Heritage and Language in WHEREAS

After Poet X, we shifted to a consideration of Layli Long Soldier’s WHEREAS, which sparked some fantastic conversations regarding the continuing failure of America to address the historical and contemporary treatment of American Indians. These conversations included more than just the historical or economic facts. Long Soldier reveals to us how issues of conflict and reconciliation are entangled with language, and that language is, in turn, entangled with the self. To take just one example, the loss for words that the speaker experiences, one that she tries to address in various ways (such as by asking her father for the Lakota word for “tired”), is also a loss resulting from an ongoing process of erasure of the Lakota people. Long Soldier is challenging us to note how America is continuing this process of erasure today, even through the resolution of apology that Congress passed in 2009, and that erasure extends through the self, disrupting even our ability to think about the erasure or talk about it with each other. I used the word “our” because it would be a mistake to isolate this issue to just the experience of Layli Long Soldier. In referencing the 2009 Congressional Apology (passed by our representatives in D.C.), she is making clear that we are all implicated and affected in this erasure.

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We had a number of thought-provoking student presentations. One topic covered was the issue of the best terminology to use, with the best name to use for a people being, if possible, the name of the specific nation, such as “Lakota,” rather than a general term. When speaking generally, however, we learned that “Native American” has often been used, but many prefer “American Indian” or “Indigenous American.” We looked closer at the history of the 38 Dakota men hung during the largest legal mass execution in American history, which occurred the same week as the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.  We also considered the disparately high level of poverty, suicide, and violence experienced today by American Indians, with that violence including a substantial amount of violence committed by non-American Indians against American Indians. The sense I received from you was your desire for positive action, rather than words of apology that do little to improve the lives of individuals.

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We considered these issues while also thinking about “heritage” and “language” as topics for considering our ongoing question regarding the benefits and hurdles of a pluralist society. For some, a rich sense of heritage can be a crucial part of individual identity; others in our class felt that their own historical heritage was something that had been largely lost to the more general feeling of being an “American.” This leads to important points of potential conflict when different individuals feel the defining pressures of different heritages, whether historical or a more amorphous feeling of an American heritage.

These issues become compounded when we consider language use, including whether that language is English or not. As part of this consideration, we learned about “Différance,” a term coined by Jacques Derrida. My handout on the term can be found here. What I hope you take away from this is a sense of two things. First, that how we make distinctions, including between people, is entangled with the functioning of the language we speak: how that language defines words through differences to other words. Second, meaning is never something that is just in some word, such as “rabbit,” or in the understood connection of a word to some thing in the real world. Rather, meaning is something that occurs within a web of meaning in which we always, at some point, take for granted that meaning exists. An important consideration, therefore, is to delve into how such differences and such assumptions turn upon the thought and activity of the language use of those who speak it.

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To restate this last point, Layli Long Soldier is showing how the thought and actions of Americans affects the meaning and use of language, both the English language and the many languages of American Indians. The lack of thought and lack of action of Americans is reflected in an inadequacy to address, for example, Long Soldier’s Lakota heritage. This inadequacy of language can be seen in the strange gaps and spaces that Long Soldier shows us in her poetry, with those gaps being felt within the speaker, not just as a surface level presentation of words. Yet this inadequacy is also felt in the words of the 2009 Congressional Apology. Perhaps the emptiness of the Apology hides itself better through the coverage of numerous words and the mask of official formality, yet Long Soldier is pointing out how inadequate all those words are. The words merely blanket an erasure of heritage that Long Soldier’s speaker makes intimately clear. Thinking about language reveals, I hope, that these inadequacies of language are entangled with an inadequacy of thought and an inadequacy of action of the general American population.

Long Soldier’s critique should thus also demonstrate the necessity for poetry. How do we show an absence? How do we show a lack of thought? How do we show that which language is too inadequate to present? How do we use language to convey a meaning for which no word exists? How do we convey a meaning that is being erased along with the people who speak it? Faced with such challenges, language must resort to all the resources at its disposal, including through choices about how to break a sentence over multiple lines or how to space words across the page. Poetry is “weird” because every resource of language becomes necessary when the challenge is to convey what language cannot easily present. A poet like Long Soldier works in the blank space where dictionaries fail and where meaning cannot be easily paraphrased. Our challenge, as readers, is to feel the contours of what Long Soldier’s words reveal–much like metal filaments sprinkled over invisible lines of magnetic force. That challenge is worthwhile to address because that space is, too, a place where contemporary thought all too often fails: a space where our human linguistic software is entangled with error.

