In April 2011, the International Writing Program launched " Writers in Motion", a study tour of the Mid-Atlantic and the American South, where eight international writers are exploring the theme of "Fall and Recovery." The writers are traveling to Gettysburg (April 3-5), Baltimore (April 5-6), New Orleans (April 6-8), the Gulf Coast (Morgan City, the Achafalaya Basin, Lafayette, April 8-11), Birmingham, AL (April 11-12) and Washington, D.C. (April 13-15) to examine some of the challenges presented by historical crises and upheavals, both natural and social.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On Civil Wars & Civil Rights, the Exotic & the Banal

In Gettysburg we ask the students what they think about the Civil War. It is asking a lot. They would have to go back 150 years. They would have to care. They answer honestly: they don’t think much of it.
In Birmingham, Alabama we ask the students what they think of Civil Rights. This history is closer and more contentious. A discomfort enters the group of students. I feel uncomfortable too. Maybe they worry that whatever they say will be thought 'politically incorrect'. Maybe a few feel they might offend me. They are careful with their words. But their answer seems to be the same as it was in Gettysburg: they don’t think much of it.
I feel for these students. I understand the shrugs, this I-can’t-be-bothered attitude. They are resisting our limited and limiting imaginations. On this trip, we have come with our own agendas – a way of reading cities through specific lenses. We are 'focused'. But every focus contains its own myopia. The danger is that in looking for one thing, we are less able to see the actual lives that are being lived. Disaster does this – it exotifies a landscape; it becomes the easy way that outsiders read and understand it. The people within that landscape, however, inevitably return to another life, to their own banalities. What occupies their minds are decisions like: to jog or not to jog this morning? Wholewheat bread or multigrain? McDonalds or Kentucky for lunch? And should I download that new Bruno Mars song?
Professor Pam King (no relation to Martin Luther) takes us on a short tour through the city and points to important buildings that the mayor has left to rot. Not just any mayor. A black mayor. You would think, she complains, that a black mayor and a black council would have been better stewards of this history - this history that affects all of America, but them most profoundly. The motel where Martin Luther King stayed is earmarked for a more permanent destruction than the Klan's bomb had done to it. In all likelihood, it will be torn down soon and turned into something else. You see, Birmingham itself seems to shrug off its history, as despondently as its college students do, or the students at Gettysburg. Birmingham itself resists our limiting imagination - the colonizing way of disaster. Why shouldn't it? And perhaps this too is a form of recovery.


  1. Can't be bothered attitudes? Bruno Mars? What is this even about? Your generalization completely offends me; my mind is not so malleable and empty that all I think of is food and music. I CAN be bothered by these issues, and I AM. I should have spoken up yesterday, because you seem to have these preconceived notions about people in Birmingham, and perhaps you misconstrued what the people that did speak up said. I am not from here, but I grew up here, and I have not forgotten Birmingham's past. Or, as you put it, it's not that I can't be bothered by it.
    These things that happened, the racism that existed (and still exists but um, not just in Alabama...) manifest themselves in new ways everyday. I don't think that we can move forward from the past yet, because the scars will always be there. There are still hate crimes, and there is still this feeling of having to reach a white aesthetic in some blacks (otherwise, why would there be skin bleaching, colored contacts, and hair straighteners and weaves?) I am not despondent about Birmingham's history, because it's still here, and it will never disappear.

  2. Heya Z…

    I’ve just landed in DC, less than an hour ago, so just now seeing your response. Thanks for reading and for commenting and for calling me out on what you read as my own generalizations. I think you’re right about the danger of preconceived ideas – and that’s really what I was trying to say in that blog. In my mind a ‘don’t care’ attitude is not a bad thing. I was (to be honest) a little bit annoyed at the end of that session – not with you, but with ‘us’ who were visiting. I thought our questions were essentially asking you to be concerned about the things we were thinking about, and to write about what mattered to us rather than what mattered to you. I was so relieved by one of your classmate’s answer that she wanted to write the Birmingham that she knew and lived in everyday rather than the Birmingham outsiders like to imagine.

