Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Where Did America Come From? Where Is It Going? Columbus, Capt. John Smith, and My American Literature Survey Class

            I just finished teaching my first session of American Literature Survey. Each class is different; each class is a blessing. These students—in this particular and unique case, all young women—are a cross-section of South Florida: mainly Haitian-American and Hispanic-American, full of energy, ambition, and eager to learn. They will mainly enter Health Sciences fields, and I am quick to inform them, only half-joking, that, as a member of the Baby Boom Generation, my cohort, the largest demographic bulge this country’s medical infrastructure has ever sustained,  will be privileged to use their services. Then, we buckle down to our task: to master a good portion of American Literature—hundreds of years of writings—in a month’s time, wherein a panoply of American Writers will attempt to “explain ourselves to ourselves”—that is, What is America?
            “America is unique,” I tell them, “A country founded by, but in reaction to, Europe.”
 I tell them my personal story—how, in 1904, the King of Russia drafted a young, 18-year-old Jewish man named Jacob into his army, and told him, “Jacob, go fight the Japanese.”
            “Jacob did not want to fight the Japanese,” I tell them. “He had never met any Japanese people; he had no quarrel with them. He was already in the army camp. But one night, someone he knew—a cousin, an uncle, someone—helped him to jump the fence. He made his way to Hamburg, in Germany—this was long before the Nazis—and he got onto a steamship, and came to America. That young man was my grandfather. And because of the decision he made, I am standing here in front of you, speaking in English. I could be speaking Hebrew in Tel-Aviv, Israel; I could be a sad little pile of ashes in Poland.
            “The decisions you make in your lives,” I continue, “Whom you marry—where you live—what sort of job you decide on—will have an amazing effect on the future, on everyone’s future. And so far, you’re doing the right thing: you’re in university, studying to better yourselves. I know you may have heard that a college degree isn’t worth it: believe me, it is. My father was the first one in his family to go to college, and he went on to get a Master’s. You might want to think about that, as well. Do it while you’re young; if you can, do it before you have a family (I have no way of knowing how many of them already have a family.). You’re doing the right thing.”
            I tell them that I’m both a Jew and a rabbi, a Jewish minister—probably the first one that they’ve ever had a conversation with. We talk about stereotypes; I write the word on the board, and we talk about what it means. One student talks about when she worked in a Jewish restaurant; it wasn’t a good experience. We talk about that.
            “Those of you who have worked with older Jews, and saw that they have jewelry, may think that all Jews are rich,” I say. “That is not true. Those Jews worked very hard for their money. When you get out there in the world, you will also work very hard, and you will one day have the money to buy jewelry; I promise you. America is different.”
            I tell them about how, in Europe, it was not unusual for Jews to go home after a day’s work and find a sign on their door that said, “All Jews Out!”
            “If you found such a sign on your door,” I said, “Would it be better if you owned land, real estate, or jewelry?”
            “Jewelry,” they say, “Because if you have land, it takes time to sell it.”
            “Yes,” I say, “because if you have a diamond, or a bracelet, maybe you can sew it up in your sleeve, to hide it. You can’t do that with property. That’s why some Jews became jewelers. It was the only thing they could do to survive. That’s why some Jews have names like Goldberg, or Silverman, or Sapphire.”
            They nod their heads. Somewhere within their minds, the sun is breaking through the clouds of stereotyping. They begin to understand anti-semitic persecution, and survival.
            One persistent student, a young woman who attends church, raises her hand. And she asks the Who Killed Christ Question.
            I explain that the Jews could not have done it; the Romans were in charge at the time. I ask how Jesus died: that, they all know (it’s all over bumper stickers in SoFla: “He died for me; I will live for Him,” is typical.). I tell them that Jews never did executions in that manner. I also say that, by the time the stories were written down, the Romans were becoming Christian, and had to blame someone. I talk about scapegoating.
            “Obviously, there were Jews who liked Jesus, and Jews who did not, but for a Jewish High Court to meet at midnight on the Eve of a major holiday like Passover, would be like the US Supreme Court meeting at midnight on the Eve of the 4th of July. It would never happen; they would all be out watching the fireworks and listening to the bands play.”
            I think they get it, and it’s time to get back to the literature.
Pointing to my desk, I explain the position of the Communion Table in church (only a couple of students are familiar with this; Catholicism is no longer the norm for many students). I briefly review Transubstantiation—the Catholic belief that, during the Lord’s Supper, the wafer and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus, vs. Consubstantiation—the Protestant viewpoint that these items symbolize the body and blood.
“These are differences,” I say, “Are you all OK with the differences?”
They are, and these won’t be on the Final Exam.
I go on: “Would you be willing to go to war, and kill someone who disagreed with you about putting the table somewhere else?”
They are amazed.
“That’s why, in America, we have separation of Church and State. Because in England, people were killing each other over these things.”
It’s time to turn to Columbus’s first letter. The man was a thief, a murderer, and a liar. I tell them how, in my childhood, Columbus was considered a hero, a courageous explorer who went on when all hope seemed lost. My main source of information, though it tends to over-exaggerate, remains Howard Zinn’s classic A People’s History of the United States (NY: HarperPerennial, 2003), which tells the story of the Spanish Conquistadors from the viewpoint of Bartolome de las Casas, who first helped to subjugate and kill the Taino-Arawak Indians, but afterwards repented and recorded the genocide. Here is one of Columbus’s logs about the Indians:

