Samuel Barber’s aching melody for James Agee’s prose poem, Knoxville: Summer 1915, brings me back to the fall of 1969, when I was a student teacher at Lincoln Junior and Senior High School near Downtown Milwaukee. Leontyne Price’s recording of the song captured for me how unanswerable was the question I could not quite bring myself even to ask: Who am I?
This raised-Catholic-raised-poor-likely-Jewish-gay 21-year old was teaching 16-year old Black teens about identity and grammar in English classes that were so 60s they would be unrecognizable today. I know I moved many of them to work harder than they had in years, and to learn. They improved syntax and word order, expanded vocabulary, and improved comprehension. They quoted poets of the Harlem Renaissance and diagrammed complex sentences. All this from a man who was unsure about who he was.
Was I part of the white “syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control…” as Ta-Nehisi Coates suggests? The role, the identity of whiteness, was not a good fit. At the time, I thought the poor fit was related to my being a gay man. Later, I associated the pinch of the identity to be because I was raised poor. In the previous few years I encoded the mounting examples of my parents’ and brother’s racist statements, but did not make sense of them. Something had changed from a decade earlier, but I could not work it out. Instead, I just became dedicated to escape them, to build a life quite different than theirs. I reasoned that continued proximity would result in a permanent severing down the road.
What I am left with now is a different set of questions than Barber-Agee-Price asked me at age 21. What unnamed thing was my family becoming that I rejected? Why were they becoming this thing? What was at stake for them should they avert it? What induced them to proceed while I fought? Did my overt rejection of that life remove me from the fact of an induction into whiteness or did it merely give me enough space to feel discomfort with this unbidden membership, which I took on anyway?
In The Invisible Hand, Ayad Akhtar illustrates the power of US currency to control the lives of individuals and nations. This excellent play pokes holes in the rosiness of Adam Smith’s original 18th century views of the hidden benefits of industry, trade, and production. As I think this week about the common practices in which communities engage, the common practices that help define community itself, my thoughts continue to circle around how tightly connected social class and whiteness are connected. While watching The Invisible Hand, I was aware of my intense uneasiness at the racist imperialism addressed in the play.
This week, my feelings are equally intense and equally uneasy. It is hard to face that I lost the fight with whiteness back there when I was 10 and 16 and 21. I fought hard. And I lost.