Erasures, White Shame: We Need to Talk

Erasures, White Shame: We Need to Talk.

An AWP 2018 panel presented in Tampa, FL, on Friday, March 9, 2018, moderated by Natalia Treviño.

Thank you everyone for us for this very necessary conversation. I’d like to begin by introducing all of our panel members, sharing some opening thoughts, my questions, and then asking each of the panel members to speak. After that, we will take questions for a larger dialogue.

My name is Natalia Treviño. I was born in Mexico and raised in Texas, and I am the author of Lavando La Dirty Laundry and the forthcoming, VirginX. I am an Advisory Board member of Macondo and professor at Northwest Vista College in San Antonio.

Ching-In Chen is author of The Heart’s Traffic and recombinant, and coeditor of The Revolution Starts at Home: Confronting Intimate Violence within Activist Communities. They are part of Kundiman, Lambda, Watering Hole, Callaloo, Macondo, and VONA communities, and a senior editor of The Conversant.

Wendy Barker’s sixth full-length collection of poems received the John Ciardi Prize and was published by BookMark Press in 2015. She has also published four chapbooks and coedited the anthology Far Out: Poems of the ’60s. Recipient of NEA and Rockefeller fellowships, she teaches at UT San Antonio.

LeAnne Howe writes novels, plays, CNF, poetry, and screenplays. Her latest book, Choctalking on Other Realities is a memoir and won the 2015 MLA Prize for Studies in Native American Literatures, Cultures, and Languages. She’s won the 2012 United States Artists Ford Fellowship, a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas, and an American Book Award. Currently, she’s the Eidson Distinguished Professor in American Literature at the University of Georgia, Athens.

Rita Dove recently published Collected Poems 1974–2004, Sonata Mulattica, and The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry. Pulitzer Prize winner, former US Poet Laureate, recipient of the National Humanities Medal and the National Medal of Arts, Dove teaches at the University of Virginia.


Natalia Treviño

Natalia Treviño

I was called to this conversation when I was teaching Gloria Anzaldua’s manifesto and poetic essay, “La conciensa de la mestiza/ Towards a New Consciousness” from her book, Borderlands= La Frontera: The New Mestiza, published in 1987. In this essay, she is envisioning a cultural evolution where a new mestiza, who, because of her intersectionality as daughter of both the conquered indigenous races and the conquering European races, can bring healing and new understandings about race, culture, gender, class, and nationality.

There was a section that prompted my students to gain confidence, and speak honestly about their own erasure after what they confess to be years of white-washed thinking. Anzaldua speaks in crystal clear terms about the state of race relations, imploring us to share our experiences with one another in order for healing to take place. She says, “Many women and men of color do not want to have any dealings with white people. . . . Many feel whites should help their own people rid themselves of race hatred and fear first. . . . I, for one, choose to use some of my energy to serve as mediator. I think we need to allow whites to be our allies. Through our literature, our art, our corridos and folktales, we must share our history with them. . . so they wont turn people away because of their fears and racial ignorances.”

She urges us to speak our truth, saying, “We need to say to white society: We need you to acknowledge your rejection and negation of us. . . . to own the fact that you looked at us as less than human, that you stole our lands, our personhood, our self-respect. We need you to make public restitution.”  And at the end of this passage, she says, “And finally, tell us what you need from us.”

I frequently encounter students who shake off the words “white shame” as if they were a sticky goo that has clung to them since the day they learned about Martin Luther King. They make a face as if a foul stench surfaced when I bring a poem or a story by a person of color that deals with subjugation. “I do not buy in to white guilt,” they say. The piece is about them suddenly and not the speaker in the work.

They are often white, educated, and privileged students. They have control over their punctuation and syntax. They are the educated, extroverted class in my classes. I know that something has made them come to this conclusion. They learned something about American history which makes their own ethnicity look bad. And perhaps this new knowledge added something unpleasant to the nexus of their identities, and this unpleasantness manifested as shame being linked to their heritage. Heritage is inheritance. No one wants to inherit shame. And so it is like a skin many want to tear off as they say with indignation: “I do not buy in to white shame,” as if the only value of the text was in how they were mirrored in it, and the only thing of value in the mirror was equivalent to a bad selfie.

