Issue X, Volume IV : June 2013
History, Contention, and the Value of Literature
I’ve just re-read and re-taught, for the sixth time or so, Natasha Trethewey’s remarkable, Pulitzer-Prize winning collection of poems, Native Guard. With it’s three-tendrilled weave of stories: her own, her mother’s and that of the Native Guard, the collection itself brilliantly replicates Trethewey’s larger project, that of filling in those erasures (whether they be intentional or merely careless in nature) that riddle the “history” that is so neatly and evasively presented to Americans in our textbooks. As she tells Charles Rowell in a Callaloo interview, one of her poetry’s primary occupations is with the fact and question of historical erasure as it particularly relates to the obfuscation of the stories of African-Americans, “those contentions,” as she coins them, “between public and cultural memory.” “[Y]ou can overdo remembering,” Trethewey posits in a New York Times Magazine interview, but, she reminds us, “the trick is to balance forgetting with necessary remembering, to avoid historical amnesia.” In another interview, with David Haney, she says that “it occurred to me that so much of history and what gets remembered is about who has that documentary power, who’s actually writing it down. That’s who makes what we remember. Whoever erects the monuments makes history.” This project, in Native Guard, is symbolically suggested best in one of the sonnets included in the title sequence, “Native Guard.” Trethewey has a character say that he took a journal, “near full / with someone else’s words,” from an abandoned Confederate home and that he uses the journal’s empty spaces to write his own words, “On every page, / his story intersecting with my own.” The interwoven words of a black soldier fighting for his rights and those of a white supporter of agrarian, slave-holding southern states become, as a matter of fact, a more complete and honest appraisal of the times in which the two sets of words were written.
As we see the arts under attack, as the pittance that the government spends in support of them is reduced as “wasteful” or as supporting some vague “special interest,” it is important for us to realize the whole picture. Ultra-Conservatives—I wish I could call them ignorant but I fear they are perfectly aware of what they are doing—are selling us all down the historical river. The reduction in arts funding (as opposed to funding for, say, big industry and war) is only one prong of a multi-faceted attack on “truth.” Granted, truth is a relative thing, and it’s nearly impossible to put down with simplicity, but this is exactly the point, exactly the reason that the arts must be kept strong and vital. In March of 2010, the New York Times reported that “the Texas Board of Education on Friday approved a social studies curriculum that will put a conservative stamp on history and economics, stressing the superiority of American capitalism, questioning the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and presenting Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.” The authors and supporters of these new sets of flawed, incomplete, and misleading “history” textbooks that soon to be injected like heroin into our children’s brains are at war, at war with those of us whose cultural memories differ, with those of us whose eyes have seen things that contend with those reported as “fact” in these textbooks and elsewhere. Deniers of a more robust and contentious history are the same ones who see it as advantageous to have a country full of surface thinkers, of drones who accept what they’re told at face value and are, like lab rats, happy enough to sit in their cubicles and be fed chemicals and lies. Deep thinkers are their enemy. Deep thinkers just can’t buy Ultra-Conservative propaganda, so deep-thinking, at the institutional level, needs to be quashed.
Teaching literature—both the study of it and the writing of it—means, to me, that I am at the front line. The value of literature is that it, along with all of the other writing that happens during any particular historic moment, helps provide the most accurate picture we can have of that moment. When Natasha Trethewey first visited Ship Island, she was struck by the fact that the historical markers (placed there by the Daughters of the Confederacy, a group with an obvious historical axe to grind) made no mention of the Native Guard or of the important role they played there. Now that many thousands of people have read Native Guard, the history of that place and time is enlarged and enlivened. It is contentious, as it should be, and contention requires that all sides be heard and entered into the record. When I read Judy Jordan’s poems, or any of the poems in this issue, I have a better, fuller sense of what it means to be living now, in this historical moment. More importantly—and I say this after having recently re-read Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Ginsberg’s “Howl,” Jarrell’s “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” Clifton’s “Jasper, Texas,” Williams’ The Glass Menagerie, O’Neill’s The Hairy Ape, and Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—more importantly, it is true that readers in the future will turn, I pray, to the texts written today and feel that their sense of a bygone yet terribly important time in their past has been enlargened and made more “true” and more contentious by having done so.