“. . . The noose pendulous over his head, you can feel him. . .” (Yusef Komunyakaa)

wagon_train-2
As a non-tenure-track professor of a college course now called “Discovery and Discourse,” (aka, “Freshman English”) I assumed one of the best means of “discovery” about any given topic for students would be discussion with other students who were not cookie-cutter versions of themselves. That, of course, is a liberal knee-jerk idea. I even went so far as to socially engineer class members into talking to each other. I’d ask them to get into groups of three in which they did not know either of the other two or have any contact with them outside of class.

That process usually meant that, if the class included students from one of the prerequisite minority groups on campus, they did not end up forming a group to work together either in safety or in opposition to the others. If the students didn’t self-select that way, I had my not-so-subtle ways of getting them to regroup.

The first time I was engaged to the woman who eventually became my wife (after our second engagement, brought on by my having no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated from college) and then became my ex-wife (when I figured out one possibility for what I wanted to be when I grew up), I met one of her closest friends, a young man who had been a classmate of hers at the college where she went before she transferred to the University of Redlands.

Her friend was a radical liberal hippie type from the East somewhere (we later visited him in Philadelphia, but I don’t think that was his hometown). At the time I met him, I was under the no-doubt communist (at least fellow-traveler) influence of Dr. L. Pratt Spelman, Director of the School of Music and Quaker activist against the Viet Nam War (which was hardly even a war at that time).

I was, because of the no-doubt-anarchist influence of Dr. Spelman, primed to be influenced by “Young Pierce,” as my sometimes wife called her friend for reasons I’ve forgotten. He was a member of SNCC—the Students’ Non-violent Coordinating Committee. He had either been in the “March on Selma” or helped coordinate the “Freedom Riders” who supported it. I can’t remember. He showed up in California, and I was terrified of him both because he was so damned articulate and persuasive about Civil Rights and such things, and because he was tall, red-headed, and handsome, and my not-yet-wife obviously had some feelings for him that made me nervous.

Never mind those feelings. What happened, of course, was that in about one weekend my political beliefs went from nice-boy (leaning away from) Nebraska Republicanism to radical (if timid) bad-boy California anti-almost-everythingism. I had been duly prepared for the change by the relentless tutoring of Hyman Lubman in my junior and senior American History classes at Omaha Central High School. Relentlessly academic and intellectually challenging, that is. I was pretty much a “hanger-on” in those classes, but Mr. Lubman had managed to get me used to the idea that the status quo might not be the status good.

The School of Music at the University of Redlands under the anarchist influence of Dr. Spelman (who was president of the dangerous American Society of AestheticsNOT skin-care) had one African American student—and I didn’t know any others from other department of the University. Can we say token?

Meeting Young Pierce opened me to a vast array of no-doubt-communist causes from anti-war to civil rights to “what’s-a-little-recreational-sex-between-friends,” and almost to smoking weed. That’s where I drew the line (at that time). You know, sex, drugs, and J.S. Bach, or something like that.

So here we are again where we were when I met Young Pierce. Wars that seem endless, Jim Crow voting laws being passed

Yusef Komunyakaa. Through the mirror into lynching.

Yusef Komunyakaa. Through the mirror into lynching.

right and right and right, and income inequality growing by leaps and bounds (the university where I taught for 15 years never paid me more than $40,000 per year, and rumor has it they’ve offered a famous football coach $4,000,000 to come and save the program, 100 times the amount of my salary). You know the state of affairs in this country. I don’t need to tell you.

I grew up in Nebraska, never more than a stone’s throw from the Oregon Trail. All the people on the trail a hundred years before were white. As far as any of us knew.

Our favorite stories of the Oregon Trail, the ones we played at and reenacted as kids, were the stories of the settlers being attacked by Indians, aborigine wild men out to kill us white good guys. We knew in a play-acting sort of way what “circle the wagons” meant. Wagon train, Oregon Trail, non-white heathens attacking, “CIRCLE THE WAGONS.”

So here we are again. Circle-the-wagons time. The non-whites are attacking again. Ebola from Africa. Thousands of children from Central America. Those “lazy black people that wants the government to give them everything” trying to vote. Gays getting married (most of them are white, but they might as well be black). Those old people without photo IDs trying to defraud us by voting. And a dangerous Indonesian-Kenyan smartass in the White House.

I don’t quite remember when it was (in your 70th year you’re allowed to forget almost everything), but once in my life I was questioned for a Gallup Poll. It must have been at a time of some economic distress in the country because the first question was, “What do you see as the most important problem facing our nation today” (or some you’re-in-the-Gallup-Poll language). My answer was, “Racism.” The young man asking the question was thrown off completely. “Racism” was not on his possible answers list, so he had no idea what follow-up questions to ask.

Circle the wagons.
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Yusef Komunyakaa was born in 1947. He is best known for his poetry about serving in Viet Nam. He received the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He is currently Distinguished Senior Poet in New York University’s graduate creative writing program.
In several of his poems he uses the image of reflections as a metaphor for our ability to see past what is real in the present to connect with realities from other times or places. “All is a random flow of contingent, accidental associations, connecting to each other laterally but not to the transcendent presence of idea . . . Can one look through the window of history to its essence, or do its surfaces just laterally refract?” (“Knowing their place: Three Black writers and the postmodern South,” by William M. Ramsey).

Can one look through the window of the history of lynching, that is, racism, to see its essence?

“Reflections,” by Yusef Komunyakaa
In the day’s mirror
you see a tall black man.
Fingers of gold cattail
tremble, then you witness
the rope dangling from
a limb of white oak.
It’s come to this.
You yell his direction,
the wind taking
your voice away.
You holler his mama’s name
& he glances up at the red sky.
You can almost
touch what he’s thinking,
reaching for his hand
across the river.
The noose pendulous
over his head,
you can feel him
grow inside you,
straining to hoist himself,
climbing a ladder
of air, your feet
in his shoes.