We learn American history through an ethnic lens, a white ethnic lens where the nation who was protecting the Alamo to keep Tejas a slave-free state, were the evil others, the Mexicans, and where Texas Rangers, who committed thousands of unquestioned killings are heroes. But even with this protective ethnic bias, US history requires students to accept a paradox about their country. America is great, they learn every day. They sing this. I sang these songs daily as a child. I get teary remembering how I used to sing “for purple mountains majesties above the fruited plain.” I had no idea what any word in that sentence meant except for purple. And not long after this, we learn, well America was not great for everyone. In the lessons on Civil rights, my teachers were tepid, but the emotions ran deep in the classroom. Since it was not about me, I could easily attach myself to the moral side of the story, the horror of it, but I could see on either side of me the discomfort, the anger, the embarrassment, and the shame— which prompts the “I am glad this is over and no longer a reality” syndrome that has a hold of most of my incoming college freshmen. “Stop talking about it,” some say. “You adults are creating the problems. We are over it.”

Allowing my students to say it is over, however, erases the fact that it is not over for a lot of us, including me and including each of my panelists.

As an immigrant who grew up in the US, I learned to step from culture to culture, as required by my friends, neighbors, family, and teachers, to blend in, to not make waves as my dad said. Dad never told me that discrimination had hurt him because in his mind, it never did. He was proud that he had beat the system when he knew no English but got the highest scores on his tests when he joined the Air Force to become a citizen. I did not even know he had a Mexican accent until I was sixteen and a friend told me, your dad? Of course he sounds Mexican. When he reminisced about joining the Air Force to become an American citizen, Dad said, I was never insulted for being called Mexican or any other name because I was Mexican. I had been Mexican all of my life. That is like someone insulting you by calling you your own name. How is that an insult?

But the name calling did hurt me. When I was four years old, or five, still young enough to be bathed and dried by my mother, and old enough to be playing out in the front yards of my friends, I was in the garage with my dad about to run outside to play. I stopped because I remembered to tell him something I had been meaning to tell him, something I kept forgetting. If I told him, I could fix a problem that had been troubling me for who knows how long.“Dad,” I said, “can you tell mom to dry my back better after my shower?”


The kids. They always say my back is wet —and oily, I thought, a little mad that my mom was not cleaning me off very well. I knew certainly could not reach it.

I thought maybe it was my hair that made it wet all the time because I was sure my mom had indeed dried me off after every bath, and often the bath was the night before, so I was confused by this. How could my back still be wet the next day?

I just wanted the comments to stop. I had no idea what they meant, but I knew they were directed at me and they were meant to let me know I was a low life form for having a perpetually wet and greasy back. I did not want to feel like a low life form, so I did what was natural to me, to my problem-solver. I went to my dad.

His face went white. He did not know if I was old enough to understand why this word was meant as an insult out on our little suburban street. The kids I played with, most of them, were of Mexican origin, but they continually told me well into elementary and middle school, that they were white. There in the garage, my dad slowed down, and began to tell me about it, how some people had no papers, and as he spoke he became more upset and almost angry, and he said fiercely, as if he were yelling at me “But we have our papers, Natalia!”

I knew I had my papers either just before or while still in kindergarten, and his ferocity told me that these papers were somehow very important, worth getting upset about, and that they were going to protect me from these insults, from people thinking I was a bad smell, that I did not belong with them playing in the front yard. What about the kids who are told, “no, mi’jo we do not have our papers yet. We are working on it. Stay under the radar. Don’t make waves.” What happens to generations of kids who are made to feel they must hide and that they do not belong on this land which is their ancestral home?

These kids are under a temporary protective shield, at least legally, until the DACA rulings change, until Temporary Protective Status for Salvadorians and others changes, which in today’s climate is imminent. These legal protections, as terribly important as they are do not change attitudes, feelings, or deal with hatred in American against immigrants or people of color. What can? Anzaldua says we can help them through this hatred by sharing our stories and literature, and so we came to AWP to do just that.

I prepared the following questions for our panel to consider, so that we can begin our end of this call to conversation.

1) What is the story of your erasure or being silenced? How do you address it?

2) How have you confronted the idea of “white guilt” or “white shame” in your work, classroom, or in other professional circles? and what role does compassion play in this conversation?

3) Anzaldua says, “and tell us [white society] what you need from us.” What are your thoughts on this question? Have we told white society what we need? Is there hope that if we say what we need to our allies that we can use this to bridge our societies and reach an American homeostasis?

