OUR EYES HAVE GROWN [ 1970 ]
In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the Word was God.
I used to believe that. I used to believe that, completely. It used to be true.
You began to know the world, through words. The word was the way into time and across the waters of the
the word was the way among peoples: introducing people,
separating them, marrying their lives, burdening their birth. Even at the graveside, words were spoken first, and the dirt was thrown.
But now our eyes have grown. Our children see what no one can explain. Our eyes stare witness to a reckless
camera running around a universe of visible, increasing
mystery. Our eyes have grown. White people see Black people Hawks see Doves
Poor people see President Nixon Fat people see hunger
Hungry people see food Everybody sees Chicago Soldiers see students Students see death
Our eyes have grown
America owns more cameras, reaching further and more
privately, than any other nation. American eyes roam everywhere.
And even as our eyes stretch, wretched from confusion and fears, American hatred, American misery,
peril and despair have grown and grown into a breathing
agony. We are among the agonizing and the stupefied.
are staggering from spectacle. The spectacle is life.
The living are those who watch life, sitting down. We are those who watch.
We have been forced inside a mirror, a mirror we cannot control or change. Only our eyes have grown. More and more, for us, reality begins on film. I am concerned about the ending. It is not impossible that human life will terminate on television, so to speak. At six o’clock, The Last Spectacular will captivate its biggest audience. Is anyone prepared to sponsor that? At this moment when our overgrown eyes coincide with the explosion of social coherency, and the disintegration of moral agreement, let me plead for librarians, for books, for sentences, for words.
Schools of every description and at every level ask for “visual aids”
We need help. Visual aids will not help us, a people incommunicado with our eyes wide open.
In particular, the children who blink their way into our savage legacy, they do not need visual aids, they need help of another kind:
That’s a massacre.
What’s a massacre?
Look at the picture.
I seen the picture. What’s a massacre.
How does a massacre feel. Is air pollution a massacre. Is massacre all right for a while. Is a massacre okay,
under some circumstances. What does the picture mean?
Or, here is another possibility:
When I grow up, I want to be a photograph of somebody famous. Or else: When I grow up I don’t want to develop into a photograph.
Our words must grow. If we abandon language, we will surely abandon the possible meanings of the word humane.
Our words must grow: Brother, family, home: Either
these words will rapidly enlarge to include the whole world, or we will not survive.
The library has to compete with the movies. Words will have to win that competition.
Or, at least, words will have to win their way right up onto the screen, under the imagery of our shown and spreading chaos.
Libraries, books, sentences, words will have to supply the subtitles that yield relief, the captions that promise understanding, regardless what it is we see, per force.
Let me make a few suggestions, about your competition.
Perhaps librarians could collaborate with teachers or, on an older level, with community leaders toward the establishing of a special section reserved for student and community writings. These writings, organized on a monthly basis, would be available to everyone interested. Students could be encouraged, if not required, to spend time studying what their immediate contemporaries, what their teachers, what their parents, and local leaders have written, what these familiar, but deeply unknown associates think and want, and why.
With very young children, the eliciting of material could be attempted on this basis: Ask him to write
he wants everybody to know. Or ask her to write whatever she thinks is important, although nobody seems to care.
From all students, book reviews, research papers, diaries, poems, television and movie reviews could be solicited, for the library. Of course, editorials should be solicited from everybody, about everything, all the time.
In addition to creating a valuable community resource for cooperation and the improvement of local welfare,
and in addition to creating nonacademic, human motivations
to express oneself honestly and clearly, there would probably be an enormous rise in spontaneous library browsing. Besides this, librarians could come to enjoy much greater certainty about the interests and the comprehending levels of the students they hope to serve. It seems obvious that the best way to bring people into the library is to bring them in: Bring them in as writers, as thinkers, as readers.
I think of the library as a sanctuary from the spectacle, from the alienation, from the unnamed, and the seeming unnameable. A library is where you keep records of involvement, the glorious and ugly tangling of the human spirit with what we meet, what we see. A library is where you keep records of human experience humanly defined: That means humanly evaluated and
means life worded into ideas living people can use. People belong in such a sanctuary. Bring them in.
Bring the children into the library as writers; that will help them to think, and that will lead them to read. That will help you to know
these younger people, and that will help you to present other writers to them, other thinkers who occupy that sanctuary.
Second, let me suggest that you offer poetry to students. Poetry and more poetry. One reason why students, from grammar school through the university, are writing poetry now is the same reason why they want to read it. They have to read poetry. They have to write poetry. Poetry is the most personal language of experience.
It is how we name what happens to us. It is how we name ourselves. It is how we name our dreams so that others will join in our dreaming. It is how we name what terrified, and how we exorcise that terror. It is attitude and response. It is consistently individual.
It is our affirmation of the individual, individual orientation. It is the namesaying of me and mine and I, and it is the multiplication of relationships that start from me and mine and I, and it is the metaphor that is the marrow, particular sensation of an only life trying to reach out, trying to touch, trying to understand whoever and whatever exists beyond the realm of me, mine, and I.
Poetry and more poetry. Poetry is the ultimately personal grasping for relationship, for involvement.
It is the opposite of spectacle. The poet is antithetical to someone who sits down outside of his life, to watch. Poetry is the ultimately personal grasping for relationship. Please recommend poetry, please offer poetry to the poets. And believe me, we are all poets, whether we write poetry, or not.
