“One Man’s … is Another Man’s…”
One dark night in October of 2018, Joseph Morales and Jose Bosch ambled home after a night of birthday celebrations. Morales came upon a cardboard box lying on the sidewalk and senselessly kicked it thinking it was trash. Joseph Matos, 57 at the time, had been soundly sleeping inside this cardboard construction which he painstakingly assembled by piecing boxes together on the east side of Manhattan. Alarmed, he grabbed his knife and sprung from his domicile to confront the pair. It did not go well, and before the night was over, Morales and Bosch suffered stab wounds to the back, shoulder, and eye.
While this story does not end as tragically as it could have, it is causing a buzz in the legal world because Mr. Matos is refusing a plea bargain in his assault charges, for which he faces up to 22 years in prison, and is rather invoking New York State’s “castle doctrine” which, given the name of the doctrine, is an antiquated law in which homeowners are granted a justifiable allowance of violence if they feel threatened when an intruder has come upon their home. The sticking point in a case like this is whether or not a cardboard box is a castle. Clearly, refuge is a matter of perspective.
I applied to Bread Loaf on a bit of a whim. I had been dabbling in writing for most of my life, and after a writer friend attended the writers’ conference here, I seized the opportunity to apply for a scholarship. The entire process has been quite humbling, from the moment I received my acceptance call, to the moment I had my first writing workshop. I have used the phrase “deer in headlights” many times because, especially due to my mask, this is the only distinguishable feature on my face. I have never considered myself a writer, and I have never even formally studied English literature; I was a French major with professional licenses in ESL and Library Science.
To me, the most striking feature of Bread Loaf is the color of the loaf. Admittedly, I looked for the wheat bread or even potato bread versions of the Bread Loaf sticker at the bookstore, and only the glorious Wonder Bread variety shone on the $5 decal. I wanted to be open to the experience, however, so I put on my white-adjacent cap and did my best to conjure up camaraderie. I had had some inklings before arriving on the mountain. I am living off-campus, so I had to look into housing. I did this early and with my jaw dropped open. $25,000 for an average home for six weeks. My only affordable option was a converted railroad car with an outhouse which I could rent for three times the price of my apartment in New York City. The inevitable “Get Out” analogies started to push into my brain which I actively escorted out.
I may not have spoken the first week in one of my classes. I was overwhelmed by being the only apparent person of color. I have been in this place before, but not since I was a young immigrant growing up in the distant suburbs of Chicago. When kids used to taunt me on the playground by calling me “Chinese, Japanese, dirty ‘nese,” all I could do was to retort that I was neither, that I was in fact Korean. This was just as well because it stopped the taunts as they scratched their heads and sneered, “What’s that?”
I, like many Americans, am still living in the post-trauma of 2020. In a harshly divided “post-racial” America, I am no longer allowed to be colorblind because no one sees me that way either. At work, I retreated to race-based affinity groups following the extensive Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives that plagued America, and then simply retreated from white people period after they decided that three years was too long to be talking about the same problem. This year, when I brought up the fact that the last statement made by a person of color in our affinity group was “I do not feel safe here [in our workplace]” as a suggestion for things to work on, my white boss told me that this was a marginal note and that no one else had brought this up, so we would be focusing on the grading policy instead; nevermind the fact that the grading policy was under dispute because many educators of color felt that white staff had resorted to pity and the bigotry of low expectations in their grading.
Being in this space, I had to examine my ability to function in a white-dominant world. I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I considered changing classes to one taught by a person of color. I involuntarily said “hi” to every person of color I saw. I sized up each piece I was about to read aloud or each comment I was about to share to see how it would function under the white gaze. In a word, it was exhausting. It wasn’t until we sat down in the barn in our second week, three classes combined, for the Curriculum for Change super meeting, that I was finally able to name it, and for me, it was thankfully a white classmate who identified it. We were speaking in small groups about identity, and she said, “I think we need to talk about the whiteness of this space. I’m white, but I feel my whiteness in a way like no other when I’m here. It’s very strange.” We went on to talk about how all of us were flailing in this lack of diversity, and that there was a definite elephant in the room. In fact, we weren’t even sure what the goal of this Curriculum for Change was — change implies a state before and a state after, but were we even talking about the same conditions?
Then came the pond reading. I’ve been fortunate enough to befriend some seniors in my literature class who have helped me get a grasp on the foundations and lore of Bread Loaf. In describing the pond reading, they both explained and commented on the cultish traditions that constituted this ritual. A girl. A tree. Sexual innuendo. A white man’s children’s story. Got it. But like I said, I was here to be open, so I decided to jump in fully and completely. I was thankful for the Cliff Notes I had received on the pond reading because the first portion was indeed head-scratching. Obviously, as a first-year student, I would miss the inside jokes regarding staff and culture, but even the singalong was hard. Though I’ve been in America for over 40 years, being white-adjacent means that you only get to mumble the lines to those good ol’ American tunes, which I could definitely hum. Still, I hoped that in the glow of the firelight, no one would make a point to see my lips stumbling alongside the song.
There had been some buzz on a text thread from the people of color group chat that tonight’s pond reading would be special, so I felt a significance in this being my first pond reading altogether. When Dr. Michelle Robinson began dancing onto the stage, my false smile cracked. Here was something I recognized. At the end of week one, I texted my girls back in New York about the weirdness of this place. My Black friend wrote, “Why are you even there??” And it was in this moment, the question was answered. Michelle spoke truth into the night as she pointedly named this was a reading for our Black Bread Loafers, and a way to understand how they might be feeling in a space like this. Then, she sang Zora Neale Hurston and Alice Walker into the night air and let it lift into the embers that wafted heavenward. A defining moment.
I had a chance to catch up with my friend who attended The Bread Loaf Writers Conference the year they ended their “wait scholar” program. Basically, selected writers could attend the conference tuition-free provided they served on the wait staff in the cafeteria. This, too, was mired in tradition as wait staff were often given names and were traditionally asked to perform for the dinner crowd as a sort of ritualistic hazing. She had not heard of a pond reading as the two programs we were in were distinct, but the themes were the same. She pointed me to Jean Ho’s searing essay, “Getting Along Shouldn’t Be an Ambition” in which she describes the open sexism and racism she experienced while on the wait scholar program. Even the mere optics of young writers of color primarily serving older white writers did not bode well.
So where does this leave us? I think it’s clear that we have a problem deeper than optics at Bread Loaf. It’s part of a larger narrative for sure, but as we have clamored to this mountaintop, it’s clear that whispering among the pines is serving no one. Naming it is the first step. So here’s what I want to name. Before Joseph Battell purchased this land, before purchasing land was a thing, these were the sacred lands of the Wabanaki Dawnland Confederacy — an amalgamation of nations stewarded by the Abenaki, the Mi’kmaq, the Penawapskewi, the Postomuhukati, and the Wolastoqiyik nations. That if anything, we at Bread Loaf have a greater call to rise above the myopia of this nation that thinks the narrative begins with the creations of its white ancestry. We should name the fact that I can count the number of people of color on this campus on my fingers and toes, and that this lack of diversity is a disservice to us all. We should name that if indeed we want to “change,” we need to examine this supposed refuge and make sure we understand who we are first, because no one can deny that this space is a unique treasure, but there has to be a reason that on some days, my first instinct after class is to run and jump into my car to drive to a refuge which is decidedly away from this glorious mountaintop.