4) Many say gratitude is a path to healing. Does that apply here?


We are here in this privileged space, holding a privileged conversation about ideas in Tampa, Florida. We are writers who have the privilege to share our voice with an audience. I have benefited from white society in that it has given me great teachers and professors, wonderful friends and colleagues, my dominant speaking and writing language, a language I love, an admiration and love of things English, Tudor history, and all of its gore, and for ideals uniquely Western, like democracy, equality, the opportunity to be upwardly mobile, accountable public law enforcement, and public education. I am grateful for the privilege to speak out in this forum. Me—a little wetback from Mexico.

I am grateful for American ideals that I hold dear like self-reliance, accountability, freedom of expression, self-love, and equality. These ideas do not reign in my country of birth or even in my family. I can only thank white culture for the very ideas that allow me to critique it. This is true of the entire wave at the turn of the century toward decolonization. It is the educated children of those subjugated who cry for decolonization and who march for justice for the lasting and unpunished crimes perpetrated against them, like the hundreds of thousands of illegal lynchings in South Texas of Mexicans, lynchings not acknowledged in any Texas history class I ever took.

Is it beneficial for me to be grateful, or is it my own training to not make waves, as my father taught me, or my own culture and gender normed behavior to be both Mexican about it and to see subservience as a moral virtue? Mande, we say, when someone speaks our name from across the room: (This means Direct me, Demand from me [what you will]). I think this is worth exploring in a longer conversation because the answer is not easy for me at all.

I know I find it helpful to turn to gratitude when my husband faces skin cancer every day, when my father is dead but with me every day, when one of my best friends died brutally of brain cancer when her first child was only ten months old. I have needed to turn to a spiritual path of gratitude, to the Tao, to the feminine divine, to non-Catholic interpretations of La Virgen, and the Virgin Mary in order to survive these daily troubles.

Is gratitude useful to me personally and spiritually? Yes.

Is it a useful social or political position? I am sure it is not. I hope I am wrong.

Gratitude brings a calm to the fiery injuries I have sustained and allows me to see this country as a wholeness, which means it must be a paradox. We cannot have great without being willing to look at how terrible we have been to one another in the past. What makes America great, one professor, Dr. Bill Oliver, once said to us when I was an undergrad, is our ability to re-make ourselves after we expose all of our own ugliness to ourselves, and we are one of the few countries who can survive doing that over and over. Had he read Anzaldua?

As we openly, uncomfortably, and peacefully critique a society that has built itself, in part by erasing others, and on the backs of slaves and a subjugated workforce, is it crazy to be a little grateful for its ideals too? Are these ideals a ladder we can all climb to reach the heights of American greatness? I don’t think it is crazy, but this gratitude needs to be couched in honesty for it to be real, for it to build actual bridges of understanding, the only bridges that can place a healthy scar on the great American wound.


Ching-In Chen

I’m going to start by reading an excerpt from an essay, “Saying My Name With Happiness,” published in How Dare We! Write: A Multicultural Creative Writing Discourse (edited by Sherry Quan Lee, published by Modern History Press in 2017).

This shame began at a young age, when nobody could say my name correctly and called me ChingChong, ChickenWings and ChopSticks. I wanted so much to be rid of my name that I asked my family for my birthday for a different name.  A WASP name, Elizabeth, which would make me normal. My mother did not say anything, though my name meant Happiness. Instead, she quietly and fiercely took me by the hand to the courthouse for my birthday and granted my request. At school, not much changed. I still was different, colored, unfashionable, ugly, strange. At home though, my parents had acquired a flexibility with my identity – calling me Yee-Lah-Sah-Bai, Elizabeth (if in front of white people), and Ching-In. They honored my wish, yet didn’t leave my other identity behind.

Looking back now, I realize that I learned much of my internalized hatred and shame at school – in social situations, but also in the classroom. I never read a piece of writing by a writer of color or a writer who identified as an LGBTQIA writer – and only one piece of writing by a woman in any English class throughout elementary, middle or high school.

So who was responsible for my internalized hatred and shame? My white peers for bullying me, my white teachers for not teaching an inclusive curriculum where I could myself reflected? “White shame” is a tricky phrase because it attaches “whiteness” to the shame and though perhaps whiteness might be responsible for the shame – and here, I’m not only talking about whiteness as belonging to a skin color of the person sitting in front of me, but whiteness as a construct, as a way of alignment, as a goal.

