from American Poetry Review, September/October 2007
Nigger, your breed ain't metaphysical.
—Robert Penn Warren, "Pondy Woods"
Beginning in earnest his long and preeminent literary career in the 1930s, it is safe to say poet and novelist Robert Penn Warren never envisioned a black readership, then or today. Yet, the above excerpted line of verse from his poem "Pondy Woods," inspired by the 1926 lynching of Primus Kirby in Todd County, Kentucky, has prompted over the years varied responses from black readers, literary artists, and scholars, if not oft cited as an example of the workings of racist ideology in 20th-century American literature. Writing for the African American Review, critic Mark Sanders remarks, Warren "compressed into five deceptively economic feet nearly a half-millennium of white hegemonic philosophy, both its rhetorical strategies and underlying presuppositions." In an interview for the Washington Star, nearly half a century later after Warren penned his infamous rebuke, poet and Howard University professor Sterling Brown famously retorted, "Cracker, your breed ain't exegetical."
Warren could not have imagined or predicted such posthumous and contemptuous come-backs from such distinguished and alien quarters as a black literary critical establishment. The question of the poem's audience, interesting enough, belies its irony; although the admonition, farcically spoken by a buzzard, is addressed to a fugitive black man on the run from a posse after apparently assaulting a white woman, more likely than not Warren had in mind as his ideal audience for his poem-fable that notorious gang of poets and scholars known as the Fugitives who launched New Criticism from their perch at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee: Donald Davidson, Randall Jarrell, Merrill Moore, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate, in short, white, literate southern men like himself. The provocative poem is a performative argument that attempts to deify and consecrate the dominance and superiority of white, intelligent men over perceived instinct-driven black men.
However, were Robert Penn Warren writing in today's highly policed culture and exchange of ideas, and thus, to a more ethnically diverse and politically sensitive audience of readers and critics, rest assured he would be hard pressed and most likely excoriated for such retrograde beliefs about black folk and explicit representations of white racist thought. A reading public today, despite the author's intention, would likely receive the speaker in the poem as an embodiment and mouthpiece of the author's own narrow-minded ideas about nonwhite peoples. I confess; I am among that censorious group, yet wonder, if such a hypercritical vigilance actually endangers writers' freedom to fully characterize with great candor the complexity of their full humanity? Does it not benefit us to have even the most disdainful beliefs and opinions represented in our art? I wonder how much self-censorship or ambivalence is at work among white poets with respect to writing about race.
Last year in June, my inaugural teaching semester at Bennington Writing Seminars found me very ill and bedridden for a few days due to food poisoning. Laid up in the Alumni House, while the activities of creative writing workshops, lectures, and readings swirled about me, I groaned in my upstairs bedroom. I had to reschedule my poetry reading to a later date in the residency. Originally I was slated to present with the famed Southern writer Barry Hannah. Being the younger and emergent writer, likely I would have had to read first.
My illness turned out to be a mild blessing; Barry began his reading without any contextualization or prefatory remarks with an opening paragraph which contained this sentence from his classic short story collection Airships (1978): "This nigger was eating a banana, hanging his leg out the front seat on the curb," which evoked a hesitant then hearty spurt of nervous laughter from those in attendance in the humid barn on the pastoral Bennington campus where readings are held in the summer, and as one could have predicted, roundly alienated the few black people in the audience. Too often and still, all across corporate boardrooms, military barracks, and college dorm rooms in America, women, poor folk, gays and lesbians, and people of color are expected to exhibit "a sense of humor" and to quietly laugh and joke along when the very core of their humanity is being assaulted.
The rational, appreciative writer and collegial humanist in me would have recognized that the Alabama-born and Mississippi-bred Pulitzer prize nominee, novelist, and short story writer with the languorous Southern lilt in his voice was simply accomplishing what any fiction writer worth his ink would execute in constructing his story, the building of character through diction and setting, but this would not have prevented me, especially in my younger years, from wanting to open up a can of kick-ass and whip some Barry Hannah butt.
Regretfully (and, at times, proudly), I have a history of reacting violently to being called the N-word; once, in Columbus, Ohio, the hip-hop dancer and choreographer Rennie Harris and I found ourselves crossing six lanes of highway traffic one late morning, fleeing after I punched a beefy, white guy in the nose for hurling that all too familiar and uninventive epithet across a counter at me; the other occasion occurred when I was eighteen years old in a fraternity house on a college campus in Philadelphia as rap music was being played.
