Category: Lest We Forget

Lest We Forget: The 1980s As They Would Have Seemed

Sarah Underwood—

 

Growing up in the 1990s, I had conflicting, and generally superficial, views of the 1980s. Either I was proud to be “from” the previous decade – I was born in 1989 – like cooler, older teenagers (my babysitters), or I was glad that I had essentially escaped life in the 1980s by having been born a few months before they ended. The latter position developed mainly after seeing an inexcusable excess of shoulder pads in soap opera re-runs.

Like many children, I was only dimly aware of historical events that occurred in the decades right before I was born. Vaguely, I knew about the hippies and counter-culturalism of the 1960s and 1970s, but the idea of the 1980s as a time of revolution never occurred to me. Until I read This Will Have Been: Art, Love, and Politics in the 1980s, I am not sure I ever realized the intensity—or the severity—of the social movements of that decade.

According to author Helen Molesworth, I’m not the only one who seems to have missed out on the cultural developments of thirty years ago. She notes that in 2007, “the art world’s ‘year of feminism’” completely missed feminist art from the 1980s. During that decade, the art world was, as usual, at odds with its political environment, and its major developing themes were going unnoticed, sometimes accidentally, sometimes not. Queer and feminist theories were developing at the same time that the Reagan administration was promising to “return American politics and values to a time before the tumultuous upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s.” Redefining gender and identity was not part of that agenda; although, to be fair, those issues certainly did not comprise the entire agenda of the art world, either. Molesworth acknowledges that the breadth of the art of the 1980s cannot be fully catalogued, and while a variety of artists and topics are discussed in This Will Have Been, the major focus is on two of the decade’s important “events”—feminism and the AIDS crisis.

A recent Washington Post article discussed the differences between the gay community’s experiences during the AIDS crisis and today. Interestingly, while most people agree that the epidemic was most terrifying in its early days, some of the interviewees indicate that there is now more of a stigma associated with the disease and less of a “loving community,” at least in D.C. Studying the art of a few decades ago reminds us that finding a way to accept the reality of HIV/AIDS continues to be difficult. In 1985, when Reagan’s spokesperson claimed that AIDS was not part of the administration’s discourse because “It hasn’t spread to the general population yet,” he managed to encapsulate a grim truth. While, as Molesworth points out, “the very idea of a ‘general’ public is untenable,” LGBT people were, and often still are, pushed so far to the fringes of society that their wellness was not considered a public issue.

Some art representing struggles in the gay community of the 1980s in This Will Have Been is explicitly gay, erotic, or both. For instance, Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of nude black men immediately force us to deal with our own impressions of sex, gender, and race. Homeroticism and blackness were controversial enough on their own; together, they instigated an obscenity trial in 1990. Other works, however, need more context. David Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (Buffalo) shows a bizarre twist on a scene from the American West. There are canyons, mountains, and a wide sky, but buffalo are leaping headfirst off a cliff, the viewer assumes to their deaths. Using such recognizably American icons—the rugged landscape and buffalo—suggests an environment historically dominated by straight masculinity. Wojnarowicz appropriates them, simultaneously representing the many young men who died from AIDS and the attempt to protect a doomed friend or lover. The fact that both he and Mapplethorpe died of AIDS intensifies the urgency of their images. It is the desperation conveyed by artists like them that made the AIDS protests so emotionally severe, the marginalization by political authorities so devastating, and the modern viewer’s desire to understand just what exactly went on in the 1980s so important.

 

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

Lest We Forget: “Baby”‘s Visit to the Museum

Sarah Underwood—

“Baby”

I’ll admit it, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into this month. Performance art can be incredibly nuanced, and Michael Smith’s Baby Ikki at the Museum is no exception. In college, I performed with a modern dance company as, among other things, a tree, an abacus, and a coal miner, so I’ve seen firsthand people’s bemused reactions to the human body as a canvas. But even I was not quite prepared for a grown man dressed in a diaper and a bonnet. Baby Ikki, a non-speaking but not silent, genderless eighteen-month-old is one of Smith’s reoccurring personas, the other being the innocent “Mike.”

