Sunday, March 30, 2014

Sticks and Stones


It is so important to speak and write our native language well and to learn as much vocabulary as possible because by doing so we can deal more effectively with issues. I have witnessed people who can only communicate their anger, frustration or bitterness by striking out physically, haven’t you? Let me tell you about some seminars I attended that led me to understand more deeply the importance of language proficiency.

When I was teaching full time, the National Endowment for the Humanities had a summer studies program for professors at small colleges with limited library holdings. I applied and received one of these on Southern Studies in 1980 to the University of North Carolina. They were very nice to us there. The graduate assistant in charge of making arrangements for the 12 participants found my family and me a nice apartment near the campus with a pool for the kids and the library provided a convenient study area where I could keep the books and articles I needed in research. At the end of the summer, College Literature journal published a long study I wrote there on Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses. We returned to our home institution in the fall tired but refreshed.

About a decade later, an ad for another opportunity came across my desk for a grant to study ethnographic documentaries in the anthropology department at the University of California. Berkeley is a huge campus with multiple libraries, one of which houses the world’s best collection of film and video on primitive peoples of the world. I applied and received the grant. The graduate assistant found us a small apartment a couple of blocks from campus near People’s Park. Our adult daughter held down the home front in Arkansas and our nine-year-old went along with us. I had proposed writing a paper on The Sound and the Fury, but ended up writing a paper by invitation on recent criticism for Southern Literary Journal. I also wrote a personal essay entitled “An Arkansan in Berkeley” which the director had me read to my colleagues on the last day. The incongruity between my accustomed lifestyle in Arkansas and that around me in Berkeley drew considerable laughter from the group.

But as I said at the outset, the reason I mention the seminar in Berkeley is what I observed in some of those films about ritualized violence among the Yanomama of South America. Of course, I was familiar with American ritualized or stylized violence—boxing, wrestling, football, hockey, etc. But the Yanomama practiced a progressive series of violent acts to assuage anger that was interesting: it started with side-slapping, elevated to chest-pounding, then went to head-clubbing and finally to machetes or axes. Often, the problem was solved along the way, seldom requiring the final stage. I only saw film of one that had progressed to machetes.

One reason for becoming proficient in our native tongue is to talk through disagreements instead of resorting to physicality. Build your vocabulary, not your arsenal!

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