Many scholars, teachers, and readers mourned the death of author and activist bell hooks. I first read bell hooks’ work in a graduate course. We were fortunate to be assigned an excerpt from Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, which informs much of my teaching to this day.
With all of the recent events including the country’s reckoning with Black killings, the pandemic, and the anti-Asian racism that followed, I found myself thinking a lot about bell hooks and very generous and forthright approach to compassion.
I began reflecting on this in a form of an op-ed for my work with the Public Voices Fellowship (more info here). But then I got an e-mail from Dr. Ayesha Hardison, one of our fearless leaders of our NEH Institute workshop, Hurston on the Horizon. She invited everyone to submit writings for a special issue of Women, Gender, and Families of Color entitled “Honoring bell hooks’s Legacy: Humanist, Feminist, Public Intellectual, Social Critic, and Educator.” It was nice to have the opportunity to think more deeply about hooks’s thoughts on compassion in the company of fellow scholars, readers, and fans. We even had a kickoff on Zoom to celebrate the issue’s completion.
The special issue’s guest editors Cécile Accilien, Manisha Desai, and Luz María Gordillo also serve as members of the journal’s editorial board. In place of a traditional preface, they created a trailer of their conversation about the issue. You can view it here:
Recently, I completed a year-long fellowship with The OpEd Project. Their work focuses on training subject experts to increase their public outreach, primarily through journalism such as oped or editorial articles.
During my participation as a Public Voices Fellow , I attended several workshops, collaborated with colleagues, and did a lot of soul-searching about my personal and professional public identity. Most significantly, I also had the opportunity to work one-on-one with coaches whose own journalistic accomplishments are numerous.
Eventually, my op eds were published in places such as Newsweek, Ms. Magazine, and The Hill. You can find a list of my most recent op eds below the image.
Below is a portion of a talk I’ll be giving next month at MELUS on using archival material on the history of Native American schools, include Carlisle. In the rest of the talk, I discuss other secondary texts by Indigenous authors that use archival material as a primary source.
I gave an earlier version of this talk at the Digital Native American and Indigenous Studies workshop and received really helpful feedback which also contributed to the below post.
My initial attempts to incorporate archival work in the classroom involved reading various selections from the Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center (hereby referred to as CISDRC). Carlisle’s founder, General Richard Henry Pratt, became famous for the school’s mission, “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The saying signifies a change in Pratt’s approach from militaristic decimation to scholastic incorporation through erasures of Indigenous languages, cultures, and traditions. In a speech given in 1892, Pratt surmises, “Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.” In other words, Pratt suggests, isolate the Native American child from his family and tribe, impose upon him the language, religion, and customs of dominant white culture, and he will then become capable of contributing to society, thus solving the looming question of what to do with “our” dwindling indigenous population.
Begun by Dickinson College in 2013. the CISDRC had only been around for two years in digitized form when I offered to pilot a lesson incorporating the student records into my curriculum. I introduced students to the archive and to Carlisle itself through supplementary firsthand accounts of Carlisle from authors such as Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Dakota) and Berenice Levchuk (Navaho) and a documentary film entitled Warrior Women about Lakota community organizer Madonna Thunder Hawk. Students also had assigned class readings of certain student files and publications of the time period put together by Carlisle teachers and students, such as The Indian Helper and The Red Man. Eventually, I instruct students to research the archive on their own by first finding one student and at least one element of personal connection—a shared instrument that both my student and the Carlisle student played, or someone who is from the same state or part of the country, for example.
Discussing her own experience with a digitized archive, Megan A. Norcia highlights how “technology enables students to find new meanings in old texts; offers a model of scholarly intervention in ongoing critical discussions; engages students of different learning styles by reinvigorating the writing and research process; and causes them ultimately to question how history is represented, framed, and processed in the present moment.” To say that all of this advancement occurs as a result of the medium is not a stretch. As much as the students and I discussed the contents of the archives, we also discussed the unstable nature of the archive and of archival research in general. They learn to see that the “official” record of history found in textbooks, government documents, and documentaries has been carefully edited, and is incapable of highlighting all perspectives, nuances, and experiences.
