The taste I associate with dawn at 5 PM
is one I have learned to love— ………………….like self-deprecating humor ………………….parmesan ………………….a Pinter pause
consumed to stay awake and be submissive …………towards direction
to nourish a body at ease half- …………naked, languidly quick-changing
The taste I associate with 55 miles per hour
is lapped up from stained skin ………………….situating and steering ………………….and sifting through stations ………………….all at once
a foot shuts the car door, hands hold carbonated corn syrup …………and straight-up caffeine
attending services at a black box temple I instantly regard in a …………compound tense
The taste I associate with the past
is one my dentist disdains ………………….coffee ginger ale ………………….direct opposition ………………….masterful and virginal
an ephemeral stimulant— …………metallic amphetamine, a gem in a bildungsroman
a lifelong depressant— …………piqued in Proust’s madeleine, attempting to be expressed
by one who finds
two distinct drinks
The New Depressus: Readers’ Poems for Trump’s America
Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! — Emma Lazarus
There’s a new anthem for this new age in America. Replacing Lady Liberty’s torch for the poor are tiki flames inflamed by slurs. Optics reign, senses numb. Ids and egos are enacted. An adviser compares the White House to a plantation, but she retracts the statement and uses it as a late-night punchline. Misogyny. Machismo. An endless well of racism.
I could go on.
Last August, the President’s senior policy advisor, Stephen Miller, dismissed Emma Lazarus’s poem The New Colossus when discussing immigration policy at a press conference. He said that immigrants who did not speak English would not be allowed entry into the land of the free since their native tongue would be “ahistorical.” He was quick to point out that Lazarus’s poem was erected after Lady Liberty, yet failed to acknowledge how the Statue of Liberty and immigration are congruous.
In response, The Guardian asked their readers to reimagine Lazarus’s poem in the age of MAGA. The article, entitled “The New Depressus,” asks: What would be displayed on Liberty Island if a forthright (and unfiltered) poet were commissioned to comment on today’s American promise? Below are a few of my favorite, which can be sardonic and satirical, and are always harrowingly astute.
The New MAGA Give me your rich, your white, Your big business interests, yearning for less tax, But staunchly refuse those who are fleeing plight. Send away the poor, Hispanics, Muslims, blacks I lift my middle finger, and douse Liberty’s light. — Alexa Perea
Odious Joy Roses are red, Violets are blue, I was born rich, Why weren’t you? — Anonymous
Send Me Send your white, your men With billions to invest Men of no questions Who look the other way While fortunes are made By the few. — Beth Macy
The New Depressus Where are my tired, my poor, My lost souls sailing from across the sea. We promised you riches, promised you more. On care worn dreams, you came looking for me, But then they dimmed my lamp and closed my door. — MB Donnelly
Untitled A statuesque lady so tall Once greeted with warmth one and all But now she’s been fired And set to be hired As builder for Trump’s fucking wall — Tom Freeman
In a rare and admirable moment of 21st century bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously to allow Senators’ infants into the chamber when he or she votes. This legislation was introduced shortly after Tammy Duckworth, Democratic Senator from Illinois, became the first Senator to give birth while still in office. Senators believe that the difficulty of being in the U.S. Senate is a strenuous occupation and nonexistent rules such as the one resolved should not make the job any more difficult.
Senator Duckworth, who is one of ten women to give birth while serving as an elected federal official, said in a statement, “I would like to thank my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, particularly those in leadership and on the rules committee, for helping bring the Senate into the 21st Century by recognising that sometimes new parents also have responsibilities at work.” This vote brings to light the lack of family-friendly policies government agencies provide, let alone implement.
While the vote was unanimously in favor for this legislation, there were moments of behind-the-scenes resistance, as alluded to by California’s Democratic Senator Kamala Harris, who disclosed on The Late Show that there were colleagues who had concerns whether or not Senator Duckworth would have the right to nurse her newborn on the Senate floor. Such anxieties continue to reveal the continued tone of the Senate in moments of progress. This tone is unequivocally indicative of the disparity of men and women in the senate; there are 22 female Senators out of 100, a historic high.
Commenting on the the impact of this vote, Senator Duckworth tweeted, “Family-friendly workplace policies aren’t just a women’s issue, they are a common-sense economic issue.” And Senator Harris looked further ahead: “I look forward to a day that we need a nursery off the side of the cloakroom in the United States Senate.”