What we do to "Freedom Riders."

What we do to “Freedom Riders.”

“. . . extensively careful to give no offence. . .”

William Penn, Founder and FRIEND

William Penn, Founder and
FRIEND

At important times I have been influenced by members of The Society of Friends (Quakers). The first was Leslie Pratt Spelman. Dr. Spelman was Director of the School of Music at the University of Redlands. Another was my dear friend and mentor at the time my life was being pulled together (notice I did not say I was pulling my life together) in the late 1980s.

Members of the Boston Meeting of the American Friends Service Committee—the cook and a couple of the nurses at the AIDS Hospice in Boston where I volunteered in the early 90s—also set for countless others examples of selflessness and charity.

Recently I tried to explain to a friend the Quaker concept of “equality” so he could find a way to address a letter to a famous person whom he greatly admires. I found this explanation online.

The Quaker testimony of equality has its origins in the spiritual experience of Friends that each person has . . .  equal access to God through the provision within each person of a measure of God’s own light. . . Quakers are [historically involved in] reform movements: abolition of slavery, women’s rights . . .  civil rights. This work arises out of a . . . desire to remove the impediments to fully realizing our God-given potential. . . [and] the biblical injunction of equality, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. . . Friends avoid the use of titles that designate artificial rankings of superiority. . . [such as] “Dr.,” “Mrs.,” or “Mr.” (1).

The website cites Robert Barclay and John Woolman as two historical leaders of the Friends on whose writings these ideas are based.

When I was in junior high school, our family had great admiration for Dr. Arthur M. Clarke, Executive Secretary of the Nebraska Baptist Convention (2).

Dr. Clarke was as sophisticated and refined as anyone we knew, and we stood in some awe of him. His degree was D.D., an honorary Doctorate of Divinity. But somehow that made it even more important, that a college chose to honor him, not that he had earned the degree by hard work.

One day my mother and I were in our kitchen (she was cooking, I was washing dishes). Dr. Clarke was to visit us soon. I commented to my mother that I’d go to school and someday people would call me “doctor,” too. Mother drew herself up into her most corrective full height and said, “People will call you ‘doctor’ when you deserve to be called ‘doctor.’”

This is not the place to discuss (because my mere mention of it will be enough for those who understand) the effect her comment had on me as it became a tape loop in my memory. (It took me 14 years during which I got sober to finish my PhD.) I will be called “Dr.” when I deserve to be called “Dr.” The humor—or sadness—of this little vignette is that to this day if anyone calls me Dr. Knight, my response is to wonder to whom they are speaking, and then to be embarrassed. I have deserved to be called Dr. Knight since 1988 (because I did the work—jumped through all the hoops—to get the degree; it is not “honorary”).

Will it ever be deserved?

Will it ever be deserved?

John Woolman (1720-1772), described by Wikipedia (don’t tell my students!) as “a North American merchant, tailor, journalist, and itinerant Quaker preacher, and an early abolitionist in the colonial era.” I don’t remember which of my Quaker friends first told me about John Woolman, but when I read about him on the Guilford College website, I knew immediately who he was.

In purity of heart the mind is divinely opened to behold the nature of universal righteousness, or the righteousness of the kingdom of God. “No man hath seen the Father save he that is of God, he hath seen the Father.” The natural mind is active about the things of this life. . . [a]nd so long as this natural will remains unsubjected, so long there remains an obstruction to the clearness of divine light operating in us; but when we love God with all our heart and with all our strength, in this love we love our neighbour as ourselves; and a tenderness of heart is felt towards all people . . . even those who, as to outward circumstances, may be to us as the Jews were to the Samaritans (3).

As long as our will is not subject to universal righteousness, our mind is obstructed from the clearness of divine light. But when we love God with all our heart, we love all people.

It’s disingenuous of me to use a quote about subjecting my will to universal righteousness because I really have no clue what that means. As I have made abundantly clear in previous posts here, I have lost all understanding of “religious” language.

I am, however, intrigued by the biblical question, “Who is my neighbor?” Woolman says that when we follow the famous answer of Jesus to that question, that is

The American Friends Service Committee, "a tenderness of heart  is felt towards all people"

The American Friends Service Committee,
“a tenderness of heart
is felt towards all people”

manifested in a full reformation of our lives, wherein all things are new. . .  the desire of gain is subjected . . . [and] When employment is honestly followed in the light of truth . . . [people] are so separated in spirit from the desire of riches, that in their employments they become extensively careful to give no offence, either to Jew or Heathen or to the Church of Christ (4).

I’m still trying to figure out what it means to be called “doctor.” But more important, I wonder what it means to be “extensively careful to give no offense, either to Jew or Heathen or to the Church of Christ” in one’s employment.

I end as I will not allow my writing students to do by asking a question. What would happen if the goal of all of our economic life together were to “honestly [follow] in the light of truth. . . [and] give no offence?”
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(1) “Equality.” Guilford College, About.  guilford.edu, 2013. Web. 20 Oct. 2013.
(2) Mention of Dr. Clarke from the Lincoln Sunday Journal and Star  from 26 September 1954 is online at
http://www.newspapers.com/newspage/46058033/ . For my friends in the ELCA, this is interesting because the story about the Nebraska Baptist Convention is mixed with a story about a meeting to discuss the merger of four Lutheran Synods. Hmmmm. 1954.
(3) Woolman, John. The Journal of John Woolman.  Christian Classics Ethereal Library. E-text. Web. (p.122).
(4) Woolman, ibid.