I spent this last week scoring AP exams (seniors in high school take these exams) in literature. I was scoring essays in the poetry analysis section, which meant I read 1300 essays all about the same poem, which was (scroll down to the bottom-- it's 2010) "The Century Quilt" by Marilyn Nelson Waniek. The poem is in the point of view of a woman who sees a quilt that seems to capture the beauty and complexity of her family heritage.
To me, the context was obvious-- this was an African-American family, and she was looking back at the 20th century. She referred to her grandmother (few of the students understood "Meema," but if you're from the South, you know it means Grandma), and "channeled" her memory of dancing with her "beautiful yellow sisters" and meeting and passing "her grandfather's white family."
I was amazed at how few students understood that this was an African-American family. There was a reference to Meema's "Indian blanket," and a lot of students went off in that direction (not realizing, probably, that many African-Americans in the southeast had a Native American ancestor). Since the Native American experience in the 20th century was vastly different, that didn't really fit the poem's development, but at least they got the connection of "multi-cultural" and "patchwork quilt" (that is, that the quilt is a metaphor for a multi-cultural family").
Anyway, I was noticing that almost no one got what to me was a clear context-- that of the exploitation of young Black women by older white men (sometimes "slaveowners"), and how that has made so many African-American families mixed race. And the quilt metaphor (patching together disparate pieces to make a piece of folk art-- the quilt is a wonderful metaphor-- forgive me, my beloved grandmother was a quilter, so I'm partial!) is a great symbol for the tendency of the African-American community to make history, heritage, and art from the troubled experience of Blacks in America.
So... almost none of the students got this. Some understood that the speaker was African-American, but often they kind of romanticized, that the Grandpa and Grandma were kind of Romeo and Juliet, ostracized because of their mixed-race love, while the actual experience was more akin to rape. Almost none got the term "yellow," which I know (because I grew up in the south, and have read lots of Toni Morrison and Faulkner and Maya Angelou, means a Black person with at least one white ancestor. Nowadays, of course, "brown" means Hispanic, and "yellow" is a epithet referring to Asians.
I was kind of glad that so few of the students (among them African-Americans) "got" the complicated background, because it is great to think of that awful era so far behind us that kids today don't even know about it. However, there's a beauty in it too, in the transformation of that brutal history into love and art. And that's lost when no one recognizes it anymore. There is, we know, great art in adversity, and when we lose the memory of the troubles, do we lose the art too?
And almost no one noticed the title (ALWAYS notice the title!), "The Century Quilt." Apparently few had quilting grandmothers (a "century quilt" has 100 squares), and of course they didn't live through much of the 20th Century (which ended, really, in 2008, not 2001), from Jim Crow and lynching to the election of the African-American president-- an amazing century.
Finally, this made me think about the importance of context. Without the context (specifically, understanding what "yellow" means in the poem), the students, most of them, couldn't connect this poem with the wonderful and terrible history of American Blacks. The subtext (that great passion and art come from adversity, that you can "patch together" meaning and art) was lost on most of the students.
However, they did make their own subtext. And I think that's something that characterizes art, that every generation makes new subtext, that the work allows for multiple interpretations and new interpretations.
But still I think of this so-modern dilemma, that something so meaningful in the past isn't even recognized now. The world changes so rapidly these days, and so many conflicts that might be awful to experience but create opportunity for good story, are almost immediately superseded by new events. How much have we lost by just not noticing? I can point to the paucity of novels about the Vietnam war compared to the number about World War II, though both were bristling with interesting story potential. Will there be even that many stories about Iraq? No-- I can just about guarantee that, because no one's paying much attention to the war now, while it's actually happening.
But... oh, well, it inspired me sort of at least! My poetry-reading group just did "ballads" and we decided we couldn't understand ballads without experiencing them from the poet's perspective, so we decided to write ballads (because they're easier, natch, than sonnets!). And so I wrote a ballad about a quilt-- "The Ballad of the Wedding Ring Quilt". It's sort of wonderful how easy it is to slip into the ballad rhythm (da Dum da Dum...) and use the tradition to build a story, even with complex emotions.