Third, let me suggest that you offer students readings in drama. Plays have a good word going for them: plays.
Plays present words and action, at once. It is like most of our social experience: words and actions, at once. Words predicting, influencing, altering, representing action. Words as action. Action as the consequence of words. Re-action as words. Words as the reaction
to what happens, what we see, what we hear. And these words, in drama, these words come from a human being, they travel to human beings, they return to human being. In drama, words are never dried ink:
In drama, words are what they are: Our human communication of our being human.
Fourth, let me suggest that you offer students whatever books seem urgently relevant to you—for yourself. I do think it is infinitely preferable to have a student declare that a book is “too hard,” than for any of us to presume he is “too young.”
Specifically, I mean, offer students from junior high school up books like Why We Can’t Wait, by Martin Luther King, or Culture and Commitment, by Margaret Mead, or The Politics of Experience, by R.D. Laing, or Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, by R. Buckminster Fuller, or The Peculiar Institution, by Kenneth Stampp, or Souls of Black Folk, by W. E.B. DuBois. From junior high school up, offer these books to children. Let them turn them back, if they do. Give them The Affluent Society by Galbraith and The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Give them Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky and give them The Crime of Punishment, by Karl Menninger.
Remember, the so-called children of our responsibility are witness to the six o’clock news. Childhood is no longer innocent; children are baffled to the point of drug-using desperation. We have already blundered into 1984 and Brave New World. Give them yourselves; what you worry about, what you believe; give them the books you are reading, and tell them why you are reading these books.
A last suggestion: please remember that our moral imagination is on trial. When I say “our” I mean the world’s moral imagination is on trial. I think that means we have to develop our capacities to empathize, to recognize our own self in other people. That means black and white and everybody American has to recognize Richard Wright’s Native Son as black and white and everybody American, for example.
It means that we have to discover what we, in our most bizarre human variety, nevertheless share as menace and as loving possibility to each other, and to ourselves. Therefore, Steinbeck and Gorki belong alongside Eldridge Cleaver, and Jean-Paul Sartre belongs alongside LeRoi Jones, whether the school is “white” or “black.”
End of suggestions.
Once upon a time, when I was a college sophomore, I wrote an autobiography, an epic poem, as an English term paper. The poem was called Aorta. In Aorta, the girl panics at the spectacle: she rejects the bewilderment of seen reality; she tries to enter a voluntary constructive blindness. In blindness, she hopes to restore the functioning of mind and spirit. These lines occur midway in Aorta:
“There is arrogance in moving through a crowd with steady gaze and beggar’s cup.
There is more arrogance in moving through a crowd without a beggar’s cup.
The most arrogant act is that of moving through a crowd without a beggar’s cup and deliberately choosing not to gaze beyond your mind.”
The young poet has discovered that mind unrelated to the spectacle will not suffice; it is merely arrogance. One page later, these lines occur:
“how will i know you? how will you know me? by a flower in my hair?
by an odour from your sleeve? by a scar across your neck? by the way in which you walk? what does it mean: i will know you by your faith, or by your love?”
In Aorta, I could only ask the questions. I had no hunch about the answers.
Then, many years later, 1964, I went to The World’s Worst Fair, organized by Jesse Gray, in Harlem. Visitors to “The Fair” were invited to wander down East 117th St., between Madison and Fifth Avenues. One of the children, a boy barely more than bone, became my guide through the daylight shadows of his life. We talked and I asked him his name.
“Why do you want to know my name?”
Because this is your street. From any corner of it men and women diversify the same deformity. As a pattern it is not spectacular: a limp, a lump above an ear, a purulent complexion, a tremor or a shortened arm, a split-seamed pair of pants, a junky wavering on his way, burned skin, ringworm, a stuttering of speech and staggered speed. This is your street swept and washed and swept eleven times by noon this morning washed and swept but kept its stink of rats. This filthy smell steams from the rough scrubbed lane between the sidewalks.
“Why they clean the street so much? Ain nobody gone lay down on it.”
One set of cellar steps leads steeply below street level to where three men perspire in the darkness as they hurry to cement a fence of bricks quickly piled. The problem, you see, is to hold the rats inside; make them die in there.
The boy repeats his question:
“Why do you want to know my name?”
Because of the rats. Because of the first floor windows shut by steel. Because of the stairways of urine that never collapse. Because of the ceaseless erosion of wall and post and ceiling, floor and window sill. Because erosion is sadistic. Because no one has the guts, the mercy to bomb this block, to all at once destroy every structure undergoing criminal erosion.
“Why do you want to know my name?”
Because you say she is your mother sitting on the stoop, with artificial pearls around her neck.
They call you poor. They call you black. They call you Negro. What is your name? I meant to ask if you are brimming, empty, probable or dying. But now I want to know, who are you? This is your street: You must be despised. Something about you must be dangerous. Police keep watching you. They see how raggedy you are. They see how small you are. Yet they keep watching you. Ten years old, but dangerous. None of the police is near enough to know you smell of rats.
“My name,” he told me at last, “My name is Tyrone.”
That afternoon, I learned the answer. How will I know you? I will know you by your name.
You will know me by my name.
Words are the names of history, minute by minute.
We must name the history to which we are responsible: We must name ourselves, and we must name the others we must recognize as crucial to the history our lives imply. We stand convicted by the language we employ. We live accessible to love according to the language we invent.
We will know each other by our names.
Our words must grow. Our eyes have grown. Our words must grow.