Louise Glück, the winner of the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature, identified the two pieces of writing that formed her as a child as William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy” and Stephen Foster’s minstrel song “Old Folks At Home”, colloquially known as “Swanee River”. “The Little Black Boy” begins:
My mother bore me in the southern wild,
And I am black, but O! my soul is white;
White as an angel is the English child:
But I am black as if bereav’d of light.
As for “Old Folks At Home”, I don’t need to explain why a minstrel song is problematic. But here are a few lines, shown in the original slave dialect as imagined by a white man, just so you get what’s happening:
All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.
All de world am sad and dreary,
Eb-rywhere I roam;
Oh, darkeys, how my heart grows weary,
Far from de old folks at home!
Blake’s poem is a work of its time. Fine. Blake is an important author nonetheless. Fine. These are things that we have to learn to hold in tension. We still hold Aristotle as a model of thinking because of his contributions to logic and his general right direction on biology, though he believed some now-obviously-wrong things like heavy objects fall faster, or that women are a degenerate state of men, with men as the natural ideal.
However, when we teach Aristotle, we teach his wrong beliefs as primitive misunderstandings, at least, even if we don’t explore the implications on the people in the society as much as we should. But we at least acknowledge them. When we teach Blake, especially to high schoolers, we often present his work uncritically and don’t unpack the “primitive” beliefs he carries. And we generally try to pretend that things like Foster’s song simply didn’t happen, which is hard to do when you also make it the state song of Florida and don’t even change the words until 2008.
I want to go back to that Blake poem. It’s very clear that the subject of the poem aspires to nothing more than to first, have God make him as white in spirit as the English child he speaks of, and then on a great future day, to protect the white child and have his unrequited admiration and love finally returned. This imagined English child did not work or pray for this purity and beauty, it was his birthright, an inherent whiteness. And this American woman, born in 1943, who was only 22 years old when the Civil Rights Act was passed, was shaped and set on her course as a girl by those words.
I have not read Glück before today, and while I do write poetry, I am not a poetry critic. I have little to say about her work. The few pieces I’ve seen are familiarly modern; laconic free verse with line breaks and metaphors that conjure images of spirits moving across hazy wild scenes, diffuse colors and light. Like anyone who has received much recognition, she’s loved and hated.
I keep wondering, though, how a woman who at 5 or 6 years old was shaped by minstrel songs and images, and was so unaware of the implications that she shared that fact uncritically at her Nobel Lecture, performed as a professor. What poems did she lift up from her students? What challenges did she swat down? Did she even have ears to hear poetry that rubbed against those comfortable narratives that are so pervasive in the American consciousness?
This is the danger of teaching “the greats” without the correct tension. We watch shows like “The Man In The High Castle” and are completely unaware of the parallels in our actual life. At one point in the series, the Nazis that control the Eastern United States start a Jahr Null (German for Year Zero) campaign, where they plan to completely erase American history and replace it with propaganda that suited their aims of control and indoctrination.
We shudder at that idea, while living in the results of a successful Jahr Null campaign right here — the Lost Cause. I won’t recap the full details of how it came to be, but the wives and daughters of Confederate veterans built a retelling of the Civil War that cast their husbands and fathers as noble but doomed warriors of legend, fighting for a beautiful way of life. There’s no mention of the mass enslavement or the unimaginable brutality, or how many white people were living only slightly better than slaves themselves, yet could take comfort in their caste position. Worst of all, this narrative actually won, which we can see when a sitting President in 2020, regardless of who they are, is willing to threaten to withhold military funding if we do not keep Confederate names on our military bases. Can you imagine if we insisted on having General Cornwallis or Benedict Arnold’s name on our military bases?
I am not advocating for the “cancellation” that the Christian right perfected and of which the left is now so often accused (and sometimes guilty). I am advocating instead for contextualization. We can’t pull at every thread, but we can provide some interdisciplinary context. What era was Blake writing in? What social stratum as he in? How would that shape how he viewed people? Which of his views are outdated? Which outdated views do we still hold on to? I know the best professors are already doing this already. But learning to simultaneously admire great talent and refuse to accept the worldview through which it was filtered is the skill we must acquire as students.
I talk about “living history” a lot. The past reaches constantly into our present, grabs the edges, pulls the frame into a shape that it recognizes, unless we actively work to reframe for our time. And here, in a far future age, Blake’s hands still are shaping white imaginations, thrilling them with the fantasy that the highest aspiration in a Black life is to shelter and protect a luminous white soul, and in return receive a beatific smile of appreciation.