White Rice: Teaching in the Confederacy

Lesley Wheeler

Although I moved south of the Mason-Dixon line in 1994, I denied being a Virginian for a long time. I grew up mostly in suburban New Jersey, my mother was raised in Liverpool, most of my friends were immigrants or the children of immigrants — in short, I thought the idea of taking root anywhere was strange.

The history of the valley I landed in increased my resistance. Here in Lexington, Virginia, Civil War reenactors are prone to marching down Main Street in gray wool uniforms, waving giant Confederate battle flags. I teach at a college named partly after Robert E. Lee, who is buried in a chapel, also bearing his name, just across a lush lawn from my office. Tourists leave apples at a grave nearby, where Lee’s horse Traveller is supposed to be interred. When I arrived, the holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. was also Lee-Jackson Day. As I unpacked my poetry books, I decided to work hard and make friends if I could, but otherwise I wanted nothing to do with this place. I was not one of these white people.

I did understand that teaching here came with obligations. Coeducation had occurred recently — women were first admitted to the undergraduate division in 1985 — and I joined a faculty containing strikingly few women and no women of color. Homophobia and misogyny were as obvious as the Lost Cause monuments. In those pre-tenure days, I occasionally spoke out in ways that I was too stupid to realize were dangerous to my case, but mostly, lost in the work of overhauling courses and mentoring students, I kept my voice soft. Knowing my education had been full of holes, I was reading widely and trying to do better at teaching inclusively than most of my own teachers. I did do better.

If you’re hearing a rising note of defensiveness and self-congratulation, you’re not wrong. Sentences that have always caught in my throat: I have led many good changes at this place, at high personal cost. I was harmed by this job in ways that still have not been recognized, yet I’ve helped others thrive. Trying to fix everything is destroying me. Those starchy boluses are real. Yet writing good syllabi is not the same as recognizing that you live and teach at a node of white supremacy. Having been assaulted, harassed, and discriminated against doesn’t give me a get-out-of-history-free card.

A sense of urgency arose in me as a writer before it did in my teaching. In 2013, a university task force published a timeline documenting local African American history. I sat in my air-conditioned office on a humid summer day, reading, for the first time, manuscript lists of enslaved people owned and sold by my institution, at great profit. The proceeds more or less equaled the grant by George Washington that helped establish this now-wealthy private college. As the chill prickled my arms, I realized that, as well as nursing my hurts, I had to accept that I had personally benefitted from my employer’s inhuman decisions. I must learn more about where I lived and worked, and not just through the flora and geology and waterways I was coming to love. Reeducation entailed heavy research: bookwork, archival exploration, attending archaeology and history lectures, and looking around for traces that had not yet been effaced. I processed what I learned through writing, because that’s what I always do.

The implications of these sifting realizations pervaded my classrooms more slowly. I designed and taught a course on African American poetry that included local history. I required those students to analyze the college’s implicit curriculum as conveyed by statuary, architecture, and degree requirements — an eye-opening assignment, but I was still unsure how to teach in the remains of the Confederacy in courses not organized around race. Another catalyst: in the spring of 2015, I and several neighbors found wrinkled KKK fliers on our front lawns, encased in baggies and weighted by white rice. But I was on sabbatical during the 2015-2016 school year, mourning my eldest child’s departure to college, the election, and my mother’s lymphoma diagnosis and treatment. Even when I returned to teaching and some emotional equilibrium, I didn’t recreate my teaching as radically as I should have. Luckily, my students are always issuing reminders that syllabi and pedagogies have to keep changing.

What continues to puzzle me most is how to undermine white supremacist legacies in undergraduate creative writing classrooms. Helping hire inclusively is my biggest contribution to a better campus climate, but that doesn’t let me off the hook. Re-centering the canon from the major curriculum level right down to homework assignments is also imperative, as well as bringing in visitors who look at literature and the world from perspectives not represented in our small department. It will always be constant, crucial work to be alert to, and redirect, dynamics that undermine some people’s sense of belonging. Yet no one event, assignment, or even a twelve-week workshop going to obliterate ignorance and make this campus feel safe and welcoming for everybody.

Part of my struggle is that I don’t believe there’s a craft, exactly, to writing about toxic ideologies of whiteness. Even if there were, I think I would be a learner, not an expert. Requiring research into local histories, and exploring complicity with a racist past and present, hasn’t worked very well in my introductory workshops. We made a little headway in a senior seminar I have now taught twice, on Documentary Poetics. The students in those courses were careful researchers and thoughtful human beings, but they were tentative and uncomfortable writers about race. I get it. My own attempts to bring these materials into my poems have been full of ill-judged risks, tonal problems, and aesthetic and ethical catastrophes.

The poetry collection in which I finally admit to being a Virginian, The State She’s In, just came out in March, and I think it’s the best poetry I’ve written. But producing it led to so many failures: poems I wrote and rewrote, workshopped with friends, submitted to magazines, and finally realized were wrecked at the recipe stage. I’m especially haunted by two pieces I tried to write about white women, the settler Mary Greenlee and a more obscure Lexington resident who lived a hundred years ago. You would think I could get purchase on those subjects, but my identification with their braveries and blindnesses was the problem. I realized, embarrassingly late in the game, that I wanted to explain their racism on the grounds that even well-fed white women were not free. I wasn’t quite excusing the harms they did, but I was, wrongly, softening and mitigating them. I wanted to forgive those women, as I want to be forgiven, but I don’t have the right to write their absolution.

As well as reading poems by Airea D. Matthews, Marilyn Chin, Kevin Young, and others, my Documentary Poetics students and I studied good, bad, and mixed examples of white people writing about racism. A few principles became clear-ish. Do your research, check it again, and honor your sources. Maybe it’s possible for someone from an empowered group to write good poetry from the perspective of a person in a marginalized group, but it’s not going to be you. Come from love and respect. Allow yourself to be vulnerable (isn’t that always true?). Try multiple approaches, maybe starting with the rice instead of the racist flier. If you start feeling defensive, the work is burnt; toss it. Know that you will be tossing most of it, because the more complicated and hot-to-handle the material, the more you mess up, although you become a better writer by taking risks. People might not want to read your fumblings toward understanding anyway — yours isn’t the most important perspective out there. Yet these difficulties are part of what I love about teaching, writing, and writing about poetry. I’ve been exploring this terrain for decades, but I’ll never fully grasp the lay of it, nor feel sure of my footing.


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