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Rankine's Citizen

February 8, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

“I feel like one of our American peculiarities which is not serving us is our amnesia around trauma.” - Claudia Rankine

Claudia Rankine has a long list of accolades: bestselling poet, essayist, playwright, MacArthur Fellow, and the list goes on. Recently, I read Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric (which won the 2015 PEN book award). According to Merriam-Webster, a lyric can be just a song or musical composition, or it can express “direct usually intense personal emotion especially in a manner suggestive of song.” Two things strike me as important: first that lyrics carry intense emotion, and second, that they are musical, but not necessarily music. I think the latter is important to me because of the expressive voice throughout the book. Rankine’s voice has a musical quality of the chorus which repeats the main point again and again and again until we finally get it. This technique left me feeling weary, and because of it, I began to glimpse what it must be like to have experienced oppression. Moreover the lyric aims to fight back at one of the most frustrating aspects of racism: language.

Rankine writes about everyday life in this book. She writes about moments with trusted friends and also moments with complete strangers. Both scenarios often arrive at similar points: that she is seen within a particular frame of reference. Or more clearly, that she is who she is because other people have defined her and see her in a certain way. In this book, she felt the need to address both minor injustices along with blatant injustices. As she says, “Perhaps the most insidious and least understood form of segregation is that of the word.” This after a series of frames which demonstrate two soccer players insulting each other. Some insults strike too close to home, or have been lived with for too long. In the clips, the soccer player’s response is physical, because a single hateful phrase cut too close to the quick.

Rankine’s book investigates responses to hatred, but it also expresses anguish in moments of intimacy. Rankine writes, “Certain moments send adrenaline to the heart, dry out the tongue, and clog the lungs. Like thunder they drown you in sound, no, like lightning they strike you across the larynx….Haven’t you said this to a close friend who early in your friendship, when distracted, would call you by the name of her black housekeeper? You assumed you two were the only black people in her life. Eventually she stopped doing this, though she never acknowledged her slippage. And you never called her on it (why not?) and yet, you don’t forget.” In a recent interview, she claimed that these were the hardest lines to write in the book because they criticized a close friend, but they demonstrate the pervasive nature of difference. Again and again, she depicts moments in which people refuse to speak to someone who is different, who feel fear based solely on visual cues. In these moments, people forget decency, transparency, curiosity, or whatever it is that makes us human beings.

These everyday examples: the housekeeper, or dinner conversation, the bus seats and sports games add up. Repeated lashings give the reader a sense of what it must feel like to walk around wearing a visible stereotyped identity. However, the title of the book is what hits home the most to me. Discussions that I run often end up on topics such as what it means to be a citizen, a member of any community, what does it mean to have a home and how do you identify it. After reading these perfectly banal moments with the grainy subtext of oppression (or at the very least, disinterest), I have been continually pondering the idea of citizen. What does it mean to belong. How many people belong? Who is in my community? Do I know my community and if so, how do I recognize them?

Rankine began this project after September 11th, when she witnessed the elevation of a very real fear. She noticed fear and hate creeping into rhetoric. I suppose this book was always in the making, but perhaps that event spurred her onward. Near the end of Citizen, she writes:

“I they he she we you were too concluded yesterday to know whatever was done could also be done, was also done, was never done –

The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much

to you--”

I would benefit from a discussion of this work as I am sure there are many subtleties that I have yet to see. I suggest pairing Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen: An American Lyric with her short films titled “Situations” found on her website. http://claudiarankine.com/

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Mary Oliver's Contributions

March 1, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

I never needed a reason to love the world, I simply just always have. With its faults and near-misses, its greed and its hope. I love the way it is patched together like a great quilt of countries and languages, mountains and deserts. Most of all, I love, and am humbled by the fact that somehow I participate in that great, complicated quilt. And so, many years ago, when I stumbled upon Mary Oliver’s poetry, I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Oliver passed away in January of this year and to speak of her in the past tense grieves me greatly. Fortunately, her words remain so that her light is not altogether lost.

