Displacement in America and Art

From the inception of America, displacement has been a rampant force that has affected our citizens. Our country was founded by people that were uprooted from their original homes in Europe and forced to attempt to create a new space for themselves. Most Americans today, while born in America, had ancestors that were from Europe who immigrated to America in the late 16th century and 17th century. Despite not having many written accounts of this time to truly know what the early American colonists were feeling, it is very easy to assume that they were burdened with feelings of loneliness and loss in their new environment. Although the original colonists were dislocated from their European homelands and knew the negative feelings that this produced, once they reached America they continued to displace others, the natives, from their homelands.

Ever since the European immigrants came into contact with the native tribes that resided on the American continent, the tribes have been killed, jeered at, commoditized, and forced off of their lands all in the name of the creation of a new nation. In America, they were the first to be displaced, and their displacement was inevitable given the mindset of the colonists and early settlers who wanted to build a new nation on their ancestral lands. We forced the native tribes off of their lands and removed them from their physical homelands. But we took it a step further; we displaced them from their culture and forced them to abandon their traditions and beliefs in favor of our newly developing ones. The call in the 19th century became either “extermination or assimilation;” either we were going to eradicate the native tribes for want of their land, or we were going to physically remove them from it and force them to adopt our new beliefs and traditions.

This displacement and treatment of the Native tribes can be clearly seen in some of the art produced by the Native tribes during the 19th century. Cohoe was a prisoner at Fort Marion after a battle between his tribe, the Cheyenne, and the Americans and he produced several pencil drawings of different aspects of life at the fort. These pencil drawings present how the native warriors were forced off of their homelands and were being forced to adapt to the new “American” culture. Cohoe’s drawing Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists is a prime example of the treatment of Natives by the Americans (Figure 1). The image is a rather crude image of a group of native prisoners dancing; surrounding the dancing natives are modernly dressed American tourists who are being entertained by the dancing. Cohoe, in depicting a normal event that occurred at the fort, was in reality trying to comment on how him and his people were not only physically removed and displaced from their homes, but their cultures and traditions were no longer their own and were turned into a commodity to be consumed by the civilized Americans. Their tribes’ traditions of dances and other ceremonies were turned into a form of entertainment for the Americans.

Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists

Figure 1: Fort Marion Prisoners Dancing for Tourists, Cohoe, Cheyenne, 1875-1877, pencil and colored pencil on paper. Credit: University of Nebraska-Lincoln Digital Library

Another example of this displacement can be seen in a photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston titled Class in American History (Figure 2). As a photograph, this image is irrefutable evidence of how the natives were removed from their homes and cultures. The photograph shows a group of native children in a modern classroom being shown a grown native man dressed in traditional warrior’s clothes. The children are dressed not in their native and customary clothing, but are dressed in contemporary European clothes and their hair has been cut short. They have literally been stripped of their culture and are now being forced to look on it as “history,” rather than as a part of who they are. The older native man is dressed in his tribe’s traditional warrior’s garb, but is essentially not being honored the way he would have been in his own tribe. He, like his tribe and the whole Native American culture, has been turned into a teaching tool, a museum artifact, an item of the past that is used not to honor the culture it represents, but to educate and, more or less brainwash the younger generations into seeing their cultures as inferior to America’s and therefore assimilate easier into it.

Class in American History

Figure 2: Class in American History, Frances Benjamin Johnston, 1899-1900, photograph. Credit: Artnet

Despite what some Americans would say, America was built, founded, and expanded to the detriment and displacement of others, specifically the Native tribes. This action is still extremely prevalent in the country, and as a nation we need to acknowledge how deeply seeded it is in our country; we need to look at history and the images that recorded it, in order to move away and stop removing people from their cultures and homes.

By: Erin Rothweiler

Dissecting the Imagined Past


Credit: Pixabay

When I read a poem, the first thing I look for is strong and impactful imagery, something that captures my imagination and runs away with it. Kenyon Review’s latest online edition, The Poetics of Science, Laura Kolbe’s poem “Dissecting Blade” gripped my imagination tight and did just that. With a strong sense of how childhood can affect a writer in the present day through the opening “Every past-less child has a favorite false world,” I began to reflect on my own past and how it might have shaped my writing.

Right from the beginning, I’m carried off into the lands of make-believe that I traversed through my childhood, playing the hero wielding a sword of justice. The rich history Kolbe evokes, calling upon ancient Greece to more European trappings pulls me deep into the poem with lines such as “the violence of knights, or of more ancient men crouched/on dark heaths or Greek coasts,” drawing me away from the outside world. This displacement from reality is only temporary though, as the last stanza instigates a real world setting where the victorious sword is a scalpel, a weapon that can teach, a multipurpose tool.