The Life in Things
In a purely social context, death has this unique capacity to illuminate some of humanity’s strangest habits. Notably, it elucidates our intense desire to attach meaning to matter. Kate Bolick’s recent article, “Who Bought Sylvia Plath’s Stuff?”, showcases this cultural phenomenon in a way which calls the validity of material culture into question. Bolick opens by describing the sales as “poetic justice of a sort” for “the many feminist critics who have excoriated Ted Hughes’ [Plath’s husband] treatment” of Plath. The justice derives from the fact that “the auction of the poets’ belongings by [her] daughter, Frieda Hughes…outsold Mr. Hughes’” sale. Frieda Hughes had little to say about the auction, beyond her coming to terms with that “If [she] wished to sell some items, then others would have to go too, because presented together, they made up a snapshot of a mutual history.” Hughes’ statement reads as mature and composed. Juxtaposed to the list the various items sold in the auction and their price-tags, she starts to sound like a beaming pillar of clarity and wisdom. When someone pays $2,838 for costume jewelry, or $3,012 for an old private-school skirt, what are they buying, exactly?
Bolick concludes the article with a quote from Plath’s poem “Last Words”:
Things aren’t like that.
They stay, their particular lusters
Warmed by much handling. They almost purr.
A seriously provocative way to frame material culture — does the tangibility of a thing make it more reliable than the living things around it? Is affixing meaning to material enough to make them come alive, in some way? Does the value of these items get called into question by the fact that Frieda Hughes acknowledges them as commodities?
This phenomenon isn’t only applicable to instances of celebrity. Think about the things you might reach for if someone you loved were to die. Do these items possess the ability to bring the person back to life, in some way? Are you granted some knowledge by them? Or is it just a false appendage which we cling to, because in some way it comforts us, it shields us from the reality of death? Bolick’s article does a phenomenal job of acutely calling into question this particular facet of material culture.
Bahujan Azad Party
A new, progressive political party is being formed in India called Bahujan Azad Party. Formed by fifty graduates of India’s incredibly prestigious, autonomously run public institutes of education called Institutes of Technology, the group is currently awaiting recognition by the Election Commission of India before they can officially enter the 2020 special assembly elections.
The graduates all quit their full time jobs in order to dedicate themselves to the mission of fighting for the rights of Dalits (a term which encompasses the absolute lowest caste in the Indian social hierarchy), religious minorities, ethnic minorities, and women. One of the leaders of the party, Naveen Kumar, recently released a statement saying, “Through my politics, I will fight for equal distribution of resources… A lot of work needs to be done for women’s ultimate empowerment i.e. financial independence… we will work for the downtrodden. The BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party – India’s largest political party] and Congress are trying their best to keep Bahujan [another word for Dalits] communities away from quality education and that is why education in government schools is getting worse and private schools fees are sky high. We are not vote banks.”
Much of the criticism directed towards the ruling political parties in India is that they treat lower castes and minorities (groups that exist within India but have no technical placement in the caste system, often referred to as Untouchables or Backward Classes) as vote banks. Routinely courted by politicians during election season without any substantive elevation of their situation.
The caste system in India is much less repressive than it used to be. For instance, legally, no matter what caste one was born in, anybody can seek an education, as many of these graduates did. More and more marriages are happening between members of different castes, which previously would never have been allowed. But just as America can have both a black president and men who look just like him being kicked out of Starbucks for no other reason than their skin color, India has its own contradictions.
For instance, in New Delhi the upcoming wedding of two Dalits is expected to attract a police presence because the groom is appealing for the right to ride a horse in the wedding procession, an act only grooms of a higher caste are allowed to do. The groom, Sanjay Jatav, is both a lawyer and member of his village council, and so is indicative of how far Untouchables have been able to rise in recent years, but is dually indicative of the discriminations and indignities his caste must still endure.
“I wanted to be a social reformer.” Said Vikrant Vatsal, another leader in the Bahujan Azad Party. “Since childhood, I have faced discrimination in my society. When I was [younger], a Brahmin [the highest caste] man stopped me from drinking water from a hand pump because I am a Solank. He told me that a lower caste can’t drink the water here. I am still haunted by that incident. It is then that I decided to eradicate this… system, which is based on inequality and injustice. My father used to sell handkerchiefs on the street, I had to work very hard to make myself strong with education… radical change comes with politics.”