Fortunately, I was spared the self-conscious awareness and dilemma of wondering if somehow Barry and the roomful of largely white, aspiring writers at Bennington who revered him as a model man of letters were in cahoots and making me and other black people in the barn the recipients of some cruel, inside literary joke. Having matured somewhat from my more explosive, younger self, truth is, had I been present for Barry's reading, I likely would have been, in the end, grateful for his representation of a white southern racist (which I hear, he renders well), even if it struck me initially as offensive, provided the story were artfully written and elegantly sought to earn my empathy. However, I would not have laughed.
Contemporary fiction writers, it seems to me, are more willing than poets to take risks and explore reigning racial attitudes of today and yesterday; of late, among them one thinks of Susan Straight, Richard Ford, Colson Whitehead, Richard Powers, and Edward P. Jones. In my opinion, fiction writers anticipate less severe criticism and aim for an enviable verisimilitude that allows readers to survey and delve into the interior motivations and psychic terrain of their characters. Poets, in contrast, are content to create "speakers" in their poems who merely serve as stand-ins for their interior selves. Evident in the most experimentally driven poems, even there one detects the construction of an alter being. Only a few poets consistently and consciously avoid this strategy, but they strike me as mere monologists.
Whereas Robert Penn Warren under-envisioned his reading audience, contemporary poets lag precisely behind fiction writers because we over-envision a readership. I do not mean by this that we give great consideration to whole groups of people different from us or as our audience, but that we are less willing to be repulsive and repugnant in our poems, so caught up in our quest for linguistic and emotional beauty and earnestness—so earnest are we in the vision of poetry as the province of communal good that we fail to create "speakers" in our poems who are contemptible and dishonorable. Add to this our knee-jerk desire to hide our faults or the less admirable parts of our own lives in our poetry. There's a little racist, sexist, classist, ageist, homophobe in all of us. So, we expose ourselves in more acceptable and overly mined areas of embarrassment and shame, even then, seeking the redemptive glow of self-reflection and the post-epiphanic splendor of personal triumph and enlightenment. If we do not suffer from any of the above -isms, we definitely do not write poems that reflect our personal growth. But more importantly, the readership we envision prevents us from wanting to offend, not a group, but the overwhelmingly progressive times in which we live and write.
Some might inaccurately allege that such a self-guarded and disapproving milieu is the result of writing for a recovery /therapy-driven culture against the backdrop of "political correctness." I disagree and contend that poets and writers, when away from their pencils and writing pads or laptops, like everyone else, have the option of behaving as decent human beings, of being thoughtful and considerate, which is not a question of "politics" or "correctness," or even the invisible forces that make one self-aware about one's moral groundings or lack thereof. It is quite the cliche to assert some of America's most superb writers leave much to be desired in their social interaction with their families and others; at least, the shadow of their lives is not eclipsed by the false appearance of normality. Yet, as artists, endowed with gifts and the responsibility of giving full expression to the range of human beliefs, thoughts, experiences, and possibilities, the yellow, lined legal pages or the blank screen is fair game. The imagination should know no moral bounds—only seek its greatest aesthetic heights. The formal demands of writing poetry will naturally resolve the moral questions.
In his winning book Democracy, Culture, and the Voice of Poetry, poet Robert Pinsky asserts, "Poetry is not the voice of virtue and right thinking—not the rhyme department of any progressive movement." Maybe some of that unacknowledged legislating Shelley speaks of as poets' work involves acknowledging and giving form to the dark impressions of which we are constituted, including the quiet moments in which we enact our bigoted beliefs and fears. The success of the Lions Gate film Crash directed by Paul Haggis, which grossed $54.5 million in box office receipts in 2005, owed its success, supposedly, to tapping into those uniquely American prejudices.
All this to say, in a country whose professed strength is best observed in its plurality of cultures, what seems odd to me (and this I find most appalling about contemporary American poetry) is the dearth of poems written by white poets that address racial issues, that chronicle our struggle as a democracy to find tranquility and harmony as a nation containing many nations. Why is this? How it is that poetry does not reflect and serve as a record of the evolution of our racial attitudes and progress much like American fiction from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin to Philip Roth's The Human Stain? Well, it does to some extent, but the canon is severely lop-sided and asymmetrical. And without that complete, wide-ranging and far-reaching racial dialogue as a literary and cultural legacy reflected in our poetry, discussions of race and ethnicity will forever be a spectator sport.
