It can be a daunting task to sit down and write about your identity, family history, and the social forces around you, concedes second-year student Lillian White. Yet, this act of self-reflection and public story sharing is the challenge she posed, along with seniors Cuyler Otsuka and Sarah Cheshire, to coincide with the public convocation talk by United States Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey on March 4.
Trethewey, who was raised in Mississippi in the period following the civil rights movement of the 1960s, is adept at combining the personal and the historical in her work. In the poem “History Lessons,” Trethewey describes a photograph taken of her standing on a beach in Mississippi in 1970, in the same spot her grandmother stood 40 years earlier when the beach was segregated.
As a tribute to that poem, the three students teamed up to create the History Lessons project. In early February, they invited individuals from the campus and community to submit their own personal “history lesson” statement. The statements have been incorporated into an artwork that was installed in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel during Trethewey’s convocation address.
The project’s guidelines allowed individual participants to choose how they wanted to present their personal statements—a poem, a story, a monologue, a stream-of-consciousness narrative, or any other medium of the participant’s choice. The only requirements were that the statement be rooted in one’s own experiences and could not be anonymous.
“We hope that this project will serve as a platform through which to examine the plurality of experiences that exist within the Oberlin community,” says Cheshire, a creative writing and gender, sexuality, and feminist studies major. “We envision each individual statement hung in a web to symbolize how each story stands on its own, but also is informed by and connected to each other.”
The installation will move to the Science Center, and eventually, other public spaces around the city of Oberlin.
“I view this story installation as an opportunity for people to be extremely public with some piece of their story,” says White. “That is an inherently political act, and my hope is for this nexus of individual personal-political actions to create a shockwave of compassion in this community. The public nature of the project—that stories will be displayed in several high-traffic spaces, for example, and that we ruled out anonymous submissions as an option—is especially important. There is liberation as well as responsibility in owning and defining aspects of your identity, particularly when your name is out there with your words.”
Otsuka, who is majoring in comparative American studies and politics, says the project is a space for community members to take pride and ownership in their words. The decision to make the stories public was deliberate because of the destructive role anonymity has played in communities. “We don’t want to force anyone to do something they’re uncomfortable with, so if folks have identity concerns, they can choose not to submit.”
Otsuka has written his own poem for the project. “Having gone through the experience of looking at tangible photographs and souvenirs, writing about them was cathartic for me. I personally needed to have that time of self-reflection in order to come to peace with my present circumstances.”
Trethewey’s first collection, in which “History Lessons” appears, was published in 2000. Her third book of poems, Native Guard (2006), won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Her recent work includes a book of creative nonfiction, Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast (2010), and the poetry collection Thrall (2012).
Trethewey's many honors and awards include fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She has been inducted into both the Fellowship of Southern Writers and the Georgia Writers Hall of Fame. In 2012 she was named Poet Laureate of the state of Mississippi and the 19th Poet Laureate of the United States.
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