Daring to Confront Race and Class through Poetry in Trumplandia

My mind is racing, as it always will
My hands tired, my heart aches

“Half a World Away,” R.E.M.

Writing specifically about Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and drawing on powerful words from Toni Morrison, Jocelyn Chadwick, president-elect of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE), argues in We Dare Not Teach What We Know We Must: The Importance of Difficult Conversations:

Our ELA classrooms take our children around the world and beyond—into past, present, and future worlds. We provide safe and trusted spaces for them where difficult conversations can and do take place. If at times teachers, at whatever level they teach, hit a roadblock, perhaps this impediment is due to or own predilections of codifying our students, stereotyping them before we even listen to them, much less get to know them….[T]he last time I checked, we teach students—not colors, not types. Perhaps it is we who need to stop and reread all of the texts we teach from the 21st-century perspective of students’ empowerment— empowerment that our literature provides….It has been some of us who have been demurring, listening to the voices of others, telling us we dare not teach what we know we must. (p. 91)

Published in English Journal in the month the U.S. elected Donald Trump, Chadwick’s confrontation of “some of us who have been demurring” and “difficult conversations” resonates in ways, I suspect, that even Chadwick may not have anticipated.

Toni Morrison’s words after the election also serve teachers of English Language Arts in the same way that Chadwick anchors her argument about our classrooms, the literature we explore, and the discussions we encourage and allow:

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

In Morrison’s lament, we must recognize the weight of both race and social class on the American character. Morrison confronts white privilege and the consequences of that privilege being eroded: “These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.”

As teachers of ELA, it is ours to dare, to dare to teach openly against the world within which our students live and within which our classrooms exist. In the spirit of Chadwick’s call to re-read, and I would add re-teach, literature in that light, please consider how Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” from her collection Another America/Otra America provides “safe and trusted spaces” for investigating the increased problems with race and social class in 2016 America.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator”

Kingsolver is best recognized as a novelist—notably for her The Poisonwood Bible—but she is also a brilliant essayist, a skillful poet, and an activist who lives her activism.

Her sole collection of poetry, Another America/Otra America, reflects the essential political nature characterizing all of Kingsolver’s work and is published as a bi-lingual collection of Spanish and English versions of all poems (Rebeca Cartes translates Kingsolver’s original English into Spanish).

“What the Janitor Heard in the Elevator” provides traditional opportunities to highlight the craft of writing and of poetry, including (through which I will discuss the poem more directly later):

  • The importance and power of titles.
  • Word choice, connotation, and framing/motifs.
  • Pronouns and ambiguity.
  • Character and plot in genres/modes beyond fictional narratives.

To frame the poem in the context of the world within which our students live, however, means that students should be allowed and even invited to connect Kingsolver’s craft with the tensions in public discourse about race and class after the election of Donald Trump—concerns about “deplorables” and debates about if and how to understand white anger/fear as well as the increased focus on the white working class.

The poem reads in full:

The woman in the gold bracelets tells her friend:
I had to fire another one.
Can you believe it?
She broke the vase
Jack gave me for Christmas.
It was one of those,
you know? That worked
with everything. All my colors.
I asked him if he’d mind
if I bought one again just like it.
It was the only one that just always worked.

Her friend says:
Find another one that speaks English.
That’s a plus.

The woman in the gold agrees
that is a plus.

A first reading of the poem should include asking students about the janitor in the title—Who do they see? Is that janitor they envision black or brown? What do they notice about the presence of the janitor in the poem itself?

Here, the students can see how racialized their perceptions are, and then discuss the tension between the janitor being in the elevator and the title, but invisible in the lines of the poem.

How does the poem create a space to discuss the marginalization of people by race, by profession, and by social class?

This central question is further complicated in the poem’s use of color imagery, diction, and pronouns.

In the first line “gold bracelets” triggers social class that shades the conversation between friends (again, who do students see when they imagine these women?) that is being overheard by the janitor in the elevator. Voiceless and seemingly invisible to these women with at least relative affluence, the janitor may represent those same conditions in the U.S. for people of color and people from the working class.

The comments by the “woman in the gold bracelets” are layered and coded:

  • She refers to her fired domestic help as “one” and then also refers to the broken vase as “one”—the ambiguity of the pronoun usage reducing the worker to an object.
  • Word choices such as “worked” and “colors” connote “worker” and “colored” if we extend the poem to race and social class.
  • The suggestion in her comments (“another one”) triggers the implication that the worker is expendable, replaceable, just as the vase may be, although the women appears more concerned about replacing the vase.

And then, the friend’s response forces the reader to reconsider or re-examine a first read with “one that speaks English”—more directly invoking the race and nationality of the worker and opening a door to the political and public debates about undocumented workers.

Presented with a bi-lingual collection, how many students initially see a black man as janitor, but then after the friend’s comment, rethink that assumption since the poem appears to be interrogating the tensions of race, class, and language between whites and Latinx?

The final two lines bring the reader back to “gold,” which frames the poem in color imagery that speaks to materialism and affluence as well as opulence.

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Chadwick quotes Morrison on teaching: “Open doors, let them in, give permission, and see what happens. Students make you think. I learn faster and more when I am teaching.”

And while I am skeptical of universality, I am enamored by the enduring that is art, that is literature. Kingsolver’s poem opens doors for her readers—to the enduring tensions of race, social class, and language; to the specter of invisibility and what Arundhati Roy has explained as: “We know of course there’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced, or the preferably unheard”; and to debates about naming racism and racists.

All texts, all poetry, and then this poem—as Chadwick acknowledges, “we teach students” who live in a flawed and complex world not of their making.

Teachers of ELA have unique responsibilities to engage with out students and the world through the texts we choose and the texts students choose as open doors into the world that our students could build instead.

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