Home and Family in Poet X

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?

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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.

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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.

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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?