Language, parents, birthplace—we’re stuck with them, even as we move, even as they die, even as we learn new languages. To be born is to have a heritage, or inheritance, which often comes with a complicated mix of love and anguish. Becoming who we are depends on how we embrace, reject, make amends for, or transform that which is passed down to us. At least, that’s what I keep thinking as I spend time with this winter issue, dipping in and out of the pages, rereading the poems, hearing echoes across specific arguments and characters.
It’s not just Sean Hill’s essay examining how the Confederate battle flag figures into his own identity as a Black Southerner. Or Kirstin Allio’s story, whose protagonist inherited a fortune along with the literature of Flannery O’Connor. In both cases the question of what to do with these things—and what the next generation will do with them—comes marching up to the center. But throughout the poems, essays, and stories, and even the interview with playwright John Guare, I’m reminded of the power of what we’re born with in forging an identity. So much of what we get—luck and misfortune both—is unbidden and undeserved, but we have to step up to it nevertheless.
Hawaiian shirts, AA, Starbucks, and other distinctly American traditions come into play here, but the legacy of the American South seems to have a particular hold on this issue. See above, but also see Rosalie Moffett’s Murfreesboro, Molly Gallentine’s Lynchburg, and Gregory Johnson’s Knoxville, Tennessee, with the indelible smell of burning hog offal from the packinghouse where his father worked. The South doesn’t have any exclusive right to vivid and troubled birthplaces, though, not even in this issue. A long way up the Mississippi is Ben Miller’s equally potent Quad Cities, Iowa, and farther yet is Rohan Chhetri’s poem of a home “Downwind of a cremation ghat, incense / of another kind”—just to name a few.
Place but also parents—another birthright to be reckoned with, not just because of their inescapable DNA, but for what they teach us or fail to teach us. As the writers here make clear—Kathy Fagan, Dean Rader, Jan Beatty, so many of them—parents stick around, in photographs, memories, objects, and sometimes only as ghosts beyond the grave. Whether beloved and honored, or disowned and distanced, they are a part of who we are and might become. A most literal and direct kind of heritage.
There’s very little difference between the words “inheritance” and “heritage,” though the former more often implies something material, like a family fortune or estate passed down. Both encompass the immaterial—traditions, beliefs, history, literature—and my dictionary tells me that their common thread is the Medieval Latin “hērēditārius” (also found in “heir,” in “inherent”). Which reminds me of how the English language itself is a kind of legacy, as my dictionary’s own name—The American Heritage—might imply. It’s a language that comes with a lot of cultural baggage but also with a long-acquired richness. Every word has its own story, a combination of Latin, Middle and Old English, Old French, Germanic, and more, as it evolves, bringing along with it its own history of use and abuse.
No inheritance is unproblematic, nor is it a choice. Running away from and denying the things we’re given can be as powerful in identity forming as embracing them. “Despite erasure / the canvas [is] never blank,” says a poem by Dean Rader. There’s an undeniable power in one’s origin story, whether it’s a great source of pride and strength or even if almost nothing of it remains.
from NER 40.4 (2019)