We are a country shaped and defined by ethnic stories of strife and victory. Yesterday, the enslavement of African peoples, the Civil War, Emancipation, a violent post-Reconstruction, European immigration, the Jewish Holocaust, Japanese internment, and two World Wars determined the political and moral grounds by which our art, literature, and culture achieved its greatest moments. Today, the aftermath of wars in Vietnam and Korea, global conflicts in South America, Africa and the Middle East, the Iraq war, corporate greed, world poverty, immigration, and militarism now serve as the terrain upon which we journey today in imagining humanity writ large and individually in our works of art. It seems incongruous, then, to have such a lack of poems written by white poets that address our cultural plurality, for the road to diversity has had an impact upon us all, whether we care to acknowledge it or not.
We can delude ourselves if we like, but we undeniably harbor racialized views and suppressed thoughts about various ethnic groups. Race is still the most controversial social phenomenon that defines America as a country. A foreign policy such as a "War on Terror" and the resultant influx of immigrants from the Middle East spotlights ethnic difference and race as well as our attitudes towards diversity and inclusion in unique but all too familiar ways; racial profiling took on a whole new meaning shortly after the tragedy of September 11th and still guides Americans' feelings about Arab-American men in turbans. Earlier this year, CNN reported that 60% of white people and 84% of black people consider racism a problem in America. As I write, the nation's highest court is justifying the decision to rule against measures that once guaranteed equal opportunity in education to all races, by saying such assurances violate the principle of a "Color-blind" legal system. As Nobel laureate Toni Morrison makes clear in her popular meditation on the subject, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, "Statements to the contrary, insisting on the meaninglessness of race to the American identity, are themselves full of meaning."
To some extent, I understand the assertion, "race as a social construct," and the less theoretical reasons as to why race has gone the way of religion and politics, conversation-stoppers and unpleasant matter for any intimate gathering, especially the hallowed lines of American verse. We pretend a world of racelessness out of interest in the greater good, the democratic spirit in action, or we follow the invisible, liberal mission of seeing the virtue and worth of all people despite their ethnic and racial origins. But, for real, the differences remain and often they are materially evident, nevermore so than when we discuss illegal immigration and revisit the topic of reforming the nation's Immigration Bill, which, truth be told, is an affront to the Hispanic community.
So deeply embedded are our racial views, it takes some public figure's blunder to ignite a fire storm of criticism that triggers us to vaguely confront our own intolerance and prejudiced beliefs, or worse, our cosmic indifference. In this setting, the persistence of race in public dialogue seems reserved solely for nightly news and talk radio and occurs only after controversial remarks are made, merely for the purpose of ensuring viewer/listener ratings. Moreover, we discover the unpopular view is not so unpopular, and in fact, is widely held.
When, earlier in the year, the radio announcer referred to a group of young, black, and academically gifted student-athletes as "nappy-headed ho's," what we experienced was not only the continued denigration and hostility toward women, but another predictable media reaction to an exhausted topic in desperate need of new and honest perspectives. Similarly, the washed-up comedian who spewed a volcanic tirade of racial epithets at a group of black and Latino audience members at a comedy club in reaction to being heckled also triggered another empty series of news hour specials, as we attempted to come to grips with yet another distasteful display of suppressed racial loathing. The comedian's comfort at shouting such hate-filled words only evidenced, once again, the reduction of etiquette regarding language in our culture and an unmasked anger at having to conform to an age of civility and regard towards others of different ethnic origins. The very words he used that evening reveal his nostalgia for a past of less decency and consideration: "Fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a f— fork up your a—." We feel a false sense of purging only after such renegade figures are publicly fired or themselves extend public apologies. The charade repeats ad nauseam.
