Aborigine in the Citadel

Can a "fat, old, dreadlocked blacklady poet" teach sonnets and silence to twenty-eight West Point cadets? Yes ma'am.Marilyn Nelson

© Marilyn Nelson

Because of the confluence of many forces—among them a Contemplative Practices Fellowship offered under the auspices of the American Council of Learned Societies for the design of a new course to be taught in spring 2000—I find myself—a fat, inexorably aging, California laid-back, funky, left-leaning, dreadlocked Aframerican woman poet—teaching this semester at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. I have two sections of an upper-division course on poetry and meditation. This is the weirdest thing I’ve ever done. West Point is integrated and, since 1976, coeducational, but it still seems to me to be the antithesis of the cultures suggested by my physical and intellectual presence. Surrounded by uniformed young people in tiptop physical condition, I feel as visible and as out of my element as a cockatoo in a flock of ravens, an aborigine in the citadel. Most of the other courses at West Point are taught by Army officers. Their classes begin with the section leader calling the cadets to attention and reporting absentees, then the teacher salutes and tells them to take their seats. My classes begin with five minutes of silent meditation in a dark room. Then we embark on the hour’s discussion of poetry. My cadets struggle to fit the required fifteen minutes of daily meditation into their overpacked schedules, while I struggle to hold on to the belief that I’m teaching them something meaningful and relevant to their lives: to accept and understand the multiple contradictions of their world.

I grew up in a military family. My father spent sixteen years in the Air Force as a B-52 navigator. As a protected and proud child, a nomad among nomads, my status at elementary and junior high schools was determined more by my dad’s rank than by our race or my character. My father was an officer, always one of a handful of black officers on any base, and he was thus treated with official respect. Subordinates, black and white, saluted him and called him “Sir.” While we could not ignore the hellish response to the Civil Rights Movement unleashed on the civilian world of the 1950s, we lived on Air Force bases and were effectively insulated from explicit discrimination. Our car was saluted every time we drove through the gates. The military world, my father’s world, was the orderly cocoon in which I grew a poet’s wings. I expected, since I grew up around men in uniform, that my transition to West Point would be smooth and painless, a return to my father’s world. Instead, West Point has shown me how firmly my mother rejected military values, and the lengths to which she went to keep her children from being too much indoctrinated with the authoritarian ethos of military life.

Sitting with the principal of the West Point Middle School on the morning I enrolled my daughter as an eighth grader, I remembered that military children are trained to respect adults. Each of the children who came into the office that morning ma’amed the school secretary and sirred the principal. My daughter, of course, did not. Nor did my sister and I, when we were children. Mama insisted we not do so. Indiscriminately applied honorifics were for her a symbol of slavery and the South. She was born and raised out West, in the all-black town of Boley, Oklahoma, and her life was imbued with Boley’s radical pride. We were under her strict orders never to call anyone sir or ma’am, unless we felt they deserved our respect. I’ve raised my own children with that habit of intentional respect, so I’ve noticed with some embarrassment that at West Point, adults look at my daughter with slightly raised eyebrows when she responds to their questions with a teenagerly “yeah.” My mother would have been proud of her. She was an artist, a gifted musician. She raised my siblings and me in the counterculture, to be artists (my sister an actress/director; our brother a jazz musician) rather than soldiers. Mama taught us to question authority—even our father’s authority. We straddled two value systems in our household, between Daddy’s Saturday morning white-glove inspections of our rooms and Mama’s lighthearted refusal to take rules seriously. While he checked one corner of the room for lingering traces of disorder, she might wink and slide an overlooked dust-bunny under the rug. If she ever called anyone sir, she did so with the same twinkle of merriment with which she sometimes saluted our father. I am “ma’amed” by my West Point students and find that fact both amusing and curious. At first I took the cadets’ addressing me as ma’am to be a sign of respect. However, I soon realized that it is a rote response, like their saluting eagles on a colonel’s shoulders. Under this habit of verbal respect, my cadets, most of them white males, many of them Southerners, can be less respectful than students I taught elsewhere. There is, for instance, their palpable contempt for civilians. West Point cadets are accustomed to being taught by Army officers. During my first weeks at the academy there was a teacup tempest in the department about a cadet’s attempt to transfer out of a civilian professor’s class because the cadet wanted to be taught by an officer. I understood from conversations with colleagues that this attitude is not unusual, though few cadets express their preference openly. While I am not the only civilian professor in the English department, nor the only Aframerican, I am the only professor there this year who is both civilian and black—and I’m the only professor at West Point wearing dreadlocks. I have noticed cadets assess my status: “Ma’am, do you have a Ph.D.?”

I love my cadets, though, and am touched by their sense that poetry is important to them. There have been days when I’ve gone into class filled with near-despair at the apparent meaninglessness of what I’m doing; when I feel I can almost see through those uniformed young people to the officers they will become, and I wonder why in the world the commander of, for example, a battalion of tanks would need to know how to recognize a metrical substitution in an iambic pentameter line. On these days I’ve sometimes stopped my headlong recitation of information, or my enthusiastic demonstration of a given poem’s merits, to ask whether cadets really care about these things. Yes ma’am, they respond; they do care; they’re interested; they want to know. They are in the course, they say, because they want to learn as much about poetry as they can. One or two have gone so far as to list for me the names of soldier-poets in various cultures, wanting me to see the models they have inwardly set for themselves. Their regimen of academic, military, and physical training makes it very difficult for them to find the downtime necessary for the reading and writing of poetry. They cannot study poetry as they say they do other subjects, by the “spec and dump” method: cramming for exams, then forgetting most of the material immediately after the exam. When I am teaching it is not a body of information. It is goal-less, open-ended.

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