History is a story God is telling,
by means of hidden meanings written closely
inside the skins of things.
—William Stafford, “Sophocles Says“
William Stafford (1914–1993) was an American writer, professor, and 1971 poet laureate. He taught composition and literature at Lewis and Clark College, where he developed a pedagogy of open engagement—of being a listener-reader, as he called it.
Stafford sought “hidden meanings” through a disposition of receptivity and a daily practice of early-morning writing. Listening, waiting, and expectation thrum through Stafford’s work. The world is waiting to be understood, not quantified or even qualified. Rather, the world is waiting to be met in its integrity. In order to cultivate his capacity to listen, Stafford awoke before dawn. In “Writing the Australian Crawl,” Stafford describes his process: “When I write, I like to have an interval before me when I am not likely to be interrupted. For me, this means usually the early morning, before others are awake. I get pen and paper, take a glance out of the window (often its dark out there), and wait. It is like fishing. But I do not wait very long, for there is always a nibble—and this is where receptivity comes in.”
I chanced upon Stafford’s writing last year. In research about the history of teaching, references to Stafford grabbed my attention. So I followed him—through most of his essays and much of his poetry. His Quaker-like moral reasoning was familiar, because I had just finished a project about Bayard Rustin. I was inspired by Stafford’s conviction about the intellectual and ethical significance of listening. As a professor of social ethics, it seemed to me listening, as a moral commitment, was an apt description of what I aimed for in my teaching and research. And so I believe an ethical practice of listening is a way to approach the question at hand: Is this all there is?
Stafford began his habit of writing before dawn during his three and a half years in Civilian Public Service Camps during World War II. He was one of the twelve thousand conscientious objectors (COs) who were stationed around the country undertaking strenuous physical labor, such as building roads and fighting forest fires, often without pay. Stafford’s earliest publication was a memoir of his experiences as a CO, which frankly explored the lonely choice of refusing to participate in what almost every American agreed was a good war. As a CO, Stafford found that if he woke before breakfast, he had the time and stamina to listen and write.
Stafford’s writing practice, continued for fifty years, was always rooted in his nonviolence, his noncooperation with dominant moral and political traditions. Stafford’s CO service and his writing evince an ongoing process of self-reflection. In pacifism, Stafford lived out a commitment to internal transformation, learning about himself so that he could better engage ethically in the world. At first glance, Stafford’s solitary pre-dawn practice seems at odds with a robust worldly engagement. But to bracket the world was, paradoxically, a way for him to grasp his place in it. “I felt my morning writings as maintenance work or repair work on my integrity,” he once explained.
Stafford cultivated an equanimity to enable understanding and justice work: “I’m trying to locate . . . that condition of a being who is not distorted from the receptive, accurate encounter with experience.” In “Facing Up to the Job,” he employed a metaphor for what he wanted for himself and his students: “an individual’s intellect and emotions should be like a good seismograph: sensitive enough to register what happens but strong enough not to be wrecked by the first little things that happen . . . So I just try to get into the readiness and be receptive, not stampeded, not overly trustful.”
Stafford was not alone, of course, in recognizing the significance of listening for our shared moral and political life. For Ella Baker, listening was a democratic norm. Baker was among the greatest democratic practitioners of the last century. Listening is a theme in Barbara Ransby’s exemplary biography of Baker. From her earliest organizing in the 1930s, everywhere Baker went, she listened. In casual conversations, Baker, “a careful reflective listener [could] ascertain what those people, if organized, might be prepared to do politically.” Later, as an advisor to young activists in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Baker insisted SNCC organizers sit on porches for hours, spending weeks in a Mississippi Delta town so they might begin to understand people and the shapes of their lives—all this before official organizing work could begin.
Key for Baker’s sense of listening as a democratic norm, then, is to whom we listen. If we want to answer questions like “what epoch is this?” and “what is there to do now?” it matters whose insights we prioritize. For those of us who research and teach in universities, this concerns what and whom we write about, and how we teach. Some ways of teaching, some foci of study may get us closer to the “hidden meanings written closely/ inside the skins of things.” Stafford and Baker were not naïve that this is difficult work. Dominant patterns of social power make compelling cases for what is right and good, who is authoritative. These dominant patterns, as well as atrocity and violence in every corner of the world, can overwhelm us. We may never know “is this all there is,” but we can develop better answers with insight from better sources.
And yet, a greater likelihood is that many of us do not understand our own epoch. We cannot know what time it is, because we live in an “invented delusional world,” one of the many ways philosopher Charles Mills describes “white supremacy” as the “unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today.” Now twenty years old, Mills’s account in The Racial Contract gets more urgent by the day: we live in a “cognitive and moral economy” premised on “white misunderstanding, misrepresentation, evasion and self-deception.” For people like me, then, a white professor who researches and teaches, the work is to listen to many others who know more than I do, so that I learn to see myself more clearly and undertake work that is more just, that is accountable to my students and their humanity.
A truth is that systems—white supremacy, nationalism, neoliberalism, to name just three that have coalesced in deadly ways in the last decade—are too pervasive, too wretched to dent by listening and researching and teaching. Or so says the prevailing moral logic, which is itself a driver of our burgeoning crises.
James Baldwin knew about pervasive moral crisis, and he recognized there was nothing he could do. And yet. In “The Uses of the Blues,” Baldwin wrote, “people who in some sense know who they are can’t change the world always, but they can do something to make it a little more, to make life a little more human.” For “there is something a little funny in all our disasters,” Baldwin noticed, “if one can face the disaster. So that it’s this passionate detachment, this inwardness coupled with outwardness, this ability to know, all right, it’s a mess, and you can’t do anything about it . . . so, well, you have to do something about it.”