- Learning from June Jordan and Walt Whitman (and from Las Vegas, too): Notes on Inclusivity and Borders
As I write this piece, I am twice removed from the country I live in, Germany, and from the country whose texts I have been studying for the better part of my adult life. Since my time as a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the 1990s, I have been preoccupied with the US American “republic of letters.” I am sitting in a colonial hotel in Havana, Cuba, participating in the annual conference of the Caribbean Studies Association. The conference theme is “Education, Culture, and Emancipatory Thought in the Caribbean.” The place I find myself in relates to my background and my work on US literature in different ways: the US embargo of Cuba and its repercussions have been the subject of conversations with many US colleagues and friends. To get here, I walked endless corridors at JFK, all the way to a far-off corner to check in for the flight. I thus started a tedious process that would (and did) eventually let me board a plane headed for Havana, a still-unlikely destination for someone traveling from the United States. The Cuban embargo seems like an anachronism in our global twenty-first century, or at least it should be. The strong Cuban presence in the United States came to my mind, my thoughts digressed to Cuban American literature (I brought Rachel Kushner’s Telex from Cuba with me for the plane), and for a moment I could almost taste my favorite bean dish from the Cuban restaurant around the corner from my current home in Harlem.
But I am in Havana as a German citizen. While it may be easier for me to get to Cuba, it also brings up memories of growing up in the 1980s [End Page 349] in Germany, during the Cold War with the (seemingly) permanent presence of a border between the two German states. I have firsthand experience with a socialist state, the German Democratic Republic (GDR), and the difficulties of travel to closed nations. I remember traveling to West Berlin, before the wall came down, driving along the so-called transit highway where you’d better make sure to have no reason to stop at all, let alone exit: I don’t think there were any off ramps. What remains vivid in my mind, even after many years, is the moment after the wall was torn down when I walked through the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, when it was, simply and suddenly, possible to do the impossible. It was hard to even begin to grasp what had happened and what I had just now been able to do. When I notice the reactions of my fellow American air travelers, I remember all this. As I was back in 1989, they seem a bit wary, hesitant even, as they set foot on Cuban soil.
In the spring of 2018, the Berlin Wall had been down for the same amount of time as it stood. But the kinds of exclusionary border practices it embodied are not a thing of the past. It is a gruesome irony, I think, that celebrations of the fall of the Berlin Wall are taking place as sample sections of a new wall at the US-Mexican border are presented to a public, much of which is taken aback by everything it represents. Walls are potent symbols of the (mostly) violent exclusionary border practices that we can see on both sides of the Atlantic, specifically the photographs of millions of refugees from Africa and the Middle East, desperately seeking admittance to Fortress Europe. The refugee crisis has been a dominant theme in German news and public debate for the past years, bringing out both the best and the worst in people; the best in the sense that there has been and continues to be an impressive amount of volunteer work in helping people in dire need, and the worst in the ways that exclusionary nationalistic and homophobic sentiments have regained currency. Footage of refugees in shabby and hopelessly overcrowded dinghies and coast guard ships refusing rescue have...