schools, gun raffles for sports teams, rape as a common experience in the educational environment—in sum, the diminution of existence of those rendered less important. White supremacy, the KKK, and Nazis asserting power and threatening lives. This civil war has everything to do with dignity, respect, group identification, money, power, and greed. Those silences that we thought were a part of our past—1865, Reconstruction, 1920s, and 1950s and 60s—live with and in us. They are our continued civil war. This is no longer a Mason-Dixon split. This war is the elevation of all military members to “heroes” and the reduction of teachers to lazy good-for-nothings. It is the fact that Wall Street won, even after the 2008 revelation of its deep wrongdoings. It is the glorification of guns and the scorn of peace. It is the celebration of jaded irony and the disparagement of kind sincerity. When we look back on this era, what will we say has died? What will count as a lost life? How will we express nostalgia?
I am not at home with the United States Civil War.
A few years ago, friends shared a New Year’s Eve drink with my husband and me and toasted to “washing down” the previous year. I remember agreeing that the year had presented its challenges, but wishing not to wash. The days had been long, but time still flew. The clocks melted; time both stood still and moved quickly, transporting us to a Dalí painting in which time is everything and nothing. I remember also thinking that every year brings good with bad, and we learn from challenges, yadda, yadda, yadda, right?
This past year, though, this past year was something else. 2017 hammered home how the world’s psyche can be delivered, like a cat’s dead rat, to our doorstep, rat-day in and rat-day out, another package full of lies and hatred, its Anthrax particles scattering into our homes, hearths, and hearts. Despite all of this, I still don’t quite want to “wash down” the year. I firmly believe that activists are the greatest optimists. To push the rock up the hill every day, watch it roll back down, and then push it back up is to go necessarily Sisyphus on the regime’s ass. I’ve got a lot of metaphors working here, but it takes a metaphor juggler to keep so many balls of resistance in the air; it really does.
January brought racist travel bans and lies about inauguration crowds, but also the heroic gathering of lawyers at airports and the awe-inspiring, seven-continent Women’s March. In subsequent months, we experienced the soul-sucking Trumpcare proposal, James Comey’s firing, growing concerns about Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump presidency in general, elimination of DACA protections, the Syrian airstrike, and Trump’s support of Nazis following the events of Charlottesville, natural and national disasters in Puerto Rico, Texas, and California, and the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Accord. (*Check out Jason Abruzzesse’s piece on Trump’s first eight months in office.) I haven’t even mentioned the #MeToo wave that implicates Trump all the more. ACLU President Anthony Romero has even written an outstanding and detailed article on Trump as a “one-man constitutional crisis.” (*See also John Cassidy’s summary of Trump’s first nine months in office here; Here is CNN’s report on Trump’s first six months in office; Here is the White House version of Trump’s first six months in office. All citizens should be aware of the White House whitewashing—you’ve got to read this stuff!) Anyone following the news in the most superficial of ways must be affected by its content, by what it tells us about our nation’s direction and relationship with its own residents. The sum total is, in a word, trauma.
In the political realm, the worst 2017 moment I witnessed—the very worst day to have to admit I am from the United States—was the day the nation’s “president” traveled to Puerto Rico after the most devastating hurricane in the island’s history and blithely threw paper towels out to people at a relief center as if they were audience members on a game show (reported here by the BBC). The reality of the White House’s relationship to Puerto Rico already presents abundant and problematic colonial legacies without complicating the personal, economic, and environmental losses resulting from Hurricane Maria (*see this piece from today’s El Nuevo Día for a summary of Puerto Rico’s current economic crisis). The United States needs a leader who knows enough to listen to his own citizens from Puerto Rico, to appreciate the leadership of San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, and to understand Puerto Rico from a nuanced historical, economic, political, and artistic standpoint. The paper towel incident epitomizes Trump’s ignorance, inhumanity, and willingness to do even more harm.
The other day, I read an article from the 12-29-17 edition of The New York Times about increased binge drinking in the United States. The author, Gabrielle Glaser, writes: “Many alcohol researchers and substance-use clinicians believe the steady increase in problem drinking arises from a deeply felt sense of despair: ‘Since the attacks on 9/11, we’ve been in a state of perpetual war, and a lot of us are traumatized by that,’ said Andrew Tatarsky, a clinical psychologist who specializes in treating people with substance-use disorders.” The key concepts here are despair (in Spanish, desesperación, the emptying out of hope and expectations), perpetual war, and trauma. Since I’ve gone from 36 years old to 52 since 9/11/2001, I haven’t been sure how to measure the ingredients of the increased sense of deep preoccupation: having children whose future I worry about; having parents whose well-being is/was a daily concern; experiencing my own aging process, physically, emotionally, and intellectually; the military-industrial complex with its trillion-dollar budgets that seem to rob us of any focus on education and health; the troubled belonging to a nation claiming to be the world’s keeper of democracy but continuing to operate dishonestly in the world and to diminish the sense of humanity of its own citizens; the sadness of it all; the shame.
For my friends who read this blog who wish I would stop bad-mouthing the United States, I hope you know that there are many elements of United States culture that I appreciate highly. One of them is the freedom to write this blog and to express opinions that go against White House policy, leadership, and ethos. Nevertheless, to be a responsible citizen is to understand when elected leaders have gone way beyond the power of their office, way beyond respect for human beings and the earth. Being a responsible citizen means thinking through issues carefully, avoiding knee-jerk reactions, and expressing platforms thoughtfully. The Black Lives Matter movement happened for a whole host of important reasons. The knee-jerk “blue lives matter” response creates a false equivalency and gets us absolutely nowhere. We have to get to the point at which we value and build upon movements that give voice and power to those who have been silenced and oppressed, or whose parents and grandparents were silenced and oppressed.
I keep saying that I was never able to get in front of 2017. I’m a generally efficient person, but 2017 delivered so much national and global strife that organizing, reading, writing, and protesting had to occupy vast amounts of my time and mental space. I needed to connect with others—in person and on digital platforms—to effect some change and to feel emotions not linked to shame. Although this meant sacrificing elements of self-care (never a good idea), I was unable to find a better course of action and still haven’t. I don’t know how to strike a balance between caring and caring too much because so much is at stake every single day. The total solar eclipse tells us of how we lost the sun for a time, but maybe the 2018 supermoons will present a new story of how we can care for self and others.