My early self only understood that I was different than most of my peers, that that difference had to do with skin color, language, family of origin, a marked sense of “foreignness” or “not fitting in” or being “weird” or “other.” Basically with not falling into step with the norm. But I desperately wanted to be normed. By extension, you could say that I desperately wanted to be white. Or you can say I had been socialized to desire the idealized trappings of whiteness – the comfort, the ease, the “fit.” Just as my parents did, at least in their speech and language.

Also, from the essay:

As I grew older and learned more English at school, my mother started putting her written words in front of me for correction. I read her strung-together words, smoothing them over into generic sentences by request, which would not betray the way she formed her words. I learned that the ability that I had to re-shape language and to intuitively pinpoint what sounded correct to the ear was one which could gain me power. The child I was in the hallway at school – who tripped over and swallowed my own words – could re-imagine each scene and scenario with friends I dreamed up who would stand with me and not be ashamed of who I was, not be ashamed of my family.

You could say that I grew into my own power and my own sense of voice – and I would say that that is a lesson I’m always learning – how to honor my own life experiences and those of the people close to me, how to unlearn the desire to “norm” myself into a lineage which isn’t quite mine. I can see this as an origin of the shame, perhaps the cause.

“White shame” is a tricky phrase because it does not address the question of who bears the brunt of the shame. It doesn’t encompass that it is those who society is ashamed of, who “pose a problem” to society who bears the brunt of the shame.

Sara Ahmed: “When you expose a problem you pose a problem.  I have been thinking more about the problem of how you become the problem because you notice a problem. When exposing a problem is to become a problem then the problem you expose is not revealed. For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!). A rebuttal often follows that does not take the form of contradiction but rather explanation or justification: these are the speakers or writers who just happen to be there; they happen to be white men, but to describe the speakers as white men is the problem as it would make this about that; it would be to assume that they are here because of that. And so: by describing a gathering as ‘white men,’ you are then assumed to be imposing certain categories onto bodies, reducing or failing to grasp the heterogeneity of an event; solidifying through our own description something that is fluid.”

I have been thinking about a lot – about what it means to be a problem, to disrupt the norm, the emotional labor and toll of that work. And here – I can say that simply to be in your body can also pose a problem, can make you a problem.


In the Q&A portion of the panel, an audience member asked us, “How can we support this work?” My reply was – there are a lot of organizations out there supporting the work of writers of color. Support them with your resources. Donate money to Kundiman, Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation, Canto Mundo, Cave Canem and other organizations doing this work. Do some research on local organizations who support writers of color. Also, signal boost those voices, buy their books, support the journals which support these voices.


The audience member who asked this question came to us and told us that this panel had changed her life and that she would make donations as Ching-In suggested. My reply to her was that she and others who are her allies need think about their own words and actions and boil them down to one word: dignity. When we rob anyone of their dignity, we are performing a violence against them. If we think about dignity as we interact with one another, we can stop the violence, and begin positive, healing actions. Rita Dove gave a most memorable remark, saying, Have a pajama party. The audience all laughed, after a solid hour or more of tension. You will get to know each other, and see each other as people if you have a pajama party, Dove added. Days later, I took the bus back with this woman, and she told me she was an activist, and had held a giant gathering of over 100 random women from a writers group on Facebook to discuss their grief after the last election. Her enthusiasm for our talk had not waned. She felt transformed.


Wendy Barker

I’m extremely honored and grateful to be part of this panel with all of you and I want to thank and commend Natalia for her fine work on pulling us together.

I’ll begin by saying first that it’s pretty obvious that I’m as white as white can be. And I’ve benefited greatly over the years from my whiteness. I don’t know how many speeding tickets I’ve talked my out of—just bending my head and apologizing all over myself to the officer, who was always white. I’d get off with a warning. Every time.

Second, I’ve witnessed racial prejudice first hand, especially when traveling in this country with Punjabi Sikh friends. (In the 90’s I was involved in co-translating the poems of Gurcharan Rampuri with a Punjabi friend, and also co-translating the poems of Rabinidranath Tagore with a Bengali friend.)

