A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the history of American immigration is all about bringing in scab labor to keep down wages and to force established workers to migrate further west. To absorb those waves of immigrants from western Europe (Ireland), southern Europe (Italians, Greeks), and from Asia and India meant that those who had already rooted their lives in the soil would take offense at the newcomers and reject them socially and economically. Of course, the biggest source of immigrants was Africa, and the result of that massive influx of slaves mostly from western Africa stirred up the deepest antipathies of all. Once emancipated, the effort to assimilate African-Americans was thwarted on all sides and continues to be the major cause of social unrest today.
The earliest Americans were drawn from a highly insular, xenophobic people who had enjoyed centuries of monoculture in the British Isles. Their antipathy to even their own immediate neighbors was the stuff of endless war and skirmishes. Scots hated the English, the Irish hated the English, the Welsh hated everybody and clung to their own language and customs as long as they could. Great Britain was a laboratory of exclusionary emotions from top to bottom. The royals isolated themselves from everyone but the church and a standing army; the city folk split off from the working classes and kept to themselves in highly protected neighborhoods like Chelsea and Mayfair, where the ordinary soul was not welcome unless employed at one of the great houses.
Every district of London protected itself from outsiders, and god help the Cockney who might venture into the City, the financial district, and pretend to be a gentleman. Hence, Shaw, an Irishman, got his revenge on the English class system (and snobbery) in his play, Pygmalion (1913), which later morphed into the musical, My Fair Lady (1956), about a Cockney flower-stall girl, Eliza Doolittle, and her voice teacher, Professor Henry Higgins. If you changed an accent, you changed identity. And then you could almost pass for one of the civilized in that stratified, segmented, altogether fragmentary society known as England. The classes were not so much separated by accent and pocketbook as stranded on different islands in an archipelago of the English language.
What made British that way is beyond the scope of my comments here. But it is clear that an island can be a dangerous beginning for the making of a society as sprawly as America’s. If you import a few boatloads of xenophobes from England and expect them to welcome the Native Americans with open arms, think again. After a few dinners together, and a peace pipe or two, the muskets came out and the original citizens of the New World were coldly slaughtered or driven off. The urge to remain pure was vast, backed by religious provinciality and a medieval sense that one was born to a niche and a group ordained by God. The English-speaking had no patience with foreign tongues and customs, and preferred to “exterminate the brutes,” to use Mr. Kurtz’ choice phrase from Heart of Darkness. When slaves arrived, the pressure was turned up even higher; Mexicans were lumped in with the rest of the dark-complexioned and shunned, if not subjected to the same genocidal impulse that eliminated the majority of Native Americans. So much for the innate hospitality of those about to receive endless waves of new tenants to the soil.
A myth sprung up right under the heels of the colonialists that Americans welcomed newcomers to its shores. A century later, in 1876, the centenary of American Independence, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated in New York harbor, the pathway of immigrants entering the New World. The arms of Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty, hold a tablet on which is inscribed the date of the Declaration of Independence. That symbol of American love for all has come to stand for the sweetness and native generosity of Americans. Old Glory, on the other hand, is the symbol of nationalism and the will of the country to consolidate its boundaries and defend them, a la Trumps wall. And it is true that America makes it possible for some newly arrived to elbow their way into the mainstream. It’s an old observation that sports are the gateway of immigrants into American life – first with boxing, where Italians fought their way into acceptance, followed by African-Americans, then Hispanics. Baseball was another, larger arena for immigrant assimilation, soon followed by football. Entertainment was slow to adapt, as when Nat King Cole tried to perform in Las Vegas in the middle 1950s only to hear the boos and the breaking crockery flung at the stage by the otherwise agreeable gamblers present. Vegas was known as the “Mississippi of the West” due to its robust observance of Jim Crow laws. But the Vegas chokehold on diversity relaxed a little by 1960 when Frank Sinatra and the “Rat Pack” refused to play at the Sands unless its newest member, Sammy Davis, Jr. was allowed to have a room at the hotel. The city gave in, not for love of blacks, but for the threat to their purses.
It is hard, sometimes, to square the myth of American pluralism with the reality of brutal racist warfare in the streets and schools. But the need to believe in our generosity is stronger than the will to face the reality of ordinary, day-to-day racist hatred. We choose to ignore (if we’re white) the ongoing push to isolate and render invisible the presence of the Other. Hence, John Howard Griffin’s remarkable journal, Black Like Me (1961), where a Texas white man darkens his skin and shines shoes in the capitals of the South, to feel the rebuke of his white customers and to be excluded from white bathrooms and hotels. Griffin was burned in effigy from a lamp pole in Mansfield, Texas, his home town.
But there is something even deeper than race antipathy at work in American life. How to put it so I can avoid the appearance of being a mere crank in these maters? Diversity seems to grate on people in nearly every walk and calling of life. Take the situation in poetry today – something I know a good deal about. The landscape of poetry seems healthy enough, something like half a million scribblers proudly call themselves poets and seek recognition from a vast hierarchy of journals and reviews. But the real situation of poetry is that a few dozen journals “control” who gets printed; the award system, which is rife with cronyism, recognizes the same two score of poets in the usual contests. The crushing weight of selectivity means that the real diversity of lyric voices is never heard; only a tiny fraction of writers ever reach the pinnacle of, say, The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, etc. At the top of the pyramid of poetry is a tiny enclave of writers who judge each other, reward each other, and hire each other to teach in the creative writing programs. They are the blue bloods of the trade, and are vigorous in excluding everyone else.
It doesn’t seem to bother anyone that a lack of real diversity in poetry means that the same poem is getting written by a select few over and over again, and the public has long since turned away from it. The same can be said of national politics, where a handful of candidates gets the financial support needed to launch campaigns for the Senate, the House of Representative, governorships, etc. A few score of families supply the dynamic scions and daughters who run for office each new term. Diversity is nowhere to be found in these halls of power – and the real diversity goes on living below the radar of the media and commentariat. We never hear a really original idea from any of our usual gang of contenders, just the approved party lines and messages that assure us that no diversity will alter the status quo.
Diversity is hard to find among universities, where a certain model of educator is written in stone for most hiring committees. He or she is eager to embrace the secret codes of the academy, and to foster collegiality, has a strong belief in competition and self-realization. You wonder, sometimes, why it is that a perfectly intelligent, ambitious man or woman gets eliminated from the short list the moment a hiring committee gets underway. Only a few names are left, and they always seem to mirror the lives and attitudes of the committees themselves. Nothing gets out of the latent mass of talent and vision to alter the voice or the course of a university or college.
Diversity is pretty much dead in the halls of academe. As it is in most important institutions in America. The truth is, difference is shunned, the way Native Americans were shunned because of their headdresses, their painted faces, their loin cloths, their straw houses, their embrace of nature, their seemingly untrustworthy souls. We learned to kill diversity the moment it showed its face. And that trend continues, no matter how powerful the myth of inclusion represents us to the world. The present crisis over immigration, of Mexicans, and now of Islam, is merely a new sentence in the dark book of exclusionism, which we copied from our ancestors on John Bull’s island.
Copyright 2016 Paul Christensen