In the summers, vines encroach upon a historical marker several miles from the Sewanee Review offices, threatening to hide a tribute to the Highlander Folk School. The folk school’s history resides in an equally-obscured part of the American memory, and I knew very little about its importance, despite the marker. Sewanee Professor and Highlander historian Emily Senefeld filled me in on the forgotten space. The school, she explained, was the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement: the Walcott sit-in at Greensboro, the Montgomery bus boycott, Citizenship Schools, and Pete Seeger’s rendition of “We Shall Overcome” grew out of the three-building operation in Grundy County, TN. “The Highlander Folk School was creating grassroots activism models decades before the most famous instances of the civil rights era,” she told me. Its existence first garnered loud dissent—billboards declared it a “Communist Training School;” state governments funded anti-Highlander newspapers; bomb threats poured in from across the nation. In 1961, however, anti-integrationists chose to silence, rather than to battle, the institution. Highlander Folk School lost its charter to trumped-up charges of illegal alcohol distribution, closed its doors in Grundy County, and moved to Knoxville under a new name. The land was seized by the state, then divided and sold, casting the original school—and its influence—into the furthest corners of the American memory. Only in recent years has the Folk School resurfaced in the American consciousness, largely aided by historians like Senefeld.
These stories came to mind when I began reading Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. Rankine’s National Book Critics Circle Award-winning collection combines photography, prose, and poetry into a single narrative of today’s racial climate, revealing the same discriminatory tactics that relegated the Folk School to historical silence. The racial injustices of the twenty-first century—profiling in stop-and-frisk practices, parodies of the black body in sports, and racially-charged murders—appear alongside photos of lynchings and William Turner’s painting, The Slave Ship, intimating that discrimination is interwoven with the black American experience. In Citizen, Rankine argues that silence is central to the perpetuation of racism; she notes that these injustices—which surprise the white Americans in her book—are merely status quo for African Americans. Differing reactions between white and black characters in her book reveal that the American political and the public sphere are largely deaf to or silent about overwhelming racial injustice. For Rankine, Citizen isn’t a list of grievances; it is an outcry against an invisible but imminent obliteration.
To Rankine, however, silence initially appears to be the only option afforded African Americans, lest their outcry be labeled “insane, crass, crazy” and ignored. In one telling example, Rankine writes that “there exists a medical term— John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the build up of erasure . . . You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.” But these responses are ultimately unacceptable to the poet. She argues that using silence to deny or move beyond America’s past is no means of ending the trauma of black oppression. Whether or not the resistance is by protest or other means, the American legacy of racism must be remembered, because, as she states, “[the past is] buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.” To ignore our present state, to turn from it and from the suffering of the past would be equivalent to placing the black experience, its struggles and its victories, back within the wilderness of silences, back to Appalachia with the once-unspoken legacy of Highlander Folk.