    As for wholewheat or multigrain bread? And whether or not to download the new Bruno Mars songs? Those were the decisions I woke up contemplating yesterday morning. :) Maybe mine is the empty mind! But I was trying to suggest that every life is composed of these small decisions as well. It’s not all big important stuff. You see, I grew up in Jamaica, but I don’t wake up every morning (or even most mornings! Or even one morning a month!) thinking about slavery and its effects. I think about smaller things in my life. And so when we write about our actual lives in any place that we live, I think that sometimes it’s ok to write about the small things too – the things that might seem unimportant – and we should be able to do that without some person telling us what stories we really ought to be writing. That’s what I was trying to say.

  3. Ahh, I see. ;]
    Perhaps I came off a little bitchy, that was not my intention. This whole Civil Rights discussion in general makes me angry, just because it's shoved in my face a lot of my days that it's still an issue. This makes me angry, and every time something happens or someone reveals their racism, I am STILL shocked. Maybe this means I'm naive, but I honestly don't ever want to not be shocked about these grossly ignorant people.

    I just took the "don't think much of it" a little personally, because sure, I don't think of this every single day of my life or anything, but it's not like it's NOT in my mind at all. It's not even like it's only a little bit in my mind. These are issues that I think of and am faced with most days. Really. And that makes me sick.

    I, too, think it's cool to write about the small things. I write about things that are important to me. These may be small things (or things that not many people can relate to, so they are taken as "small"), or they may be big issues like the Civil Rights stuff.

  4. Z,

    Naah! Didn't come across as too 'bitchy' at all and am honestly glad you responded. Thanks for helping me to clarify my point. So yes, maybe I pushed the pendulum too far -- in saying that not EVERYONE has to be concerned about this large issue and write about it, obviously doesn't mean that some people like yourself aren't and occasionally do.

    Have a good one.

  5. @miss ziroli,

    Thank you for continuing the conversation.

    As Kei mentioned, we had thrown the same question to a creative nonfiction class at Gettysburg College a week ago, and those students' answers (which were similar to your class's) were something of an eye-opener for us, providing another, equally valuable perspective on the subject. In the same way, your responses to my colleagues' blog posts, as well as your classmates' responses, are providing even more perspectives. There is a certain artificiality and unfairness to a group of people descending upon a place to take notes and write about it, and we are struggling with that. The question was posed in the spirit of inquiry, in the hopes of stimulating discussion, which is why I'm glad you and your classmates have taken the time to respond to our responses.

    In the Philippines, there has been (to some extent, still is) a debate on aesthetics vs. politics in writing. In college, I felt a distinct pressure to produce socially and nationally relevant literature, and tried to, but those pieces just ended up being false and hollow.

    Do I believe that writers should engage history and politics in their writing? Yes. But I also believe that writers have to arrive at such engagements in their own ways, at their own times.

    My own belief is that if one writes honestly and thoughtfully (about anything, whether Bruno Mars, Grandma's chicken dressing, or racism), history and politics will find their own ways into the writing, whether one likes it or not. It might mean assuming an unpopular and risky stance, but this will be better than mindlessly toeing the politically correct line in the end.

    Race clearly continues to be a sensitive topic in your generation, and I'm glad that it bothers you, makes you angry. Still, it's important to find a way of processing emotion through writing that works for the writer. In a lot of ways, writing autobiography and memoir is good place to start, because it helps the writer to articulate an identity (a kind of fictional construct in itself) that can serve as a foundation for future explorations of the larger world outside the self.

  6. Yes, it does still bother me and it never won't, you know? It bothers me that it really doesn't bother some people...and it bothers me that perhaps some people are scared of the issues, like you said. They want to be "politically correct" when racism isn't correct in any sense at all. You're right.

    About the processing emotion thing- quite true. Writers also need to find ways to process emotion through their writing for their readers as well as for themselves. Writing is extremely therapeutic for me in this way and I'm glad you mentioned it.

    I totally understand about struggling with the descending and taking notes thing- it must be weird? I think I went into the experience expecting something totally different, but what I got was better than what I was expecting. The issues that we talked about needed to be talked about...and I was really inspired by all of you. I think that's why my hackles came up when I read this- I was definitely on the defensive :p

  7. please read this blog: