Awhile ago my friend gave me a copy of an essay from The Georgia Review (summer 1994, by Mark A.R. Facknitz, if you want to look it up), which begins like this: “I am an elitist and I accept this condition.”
This particular line, which my friend had quoted to us on the way to the School of the Americas protest in Georgia became the motto of our car (full of three loud women writers) for the trip, because we spent a fair amount of time discussing how much better the whole caravan would have gone if we had been in charge of planning it (none of this stopping every two hours for thirty minutes and eating at Cheddars business, nosiree). I am an elitist and I accept this condition: it is a satisfying line. But some more of the beginning of this essay is worth quoting here.
I am an elitist and I accept this condition. The origin of the process that led to my superiority was my accidental escape from Cucamonga, California, and its intellectual geography. That elitism isolates me, of course, as surely as does what I have seen, done, and read. I draw no satisfaction from this, and indeed I belong to no elite for which there is a diploma, certificate, title, or icon such as a Jaguar or an air-conditioned mansion in Potomac or New Canaan. I’m merely an associate professor of English with a tiny but private office. I work at a state university where the children of unspeakable prosperity have the ignorance and audacity to assume I am merely doing a routine for their amusement when I suggest that they are lazy, complacent, naÃ¯ve, and as politically competent as cockroaches. I am to them what an English professor ought to be: flaky, intense, given to tirade–in short, one scene in the show they’re paying for.
Possibly this is not the best essay to be rereading the night before I go back to teaching–I don’t even have a private office. I have a former AV storage closet with no windows which now serves as an office for four T.A.s. One of them never uses it because he is in the Writer’s Workshop and is far too cool to hold office hours in a dingy room in a mausoleum constructed in 1970 in which they only open the vents that let in fresh air twice a year. Instead he holds office hours at the overpriced coffee shop, downing $3 lattes, which is maybe something I should bring up the next time I try to get him to join the union, which he says he supports but cannot afford (dues are $12.70/month, conveniently deducted by payroll, and you get free beer once a month, and at least some feeling that you might be helping to preserve things like health insurance and cost-of-living pay increases and so on).
I digress. (“Digression! Digression!” I can hear some kid yelling from Pencey Prep, circa 1945).
The Facknitz essay is actually mostly about the author’s childhood, split between southern California and India, and about class, and about the intransmutability of experience or understanding, though none of these are what I set out to write about at all. We all write about the intransmutability of understanding, though, in that we all fail to find words that are as exact as the experience or idea that we want to transmit–or we find them, but of course they don’t mean to another exactly what they meant to us. It’s all very distressing. (I am aware, incidentally, that I am using “we” quite liberally, especially given that I’m only twenty-six years old. Some of my colleagues would say that one should never use the term at all; that it smacks of pretension, of knowing the unknowable, of believing in some mystical universal truth to which only we writers have access, which we then stoop to sharing with the rest of the world. But I still believe in that; I still believe that that is part of why we write: to discover things and share them with the rest of the world. That the rest of the world may not care, or may have figured this all out long since, should not really be of concern. I am an elitist. . . .).
I actually sat down tonight to write about Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we celebrated today. (This is a different, more indiscriminate we I speak of here: the post office was closed, the President made a proclamation. It was that sort of a we.) Classes were also not held here at the U of I: I signed one of the petitions which asked, back in the early ’90s, that this be made into a University holiday, and I went to some of the wonderful programs that the Black Student Union used to put on in the student union in honor of the day, and in protest that it was not recognized by the UI. Now there is an entire Martin Luther King Jr. Human Rights Week here, with speakers and performances and panels and big posters everywhere with the scehdule and a picture of Dr. King and some salient words of his picked out for the occasion. Last year Angela Davis spoke about the election (remember that one?) and past elections and the state of civil death, about the “possible felons” whose names were removed from voting rolls, and about racial disparity in incarcerations in the US (a pertinent topic in Iowa, which I believe ranks first, or close to first, in the nation in the percentage of its Black people we lock up–particularly appalling since African-Americans make up only 2% of the population here to begin with). This year Felix Justice and Danny Glover, who spoke here when I was in high school, will be back, and Dennis Halliday, who used to work high up in the UN until he got too distressed about the numbers of Iraqi children who were dying as a result of UN sanctions, will speak, and a bunch of other stuff. And the lecture halls will be filled, and there will be some celebration, and the children of unspeakable wealth and privilege who attend this school will attend the lectures that their professors and T.A.s require of them, and they will hear well-meaning and earnest people speaking with great passion about topics of grave importance, and mostly they will yawn and think, guilt guilt guilt, who needs it?
I am perhaps being a little cynical.
In a way, King’s birthday was better here before it was officially celebrated: it was a cause, it was something to get behind, it was something people understood. Only racists were not celebrating King’s birthday: did we want to be in the same class as that idiot governor of Arizona? Now the holiday is a smorgasbord of causes, the kind of act everyone wants to be in on. It’s like a human rights feeding frenzy: who can get the best slots in the best spaces on the best nights. Who can get the biggest audience, the most new recruits. Who can give the most wrenching presentation about political prisoners or starving children or AIDS in Africa or sweatshop labor (not that SAS is doing anything; we’re too dysfunctional/nonexistent) or what have you.
Again, my cynicism seems to be winning. I was going to talk at some length about how it upsets me that every year I see King celebrated for civil rights, and every year I hear the last, famous part of “I have a dream” quoted, and every year the celebration never seems to include his Poor Peoples’ Campaign, or his support of labor, or his opposition to the war in Vietnam. The summer after this one–August 2003–will mark the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and
JusticeFreedom, which is kind of sad when you think about how little of either have been meted out in the past decades.
And yet. . . and yet. I very much want to celebrate King’s birthday. I want to be glad that enough people signed enough petitions and wrote enough letters and held enough sit-ins and generally raised enough of a hullabaloo that this country does stop–as much as it ever stops–to remember someone I truly want to remember, someone who probably makes me gladder for the invention of recorded sound than any music in the world, someone whose vision from the mountaintop still keeps me going. I want to celebrate, but I also don’t want to forget that there is still, as the reds would say, a world to win.
Civilian casualties in the U.S. air war on Afghanistan: 3767 (est). More info at http://www.cursor.org/stories/civilian_deaths.htm
We must fight in America not to make the world safe for democracy but to make democracy safe for the world. –Chuck McDew, circa 1964