I learned early on that, when traveling with male turbaned Punjabi Sikh friends (extremely dark-skinned, I should mention), it was imperative that I be the one to go to the counter and deal with the airline folks. Otherwise, long, hostile delays. Once, at a conference in North Carolina with my Punjabi co-translator, Amritijit Singh, we waited over half an hour to be seated a restaurant. There were empty tables all over the place. Finally I complained to the hostess, who sourly seated us at a table, where we waited another half hour for menus. Etc.

I might mention, however, that when traveling in India, I felt like an albino giraffe. Was, in fact, at times, even groped inappropriately and actually chased when not in the company of my friends.

All these experiences, however, took place over 20 years ago.

But only recently, when we asked a highly-recommended mold expert to come to our house and check for mold levels—another disturbing experience. The door bell rang, and I opened it to be greeted in a most friendly manner by our mold expert. He was Black. We chatted a bit, and he told me he’d been stopped 3 times by our little incorporated city’s cops. I gasped. Said “No!” And burst out crying. He said, don’t worry, I’m used it. This guy has a Ph.D. from UT Austin and couldn’t have been more polite, delightful, in fact.

I should have reported this episode to our police department. Why didn’t I? Too busy? I am ashamed that I didn’t report this.

Maybe one reason this incident upset me so much was that—as I looked at him, I felt—he could have been my son.

In the late 60’s and early 70’s, I taught in an all-ninth grade school in West (read Black) Berkeley, not far from the newly formed Black Panthers National Headquarters. How I’d believed in Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement—but moving from (white) Phoenix to Berkeley in 1968, I didn’t realize how the weather had changed to Black Rage, Black Power. Still, I firmly believed in the cause, and tried my best.

I might add here: to give you a sense of that whole experience, when my students at UT San Antoio ask – they’re so polite – what they should call me, I’ve been known to say, “You can call me Dr. Barker, you can call me Professor Barker. I’d really rather you call me Wendy. But frankly, as long as you don’t call me “Mothuh Fuckin’ Honky Bitch,” I’m good.

I’d like now to read 2 poems from Nothing Between Us, my “novel in prose poems” (really a memoir) about my years teaching at that ninth-grade school. The book, I should say, not only deals with teaching experiences, but also with a deep, long, love affair the speaker, a young, white, married English teacher (guess who) has with an African American Colleague.


He was the only other honky in the room. But wasn’t. Blond natural. Was his mother or his dad white or black? Kid played the best sax in town and only fourteen. Sax so sweet and cool the moon rose cream over the hills and stars broke the fog. He didn’t talk much. Neither did I, that first Black Lit class any of us taught. I didn’t know what to put on the board. Erased everything I’d written before, but the erasers were full of dust from the chalk. The blackboard turned powdery, a blur, clouded. We moved on through Nigger, Black Boy, Native Son. Not a kid caused trouble. Small sounds, fingers flipping the white pages of the paperbacks I collected and stacked in the corner cupboard after class. Slap of gum stretching in and out of a mouth, hard sole of a shoe on the floor, scraping the surface, an emery board. And the train, track barely a block away, the train running the whole length of the San Francisco Bay, cry moving ahead of it, toward us, that wail.

(From Nothing Between Us: The Berkeley Years, Del Sol Press, 2009.)


You shouldn’t listen to that bullshit, he said. I was lotioning my legs. All those guys are full of bullshit, they’re just trying it out on you, see how far they can get. You shouldn’t listen to me either. I pulled on my pantyhose, up to my waist. Is it bullshit, then, everything you’ve said to me? Ty looked down at the bed, top sheet mostly on the floor. No. But it was at the first. You shouldn’t have listened. You should stay with your husband. I zipped up the back of my dress. He moved away from the jungle sheets, brown, yellow, black and white tigers, giraffes, panthers, and stood over me, his head bent down to my eyes. His index finger brushed my chin. I didn’t expect to be feeling this way about you. Get it? I didn’t expect. You just looked like some good pussy. You hear me? You should stay with your husband, have some nice white babies. I turned to the mirror, put in one earring. Tiny ivory flowers. Bullshit, I said. I put in the other earring and turned around. Tell me something. What do you mean when you ask if it’s your pussy? His arms were around me, stroking me, and he rested his cheek on the top of my head. Fingered my left earring, swaying it back and forth. Stroked my cheek. You be here. That’s what it means. Doesn’t sound like bullshit, I said. Doesn’t sound all that hard, either. His mouth was moving my name through my hair. I don’t know, he said. I don’t think you know how hard it could get.

