Monday, January 25, 2010

On Not Being White: For Robbie Burns Day

The timing was perfect. Just on Robbie Burns' birthday, a lovely little package arrived from a small town in Scotland--the "Scottish lace panel" I had ordered from Ebay to filter the glare in my writing studio window. It's replete with red deer, Edinburgh Castle, and the word "Scotland" facing four different directions. What more could a Scottish American poet want?

Though i was raised with a steady awareness of my roots, I guess my coming-out as a Scottish American really started last year, as I was sitting in on the "writing about race" workshop we have started offering at Stonecoast due to student demand.
In the discussion, Richard Hoffman pointed out that "whiteness" is not a race but a construct, invented as a counterpart to the counterveiling construct of "blackness." This idea had the ring of truth for me; it passed my truth test of feeling, if uncomfortable at first, in the end genuinely liberatory.

This month, during a community discussion about race and how it affects our writing, I found myself both embarrassed and deeply relieved to talk about my Scottish ethnicity--and my female identity. I have other ethnicities too--English and French and Dutch, and perhaps a touch of Spanish pirate with Moorish blood--but Scottish is how I "self-identify" right now, and claiming the right to self-identify is a great feeling for someone who's been stuck being a "white person" in the U.S. all her life.

Mainly, it's the relief of feeling visible. For so long I've projected the burden of otherness, of having a race at all, onto others, as if my mix of ethnic origins somehow matters less than that of someone who could be labelled "of color." The difference came to me with a thud when, after i finished speaking, one of our students--the New York based poet Cheryl Boyce Taylor, originally from Trinidad--looked at me and, for the first time, "saw" me. Cheryl was sitting opposite me in our circular discussion, and she looked right at me and said, "Annie, I never knew you felt that way, about being Scottish, and being a woman." We looked at each other, human to human, for a blessed minute, balancing our particular individual backgrounds. How much richer, more alive, and lighter I felt than I had felt ten minutes earlier. I realized that for my entire life I have accepted the feeling--a kind of shame, I think-- that I would simply never have an ethnicity I cared about, and the right to choose to identify with it. I anticipated nothing but the generic mask of "whiteness" that so many of us stumble behind in this country.

When I named my strange first book The Encyclopedia of Scotland, I did so with great irony, thinking of the name as a kind of existential pun ("scot" means "debt," as in the phrase "scot-free") on my heavily indebted economic, spiritual, and aesthetic coming of age. And yet there was some hope and innocence in the act as well. The punk 20-something culture underlying that book was characterized largely by the yearning to be part of a "tribe"--a yearning that now seems to me clearly a response to the racial sructure of this country at the time.

I knew, even then, that "whiteness" doesn't do my soul any good. I much prefer feeling like a Scottish American. It led me to wear a skirt made of my favorite tartan (Blackwatch) to the Stonecoast community reading in celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday, and to make a fool of myself singing "My Luv is LIke a Red, Red Rose" during our "Follies" talent show. It brings up wonderful memories of a trip to Galloway with my mother to look at graveyards (one of them the topic of my poem "For Grizzel McNaught" in EVE), when the cab driver who was ferrying us between villages invited us to a village Robby Burns celebration that turned out to be one of the funnest parties of my entire life.

Fully acknowledging that the free choice to identify with one of my white ethnicities--unlike with my gender-- is a great luxury that people of color do not share, one reason I choose to identify with Scottishness right now is simply that it's more fun. Scottishness feels culturally "realer" to me than English or Frenchness. It's more of a folk culture, I guess. There's the distinctive food, the distinctive music, the distinctive dance, and most of all, the national poet. The idea of a national poet of England, or France, doesn't make much sense--but Robbie Burns is the kind of poet who links together a culture. It's hard to imagine the Scottish Nationalist movement without him; he's one of the great examples of the crucial role of poetry in national identity—right up there with Finland's Kalevala

So Happy Robby Burns Day. Here's a present, a ditty by my national poet on my mother's side, one that she used to sing to me, and that I used to sing my own children to sleep with:

Flow gently, sweet Afton,
amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, I'll sing thee
a song in thy praise;
My Mary's asleep
by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton,
disturb not her dream.

Thou stock dove whose echo
resounds thro' the glen,
Ye wild whistly blackbirds
in yon thorny den,
Thou green crested lapwing
thy screaming forbear,
I charge you, disturb not
my slumbering fair.

How lofty, sweet Afton,
thy neighboring hills,
Far mark'd with the courses
of clear winding rills;
There daily I wander
as noon rises high,
My flocks and my Mary's
sweet cot in my eye.

How pleasant thy banks
and green valleys below,
Where, wild in the woodlands,
the primroses blow;
There oft, as mild evening
weeps over the lea,
The sweet-scented birk shades
my Mary and me.

