Our first focus is on the LatinX culture of New York’s Spanish Harlem today, as reflected in Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X. Her novel in verse depicts that culture and the experience of growing up in it. As she explains in the video of her acceptance of the National Book Award (here), she seldom was able to see examples of herself as she was growing up, and writing the work was important so that others like her could now see themselves and also be seen.
As part of this consideration, we had one student presentation on the possible interconnections between LatinX and Asian Americans, with considerations of how there are general kinds of negative connotations that both groups endure, including the feeling of being “perpetual foreigners.” There were also important differences, with Asian Americans feeling caught within what can seem positive but can also stifling: a conception of Asian Americans as being the “model minority.” This presentation also considered gender roles within both groups and the implicit and explicit belief that “boys are the better child to have.” This led the class into an interesting discussion of why sexual discrimination has been an experience shared widely across cultural groups.
Another student provided more in-depth information on the demographics of Americans of Hispanic descent. We learned that the Hispanic population is the largest minority population in the U.S. and that forms of Protestantism have overtaken a traditional support of Catholicism as the prominent religious faith among Hispanics today. For many, the social connections formed within religious institutions remain an important aspect of social life and identity. This led us to an interesting discussion of Poet X, whose central teenage character rebels against the religious dictates of her mother. Is that rebellion because Xiomara does not believe in religion or because that religion is being forced upon her? And does being Hispanic and Catholic impact her parents reaction to learning that their daughter has a boyfriend?
These interesting conversations were accompanied by our consideration of how home and family impact our individual understanding of our desired pursuit of happiness. In The Poet X, for instance, the demands of home include an explicit threat from Xiomara’s mother that failure to follow religious principles will result in Xiomara being sent to the Dominican Republic. This sparked an in-class consideration of how our homes shape us and continue to follow us throughout our lives, even after we leave. In some ways, Xiomara’s mother has never quite left her former home in the Dominican Republic, and that home continues to impact her understanding of the best route forward for herself and her daughter in America. How much do any of us completely leave our homes and the effects of those homes on our views, speech, mannerisms, and approaches to interacting with others? Interestingly, The Poet X also reveals that our families place demands upon us as well, much like our homes do, but the demands of family and home are not always the same exact thing. For Xiomara, her home has never been the Dominican Republic, meaning that her mother’s universe of “homes” is different than her daughters, even though both are in the same family.
Moving forward, we will continue to consider how there are many considerations that impact our sense of identity and our desired path through life–with home and family being just the first two. These considerations might seem simple, but once we start focusing on how they are the same and how they are different, we can see how they together impact us in dynamic and startling ways.
Finally, we began also considering why to use poetry as the principle medium for this course. Why not short stories? And why such a tight focus on contemporary poetry? To these questions, you have suggested a couple reasons so far. The first is that, since the readings are so contemporary, you have found it easy to relate to the readings, especially The Poet X. Second, you have noted that compared to a chapter of a novel, reading an individual poem is considerable less volume! Of course, none of you are slackers and this point does not mean that poems lack complexity. Far from it! Most poems require multiple readings before they can be understood. Nonetheless, you have appreciated the way that the economy of poetry places emphasis on textual considerations in ways that might be lost within the volume of language that a prose work presents–and I am in full support of you here! The efficiency of poetry is often a key quality that, through the careful selection of words, permits weight to be placed on each and every word, comma, and period in a fashion not paralleled in many prose works. Hopefully, our future poetry readings will continue to efficiently portray American contemporary society in ways that you can relate to and reflect on.