Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The Value of Historical Racism

It’s true that I have used this blog in the past to wish happy birthday to my children or my husband…..I’ve used this blog to mention my anniversary… mother’s death…..and a few other milestones in my personal life, but I’ve never really discussed my children and their academic life.

That’s really not my purpose here.

However, recently Dear Daughter brought home an assignment she received from her literature teacher, and it caught my attention. The smidgen of literature teacher that really IS hidden away somewhere in the darkest places of my being instantly noticed a great assignment, and it was just icing on the cake that Dear Daughter received a score of 100 with the words Superb and Wow written across the paper in red.

The assignment she had been given also had real worth to discuss here since it involved race relations and how we use our own experiences and our daily situations to pass judgment on the strangers we encounter.

Dear Daughter’s assignment involved the poem On the Subway by Sharon Olds.

Here is the original poem:

The boy and I face each other.
His feet are huge, in black sneakers
laced with white in a complex pattern like a
a set of intentional scars. We are stuck on
opposite sides of the car, a couple of
molecules stuck in a rod of light
rapidly moving through darkness. He has the
casual cold look of a mugger,
alert under hooded lids. He is wearing
red, like the inside of the body
exposed. I am wearing dark fur, the
whole skin of an animal taken and
used. I look at his raw face,
he looks at my fur coat, and I didn't
know if I am in his power-
he could take my coat so easily, my
briefcase, my life-
of if he is in my power, the way I am
living off his life, eating the steak
he does not eat, as if I am taking
the food from his mouth. And he is black
and I am white, and without meaning or
trying to I must profit from his darkness,
the way he absorbs the murderous beams of the
nation's heart, as black cotton
absorbs the heat of the sun and holds it. There is
no way to know how easy this
white skin makes my life, this
life he could take so easily and
break across his knee like a stick the way
his own back is being broken, the
rob of his soul that at birth was dark and
fluid and rich as the heart of a seedling
ready to thrust up into any available light.

Sharon Olds is an American poet and author. Previously she was the director of the Creative Writing program at New York University where she currently holds the Erich Maria Remarque professorship. Generally, I would say the majority of her poetry isn’t appropriate for upper elementary or even some middle school age children. She covers some heavy topics including death, sex, and biographical sketches that are heavy with pain and regret at times. Ms. Olds even states of her work, “I have learned to get pleasure from speaking of pain.”

In an interview from The Guardian she states, “"Poems like mine - I don't call them confessional, with that tone of admitting to wrong- doing. My poems have done more accusing than admitting. I call work like mine 'apparently personal'. Or in my case apparently very personal."

On the Subway is obviously written from the point of view of a white woman. Dear Daughter’s assignment was to rewrite the poem from the prospective of the black youth. She and a partner penned the following they titled Light and Dark.

Their poem reads:

A woman and I face each other.
I see through my squinted eyes.
She looks hesitant, almost frightened,
Like she is in a dark valley by herself.
I start drifting off and thinking to myself.
When all of a sudden, I come up with a solution
For her subtle emotions and realize..
Am I the cause of all of this?
We sit on opposite ends of a moving train,
Through darkness with only little light.
The light hits her pale face continuously and
I start to wonder if she even notices I stare through
My hooded eyes.
She glowers at me.
Like l have trapped her in darkness with no light.
She dresses in animal fur while I am wearing jeans
And a hood.
I could easily grab what is hers and make it mine.
But I don’t
While she could easily take what is mine and make it hers.
For I am black and she is white, and in this society it is so
Easy for her; everything is thrown at her and she doesn’t
Even have to try.
While I work all day and night
Praying I won’t lose my job and have to fight even harder
Just to survive.
She probably wonders if I’m planning anything behind
My closed eyes.
But I am wondering the same.
Our ancestors have caused us to be skeptical of each other.
But would we still think this if they had not?
Probably so, because she represents light,
While I represent darkness.

I think it was an interesting assignment. On the Subway would be an excellent piece of poetry to share with students to open up an honest discussion regarding first impressions and how stereotypes of all types work against us.

Students not only had to read Sharon Old’s work very closely in order to complete their assignment, they also had to put themselves in the shoes of the young man and analyze what he might be thinking or feeling. But, I think the meat of this assignment is merely based on how we look and how others view us.

However, an honest look at race relations in this country would include much more than just role-playing. Historian, Robin D.G. Kelley advises, “[Racism] is not about how you look, it is about how people assign meaning to how you look.”

....and how people assign meaning has so much to do with history and historical events.

In 2007, researchers from the University of Texas released a study that concluded black and white children were more likely to find racism unfair if they were taught the history behind racism in America. The study determined white children who had more lessons concerning historical racism were defensive, didn’t accept stereotypical views and had more racial guilt. See the press release here.

Along that line the American Anthropological Association has put together the RACE Project which strives to explain the differences among people and reveals the reality – and unreality – of race.

The main website for the RACE Project can be found here. The interactive exhibit includes historical artifacts, iconic objects, compelling photographs, multimedia presentations, and attractive graphic displays that offer vistors to RACE an eye-opening look at its important subject matter.

The exhibit is traveling around the county…a tour schedule can be found here.

Follow this link to view a video titled History: The Story of Race. It’s a little over eight minutes, but worth viewing and could be a good start for a series of lessons regarding historical racism.

....and that paper my daughter brought home with the very large 100 written on it????

Why it's on my fridge, of course!


Sarah Smith said...

Requiring students to shift roles and write from the perspective of the other character in the poem is a great exercise. Supporting it with information from the RACE Project students will truly gain a deeper understanding of racism. Some of the photographs from the RACE Project made me think about a lesson I would like to try. I think I'll have students write two voice poems taking the viewpoint of a pair of people from a photograph. They would need to include historical facts from the time period as well as analyze the inner workings of both voices. Can't wait to find the right time to try it out! Any suggestions on how to implement?

Theresa Milstein said...

I agree that while it's a wonderful assignment, without discussing some of the background, it only goes so far.

The mirror poem is well-done. She deserved the A.

TS said...

I have to admit I found the original poem uninteresting. From a personal standpoint I just didn't like it. But the idea of having students rewrite a poem is a good idea. It makes them really think about the words, the emotion behind the words and utilize that thought process to create something new.