Author of ‘Admit One…’ a lyrical exploration of scientific racism
Martha Collins is the author, most recently, of Admit One: An American Scrapbook (Pittsburgh, 2016), Day Unto Day (Milkweed, 2014), White Papers (Pitt Poetry Series, 2012), and Blue Front (Graywolf, 2006), a book-length poem based on a lynching her father witnessed when he was five years old. Collins has also published four earlier collections of poems, three books of co-translations from the Vietnamese, and two chapbooks. I spoke with Martha Collins on my Somerville Community Access TV show Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer about her new poetry collection Admit One… that deals with the scientific racism of the early twentieth century, including the Eugenics Movement.
Doug Holder: You use as your starting point the St. Louis World’s Fair of 1904. Why?
Martha Collins: Because it was the starting point. (Laugh) I was thinking of it because it was a family story. My mother’s mother went to it when she was pregnant with my mother. My mom talked about it, although not from direct experience. I knew about the story for years. I heard about how the fair illuminated for its audience the wonderful scientific progress that was made at that time – the fake marble palaces, the splendor of it – but I also heard about the human exhibits. There were over 3,000 humans who were exhibited: Native Americans, Filipinos, Japanese, backwater African tribes, on display in their natural habitat. The “civilized” people could view them at a safe remove.
DH: Define scientific racism.
MC: It is a distortion of Darwinism. It became an even greater distortion as things moved to the Eugenics Movement. It is the belief that we (“civilized people”) evolved, and we are quite different (or superior) to primitive people, and it was “our” responsibility to foster the most “fit” human beings, and let the others not survive.
DH: This sounds like Nazi Germany.
MC: The interactions of Nazis and Eugenicist were many. Madison Grant was a major figure in this movement, with his book The Passing of the Great Race. Hitler owned the book and claimed it was his bible. The Eugenics Movement was very popular at the time of the World’s Fair. Eugenics courses were taught at over 300 colleges. People from the North– Nordic countries were considered the best of the white race, all others were inferior. There was a huge amount of anti-immigration sentiment, advocacy for the sterilization of “unfit” people, etc.
DH: Poet Kevin Gallagher, the author of the poetry collection Loom, wrote about how the Boston elite empowered slavery for their piece of the cotton trade. He told me he did a lot of research. A lot was from primary sources. Your poetry collection Blue Front dealt with the plight of the black man. How much research did you do?
MC: In Blue Front research became essential. This book was spurred on by my late father who witnessed a lynching. I had to do a lot of documentary work. I used the internet, and many other sources.
DH: Do you feel that Admit One… is even more important in the context of our times?
MC: I believe we have to understand our history, so we won’t repeat it. We need to remember.
Alien, Part Three
Then Madison Grant met with Congressman
again to devise a formula for the 1924
which was based on the earlier census of 1890 (when there
were fewer immigrants from eastern and southern Europe),
thus reducing to 12% the influx of Jews, Italians, etc., from
a pre-World War annual million to (as it turned out) 20,000.
Seven eugenicists testified, including Harry Laughlin,
who in 200 pages of testimony cited analyzed Army IQ tests
with Nordics on top, Jews on the bottom, and said the formula
would favor Nordics over non-essential members of the community.
Grant, too ill to testify, wrote that the scientific and just formula
would keep out lower types who could displace native Americans
and wrote an article targeting immigrants as criminal insane
while the Saturday Evening Post and NY Times
argued for passage.
Suddenly, said an opposing congressman, a new word made its way
into the English language—Nordic, Nordic—everywhere you turned.
But the Eugenicists lobbied congress members, bombarding
them with letters telegrams telephone calls —and after a long
debate on a clause excluding the Japanese (which led a Japanese
publicist to predict eventual collision on the Pacific), the bill passed.
— From Admit One…/Martha Collins