Blogbook -- Chapter 1: Racism Is A Boat (part 2 of 2)
So racist discourse that makes everything around us is the boat we sail in our classrooms. To say that racism is a discourse means more than the idea that it’s structural and systemic, or that it’s built into the fabric of our language and lives, that it’s unseen most of the time because it’s the normal course of things. It means that racism is in the ways we are called to act and behave in the places we each circulate -- that is, it is in how we are interpellated as racialized subjects. It is in the physical, economic, geographic, ideological, and language structures that organize our world, that give us our choices for actions and beliefs.
It is also in our policies, laws, and practices, in our standard operating procedures in most places, schools, businesses, and disciplines. It’s not just ubiquitous and overdetermined, as Freud describes dream interpretations (note 48). It’s complex, difficult to recognize much of the time, and hard to change when we are sitting comfortably in the boat, rowing, trying to get to shore, or just looking for a few holes to plug, spending our energies saving the boat and not the passengers.
Now, you may be saying, but most of us (literacy teachers in high school and college) don’t teach Poe’s “Raven.” That’s for younger kids. Or we don’t do fiction and poetry in our writing courses. We focus on rhetoric and nonfiction. If racism is a boat we sail in everyday, then nothing escapes its influence. Do you really think that the U.S.’s history of slavery doesn’t affect your literacy or language classrooms today? Remember, none of us, none of our pedagogies and curricula, escape our racist history. Understanding how to read the racist discourse around Poe’s poem is a good way to understand other things we teach.
Poe didn’t own slaves. There’s no evidence of this, but there is evidence of him selling one for his aunt, Maria Clemm (note 49). He didn’t seem opposed to the institution. In fact, he commented on the institution of slavery in positive ways (note 50). This isn’t unusual or surprising. He was a White man from the South.
Poe also struggled financially much of his life. Born in Boston, but soon after his mother’s death and his father’s running away, he was informally adopted as an infant by John and Frances Allan, a childless Scottish couple (note 51). He grew up in Richmond, Virginia, the South, where they lived. Later, he lived much of his adult life in Baltimore, both places were ones where slavery was legal.note 52). Did Poe live among slaves in his home with the Allans? It’s not clear. Did he benefit from the owning of slaves and their captured labor? Yes, there’s no doubt about it. Was the southern slave economy important to Poe’s life, his upbringing, and the writing of “The Raven”? Of course (note 53).
While Poe never graduated from college, he did attend and drop out of the University of Virginia and West Point. He was, of course, steeped in southern culture. So why do we not see slavery or southern cutlure directly in his poem? Well, we do actually, and scholars have discussed this.
We can read at the poem’s center an anxiety about slavery and Blacks in the U.S. This anxiety materializes in the black raven, who is “Perched upon a bust of Pallas.” Pallas is Athena, a metonymy for Western, White culture. The raven is associated with all imagery of darkness and haunting in the poem. It’s the reason for the narrator’s escalating insanity. Does this escalating anxiety mimic that in the U.S. at the time over slavery, just a few years before the Civil War? Could the poem actually be a metaphor for such cultural and political battles? The ending stanzas of the poem suggest this kind of reading.
Do the narrator’s pleas to the raven to go, to leave, suggest the ongoing debates, which began at least as far back as 1800, for recolonizing Blacks back to Africa? (note 54) Could the poem be drawing on cultural narratives of the time that argued that the best thing for everyone, especially White people, was for Black people to go back to Africa, to Liberia, a colony paid for and created in 1821 for these purposes by an American society, the American Colonization Society? (note 55) The poem ends with:
"Be that word our sign in parting, bird or fiend!" I shrieked, upstarting—
"Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken!—quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!"
Quoth the Raven "Nevermore."
And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted—nevermore! (note 56)
What is the “black plume” that comes from the raven’s soul’s lie? What shall be nevermore? Is it slavery? Is it leaving for Liberia? What is the opposite of that dark lie of the raven’s soul? Is it slavery or freedom? Is it simply the dark body of the Black African saying “nevermore” to their chains or bondage in America? Is that the beak in the White narrator’s heart? Could we see Django Unchained as a modern-day reenactment of the anxieties that percolate underneath the images in Poe’s poem? Might Django and the Raven be the Black embodiments of the same White anxieties and fears?
What could such a demon-raven with dark eyes be dreaming as he sits on the “pallid bust” of Western civilization, “never flitting,” just “sitting”? Is he contemplating revolution or a slave revolt, the killing of us “master”? Might Poe have been thinking of Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey and their slave rebellion in Charleston, South Carolina in 1822, or was he thinking of Nat Turner and his leading of a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831? Is the raven thinking about the billions of dollars in capital in the form of Black slaves like himself just walking off plantations, walking away, or taking those plantations for themselves? Is the idea of the plantation really the White Pallas bust, the seat of Western civilization to many in the South? Does the raven see his central value in the southern economy, or to America?
