Friday, June 18, 2010

Context and subtext

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.



Nighfala said...

Hello! I found your blog on WriteRunner's feed.

I read your post and the poem. I took the AP English exam myself many years ago. I have to say that although the references to skin color (umber, ochre) make it clear it is about African-Americans, it doesn't seem to me to be about suffering at all. It seems like a very happy poem, about childhood memories and dreams for the future. It doesn't talk about rape, it talks about dancing to the pianola.

The speaker says,
I think I’d have good dreams
for a hundred years under this quilt,
as Meema must have, under her blanket

So although it's been a long time since I took a proper English course, and I do understand what you are saying about the hidden subtext, I don't think I would have picked up on it, either.

KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

great post.

I thought reading 60 essays on the same topic was tough.

I think a lot of people (purposely?) fail to recognize that what happened between white men and African American women in the south was rape. Probably because of the time (after all white men could also do this to (some) white women, and suffer little penalty). But also because it is a horrific transgression.

I think that we tend to focus on the clear-cut history. WW2 is a great example because it was the last time we entered into conflict where there was an obvious 'good', an obvious 'evil', AND we were on the right side. Vietnam, our history with slavery, the Iraq war-- are all more complex, much more shaded with gray, and I think hard for us to deal with.

Wes said...

I hear you. My WIP that I'll submit to your new business for help (and clearly it needs help) has slavery as a major theme. Even though slavery in New Mexico was not enslavement of blacks, but Indians, one of my MCs is a black American slave. Since I attenpt to write in a deep POV I use many terms used in 1821. I get three reactions. One, many people don't understand words and phrases such as "high yellow" and "putting some cream in the coffe"; two, they think I'm a racist because I discuss these things, but they don't seem to get it that I'm pointing out the evils of slavery; and three, they don't believe slave raids were made to capture Navajo girls for sex, and the justification for this was the girls would be baptised and their souls would be saved.

Go figure.


Wes said...

I think that one of the reasons people don't understand language, culture, and society of past times is that history is taught so poorly. Of course we don't want to return to slavery and Jim Crow days, but we ought to look at our past with eyes wide open and know what people endured.

Dave Shaw said...

Part of the reason history is taught so poorly is that there's so much of it, and so very much that makes people uncomfortable. I wouldn't have gotten the context of this poem, despite my age, because unlike Alicia I didn't grow up in the south. In my hometown, there was great pride in the number of Underground Railroad stations and the number of our ancestors who fought to put down the Rebellion (as the old people still called the Civil War) and free the slaves, but the rest of the black experience was unknown to us prior to the appearance of Dr. King. I was taught more about the Dutch settlements and the Iroquois (local history - this was upstate New York) than I was about blacks. I've broadened that since the '60s, but not enough to get out of this poem what Alicia got. It's just too far outside my experience.

Edittorrent said...

Thanks, yes, Christine, that's exactly what I mean, that we need the knowledge of the history to have the context to understand the deeper meaning, that terrible injustice was involved in the development of this family, and the speaker has determined, like a quilter, to create art and love out of this. It is a wonderfulness, and that's what I think is lost when the knowledge or context isn't there-- it's just a nice "positive" poem for those who don't know the context. The depth of meaning doesn't exist without the context.

I think, with poetry, there should always (never say always, I know!) have a deeper meaning beyond the "nice positive" meaning. "The Road Not Taken" has the surface "nice positive" meaning of "Do your own thing, take the road less travelled," but the deeper meaning is something else entirely, something more subtle and not nearly so positive.

I tend to default to the surface meaning (I thought in "My Papa's Waltz," he was actually waltzing :), but then I remind myself, "If you want an easy message, write a bumper sticker. If you want deeper meaning, write a poem."

Of course, this tends to drive students nuts-- many of them want just one thing (this poem) to be simple. :)

Edittorrent said...

Dave, in the South, they call that war "The War of Northern Aggression." STILL. My brother was a history major at William and Mary (old South), and he said no one called it the "Civil War," much less (horrors!) the war to end slavery.

KO, and how complex it must be to be the descendant of a rape, and know it, and still be able to love yourself and your heritage-- this is the "miracle" really that will be lost when people think "racism" just means those emails your crazy wingnut uncle forwards you. Racism almost always involves rape (which when it involves women- not always- involves sexism too, huh), and that perversion of nature, of the instinct to love yourself and your partner and your child, is one of the more horrible aspects here. However, I think the poem really does show, using the "quilt" (piecing together discarded scraps to create beauty) metaphor shows that the human spirit isn't always destroyed by oppression, and what comes out of that can be even more beautiful because of the adversity.

