I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
I, too, am America.
“Langston Hughes, although only twenty-four years old, is already conspicuous in the group of Negro intellectuals who are dignifying Harlem with a genuine art life… .”wrote author Du Bose Heyward in the New York Herald Tribune in 1926. Despite such praise, Hughes was derided by his fellow black writers of the time for allowing race to be a main character in many of his works.
The Poetry Foundation’s site has a terrific summary of Hughes’s historical relevance. In closing, the article quotes from Donald B. Gibson’ s book, Modern Black Poets: A Collection of Critical Essay: “During the twenties when most American poets were turning inward, writing obscure and esoteric poetry to an ever decreasing audience of readers, Hughes was turning outward, using language and themes, attitudes and ideas familiar to anyone who had the ability simply to read.”
It seems, then, that anyone writing poetry today has much to learn from Langston Hughes.
A few weeks ago, I finished Jeffrey Eugenides’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex.” For those who haven’t read it, it’s about a hermaphrodite named Calliope, then Cal.
The book’s merits have been sung far and wide, so I won’t repeat them here. I did want to share a passage from the novel that I loved though.
Two sections are highlighted above. The first stuck me because of the phrase “the facticity of my body.” Granted the speaker is a hermaphrodite, so facticity here matters a lot. But, each of us has a certain facticity to our bodies that nevertheless determines a great deal about who we are.
My husband insists that had he been born taller, with a better nose and a better name he would not have done as well in life. Without the challenge of his height, his nose and his name, he wouldn’t have cultured the tenacity that today gets him what he wants.
Plus, “facticity” is just a great word to have around.
From Brain to Mind
The second section that is marked does a great job of summarizing the nature vs. nurture debate. Since science proved that we humans are not as genetically fabulous as we had once thought, the notion of self-determination is “making a come-back,” as Eugenides puts it. Something must account for our apparent superiority within the animal kingdom. So if genetics can’t explain it, then what?
That question is a very personal one. One that is linked to heavy words such as “god,” “history,” “evolution.”
But, on a daily basis, the question of who we are is also linked to gender. By no means does gender make humans remarkable, but it plays a role in how we go about being remarkable in our individual ways.
Gender on the Mind
Gender has been popping up in my reading lately, unintentionally so. A philosophy course I took recently addressed the question of gender as an opportunity for self-expression. The piece I wrote about it lives here.
Then I came across this video about an amazing woman who accepted her six-year-old boy as the girl her son insisted she was. And this article about a highly trained woman in the Army who allowed herself to be mistaken for the man she felt she was. As a result, the Army kicked this woman out.
Finally, I finished Eugenides’ book, which I’d been reading slowly over several months.
After all this reading, there is no question in my mind that gender is imposed. Normally, girls identify with being girls, and boys with boys. But this is not always the case and it isn’t always absolutely true.
For example, there are “girlish” practices I’ve incorporated into my routine because I was born a girl. High heels, for one. I can recognize the fun in make-up, but unless I am confronted with it, the thought never crosses my mind. I have to make a conscious and constant effort to sit with my knees together. Nothing I envy more than the emotional practicality linked to many a guy.
Nevertheless, I am fully a woman. Maternal in a universal sense, but not in a feel-happiest-when-I-am-pregnant one.
What’s more is that many people feel this way about one thing or another linked to their gender. They are absolutely girl or boy, but certain things supposedly linked to being girl or boy remain foreign. So why is accepting and respecting some people’s choice to switch genders such a big deal?
If a man wants to walk around in heels, he should be able to. Yes, as uncomfortable as they are, they can also be damn pretty.
I can’t get over the week I spent in a tiny Colombian town for the 30th Annual Encounter of Women Poets. It was a week of many firsts for me. But, the biggest one was reciting my poems for the first time.
I could not have asked for a better place to do so. The encounter is different from most poetry and literature festivals in that absolutely any woman can get up on stage and recite her poems. You don’t have to be published. You don’t need a degree in literature. You don’t have to be pre-approved by a stern committee. No. Any woman who writes any type of poetry can share her work on stage.
Of course, this means all sorts of poems are read. Many to the moon. But seeing an eighty year old woman recite a poem about desire made all of it worth it.
Above is a picture of me reciting for the first time. I was terribly nervous. But when it was done, I learned a very important thing: nothing shattering happened. There is no before or after. There is just another moment to remember. One I plan on repeating.
So I had time for a quick post featuring U.S. Poet Laureate Mark Strand, taken a few months ago in a páramo, a cloud forest located at more than 3,000 meters above sea level. Few nations in the world…