Kolbe’s manipulation of imagery yanked me into her poem headfirst and had me back in time when I was in my own “favorite false world,” shifting me out of my current reality. Much like Silk Road’s upcoming issue on displacement in its variety of forms, Kolbe uses the concept of displacement as a nostalgic tool. The narrator is separated from their present and drawn into their childhood dreams to better illustrate the importance of their skills with the modern-day blade, a scalpel. Moreover, the phrasing of “every past-less child” signifies an even stronger sense of displacement from both the past and the present. It shifts the reader and the narrator from the present into a more imaginary past through the strong imagery and symbolism of a sword, which Kolbe uses to effectively invoke both a strength of will with the present occupation and the desire for something more. This desire for more stems from the “past-less” childhood and the idea of the imaginary realm which gives a “holy” sense to wielding the scalpel in the present. The idea of donning “the bridle and the robe” roughly mimics both a knight readying for battle as well as a priest readying for a sermon. These images then illustrate how dynamic and fluid the imagination can be, especially when relating it to Kolbe’s studies in medicine. And while the “sunless dream-light of the lab” isn’t the battle fervor setting of the past, it is still something that the narrator and reader can cling to and find immense meaning in.

For me, reading Kolbe’s poem opened quite a few doors into my own childhood and how the imaginary battles to save my kingdom relate to my current path as a writer. While I still look to the past and the worlds I created, my writing now looks towards all the possibilities in future fictional worlds and how they could affect me later. And while I may not wield a scalpel like a sword, my pens and pencils attempt that level of precision and mastery on the page.

By: Gillian Reimann

Their Struggle, My Future

Su Family Photo

Credit: Kimberly Su

I am the child of refugees.

And being the child of refugees carries more weight than anyone could ever realize. My parents both struggled in their lives to come to America, to escape the hellish environment of their beloved home country. They fled to to a country that had promised help their homeland, only to watch from the sidelines as their new home withdrew from the war and left a mess behind. My parents were refugees of the Vietnam War.

Children of refugees are constantly told about the struggles that their parents went through to give them the life they have. I can’t describe how many times my parents scolded me for wasting precious moments of my privileged life, as if I didn’t understand what their hardships were worth. It’s sad to say, but as a kid, I really didn’t. I remember one day, sitting and staring out the window, watching the bright, California sun. I wanted to be out there, playing in the grass of the front lawn instead of being inside doing multiplication tables.

I whined my head off to my parents. My mom scolded me fiercely for taking my life for granted. She would go on about how I was lucky to have this free time to focus on my studies. I never understood why she felt so strongly about those multiplication tables. I can still hear her scolding me–in a voice full of anger, frustration, and a hint of wisdom–tell me time and time again about her own childhood. How she barely had time to study because she had to arrive home from school and immediately clean the house, cook meals, help her four younger siblings, and every other chore my somewhat absent grandparents doled out to her.

Getting older and going to college teaches you to appreciate so many things. As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to understand so much more of my family’s history. I’m a first generation American, and although my dad went to college in the U.S., he had to supplement school with numerous jobs: working at a library, in a mailroom, as a janitor, as a tutor, and other meagerly-paid jobs. He told me stories of endless lunches of cheap white bread sandwiches with cheap off-brand mayo. Stories of wearing shirts until they practically fell off his body before buying new ones from Ross clearance racks. Stories of living with eight other people in an apartment made for two, so as to avoid paying on-campus housing. My dad got a good education in computer engineering around the time the field started picking up in popularity so he could help his parents and sisters. He worked hard every day of his life and saved every piece of spare change in a water jug since the day he left his home in Vietnam. He wanted to create a future that would be better than the life he was living.

My mom was no different. She couldn’t get a college education due to finances, so she worked a cubicle job at a company that made computer chips. A dead end job of long hours and taking plenty of overtime so she could save for the future of my brother and I. Growing up I rarely saw my mom, as she left home early in the morning and didn’t return until well after eight or nine at night, often working during the weekends. I vividly remember hearing her car start up at five, staring out the window to watch her leave for work. I remember thinking, “Why is Mommy leaving without saying goodbye again?” Well now I know the answer. It’s because she wanted to make sure I could get a good education, so I’d never have to face the same difficulty when I had my own child.

Ever since my junior year of high school, around the time I started to look for colleges, an anxious terror has taken over a part of my mind. A fear that grows every day and makes me reevaluate every little detail of my life. I sit in class, in my room, and everywhere in between, feeling the fear sink its claws deeper into my mind.

It asks, “Are you doing enough for them? Is this the best you can be?”

After all my parents went through, I am currently attending college for free. My parents are paying for the entirety of my education. That knowledge is terrifying. I am constantly afraid that I will not honor my parents’ hardships and struggles. That if I choose wrong then I might render their sacrifice worthless.

I don’t know if what I’m doing in college is truly honoring what my parents had to struggle through to get me this life. I’d like to think that as long as I make the best of the life I have, I am doing them justice. If I take pride and make sure I have no regrets at the end of the day, I am on the right path. Maybe that’s good enough and maybe it isn’t. I can never really know, but I can always keep trying.

I’m lucky enough to get that option.

By: Kimberly Su