Rich observed that, as the daughter of a Jewish father and a Southern, Episcopalian mother, she was not Jewish according to either traditional Jewish law or feminist and lesbian theory, all of which grant the mother primacy when inheriting identity. Yet Rich could never separate herself from either her paternal Jewish identity or her maternal Southern identity. Before coming out as a lesbian in the early 1970s, she was married to a Jewish man for seventeen years and raised their children with an awareness of their Jewish connections. In an early poem, Rich describes herself as “Split at the root, neither Gentile nor Jew, / Yankee nor Rebel.” She later re-uses the first phrase, “Split at the Root,” as the title of a 1982 essay about her difficult, ambivalent relationship to Jewish identity. In this activity, students will consider the nature of competing identities and what it means to have (or look for) “roots.”
Suggested Activity: Begin by reminding students of the different definitions of “roots”: for plants, the portion which attaches it to the ground or another support; more abstractly, an origin, source, or cause. Ask students to write down a list of their “roots” (These might include family members, hometowns, religions, racial, sexual, or cultural identities, or many other things—let it be completely open to students’ interpretations.) They should come up with as many as they can, but should aim for at least five to six. Now ask them to draw these roots as if they are literal roots, connected to a tree trunk (the individual).To do this, they will need to consider the relationship among the roots they’ve listed: which would be near the surface, and which deeper? Which roots are closely connected, which branch out of each other, and which feel separate?
Now ask students to read the first selection from “Split at the Root.” They should then look back at their diagrams. What would it mean to be “split at the root”?
Next ask students to read the second and third selections from “Split at the Root.” In many ways, the image or metaphor of “roots” as a way of conceptualizing identity troubles Rich. Based on what they have read, ask students to discuss, in partners or groups, why this might be so. Is Rich saying that the idea of roots stands in the way of wholeness—or that the quest to “bring them whole” is part of the problem with roots?
In “Diving into the Wreck,” Rich offers a different way of thinking about identity, origins, and inheritance. Instead of the metaphor of roots, she offers the metaphor of a shipwreck. Ask students to briefly imagine what their roots diagrams would look like if drawn as the exploration of an undersea wreck. What changes when the individual is imagined as a diver rather than a tree trunk? What does this new metaphor say about our relationships to origins, identity, and the past? Does it resolve any of the difficulties Rich found with “roots”?