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April 26, 2003

Eating in America

Dear friends,

It's been a long time, no?

So, I was having this conversation with a group of artists about whether or not we (as a community) were elitist. A friend encouraged me to post my response here. It went something (but not exactly) like this:

"I think the charge of elistism can be productive for us if we use it as a charge to reflect on what we are, look like, could be, want to be, and/or will be. I mean, if we just say We're not elitist because we're great or We are elitist so we'd better get over it then maybe we aren't using this moment to our greatest collective advantage.(I don't mean to suggest that anyone has argued either of these simple ideas. by the way. I just mean that an extreme form of an attempt to answer the question Are we elitist? with a Yes or a No might leave us stagnant.) The question for me is always: How can I/we get (more) power responsibly and use it for good, and share it with more people?"

Now, I share these ideas here because I've been thinking a lot about what it means to want power. Because of the US war on Iraq (that is: "Operation Iraqi Freedom") I have been having what I call a "fear of expendability". My first response is horror at the way all the leaders on all sides are willing to waste the lives of so many. I'm not surprised, but I am horrified. And it's a logical, though maybe selfish, response to think about wanting to make myself and those I love less expendable.  It's like when someone is accused of a crime and they start saying He was always a loner . . . and you decide to go to that party you wanted to avoid, after all.

You know that going to a party doesn't make you any less of a misanthrope. And, conversely, staying home doesn't make you any more of one. Still, you don't want to give your enemies anything to work with. Or am I the only one who is this paranoid?

What I'm really thinking about is the academy. You know, people encourage you to go as far as you can go in school. Your family, your friends, your church are all proud of you, give you money and praise and then one day you're an academic and therefore not to be trusted. This isn't a complaint. It's a moment of reflection.

What does all this school mean in terms of my identity as an artist or cultural critic? It does affect my taste, and I'm not apologetic about that. I did want to study more so that my craft as a writer (in all forms) could become more sophisticated. I'm attached to, have ultimate respect for, and study quite a few artists who haven't spent quite so much time (or any time at all) in the academy. And my ultimate hope is that my being in the academy can mean something, yes, for the students who come through, but also for people who are not currently validated (or authorized) by the academy (ie: with a degree, or with attention.)

But how, exactly, should this be done? Should it be done by breaking down the system of validation or should it be done by extending that validation to those who don't traditionally receive it? I've tried both, but when I meet young people who are trying to become poets or get through school, my first inclination is to tell them everything I know about traditional methods of validation. This goes from how to submit works to how to impress teachers to what awards to seek to how to edit a poem. It only makes sense to do this, I think, but I have to wonder, isn't this sort of like trying to get everyone US citizenship so they'll be safe from America instead of trying to make the world safe?

Is this the wrong metaphor? If so, write me back at and let me know if I can post your response.



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copyright Mendi Lewis Obadike 2003

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