So, why should I expect our experiences and innate feelings about others different from us find their way into our poetry? Our inchoate identities and words oversimplify our actual selves. As a result, when we attempt to give expression to our thoughts about race we collapse into frustration and cannot quite articulate what exactly we feel based on our experiences. To quote Donald Hall: "When we wish to embody in language a complex of feelings or sensations or ideas, we fall into inarticulateness; attempting to speak, in the heat or love of argument, we say nothing or we say what we do not intend." More profoundly, he states:
[Poems] "exist to say the unsayable." Poetry gives a far richer sensate experience and representation of nuanced opinions and lives that are far too easily summarized with the racial joke or prejudiced view.
More, I believe in poetry's power to enact empathy. If lyric poetry allows us, as Helen Vendler has pointed out, to inhabit the consciousness of others, then it follows that poetry becomes a means by which we leave ourselves, for a moment, and become someone else. That escape and entering widens our humanity. I am William Butler Yeats when I read out loud "Easter, 1916," and memorialize, too, those who sacrificed their lives for a cause they believed in. The poem becomes a window for me to understand martyrdom in our own time. With each poem ingested, our interiority grows and expands towards inclusivity, how we come to bridge differences between us.
On the other hand, quite possibly, there is a limit to our empathy. Do we really possess an appetite for nuanced representations of racial attitudes and experiences in our poetry for the purpose of cultivating compassion in our nation? There is a disturbing and relative silence in American poetry that refuses to be filled by the majority of white American poets. Needless to say, pages of poetry written by black, Latino, Native, and Asian American poets do great service. Well, it's not like people of color have a choice, now do they—especially if they are being true to themselves and writing their lives. All else is manufacture. Over the centuries, many American poets of various ethnicities, from Rita Dove to Jessica Hagedorn and Agha Shahid Ali to Sherman Alexie, have deemed it aesthetically fertile, socially and politically relevant even, to portray fraught and enlightening encounters of ethnic difference, to explore joyful nuances of the color line, while white poets have been more reluctant to address the subject with veracity and candor. Why?
I posed this question to many white American poets over the past year. In their own voices, some responses included: not wanting to cause discomfort in the reader, highlighting poetry's entertainment value in the Age of Billy Collins; others point to a lack of encounter and experience with nonwhite peoples, feeling they would not authoritatively contribute much in the discussion of race relations; in the Era of Confession, some believe writing about race is opportunistic and disingenuous, for it is not a white issue, but an issue for black people and other people of color; while others fear embarrassment and the negative reaction of friends and strangers, once again, envisioning a liberal-minded and retributive readership that would conduct a virtual, public lynching or a poeticized Truth and Reconciliation trial.
As stated earlier, the presence of a perceived hypercritical audience actually imperils well-meaning people from fervently expressing with candor their true feelings and opinions. A friend who is an executive director of a non-profit organization noticed the willingness of her board members to discuss openly questions of race, but once a Latino man joined the board, the chatty trustees suddenly felt stifled and unable to freely argue and debate for fear of being erroneously accused of possessing racist views.
I will add another reason: perhaps the complexities of race in the 21st century far outreach our imaginative capability. Another friend, who is a Foreign Service Officer in the State Department, called me up with an experience she felt I should write about. Having entered a hired car after work in Washington, D.C., where she was learning to speak Urdu in preparation for her next tour of duty, she happily put her new language acquisition to work by asking the driver, who had been speaking on his cell phone, from what region of southeast Asia did he immigrate? Exuberantly, the man responded his native country and was quite pleased that this young, black woman from Louisiana could converse in his native tongue. Language brought them together. He praised her for her clarity and diction, and reported that his elderly mother was quite lonely in this country, and wondered if she had time, would she consider visiting her for an hour in the evenings, while he drove his taxi; that way she could further her proficiency in speaking Urdu prior to her departure overseas, and his mother would be a little less lonely. He would pay her.
Then, at a stoplight, in the far right lane of a busy intersection, in which the light was green, her new friend was unable to turn due to heavy traffic. A taxi driver honked and honked behind them. Suddenly, the irritated taxi driver, who looked to be from West Africa, pulled alongside them and yelled, "Nigger. Go back where you came from?" Her new friend shouted back as he was turning the car, "Nigger! You go back where you came from?" They sat and spoke not another word in English or Urdu the remainder of the taxi ride.
