Sunday, April 21, 2013

Chinua Achebe--His Words a Daily Occurance, My SEEK Comrades, Part 1

Chinua Achebe

I have much to be grateful for in my life, as you have read, but one of the richest gifts of my times was teaching and learning in the Queens College SEEK Program from 1965-1995. The program's motto, "Struggle to Learn, Learn to Struggle," was a banner of its times, bearing the markings of so much anti colonial thinking that made speaking about education in a different way, with a different syllabus, so necessary, so rich with possibilities. From "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed" by Paolo Freire to the writings of Fannon and Memi, we, the students and teachers of SEEK, sort to map a new world of learning on the almost exclusively  white campus of Queens College, a map that spoke to the histories of our students and more and more of our teachers, almost exclusively people of color and people marked by the iron grip of colonial superstructures.

I too had to be educated to see the world through different texts, to move beyond my European and American literary immersion, to find the needed split words, the languages of forced passage, the complexities of culture and colonization, the longings, the rages, the strength, the refusals to be the so reduced "known" thing: As the Afro-Cuban poet Nicolas Guillen wrote in his poem, "My Last Name,"  are you sure you have all my particulars, where does my great great African grandfather live in these letters, his history drowned in the Middle Passage. Those oceans of loss had to become my oceans as well.
Nicolas Guillen, Cuban poet, 1902-1986

Here starts a longer entry where I give my thanks to the poets, novelists and thinkers, my colleagues, whom I lived with for thirty years, and in my heart still do, as we pursued an educational dream that asked other questions, honored other histories of resistance and analysis, other poetic languages then the "canon" allowed. An educational world of the deep American 1960s and beyond.

Okonkwo, bearing the weight of his people, was a constant companion as we read our way through Achebe's novel. Year after year, we wrestled too with the cultural losses, the deaths of beloved sons and impossible choices or none at all. Okonkwo faced Oedipus in our classes, their bloodied visages bringing alive Aeschylus' definition of tragedy. This was always our challenge, to enrich all worlds of literature with each other, but always finding the poetics of misused power and its tragic consequences.  And the hope of resistance.

Now I will call up the voices, the imaginations that lived in our classrooms and whose visions still inhabit me.
I brought with me to this island home the paperback books I taught from, heavily marked with what I wanted my students to take in. Much they understood without me, better then me and many of the works they could read in their original language. Maryse Conde's Tituba and Hester, holding each other in their jail cell, both punished for their strength, both holders of subversive knowledges in the face of Puritan certitudes have never left me. As Angela Davis wrote in the 1994 Ballentine edition,
"Tituba's impassioned efforts to revoke her own disappearance from history--Maryse Conde's fictional re-vision of her story is Tituba's revenge. Throughout her life, she recoils before the prospect of extracting revenge, for fear of becoming like those who are responsible for her misery. This transcendent revenge--the retelling of a history that is as much mine as hers--allows her to save herself without taking one the historical characteristics of the colonizers and the slaveholders she detested."

Maryse Conde
The paper I used to mark the pages to be shared are turning yellow, but Tituba's words, "I do not belong to the civilization of the Bible and Bigotry....I was born to heal not to frighten...I only know how to offer consolation" are there waiting for me. 

You may wonder why I chose to create this collage at this time, when all are speaking of chaos and sad deaths in the streets of Boston, when  a confused 19 year old boy-man awaits the arrival of his denying mother in his hospital bed while our nation calls for his death, while wars we launched have come home to our streets and we wonder how, why and I wonder when will George Bush be tried for crimes against humanity as the people of Iraq die and die and he shoots turkeys on his Texan estate, why in this time do I remember, look for the texts of those who gave me insight into the varied human heart, complex, often in pain but always trying to create meaning, and even beauty, in systems of national and private abuse? Because when life is fragile just in its every day passage, as all must face sometime, not in nostalgia, but in recognition what best honors life, I turn to the imaginations that struggled both with the art of writing and the art of engagement, that refused to turn their backs on the bodies of the worker, the mother, the son, the daughter, the lover, the student who falls through the night unless we care.

Pablo Neruda, Chile

Our SEEK offices, for many years housed in temporary war time annexes, overflowed with our search for texts that would reflect the realities of our students, their African, Caribbean histories, their Domincan, Puerto Rican, Haitian passages which were the traveled paths of so many in the the world , texts not easily found in the American mid 60s. We made our own anthologies and xeroxed and xeroxed. I left 100s of pages all behind in loose leafs for those who came after me but these I offer here have never left me.