(And I should mention in closing that:

In 1970, there were 65,000 Black/White married couples in the U.S.

By 2010: over 500,000)

From Nothing Between Us: The Berkeley Years, Del Sol Press, 2009.)


LeAnne Howe

Let me see, white shame, white shame, white shame, I’ve never heard of it. No, I’ve never seen it. I don’t think it really exists.

 Here, I enter my evidence against white shame:

Invasion of the continent by Europeans. Pick your favorite colonial event. 1492, 1540s, 1701.  

Invasion of the body snatchers; known as old world diseases and germ warfare and its affects on Indigenous people.

Smallpox blankets.


All manner of viruses that tore through the continent, killing an estimated 90% of Native Americans in early contact zones.

The American Indian Removal Act, 1830. The federal government systematically began to remove tribes from the southeast. Thousands would die walking west to the “new promised lands” known as Indian Territory. The United States government made tribal peoples walk to their deaths in a genocidal pogrom benevolently called “Indian removal.”

Slavery. (Natives and later Africans)

The Gatling Gun, 1861.

Let me see here, white shame, white shame, white shame, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of it. No, I’ve never seen it.

Jacked Conflicts and White Shame

 “Conflict,” writes Canadian author and literary critic Douglas Glover “is any relationship of opposition.[1]” Here, the writer in my head says, No shit, Kimosabe, whites and Indians are deadlocked in opposition. American Indians have had a long and difficult relationship with non-Indians because of land theft, removal, and genocide carried out at the point of a gun. It should come as no surprise that my fiction, creative non-fiction, and poetry are filled with episodes of murders, warfare, and rape; punctuated by rapid gunfire.

Ever After Conflicts

As early as age five I began running from an imagined volley of bullets.

My first episode: I see my body falling, blood oozes out of my blue and green taffeta dress, the one my mother has made for me to wear on the first day of kindergarten. Ruined. Ruined when the sweet little gold chains my mother had sown around the bottom of skirt for decoration got caught at the top of the playground slide. When I’d jumped feeling the wind in my long black hair as I sailed smoothly down to the bottom of the slide, the chain had gotten caught on the side rail and ripped the taffeta skirt to pieces. I had to tell my mom something. “They were shooting at me and my skirt got caught.”

Of course I was never shot (you know that) but my mother took me out of kindergarten in Bethany because the teachers were frequently locking me in the closet. Sounds worse than it was. I learned to fight back, kick my teachers’ shins once they let me out.

“This is petty tyranny,” I screamed. (I never said that.) Alone in the closet I vowed to bludgeon my non-Native enemies. (I didn’t know the word bludgeon but it’s such a cool word here.) In truth, I must have been a hellion. Today, I would be branded a “risk,” in public schools, back then I was just a wild Indian. Decades later when I first began writing poetry in a walk-in closet converted for a quiet place to think, I scribbled my poetry by hand enumerating the petty injustices of my youth. But I’m supposed to be discussing white shame in America; something I continue to argue doesn’t exist.

Back to dodging bullets.

Ada is a small town in south central Oklahoma with a violent history. Why? Because it is a contested site, Indians and non-Indians (read whites and American Indians) have been fighting over for decades. I spent most of the early life there. Today I return every holiday and summer and live a house I inherited from my grandmother. But our history there is filled with violence. According to an August 8, 1907 report by the Office of Deputy United States Marshal T. Ed Brents, a staggering number of violent crimes were committed in Ada, Sulphur, and Roff, (south central Oklahoma) during July 1907.

Thirty murder cases.

Fifty-two cases of assault to kill.

Three cases of rape. Three young men while intoxicated committed the horrible crime near Franks, I.T. (This is a famous case in Indian Territory; think Jack the Ripper x 3.)

Four cases of assault to kill. “The defendants were intoxicated,” wrote Brents.

One case of murder. “The same old story, the defendant was intoxicated.[2]

Could the reasons for the two different listings for “assault to kill” be that 52 persons were sober when they committed their heinous acts, as opposed to the latter four assailants who were drunk while firing at their intended human targets. Most likely. Here, I’m suggesting that warfare over Indian land, and violence on the land creates an “ever after” affect within the people who live there. They, or we carry violence like a blood disease.