Whatever the reason, the mystifying silence around race highlights white American poets' unsettling and conspicuous unresponsiveness and ambivalence towards a very important aspect of social life in America, one given heft by our founding documents, our history of immigration and war, and by our being a beacon for so many disenfranchised peoples across the globe who arrive here with the hope of interweaving into the fabric of our democracy. At least Robert Penn Warren and the other Fugitives took a stand and compellingly wrote poems and novels, albeit at times reprehensibly, from the position of being white male Americans. We knew where they stood regarding the "race question," which could allow us to substantively engage the tradition of white southern identity in American letters, and thus, each other quite candidly.
Luckily, a few contemporary white poets writing today, even at the risk of criticism from contrarian black poet-critics such as myself, actually do exhibit great hubris and are willing to take the risk of censure and disapproval. They eschew a vigilant readership and welcome the challenge of finding new figures, innovative language, and expressive forms to exploring their own attitudes about race while thoughtfully redressing some of the racial imbalance in American life. Some of these writers include: Sharon Olds, Ed Pavlic, Sean Thomas Daugherty, Henry Taylor, Philip Levine, Jake Adam York, C. K. Williams, Tony Hoagland, T. R. Hummer and a few others for whom race is a consistently vital and crucial subject. Poet Jim Daniels has also done a great service in putting together a multiracial anthology of poems about race, Letters to America: Contemporary American Poetry on Race.
Thus far, white poets have been content to: populate their poems with people of color (see Elizabeth Bishop's "In a Waiting Room"); exoticize and extol the virtues of ethnic life and so-called "primitive" cultures (see Vachel Lindsay's "The Congo" or any number of Jazz poems written by white poets); make passing presumptive and ostracizing remarks about nonwhites (see Tony Hoagland's "Poem in Which I Make the Mistake of Comparing Billie Holiday to a Cosmic Washerwoman"); or cunningly profit from the loaded meanings and connotative power black and other dark-skinned peoples have come to signify in white readers' imagination (see John Berryman's Dream Songs and many works of literary art by American writers). Contemporary poets replicate some of the same strategies but also are beginning to frame contemporary situations, map new emotional and psychic terrain as well as aesthetic approaches to discuss difference in this country and for us as a public readership to take delight in, to debate and argue. In my very non-academic survey of some of these poems, I discovered a few surprising and interesting patterns.
Many white contemporary poets do not have black friends. If they do enjoy the bonds and frustrations of friendship with people of other races, those poems are not being written. Rather, many poems about race capture "encounters" with people of color. These poems normally take place in public, on a street corner, or a job site, but frequently on public transportation, and never in a white poet's home. Both parties are literally and figuratively in motion, being shuttled to their separate neighborhoods and segregated destinations. One such poem, "I Am Not a Racist," which appears in Kathryn Maris's debut collection The Book of Jobs, takes place on the "Brooklyn-bound express." In the opening section of the four-part poem, whose unrelenting couplets echo the gap but also the interconnectedness between her and the black people on the train, the speaker looks around at the "Blank, humorless faces / on fast-fed bodies" and thinks to herself "what happened to you / ain't my fault," a popular sentiment uttered by white people who scoff at the idea of reparations or federal apologies to black people. Many white people wonder why they should be held accountable for their ancestors' crimes. The speaker, pondering this, then hears the click of a walkman button being depressed and mistakes it for a gun being cocked. In a subsequent section, the speaker walks through fresh snow down a New York street "in love with this city—jubilant, freezing, sane" when suddenly she is jolted out of her ambulatory revelry.
. . . But ahead, a lupine
pack of youths takes plucking steps on my street.
I'm almost home. I won't ostentatiously retreat,
be suspicious unfairly, fear this brotherhood
of saunterers, or judge them by a neighborhood.
The scene is too familiar to comment on at length. But, I'll assert Maris achieves an astonishing tension by giving resonance to the imagined void between the speaker and the young men congregating on the street. The speaker fears and expresses trepidation but the rhyming couplets reinforce the fact that they are involuntarily locked in an awkward dance of public racial guesswork, and, dare I say, desire.
In many poems authored by white poets, as in the larger society, fear of black people and innate feelings of guilt are dominant emotions. That fear has a long history in America, going all the way back to the fear of slave uprisings on southern plantations. Reports of Toussaint Louverture's Haitian rebellion in American newspapers in the 1790s which contained vivid descriptions of massacres of white plantation owners and their families had the effect of spurring many plantation owners in the southern United States to counter with greater forms of brutality as a means of controlling enslaved Africans and containing insurrections.