It’s impossible not to relate the caste system to Jim Crow laws, apartheid, and any other strict social hierarchies created to divide, oppress and control. What distinguishes the caste system is that it is rooted in religion, which perhaps make it even more difficult to overthrow if members of the oppressed lower caste are devout Hindus and believe in the importance of caste. But believing in caste might not necessarily mean a belief that resources such as water, safety and education should be sparsely handed out to the lower castes. Just as being an American capitalist might mean I believe it’s fine to have lower, middle and upper classes so long as the lowest class has access to as much water, safety and education they need.
If not an all out overthrow of the caste system, the Bahujan Azad Party is at least taking the first steps towards revolutionary reform. Not with peaceful protest, not with a violent coup, but by democratically appealing to what is hopefully a popular consensus by Indian citizens of all castes that change has got to come.
The special assembly elections in India will be held the same year as the American presidential elections. Good luck to them and us both!
Peter Hujar: Speed of Life at The Morgan Library & Museum
Peter Hujar was a photographer whose work is synonymous with Downtown New York City. His images are steeped in the smoky black and white ambiance of a city in decline filled with inhabitants who hid behind masks of makeup and costume jewelry. Each print simultaneously represents a specific personal history, one that is ephemerally eventful and routinely banal, interspliced with momentous nights of primal pleasures and multitudinous mornings meditating on paths untrodden.
Hujar captured what many of his contemporaries were surrounded by but sought to skewer. Not many photographers dared to capture New York City in the 1970s and 1980s completely unfiltered or as gritty as Hujar deemed worthy. From the elderly to the newly born, from drag performers to businessmen, no idiosyncratic individual was spared as an intriguing subject. Recognizable faces abound in Hujar’s work, from Susan Sontag to Fran Lebowitz, including a widely circulated photograph of Candy Darling, a transgender Warholian superstar, on her deathbed dramatically striking a pose with elongated arms and a melodramatic gaze. Hujar’s nature stills exude metaphysical undercurrents and animalistic movements, with dogs as a particular favorite.
Hujar wrote, “I make uncomplicated, direct photographs of complicated and difficult subjects. I photograph those who push themselves to any extreme and people who claim to the freedom to be themselves.” Indeed, many of his subjects possess admirable courage. In decades shrouded in layers of decadence, Hujar captures the vulnerable moments human beings are unable to permanently evade (contemplative moments of silence, succumbing to one’s sexual desires, attempting to orient oneself in unfamiliar terrains) and the precious moments of an ageless innocence that ignites a passion towards life.
Passing away in 1987 at age 53, Hujar neither created a “master narrative” with his work as Garry Winogrand or Robert Frank were able to, nor an oeuvre as shockingly indelible as Robert Mapplethorpe. The current exhibit at The Morgan Library & Museum (on view until May 20, 2018) is a comprehensive and fulfilling retrospective of a distinctly New York photographer, largely mentioned in the footnotes among more renowned artists. Each photograph will send a jolt of recognition through each patron, who will notice the familiar features of many New Yorkers observed and confronted in everyday life, or, more revealingly, the parallels in sentiments shared holistically between Hujar, the subject, and oneself.
Greetings, Prophet: Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Revived
Angels in America descended upon Broadway in 1991 and broke the infrastructure of theatrical conventions with such a resounding force that the theatre world has been dusting the debris from the aisles ever since. Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize winning play is epic in every sense of the word; it is a piece of epic theatre, with a running time of nearly eight hours split between two parts, an authoritative statement on the AIDS epidemic in its infancy and height in New York City, and a marathon for eight actors to perform, let alone for patrons to sit through and watch. Angels in America went on to become an acclaimed HBO miniseries starring Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, and Emma Thompson, and is now on Broadway with Nathan Lane, Andrew Garfield, and Lee Pace.
Of the many storylines, the main focus is on two men battling AIDS and the ensuing relationships that are fractured (and realized) from their illness. The first is real-life lawyer Roy Cohn (Nathan Lane). Cohn is secretly gay and battling AIDS but is telling the public that he has liver cancer. His prospective protégé, Joe Pitt (Lee Pace), is offered a position in the Reagan administration, but must first deal with his pill-popping wife Harper (Denise Gough), who is distressed by Joe’s long hours away from home in the middle of the night and his inability to engage in intimacy. Roy is haunted by the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, a communist spy that he was responsible for sentencing to death, and the symptoms of his illness are gruelingly played out between his verbally abhorrent musings toward his black male nurse and his struggle to survive.
