Thursday, October 11, 2018

"Crackerasssuckafool" and the Quotidian Triumph of Walking onto Campus

This week, my colleague Ricardo Wilson's story "Crackerasssuckafool" went up at  It's been the talk of the university. Here's my take on it.

I teach at Washington and Lee University, a predominantly white, private institution in Virginia. I was hired in 2004, along with Professor Asali Solomon, to teach literature and creative writing. We were the first people of color in the long history of the English department.  We told each other, "Some days, just walking onto campus is our biggest accomplishment." She dealt with students writing stories about the mammies that raised them. I dealt with students who mostly thought Indigenous Literature was non-existent, or consisted of petroglyphs and treaties. Asali lit out for more colorful territories after 3 years (I still miss her!), and I hung on as the only person of color for 7 long years, until we hired Wan-Chuan Kao as our brilliant medievalist. Then, two years ago, the department had the chance to hire two more professors of color, Ricardo Wilson and Diego Millan. Wow! Having four people of color in the English department is changing our dynamics, and that’s a good thing. It gets people out of their comfort zone, makes us consider our actions and choices, and definitely provides students with the diversity of perspective so desperately needed.

Necessary tangent: "Student Health 101" is a flyer series put out by, you guessed it, student health. It goes up in bathroom stalls around campus on a regular basis, with advice about how to deal with sex, alcohol, eating disorders, study skills, anxiety -- the kind of stuff students deal with on a regular basis. There's a women's bathroom near my office where I see these flyers. Check out the flyer posted in there this week (above). The topic is “How to feel like you belong here” followed by a quote from an “expert” who says, “If you want to stop feeling like an imposter you need to stop thinking like an imposter.” I’ve almost ripped that flyer down, or graffitied it, a dozen times. To me, that’s the kind of “by your bootstraps/I did it, you can do it” propaganda that women and POC have had to listen to forever. How do you stop “thinking” like an imposter when you are either a statistical minority who is ignored or mistreated, or when you are paid less, given less credit, and asked to do ten times as much? How do you stop “thinking” like an imposter when those in power treat you like an imposter? In other words, this is a poorly worded flyer, and the ignorance it shows, the privilege it encourages, is one of those microaggressions that drives me, personally, crazy.

I read Ricardo Wilson's story as a fantasy about what a person of color would do in response to a lifetime of these microaggressions (and macro). Sometimes, the line between sanity and despair is thin. Sometimes, on that thin line, creativity is the saving grace that reminds us we aren’t actually crazy; the world around us is crazy. Creativity allows us to be crazy like a fox, rather than just insane.

To give you a full picture, let me add that this week, the W&L board of trustees voted to do three important things: change the name of Robinson Hall (named for the man who "donated" a large group of enslaved people to W&L, which then used their labor, and later sold them literally down the river to Mississippi) to Chavis Hall, after the first black man to receive a degree here; Lee-Jackson House will also undergo a name change, becoming Simpson House, named after brilliant and beloved Professor Pamela Simpson, first woman to receive tenure at W&L, who passed away a few years ago. Finally, the doors in front of the recumbent statue of R.E. Lee in Lee Chapel will now be closed during student body meetings (up until now, students of color have been forced to look at the statue glorifying a man who both owned enslaved black people and went to war to maintain the laws upholding enslavement, throughout those meetings).

People of color and our allies are happy about those changes. But hey. It's 2018. That's a long time to wait for small changes. And longer still for other, more quotidian, changes in faculty, student body, administrative and trustee make-up. And some will not forgive us our fantasies, even though it is the creativity and hope which allows us to survive. Perhaps "fantasy" is the wrong word, after all. Perhaps "dream," with all of its history, connotations, and hope, is a better choice. And we do not ask to be forgiven for dreaming.

Sunday, September 30, 2018


I know now that I can never go back to my “untraumatized” self. I will never not have scars. 

Perhaps that’s the key to trauma survival – not aiming so much at a cure as adaptation, bearing whatever remains of that trauma, carrying it forward with us, for as long as we live. 