Indian Territory might be likened to one giant reservation[3] with all the Indians in the world squeezed into one place. Perhaps the thinking was that Natives from different tribes would kill one another because they were “wild Indians” traumatized from walking 10,000 miles from the southeast to the new homelands out west, now Oklahoma. (It wasn’t 10,000 miles, but the Trail of Tears killed thousands of American Indians who literally walked themselves to death.)

Oklahoma as a landscape is stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster, created out of Oklahoma Territory (mostly whites), Indian Territory (mostly American Indians), and the unassigned lands, (again mostly white settlers without any shame over their land theft.) I’m oversimplifying I know, but we’re only allotted 12-15 minutes on our panel. . . .

Today there are 38 federally recognized tribal nations within Oklahoma’s borders. Yet conflict and violence continue unabated as before. Ada was an Indian town long before statehood, and all my relatives were hunters with rifles. My grandfather owed a pistol, as he was once a sheriff’s deputy. We still have his badge and gun. Ada is currently the seat of the Chickasaw Nation. Rampant violence still exists even with the patrols of the tribal police, Pontotoc County sheriff’s department, and a strong city police department. (Note to President Trump: Everyone owns a gun in my hometown and it hasn’t curbed gun violence yet.) As of July 1, 2017, with a population of 16,522, approximately 20 percent are American Indians; Ada authorities reported 71 homicides down from 2016’s high of 78 homicides.

Violent conflicts grow like a virus and morph into many forms: random gunshots, rape, molestation, murder, and hangings. On April 19, 1909 sometime between two and three a.m. four men were hanged in a livery stable in Ada by a mob of 200 men. It is the largest mass outlaw hanging in U.S. history. The four men had been charged in the ambush and murder of Gus Bobbitt, a former local sheriff. The four were awaiting trial, but townsfolk took matters into their own hands.

In 2008, nearly one hundred years after the four hangings violence still prowls Ada’s streets striking against human beings or property. My ancestral home was shot up with a modern assault rifle. I’ll return to this later, but check out the crime rates for property in Ada. “When it comes to property crimes, Ada, OK is shown to be 22% higher than the Oklahoma average and 49% higher than the national average.[4]” Land again. Here I turned to French Marxist Henri Lefebvre and his seminal philosophical work The Production of Space (1991). Lefebvre writes that “sovereignty implies ‘space’ and what is more it implies a space against which violence, whether latent or overt, is directed – a space established and constituted by violence.” Lefebvre is not talking about tribal sovereignty, per se, he’s talking about dominion over and independence from lands that were won and held in deadly confrontations. “The spread of sovereign power was predicated on military domination, generally preceded by plunder[5],” says Lefebvre. That’s certainly the history of America, and the history of Indian Country, and my hometown, Ada.

There’s no such thing as the end of conflicts, nor at this juncture is there anything that resembles white shame at the local or state levels. As I said in the beginning, I feel as if I’ve been dodging bullets all my life. And then what, you may ask? Answer: I don’t know. Do we keep our heads bent, observe but quickly forget what isn’t supposed to be happening, respond with sobs of gratitude when we survive another hail of bullets. I don’t know.

In America, indigenous people were targeted for extinction from diseases, from guns manned by the state, and a society that wanted us all to die. Period. We’re still here. Our stories continue and I find comfort knowing we’ve endured.

Maybe the truth is that we’re all “Indians” these days, and maybe, just maybe, there is such a thing as white shame after all.


[1] Glover, Douglas. Attack of the Copula Spiders and Other Essays on Writing. Biblioasis, 2012.
[3] “The country’s 310 Indian reservations have violent crime rates that are more than two and a half times higher than the national average, according to data compiled by the Justice Department.”
[5] Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. 1991. Basil Blackwell, Ltd. Pg. 280.


Rita Dove

We were unable to collect the notes directly from Rita Dove due to the scheduling of this essay, but with her permission I summarize below some of the main points in the chilling stories she told. She began by talking about her father who was the first African-American chemist in the tire industry, and who suffered the great indignity of being hired as an elevator operator when he was highly prepared for a career as a chemist; in fact, he had been at the top of his class in graduate school. But instead of finding employment in his field, the industry’s entrenched racism forced him for years after earning his master’s degree to shuttle his former class mates between the floors of Goodyear’s research building in Akron, Ohio. When finally allowed to work as a chemist in 1952, the year of his daughter’s birth, he was involved in major developments in the rubber industry’s polymer technology, helping Goodyear tires become what they are today. And yet, while he had been subjected to early injustices, she recalled her father’s protectiveness of her own attitudes as he raised her. He did not want her to grow up bitter even though his own experiences as a scientist began ignominiously.