And that's all going to be lost, for the very good and wondrous reason that things did change enormously in that century. And I hope will continue to change. But reading students writing so romantically about the tragic love between the white grandfather and the Black grandmother... well, maybe that's another example of how humans crave a happy ending, or at least things to make sense.

Wes, I wonder if one of the difficulties of writing historical fiction that is more accurate is that a lot of people really don't want to know how brutal humans, and specifically I guess Americans, can be. Witness the Texas history textbooks. Or for that matter, the history textbooks in Virginia when I was growing up, which talked about how happy the slaves were on the plantations.

It's hard to confront the reality that history was a lot more complicated than a Thomas Kinkade painting.

Edittorrent said...

Oh, and an amazing conflict that's resulted in some very good stories is-- again, for good reason we should celebrate-- pretty irrelevant today-- the "passing" (as white) of the "high yellow" octoroons (who being 7/8ths white, I'm not sure why they had to "pretend" to be white). This often meant abandoning your mother and the culture that raised you and entering without ever looking back the culture that oppressed you. It's an amazing conflict, so powerful, with so many issues involved, and I wonder if kids now will understand what would have driven a young woman to do that.

I'm glad civil rights happened and all that, but I wonder if the activists even considered the plight of the poor author, trying so hard to find good conflict! :)


Wes said...

Yes, many people don't want to know. They want to believe the Spanish missions were kind and gentle places and not that they sent the military after pueblo Indians who ran away from them and that they kept baptismal records of Najavho teenage girls who were captured, "converted", and given to the men who stole them.

The first time I used the word octaroon, by critique group went bat-shit.

Wes said...

Dave, you have a good point about not recognizing the full meaning of certain words because of not being raised in the south. As a southerner (border state) who's ancestors fought for the Union many of these issues were touched upon in conversation. But the full magnitude was not apparent to me until I read ROOTS 30 years ago and contemplated how Chichen George's mother was raped repeated by her owner.

Edittorrent said...

Wes, a couple of the students who assumed this was a Native American family did mention the reason for "Indian blankets," that the US Army would supposedly donate blankets to tribes, and these blankets would be deliberately infected with small pox or measles. So the tribes started making their own blankets to avoid the forced epidemics. I'm not sure how true that is, but what another wonderful example of art coming from adversity.


Dave Shaw said...

Alicia, I live in the south now (SC), so I'm well aware of certain things like the southern name for that war (and the indignant statement that there was 'nothing civil about it!') and the difference between a Yankee and a damn Yankee (I'm the latter, since I live here). I didn't grow up here, though, so even after 22 years there's a lot that's pretty alien to me, and black culture isn't something I've delved into. It still gets short shrift in public school textbooks here (I browsed through my son's and daughter's more than once), so I don't think they teach it to the kids, either. Of course, they also don't teach any of the history of the north that I learned, so my kids don't have as much appreciation of our heritage as I'd like, either.

And Wes, forget about them having any background to follow what you're writing about!

Alicia, your comparison of Vietnam and WW II is spot on, but consider that there is far more fiction tied to Vietnam than to Korea - now there's a forgotten war for you. People just don't want to remember certain unpleasant things.

Edittorrent said...

MASH was about Korea. But my father (who was there) said scornfully that it was NOT about Korea, but about Vietnam.

So... how come SC politicians are so ... wacked?


Wes said...


I've read commentaries pro and con about blankets infected with small pox being given to Indians (I use Indian rather Native Americans, because on most reservations in the West, the people call themselves Indians. Check their websites, newspapers, and advertisements for rodeos and pow-wows. I'm not trying to be insensitive.) However the belief breaks out along lines of political ideologies. Personally, I don't think think it occurred based on what I've read. But I've not researched it thoroughly. Tribes on the upper Missouri began dying of small pox before the time that these accusations correspond to. For example the Mandans were desiciimated well before this diabolical plot was supposed to have transpired. Also, the northern plains Indians were not blanket makers, rather they relied on buffalo robes. The blanket makers were primarily the Indians of the southwest who had vast herds of sheep that produced wool.