Sharon Olds's extraordinarily written poem "On the Subway," a classic poem when discussing race and poetry, situates a terrified speaker across from a young black male, whose "feet are huge" and whose countenance is described as the "casual cold look of a mugger." The fear of physical violence between this woman and the black man sitting across from her as they "rapidly [move] through darkness," is palpable and as the speaker suggests justifiable, for "he is black/ and I am white, and without meaning or / trying to I must profit from his darkness. ... There is / no way to know how easy this / white skin makes my life." His white shoelaces laced through black sneakers are described as a "set of international scars."
Ever since first encountering Elizabeth Bishop's "In the Waiting Room," I have been interested in how black bodies are represented and/or how "blackness" is signified in American poetry. I collect these poems as others collect poems about dogs or jazz. I attempt to identify what is gained as a result of differentiating race, and almost always, imagine the poems without racial signifiers.
The most popular strategy of representing blackness is to write about black music or some popular musician, entertainer, or sports figure. This is sensible; however, rarely do poems written by white poets feature black lawyers, political leaders, or eminent scientists, which is why Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" ranks as one of his most important poems. Other poems which signify blackness will simply announce that the person is black, as if no other shades exist to describe people of color, which has me wonder if white poets can truly see black people:
. . . because the young man was
black speaking black
—"The Singing," C. K. Williams
Well, we found two black boys up there
in the wild cliff garden.
—"On a Phrase from Southern Ohio," James Wright
And the cause of death no mystery: two bullet holes
in the breast of a well-dressed black woman
in perhaps her mid-thirties.
—"Landscape with Tractor," Henry Taylor
The insistent lack of imaginative language to describe the full spectrum of people of color reveals how over-reliant we are on the structures of language and received thinking. Rest assured that when a white person describes a black person, you'll almost always read the words "big" and "black" somewhere in close proximity to each other; I guess a dwarfish, black person does not invite fear in the imagination—either that or the images of the black nanny and Mandingo still loom large in the collective psyche of America:
and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
—"The Change," Tony Hoagland
The nurse was big and black
and really pissed at me,
the only kid on the burn ward.
since I was zonked on morphine
most of that time, Mother believed
I dreamed up the big black nurse.
Still, she was a messenger, my angel.
—"Some Heretics," Patricia Dobler
Many black bodies get figured as horrific in the process of naming:
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
—"In a Waiting Room," Elizabeth Bishop
or nonhuman, animal-like; as in Maris' above "lupine / / pack of youth," which is reminiscent of the group of young boys who brutally raped a Central Park jogger and were subsequently described by journalists covering the trial as a pack of wolves.
In "On the Subway," Olds extends and riffs off the tradition of such dehumanizing figuration by giving us a black man who has been skinned alive; the speaker realizes she bears his pelt on her shoulders:
He is wearing
red, like the inside of the body
exposed. I am wearing dark fur, the
whole skin of an animal taken and
Olds is shrewd in conflating race and class and economic status by drawing the lines between the kinds of power each possesses, which is significantly unequal, historical, and imagined, accentuating more still the basis of her alarm. The speaker's power is one of privilege and class. She wears a fur coat, eats steak, and carries a briefcase. In contrast, his power is all brute force. "Alert under hooded lids" with his animal-like physical strength, he could easily take her life "and break across his knee like a stick." The ease, swiftness, and indiscriminate nature of what he could possibly do to her are hallmarks of such violence and fear in American poetry. Olds, however, is not content to simply mark the boundaries of power which threaten and separate her from the young man across the subway aisle. Yes, they occupy different rungs of the social ladder and public transportation puts them in proximity to each other. However, it is cunning, far-seeing, and useful to have the speaker recognize the advantages she enjoys at the expense of his subjugation.
Not only do black people possess animal-like and sexual energy in poems written by white poets, but black people also give agency for others to tap into their own carnal powers. As much as the black body is feared in American life, it is also desired. Dorianne Laux's poem "The Laundromat," situates a young woman folding clothes in a laundromat who "gets off on words and gestures." The speaker watches a flirtatious, older woman eyeing a young man in silk shorts. The speaker is also aware of a man who waits for her to bend over. Everyone is "[c]aught in the crackle of static electricity." The scene is so sexually charged one gets the feeling the room is poised for a group climax. The older woman voices an innuendo: "hot isn't it?" But then,
A long black jogger swings in off the street to
splash his face in the sink and I watch the room
become a sweet humid jungle. We crowd around
the Amazon at the watering hole, twitching our noses
like wildebeests or buffalo, snorting, rooting out
mates in the heat. I want to hump every moving thing
in this place. I want to lie down in the dry dung
and dust and twist to scratch my back. I want to
stretch and prowl and grow lazy in the shade.