The second plot focuses on a young couple, Prior Walter (Andrew Garfield) and Louis Ironson (James McArdle). Prior has found lesions on his body and after a doctor’s visit, is told that he has AIDS. Louis distances himself from Prior, which instills isolation in Prior and guilt in Louis. But as Prior tries to articulate his anger towards Louis and life, he is interrupted by otherworldly experiences—an angelic voice visits him at night; feathers fall from the sky; his nurse speaks Latin much to her obliviousness; a holy book appears in his bedroom and is engulfed by flames. All of this accumulates in a divine intervention of an angel (Amanda Lawrence) breaking through the ceiling of Prior’s Manhattan apartment to send him a message: he is a prophet.
As a patron who sat through both parts of Angels in America (titled Millennium Approaches and Perestroika, respectively), I can honestly say that it did not feel like a strenuously long piece for audiences to sit through, something promised by playwright Tony Kushner. “Angels is a very long—and it’s legitimately called an epic—play, but it’s really seventy-one incredibly intimate little scenes,” writes Kushner; “it’s terrifying, it’ll go by like that, I promise… An epic shouldn’t be easy, and it should hurt your butt and cause various kinds of circulatory problems.” Angels can (and often is in colleges throughout the United States) be performed without the extravagance of three turntables, pyrotechnics, set changes oscillating between New York and Antarctica, or an angel appearing on wires. Kushner’s poetic text stands firmly on its own. His text coupled with tour-de-force performances guarantee a memorable theatre going experience no matter the production budget. The Broadway revival does wonderful justice to Kushner’s play; it never gets muddled in the special effects or in ornate scenery. Ian MacNeil’s wooden set pieces infused with neon lights are a nice contrast to the moments of spectacle and the vast sanctity evoked by the scenes in heaven. Similarly, two-time Tony Award winning director Marianne Elliott brings her penchant for innovative staging, seen most prominently in her interpretation of the all-powerful angel (more on that later).
The powerhouse performances are nothing short of astonishing, especially considering the amount of time the actors are required to appear on stage. Nathan Lane is vehement as Roy Cohn, an objectively unethical and discriminatory human being. Lane has a considerable weight placed on his shoulders more so than past actors who have played Roy Cohn; in real-life, Cohn is notoriously known as Donald Trump’s mentor throughout the 1980s. (When Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation last year, Trump reportedly shouted “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”—a quote the marketing team of Angels seldom forgets to tout as topical in its print advertisements, despite Trump never being mentioned in the play.) To watch the ruthless grip of AIDS on any human being, and to witness Roy’s hallucinations of Rosenberg and his bodily weakness confine him to a hospital bed, is harrowing, which is only heightened by the virtuosity and likability of an actor like Lane.
While Andrew Garfield’s interpretation began with a performative femininity that bordered on camp, it became grounded by Kushner’s stirring text and Garfield honoring the play’s gravitas. Garfield is an excellent choice to play the unwilling prophet, starting off as deeply wounded by his lover’s departure, and becoming omnipotently confident, memorably rejecting help by saying “Fuck you, I’m a prophet.” Lee Pace and Denise Gough spit verbal wounds at each other with an intensity that has audiences switching allegiances. They remain sympathetic throughout and deliver some of the play’s most poignant aphorisms. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett seamlessly plays Belize, an ex-drag queen turned nurse, who is the most enlightened character of the bunch, despite being the subject of Roy’s bigotry.
As The Phantom of the Opera is known as the musical with the falling chandelier and Miss Saigon as “the one with the helicopter,” patrons wait in anticipation for the reveal of the angel at the end of Millennium Approaches. Originally, and in the HBO miniseries, the angel coveys a Hellenistic, windswept movement with the beauty and pure white wingspan of a Baroque rendering. In Elliot’s interpretation… not so much. The angel in the revival ascends like a phoenix from a pile of ash in Prior’s bedroom. Supported by ten puppeteers (the “Angel Shadow” roles, new to this revival), the angel’s gothic attire includes a nest of white hair, a rusty brown bodysuit, a tattered American flag skirt, and sullied wings that seem to be plucked. This change in traditional angel aestheticism is the visual equivalent of a peace dove being replaced by a polluted Central Park pigeon. It begs the question: if the voice of America were to be personified today, as it is in the 1980s setting of Angels, how would it manifest itself? As an idyllic symbol of hope and virtue, or as a fallen angel with personal hygiene habits that parallel a Trump-Cohn bravado? Elliot firmly believes in the latter.