Poe doesn’t admit these things. Yet his poem ends with the soul of the supposed White narrator and the shadow of the Black raven commingling on the floor, and neither “shall be lifted -- nevermore.” The chronology of events in the 19th century suggest that it would be difficult for Poe or his audience in the mid-1800s not to be considering, even if only latently, slavery, in their readings of this poem. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was published in 1852 and sold over 300,000 copies in its first year (note 57). The Civil War would begin in 1861, just sixteen years after the initial publication of Poe’s poem.
The terms of “persons escaping … service” from “their masters” is telling. These words reveal the racist power relations that the federal government condoned. They also reveal the nature of Black slaves and White masters that was assumed in that language. The first serves and is defined by the second’s owning of them. This act was a part of Henry Clay’s famous 1850 compromise, which was meant to stave off secession by southern states (note 58). It was mostly economic in its goals, but not in its consequences.
Poe's poem couldn't have been written or become so popular, so canonized, if it were not for the discourse of racism that was and is so ubiquitous in the U.S. Surely 1845 or 1850 U.S. readers would have felt these connections in “The Raven.” Without Blacks and slavery, without Liberia and Fugitive Slave Laws, Poe would not have the language, the metaphors and ideas, to make such a poem so irresistible. Meanwhile, such a poem couldn’t grab or be so meaningful to so many Americans at the time if not for the racist discourse that made everyone. What makes Black so evil? What makes a bust of Pallas so pure and stately? What makes the haunting “nevermore” so haunting to those mid-century readers?
If we want to address today’s racism in the literature we read with students, then we have to come to terms with the fact that reading literature ain’t just an act of appreciation of rhymes or meter, or the making of a good story, or crafting a good image or argument. We could talk about that stuff for some rhetorical or artistic effect, but what we miss is the really important stuff for our students today.
Write for 20-30 minutes.
Think of a long-standing activity that helps you define who you are. Perhaps it is something you enjoy, or something that enriches your life in some way, such as working out, jogging, reading romance novels, knitting, cooking, painting, etc.
When in your life did you begin doing this? What has been the conditions that afforded you the opportunities to do this activity and to enjoy it or take advantage of it in the ways you do? How has race been a factor in who you do (or don’t do) this activity with over your lifetime?
Do some research, if necessary. Look into the economics around you, in your family and community that provided the conditions in your life to do this activity. How was race a factor in those economics?
We miss investigating the source of all those things in the world around the poem, novel, or essay that make them so attractive, so compelling, at the time and today, such as White people’s emotional and economic needs for Black slavery in 1850, or a call for Blacks to leave America and colonize some place far away, or blaming White anxieties on Black people, blaming them for standing firmly on the heads of White citizens and their so-called civilization.
We also miss the history of racist discourse that leads to why, for instance, George Floyd, a Black man at a convenience store on May 25, 2020, could say “please, I can’t breathe,” while a White Minneapolis police officer ignores his pleas and kneels on the back of his neck killing him in just under eight minutes (note 59). This means the officer has to ignore the pleas of a Black man for about 480 seconds. Count 480-Mississippi.
That violence and disregard for Black life has some of its origins in the racist discourse that made Poe’s poem. Might our classrooms open this discussion up for students, and perhaps ourselves? Our job in the literacy classrooms, perhaps, should be to find those origins and count those Mississippies. Maybe teaching Poe’s poem might teach us ways to stop killing Black people. Or at least, it may show us how we’ve come to do it so easily.
This kind of daily violence against Black citizens in the U.S. happens in large part because we continually miss the fact that our leaky-ass racist boat won’t get us much farther, that it drowns some of us while keeping others dry. We miss the materials and the design of the racist classroom-boat. We miss how those stories, along with the world that produces such stories and language, makes all of us today in racist ways.
We can’t separate history and economics and laws that helped make such literature, because such literature makes us today as much as it made the Americans of the mid-nineteenth century. This complex dynamic of racism is racist discourse. It’s not about blaming people. It’s about understanding all of our systems as already about race, already designed with race. It’s about building better boats that make better people.
This blogbook is offered for free in order to engage language and literacy teachers of all levels in antiracist work and dialogue. The hope is that it will help raise enough money to do more substantial and ongoing antiracist work by funding the Asao and Kelly Inoue Antiracist Teaching Endowment, housed at Oregon State University. Read more about the endowment on my endowment page. Please consider donating as much as you can to the endowment. Thank you for your help and engagement.