[The Arawak Indians] brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features….They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane. … They would make fine servants….With fifty men would subjugate them all and make them do what we want (Zinn, p. 1).

I explain how, within five years, according to De las Casas’s demographics, the entire population of Arawaks was annihilated, either through Spanish genocide, or their committing suicide so as not to have to slave digging for imaginary gold or on the encomiendas, giant plantations set up by the conquistadors.
In the meantime, Columbus, a master navigator but a lousy governor, made up all sorts of lies to impress King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, claiming that the Caribbean islands featured all sorts of exotic flora and fauna. His famous “Letter to Luis de Santangel Regarding the First Voyage” (Santangel was the Royal Treasurer, and possibly a Converso, but I do not tell them that; it’s not relevant.) has the following:

…[The] nightingale was singing and other birds of a thousand kinds in the month of November there where I went. There are six or eight kinds of palm, which are a wonder to behold on account of their variety, but so are the other trees and fruits and plants. …[There] is honey, and there are birds of many kinds and fruits in great diversity. In the interior are mines of metals, and the population is without number. Espanola is a marvel (Columbus, 2013, p. 26).

It is noteworthy that neither honeybees nor nightingales are native to the island of Hispaniola, which today contains both the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Furthermore, if there were a gold mine on Haiti, would its contents not have benefited the inhabitants of that longsuffering nation by now? Columbus, to repeat, was a thief, a liar, and a murderer.
As for Capt. John Smith, mercenary, freebooter, and creator of romantic legends, using a PowerPoint projector, I contrast the Mel-Gibson-voiced, blond-haired cartoon-handsome Disney leading man who falls in love with Pocahontas with a portrait of the real Smith, a short, homely, bearded, fortyish slugger who, desperate to market his travelogue and self-promoting autobiography (parts of it written by others), The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (i.e., Bermuda) (1624), did American immigration a service by “promising” that any likely lad or lass “of thirteen or fourteen years of age” who boarded a ship to the New World could expect to improve themselves, if they did not fear hard work, and were willing to farm or do other manual labor. (Smith, p. 72)
Hearing that the “Indian Princess,” Pocahontas, daughter of the fierce Chesapeake Chief Powhatan, had been baptized a Christian and was touring Europe, Smith fabricated a story about how he had been taken prisoner by the Chesapeakes, and, about to have his brains bashed in by the war-club of the tribal executioner, was saved at the last minute by the happy intervention of Pocahontas herself. The fact that he was in his upper thirties at the time of the imagined incident, and she barely thirteen, did not take away from the drama and romance of the tale; indeed, it has entered into American folk-history, along with Smith’s other exaggerations. A painting of the event is, I believe, displayed in the halls of the US Congress. It’s certainly not the first time that self-aggrandizing lies have besmirched those august chambers.

Towards the end of our session, I moved the class into the computer lab to write our first Journal. The subject was to be Themselves: Their American Story. I am eager to read—in complete confidence, of course—what motivates them in their American Journey. We may all have begun our voyage with the likes of charlatans such as Columbus and Capt. Smith, but our vision has moved away from Eurocentrism now, and I look forward with curiosity and alacrity to reading their sagas. America belongs to them, now, and I am proud to be their teacher.