At Galleria Emi Fontana in Milan in the video below, we see Baby Ikki interacting with a small group of people as his shadow is projected on a screen. He imitates an infant both physically, with the jerky knee-bend and the stiff-legged wobble, and mentally, with curiosity that is self-absorbed and unconscious of the audience’s reactions. Like a baby, he repeats noises (the whistle-blowing) and actions (sharing and taking away objects) that might be irritating or amusing to the grown-ups but to the baby are unique each time.

Smith sometimes presents this character in collaboration with either other artists or other works of art, and in that particular show, he bounces in front of an image of Mary and Jesus. The contrast between the immediately recognizable Madonna and child and the foreign concept of a man pretending to a baby is the first thing you might notice, the second being the odd juxtaposition of sacred and profane. Are we supposed to be comparing the art forms? Does one take away from the other? Can they actually form one work in this moment or is the gap between them impossible?

With Baby Ikki at the Museum, Smith incorporates pieces, mostly from the Whitney Museum of American Art. They give context to his gestures while he allows us to find new meanings in each poster or light display, whether the artist originally intended them or not. When the baby stands in front of Allan McCollum’s Collection of Two Hundred and Eight-eight Plaster Surrogates, the word on the opposite page is “more.” There really are two hundred and eighty-eight black squares outlined with white. Is Smith telling us less would be more? That more is better? That there’s more to McCollum than meets the eye? Or just that this installation just has a lot more pieces to it than the other ones in the gallery?

The problem with archiving performance has not been solved yet. It is harder to view than “2D” or “3D” art simply because it cannot be reproduced. The Mona Lisa has been smiling the same smile for hundreds of years, but the human body is always changing from day to day. The performer will never act quite the same way each show, even with a script, and the audience will certainly never react exactly the same as the last. Even a video recorded version does not fully represent the experience of being there in the moment. Baby Ikki at the Museum comes close, though, by reinventing the dilemma. With this book, it’s not, “How can we record this work?” but rather “How can we translate this work into a new format?”

Smith’s performances undergo a huge change in order to be transposed into a material form. Unlike a book that collects the images of paintings or even sculptures, this one has to rethink the original art form. A series of interactions becomes just a few selected moments. Each pointing finger or stare, which in a live performance might have just been one in several minutes of repeated movements, receives much more emphasis and thought just because it is now singular. The incorporation of words is an especially interesting aspect of this version of Baby Ikki. They are presented as they would be in a children’s book, as captions, except instead of “A is for Apple,” we have “me” next to Baby Ikki staring at his hand deliberately pricking a finger with a safety pin. As with any trip to an art gallery, we are invited, if not to learn a new vocabulary, than at least to expand our definitions of the one we already have.

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

Lest We Forget: Eugene O’Neill’s Exorcism from Suicide

Sarah Underwood—

It’s small, it’s lightweight, and it’s a quick read (so you might think) except it’s about “miserable people in miserable families leading miserable lives full of misery” (according to NPR, which, despite the joke, recommends the playwright). This observation about Eugene O’Neill’s Exorcism: A Play in One Act is hard to argue with, at first. Ned, O’Neill’s literary incarnation of himself, has been sitting a muddy New York City park…in the rain…all day. It climaxes with Ned left on his own after dropping “dark, dark hints.”

Ned’s subsequent attempt at suicide, which is based on O’Neill’s own, raises questions about the nature of suicide. Why does Ned give his roommate, Jimmy, so much warning? How much did Ned really want to die? Even more intriguingly, the relationship of this playwright to this play opens up O’Neill’s personal life and thoughts in ways that his other works cannot. While his other works also deal with characters and events in Exorcism, he did not try to erase those from the archive. Exorcism did run for one season in 1920, but afterwards, he tried to destroy every existing copy of its script. What does it say that a man would write, and allow to be produced, a play that he would later want no one to even read, let alone view?

