Wednesday, June 18, 2008

To a Young Feminist Who Wants to Be Free

Betty Adcock's poem may be a teenager now, but it certainly hasn't lost any of its political relevance. If anything, it's more relevant now than ever, given the recent Democratic party primary, and the friction that was given center stage in what some political bloggers called "the oppression Olympics." With the word feminist in the title, there's no doubt that the poem will have a political bent, but the poem begins with a surprising twist:
You describe your grandmothers walking straight
off the boats from Finland, Latvia
too late, early in this century to bear blame
for sins we're bound to expiate:
The sins are listed soon after: "slavery, lynchings, native massacre" for starters. But the argument is one we hear often today when discussions of things like slave reparations come up in the public sphere. Lots of people argue against, saying "My family never owned slaves" or "we came here after the Civil War, so what would I owe." It's a compelling argument, if it's viewed in a vacuum. Holding people responsible for the sins of their ancestors is dodgy enough, but if said ancestors didn't actually sin, well, where's the justice in that?

Before Adcock answers that question, though, she makes a point that strikes close to home for me. I, like Adcock, am a southerner, complete with accent. I don't know if it's been a hindrance professionally because I'm still young in my career (though not so much in life), but it's something that any professional person is keenly aware of. A southern accent, especially a strong one, brings along certain baggage--you're stupid, you're racist, you're backwards, and if you aren't, then you're one of the few who has struggled and managed to rise above your inbred past, et cetera. And as Adcock mentions, there's also the sense of superiority that some northerners like to hold over you:
the whole treasury of virtue hammered home
i speeches praising Michigan and the lever of the war
that undid slavery and joined the union back.
As though racism exists only in the south. As if race riots only ever happen in New Orleans or Atlanta or Birmingham, instead of in Chicago or Detroit or Los Angeles.

It would be easy to turn this into a rant on how southerners bear an inordinate burden for the race problems in the US, but Adcock doesn't do that. Southerners deserve every bit of the crap we take for it, especially since we continue to have a major problem with openly racist symbolism in the public square. Adcock says "Never believe it's gone," and that's good advice, both for those of us who live in the middle of it and for those who live in their bubbles of privilege, who use terms like "post-racial" without a hint of irony.

Which brings us back to the title: To a Young Feminist Who Wants to Be Free. What does feminism have to do with this? How can a movement built to fight oppression find itself expressing its own privilege? Adcock concludes:
Anyone who came here anytime
came here to take this country's gifts.
Not even you may refuse this one:
what's built on darkness rests on it.
And there is wisdom yet, though hard to see
in this peculiar light. It is the only light
we've got. And when was it notthe case
(except in hell) that land and history
wear another's face?
Here is the necessary, fearsome, precious
backward whole embrace.
There is no escaping the sins of our ancestors, even if our direct ancestors were not personally involved. This is our privilege, and it is important that we acknowledge it in all its forms. Adcock shows us only one, but it's an important one.

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