toni mcnaron's garden

Academic Colonialism

When I began my career teaching literature at the University of Minnesota in 1964, I lectured.  That’s how I’d been taught as an undergraduate and graduate student, occasionally by brilliant lecturers who gave me hoards of facts and concepts, some of which I still remember.  I spent untold hours researching my authors and works and then shaping all that into 50 minutes packages that seemed to captivate and please my students.  Then this country increasingly involved in the Vietnamese War and students at Minnesota, like students all across the country, began protesting.  There came a moment here when they would politely come up to us faculty members, show us little wallet-sized cards on which was printed “Crime Against Silence.”  If we took one, it meant we were agreeing not to remain silent if we were at some social gathering where someone defended the US’s sending more and more troops to that little country.  I signed the back of mine and carried it on my person.  Once I even had to do what I’d promised and speak up about my own resistance to all the killing that was going on there.

As that war dragged on, student protests became more organized until on my campus small groups began picketing many buildings on campus where we held classes.  This presented many faculty with a choice–were we or were we not going to go inside our buildings and teach our classes?  Because my father had been a paycheck to paycheck worker at his mill, he was not paid if there were a strike against the huge company which was a subsidiary of U.S. Steel in Pittsburgh.  He taught me that crossing a picket line set up by such workers was a very bad thing to do, so I knew I was not going to walk past the young men and women outside the English Department building.  Unlike some of my colleagues, however, who say this as a classy way to avoid teaching for a while, I also knew that I wasn’t going to stop teaching Shakespeare and Milton.  So I contacted several undergraduates until I found two students who had an apartment they thought would hold all of us and we moved class to the student living section of campus called Dinkytown.   Talking about Hamlet or Paradise Lost in a tiny grungy space seemed just fine to me, the students didn’t complain, and I felt loyal to a precept my father held dear.

Maybe that change of venue dislodged my firm conviction about lecturing, so when I happened to read a short article by some radical professor teaching in California that argued that lecturing to groups of impressionable students was an imposition of our “take” on some subject matter and that there might be value in letting students express their “takes” on the same subject matter, I started to think about how I felt about delivering my carefully crafted and passionately felt words to groups of silent students who wrote down as much of what they heard as they could.  Gradually I came to understand that this pedagogical practice was not unlike what my country was doing in Viet Nam, a place I barely could find on a map and about which I knew almost nothing.  I was colonizing brains so that my students would adopt my way of thinking, never mind what might be rattling around in their own formative minds.  At one point, I remembered the pain I’d experienced as an undergraduate English major at the University of Alabama.  A professor would pose a question about Keats or Shakespeare or Thoreau.  He’d (I only had one female professor in the four years I was an undergraduate) look at hands raised, one of which was mine until I stopped bothering raising it, and call on one of the young men in class.  Rarely was my response solicited, so I eventually just sat quietly, at first holding on to my own reading of our author but finally not even bothering to let my inchoate views develop inside my own brain.

Midway through the “conflict” in Viet Nam, I decided to stop lecturing and start asking students what they thought was going on in our author.  The fact that I had no knowledge or models for conducting discussion classes, my earliest ventures in this new pedagogy were pretty awful.  I’d start class by looking out at the group of eager learners and say something like “Let’s get into small groups and then you talk about what you think is important about King Lear’s anger at his daughter, Cordelia, or why you think Tennyson is so sad over the death of his dear friend Arthur Henry Hallam, or which character appeals to you in To the Lighthouse.  I’d then sit quietly while my poor students floundered or sat in uncomfortable silence, unable to do what I asked with any real competence.  Gradually I began finding articles written by faculty across the country who were similarly experimenting in loosening their hold on what they students were being told to think about their subject matter.  I even attended a faculty seminar run by a professor in the College of Education who actually knew a lot about how to run a rigorous discussion format.  Many of my colleagues in the English Department told me I was “coddling” to student pressures to be allowed to voice their own opinion about the works we assigned them.  As I formulated responses to these accusations of leniency, I came to understand just how deep the lecture method really was colonizing thought as it produced generation after generation of new critics/readers who reproduced what their professors believed to be germane about an author or their writing.

While I and some similarly inclined colleagues were making our clumsy opening attempts to change our method of teaching, groups of black and then Native American and then Hispanic students were forcing the University of Minnesota to listen to their growing demands to have curricula the reflected their histories and struggles and ideas.  I am so grateful that my own personal confrontation with the lecture format came before their demands because that meant I could grasp the very essence of what they were demanding.  They wanted knowledge to include and embrace their worlds and not just continue to perpetuate whiteness as the only academic currency.  I was able to stand with these brave young people as they asked at first quietly but eventually quite loudly because no one was listening to the quiet and logical arguments coming from them.  Finally, the black students, who were the best organized at first, demanded that the President and his staff establish an African American Studies Program.  Though Malcolm Moos, who was that president, was not unresponsive, he couldn’t issue an executive order.  Rather he had to get the Faculty Senate to approve a modest proposal to set up a department and let faculty with some knowledge base begin offering courses while the University hired faculty with direct specialization in African American history or literature or political science.  Too many members of that Faculty Senate had no intention of diverting resources to what they considered to be ancillary at best and irrelevant at worst.  So the students began an extended sit-in in the building that housed the President and his administrative staff.

My immediate impulses were to support this effort in any way I could.  So I signed petitions from faculty that encouraged those in charge to recruit two or three new faculty members with expertise in African American history and culture.  Simultaneously, however, I figured out that the young people sitting in hallways in Morrill Hall needed tangible support, so I would buy foodstuffs that I smuggled in to their groups occupying those hallways.  Eventually President Moos was able to force a few departments in the College of Liberal Arts to begin searches for new faculty.  A small amount of office space was set aside to house a Director and a secretary and our program was born.  Recently, I attended a dance performance (of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company, ironically enough) in Northrup Auditorium, the main venue for large cultural events.   Northrup had also been the primary location for all outdoor protests of the war in Viet Nam and then of the demand for an African American Studies Program.  On an upper floor of the Auditorium a friend and I found the small and powerful exhibit documenting the prolonged sit-in and its leaders.  I remember all the faces and the scenes from hallways in Morrill Hall full of students sitting peacefully outside the President’s office.  And there’s a huge blow-up of the three black students who led the protest demanding the formation of an Afro-American Studies Department:  Horace Huntley, Rose Mary Freeman, and Warren Tucker, Junior.  It’s cold outside so they are in warm jackets with fur-lined hoods and warm gloves.  And the photographer has caught them striding along the Quadrangle sidewalk, smiling and alert, completely focused on where they are going, proud to be together as they speak truth to the academy’s powerful.   The opposite wall of the exhibit is plastered with Western Union telegraphs, typed letters on an assortment of letterheads from law firms or other colleges or local corporations, and many hand-written letters, all to President Moos.  The left half of the wall has letters from those who were violently offended by the fact that undergraduate students dared disrupt traffic in the halls of central administration.  Some told Moos he should expel the students or have police come arrest and jail them, expressed in harsh and at times offensive rhetoric.  The right hand half of the wall contains mail from people thanking the president for his measured responses and for being open to what the students argued for so forcefully.  As I walked from image to image, I felt glad to have been part of the campus during such moments of activist resolve and clarity about what education owed those who had been (and still are) ignored or barely mentioned or (worst of all) misrepresented by those posing as educators.

So I stopped handing down “truths” about British writers from Beowulf to Virginia Woolf for some of the same reasons the anti-war activists picketed our classroom buildings and the black students pressed for curricula based on their history and culture.  We all wanted to move beyond academic colonization of students by empowering them to read and respond to information that could change not only how they thought about some subject matter area, but how they would come to maneuver the world of thought and investigation.  I was in incredibly good company.

5130 Holly Court

Recently I was in Birmingham with a close friend.  We’d flown into the city so we could drive to Montgomery to experience the Legacy Memorial and accompanying museum focused on lynchings in America.  My friend asked if I’d show her where I was born. Reluctant at first to take time away from our going to the 16th Avenue Baptist Church and Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, I eventually agreed.  That meant returning to Fairfield, a near burb of Birmingham, established as a model town when U.S. Steel opened a huge mill they called Tennessee Coal and Iron (TCI to the locals).  As a child, it never made any sense to me that a giant company in Alabama had “Tennessee” in its name .  U.S Steel built a series of small but attractive houses for its white employees, while throwing up shanties for the black miners and factory hands.  That was called the “colored section” and didn’t “model” anything.  My father, mother, and sister lived in one of those little houses on a street whose name surely carried heavy irony–Acadia Terrace.  When Mamie. my mother, got pregnant with me when their doctor suggested that having a second child might help her move out of her two-year old grief over the loss of her own mother, they had to move.  The model home wasn’t big enough for the next arrival.  

