Poetry at Millsaps Today

Earlier today, Millsaps College had scheduled the Jamaican poet Claudia Rankine to visit campus and read her poetry. She’s the Frederick Iseman Professor of Poetry at Yale University, and unfortunately her flight was snowed in, so she couldn’t make it. In her place, three local poets and authors — and one undergraduate sociology student — read from her poetry and discussed it. The topic of race came up quite a bit, of course, as it is a central concern of Rankine’s poetry, but one point that came out about Rankine’s poetry is that it didn’t offer any solutions to the problems of race. One of the worst of these problems is how we tend to be intractably identified with a series of racial characteristics that seem to define our behaviors for others even before we act. Her poetry seems to hope that if these problems with race are presented clearly enough that others could eventually discover solutions.

Her Jamaican origins got me thinking about Caribbean history and, by extension, postcolonial theory. One of the central problems with Caribbean identity is that it is hard to define: for the most part, any original islanders have long since been gone, so that island populations tend to be a mix of Africans, Indians (from India), Native Americans, and a variety of Europeans. Compounding the problem is the fact that few, if any, islands have a single European identity. Islands tended to change hands among the British, French, Spanish, and other European nations throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth century as treaty concessions.

So the question left with Caribbean nations — once they cut loose of the last European country to have colonized them — is, “Who are we?” They are too distanced from their African heritage to claim that as their own, and they are not just African anyhow. They seldom have a single European language or background, and if they did, it would be oppressive, so why keep that?

One solution that has come up, however, is the idea of hybridity. History has left most Caribbean nations a diverse mix of a variety of European, African, and Indian influences. They have been left by history a hybrid of many cultures and languages, and once they realized that, they realized they could form a new cultural and national identity out of that hybridity.

And then I realized the United States is a hybrid nation as well. And more personally, that I am a hybrid person. I grew up in a brand new Southern Californian subdivision alongside Scottish, Irish, Chinese, Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese, African-American, Puerto Rican, and mixed-race families. One couple was a Chinese man married to an African-American woman. Now when I say these families were Scottish, etc., I don’t mean really American with some Scottish background in the distant past. As Puerto Ricans we were all citizens of the United States from the start, but my mother grew up in Puerto Rico, as did my father’s mother, and Puerto Rico is very different culturally from the rest of the United States. Everyone else my age was first generation: first generation Scottish, Chinese, Irish, Mexican, etc. Their parents had moved to the US from those countries. My Chinese friend’s father didn’t even speak English yet.

So what is my culture? So Cal suburban? Yes, but a pretty diverse one, with many different languages, habits, and foods. But there’s more to it than that. I started thinking about Black culture and how much it made up my environment, and I realized that Black culture was a part of me. Among the hybridity that I experienced personally was a Black cultural identity. That was part of it too.

And while I realize this notion of hybridity is not an all-encompassing solution, I think it does present one possibility: every Black person in the United States can look at every white person in the United States and say, “My culture helped form who you are. It formed your history, your literature, your music, your art, your drama, your film, your sports, your science, your engineering. That means, like it or not, you’re part black. It’s not just that, as an American, I am part of your society. It’s that, as an American, you are part of mine.”

How might that change the terms of the discussion?

An Open Letter to President Trump

Dear President Trump:

In this letter, I’m going to presume to give you advice about how to make the adjustment to being President. It’s important to me because, like it or not, your decisions affect the world, including the world immediately around me. I was at first hesitant to write this letter because I don’t know anything about being President, but then I realized. . . neither do you. On that equal footing, then, here goes.

I understand that you’re used to running businesses. You’re used to being either the owner or an owner of some business or another. As such, you’re probably used to seeing your employees as generally dispensable entities whose primary existence is to benefit you. (It’s not that I think all business owners think that way. I just think you’re one of those that do.) Because everyone’s pay is dependent upon your profit, you’re used to seeing your own personal wealth as equivalent to everyone else’s sustenance, and you expect everyone else to see it that way too. And since you’re the owner, you think that your mistakes are yours to make, not anyone else’s to correct, because you stand the most to lose from them, and as the owner you assume that you know your business best of all anyhow. And either way, if you don’t like someone, or if they’re not working out, you can fire them. After all, it is you that they are working for.