In fact, Yale University Press was only able to publish the play because one copy had accidentally survived the purge. Misery, suicide, and personal experience all wrapped up in a package covered with Christmas stickers: that’s how the surviving manuscript was discovered among the papers of a friend of O’Neill’s despised ex-wife. YUP’s edition includes a facsimile of the original typewritten script, providing more insight into the text. For example, in the final version, Ned describes the room in which he sleeps with a prostitute; we can see that in the facsimile he crossed out one word: “dead half-light darkness.” He takes the glass half-empty metaphor to a new level with the original. Perhaps O’Neill, writing years later in a better state of mind, had to remind himself just how desperate his younger self had been.

Yet in how much of a better place could he have been if he could not bear to have such a personal play in circulation? Exorcism’s title suggests that, just as Ned’s urge to kill himself is “exorcised” from him, O’Neill’s inner demons should have been chased out by the cathartic exercise of writing the play. We suspect it will take more examinations of this lightweight book to pinpoint exactly why O’Neill never wanted us to read it at all.

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

Lest We Forget: How to Declare Our Beliefs

Sarah Underwood—

Recent events have reminded us how difficult it was in the past, and often still is today, for people to speak openly about their ideas. From the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Arab Spring, public declaration of belief and protest continue to appear regularly in headlines. It makes me count myself very fortunate that I have never had to risk my life for my faith or political beliefs. I am not sure that I could, so it makes me feel better that Mary I of Englandwas unready, too. Although she was responsible for the martyrdom of Protestants during her reign, I wonder if she might have become a Catholic martyr if she had been a bit more stubborn about her religion. John Edwards’s new biography, Mary I: England’s Catholic Queen, of one ofEngland’s most controversial women reminds us of how cycles of oppression of speech and faith begin.

Years before she was queen, the woman who would be eventually known as “Bloody Mary” had to decide whether publicly declaring her faith was worth her life. Up to that decisive moment, Mary’s early life is not one I envy. Although she was born into a decadent lifestyle, starting her Royal life with two cradles—one for sleeping and an elaborate one in which “to ‘receive’ visitors”—she was a “pawn” as long her father lived. Treaty after treaty of proposed marriages, led to what Edwards describes as a rather disturbing image of the six-year-old princess meeting and dancing for a potential husband, the adult Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, her first cousin. After Anne Boleyn assumed the role of Evil Stepmother, Princess Mary would find herself “the Lady Mary,” declared a bastard by her own father, and witness his maltreatment of her mother Catherine. When members of Henry VIII’s court finally demanded that she recognize her father’s authority over the church and even over God, the devout Catholic must have asked herself, “Is martyrdom worth it?”

The pressure on Mary over the next few years intensified after her initial rejection of her father’s demands. After her parents’ divorce, she already knew how cold her father could be, but knowing that he ordered Anne Boleyn’s death must have heightened her appreciation for his tyranny. The demand to renounce the Catholic Church, however, was not simply a personal insult, such as his earlier order that she wait on her baby sister, Elizabeth. Rejecting God would put her soul at risk. She saw other Catholics, including Saint Thomas More, become martyrs for refusing to acknowledge Henry VIII’s authority. Mary had a better education on both sacred and secular matters than many men of her era, and I think she must have seen the legacy of the Catholic martyrs as an imposing obstacle to just pretending to agree with her father. On top of her strong personal beliefs, her grandparents were Ferdinand and Isabel of Spain, who did not exactly leave her the legacy of “cafeteria Catholics.” When she finally gave in and publicly recognized Henry VIII’s control of the church, Mary was horrified to find out that the Pope did not support her decision. Her miserable situation makes her subsequent rule as queen all the more fascinating, as Edwards shows. For our further reading consideration: Why would a woman who could not find it in herself to be a martyr require it of her subjects?

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

Lest We Forget: Poems, Nature, Food, and Keeping Your Day Job

Sarah Underwood—

Reading poetry normally does not make me hungry, but after “Lake of Little Birds,” poet Katherine Larson had me ready for “[s]wordish/ drizzled with virgin oil, rubbed with/ mint and saffron”…and several other dishes. The 2010 winner of the Yale Series of Younger Poets prize uses her experience as a biologist to compose both the content and the form of the detailed works within Radial Symmetry. The foods she describes in her poems often become pieces of art in their own right. She observes them as carefully as any of the other biological miracles in her poetry, for which my mental taste buds are thankful. (I would also like to take a moment to appreciate that I had never found hard-boiled eggs to be very mysterious until I read “Risk.”)