Above all, Angels in America soars with life. Prior’s AIDS is never cured, yet he is still living at the end of Perestroika, gathered around Bethesda Fountain in Central Park with Louis, Belize, and Joe’s mother, who becomes an unlikely confidant. Progress proves to be painful.
There is an image that affronts audience members early in Millennium Approaches: Prior, half-naked in contrapposto as the nurse prods darkened lesions on his lean body. The Michelangelo notion of ideal masculinity is repurposed by Kushner to fit a distinctly American sentiment borne out of the AIDS epidemic, one that is simultaneously jaded and enthused, knowing and masked, beautiful and tainted. Perhaps these are the heroes that the future will bring—warriors who are susceptible to sicknesses and believe that a profusion of prophets exist among mortals.
Pedaling on the service road
beneath a blue and pink ceiling,
between the soccer field—
throughout the spring and summer—
and the parkway,
constantly cruised upon
all hours day and night.
The streets are
lathered in light
as cosmos called cars
rocket parallel on the other side
of the vine encrusted fence.
On my right,
the side I ride closer to,
a baseball team, little league,
is celebrating a game in which
a golden, hollow cast of a player is fixed atop
the trophy each receive.
They’ll celebrate with handshakes,
pats on the back, and Carvel ice cream.
The cars nearby
keep driving and driving
until so visually out of reach,
sight focuses on a closer one.
Through all of this,
I hurdle past
the vocal shouts,
the automatic whirring,
and nature’s rustling and calls.
who I am on this
temperamental summer evening.
Where is my place, that conformation I felt
The assurance of my youth-
inevitable wins, losses hushed by lullabies-
is gone, a notion
too wild to presently conjure.
The purpose my
put them on a path with
speed, risky propositions that
guarantee security, life.
The shooting stars I witnessed and wished upon
were already taken by those
driving on my left.
I can still taste
the saccharine pledge of
idyllic soft serve vanilla.
I sense the promise
of the parkway but hear the jeers
behind my back
as I operate a bicycle.
So, who am I on this
temperamental summer evening?
Uncertain, and that is absolute.
Divided, I ride
with no helmet and
winded thighs that push,
swaying on lines of faded white paint
that once defined
the rules of the road.
Feeling Insecure About Your Diet Habits? Here is the Latest Health and Wellness Update to Make You Feel Immediately Worse!
Do you grocery shop at the supermarket? Well, of course you do! Lol! Duh. Anyway, to cut straight to the point, virtually everything you buy at the supermarket contains added sugar, and is slowly (but surely!) killing you! Don’t believe me? Check out this super-useful article by David Leonhardt! Sugar is bad, obviously (it’s science), but worse than that: sugar is sneaky and seeking your ultimate demise, probably. Let me tell you about all the ways sugar is quietly plotting your downfall as you go about your daily routine, and how you can narrowly avoid it.
Leonhardt describes breakfast as “the most dangerous meal of the day,” and, like, I can’t lie, I’ve always had a feeling my waffles were out to get me, but its such a relief to have something substantial on this. Basically, if you want to feel good about your breakfast, there are just a few simple steps you need to take, which only require, I don’t know, an extra forty-five minutes to two hours of your already impossible morning routine (just get out of bed two hours earlier, you lazy shit! Science says its a myth that you need eight hours to function if you homemake your granola, anyway). So naturally, first, you have to be making your own granola. I know, I know, nine times out of ten it is a failure. But hey! If you burn the shit out of it, which is the most common result, you just skip the meal, and then you don’t have to worry about your excess-sugar intake anyway! Next, you simply have to be making your own orange juice. It is so simple! You just need, like, six oranges. From there, you can use your shitty off-brand juice presser to squeeze them into one meager glass which will probably leave you thirstier than you were to begin with. The final necessity is that you invest in a food scale, so you know how many precisely how many ounces you’re intaking in this first meal. If you go over the recommended amount, feel free to consequently feel bad about it for the rest of the day! Now you’re aware of your lack of portion control, so the insecurities that coincide projected overeating should be pretty cutting at this point.
