April 25, 2007
Lisa D. Chávez, “The White Professor Holds Forth on Indians”
The White Professor Holds Forth on Indians
Wind breathes the snow horizontal,
flakes like scraps of paper ripped
in fury from the pages of a book.
All semester he has droned on, voice
arrogant and incessant as the thrum
of the fluorescent lights. She watches the snow,
watches herself grow silent, diminished
by his onslaught of words. “Our culture,”
he says, hearkening back to Europe’s clattering
shores. “Our culture,” he says, meaning his,
as if he does not see the darker faces
on the fringes of the class, the studious
young black man taking notes, the Asian girl
toying with her field hockey stick,
and her. All unseen, as if these ivy-choked
structures could contain only one color.
His words are a river. She is battered
along from rapid to rock to deceptive
calm. He is not an evil man.
He is the Native American specialist.
What he doesn’t understand makes her gasp.
He turns all she knows strange. Her own life
made exotic, a painted trinket turned out
for tourists. And the world he takes for granted
is foreign to her, a chambered nautilus of chilly
rooms lush with the rustle of certainty
and paper money. She has never been
so lost before.
And then a tiny miracle, tossed like coins
to a beggar’s cup. He switches on a tape
and a woman’s voice struggles through
the static of years. The song, in a language
unknown but familiar, rises like a flutter
of beautiful brown moths. Sitting there,
she can picture the singer, long dead
but resurrected: brown face finely
wrinkled as an autumn leaf, twin
gray braids, the familiar Indian body—
short, sturdy, thick-waisted. She thinks
of her own grandmother: smell of wood smoke
and home-tanned moose hide, fry bread
and Labrador tea. Her brown hands
grip the desk in longing. And she swims
into the song like a salmon fighting
its way upstream—a muscled sleeve
of silver scales slipping through the net.
–Lisa D. Chávez, 2001