Discussion of "The Gift Outright"
A Poem by the Pulitzer-Winning Poet
Conversations with Kam, Mackie,
The first inaugural poet, Robert Frost, recited “The
Gift Outright” for John F. Kennedy in 1961.
|The Gift Outright
By Robert Frost
The land was ours before we were
She was our land more than a
Before we were her people. She was
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still
Possessing what we still were
Possessed by what we now no more
Something we were withholding made
Until we found out that it was
We were withholding from our land
And forthwith found salvation in
Such as we were we gave ourselves
(The deed of gift was many deeds
To the land vaguely realizing
But still unstoried, artless,
Such as she was, such as she would become
Responses to "The Gift Outright"
Rudy: Do you think this poem is
Damn skippy . . . Who was here before those explorers,
debtors from prisons, indentured servants and slave
Kam: Yes, Guthrie-esque before Woody's
This land is your land, this land is my land... The Israelis
have the same attitude about Israel. Jewish kids, even in this
country are taught to recite a poem from a young age about how
the land was empty and given to them by God. The same way white
South Africans swear no blacks lived on the land before their
Mackie: Absolutely not. Just the
opposite. It encourages developing a long look away from
Europe. It is, however, a blind, perhaps witless,
extolling and praise of American imperialism and colonialism.
Let's face it, "Americans" did colonize Amerindians.
The First People of this land. The poem is white-skinned,
Americo-centric. I think that's what you sensing about
this "poem". Mistah Chaahlee-centric.
Rudy: I think your assessment is
accurate. The poem is to a slight degree anti-Eurocentric in its
first half. For it calls for a new nationalism, American rather
than British. The last four lines are exceedingly troubling:
"(The deed of gift was many deeds of war) / To the land
vaguely realizing westward, / But still unstoried, artless,
unenhanced, / Such as she was, such as she would become."
Of course none dare call Frost "racist."
Maybe we need indeed to develop new terms to describe the
consciousness that produced the poem. Clearly, we cannot place
Frost in the same category as America's white lower middle
classes, the so-called "Silent Majority." His attitude
toward nonwhites, I suspect, is much more sophisticated, though
"witless": "The deed of gift was many deeds of
war." Here he seems to glorify conquest (of the Indians,
the Mexicans, and the Spanish).
There seems a total absence of the Negro
altogether. Maybe that is what Ellison was responding to when he
spoke of "invisible men." They are there but their
presence is insignificant. Some might say we ask too much of a
Kam: I agree, but I feel like I
understand those lines: "manifest destiny."
Rudy: I wonder what comes to mind when
politicians speak blithely of the "American people."
It is very narrow in its conceptualization in the imagination of
most white Americans, I suspect. It is not altogether that
different from Robert Frost's blind conceptualization in this
poem "The Gift Outright." It's probably not
"overt" but so much a fabric of American society that
it becomes the natural state of things. Are you
familiar with Ronald Walters' White
Nationalism, Black Interests.
Jerry: Rudy, I do like the phrase you
used—blind conceptualization. It fits Frost well. The
poem also has a peculiar significance in 2005 as land
developers blindly conceptualize progress (profits) by
appropriating the property (or trying to) of displaced tsunami
victims in Asia. And we know very well what is in the
planning for New Orleans. Thanks for giving me a new way
of using Frost to communicate lessons about appropriation to
students. Frost was following in the tradition of Shakespeare's The
Rudy: Yes, I saw the evening news and
some Indonesian fishermen were talking about the results of the
tsunami and how developers and the government were coming in
seizing their land and that there was nothing that could be done
about it but concede. I also remember Shakespeare’s Caliban.
Frost recited the poem on Meet the
Press, initially 50 years ago, and they showed it again last
Sunday and so I went online to find the full poem.
As far as New Orleans, there are indeed
elites in New Orleans that feel Katrina gave them a “gift
outright,” a New Orleans without the wrong kind of Negroes.
Thanks for reminding me that the poem is indeed relevant to the
New Orleans situation.
Floyd: Rudy, it is precisely because
of commentary like that found in Robert Frost's poem that I
often question quite critically Blacks folks' employment of
"we" when discussing aspects of American society, as,
for example, the way Cornel West does in his latest book,
Democracy Matters. Who is this "we"
and are we as Black people actually a part of the conversation?
There are other instances in which generalizations are made.
Last semester, a Black student in my bebop course wrote that
Billie Holiday was hardly accepted by Americans except as a
singer. I asked the student: "Accepted by whom?
Black people loved Lady Day.
Who gives a damn whether whites valued her?"
We need to break the supposed connection
between rightness and whiteness!
posted 28 December 2005
* * *
Lee Frost, b. San Francisco, Mar. 26, 1874, d. Boston,
Jan. 29, 1963, was one of America's leading 20th-century poets
and a four-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize. An essentially
pastoral poet often associated with rural New England, Frost
wrote poems whose philosophical dimensions transcend any region.
Although his verse forms are traditional—he often said, in a
dig at archrival Carl Sandburg, that he would as soon play
tennis without a net as write free verse—he was a pioneer in
the interplay of rhythm and meter and in the poetic use of the
vocabulary and inflections of everyday speech. His poetry is
thus both traditional and experimental, regional and universal.
The Katrina Papers a Journal of Trauma and Recovery
By Jerry W.
The Katrina Papers is not your
average memoir. It is a fusion of many kinds of
writing, including intellectual autobiography,
personal narrative, political/cultural analysis,
spiritual journal, literary history, and poetry.
Though it is the record of one man's experience of
Hurricane Katrina, it is a record that is fully a
part of his life and work as a scholar, political
activist, and professor. The Katrina Papers
provides space not only for the traumatic events but
also for ruminations on authors such as Richard
Wright and theorists like Deleuze and Guattarri. The
result is a complex though thoroughly accessible
book. The struggle with form—the search for a
medium proper to the complex social, personal, and
political ramifications of an event unprecedented in
this scholar's life and in American social history—lies at the very heart of The Katrina Papers. It
depicts an enigmatic and multi-stranded world view
which takes the local as its nexus for understanding
the global. It resists the temptation to simplify
or clarify when simplification and clarification are
not possible. Ward's narrative is, at times, very
direct, but he always refuses to simplify the
complex emotional and spiritual volatility of the
process and the historical moment that he is
witnessing. The end result is an honesty that is
both pedagogical and inspiring.—Hank Lazer
The Katrina Papers, by Jerry W.
Ward, Jr. $18.95
* * *
* * *
Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in
By Melissa V.
According to the
author, this society has historically exerted
considerable pressure on black females to fit into one
of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the
Matriarch or the Jezebel. The selfless
Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to
white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of
those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the
relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable
temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as
an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the
characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television
shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.
points out how the propagation of these harmful myths
have served the mainstream culture well. For instance,
the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for
black females to feel a maternal instinct towards
As for the source
of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their
own bodies during slavery given that they were being
auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless,
it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate
the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate
* * *
Sex at the Margins
Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
By Laura María Agustín
This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London
updated 26 December 2006