They found a railroad or shotgun house–5130 Holly Court–for very little money, and in the late fall of 1936, moved in.  The lot next door as vacant, so Mamie exercised her own version of “squatters’ rights” and turned that large empty space into a stunning garden about which you may read if you look through my old blogs.  One more lot (on which there was a house) ended the white residences and abutted an unpaved alley where the garbage truck drove every day.  On the other side of that alley were a series of poorly constructed homes where lots of “Negroes” lived.  As a young kid, I often found myself playing with kids from those and nearby houses.  My favorite game was marbles because some little black boys taught me how to use the big shooters that they called “roller packers.” I became quite good at this sport and, once in my all-white grammar school, beat boys in my grades more times than they liked.  Of course, there came a moment in those children’s lives and in my own, as we all approached puberty, when everyone’s mother forbad their own child from playing across the color barrier.  My mother told me little Negro children liked to do different things than I did as they got older, though I never could get her to be specific.  I’m sure black mothers told their precious children never to associate with me on pain of severe danger from “the whites.”

I’d been forewarned that the Fairfield I grew up in was no more: all white people had fled once TCI closed and jobs began drying up; the town was currently in a state of extreme economic poverty; houses were left partly burned down or with roofs caved in or had been cleared away leaving vacant overgrown lots.  As my friend and I listened to our radio’s GPS voice telling us where to turn, I realized that the neighborhoods I’d understood to be solidly middle class and white, of course, had indeed seen much better days.  The empty lots and partially burned out or disfigured residences made me feel sad.  And, as we drove to where the mechanical voice said was “your destination is on your left,” I was shocked to see a shoddily built small house that wasn’t mine at all.  My friend suggested we drive around to what would be the back of this flimsy thing, but I realized at some point that I knew a simpler route to get to my old house than our robotic lady, so we tuned her out and I said where to turn in which direction.  Suddenly we were on the real Holly Court and there was my little white house, though right across the street where Kenny and Nancy Myers with whom I played every day for years, there was no house at all.  Just a big field overgrown with vines, tree stumps, and human debris.  Parked at 5130 was a white van with the name of an A.M.E. church on its side, so I knew some minister lived where I was born.  I went to knock on the front door to tell the current resident that I’d been born there and to ask if we might walk around the property.  My friend pointed out that a realtor’s lock box was attached to the front handle, so when no one answered, we just decided to go around back anyway.  The front porch where the white metal glider had lived had been up-graded with windows where we’d just had screens and as we moved toward the still vacant lot, I first saw sturdy steep steps leading from the kitchen back door onto the ground below.  Mamie had forbidden me to use the stairs we had because they were “rickety,” but I’d defied her as usual and sneaked up and down them just to prove I could.

Suddenly, looking at the big vacant lot that no longer boasted formal flower beds, I was stopped short by an miraculous sight:  scores of beautiful light yellow and white jonquils and narcissus were dotting the whole area and were in early spring bloom!  I burst into uncontrollable sobs and my friend held me as I just cried because Mamie would be so delighted to see that someone somehow had kept perennials alive over so many decades.  Not her bulbs, of course, but bulbs nonetheless, lovely bulbs declaring their beauty for any who cared to look.  As we made our way back to the car because the misting rain was becoming a little more substantial, I thought of the lovely little Wordsworth poem about how excited he had been in the early 19th century when he and his sister Dorothy were walking in a part of the Lake Country where they came upon “a host of daffodils.”  And I also flashed to moments in the fiction of Toni Morrison and Jesmyn Ward where these remarkable black women authors locate fierce natural beauty in settings in which black people had been beaten, lynched, or raped by their white owners.

The American author Thomas Wolfe wrote a long and sad autobiographical novel entitled You Can’t Go Home Again.  Written in 1934 and published posthumously in 1940, this novel told the melancholy teenaged me that it was impossible to recapture any of the experiences of our childhoods, that to try is just to rub salt into whatever wounds we may be nursing–and Thomas had many the nursing of which he devoted his considerable writing talent.  Well, certainly it would be impossible for me to re-inhabit that structure on Holly Court if I had any inkling of a wish to do so.  Racism and capitalism surely had made that impossible.  But by humoring my friend’s wish to see where I played as a child, I found those blooming flowers.  They are tangible, full of beauty, entirely connected to life.  And they let me feel a few moments of simple love for a mother with whom I had a keenly vexed relationship way for many years after she died when I was only twenty-seven.

Two Little Poems

The more poems I read these days by writers like Robin Coste Lewis, Tracy Smith, and Claudia Rankine, the more I know deep in my bones that it is this medium that draws me most intensely.  For years, I’ve said, half in jest and half in regret, “When I grow up I want to be a poet.”  Well, there’s not a huge amount of time left for me to make good on that prediction.

