To the Editor:
Yesterday evening I was fortunate enough to attend a conversation between Linda Coombs, the director of the Aquinnah Cultural Center, and Geraldine Brooks, author of the recent novel, “Caleb’s Crossing.” It was a stimulating discussion on very difficult issues, and I applaud, as many there did, both Ms. Coombs and Ms. Brooks on their willingness to engage in dialogue on the thorny subject of race, appropriation, and the role of art in increasing our understanding of others, and ultimately ourselves.
Ms. Coombs did a great service in laying out the need for annotating racial stereotypes and misrepresentations in fiction when it comes to a telling of the history of native peoples in America. In particular, because so many of us remain ignorant of their truth, of their actual experience, often still lived. This is something she encountered often in her work at Plimouth Plantation representing a Wampanoag in historical re-enactments.
For her part, Ms. Brooks made an impassioned case for the use of the imagination in conjuring what life may be like for people other than ourselves. It was evident that she was aware of the tenuous ground she was treading and the dangers of cultural appropriation, and she tried to treat the subject with the utmost respect.
For me one of the most enlightening moments of the evening was when Bettina Washington, historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, spoke of being upset while reading the book because one of the main characters, Caleb of the title, was not fictionalized but an actual person, an ancestor. She found herself wondering how Caleb would feel (she may have even said was feeling) about his story being told in this way.
Being of European descent myself, I found that remark to be revealing of one of the great divides between white culture and native peoples. The native people’s connections to their ancestors (and the earth, those two things being very intertwined, if I understand correctly) feel different than ours. For the Wampanoags, those personages are alive in ways we don’t recognize, while the prevailing culture pushes beyond what came before with a neglect of continuity that I feel is damaging to ourselves and our home, the planet. I have used the dreaded “us” and “them,” and I hope there will be a time when, while we still recognize our differences, perhaps we will understand them with compassion and recognize we really are all one. As another listener pointed out, we all make assumptions about everything all the time. Largely these assumptions are unconscious, which is what makes them so damaging.
I would like to thank the ACC for hosting such an important event, and I encourage everyone to take advantage of this wonderful new resource atop the Gay Head Cliffs. It will enrich your experience of this beautiful place.