Thy crystal stream, Afton,
how lovely it glides,
And winds by the cot where
my Mary resides;
How wanton thy waters
her snowy feet lave,
As, gathering sweet flowerets,
she stems thy clear wave.

Flow gently, sweet Afton,
amang thy green braes,
Flow gently, sweet river,
the theme of my lays;
My Mary's asleep
by thy murmuring stream,
Flow gently, sweet Afton,
disturb not her dreams.


Anonymous said...

Hello Annie:
Thanks for these thoughts on your Scottish identity and for the song/poem. Having recently been to Ireland and re-connected to my Irish tribe of cousins, I can relate to the tribal primal feelings you describe here. With Scottish blood in both our families, my husband and I once attended 'Scottish games,' where the most memorable sport was called 'hurling' and involved hurling huge logs of wood as far as possible. My husband is also a big fan of the rhyming Scottish tradition of 'scurling,' as in the haunting yet stirring scurling of a bagpipe...

Annie Finch said...

Elizabeth--thanks and good to see you here! And now I'm so curious to learn more about the rhyming tradition of scurling...! Is it a verbal art?

Annie Finch said...

And speaking of Scotland, I MUST add here these remarks on Boswell's Tour of the Hebrides sent by my cousin, Charlie Finch over at

Boswell's "Tour of the Hebrides" (which I have read ten times, at least) is one of the great comic works in all literature, the equal of "Tristram Shandy" and "Candide". It was seriously expanded in the 1930s by the Yale team headed by Frederick Pottle, after the miraculous discovery of Boswell's papers in Maldehide Castle. It is a touching account of the extreme poverty in which the Scottish gentry lived 225 years ago and its comic elements arise from a number of unlikely juxtapositions: that of the stout, elderly Johnson with the rough landscape; Johnson's slowly abandoned prejudice against Scotland pitted against the respect and hospitality of those who welcome him; the Scotch love of their own myths versus Sam's desire to expose the Ossian poems as a fraud; and the peculiarities of Scottish cuisine and drink versus the sophisticated London tastes of the book's two principals. Foremost in the literary topography of the book is the role of women in the Scottish aristocracy; in a word, they are dominant, both as personalities and preservers of tradition. Secondarily manifest is the route of the journey itself which proceeds north and west into wilder terrain, culminating in a terrifying boat trip, in the midst of a storm, to the Isle of Skye. As the journey becomes rougher, the talismans and monuments of past lives encountered, these runes, achieve a nobility as the locals use them as a starting point to recount their clannish history. The whole effect of the book (and I recommend procuring an old hard cover from the Yale UP, can be had for fifteen dollars at the Strand, because the maps, fonts and notes are superb) is to establish the Scotch as a kind of grand jungle of (here's that word) white people, conjuring up a majestic past and present out of dry soil and rock. . . one of the running jokes in the book is the proposition "there are no trees in Scotland" by Johnson, with his hosts pointing at some poor shrub to refute him and eliciting many a guffaw, so that Scotland is a jungle of air . . .

Annie Finch said...

It's hard to remember now all the fuss about Irishness and Scottishness as compared to Englishness, and what that meant in terms of class and privilege and marginalization and political power, not too many decades ago now. . . the Irish emigrating to the US even in the 18th century as servants for the English settlers; my father's continual teasing of my mother as a "coarse tink" because of her Scottish ancestry. I recall an African American writer talking with me after one of the first sessions of the Writing About Race workshop at Stonecoast, genuinely surprised at a story of terrible cruelty and prejudice towards Irishness. "Why was it such a big deal? They were all white," he said. Why such a big deal indeed. But it was.

Another Stonecoast faculty member, from India, remarked to me just last week: "People will always find differences to make a big deal out of, because difference and conflict makes life interesting. If we were all the same race and ethnicity, we would do it about height, or something else."

Difference, perhaps. But hopefully without the cruelty.

Anonymous said...

Momus, whose blog is just winding up--but will remain archived-- (, has many meditations which intersect with his sense of "post-modern Scottishness".

I think the future belongs to something i call Voluntary Ethnicity, but that may lose out to the forces of social contraction, in the end...


Anonymous said...

About the Irishness, in many families here the memory of a time when an Irish dock worker was positioned under the cotton bale rather than risk the life of a valuable slave is still a fresh memory. Complicated, this history.

My son, a budding linguist, just told me that in Scottish there is no present tense, except for the verb "to be" (which brought me back to this old post). There's a deep metaphor there. A rich heritage to celebrate, no doubt. Good for you. (BTW, I love blackwatch, too. Isn't it darkly gorgeous?)