Perusing Poetics: You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ’til it’s Gone

“A degree from UC Berkeley will never change the fact that I cannot understand my grandfather when he asks for more coffee” – Esther G. Belin

This isn’t actually a quote from the direct reading this week, which was selections from Genocide of the Mind, but its the one that connects most directly to what I want to talk about, so here we go!

I’ve discussed before that I’m a grandchild of immigrant grandparents. They came from Germany after World War II. They had two daughters at the time, but my dad was born after they landed in New Jersey. He grew up speaking German, but he didn’t live in the country himself. I’m told his New Jersey-German accent was something to behold, though. (He sadly doesn’t have that anymore. Now he just can’t say “Mississippi” right.)

Actual things I did in “school”

My mom’s family was also of German descent, but a way long time ago. She was still super into the culture, though, and I’m pretty sure she’s actually the reason me and my brothers have such super German names and also were put into a Waldorf school to, among other things, learn German.

I grew up being babysat by my Omi and Opa, and as a result my German teachers would tell me I didn’t have an American accent. I had started saying the guttural German sounds so young that they came naturally and I didn’t have to reshape my mouth for them. I spoke German pretty okay for a while, but then I had to switch schools and got put into Spanish–and stopped learning German. I lost a lot of the ability I had learned to string together my own sentences. I had the sounds but not the speech.

Now, right here this story could take an uplifting turn where I say, “And in order to honor my Omi (read: make her stop yelling at me about forgetting my heritage), I picked up German again and am now fluent,” but it doesn’t. But the important thing is that it COULD. The fact that I don’t speak German is self-inflicted, not societally inflicted.

That is what struck me so strongly about the Genocide of the Mind readings. It’s never comfortable to be reminded of your own privilege, but it’s a damn good thing. My Omi is still with me, but when she isn’t, German won’t be lost to be. It will be there, accessible to me, in as many different forms as I want it. I can watch German films, listen to German music, read German books. I CAN.

No, I’m not saying anything that isn’t common sense. I know that. But that’s also why I consistently am staggered by comments like Carol Snow Moon Bachofner being told that her Native American recuperation attempts is her “little Native American project” (146). It well and truly is a “cultural genocide” that not many people see besides those that are being gutted from the inside out (146). It will not be seen until someone realizes some profit is being lost unless things are radically changed.

They need to be changed.

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