“I want to suggest that we can rethink our relation to scars, including emotional and physical scars," Sara Ahmed writes. She reminds us that we have normalized what a "good" scar is; it is one that is hard to see, preferably invisible; after all, isn't that the goal of a good surgeon? Yet this kind of "good" scar "does not remind us of the wounding."

Ahmed says that as if being reminded of the wounding were a good thing. As if it were a kind of writing, a teaching, that we must pay attention to.  All this time, I've thought that if I could erase my scars, make them invisible to myself and everyone else, that would be "healing." That would be the end of shame, fear and despair.


Ahmed continues, "A good scar is one that sticks out, a lumpy sign on the skin.  It’s not that the wound is exposed or that the skin is bleeding.  But the scar is a sign of the injury: a good scar allows healing, it even covers over, but the covering always exposes the injury, reminding us of how it shapes the body ….”

By body, I think she also means identity, spirit, soul, being. How multi-faceted scars are! To simultaneously heal, cover, expose, remind; aren’t these the actions of a teacher?

“This kind of good scar reminds us that recovering from injustice cannot be about covering over injuries, which are effects of that injustice, signs of an unjust contact between our bodies and others," Ahmed insists. I am drawn to that phrase, “unjust contact” – contact we did not want or ask for; contact that is invasive, appropriative, criminal.  Yes, scars do so much work: they remind us that even as we recover from those wounds of unjust contact, we must not forget what caused them, we must remember in order to protect ourselves and others against future wounding.  We are holey beings, stitched together by our scars, by which I mean our experiences, our knowledges, a kind of testimony that is literally written on our bodies.

Carry your scars like witnesses on your skin. Your skin is your witness.

Did I mention how impatient I am with this excruciating process of reading my scars? Did I mention how many times I have limped into therapy swearing that I cannot keep going, do not have the endurance for reawakening pain I have heaped a lifetime of shit on to hide from myself? Did I mention how I go to work utterly ransacked by grief, face a classroom of students with body and soul ragged as an empty sack of promises?

My therapist reminds me that "we make the scars. Wounds are inflicted on us, originally, from outside ourselves - by experiences that traumatize our bodies, brains, spirits. But wounds in and of themselves do not make scars; we construct the scars in order to close up the wounds so we don't keep bleeding."

I sit there, seeing myself covered in a skin made of scars, thin tender skin that shrinks from touch, yet craves the comfort of touch.

"Sometimes," he continues, "those scars that saved our lives ages ago cease being useful. Sometimes, those scars begin to cause more damage, growing excess scar tissue where none is needed, causing problems. Eventually, we may feel safe enough to go back and start removing that excess scar tissue because it's impeding our progress or our ability to move freely, be flexible.  We go back and start pulling a thread ..."

Sometimes, we have to save ourselves from our scars, I whisper.

" ... this can cause memories or even real sensations of the original wounding. Removing the scar, real or metaphorical, is painful, time-consuming, makes you put aside other goals, requires dedication and attention and tenderness towards yourself,” he says softly, “it’s not an easy process. You have to constantly gauge how far you are willing to go vs. how much you might gain from the work. I think you are doing an excellent job making those decisions for yourself. I think you are very brave.”

He tells me a story about massaging a scar with oil, softening it, encouraging it to stretch … I translate this as paying attention to the scar’s edges, its need for touch, acknowledging what it has endured … while at the same time, asking more of it. The scar cannot actually disappear, but it can be coaxed into flexibility so that it won’t tear, or limit movement.

“Maybe …” I say, reaching for the image I can see in my mind’s eye, “… the scar has to be there – We need that scar – it holds us together … but if it becomes too knotty, too complex, too tight, then it holds us back.”

Maybe the danger of letting our scars grow too large is that, instead of bearing our testimony, all we bear is our grief.

Trauma sits there in our bodies, our memories, like a monster, stalking us, jumping out to attack us in unexpected moments.  Trauma doesn’t wait for you to go down to the basement in your nightgown on a dark night; trauma is an intruder.  We do not invite it in to wound us. 