Oliver’s childhood was a brutal one, and yet somehow she turned around and made such beautiful things as the world had never seen. To create beauty from difficult circumstances is the first reason we should admire her. Mary Oliver turned to nature as the first place which gave her comfort. She avoided her family by walking out among rivers, flowers, and trees, but she also came to see struggle as part of the natural world. In fact, hope, in part, arrives as a result of struggle, and Oliver is eternally hopeful.

Her early work finds joy, ecstasy and divinity through nature. Then, in poems like “Rage” and “The River” she begins to address her personal pain and loss of home. She concludes “The River” with: “Home, I said./ In every language there is a word for it./ In the body itself, climbing/ those walls of white thunder, past those green/ temples, there is also/ a word for it. / I said, home.” It is an acceptance that home can be transient, not permanent. Every one of her poems grapple with big questions about love and faith, courage and forgiveness.

Many years later, she would say that she hardly knew herself in those early years. She said she had to go out and find herself, which she did by stumbling over rocky trails and along muddy rivers. That she taught herself the language of nature is the next reason that we should admire her. Countless people have quoted from “Wild Geese” or “Morning Poem” on blogs, mugs, letters, etc. Oliver’s language did not glorify or transcend nature, but put humanity squarely back into it. These poems, among many others, inspired friendship, imagination, and openness. She placed the human world within the most glorious riches of the earth, and then asked for us to witness that glory. The final sentence of “Wild Geese” is: “Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,/ the world offers itself to your imagination,/ calls to you like wild geese, harsh and exciting - / over and over announcing your place/ in the family of things.” She reminds us that we are to participate with nature and to imagine that presence as part of one complicated family.

Oliver’s work has always been profound and moving. Yet, near the end of her life, she began to explore spirituality. In Blue Horses, she discusses all types of faiths as she herself battles cancer. Yet, once again, she finds that beauty is itself the answer. In the poem “Franz Marc’s Blue Horses” she expresses sorrow about Marc’s career cut short by World War I. She writes, “I would rather die than try to explain to the blue horses/ what war is./ … I do not know how to thank you, Franz Marc./ Maybe our world will grow kinder eventually./ Maybe the desire to make something beautiful/ is the piece of God that is inside each of us.” In this poem, the natural world and the human-constructed world collide with dangerous and negative results, and still, Oliver finds beauty and names it. She responds by attending to both Marc’s life and death in a way that offers him thanks. It is this attention to detail which will make us kinder. Again and again, she asks us to use imagination in order to remind us of our connections.

During her lifetime, Mary Oliver won many awards such as the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award. In addition to her writing career, however, she also taught at Bennington College. She inspired others to seek answers to big, daunting questions. Therefore, her teaching pursuits offer one more reason to admire her. At the end of her short essay titled “Upstream,” Mary writes:

“Teach the children. We don’t matter so much, but the children do. Show them daisies and the pale hepatica. Teach them the taste of sassafras and wintergreen. The lives of the blue sailors, mallow, sunbursts, the moccasin flowers. And the frisky ones – inkberry, lamb’s-quarters, blueberries. And the aromatic ones – rosemary, oregano. Give them peppermint to put in their pockets as they go to school. Give them the fields and the woods and the possibility of the world salvaged from the lords of profit. Stand them in the stream, head them upstream, rejoice as they learn to love this green space they live in, its sticks and leaves and then the silent, beautiful blossoms.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

She paid attention in a way that few humans find time for anymore. Furthermore, she invites all of us to do the same. Mary Oliver’s works never fail to inspire. And yet, certainly, if she were here today and reading this, she would defer not to her work but to the land itself, to the birds and skies that fly above all of our heads.

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Political Speech in Julius Caesar

January 25, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Most humans are inundated with political speech, the current pace of which seems unsustainable (or at least unhealthy to me). I think this has often been the case in other civilizations too. Shakespeare gives us a great example of political speech among chaos in Julius Caesar. Though there are many layers to this play, I want to focus on the speeches given by Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony) and Marcus Brutus (Brutus) directly following Caesar’s murder.