I would like to suggest that none of that experience really applies to your current position as President. As President, you’re not the owner or the boss of anything, and in fact you’re not supposed to be that — with the exception of personal effects and private property. See, the nation, the government, the economy, and everything that you use related to that — everything that you’re surrounded with on a daily basis — none of it belongs to you. At most it belongs to the Office of the President and, by extension, to the American people, but the really big things actually belong to everyone and no one. We all own this system to the extent that we’re engaged in it, but none of us owns it to any significant degree.

In fact, the truth is exactly the opposite: it doesn’t belong to you. You belong to it. You belong to the government now. You belong to the people around you. You belong to everyone who works for you, to everyone who voted for you, and most importantly, even to everyone who voted against you. They are your boss. You are not theirs. You cannot fire the American people, but we can fire you. The point here is that you’re no longer the boss. You’re an employee. And a very special kind of employee: a servant. In your position, that is the highest kind of employee. No one is required to cater to you. In fact, what you’re going to be faced with is a seemingly incorrigible mass of people who seem to work hard against their own interests, often refuse to act as they should, and quite often act instead in self-defeating ways. And all the while, they still expect you to work for them and be happy about it.

Yes, it’s a horrible job, but you wanted it,  you accepted it, and now you’re in it, so you need to understand it. Your job as President is bigger than you, more important than you, and — we all know it, even if you won’t admit it — far beyond you.

So what I suggest you do now is this:

  1. Quit lying so much.
  2. Quit expecting validation. Related to this, tell your surrogates to show some respect.
  3. Accept responsibility for the hostility you’ve created and the divisions you’ve caused.
  4. Apologize for the horrible things you’ve said and done.
  5. Shut up.
  6. Listen.

This is just my advice. Of course, I don’t know anything. But I know that one thing: that I don’t know anything. That’s traditionally a very good place to start.

Twenty Things I Learned on My Trip to Florida…

1. Pickle flavored sunflower seeds are very good.

2. BBQ flavored sunflower seeds are eh. Not bad.

3. My wife is like the recalcitrant whatever it is in Green Eggs and Ham. She would not try a single, pickle-flavored sunflower seed despite high praise for them from everyone else in the car.

4. I’m watching Fox News in the hotel breakfast area. In the exact same breath that they say we need to put aside our differences and unite behind Trump, they condemn President’s Obama’s actions toward Israel as being completely and uniformly wrong — when at most he’s issuing a long overdue, mild rebuke for some of Israel’s worst actions. You must think like a trained monkey if you can’t see through this.

5. My daughter Grace observes her environment, thinks ahead, and does her best to be helpful. She’s amazing.

6. I have been in the habit of buying everyone the same kind of gift every Christmas. One year it was watches. Another year it was pocket knives. This year it was fountain pens. My daughter Beka got everyone in the Mississippi contingent bobbleheads. Grace got Bernie Sanders. Penn got a Pokémon. Etc.

7. I got Cthulhu.

8. I-10 should be renamed “The Franz Kafka Memorial Highway.” I will start a White House petition for this when I get back.

9. Except that the Suawnee River sign has a little bar of music along the bottom edge of it, which is great for a state road sign.

10. It was hilarious watching my wife and youngest daughter do Yoga in bed together. I wish I had video.

11. But listening to the voice of the breathy, female yoga instructor without seeing the video was disturbingly like listening to a director’s voice-over for a porn video: “Now shake your head back and forth. It won’t hurt.” Or for a space-horror film like Alien: “Now breathe your legs into your chest.”

12. The Saga graphic novel is really very good, thank you, Steven.

13. To the exact extent that Extended Stay America’s “Continental Breakfast” is lame, Holiday Inn’s is very good.

14. If you’re traveling with five people, you may still save money by paying a bit more daily for a place with a good breakfast. We stayed at an Extended Stay so that we could make at least breakfast in the morning, but that didn’t work out too often, and you still need to buy groceries. I think we would have saved money or broke even staying at a better hotel that actually had a good breakfast.

15. Best of all, there is now a 3-D printer for pancakes at the breakfast bar. A Facebook friend of mine also called it a “Pancake Keurig.” That works too.

16. ALABAMA!

17. My friend Julian told me about this great record shop in Mobile in which the guy tells stories about the rock stars he knew. I shall have to visit when I’m not driving through.

18. It’s amazing how big a mess three kids can make in a car with sunflower seeds. Buy the kind without shells.

19. I have never looked forward to getting my car detailed until now.

20. When I told my wife that I was writing a list of everything I learned on my trip, she said, quietly and rapidly, “Oh God.”