This collection of poems focuses primarily on observing and interacting with nature, which we are fortunate enough to view through the microscopic eye of a trained biologist. But any cookbook with a good enough photographer will eventually convince me to go poke around the kitchen—the reason Larson’s references to food intrigued me so much was that they are so entwined with the environments she describes. Of course, we know our food comes from nature, but with food production so removed from our modern lives, it is easy to forget how fundamental it is in creating our own environments.

For example, the ocean traditionally functions as a literary symbol of life or rebirth. We see both a celebration of that tradition as well as an unsettling perversion of it. In “Crypsis and Mimicry,” the food pulled from the sea creates the most beautiful dish, as the speaker’s “Cajun friend explains/ bouillabaisse as the synthesis of red snapper and crab,/ oyster, mussel, and crayfish. Garlic and orange/ peel.” The bouillabaisse’s “synthesis” represents the sea’s life-giving bounty, so it appears the human world is in harmony with the natural world.

On the other hand, the synthetic foods humans discard in the sea create one of the most disturbing images in any of the poems: in “Ghost Nets,” we see “the rotting sea lion carcass with the plastic Coke bottle/ lodged inside its throat.” 2010 competition judge Louise Glück calls Larson’s poetry “strikingly…environmental” in the foreword, but it is never didactic. The observer merely tells us what she sees and allows our reaction to fill in the meaning: the poems may be “environmental” in the sense of green activism, but they are also “environmental” in the sense that they simply ask us to more closely examine our surroundings. The sea lion choked by plastic shocks us with its gruesomeness, but in doing so it suggests our destruction of marine life, while self-destructive, results from our unawareness and recklessness towards the world around us.

Food, life and death, and environment are all linked again in the quiet “The Oranges in Uganda.” The poem opens with the paradoxical situation of the speaker and Death “shopping for emicungwa/ at night, in the market.” That Death would take any interest in helping the living shop for fruit, especially the brightly colored oranges, seems counterintuitive. In shopping for fruit, which sustains life, Death is perhaps prolonging the lives of those he is there to take. Yet in this Ugandan market, Death speaks in the local tongue and seems to be wearing native clothing. And then when the speaker tells him that she knows “why/ people make love when they/ come home from a funeral,” we see that this is a study in defiance. Death is a part of our daily lives: Larson takes that literally here. We should not be surprised to accept him as part of our environment. What better way for him to partake in the ordinariness of human life than by preparing for the next meal, by shopping for oranges?

 

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

Watch Katherine Larson dissect poetry and squid alike in this interview with PBS Newshour!

 

Lest We Forget: Palestine Betrayed

Sarah Underwood—

Who betrayed whom in Palestine? Many people with many purposes would call western nations like Great Britain or eastern powers like the Arab League the traitors, with Arabs and Jews alternating the position of betrayed. For Efraim Karsh, author of Palestine Betrayed, one important and forgotten answer is that pro-Arab propagandists betrayed their fellow Arabs, the people who wanted to live peacefully with their Jewish neighbors at the start of the twentieth century. As a historian, his purpose is to reclaim the humanity of those real people who were not merely indifferent to but welcomed Jewish immigrants to their nation and whose peacefulness was subsequently erased by “Palestinian Arab leaders who…very much against the wishes of their own constituents, launched a relentless campaign to obliterate the Jewish national revival.”

Karsh acknowledges that after World War I, as the Jewish population in the area that would be Palestine grew, it did face certain hostility, including “clashes over pasturing and farming lands.” He argues that initially, however, these sentiments came from more individual xenophobia rather than a nationwide effort, nothing that was out of the ordinary “from the other acts of…lawlessness that plagued Palestine at the time.” The presence of the Jews in Palestine boosted the economy, raised life expectancy, and significantly slowed emigration of native Palestinians from their homeland.

