The Lunatic Fringe: Teaching Walt in Ouaga

The Lunatic Fringe: Teaching Walt in Ouaga

Is that what it means to be an American?
To drive through contradictions at 70 miles
an hour with the radio on as though it all made sense?
Bill Holm. Haydn in North Dakota

Abidjan lies on the western edge of the bight of Benin, six degrees north of the equator. It appears to be a city of shining sky-scrapers, paved streets, and green spaces. It is a port of entry for goods shipped by sea to West Africa and it has a busy international airport with U.S. connections. Its Nissan neon, Siemens sophistication, Hanover Bank, and Zenith-Bull have earned it the sobriquet "Manhattan of West Africa." Cocody is one of its plushest quarters. Villas, gardens, and modern apartments abound. An American embassy official described the place to me as the closest thing to paradise on earth because living was so easy there. I had never heard Africa described in edenic terms, but mangos and papayas grow wild, date palms drop their fruit on villa lawns, and small animals wander the streets. "Just reach out and pick a banana," he said. Flamboyants, bougainvilla, and frangi-pangi year-round mask the unpleasant odor of rot and decay. Probably the most modern and efficient city in Africa north of Johannesburg, Abidjan hides African reality behind the same materialistic, busy, frenetic, perfumed, glossy, money-driven veneer that is used to conceal the truth in the United States. Abidjan is a hurdle to be crossed on the way to Africa. Cars, clothes, and movement conceal truth.
Farther in, the brittle, false optimism of American-style success goes to pieces on the rocks and shoals of the reality of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. Ouaga is the African equivalent of the American West--a place of raw beauty and overwhelming force. It is windy, dusty, and hot. It breaks people and destroys them. It is no worse than living in North Dakota--hot, dry, windy, dusty--the days of my youth all over again, but it is so extreme that it frustrates Americans. They begin to speak hyperbolically, telling the best and the worst that they can about the American experience.
When copying these sentences, I cannot help but think of the employees of the U. S. Embassy. The women are lively and talkative. The men are morose and silent. They never smile. When they speak they are either hyperactive or speak in hollow voices. They appear clinically depressed. No matter how old they are; they seem to be 21. Their faces are unlined. Their skins are smooth and soft. They live in furnished homes more elegant than the richest African homes. They drive large, powerful, luxurious vehicles designed to make far more noise of a very special kind than necessary. The engines are "blown"- a compressor forces extra air into the carburetor. They can be heard for miles. Whitman says, "Liberty is poorly served by men whose good intent is quelled . . . (by) the sharp show of the tushes of power."
Fresh faced and unlined like my countrymen, I stand before a university class in American literature, language, and civilization--250 Burkinabe students. The first night, under flickering, half-functioning flourescent lights and churning ceiling fans that barely move the stifling air, I read Poe's "Bells" aloud and they applaud. Everyone loves a tour de force. Then, I turn to Whitman's "Preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass."
"The United States is essentially the greatest poem," I read. Their uniformly black faces gaze down on me from banks of seats that start at my feet and rise far above my head. I feel I am in a dusty operating theatre. The light is dim and the operation is unclear. Its purpose is opaque. The North Africans who first crossed the Sahara to trade with the ancient empires of Mali and Songhai and Ghana called these people "black Africans."
0f course, they nod. A poem. Like the words and motions of Michael Jackson whose surgically altered face and curly strand of hair is emblazoned on the back of T-shirts that precede me down Boulevarde Charles de Gaulle. Of course, these students in their Chicago Bulls jackets say. It is like Family Album which plays on the TV at the American Culture Center. A poem is free and unpredictable and rises out of the depths of emotion and nature. Michael Jordan is a poem. The Chicago Bulls are poetic. They are spontaneous, improvisatory, and explosive. They make me feel, with Emily Dickinson, "as if the top of my head were taken off." It is unattainable and unimaginable.
But they have never heard of Walt Whitman. A colleague teaches American Civilization who took only one course in American literature at the Sorbonne--the transcendentalists. He looks over my syllabus. He recognizes Emerson and Thoreau, hesitates on Hawthorne and says, ''I've never heard of the others." I teach American literature, "from its beginnings to the end of the 19th Century."
Trying to find my way, I read from Thomas Paine, "The cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind . . . the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth." A student asks me after class if any of the writers on my list are Native American. I feel a twinge of guilt because my anthology contains so few minority writers until I realize he may know only one native American name and has never read anything by an American.
There is a different response as I read Crevecouer's:
"Americans are a mixture of English, Scotch, Irish, French, Dutch, Germans
and Swedes. . . He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient
prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has
embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new ranks he holds.... The
American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore
entertain new ideas and form new opinions."
That stuff about a new man maybe all right, but, these students demand, "Where are the Africans? Where are the Bambara and the Mandingo?" I refer them to the passages struck by Congress from Jefferson's early version of the Declaration of Independence. I show them Paine's assertion that England,". . . hath stirred up the Indians and the Negroes to destroy us" and I ask myself silently, "What do you mean us, Tom Paine? You who left the country for France as soon as you scented another revolution. 'Summer soldier and sunshine patriot,' indeed!"
"Why don't these writers just say it straight?" a young man poses as we wrestle with the question of truth. "In our country we have a saying, 'better to have a red eye, than to have it crushed."' I present the notion that truth has always been hard to say directly in the United States. Our writers are unsure and fear the risks of telling the truth. Americans understand seven unwritten commandments: Do not smear the free enterprise system, do not smear the industrialists, do not smear success, do not glorify failure, do not glorify the collective, do not deify the common man, and do not acknowledge death. I show them Whitman's line, "The indirect is always great and real as the direct," and Dickinson's "Tell all the Truth, but tell it slant."
Then with Stowe, another uncertainty emerges. I read Dickinson's, "All men say 'What' to me . . . " to a crowd whose females are judged largely on fertility and strength. I feel myself slipping into a Saragossa of irony, intended and unmeant, wondering if I can avoid Emerson's dismal swamp and still get out of here to the "antipodal side," as Whitman calls it, past the shimmering optimism that overlays intolerable racism and oppression and shifts before the eyes like an Escher print, leading readers into "cunning passages, contrived corridors/And issues . . ." We go on to try plain and simple, "to put a Person fully and freely on record."
Still I thrash about to explain lines like "American poets enclose old and new for America is the race of races" to readers who embrace simultaneously the worst nightmare and the greatest fantasy. They would give anything to share the fruits of the American dream no matter who or what they must sacrifice, but they are firmly convinced that they are excluded for good and all because they are African, poor, and black. Life there would be too oppressive. Nonetheless, Paine's assertion, "The Reformation was preceded by the discovery of America: as if the Almighty graciously meant to open a sanctuary for the persecuted" remains in their minds, and they reflect on the fate of the persecuted.
We struggle on through the quintessential American, Whitman: bawdy, brave and gay. Much of what I say escapes them because they are equipped only with a market version of America filtered through mass media and the U. S. Government.
One night, striving to link their reading with their lives, I say that I have been reading O'Neill's Lazarus Laughed. I recite the chorus, "Laugh! Laugh! There is no death! There is only life! There is only laughter!" and the group, given to unrestrained laughter and so familiar with death finds this humorous.
At that point they may remember Whitman's "With music strong I come . . . for conquered and slain . . . I beat and pound for the dead . . ." and I dare hope they see "the antipodal side." The class now hears me read, ". . . you Death, and you bitter hug of mortality, it is idle to try to alarm me." Perhaps they have seen past the screen of power, money, position, sensual gratification, and symbols. Maybe they see that their minister with his Mercedes, whose personal solution to the AIDS epidemic is to embrace younger and younger schoolgirls, is a living dead man, and that their merchant who buys donated food and clothing off the dock in Abidjan for a dollar a ton and retails it in the streets of Ouaga for a dollar a can or a piece is a criminal at the same time as he capitalizes on the "American" dream. Whitman says, "Leaves of Grass indeed (I cannot too often reiterate) has mainly been the outcropping of my own emotional and other personal nature--an attempt from first to last to put a Person, a human being (myself, in the latter half of the Nineteenth Century, in America) freely, fully and truly on record."
The other trappings that the U.S.--from the merchants of money to the least of the embassy employees--tries to sell these students are merely appearances, part of the trick that takes our attention away from reality. Maybe they go away a little less deceived. Maybe they are a little better equipped to understand when Whitman says, "The American of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature. . . The genius of the United States is . . . always in the common people."
Finally, they may also understand, when they come to it, why William Carlos Williams asserts, "The pure products of America/go crazy" and Alan Ginsburg laments, "I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness." Perhaps we Americans never learn what lies in store for us and don't accept what our literature tells.

by Armand Falk

Contributors retain all rights to their work. ©1996 Kaleidoscope. Write Place. Volume 7.


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