Trauma derails us, makes us more complex beings, perhaps more sensitive to contact; sometimes we cannot bear the tenderest of touches. Other times we cannot get enough touch; nothing and no one can wash away the awful scrawl of violation. Trauma is brutal, unpredictable, unjust, unfair, and completely out of our control.  There is nothing, nothing, about Trauma that we can control.  

But we can make scars to protect ourselves when that is the only defense we have. We can be unashamed of the scars that become a part of who we are, claim them as our unique fingerprint, our own DNA.

We wear our scars as testimony that we have survived, learned, and are not ashamed of telling.

And we can stretch and release those overgrown scars that have knit us into cramped, restricted lives.

I am going to be 58 years old this October. I am a map of scars, a manuscript of scars, a constellation of scars. I am a testimony of scars.  Listen: this is how my body speaks.

Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Archive, Memory and Identity

If you know me, you know that I spend a lot of time with my nose in some archive or other, dusty reality or pixelly digital. I am fascinated with the stories found there, the stories NOT found there, and everything in between. While researching and writing Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir, I came under the spell of the archive as a potent source of material, story, and justice. I've never been the same.

Yesterday I spent the entire day at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. I was lucky enough to attend 

Archives, Memory & Identity: A Public Symposium

held in the auditorium at the Rare Books School there. My colleague Julie Phillips Brown, an English professor at VMI, has alerted me to this opportunity earlier in the summer, and I could not sign up fast enough. After all, archives/memory/identity are what I DO. And this year, I'm also teaching with the archives in various ways in my creative writing memoir workshop.

Suffice it to say, the event was pretty much everything Julie and I could have dreamed of, and more. The lineup of individuals creating and/or using archival materials of every imaginable kind was brilliant. Of course, I have favorite presentations, and the best part of having my own blog is that I get to claim them: 

“The Plateau Peoples’ Web Portal: A Model for Ethical Access to Cultural Heritage” Trevor James Bond (Co-Director, Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation and Associate Dean for Digital Initiatives and Special Collections, Washington State University Libraries). This material, and the respectful, thoughtful collaboration between white scholars and Indigenous peoples from the tribes in an area of Washington, Idaho and Oregon who are linked by their relationship with the Columbia River.  Because time is tight as the term gets started, I'll cheat and paste in the info from their beautiful website, with some crucial information in bold:

The Plateau Peoples' Web Portal is a collaboration between the Spokane Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes Of The Colville Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe of Indians, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Reservation, the Nez Perce Tribe, the Center for Digital Scholarship and Curation and Native American Programs at Washington State University. This Portal is a gateway to Plateau peoples' cultural materials held in multiple repositories including WSU's Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections, the Northwest Museum of Art and Culture, the National Anthropological Archives and the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian Institution. The materials in the Portal have been chosen and curated by tribal representatives. Each item has one or more records associated with it as well as added traditional knowledge and cultural narratives to enhance and enrich understanding to many audiences.

I found myself profoundly moved by both Trevor Bond's presentation of the project details, and by the voices, faces, and objects found on the website. I rarely cry over an academic presentation, but this was so much more than that: this was a rare, and painstakingly respectful illumination of an archive filled with Indigenous peoples' culture and spirit by those Indigenous peoples, for those Indigenous peoples. Even the home page photograph was chosen by the 8 tribes whose cultures are housed here; they said the photograph of the Columbia River was representative of how that river put them into relationship with one another, and with it.

Within this archive, certain materials are not available to the general public (a password protects them; family materials can also be uploaded to the archive but viewed only by family), while great care is taken to preserve protocols about gender, season, religion and so on. An immense collection provides resources for language research, maintenance and education; the mix of historic materials with contemporary Indigenous commentary and critique is a crucial addition that helps erase the old trope of the vanished Indian. Just browsing the site today, I found such a wonderful mix: baskets, videos of elders discussing the Northwest "Fishing Wars," and historical trauma; written documents from government and BIA and church sources; photographs; natural resources, old and new; arts -- and all of this catalogued, searchable, and well-organized. Trevor played one video in which a group of Indigenous women talked about an archival basket in their language, only switching to English at the very end; one woman holds, pats, and examines the basket with respectful hands, and observant eyes throughout. This scene brought tears to my eyes; as a whole, Indigenous peoples are separated from the works of our ancestors, and to hold a basket like that, to speak to it like a person, is a moment to be cherished.