The future first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion, said on November 25, 1947, “We should remember that the great mass of the Arab people are still inarticulate; they are deprived of voice and means of political expression, because those who speak in their name today represent neither their feelings nor their needs.” In just a few days, it would become apparent that those who spoke for the public also acted for them without their consent. On November 29, the General Assembly passed a resolution allowing “the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states linked in an economic union.” The next day, what the Israelis called the War of Independence and the Palestinians and Arabs called “the catastrophe” began. On November 30, the Jewish population became the target of shootings, stabbings, bombs, and other terror. The murderers were not Arab patriots but rather “criminals driven by monetary concerns” who the Mufti and the Arab Higher Committee used as instigators.

Karsh does not oversimplify the “Palestine problem.” His detailed account of the wars between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East examines both sides carefully, noting that the desires for justice, peace, and revenge have coexisted in both camps. It is, sadly, a familiar story, even if his reexamined history of this specific clash surprises us: the ambition of a few leaders and elite destroy the lives and livelihoods of thousands. Perhaps Zionism and Pan-Arabism could have never coincided in the same state, but an Arab family and their Jewish neighbors could have, if they had been allowed to speak and act for themselves.

 

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

Lest We Forget: Integrated Schools, Integrated Lives

Sarah Underwood—

Think back to yourself at age fifteen. That’s the age both the women profiled in David Margolick’s Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock were when Will Counts took his famous photograph. Many people assumed Hazel Bryan, the screaming, hateful white girl in the picture, had to be twice the age of the stoic black schoolgirl, Elizabeth Eckford. They were, however, the same age, only Hazel had picked a dress hoping to look “more sophisticated and maybe more promiscuous than she really was.” Instead, the public would, for many years, think she was older and should have been more responsible.

They didn’t know her family was poor, that she wanted find a way to leave home, and that her sophomore year of high school, she’d swallowed enough aspirin to require hospitalization. She was also one to get “caught up in the moment,” given to “histrionics”: she was a girl from a Fundamentalist Christian family who wanted to be a performer. None of that excuses her behavior, but it helps us to understand why her face is often more easily recalled than any of those of the Little Rock Nine.

How many of us, raised the way Hazel was and prompted by a similar personality, would have behaved differently? Each of us hope we would behave better than her, better than anyone else in that crowd, but at fifteen, perhaps caught up in mob mentality, we might not have. But history could excuse one moment. Elizabeth did, accepting Hazel’s telephone apology when they were twenty-one. A couple decades later, the two even became friends, attending speaking engagements and even flower shows together. There were many reasons the friendship eventually faded—integration left scars of which they weren’t always aware—but one was that Hazel’s hateful words were not limited to one moment.

What happens when a central figure of a historical event does not remember all of her own history? The famous photograph was not Hazel’s only exposure in the media during the forced integration of Central High School. For Hazel and her two girlfriends, “the attention proved addictive,” and she told reporters the next day, “Whites should have rights, too!…Nigras aren’t the only one that have a right!” It was these later comments to reporters that would come to bother her new friend Elizabeth in later years. Hazel apologized for yelling at Elizabeth all those years ago, but she could barely remember the events of that day or the day after. She could not apologize for the interviews she could not remember giving. She suggested she had a form of “amnesia” about those events, even wondering if hypnosis could help. To Elizabeth, for whom those days were so difficult that decades later the horror still rendered her speechless, it was as if Hazel was speaking a foreign language.

Integration was more than a moment in history, and so was both women’s involvement. For a while, Hazel’s motto was “my life is more than a moment.” After the women took a photo together demonstrating their reconciliation, Elizabeth told Hazel something similar, if a little more blunt, “Don’t make too much of this picture.” A picture might say a thousand words, but it can never capture the thousand more moments that will truly define its subjects.

 

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

Lest We Forget: Race in the Presidential Race

Sarah Underwood—

With Super Tuesday barely a week away, it’s time for media speculation to go from a sport to a circus. While news coverage in the months (and years) leading up to an election can seem repetitive, and while primaries are sometimes inconclusive indicators of the final candidate, the elections occurring just before and on Super Tuesday create a justifiably exciting contest. Mitt Romney has remained a steady candidate as his GOP opponents have risen and fell over the past year (Herman who?), but his home state, Michigan, is holding its primary tomorrow, exactly a week before Super Tuesday. As CNN points out, “A Romney loss in Michigan could destroy [his] veneer of inevitability and blow the race wide open.” If that happens, Rick Santorum could very well come out the victor the following week.