Buried within the archive’s minutiae, such as demographic information on a student information card that would make the CISDRC student records similar to other schools at the time, are often revealing alumni follow-up surveys indicating where the student has gone since leaving Carlisle. For example, over ten years after the school began enforcing Pratt’s mission in 1879, Shoshone tribe member Phillip E. Lavatta became a student there at age 17. Whether he chose to attend voluntarily or not is unknown; however, it is likely that, once he got there, he received the same treatment as other Carlisle students. As seen in John N. Choate’s photographs of fellow student Tom Torlino taken at his admittance in 1882 and then again three years later, Lavatta’s hair would have been similarly cut short, his more “culturally marked” clothing replaced with the standard Carlisle-recommended garb, which usually was Western civilian clothing or an Army green uniform. As another unwilling participant of a compulsory program to eradicate native cultures, he would have been forced to abandon his native language for English, answer only to his English name, and be placed with a white family rather than being allowed to go home.
Answering the questions on his former student survey, Lavatta took the opportunity to hold forth on his lack of rights as a Native American. Responding to the open-ended prompt of “Tell me anything else of interest connected with your life,” Lavatta mimics dominant rhetoric about Native American inferiority at that time, writing:
We have been having, and will continue to have trouble with gov’t officials regarding our “rights.” We are children and should not be taught to strike back in self-defense. We should be made to understand that whenever a mistake is made in Washington that it was the work of some “clerk.” …and still the cry in the Indian office is that the returned Carlisle student is a “kicker” – that is the name I have for now.
Lavatta’s reference to a “kicker” connotes in this instance neither a position on the famous Carlisle Indian School football team nor a member of the Kickapoo Nation, but rather appears to refer to the assumption of Carlisle students as rebels or protesters. Despite this reputation, Lavatta’s impassioned statement is quite unusual to see in the student records retained in the CISDRC given the straightforward nature of much of the information contained there. Lavatta ends the above diatribe in a jarring contrast typical of many of the student files when he concludes, “Could write more but will close, with best wishes for the school, yourself, and others under your charge. Respectfully yours, Phillip E. Lavatta, Pocatello, Idaho.”
The switch in tone could mean many things, whether it’s a mere recognition of the formality of letter-writing, or protection from the dangers that come with being a kicker or even with criticizing the school that may have treated one so harshly, and so on. It may also reflect the nature of the potentially conflicting experiences that Lavatta experienced there, a tension that was often difficult to pinpoint in the archive records themselves. Students found such expressions of personality and even protest to be the most exciting discoveries in the archive, however potentially suppressed, bowdlerized, and edited.
Overall, my students and I benefited greatly from what Susan Wells famously identifies as the “three gifts of archival work”: namely, a resistance to closure, a loosening of resentment (by productively facing the anxieties of our discipline), and finally, a reconstruction of the disciplines of rhetoric, composition, and—to Wells’ characterization I add—ethnic American literature, in order to “rethink our political and institutional situation, [and] to find ways of teaching that are neither narrowly belletristic [or solely aesthetic] nor baldly vocational.” Discussing her own experience with a digitized archive, Megan A. Norcia highlights how “technology enables students to find new meanings in old texts; offers a model of scholarly intervention in ongoing critical discussions; engages students of different learning styles by reinvigorating the writing and research process; and causes them ultimately to question how history is represented, framed, and processed in the present moment.”
To say that all of this advancement occurs as a result of the medium is not a stretch. As much as the students and I discussed the contents of the archives, we also discussed the unstable nature of the archive and of archival research in general. They learn to see that the “official” record of history found in textbooks, government documents, and documentaries has been carefully edited, and is incapable of highlighting all perspectives, nuances, and experiences.