If you do stay within the recommended amounts, though, and you managed to so-far avoid the tempting beckon of that Trix yogurt you got on sale at Target because you couldn’t afford the Siggi’s organic stuff (it’s for kids anyway, idiot), don’t let your guard down. You are still in danger of the ever-insidious afternoon snack, something which can “all too easily turn into another dessert.” Rather than buy a granola bar, which appears healthy but will actually make you fat (science), take out a mortgage and buy some raw nuts (apparently Barack Obama does this) and then roast them in your abundance of spare time.
Now, for dinner. Oh, you wanted ketchup with that locally-sourced-99%-lean turkey burger? Think a-fucking-gain! There’s sugar in that shit! Oh what? That was obvious? You weren’t eating ketchup as diet food? Oh man, that’s really awkward for me. Idk what else to say. Sorry.
Anyway, you can totally have dessert! I’m not here to ruin everything! Lol! Just if you do, make sure you eat only fruit and drink only tea with nothing in it. And when you get up in the middle of the night to eat that Nutella sandwich because you’re hungry and you decided you don’t give a fuck about the health and wellness bullshit constantly being shoved down your throat, be sure to have a good cry with it! Your tears will just give the bread the softest, most incredible consistency.
The Blessing of a Polar Bear Cub
This past Friday, I was watching BBC World News on PBS, the only news program I allow myself to watch instead of those on shameless circuses of ratings-hungry cable news channels. BBC World News lasts 30 minutes and covers an eclectic mélange of world news from politics to science, from the arts to athletics, without any bias. Each story is treated with the same diligence of reporting and one story does not dominate the news program for long. Having been updated on the Muller investigation (which is most likely to end in his firing), the consequences of Tillerson’s replacement on our country’s national security image (countries can’t trust us), and the newfound evidence Britain has on a Russian agent and his daughter being poisoned through Putin’s orders (which won’t lead to any punishment), it came practically as a blessing when BBC World News reported on the first polar bear cub emerging from its den in the United Kingdom for the first time in 25 years.
A week before Christmas, polar bear Victoria gave birth in the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland’s Highland Wildlife Park. The birth had been confirmed through high-pitched screeching noises zoologists heard on the other side of the maternity den, which had been closed to the public. Zookeepers did not enter the maternity den, as to allow nature to take its course and have the mother-child bond unimpeded. Since the birth, Victoria had emerged to eat, drink, and lounge, but her child remained cloistered. Until last week.
Victoria’s cub stumbled out of the sheltered den and into the outside world with as much difficulty as it had determination. Una Richardson, head carnivore keeper at the Royal Zoological Society, recounts the moment she saw the newest addition to the wildlife park. “Suddenly I saw a small, fluffy bundle next to [Victoria] and had to pinch myself to check I wasn’t seeing things. It was a very special experience and one I’ll never forget. We also have motion-sensitive cameras safely positioned near Victoria’s den and we were delighted to see we had captured her cub’s first few steps outside.” In the coming weeks, the polar bear den will reopen to the public. Zookeepers are unsure of the cub’s gender, as they allow Victoria uninterrupted time to nurse and teach her child the ways of the world. Once its gender is known, the cub will be named.
This segment on BBC World News lasted for approximately 5 minutes. It ended the program and had newscaster Jane O’Brien smiling into the camera after reporting on the dire events dominating the news. While such a report uplifted me, such a sentiment was ephemeral. It’s no secret that polar bears, such as Victoria and her cub, are living at the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland because their natural habitat is uninhabitable. The Arctic Circle is melting into a slushy sea of once solid polar ice caps and subsiding schools of walruses, seals, and whales. But for the moment, I am reveling in this piece of world news and I am celebrating the unnamed polar bear cub—revering its miniature cuteness before it grows into a 2,000 pound mammal of sullied white fur, captivated by its first clumsy steps before it grows into a carnivorous chaser of prey, and envious of the innocence it possess today, before succumbing to its primitive instincts to fight against extinction.
In early February, a school district in Duluth, Minnesota decided to revise the literary canon and remove both Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird from the required curriculum. The books would still be available to students in school libraries, just not assigned in classrooms.
