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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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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