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  • The Problems of Citizenship:Revisiting Lydia Maria Child's Letters from New-York through a Social Justice Lens
  • Bruce Mills

At Kalamazoo College, we, along with other colleges in the country, have been engaging as citizens in the larger national discourse on race: some of us are traveling to Ferguson, Missouri, while others are leading or involved in community Black Lives Matter actions. During this unsettled time, I have been affected by the call of our campus's recently endowed Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership to address structural inequities and the inherent dignity of all peoples in our teaching. For my part in this conversation, I wish to position myself as a teacher who, over the years, has sought to make Lydia Maria Child central to classrooms in American literature. My reflections, then, center upon the multi-layered problems of citizenship embodied in this space—in the racialized bodies of students and faculty, in the canonical body of US literature, and in the democratic body, the body politic of the present.

My definition of "citizenship" is more pedagogical than theoretical, although it has been influenced over the years by concepts of the contact zone, borderland spaces, and, more recently, an introduction to Édouard Glissant's notion of relational identity, what he terms the "chaotic network of Relation" (144). In classroom space, I imagine citizenship as the improvisation of intersecting and conflicting perspectives between and within individuals. To be a citizen in higher education today, moreover, is to read and write within a montage of violent imagery concerning black and brown bodies. In his 1955 essay "Notes of a Native Son," a text that considers his relationships to his father as well as to Harlem and, by implication, the nation, James Baldwin explores similar imagery in terms of a rioting within the self and the city. Perhaps we could think of the ongoing reality of riot or uprising as a reoccurring dimension of American citizenship as improvisation. In our present teaching (especially of US literature), the uprisings of Ferguson and Baltimore inevitably have an inside presence, if only because we all walk into the classroom amid the Twitter feeds, news reports, and social media that affect our states of mind and being and, visibly or invisibly, our collaborations. And, by collaborations, I am imagining [End Page 21] our present selves in contact with the authorial presence of figures like Lydia Maria Child.

At the risk of further delaying a brief reflection on Child's Letters from New-York, I wish to ponder another framing text on citizenship: Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, a hybrid volume nominated for the National Book Award in poetry and criticism. Through prose poems, lyrical criticism, and evocative artwork, Rankine makes visible the persistent physical and psychological accosting of black bodies and thus ushers readers into a seminar on race in America. The macrocosm of the body politic finds expression in the intimate microcosm of daily interactions. She writes:

A friend argues that Americans battle between the "historical self" and the "self self." By this she means you mostly interact as friends with mutual interest and, for the most part, compatible personalities; however, sometimes your historical selves, her white self and your black self, or your white self and her black self, arrive with the full force of your American positioning. Then you are standing face-to-face in seconds that wipe the affable smiles right from your mouths. What did you say? Instantaneously your attachment seems fragile, tenuous, subject to any transgression of your historical self. And though your joined personal histories are supposed to save you from misunderstandings, they usually cause you to understand all too well what is meant.


Here is citizenship as the improvisation of intersecting and conflicting perspectives between and within individuals. It is the sudden shift from willed innocence to experience: our multiple selves suddenly negotiating new terms or simply old ones newly voiced.

So what does this have to do with Letters from New-York? When I teach this text, we invariably study Letter 36, in which Child depicts her observation of Sauk, Fox, and Iowa Indians during a visit to P. T. Barnum's American...


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