Paul Elisha: Twice Born | WAMC

Paul Elisha: Twice Born

To echo the March 28th front page of the New York Times, “Adrienne Rich, a poet of towering reputation— and one of the best known American intellectuals— has died,— at the age of 82.”   Author of  two dozen volumes of superb and searing poetry, plus a half-dozen more of prose, all totaling close to a million copies in sales, she was for me and countless other committed readers, a revered teacher and prophet.  As our nation approaches an historic crisis of conscience, a most appropriate tribute to this towering literary Titan is found in her own clairvoyant words, written in 1983 but amazingly relevant to the present:  “To recover history or her-story, means resisting two powerful pressures in American culture—and, I suspect, in the culture being created globally by the multinational high-technology empires— very similar pressures, yet not the same.  One is the imperative to assimilate;  the other, the idea that one can be socially ‘twice-born’.”  “—–Every wave of immigrants who were not already Anglo Saxon has been haunted by the pressure to assimilate.

By constructing an ideal of Americanization and equating this with virtue,  progressiveness, decency and worth, the assimilation imperative has also assured that those least able to assimilate—most often because of skin color or gender but also because of ethnicity or religion—could be cast as absolute Other, sentenced to live by different laws, treated as victims of inferior biology….. be ashamed of who you are.  To assimilate means not only to give up your history but your body, to try to adopt an alien appearance because your own is not good enough; to fear naming yourself lest name be twisted into label.  Through this imperative, those who can ‘pass’ are cheated of the chance to define themselves and to make mutually respectful and strengthening alliances with other self-defining people.  It leaves them unanchored when storms arise, ignorant of their inheritance.

(The model of the ‘Twice-Born’) is—“ a very old American pattern, the pattern of the frontier, the escape from the old identity, the old debts, the old wife to the new name, the ‘new life.’  It’s a pattern of contemporary cults, not only of Christianity— the obliteration of old connections, the surrender to an authority who promises to change your life.  It has also been a pattern found in certain political communities— the denial, say, of one’s class background if middle class, though often in its self-indulgence it insults the values of working class people; the purity of the correct political line; the surrender to an authority who promises new life.  And women’s communities have not been exceptions to this pattern.  In the desire to be twice-born there’s a good deal of self-hatred.  Too much of ourselves must be deleted when we erase our personal histories and abruptly dissociate ourselves from who we have been.  We become less dimensional than we really are.”

For this commentator, it’s as if from wherever she is now, Adrienne Rich is speaking to us all and reminding us of our responsibility to one another.  In one of her poems, she asks: “…Did anyone ever know who we were/ if we means more than a handful?”

It’s time we all understood how much depends on our answer.

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