If you wanted to feel very depressed, you could spend some time trying to decide which at-risk American population is more elided in our national narratives and perspectives about our current identity and community: certainly Native Americans, on whom I’ve already focused a good deal in this space and will continue to do so, have a good case (although probably it was better before casinos forced us to admit that they still exist); the homeless and those living at the very bottom of the economic ladder are definitely in the conversation too. But I think a very strong argument could be made that the population we most consistently forget to include in our sense of ourselves, until and unless there’s some sort of scandal that makes us think about them but solely in negative terms (see Horton, Willie), is the more than 2.3 million Americans—or more than 1 in 100, and that statistic is from 2008 so it’s likely higher today—who are in prison. (Making us, it’s important to add, the worldwide leader in both the overall number of citizens and the percentage of the population behind bars.) It’s ironic but, I believe, entirely accurate to note that much more press and attention was paid to (for example) Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan’s couple of weeks in jail than is paid to the millions of their fellow Americans who are spending significant portions of their lives in that world.
There are all sorts of issues associated with that world and this community, as well as an equally striking number of complicating factors and influences that have helped create and sustain it, and it would be irresponsible of me to pretend to know nearly enough about any of them to focus on them in a piece here (I’m quite sure that many readers will know a good deal more and should, as always, chime in). And in any case, my focus today, in the first of three Thanksgiving-inspired posts, is instead on an incredibly impressive kind of academic and American (in the best sense) work being done in this community by a colleague of mine, Ian Williams. Ian is, in his own ways, a model of the type of interdisciplinary scholar and teacher and person that I consistently aspire to be: he teaches and produces scholarship about American literature and identity and culture, as do I, but he’s also a published and on-the-rise poet and author of fiction, has taught dance and performance, and has entirely revamped our department’s literary magazine and website, to cite only a few of his broad and meaningful pursuits and accomplishments. But the most impressive of his efforts, to my mind, is also perhaps the least overtly visible: he has over the last couple years begun to go into local prisons and develop reading and writing conversations and courses with inmates, dialogues that have continued well beyond his individual visits and that have, without question, added immeasurably to the world and possibilities of those imprisoned Americans.
I can’t claim to speak for Ian’s experiences, and he has written a bit recently about them on his own blog, which I’ll link below. And I’m quite sure that he would dispute my title’s principal phrase, the idea that this gig is a thankless one; whether it garners any visibility or attention is not, that is, at all connected to whether it’s appreciated or makes a difference, and the thanks, similarly, come not from outside perspectives but from those impacted directly by the work. I agree with all of those thoughts (that I’ve imagined into Ian’s perspective!), but would also argue that the absence of visibility is itself a further sign of how much we don’t include this world and community nearly enough in our national narratives and consciousness. Every few years (at least) sees a new movie about an inspiring teacher doing important work with public school students in the inner city; I can’t agree strongly enough that such individuals are sources of inspiration, and I don’t think we could make enough movies celebrating teachers in any case (duh, I suppose). But the communities whom Ian is inspiring are even more desperately in need of that influence—and while their inhabitants can’t necessarily (or at least often can’t) get to the happy endings and brighter futures that are often featured in the captions at the end of those movies, that doesn’t mean that we should celebrate any less fully the teachers and Americans who are doing what they can to connect with and impact their worlds and lives.
I’ll stop there, since I can already imagine Ian’s demurrals from much of what I’ve written. At the end of the day, again, he isn’t doing this work so it’ll get written up, here or in much more prominent publications or spaces. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be—nor that American Studies shouldn’t include and study the world of our imprisoned fellow Americans much more fully than it often does. More tomorrow, on the historical meaning of Thanksgiving and the blowhard who has decided to create a fictional version of it.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) Ian’s website; the Blog link features a recent post on this work: http://www.ian-williams.ca/
2) A Project through which free books can be donated to American prisoners: http://www.prisonersliteratureproject.com/
Whoa, Ben, the narcissist in me wants to forward this to everyone I know (confession: I forwarded it to the two students who went with me to prison on Friday)!
But for the sake of distance and objectivity, if I pretend that you were writing about someone else, someone from one of those (white-)teacher-gets-a-job-in-the-projects-and-inspires-a-class-of-black-kids-to-“reach-their-dreams”-in-a-teary-slow-motion-and-well-scored-climax movies, I’d say cynically that the instructor’s whole endeavor was self-congratulatory and -celebratory, partly because of the racial dynamic that operates in those films: meaningful education flows in one direction, from white to black, while the transmission from black to white is for the purposes of comedy (i.e., all the black kids can offer is contagious buffoonery) and to show just how open-minded and tolerant our instructor-protagonist is.
Protective cynicism aside, I think you and I are engaged, ultimately, in the same project. Crossing. It’s been your critical anthem from the beginning, the crossing of cultures, and your refrain has been to show people that America is founded on trans, at least that’s one narrative that we should admit with less, or without, fear.
Here’s the thing. Crossing isn’t just theoretical for you. I can say our projects are similar because we care about crossing beyond the standard academic audience. We don’t just talk into the mirror of our immediate or broader academic colleagues (it’s one of things we do, but not the only). We talked about this in your office one day, remember? One of your first concerns with this blog was finding a community for it, an audience that reached from the high academy to low culture, from the narrow academy to our vibrant, throbbing culture.
People are more intelligent than we often give them credit for being.
Now I’m starting to sound high-minded. (Is that an insult?) I’m not sure where this irksome activist’s tone comes from, but I think I’m constantly working against a perceived monolith of what professors do, and specifically against the notion of English professors being the grammar police, when, in fact, we are neither so petty nor trivial in our concerns. It may just be a lingering perception, like an insecurity. Still, I’d love to see you post on that when the spirit moves you (are you taking requests?): 1) The English Professor (the job of ~, the future of ~), and 2/1b) American Studies/Culture Studies as a new site of interdisciplinary activity (in it, there’s the potential for the resurrection of the Renaissance man).
I promise I won’t write this much again. The response shouldn’t approximate the source in length.