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Constance Alexander: Embracing poetry a good start to evaluating our values, beliefs on diversity

“Those Winter Sundays“ begins with a description of a father who gets up early, even on the day of rest. He gets dressed “in the blueblack cold,” his cracked hands aching from the weekday work he does to make a living; nevertheless, he still makes sure the house is warmed for the still-sleeping family.

His child wakes to the sound of, “the cold splintering, breaking,” and half-heartedly responds to the call to get up and get moving. The parent’s sacrifice is not appreciated by the child, who fears “the chronic angers of that house,” and speaks indifferently to the one “who had driven out the cold” and polished his shoes for good measure.

Looking back on this scene, the child – now an adult — asks:

“What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?”

“Those Winter Sundays” is a story many of us could tell about realizing, in retrospect, how our parents made sacrifices which we ignored or overlooked or were incapable of appreciating when we were growing up.

The poem reminded me of my father. No matter what time he got home at night, he always rose early in the morning to make breakfast. He was not cheerful or talkative, but he showed up. Some mornings were more pleasant than others, and it was not easy to predict his mood. I, like Robert Hayden, feared “the chronic angers” of our house.

Years ago, when I first read “Those Winter Sundays,” I knew nothing about the poet, except that we had shared sentiments regarding our fathers. Then when I was in college and learned that Hayden was African American, I have to confess that I was surprised. I am ashamed to admit it now, but it was the first time I realized that I held deeply embedded assumptions that were rooted in bigotry.

For me, Robert Hayden’s poem was the beginning of an awakening that continues, with almost every day offering opportunities to reflect on the ways stereotypes and racism are casually expressed and accepted, sometimes without question.

When I moved to Kentucky in 1988, I was surprised to hear some people joking that, instead of Martin Luther King Day, they celebrated the birth of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in January. (MLK day, now a national holiday, is designated to occur on the third Monday of January. Robert E. Lee’s birth was January 19. In some years, the two overlap.)

Just today, as I was doing background research to write this column, I learned that Robert E. Lee’s birthday is still regarded as a holiday according to Kentucky State statute. I wrongly assumed that would not still be on the books, but it is.

Lately, in political discussions about immigrants from places like Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa, we hear their homelands insulted with scatological references that, according to a cable news host, are “… how the forgotten men and women of America talk at the bar.”

Really? What a notion. Do regular working people like you and me — all of us feeling politically forgotten at one time or another — go to bars and use disgusting language to dismiss and defame other cultures, entire countries, and even a whole continent?

The fifteenth of January is reserved to honor Martin Luther King, and February is National African American History Month. March celebrates Women’s History, and April is National Poetry Month. In addition, this April marks the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. Between now and April is a stretch of time to examine the underlying values and unfair assumptions we hold about race, gender, other cultures, and other countries.

So what can we do to examine our values and beliefs in a new light? Poetry, like the work of Robert Hayden, is a good place to begin. The Academy of American Poets has a selection of relevant writings. Go to the website, pick a poem, share it with others. Learn about the rich tradition of African American poetry, both classic and contemporary. The journey will lead you to roads not taken.

While you’re at it, take a look at Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day,” written for the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama, that includes these provocative lines:

Some live by love thy neighbor as thyself,
others by first do no harm and take no more
than you need. What if the mightiest word is love?

For more information, log on to www.poets.org. Elizabeth Alexander’s poem is posted at www.poetryfoundation.org.

Constance Alexander is a columnist, award-winning poet and playwright, and President of INTEXCommunications in Murray, Ky. She can be reached at calexander9@murraystate.edu. Or visit www.constancealexander.com.

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