In the poem "How I Got That Name," Marilyn Chin furiously grieves over and decries the sell-out bargains which she feels her parents made in order to assimilate. In a voice filled with bitterness and self-deprecating humor, she tells how her father "transliterated 'Mei Lin' to Marilyn," so that she became "named after some tragic white woman/ swollen on gin and Nembutal." "Oh God, where have we gone wrong?/ We have no inner resources," she nearly screams out to her self-reflexive reader. In exchanges both comic and tragic, values that could have conferred stability and meaning seem to have been lost.
So often when I asked my own parents and grandparents to talk about the past, they'd say, "I don't want to talk about it." I sensed in their silence unarticulated longings and shames. Leaving the pain of the past behind necessitated terrible junctures in the self, repressions that often broke out in acts of inexplicable violence or self-mutilation. "Just throw it out your mind, " my aunt, without benefit of therapy, would say. Certain words, conversations, languages had to either evaporate from consciousness, or else find a narrow part of the brain in which to be put away and saved.
Those with white skin, those who could find a satisfactory obfuscation of their identities in the homogenized suburbs, changed their names. Those without white skin could not disappear. And yet, in one of those ironic twists that racism perpetrates on its seeming benefactors, white people may have been even more deeply wounded, cut off from powerful resources; which may then be experienced as thinness of being, an ennui.
In "Inventing Father in Las Vegas," Lynn Emanuel confronts the emptiness at the center of a cultural wasteland and constructs a "father" out of language. "If I could see nothing but the smoke/ From the tip of his cigar, I would know everything/ About the years before the war. . . . If I could trace the two lines that crossed/ His temple, I would know what drove him/ To this godforsaken place." When I recently asked students in a writing class at the university to draw a tree, a black girl drew an apple tree in her grandmother's yard full of apples, while a white girl drew a tree she said was not a real tree, but a tree she learned to draw when she was a child. She replicates a tree that never existed.
Some of us, in spite of our ambivalence, in spite of the roads back that vanish like the crumbs in Hansel and Gretel, are drawn by our ancestors' strength. As my mother said in wonder when seeing Tom Feelings' drawings of the agonizing Middle passage, that journey the slaves made from Africa in which somewhere between twenty-five and seventy-five million people died, "Just think of it, Toi, think of our strength. We survived!" An unsolved mystery haunts us. In "Deer Dancer," Joy Harjo tells the story of a beautiful stranger ("Buffalo Calf Woman," the embodiment of beauty), who comes into a "bar of broken survivors . . . Indian ruins." The poet sees her, "not a stained red dress with tape on her heels but the/ deer who entered our dream in white dawn,/ breathed mist into pine trees, her fawn a/ blessing of meat, the ancestors who never left."
In the end, our connection to the past is more than a personal connection; it places us within a lifeline that extends before and beyond us, it places and holds us between the wings of something vast and eternal. Lucille Clifton in "Cutting Greens" finds, in this simple ritual of preparing a traditional African American food, that "the greens roll black under the knife/ and the kitchen twists dark on its spine/ and i taste in my natural appetite/ the bond of live things everywhere."