I'm not denying the death and destruction brought by Europeans. The book 1491 makes a strong case for European diseases destroying native civilizations. But here's an interesting question. Did Europeans give Indians syphlis or did Indians give it to Europeans? Until recently it has been assumed that the former is true. But to my knowledge, researchers have not found a case of syphlis in Europe until after 1500. Anyone feel free to correct me if you have evidence.

Dave Shaw said...

Alicia, my mother was in the Air Force during Korea, and although she was never sent overseas, she agreed with your father about MASH.

As for SC politicians, I have a theory: Columbia, SC, the capital, is so hot and humid because it's near the back door to hell. I think it affects the politicians there. I used to live in Albany, NY, though, and I've never been able to come up with a similar theory for why New York politicoes are so wacked... (grin)

Wes, I've read that there's evidence that British fur traders did knowingly cause some epidemics in the 17th and 18th centuries, but I've never seen anything backed up by contemporaneous documents that it continued into the 19th century, or that there was significant US involvement. I don't know the truth of the matter, of course.

As for syphilis, the argument over its origins has been going on for a long time. I think the Wikipedia article is a decent summary of the 3 theories:

Lavaughn Towell said...

Interesting subject. I, too, recently finished with the AP grading on that question. I found it illuminating as to how many students didn't get references that I took for granted, and wondered if it was an age gap. Some didn't see Meema as a grandmother, when here in the South (and people I talked to from the Northeast said the same) it is a common term. The largest issue I had was the conflation of the quilt and the other two blankets. This was, to me, the major thrust of the poem--that the author "found a quilt I could die under," yet it was a new item. She was trying to say that the memories we had were worth more than any material possession, yet most saw it as the complete opposite.

Edittorrent said...

L, yes: Blanket is not quilt! But they have so little time to read it and write the essay. I'm amazed when they come up with anything coherent. I don't think I could do very well under that pressure!

Dave, I think the Albany pols are affected by the cold. SC-hot, Albany-Cold. They'll take any excuse.:)

Wes, I suspect a "virgin" population being exposed to a "European" disease would be decimated. So it might not have needed to be all that deliberate. Measles would have the same effect, probably, in a population that had no immunity.

We should remember the Indians introduced Europe to tobacco, which was probably revenge enough!

Wes said...

Have you heard that old Bob Newheart routine where he is Sir Walter Raliegh explaining to Queen Elizabeth why he came back to England with a shipload of leaves (tobacco) when the Spanish were sailing with shiploads of gold? It's old for sure, from when I was in college, but it's funny as hell.

Edittorrent said...

I haven't heard that Newhart, but it is a puzzler! (Tobacco is lighter?)

KatOwens: Insect Collector said...

I lived in SC for just over a decade, and I'm from Georgia, so maybe that's why I get the references. I'm neither young nor old (36).

My GA textbooks were, let's say, not thorough. I didn't learn about evolution until I got to college.

I found a more realistic picture of the South through a college class on African American Society and Culture. One (of the many) books we read was Edward Ball's Slaves in the Family, which I recommend.

marilyn nelson said...

I think probably any kid who comes up with something coherent to say, given the time constraints and dealing with a poem "cold," is doing well!

I didn't know a "century quilt" has 100 squares! Interesting fact!

We called my grandmother "Meema" because that's how I -- the first grandchild -- first pronounced "Grandma." The name just stuck.

Most of the details in the poem are just coincidental, factual: eg, my grandmother had a blanket that was printed with a Hopi or Navajo design; that has nothing to do, in my mind, with Indian ancestry.

Your commentary made me go back and read that old poem again. Actually, the kids who read "yellow" as being more akin to Romeo and Juliet than to plantation rape were reading the tone correctly. The grandfather's white family nods in recognition and respect when they met their black relatives. The poem is more about dancing, celebration, pride, and miracles than Jim Crow and lynching.

Nice to read what you make of the quilt trope: to tell the truth, I hadn't really thought of that!

I enjoyed reading your blog. Glad I stumbled upon it!

Best wishes,
Marilyn Nelson

Edittorrent said...

Marilyn, welcome! Thanks for stopping by. Did you know your poem had been used for this AP test? Just think about 100,000 students (that's about how many there were last year) writing essays about your poem.

The question leader is the one in charge of the group of scorers working with the poem essays. This year, it was Warren Carson, who would read the poem every day for us to keep us on track. He has one of the world's best poetry reading voices. If you ever want to do a recording of the poem, call him. What a voice-- very silvery and warm.