Super Tuesday was an effective, if surprising, predictor of the U.S.’s last presidential election, as The End of Race? Obama, 2008, and Racial Politics in America by Donald R. Kinder and Allison Dale-Riddle shows. Before, most people assumed that Hillary Clinton was the most likely candidate for the Democratic Party in 2008. Even though she was generally perceived as less charismatic than Barack Obama, with voters believing that Obama “says what he believes” and that Clinton “says what people want to hear,” nobody was quite sure the relatively younger and inexperienced Obama could win. “In December, Clinton had led Obama among Democrats nationwide by some 20 percentage points. At the end of January…on the eve of Super Tuesday, the lead was gone.” 2008’s Super Tuesday left Obama with the lead, however slight (he won 13 states and territories; Clinton 10), and the next day the gap became even more apparent. Whereas Clinton admitted she’d had to loan her campaign $5 million, Obama had raised $32 million. And then, of course, Obama won.

In a race that came down to either a woman or an African American, the 2008 Democratic primaries would have resulted in a historic outcome either way. Kinder and Dale-Riddle are concerned with how groups function in a political environment, and the election gave us a unique opportunity to see how two major social cleavages affect the current climate. After analyzing the impact of race and gender on the 2008, they found that the election did not, in fact, predict the end of race. It did not necessarily even predict the end of gender, but the authors found that Clinton had a much harder time mobilizing female voters to her camp—her “natural” base—than Obama did black voters. Women voters seemed just as likely to vote for Obama as Clinton.

In contrast, being a woman did not hurt Clinton’s campaigns as much as being black hurt Obama’s. Adjusting for as many factors besides race as possible, the authors calculate that while Obama may have gained a maximum of 2.2% votes among African Americans, he lost 10.2% of votes among whites. Race, then, lost him more votes than it earned him. Clinton did eventually concede the race and endorse Obama, but the election was close. Kinder and Dale-Riddle also claim that Obama should have won against Senator McCain with 60.7% of the total vote, an unusual landslide, but his skin color made the competition much narrower. They also point out that, with a white mother and Kenyan father who voluntarily came to the U.S., as well as an education from historically white, Ivy-league schools, Obama does not have life experiences or a history that is common to the African American experience. The black community was not even sure that he was, using the unfortunate phrase, “black enough.” With some suspicion from his own race, compounded with the more obvious distrust from the white community, the 2008 election was not the end of race, but another step in the political and social fight for equality.

 

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

Lest We Forget: Segregated Communities, Integrated Division

Sarah Underwood—

“Integration was one of the worst things to happen to black kids. We lost our community,” said a former student whose segregated Floridian high school closed in 1969. It’s nearly impossible to read that without feeling troubled. Weren’t black communities oppressed during Jim Crow? How could anyone feel nostalgic for his segregated high school? Author Stuart Buck does not agree with the first part of the student’s statement, and in no way does he advocate segregation. His book, Acting White: The Ironic Legacy of Desegregation, does, however, find evidence to support the second claim.

Before the integration of American schools, freedmen and their descendants found safe havens in black schools and churches. While most other social settings meant encounters with whites who were often offended by the very presence of black people, schools in particular offered a chance for young black people to see principals and teachers as role models who not only had the same color skin but similar experiences. Integration relegated black pastors to menial work, and black educators were often fired altogether. The only two settings that had created a sense of community and protection for young black people became “something controlled by and meant for” whites only.

Desegregation broke up close-knit communities, as black students were bused out to distant white schools. During segregation, black teachers had been respected members of their communities who knew parents and students and pushed their students to succeed. Of segregated schools, one black alumnus remembered, “My teachers would not accept mediocre work, because they knew that I could not function in a racist world being a mediocre person.” Nobody recalled—at least in written record—that their peers in segregated schools thought education was “the province of white people.”