The reasons given were that the use of the “N-word” in both books were found often making African-American students uncomfortable, and that while both authors ostensibly were trying to write stories which combatted racism, their portrayal of black characters (primarily Jim in Huckleberry Finn and Tom in To Kill A Mockingbird) were steeped in problematic stereotypes and fit the mold of a “white savior” narrative.
I had to read Huckleberry Finn in high school, and I remember absolutely nothing about the plot, other than something about a raft on the river. Mostly this is because my teacher had the brilliant idea to have us read passages of the book aloud. My classroom was pretty evenly divided between white students and the collective other. Every single one of the others said “n-word” whenever we had to read aloud, and every single white student charged forth with actually pronouncing the word, fully sanctioned by our white teacher. Ears burning, I remember catching the eye of every other student, all of us shaking our heads and losing the thread of the story as we were battered with this word over and over again.
My relationship to To Kill A Mockingbird is wholly different. I can’t remember Harper Lee’s novel without remembering the dark brown hand wrapped around the binding, my mother’s hand shoving it beneath my nose and insisting I read. It is one of those stories that completely sucks you in. Spellbinding – literally bound by the words floating out of the page and wrapping tight around you, holding you still until every page has been thumbed at least once, finally reaching the end of the journey.
No! No! No! was my first reaction to Duluth’s decision. Don’t lump one of my favorite books in with that Mark Twain trash.
There is nothing anyone can do to convince me that To Kill A Mockingbird is anything less than a beautiful story that deserves all the recognition it’s gotten. Yes, it’s a white author writing from the perspective of a white character who perceives black people in a limited way. Scout is a prepubescent white girl, she doesn’t have full access to the thoughts and feelings of her black neighbors. But the book is able to give us respectful glimpses of their lives that at times go over our narrator’s head, but are not intended to go over the reader’s. It is a book about a white man using his privileged status to try and defend a black man – ultimately, unsuccessfully.
I can appreciate the frustration of a black character seemingly being “used” in order to educate white people about how terrible racism is, but at the same time… yeah, white people really do need to learn this lesson. They need to learn that there’s a history of white women accusing innocent black men of rape, of white men pressuring white women (sometimes violently, sometimes with pure intimidation) to accuse innocent black men of rape. And certainly this is a narrative that also deserves to be written and read by black authors, but why not celebrate a well written novel by a white person confronting the racism pervasive in her own community, perpetrated by her own people, taking responsibility for what her people have done to others and trying to push for a better tomorrow?
Also, Scout and Dill are just simply delightful.
But, perhaps I would have felt differently about this book had it been introduced to me not by my black mother, but by a white professor, with white students in the classroom gleefully taking advantage of the opportunity to spout out the n-word without impunity. I wonder how I would view Huckleberry Finn if it had been established that no student would be allowed to actually say the word aloud, or if a black professor had been teaching the material.
In theory, and specifically in the case of anything written by Mark Twain, I’m overjoyed to see the literary canon get demolished and reconstructed with a focus on inclusion and diversity, a focus on ensuring that all students are in a safe learning environment. Whereas a white student might benefit from learning how terrible racism is through the eyes of Huck and Scout, it’s true that a black student might struggle to achieve the same experience simply because the “n-word” is so triggering.
And, what the literary canon actually is is arbitrary. The reason why so much of what we read in western literature is written by straight white males is because a bunch of straight white males got to decide what we were going to consider canon. And those decisions should be challenged, because there are brilliant authors and characters out there of far more diverse background that all students could benefit from being introduced to.
On the other hand, what gets thrown into the canon also has to do with some level of popularity, or notoriety. Mark Twain was an incredibly influential figure, whether I feel he deserved to be or not. So was Harper Lee, whether others think she deserved to be or not. And then, yet again, why should we continue to teach works simply because they were influential at the time if we have decided that they contain problematic messages. Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey are popular – that doesn’t mean they deserve be required reading in classrooms. And yet I find them far less triggering to be read aloud than being forced to endure Mark Twain’s seemingly endless spiel of vulgarity.
In theory, I a hundred percent support this revision of the canon… until it conflicts with books I desperately believe deserve to stick around and be taught. But literature is, thankfully, vast. There are plenty of other important stories to explore. I’d be interested to see which books are eventually required on Duluth’s school curriculum. How exactly does one construct a trigger-free, all inclusive reading list that satisfies every student of every background in Minnesota while also being a legitimately influential piece of literature?