“I'm a Rollin'”
I’m a Rollin’, which takes its title from the Negro Spiritual beginning Chapter Nine of W.E.B. DuBois’ Souls of the Black Folk, examines the rights of the oppressed within the canon of Contemporary Civilization. I use form as a means to characterize the authors’ rhetorical choices and length of argument. The form’s origin, formal characteristics and poetical effects facilitate my choice of form for each author.
The Western canon, as it stands, is dominated by White Christian male authors (or by authors retroactively or even counter-factually perceived as such). While diverse in their definition of morality, these canonical authors are unified in their exclusion of women, non-Christians and non-Whites from basic human rights. In their discourse, the cowardly are “womanly”; the “infidels” and the “savage” need to be civilized; and the “abject poor” need to know their place. Even the few feminists, abolitionists, and civil rights activists included in the canon are not adamantly opposed to all the major claims of the White Christian male author.
In “Ain’t I a Woman,” for instance, Sojourner Truth argues that even if a woman’s intellect is inferior to men’s (a big if), a woman should be entitled to have her “little half measure full”, an argument Wollstonecraft made as well. Note how Truth’s epistemological humility in fighting firmly for women’s rights in spite of the “truth” of women’s inferiority contrasts with the epistemological arrogance of the men. Men (more specifically White men) do not feel the necessity to justify what they know: to them, women are dumb, like Negros, and like animals. Indeed, the addressee of Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?”—Men as Children—ends with Truth setting the child “right side up again”, a call for the reader to examine his/her own prejudices even if they may not yet to be identified by society as problematic.
Like Natasha Trethaway in Native Guard, I was interested in appropriating historical voices in verse form as a mode to reflect upon the legacy of epistemological confidence of the “oppressor” which continues to the present day. The so-called trivialities of race and gender are trivial only when we, as a collective, consciously “redeem” history, and glean only the “central claims” of important works.
I also aim avoid the urge to read the broader theme of the “canon” and “anti-canon” into the texts. For example, in writing the “Douglass Sestina,” it is important for me to show the shift in Frederick Douglass’s interpretation of the Constitution from a slave-holding instrument to a glorious liberty document. Douglass clearly knows of the Fugitive Slave clause in the US Constitution. But Douglass refused to refer to the clause as such: he says that the word “slavery” is nowhere to be found. At its plainest reading, according to Douglass, the Constitution is meticulous in avoiding slavery and even abolishes the international slave trade. Douglass’ epistemologically humble and meticulous reading of the Constitution is a model for my examination of the canon.
Inspired by Roger Sedarat’s “Martyrs of Islam,” the “Tocqueville Ghazal” challenges the reader to connect the dots between the disunity of rights (and coexistence) among Anglo-Saxon Americans and the “others” (Negroes and Indians). The form of the pantoum in the “Darwin Pantoum,” which moves one step forward (to the next verse) and two steps back (through the repetition of the second and fourth line as the first and third line of the next verse) gradually narrows to Darwin’s conclusion that banning marriages for the poor is unnatural, before widening back out to the ambiguous implications of allowing natural selection in the “slums and ghettos”. The force of natural selection is the same, yet the scene has changed: the reader in a different place than before. In the “Darwin Pantoum,” Darwin is clearly not advocating for the replacement of the poorer members by the richer members as the “survival of the fittest,” he seems to advocate for the poor to bear and rear children even if that means natural selection may starve to death some of them.
This hands-off scientific approach contrasts (perhaps surprisingly) with Adam Smith’s compassion towards the poor, which I examined in “Smith Triolet” His moral compassion highlights the callous “logic” of philosophy in “Rousseau Décima.” The “Wollstonecraft Villanelle” implicates that “logic”—the epistemologically arrogant claim that women are “weakness, contempt and pity” as a social construct which enables men to “spoil” the women and abandon them without penitence. The “Douglass Sestina”, “Du Bois Blues,” and “Du Bois Bop” examine the same hypocrisy to redefine and restore confidence in “Darkness.” I end with “Prose Poem with Gandhi and Fanon”, who propose radically different methods of achieving decolonization, or the freeing of “Darkness.”
Through an examination of the history (and legacy) of the denial of rights in Contemporary Civilization, I aim to memorialize of an often deliberately ignored past.
About the Scholar: Tiffany Troy
Tiffany Troy CC'18 majors in Creative Writing and Economics, and concentrates in Hispanic Studies. She is very grateful to her Contemporary Civilization Professor Alexandre Roberts, Professor Deborah Paredez, and friend Megan Wicks. The discussions they led on rights of the marginalized in the Western canon inspired I'm a Rollin'.