seeing questions


A friend recently invited me to talk in her winter session class at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), a course titled Indigenous Knowledge and Global Sustainable Development. My topic, in a broad outline and provided by my colleague, was European colonialism, globalization, and the fate of indigenous culture in Providence, RI.  I’ll admit that I was a little nervous walking into the class. It’s been several years since I’ve regularly given walking tours of the city, or talked on the topic of colonial Rhode Island. I did spend a few days over the winter holidays reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s book, Mayflower—which is a useful popular history that explores European and indigenous engagement in New England from 1620 through the genocidal consequences of King Philip’s War—but I hardly feel sharp on the topic. Once I reminded myself that the history of the last 500-years of Western globalism is written into the Providence landscape—and therefore implicitly written into my body, too—once I remembered that I walk past, through, and upon that history everyday, it was easy to conjure the stories again. It was easy to remember that the conflicts of the past are the foundation of our present, and that we’re the uneasy inheritors of their complexity. This of course is no surprise. We are, it turns out, uneasy owners of our era’s complexity, too.

Because I’m a RISD graduate, I began by talking about a course I took during winter session when I was an undergraduate. The course, Politics and Pathology, asked us to do two things: in class we read Plato’s Republic line-by-line and, in the many hours afforded by a light winter session schedule, we were directed to make ourselves useful in a community that had been adversely affected by American public policy. In other words, in theory and through action, we were being asked to consider the link between politics and human suffering. The finer points of Plato’s political thought are now lost to my late-adolescent memory, but the experience of spending several weeks in a school for Southeast Asian war refugees, learning to teach English to speakers of other languages with people displaced from their homes by American foreign policy, is seared into my consciousness. Without irony or hyperbole, I can honestly say that participation in that course was life altering and radicalizing. Through its disorientation, it enabled me, required me really, to see the world in a new way.

Recounting this educational experience allowed me to unfold some aspects of my search for meaning, my growing consciousness of place and concomitantly, if unconsciously at first, of displacement.  Consequently, my epistemic view shifted.  The profound jolt of witnessing displaced people called me into a different consciousness. I began to look at my landscape with more rigorous eyes. Not only was I curious about how my new acquaintances might be viewing our shared landscape, but I was becoming increasingly aware that there was something queer and imbalanced about the way human identity is represented in the built environment. It would be many years before I put words to these observations. I wouldn’t be able to articulate precisely how I was intuitively recognizing the ways human identity is written into the landscape—and how it is written to privilege and praise my identity at the exclusion of other identities—until I read Doris Hayden’s work in the 1990s, published in the book The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. And after considerable reflection on Hayden’s work, I became conscious of the ways that I’d been decoding my landscape for years, maybe even my whole life. Moreover, through my commitment to looking, through my continued observations of landscapes, I became aware of how they were affecting—scripting really—my sense of self.

My strategy for beginning with the story of my transformative winter session class—although probably not an entirely conscious strategy when I began speaking—was to establish complicity with the students to whom I was speaking. Although my beard is gray and I’m more than likely older than some of their parents, placing myself in their shoes, establishing that we share a membership in the bizarrely exclusive club that elite education establishes, allowed me to trouble the waters of their assumptions. But more, it allowed me to establish the possibility that my path might provide some clues to their search for meaning, their search for a place in the world—and to invite them to consider, perhaps for the first time, and ironically from within an essentially conservative institution, the radical possibility of their education. More than anything, I wanted to extend to them the possibility of transformation that’s possible through extraordinary efforts to look at the world, and then to see it again.

The process of seeing and re-seeing, of understanding the mechanics of our context, can be a powerful tool for personal and collective liberation. Writing about women’s changing consciousness in 1972, Adrienne Rich speaks directly to this process and ups the ante:

Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for us more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves. And this drive to self-knowledge, for women, is more than a search for identity: it is part of her refusal of the self-destructiveness of male-dominated society. (Rich, p. 18)

Importantly, Rich speaks of this possibility in broad terms. Assumptions drench us all, regardless of economic, class, and cultural power. Privilege—no matter whether is of the class, gender, or racial kind—is fueled by the assumption that certain bodies matter more than other bodies. While it’s risky to state that those living within privileged bodies face their own kind of oppression, it’s critical to see that their status is no less externally wrought than those identities oppressed in horrific ways. And as Maxine Greene has written about ideological education—those intent on recycling narrow assumptions, incomplete curricula, and prescriptive conceptions of identity—we are all susceptible to the process of being transformed from human beings into human resources. Greene writes: “One danger that threatens both teachers and students in such emphases is that they will come to feel anger at being locked into an objective set of circumstances defined by others. Young people find themselves described as ‘human resources’ rather than as persons who are centers of choice and evaluation.” (Greene, p. 124) And once made into human resources, our lives are used to advance economies and cultural systems beyond our control.

When I was an undergraduate student, first learning to look beyond the confines of campus and cultural experience, I was mostly unconscious of my considerable privilege. Growing up in the 1970s I was aware of the Civil Rights and Women’s movements, but in the culturally isolated Connecticut suburb in which I was reared, these things were externalized—most often as threats to the way of living in which I was submerged. Implicitly, however, I understood their value, even if I’d yet to understand how they both implicated and related to my being. It was only by leaving the enclave in which I’d grown up that I could begin to understand how self-knowledge, awareness of the complexity of my context, was the key to my survival. It was only by learning to see in new ways that I was able to survive. And thrive.