These days, I keep sorting through ancient pieces of paper in an effort to cull what will be left for a dear friend to sort through when I die.  I keep unearthing scraps of poems written fifteen, twenty-five, forty years ago, so I’ve been trying to put my winsome saying into practice for a fairly long time.  But I don’t do anything about making new ones, though I often play over in my mind a marvelous first line:  “God is a northwest wind in August.”  What I did manage to do just a couple of weeks ago, however, is revise two short poems about my relationship to two natural elements–the moon and the wind.  Here they are, for whatever they may be worth.


The Wind and I

The wind takes no rest today,
her voice a steady whine.
She whips the lake to waves so high
they frighten and excite.

Windows loosely hung clatter in my ear–
the wind resents me,
safe behind a wall, away from her.

Were I to step outside and meet my Lady Wind
would her whips turn all caresses,
her gale a lullaby?

Her fury beats against the mammoth lake–
her reason?  who’s to say 
since none has seen her to inquire.
Perhaps she just wants access,
access denied by timid me.


The Moon and I

The moon grows very fast:
tonight it’s half itself,
three days ago, a shaving.
I watch it blossom on the way to full.

I differ from the moon–
I inch along each day
towards a circle of my own.

But the angle of decline
persists, and my shadow fills the space
where once was light and air.

Maybe I’ll be full before the snows,
but the Queen of Light outstrips me,
she grows very fast indeed.

At the least, these little poems, revived after a couple of decades, move me a tiny bit closer to writing something fresh.  And even if not, my polishing and sharing them attests to an old longing.  More immediately, doing so leads me to spend time reading two relatively new collections:  American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin (Terrance Hayes) and National Monuments (Heid Erdrich).

Am I Civilized?

Catholic priests are not known for preaching profound sermons, so it’s a blessing that most conform to the idea of making homilies short.  Custom has it that ten minutes is the ideal length.  But every now and then, congregants are surprised, as I was a few Sundays ago when our visiting celebrant began to speak to the Gospel about Jesus’ caring for the afflicted.  He began telling us about something he’d read recently.  It seems that late in life, Margaret Mead, the famous cultural anthropologist, was asked what she considered the earliest sign or marker of civilized life on earth.  The questioner expected her to talk about a beautiful pottery shard or some vessel used by early humans to cook food, or perhaps one of the first discovered cave paintings carved by humanoid artists at the dawn of life as we know it.  After musing over the question for some time, Mead said that she believed the first sign of civilization was a healed human femur bone she had come across on one of her digs.  Her reasoning is profound.  She told the person asking the question that she chose this relic because it told her that someone had had a badly hurt leg but that someone else had tried to help relieve the pain.  Someone had cared about a fellow creature and had extended themself to help that afflicted individual.  

I was sufficiently moved by this story that I made a note about it that I took away with me.  Of course the priest used this story as a springboard for talking about Jesus as a major example of someone who helped heal so many hurting parts of human beings who came to him for assistance.  Toward the end of his homily, he challenged us all to go out of ort way to make a hurt “femur” less painful.  Saint Teresa came to mind because of her simple tenet that these days we are the hands of Jesus, called to do unto the “least of these” that we meet along our journeys.  Then I began thinking that Mead’s idea of being “civilized” dovetails with current discussions about empathy as a fundamental sign of being human.  Similarly, then, being incapable of empathy is a sign that I am unable to break free of my own limited ego with its needs and comfort zones, that I am unable to imagine what a given event or object or set of words might feel like to someone different from me.  SO many examples exist in our current society of people who would walk past the person with the hurt femur, or who would read life from a purely autobiographical perspective, or who let personal discomfort override any more generous emotion.

If I think in political terms, I know that someone who cannot or will not help me if my femur is damaged should not be given power, since s/he will only use that power for personal gain.  Such a person can inflict grave physical or emotional or economic or spiritual harm on other human beings.  Such a person has little or no concept of the common good, and will most likely feel antagonistic because of being afraid of anyone who looks or behaves differently from them.  Diversity is seen as a threat rather than an asset by such individuals.  Advice is less likely to be taken seriously since it may come from someone who may on occasion disagree with or challenge the non-empathetic person.

In my own life, I work hard to remain open to differences of all kinds since I recognize just how limited my own little personal sphere is in relation to the larger world.  And as many voices around me seem just now to speak with such fear and anger about those who do not mirror their own values, I strive to find overt behaviors that resist such approaches.  Most of what I come up with couldn’t qualify as impressive or even consequential, e.g., I now say “hello” to strangers I pass on the sidewalk who are not white like me or who wear clothes that identify their religious beliefs or who are struggling with some kind of handicap or incapacity.  While this simple and tiny gesture won’t change the circumstances of those people’s daily life, it will let them know that I mean them no harm, that I see them if only for the second our paths intersect, perhaps even that I offer the smallest assistance to their vulnerable femur.