First, it is important to understand that Brutus is a statesman. He is of a noble and honorable family. He is well-educated, well-read, and well-spoken. His identity is closely linked to this nobility. Also, it is important to understand that Brutus likes Caesar in many respects. However, something within Brutus makes him distrust Caesar as a leader and popular figure. Shakespeare does not explicitly state what makes Brutus cautious about endorsing his friend. When Cassius questions Brutus as to whether or not he would choose Caesar for his king, Brutus replies only, “I would not, Cassius; yet I love him well” (I,ii,82) and then adds that he loves honor more than death (I,ii,89). Brutus’s character is founded on ideals of justice, honor, and government. Cassius, however, is more ambitious and plants the seeds of Caesar’s demise into Brutus’s head. Cassius’s brilliant, and ultimately convincing speech reads:

“Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world

Like a Colossus, and we petty men

Walk under his huge legs and peep about

To find ourselves dishonourable graves.

Men at some time are masters of their fates:

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,

But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?

Why should that name be sounded more than yours?

Write them together, yours is as fair a name;

Sound them, it doth become the mouth as well;

Weigh them, it is as heavy; conjure with ‘em,

Brutus will start a spirit as soon as Caesar.

Now, in the names of all the gods at once,

Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed

That he is grown so great? Age, thou art shamed!

Rome, thou hast lost the breed of noble bloods!” (I,ii,135-151)

Cassius knows that nobility, honor, and justice are the keys to convincing Brutus. Cassius reinforces fears that Rome is splintering and being taken over by unworthy and uneducated classes. The fact that Julius Caesar rose from poverty, used plain speech, and created programs for the poor is all slightly absurd to the elite. Cassius knows how much a name means to Brutus, and also how little it means to Caesar. Even though Brutus replies, “I am nothing jealous,” the seed has been planted. And I do believe Brutus, his mission is not out of jealousy or even straight ambition. Rather, I believe he truly abhors the idea of a fallen Rome, one in which anyone can rule, regardless of nobility and lineage. To me, Brutus acts as though he believes himself to be Rome’s savior.

Unfortunately, Brutus does not understand politics, the people, or the time. In Act III, at the moment when Brutus and the conspirators murder Caesar, Caesar faces his friend and murderer. He speaks the famous line: “Et tu, Brute! Then fall, Caesar!” (III,i,77). After Caesar’s death, chaos ensues. Antony decides to appeal to the conspirators and so he sends his servant to Brutus with the message that “Brutus is noble, wise, valiant and honest” (III,i,127). Of course, Brutus admits Antony and the two discuss how to calm the growing crowds. In this meeting, Antony commits two noteworthy acts. First, he asks to be killed along with Caesar. This theatrical display is meant to demonstrate loyalty. The conspirators will have no more blood on their hands, though. Instead, they ask Antony to join them in representing Rome. And quickly, perhaps too quickly, Antony agrees and asks to shake each bloody hand (III,ii). However, Antony is keenly aware of the precarious situation. He appeals to Brutus’s nobility and honor more than anything and then requests to speak at Caesar’s funeral. After agreeing to let Antony speak, Brutus thinks to give himself the upper hand by speaking first. And so it is decided that Brutus will first appeal to the crowd and then Antony may address the public in the way of a formal ceremony.

Brutus gives a perfectly serviceable speech. He speaks with candor and humility. He speaks of friendship and duty. He speaks reasonably. Antony, however, follows with a knockout speech. (Also, watch Damian Lewis perform Antony’s funeral speech. ) He utilizes poetic device, repetition, and emotion. He praises Brutus many times, but ends his speech: “O judgment! Thou are fled to brutish beasts,/ And men have lost their reason” (III,ii,109-10). “[B]rutish” is very nearly Brutus. In other words, those who used to represent the epitome of reason now make no sense. Clearly, Antony knows people whereas Brutus knows the law. But who is to be believed? Did Caesar offer all the money and favors to the poor in earnest? What part of Antony’s speech is theatrics and what part real?

I think it matters very little whether one finds this play more reflective of Shakespeare’s time or Roman times. Though 1,000 years separates Roman speeches from Shakespeare’s play, the characters play large roles still played out today. A number of sources (Plutarch included) have noted Antony’s eloquence and Brutus’s honor, but do they act virtuously? To me, the play demonstrates larger human truths with which we still wrestle (and likely always will): what is justice, virtue or nobility? Who demonstrates it and how are we to judge of honesty?

