Sunday, January 5, 2014

Sherman Alexie's poem on going 'native'



I heard Sherman Alexie give a true and startlingly funny commencement speech at Whitney Bard's (my stepdaughter's) graduation at Evergreen State last year. See here. Here is his amusing, angry and devastating account on the reading/attempted adoption of indigenous literature and pseudo-insights - "it" - by people often in search of identity (who experience themselves perhaps as 'hungry ghosts" as Buddhists say, though ones far less perverse than Asa Earl "Forrest" Carter. See here).

Carter is but a paradigm of the diseases of genocide (for a fine analysis of the broader diseases, see the conclusion, on the wretched Smithsonian, of Shari Huhndorf's Going 'Native"; Huhndorf also emphasizes Alexie's poem).

***

In an interview in the New York Times's book review, Alexie recently honored, as the one book he would ask the President to read (a stupid, New York Times question! Alexie does not speak of it as one of his "favorite books"), Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (!973). See here. Brown was, of course, a white man who was concerned to tell the truth about the ethnic cleansing and to restore some of the words and experiences of indigenous people, gleaning what he could from public records. The book has sold four million copies and is still in print. Correspondingly, the current distancing from Brown by some historians is pretty wretched; an apolitical or amoral view of genocide is...pro-genocide.

***

All indigenous peoples were caught up in the sheer murderousness of white (capitalist) expansion - so-called Manifest Destiny that is, the American version of the Final Solution. Contrary to racist ideology, there is no comparison to be made between what the US government did and the practices of indigenous resistance or accommodation under immense, ultimately overwhelming pressure. As the resistance of the Seminoles, black and indigenous, showed, there were broader, sadly not fully realized, possibilities of alliance. I say this to put more sharply the weakness in William L. Katz's referring mistakenly to "ethnic persecution" in the wars of the Creeks and the Seminoles; it wasn't (his overall emphasis on the equality of black Seminoles among other Seminoles, however, deserves to be taken in deeply). See here.

***

Now, no one is "pure" by background and experience - as descendants of the victims of European genocide and now perpetrators of a so far less extreme genocide in Israel give us new evidence daily. It is the commitment to fight for a decent society of which we all can be part - absolute clarity about and rejection of all genocides and oppressions - which marks off decent writing and scholarship from the projections of those who are driven by a sense of their own inadequacy...

***

Here are some of Alexie's words:

"Because you sleep
does not mean that you see into my dreams.
Send it a letter: the address will keep changing.
Give it a phone call: busy signal.
Knock on its door: you’ll hear voices.
Look in its windows: shadows dance through the blinds.
In the end, it will pick you up from the pavement
& take you to the tribal cafe for breakfast.
It will read you the menu.
It will not pay your half of the bill."

***

And here is the whole poem:

"Introduction to Native American Literature

Somewhere in America a television explodes
& here you are again (again)
asking me to explain broken glass.
You scour the reservation landfill
through the debris of so many lives:
old guitar, basketball on fire, pair of shoes.
All you bring me is an empty bottle.
Am I the garbageman of your dreams?
*
Listen:
it will not save you
or talk you down from the ledge
of a personal building.
It will not kill you
or throw you facedown to the floor
& pull the trigger twice.
It believes a roomful of monkeys
in a roomful of typewriters
would eventually produce a roomful
of poetry about missing the jungle.
You will forget
more than you remember:
that is why we all dream slowly.
Often, you need a change of scenery.
It will give you one black & white photograph.
Sometimes, it whispers
into anonymous corner bars
& talks too much about the color
of its eyes & skin & hair.
It believes a piece of coal
shoved up its own ass
will emerge years later
as a perfectly imperfect diamond.

Sometimes, it screams
the English language near freeways
until trucks jackknife & stop all traffic
while the city runs over itself.
Often, you ask forgiveness.
It will give you a 10% discount.
*
Because you have seen the color of my bare skin
does not mean you have memorized the shape of my ribcage.
Because you have seen the spine of the mountain
does not mean you made the climb.
Because you stood waist-deep in the changing river
does not mean you were equal to mc2.
Because you gave something a name
does not mean your name is important.
*
Because you sleep
does not mean that you see into my dreams.
Send it a letter: the address will keep changing.
Give it a phone call: busy signal.
Knock on its door: you’ll hear voices.
Look in its windows: shadows dance through the blinds.
In the end, it will pick you up from the pavement
& take you to the tribal cafe for breakfast.
It will read you the menu.
It will not pay your half of the bill."

Sherman Alexie
Old Shirts and New Skins

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