By Beth McCoy
I dread flying. I grumble about baggage fees and cramped quarters. When turbulence strikes, I fear to read flight attendants’ faces, those poems that tell me whether to drown my anxiety in a SkyMall catalog or just relax. I dislike security lines, not least because I slow them down by fumbling gracelessly with the electronic devices key to contemporary reading, writing, and teaching.
Above all, I dread the advent of a certain in-flight conversation. To be clear, I’ve had many lovely conversations onboard, ones through which I’ve learned about everything from midwifery to plastics (yes, plastics).
But when some folks spot on the tray table a novel bursting with bookmarks or a pile of student papers, conversation too often follows a particular path.
Are you a teacher? (Yes)
What do you teach? (English)
Ooh, I’ll have to watch how I speak. ([If I say, “Don’t worry! I don’t speak standard English, nor does anyone else,” there’s a 50/50 chance that the conversation ends immediately])
What do you teach? (African American literature)
Oh. Hey, I’ve always wanted to ask: why is African American literature so political?
This question is always about something else, really. I am hardly the only person asked to deal with it.
In her keynote at Trinidad's Bocas Literature Festival, Jamaican poet and short story writer Olive Senior recently had to answer the question “Should literature be political?” She responded that the query had “the fussiness of Granny about it,” betraying anxiety that “that literary production is something precious and should be protected somehow from the unwashed hordes who are political animals because they foment revolutions and overturn thrones.”
But in coach, at 35,000 feet, it isn’t easy to talk “literature and politics” in a way that a) puts a stop to the racist dog whistling that the question so often is and b) doesn’t attract the attention of a nearby air marshal.
In the past, I’ve noted that by the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (especially its infamously racist Query XIV) already had asserted that politics and literary aesthetics were linked inextricably. In other words, that the slaveholder started it.
Lately, returning to Plato provides another tool for the in-flight tool belt. In Republic Book II, Socrates tells Adeimantus and Glaucon that the right kind of poetry is so key to educating the guardians of the ideal city that any poet who gets too creative with stories about the gods should have his funding cut so that he can no longer produce plays. Of course, this is “the slaveholder started it" in a different register.