In hindsight, we also know that in the future, Antony’s passions and ambition will overcome his reason and good-will. These faults only grow larger with his rise to fame. So, we are left with a scenario where either Brutus pursues nobility to a fault or Antony overindulges at everyone’s expense. The irony is that good and bad elements were always present in their characters and in their political rhetoric, but it took time to discover which trait would dominate.

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From King to Rankine

January 18, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Every Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I enjoy rereading some of Dr. King’s remarkable works. As a culture, we are still coming to terms with his life, his death, and his very beautiful words. Personally, his words resonate with me in any number of ways. Foremost, perhaps, is the fact that he calls for honest (and perhaps painful) dialogue. The “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” for example, is a rational response to eight clergymen who called King’s activities “unwise and untimely.” In this letter, King writes that he cannot respond to all criticism, but he wants to address their particular concerns because he feels that they “are men of genuine good will” and that their “criticisms are sincerely set forth.” This, then, is a necessary prerequisite to any actual dialogue: the open-minded ability to weigh another person’s argument.

This same element of discussion is being embraced throughout America in a number of ways. I recently listened to an OnBeing podcast of a discussion between Claudia Rankine, the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University and founder of The Racial Imaginary Institute, and Krista Tippett. My favorite moment of this discussion is perhaps also one of the more uncomfortable moments in which Krista Tippett takes for granted the idea that in the ‘70s or ‘80s American society had moved past race. Claudia Rankine interrupts her and says, “Don’t say ‘surely we were past this.’” She means to say that the more nuanced elements of racism linger in ways that outsiders can hardly imagine and so while some people saw progress, others were still seeing perpetuated injustices like disproportionate incarceration rates. The moment is slightly uncomfortable, but the result is a shared understanding, which to me is the greatest achievement of dialogue. Not all moments will be successful or transcendent, but these small moments work toward a greater good. The transcript of this section reads:

Ms. Tippett: Well, right. But I think there are reasons to feel that, to be nervous. And it’s interesting, because there aren’t that many people, even just given this conversation - there aren’t that many people like Eula [Biss], saying, let’s talk about whiteness. Let’s talk about whiteness. There was actually a moment in that conversation with her where - two white people talking about whiteness, and we both agreed that it was mortifying and embarrassing and messy. Part of it is, you feel like, surely, we were past this. We shouldn’t be having to have this conversation at this advanced age. She talked about how —

Ms. Rankine: Krista, don’t say that. Don’t say, “Surely we were past this.”

Ms. Tippett: I think that’s one reason people feel awkward, because we’re still getting over from this cathartic five years —

Ms. Rankine: No, but you know: mass incarceration — you know what’s happening.

Ms. Tippett: I know.

Ms. Rankine: So not “surely” — I mean, those things were always happening.

Ms. Tippett: They were, but I think people who grew up in the ’60s and ’70s and ’80s and ’90s were born into a world in which they were told that yes, sure, it wasn’t perfect yet, but we were inexorably moving past it. That’s an instinct. And now we’re having to unlearn and say, actually, we weren’t anywhere. We just made baby steps. That’s what I mean.

Ms. Rankine: OK, OK.

I appreciate Claudia Rankine’s persistence and care with speech, and also her patience to understand Krista Tippett’s response. I also appreciate Krista Tippett’s ability to explain what she meant and how she meant it. Subjects such as racism are personal and offensive and often instill hateful rhetoric. To me, this conversation demonstrates necessary elements of reason, patience, and open minds.

It is important, perhaps vital, to note the moments when people disagree. As a leader of conversations, I try to take advantage of those awkward moments, which is not always easy (or successful). The conversation between Rankine and Tippett reminded me, once more, of Dr. King’s words. More than anything, he is frustrated by the “appalling silence of good people.” He writes that “injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

This conversation deals specifically with elements of race, but dialogue is a necessary aspect of all human relations. I find that the more we practice open-minded listening, the better we will become as a society.

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