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Whitman, Poet X, and Our Essential Questions

In class, we have begun discussing what growing up in America is like today. Our class has so far read through two-thirds of Elizabeth Acevedo’s Poet X. We have also read, as a point of comparison, selections from Walt Whitman’s poems, including “One’s Self I Sing,” “I Hear America Singing,” and “Salut au Monde!” The first two poems are Whitman looking inward at America and emphasizing the particulars of the individuals within America. His catalogs of individuals serve the purpose of defining the larger group. Whatever America is, Whitman is arguing, it encompasses and celebrates each of the singular individuals he presents.  In comparison, “Salut au Monde!” is Whitman looking outward at the rest of the world. Again, Whitman is cataloging the world, and in so doing he is defining a global sense of humanity. At the same time, his posture toward that world is important: he ends by holding up a welcoming hand and declaring in French, “Hello World!”  There is some parallel here between Whitman’s outward facing raised hand of “hello” to the world and the raised torch of the Statue of Liberty (gifted after Whitman’s poem to the U.S. by the French), which is also outward facing toward the world. These two modes of perspective (looking in at ourselves or looking out at the world) can each play a part in defining what America is.

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Our class discussion of Poet X has yielded a growing list of details based on the text that you have decided seem either general to growing up in America today or particular to specific upbringings that may vary depending on the household or community:

General

  • Male sexual attention
  • Moral rules of courtship
  • Insufficient authority over one’s own life
  • Censorship
  • Having your first “crush”
  • Expectations of men as being the “protector”
  • Care for someone means fighting for that person if need be.
  • Rebelling against the moral rules we are taught

Particular

  • Individual authority over spiritual questions
  • Draconian parents
  • Emotionally absent parents
  • Parental advocacy for religion
  • Having your first “crush” be negatively associated with drug addiction or bad behavior
  • Relationships supported and framed through music
  • Favored musical genres
  • Whether someone has a sufficient “care network”
  • Whether authority figures are “hard liners” or permit more “fuzzy” lines
  • How large a community is, with “community” here perhaps entailing small groupings within a large city
  • What form of punishment is accepted

There were also two details that the class thought hovered somehow between “General” and “Particular” and that the class was divided on categorizing:

  • Receiving the sexual attention of much older men
  • Caring for someone means personally and physically fighting for that person now, rather than contacting an authority figure instead.

The listed items above generally relate to the following topics:

  • Sexual attention
  • Religion
  • Parents
  • Censorship
  • Negative associations
  • Music
  • Care networks
  • Hard lines vs. “fuzzy” lines
  • Community size
  • Punishment
  • Heritage
  • Individual vs community

In addition, I pointed out that we will be discussing the following additional topics specifically over the course of the semester:

  • Home
  • Family
  • Language
  • Aliens
  • Fences
  • Crossing
  • Americans
  • Beliefs
  • The majority/Congress
  • The courts
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In class, after some individual free writing, I tasked six groups of you to think about all of the above and propose one “essential” question that you think we should keep returning to for the rest of the semester. The questions you came up with were the following:

  • How do our surroundings (community, family, friends, ect.–or the lack thereof) affect who we are?
  • To what extent should punishment control who you are?
  • What factors can counterbalance the negative effects of a difficult or absent relationship with a parent?
  • How does race, ethnicity, language, and religion play into or change the definition of “American”?
  • How can America support maintaining cultural identity?
  • What should we value more, the beliefs of a person’s culture or the person’s individual beliefs?
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After a vote in which each of you who were present anonymously voted for two questions, your combined votes selected the three essential questions below that we will be focusing on for the rest of the semester. These three questions are all quite interesting. I am pleased and impressed with what the class has picked. I will post these at the top of our class calendar. Remember, class online discussion posts focusing on these questions will start next week. Here is the online discussion post assignment sheet.

Course Essential Questions

  • Essential Question #1: How do our surroundings (community, family, friends, ect.–or the lack thereof) affect who we are?
  • Essential Question #2: How does race, ethnicity, language, and religion play into or change the definition of “American”?
  • Essential Question #3: What should we value more, the beliefs of a person’s culture or the person’s individual beliefs?