Rita also recalled a painful story about her best friend in second grade, a white girl she adored and admired. They walked home from school together every day; their play was innocent and neither of them, or so it seemed, noticed the other’s color. One afternoon, as school let out for the day, Rita stopped at the edge of the playground to tie her shoe and her friend, who was waiting up ahead of her, impatiently said: “Hurry up, nigger!” When Rita, loud and clear, uttered this denigrating racist word, the room became very still for a moment. The adoring audience that had taken in the agonizing but ultimately victorious story about her dad, became as silent and sacred as a burial ground. Someone, a seemingly innocent little girl, had insulted our beloved Rita Dove with the N word, injuring her childhood soul — a thought hard to stomach for the poets and writers in the room who revere her. We all would have liked to bury this memory and protect Rita from it.

And she retold stories from Thomas and Beulah, how the couple (modeled after her grandparents) were good Midwestern working class people in a world of no drugs, no extraordinary violence, no single moms, ordinary people who believed in the American Dream, ancestors who had taught her to nourish humanitarian ideals, who supported her desire to present those ideals in her work. And yet, she added, that although her poetry was well received early on, she felt powerless whenever confronted with the ugly face of institutionalized privilege. In the nineties, when her husband spoke out publicly against pervasive racism in the Academy of American Poets, she had to overcome well justified worries that this might harm her career. She also recalled a particular incident when she was asked to respond to a popular anthology of “good poems” and two of its reviews in Poetry magazine, where the white reviewers, despite their aesthetic and ideological criticism, had completely ignored that this anthology, edited by a politically liberal celebrity, barely contained people of color. She found the contents “blindingly white”, which forced her to write a blistering open letter, although it left her “spiritually exhausted to again have to protest that writers of color have all the complicated qualities of complete human beings.” Standing at the podium, she added in her calm, mellifluous, yet stern voice: “No one should be required to prove the complexity of their own humanity.”

Rita then concluded her talk by reading her poem “Arrow”, in which she depicts the self-satisfied arrogance of a well-known white scholar; it is reprinted in her recent book Collected Poems 1974–2004.

After the talk, we took questions, and one of the audience members asked in a most anguished and sincere voice, “What can we, as women, as white women, do for you about this?” What can we do? Rita Dove gave the most memorable, quotable response to this question, saying to the woman, after I tried to be eloquent about keeping it simple and keeping it about individual dignity and after Ching-In Chen encouraged her to donate to causes and organizations that are working to have these stories told, “Have a pajama party.” The audience laughed, after a solid hour or more of intense emotions and listening raptly. “You will get to know each other, and see each other as people if you have a pajama party,” Dove added. While all joined in the laughter, including Rita, she clearly was not joking.  



Final thoughts:

Every energy system we know, every organ, forest and garden, and even the environment created by a disease like cancer attempts to reach homeostasis, attempts to balance between differing bodies’ energies, needs, and wants while they share the same space. Like a marriage or an ecosystem in Costa Rica, it is always going to be complex, full of life, death and imperfections. Without doubt, the urge for balance will survive all of us—and without doubt, this will keep changing, but in what direction? In what direction does this talk about white shame and erasure move us?

My aunt, Blanca Esthela Treviño Pepi wrote a book called, Cuentamelo Otra Vez, recalling her thirst for more stories from her grandmother, Mama Josefita, my own great-grandmother. In one of her chapters, she describes a woman named Soledad, who was my Mama Josefita’s friend and who lived outside of the city, and in the uncivilized mountains because she had been ostracized after not being able to bear children for her husband, who did not perform as society expected, and who was pushed out like Grendel, and like La Llorona. Soledad had few prized possessions Mama Josefita recalled to my aunt, and one of them was a book of poetry. Soledad had said, “poetry is the conch that echoes the harmonies of the universe” and “poetry can transform the world because one poem is a tiny revolution of ideas”(48). As artists, we can create a massive revolution of the ideas that hold the minds of our readers. We can impact our environment. We must impact it.