"The United Fruit Company"
by Pablo Neruda

"When the trumpets had sounded and all
Was in readiness on the face of the earth
Jehovah divided his universe:
Anaconda, Ford Motors
Coca Cola Inc., and similar entities:
The most succulent of them all,
The United Fruit Company Incorporated
Reserved for itself: the heart land
and coasts of my country,
the delectable waist of America.
They rechristened their properties:
the 'Banana Republics'--
Assuring the tyrannical reign of the Flies--
Trujillo the fly, and Tacho the fly the flies called Carias, Martinez, Ubico dank with the blood of their marmalade vassalage
And all the while, somewhere in the sugary
Hells of seaports 
smothered by gases, an Indian
Fell in the morning:
A boy spun off, an anonymous
Chattel, some numeral tumbling, a branch with its death running out of it
In the vat of carrion, fruit laden and foul.
(Trans. by Ben Belitt)

Not with guns or superior military power, these writers pose awarenesses as their warning cries, losses of the human heart.

Bessie Head, South Africa and Botswana, 1937-1986

One of the books I chose to pack in the barrel of belongings I shipped from New York City was a huge anthology that had been mailed to me as publishers did in those days, to encourage usage, "One World of Literature," edited by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim and Norman Spencer by Houghton Mifflin. In it I found writers we had been teaching all those years, two particularly, Nawaal El Saadawi and Bessie Head. By the 1990s I was using performance to enhance the discussion of our class texts, an idea put  to me by Lee Hudson, a pioneer in the field. The story I chose was Bessie Head's "The Collector of  Treasures." With each of these teachings I was learning, educating myself of the lives embedded in the tellings. I have never forgotten Bessie Head's world, how she tried to make sense of the racial cast system of South Africa, her white mother's incarceration in a mental institution for having sex with a black man, Head's flight to Botswana trying to find ground to stand on. Desire led to imprisonments of all kinds in such a world. And I will never forget the afternoon that my class performed their readings, the music they brought in to accompany the readings, the dress they created, their careful interpretation of the plight and strengths of the main character, Dikeledi Mokopi, who had castrated her abusive husband. As Head writes,
"And the woman Dikeledi began phrase three of her life [in prison] that had been ashen in its loneliness and unhappiness. And yet she had always found gold amidst the ash, deep loves that had joined her heart to the hearts of others. She smiled tenderly at Kebonye [another woman prisoner] because she knew already that she had found another such love. She was the collector of treasures." Dikeledi says of another character, a good loving man, "he was a poem of tenderness." I have carried with me all these years the brilliance shown by one of my students on that day. Henri was a stocky Haitian young man who struggled weekly to find the money to come to school; the text of survival was the perhaps the most compelling one for many of my students but this day Henri met me at my office early in the morning to make sure he was ready for the class. He had chosen to perform the smallest part in the story, that of the prison van driver taking Dikeledi, the husband killer, to her incarceration. I had never thought of this character's few sentences as framing the story, but that afternoon, in all his tenderness for the world of the story and his own, Henri had us looking out of the prison van's grilled window with the eyes of the woman who knew she would never see those streets again, but had done what the protection of her daughter demanded.  For all these years, his discovery of meaning has stayed with me, I who knew a little of how he battled every day not to fall off into loss. It is the creation of meaning that widens, deepens the human heart that I keep close to me in these days of adoration of guns and the discourse of weapons of mass destruction. 
Julia de Burgos, Puerto Rico,  1914-1953

The wonder of languages singing the songs of strong women, words by women of political and cultural vision opened to me by me SEEK colleagues and I brought them, their literary visions and their passionate convictions, into my classroom. Visions of independence that burned fiercely, in the work of Zora Neale Hurston  and Julia. de Burgos, speaking to my own deep history of woman difference.
"Yo misma fui mi ruta"
by Julia de Burgos

Yo quise ser como los hombres quisieron que yo fuese:
un intento de vida:
un juego al escondite con mi ser.
Pero yo estaba hecha de presentes,
y mis pies planos sobre la tierra promisora
no resistian caminar hacia atras,
Y seguian adelante, adelante
burlando las cenizas para alcanzar el beso
de los senderos nuevos.

I wanted to be like men wanted me to be;
an attempt at life, a hide and seek game with myself.
But I was made of todays,
Any my feet planted over the promised land
could not stand to walk backwards,
and went forward, forward,
mocking the ashes to reach the kiss 
of the new paths.
(From  Song of the Simple TruthObra poetica completa de Julia de Burgos, complied and translated by Jack Aqueros, Curbstone Press, 1997)
(to be continued)

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