Perhaps the most important work this portal does is what it UN-does: the voices are those of Indigenous people; the materials are chosen not by white curators and scholars and scientists, but by contemporary Indigenous individuals and communities whose expertise is both acknowledged and implicitly behind every aspect of the archive. 

Please take the time to explore this archive, and guide any young students you might know to it, as well. You will come away inspired by the meticulous archival cooperation and Indigenous presence.  In particular, Indigenous protocols and traditional knowledges are present and respected, right down to a privileging of the Native description of a basket over long-held social science descriptions. A small piece of the long, painful history of having our Indigenous sacred objects, or ancestral materials, stolen and withheld from us, and still another dismissive history of being told we can't have them back because "you don't know how to take care of them," are both dismissed with this project. The sovereignty and agency and dignity within this project is palpable, and joyful.

That was just session 1.  In Session 2, my favorite was:

“Moving Memorials” – María Verónica San Martín (Artist, Whitney Museum Independent Study Program; Booklyn, Inc.)

Maria Veronica San Martin is a book artist, a social justice activist, and a visionary.  Her bio reads: "The subject matter of her work derives from the violence in dictatorship Chile (1973–1990) vis-à-vis the United States and Nazism’s involvement in that violence, addressing memory as a pivotal factor for the understanding of the neoliberal, globalized present." But it is also true that Maria portrays the love, compassion, and determination surrounding the memory of those "desaparecidos" -- not just by their families, but in the Chilean national historical identity.

Here are a few photographs of the work she shared with us in a half-hour performance; afterwards we were encouraged to come forward to touch, move, and experience the books ourselves. Maria stated that she feels strongly that the act of remembering is also a physical, tactile act which creates connections between body and mind, thus diversifying and strengthening memory, and making it no long just her memory, or a Chilean national memory, but our memory. As members of a nation that enabled and helped create massacre and torture of innocent people half a world away, our complicity -- as her United Statesian readers -- must be acknowledged, and felt.

This next book is called "Make the Economy Scream," (President Richard Nixon ordered the CIA to "make the economy scream" in Chile to "prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him," paving the way for Pinochet's brutal military coup). The book is housed in a copper box (copper mining being an economic mainstay in Chile) with those words engraved on the lid (very difficult to photograph!). Inside, fragile prints on clear plastic show the faces of desaparecidos, those "disappeared" and presumed killed by the military regime; these prints are stacked with sheets of vellum between them, and the whole deck is wrapped in a handkerchief printed with some of the phrases used about Chile in secret conversations between the President and then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger.

As readers and handlers of this text, we are meant to come away with the stain of these deaths (and the memory of these faces) transferred to our own skins. At the same time, we see, and become complicit with, the inevitable "disappearance" of these faces through time and handling. 

Another of Martin's projects is titled "In Their Memory: Human Rights Violations, Chile (1973-1990)," a collection of photographs, names and biographies of the disappeared constructed as books within books within books. It could be read as a normal text, with pages turning from right to left; it could be read as many tiny books, each photo lifting up to reveal a story about where each person was when they were last seen; it could be read as a wide-open accordion book that floods the eye with faces pleading for attention, and stand on its own; it could even be rolled into a kind of spiral curve, an evasion of linear time. Finally, the back of the book was a long panoramic painting of the Presidential Palace in Santiago, where many of the disappeared were tortured to death. The implication cannot be escaped: their graves never found, these desparecidos are still being held within the walls of torture and silence.

 Julie's iphone's facial recognition app tried to give names to these faces, something which was extraordinarily disturbing.