Buck does not, of course, say that segregated schools were a good idea, only that desegregation brought a new set of problems. Sometime after 1965, one of these problems eventually devolved into the criticism by black students of their studious peers: “acting white.” He quotes another scholar as acknowledging that “acting white ‘is’ the most negative accusation that can be hurled at black adolescents.” The accusation, Buck says, is a natural response. With no black role models in their schools and no social outlet entirely free of racism, one (tragic) way to create a cohesive, protective unit was to rebel against the white students and teachers’ example. A black child working hard in school seemed to be collaborating with the institutions that had shattered whatever safety black communities had managed to create during segregation.

Buck quotes the head of Harvard’s Afro-American Studies Department as noting “if anybody had said anything like [“acting white”] when we were growing up in the ‘50s, first, your mother would smack you upside the head and, second, they’d check you into a mental institution.”  He also finds several black valedictorians and honor-roll students who today acknowledge they are accused of “acting white” on a daily basis. It is indeed dangerous to profess nostalgia for the days of white-only and black-only schools, but something of it has to return before the achievement gap between black and white students can close. That “something” is not further segregation, but a better integration: the development of a true community.

 

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.

Lest We Forget: What We Don’t Know About Animals

Sarah Underwood—

A lot more sheep were involved in my college experiences than is probably typical. Colonial Williamsburg overlaps the College of William and Mary’s campus, so my friends and I had easy access to the reconstructed historical buildings and gardens. Because I’m a nerd (typical of W&M), I toured almost every historical building in Williamsburg, but because I’m weird (also typical of W&M), I more often visited the horses, sheep, ducks, fish, oxen, chickens, and cats that lived outside. Taking a walk and stopping to watch the lambs was a fun—and unusual, or so I’ve heard—way to de-stress. While I was leaning on the fence and staring, I figured that the sheep didn’t, or more likely couldn’t, care about me. But before reading Jenny Diski’s What I Don’t Know About Animals, I never thought about the sheep watching me in return. I never considered that the sheep might be intentionally ignoring me, that their gaze might mean something, or even that it might be rude to stare at them.

Diski spends some time with sheep, as well, staying at a privately owned sheep farm during lambing season. I may be prejudiced, having watched lambs frolic for extended periods of time, but I agree when she says that sheep have the cutest babies of any animals. She does not romanticize the animals, however, and reminds us that even a small farm, “light years from any intensive farming methods, is a factory for meat production”—and she suggests there is nothing wrong with that reality, at least not that she can discover. Her refusal to take a concrete position on the toughest questions about animals makes us reconsider everything we think we know about them. Do we anthropomorphize them too much, or humanize them too little?

Even her “abnormal” relationships with animals raise questions about the definition of and how we understand “non-human animals.” Diski is open about the fact that she used to be, as she says, “crazy.” Possibly her most disturbing encounter with animals is with a species that does not exist at all. As a young woman, she kept secret the fact she was dousing her skin and hair in insecticide creams and lotions, convinced her body was “infested.” Until she started her research for the book, she had never heard the name of her condition, delusional parasitosis. The “insect, lice-like, flea-like, tic-like crawling creatures that lived on” her, burrowing under her skin, probably composed the physically closest relationship she ever had with animals, and yet they were not real.

What makes her relatable—for example, when she describes her stint as an Earthwatch volunteer researching elephants—is the confession she makes in the book’s title. Her encounters with animals are something any person could have and probably has had. The animals in her life have included Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, a duck in a story she wrote in primary school, and her multiple cats. Whether they are real, imagined, on the television, or behind the zoo’s bars, the primates, bugs, and stuffed toys she describes are always familiar. Our knowledge of animals will always be defined by our limited ability to form relationships with them, something she admits might be impossible. She traces her personal involvement with all kinds of creatures at the same time she chronicles human’s relationships with their non-human counterparts from Genesis to twentieth-century children’s wildlife programs, trying to find connections. What she doesn’t know, we find, is far more complex than what we do.

 

Sarah Underwood is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and a former Yale University Press intern. Her column, Lest We Forget, appears on the Yale Press Log.