You wouldn’t know it by looking at me, but I grew up out of place. I was adopted on 21 February 1967, a year and five-weeks after my birth. I know this because it’s the date on my birth certificate, issued by a Connecticut municipal court on the day that a judge decreed that I belonged to a family, in a place, not of my birth. Unlike other displacements, adoption is subtle. It doesn’t happen all at once or even in a way that’s seen or discerned by the general population. Yet in 1965, the year that I was conceived, it’s estimated that 142,000 children were adopted in the United States. Conservatively, it’s believed that over a million US children were placed / displaced into adoption during in the decade I was born. Because of the secrecy of the closed adoption system of this era, the data is incomplete. Some believe that up to 2 million children were surrendered to adoption in the 1960s.

It’s our cultural assumption that adoption is benign, even a social good.  We allow the institution because we somehow have come to believe that some babies are blank slates, able to be transposed from one mother to another without consequence. Yet, our literature reveals other beliefs; it casts a more complicated and difficult view. The Adoption Studies scholar, Marianne Novy, has written:

Most of the adoptees in canonical literature, fairy tales, and folklore, find their identity in meeting their birth parents. In the story of Oedipus, for example, a man discovers that he was born to a different set of parents than the ones he knows. He has unwittingly killed the man who begot him and married the woman who gave birth to him. After this discovery the parents who raised him no longer matter. (Novy p. 1)

After Freud, it’s difficult to consider Oedipus outside the discourses of human development and incestuous desire. However, earlier cultures understood Oedipus as a cautionary tale about the dangers of casting out one’s kin. Oedipus’ tragedy is unwitting incest; his father’s fate is the consequence of attempted infanticide and inadvertent surrender of his child to adoption. Taken together, the intergenerational consequence of surrender and adoption hardly seems benign. For many adoptees, this story has particular resonance, emphasizing the consequence of the secrets and shame inherent to the institution in which we were reared.

Contrastingly, although similarly reliant upon revelation of original identity, adoption is also frequently used as a literary device to explain extraordinary achievement. Moses’ destiny is wrapped in both the site of his conception and the extraordinary privilege afforded by his adopted house. More contemporaneously, Superman may benefit, at least we’re told, from the honest values of Kansas farmers, but the true source of his power comes from his Kryptonian lineage. In both stories, the adoptees’ achievement is contingent upon discovery of his native origin. And in such stories, the benefits or lessons of his adoptive context recede in importance. Moses would have achieved little for Israel as merely the adopted son of the Egyptian royal family. Kansas farmers rarely save the world.

Yet, most adoptees are not called to such grand service. The manipulation of our fate is in service to something more discrete, more intimate. Our prescribed role is to save individual families, to be the perpetual understudies of unconceived and inconceivable children. We do this at the expense of meeting ourselves.

Setting aside comforting platitudes about adoption—chosen children, saved children, heroic parents—consciously and unconsciously these stories reflect some of the contexts, and fears, with which adoptees live.  While it’s obvious why one would prefer to avoid Oedipus’ fate, Moses and Superman present a more complicated terrain. In all three stories, as well as in many others, the truth of one’s possibility lies in a place from which the adoptee is displaced; the actuality of one’s life, so it’s implied, is tied to a place other than one’s reality. Again, writing about women’s changing consciousness in the 1970s, Adrienne Rich called for a re-visioning of historical literary texts to help women reconsider “how we live, how we have been living, how we have been led to imagine ourselves, how our language has trapped as well as liberated us, how the very act of naming has been till now a male prerogative, how we can begin to see and name – and therefore live – afresh.” (Rich, p. 18) Something akin to this process is also necessary for adoptees.  Imagining ourselves beyond the risks of tragedy and the impossible heroics required from lost (and cast out) sons and daughters, adoptees too might see themselves afresh.

There are many complications in claiming an oppressed position when, quite likely, one has been adopted from one socio-economic class into another. And if not squarely adopted across class lines, which is likely in my case, then adopted through a system that assured my class, gender, and race privileges. And yet, from a psychological and spiritual perspective, adoption has not served me well. It’s fractured my sense of belonging and trust, and contained my ability to build relationships. Because adoption is an invisible identity, few understand how—or that—it informs my cultural context. I am never just a white guy from in Connecticut; I am also always a guy reared through adoption.  Regardless of adoption’s place within the hierarchy of human troubles, it illustrates the shadowy histories that shape all bodies—and landscapes—with or without explicit markers.

In the end, curriculum, at least the best curricula, aims to embody and enact wisdom practices in those who experience them. As unconscious as I was of this goal, or as implicitly ingrained as it might be after all these years of teaching, walking into my friend’s class I didn’t intend to impart any particular piece of wisdom. Frankly, I didn’t even know what I was going to say. But I entered that classroom with many years experience looking and listening, being mindful of my surroundings, and trusting my ability to make meaning from what I encounter. I know how to think with the questions that emerge from my context, and so I could think with those students and by extrapolating from the questions they asked I could anticipate questions they didn’t quite know they had. And by the end of our three hours, many of us, myself included, left the room feeling like we learned something.

Just as my adoptee identity is not written onto my body, the city in which I live has no historical marker to King Philip’s War. Providence was burned to the ground during that war, and more significantly the indigenous people of Southern New England were permanently displaced from their ancestral lands, most of them killed or sold into Caribbean slavery. Most people who inhabit the city today are unaware it ever happened, but careful eyes, turned diligently to the landscape, can discern the clues. And clues can lead to questions.

Works Cited

Greene, Maxine. Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995. Print.

Hayden, Dolores. The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 1995. Print.

Novy, Marianne. Reading Adoption: Family and Difference in Fiction and Drama. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 2005. Print.

Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision.” College English 34.1 (1972): 18-30. Print.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s