- Henry David Thoreau was one of those figures whose life, works, and legacy is both a product and producer of America, both as a nation and ideas (personally prefer him to Emerson, whose all-seeing eye thing seems too close to childhood nightmares for comfort). Robert Pogue Harrison examines some ten books by or on Thoreau and speaks to his legacy and what his works can teach us today: “I believe there are two immensely important Thoreauvian legacies that call out for retrieval among his fellow citizens today. One is learning to live deliberately, fronting “only the essential facts of life,” so that death may be lived for what it is—the natural, and not tragic, outcome of life. The other equally important lesson is how to touch the hard matter of the world, how to see the world again in its full range of detail, diversity, and infinite reach. Nothing has suffered greater impoverishment in our era than our ability to see the visible world. It has become increasingly invisible to us as we succumb to the sorcery of our digital screens. It will take the likes of Henry David Thoreau, the most keen-sighted American of all, to teach us how to discover America again and see it for what it is.”
- Speaking of defining characteristics of a nation, or what people want these defining characteristics to be, let’s look to color. Toni Morrison writes how our literary tradition uses color and race as indicators of character: “The cultural mechanics of becoming American are clearly understood. A citizen of Italy or Russia immigrates to the United States. She keeps much or some of the language and customs of her home country. But if she wishes to be American—to be known as such and to actually belong—she must become a thing unimaginable in her home country: she must become white. It may be comfortable for her or uncomfortable, but it lasts and has advantages, as well as certain freedoms. Africans and their descendants never had that choice, as so much literature illustrates.”
- The First Amendment and America go hand in hand like no other analogy I can think of at the moment. Portions of it will be at the crux of the debate this Fall when the Supreme Court hears the case Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: “The case […] will be argued in the late fall and is likely to turn on the vote of Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who is simultaneously the court’s most prominent defender of gay rights and its most ardent supporter of free speech.”
- I feel mildly confident that, despite their differences, all Americans agree on this: North Korea is dangerous (would write evil but, in this day and age, that may be divisive). True, on Hollywood Blvd. not many know where the country is. And true, some online have taken to relativism to defend the ‘DPRK’ and how its views should be ‘respected’ (I know, we’re that low right now). Evan Osnos’s trip to N.K. is both insightful and informative: “Suddenly, the prospect of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and the most hermetic power on the globe had entered a realm of psychological calculation reminiscent of the Cold War, and the two men making the existential strategic decisions were not John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev but a senescent real-estate mogul and reality-television star and a young third-generation dictator who has never met another head of state. Between them, they had less than seven years of experience in political leadership.”
- And lastly, an examination of a still fresh wound: Jon Favreau, John Levett, and Tommy Vietor of the Obama Administration and Crooked Media’s Pod Save America talk with Hillary Clinton on her latest book, What Happened:
TEXT: Snigdha Koirala
The white gaze — looking at the world through white privilege — is something writers of colour have battled through and through. Toni Morrison refused it, said ‘there was this free space opened up by refusing to respond every minute to…somebody else’s gaze’; Claudia Rankine stares back at it, uses her poetry to dismantle the delusion that comes with the gaze. Nikki Wallschlaeger, author of Houses (Horseless Press) – a collection of prose poetry exploring race — sits somewhere in the middle. She looks it in the eye, but looks beyond it as well; she is unafraid to acknowledge it, but careful not to give it the centre stage.
‘White House’, one of the poems in Houses and perhaps the boldest in the collection, stares back at the gaze. In it, Wallschlaeger writes ‘Our people sure have strong arms…Those Ionic columns forced to hold up that cotton pickin house. That’s why the white house gets repainted every year, they’re afraid the cracks will show. Black cracks.’ She takes the most iconic building in American history – one that, up until recently, has been entirely operated by whiteness – and frames it in the context of her own people’s experiences. The White House, she shows the readers, isn’t just a symbol of democracy, but also one of white privilege gained through black oppression.
Not all the poems in the collection, however, are as bold. In ‘Bronze House’, for instance, the speaker explores her relationship with her mother. The poem, in and of itself, exists outside the concepts of white power and the white gaze, but looking at the collection as a whole, the reader understands where the speaker falls in the enforced racial hierarchy. In doing this, Wallschlaeger shows the reader that the speaker is affected by and lives with the white gaze, but is far from being defined by it.
Houses captures the complexities of living in a society dominated by white supremacy: where whiteness is the norm. We find mostly white authors in bookstores, we learn mostly about white men in history class, we watch films with mostly white actors (sometimes even portraying characters of colour), and as such, we have come to think of white as default. But Wallschlaeger, like many writers of colour before and alongside her, goes against this grain: she redefines the norm, and in doing so, creates a collection empowering to read.