Another accordion book with two sides, "Indignity and Resistance: In the Foothills of the Andes" is the re-creation of a torture camp. The book is housed within a case. When removed, expanded, and formed into a circle, with the original gate opening at the front, we are presented with the sur/reality of torture. The contrast between what happened inside the camp, and the beauty that surrounded it on the outside revealed our minds' struggle to understand such brutality and beauty being allowed to exist side-by-side. The contrast and dilemma are stunningly portrayed. As I viewed this book, familiar thoughts came back to me: if there is a God, how could such a being take no action against the horrors here? If torture can happen here, in the middle of such beauty, can't it happen anywhere? What kinds of delusions do we have to construct in order to deny our own inhumanity? How is it that we can be surrounded by the clarity of our homeland's landscape, and yet still torture the bodies of our own people?

On the prison scenes inside the book, Maria Veronica Martin sought to show both the cruelty of the torturers, and the ways the prisoners tried to care for one another, comfort one another, and show one another compassion in their worst moments. The indigo blue paint, for me, depicted a kind of eternal night.

One last book: The version we saw at the symposium was made of aluminum, but in later evolutions, heavier metal was used, along with hinges that can move 360 degrees (this version uses aluminum tape). The book comes out of a metal box cut in half along an unusual, jagged line; when the two pieces of the box are pulled just an inch or two apart, they form the stylized "S" used in the Nazi SS symbol.  

The book itself is almost a machine; there are times when Maria simply picked it up and let it fall into a shape of its own, and other times when it seemed to move, roll or collapse into a shape of its own design. The metal "pages" are cold, and lack the warmth or texture of her other books. In addition, the book makes an eerie sound when manipulated; a non-human clicking, clattering, metallic "ting" that is, honestly, creepy and yet fascinating. If you go to her website, linked above, you will see a later version, and be able to watch a video of Maria working with it. She said she came to this design in part because she had reached a point where she lacked the words for such mechanical brutality. The metal pages contain no words, and yet as she continues to manipulate it into shapes (like a swastika, a cross), the metal surface takes on scratches, dents, stains, and other markings. As a kind of puzzle, the pages are both intriguing, and repulsive.  I could not bring myself to touch them, though others did.  


It is not hyperbole to say that the symposium, as a whole, knocked me out; I learned so much about how archives work, the diversity of archival holdings out there. The specialization is intense: we heard about a Hip-hop Archive, saw materials from, and heard the process of, creating an archive of video footage from the Charlottesville violence of the recent Alt-Right rally. We met the founder of the "Historymakers" archive of the Black community, and explored the formation of the Digital Library of the Middle East, formed "in response to the tragic displacement of people, loss of life in conflict zones, and ongoing threats to the cultural heritage of the Middle East through destruction, looting, and illicit trafficking," with a mission to "federate Middle Eastern collections from around the world, creating a publicly accessible,  inter-operable digital library of cultural material."

There was more -- much more. The symposium's organizers left long stretches of Q&A planned into each part of the day, and believe me, we asked questions! The day was packed from one end to the other with stories of financial strategies, partnering with larger organizations, preservation techniques, archives that are "born digital" and archives that have real physical objects at their center; in fact, we talked about storage (both digital and spatial), collaboration with multiple communities, the hard-learned lessons of the past, and wildest-dream plans for the future.

I am not an archivist, myself (although I have my share of obsessive collections). I am a storyteller. An artist. And so it is Maria Veronica Martin's work, and the stories contained within the Plateau Peoples' Web Portal, that most fill my heart. Mining the archive in order to tell the stories of voices silenced and/or brutalized, using the oppressor's archive to bring about justice, and creating, if we are persistent and lucky, a moment of beauty or compassion from these archives, all lead to creating our own archives to achieve balance in narrative; this is why I do the work I do. 

I cannot thank the Rare Books School folks enough for the event, for their fine choice of panelists and topics, for the delicious coffee and fruit in the morning, as well as the wines, cheeses, pickled veggies and breads at the end of the day reception. From start to finish, this was a day I will carry with me, that has fed and will continue to feed me. One of the archivists - I'm sorry, I don't remember which one - told us that one of the most important things to keep in mind as someone who is a safekeeper of cultural inheritance is to "Recognize the gift you are receiving." 

Yesterday was a gift.