on sylvia plath and cultural sensitivity

tonight we discussed sylvia plath at length in the college class I teach. we discussed 'daddy', 'lady lazarus', and 'morning song'. if you know anything about sylvia plath, then you probably know that she often used the holocaust in her poems - for comparisons, metaphors, etc. I have often had students misinterpret plath's intention and message. actually, one student once told me that her anti-semitism disgusted him, and he couldn't even talk about her (this was in reaction to 'the thin people', I believe). for the most part I feel really comfortable discussing plath's work. she's so fascinating... and if you don't know anything about her, she's not anti-semetic at all. I mean, there's just something about lines like: "Dying /Is an art, like everything else./I do it exceptionally well." dying... is an art... like everything else. !!! anyway, I digress. I don't mean to get all poetry-nerdy on you.
so, back to where I was going - this semester I have an orthodox jewish woman in my class. this is the second class of mine she has been in. I love her. she's a fantastic and bright student. I've had a few orthodox women in the past, too - the town I teach/live in is right on the border of another town that has a huge orthodox community. but this is the first time I've had an orthodox student in an english II class - the class where we talk about sylvia plath. I went into the class with hesitation - knowing that there was a possibility that she might misinterpret plath - or something worse. so we listened to plath reading 'daddy' - and every time she said the word 'jew', I shuddered a little, really hoping that my student wouldn't be offended. long story short, she wasn't - or at least didn't seem to be. she was amazed, after our discussion, to learn that plath's father wasn't a nazi. but she seemed unphased by everything else.

so, what't my point, I bet you're wondering... I was thinking to myself about this hesitation that I had. and I've felt it before - like when we read flannery o'connor and she uses the 'n' word. or when I talk to my students about the civil rights movement. there is something strangely uncomfortable there for me. like I'm afraid I'm going to say something to offend a jewish or african american, or any other minority student. or worse yet, I might say something wrong and they will think I'm racist.

I feel like I work hard to be non-judgmental, to be equal and fair in my mind to all people - regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, etc. I don't want to offend anyone, especially not out of ignorance (haha, like, if I'm going to offend you, I want it to be with all of my intelligence!). but I think my biggest realization (after all of that babbling) is that I worry more about what others will think of me. is my cultural sensitivity really in the best interest of others, or myself? it's kind of like that old saying: 'it's not what I think, or what you think, but what I think you think.' hmm, but I have a hard time swallowing this. if I was really that self-centered I wouldn't care if the other person was offended. and I do care. really, I do. and I don't think it's out of some superficial political-correctness, either. I think, deep down, I truly believe in the 'do unto others' mentality.

I know, this all just seems like blibbity blabbity. but this is where I'm at - in this moment.


Scissors and Spice said...

Totally girl crushing that picture!

Devadeva Mirel said...

i think you are right to be mental over it. after all, you are speaking from your own cultural location--that informs not only what you say but how others view what you say. but probably this far into the semester, you have won the students' trust so you can chill a little on the worry side. but it is never wrong to be thoughtful! and you talk about the use of the n-word, right?

Carl Rollyson said...

I'm writing a biography of Sylvia Plath that St. Martin's Press will published in 2013. One of my aims is to show how honestly Plath came by her references to the Holocaust. Like Susan Sontag (another of my biographical subjects), Plath grew up during World War II. She listened to war reports on the radio, saw the photographs of concentration camp victims, and was especially sensitive about her father, since he was German. She had close relationships with Jewish women. Students need to know all this, to understand where Plath was coming from, so to speak. To examine the poem cold, without historical and biographical background, is especially difficult for a young reader.