In this essay for The New Territorymagazine, I write about a moment I tried to gain my bearings in a new place by connecting to the author and activist, Zitkála-Šá:
“I was a Midwest transplant, born and raised on the East Coast. Before I left home, friends joked about flatland and cornfields and voiced concerns about my entering what they perceived to be a region of overwhelming whiteness. Culture shock, however, was nothing new to me. As the first in my immigrant family to attend college, I knew what it meant to feel unmoored, to walk into a room where no one resembled you.
My conference visit to Earlham College was an attempt to soften that dislocation. Books have always been my second home, so sitting in the Runyan Center listening to literary presentations, I was already more comfortable. A bonus? Zitkála-Šá went here in the 1890s. Having read her stories about being the only American Indian among over 400 college students, I felt a kinship….”
I provide more details on Zitkála-Šá’s speech, “Side by Side,” in this thread: https://twitter.com/DrMLovesLit/status/1280553203432599552 One of the highlights: In a part of the speech detailing all lost to the advent of “civilization” (ie, broken treaties, “the White Man’s bullet” etc), Zitkala-Sa writes, “He loved his native land. Do you wonder still that in his breast he should brood revenge, when ruthlessly driven from the temples where he worshipped?”
Contact me if you wish to see the entire transcript of the speech itself.
Special thanks to the hardworking librarian-archivists at Earlham College for indulging my obsessiveness and answering my questions. Thanks too to Rebekah Trollinger for taking the photo in the New Territory magazine article, and to Andy Oler, editor extraordinaire.
Indiana Humanities began an initiative, called INseparable, which asks us how we contend with boundaries like class, race, and urban and rural spaces. After teaching Celeste Ng’s amazing novel, Little Fires Everywhere, and Season 3 of the podcast, Serial, I am inspired to think of the in-between space of the suburb.
In my research, I’m often preoccupied with liminal spaces and who occupies them. Together, Serial and Ng’s novel provides the perfect examples of the divergent issues that can occur in those spaces. Not to mention that the consequences of the history of Shaker Heights in Ng’s novel are fascinating, as are the dramatic differences between Shaker Heights and the very nearby suburb of East Cleveland that takes up a lot of the interest of the creators of Serial. In some ways, the suburbs are the ultimate liminal spaces. At the same time, however, many center suburbs in our thinking of “real” America.
Here’s a quote from Robert Beauregard that solidifies this idea of the suburb as the embodiment of the US:
"Suburban life anchored a standard of living commensurate with the nation's status as the leader of the ‘free world’ and established the country’s economy and form as the best hope for affluence, democracy, and world peace. Life in the suburbs was a mark of American exceptionalism and a model to which all nations could aspire."
When we think of popular depictions of suburbs in literature, the ones that often come to mind are predominantly white and middle class:
John Cheever – Bullet Park
Richard Yates – Revolutionary Road
Alice Sebold – The Lovely Bones
Jeffrey Eugenides – The Virgin Suicides
Rick Moody – The Ice Storm
Judith Guest – Ordinary People
In fact, other than the above examples of Serial and Little Fires Everywhere, the one example that came to mind of a non-white family at the suburban novel’s center is Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake (2003), and it’s fair to say that even with this immigrant family, we are looking at people with fairly privileged backgrounds. With Ng and Serial, we have some versions of the above, but also other stories and experienced highlighted from the margins.
In this episode of Code Switch from NPR, the amazing historian Erika Lee (author of The Making of Asian America: A History) breaks down the connections between xenophobia and the coronavirus known as COVID-19. By the way, that’s me speaking in the first 12 seconds of the episode.
Issues of contagion and concealment go hand-in-hand, especially when the contagion involves viruses unseeable by the naked human eye, or what one author who I won’t name referred to as the “the faceless brown mass” of those entering the US from Mexico. Associating contagion with a particular group of people allows some to place blame without taking on responsibility.