The poem's contextualized moment of stasis unapologetically leaps off into a writhing, anaphoristic admission of arousal and sexual craving. This is the burden black male and female bodies have had to shoulder since time immemorial: perceived hypersexual beings whose bodies both conjure fear and fantasy. However, does it mean white poets should not write about that perception and desire, even if the metaphoric propositions are unsettling?
So many poems written by white poets are undecided and do no more than give utterance to a personal exhaustion of race in public dialogue, or worse, to a seemingly interminable chasm between the races.
We are stuck on
opposite sides of the car, a couple of
molecules stuck in a rod of light
—"On the Subway," Sharon Olds
As the speaker in C. K. Williams' poem "The Singing" states,
... both of us
knew just where we were
in the duet we composed the equation we made
the conventions to
which we were condemned
Although I bristle whenever I read Bishop's ekphrastic description of Ossa and Martin Johnson's photograph of Africans in the National Geographic, I think "In the Waiting Room" a fine, exemplary poem which avoids the pessimism and doubt we associate with discussions of race. Although the poem participates in the colonial gaze and discourse about natives, primitivism, and Western civilization, as did the Kansan couple's films and books of exotic wildlife safaris, the poem goes beyond the Martin's in imagining and representing a larger humanity. The poem does not glorify difference nor seek to create some sort of natural hierarchy in mankind, but asserts, albeit hesitantly, the unity of all human beings:
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts
held us all together
or made us all just one?
The moment is afforded even greater import as we realize the young lady in the poem begins to awaken to her own humanity much to her wonderment and surprise. One wonders if Bishop attended the 1955 Museum of Modern Arts exhibition of photographs "The Family of Man," curated by Edward Steichen, who sought to give photographic expression to the universality of mankind. Needless to say, the politics of "In the Waiting Room" are obviously complicated:
The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.
but Bishop, unlike Robert Penn Warren, seems more naive and less xenophobic, one who simply fell victim and subject to the reigning images of African peoples at that time. Even so, we are the better for her interpretation and artwork, for we have the privilege to access a fuller portrait of the woman and the times in which she was living.
Tony Hoagland is probably the most controversial white poet writing about race today. Poems such as "The Change," "Rap Music," and the aforementioned "Poem in Which I Make the Mistake of Comparing Billie Holiday to a Cosmic Washerwoman" have caused enough hubbub in poetry circles to prompt the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to organize a "conversation" at last year's poetry festival on the topic Race & Poetry which featured Lucille Clifton, Terrance Hayes, Tony Hoagland, and Linda Hogan in dialogue.
Hoagland's language is irreverent and sardonic;
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella
hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln's throat,
—"The Change," Tony Hoagland
he engages familiar constructions of fear and white alienation;
I don't know what's going on inside that portable torture chamber,
but I have a bad suspicion
there's a lot of dead white people in there
and what I'm not supposed to say
is that black for me is a country
more foreign than China or Vagina
more alarming than going down Niagara on Viagra
And it makes me feel stupid when I get close
like a little white dog on the edge of the big dark woods
—"Rap Music," Tony Hoagland
most importantly, to my delight, he creates a space for us to discuss race, even if the poems are excessively self-justifying and make us uncomfortable. Lamentably though, the poems seem too contrived in their constructed narrow-mindedness and too controlled in their attempt to court controversy. James Baldwin, in the classic The Fire Next Time, asserts that "relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others." It is a beautiful utterance. Hoagland does not in the end eschew audience; his poems read as if he envisions a liberal-minded readership to willfully irritate, not seduce: he's not a lover, he's a fighter. But then, just as he begins to wrestle, he does an about-face, as if he knows he can only push the envelope so far, as if he knows what's at stake is the fragility of his own self-hood. (To do so would require him to interrogate not only the illusion of blackness, but the whole systematic, rhetorical structures constructed over time that equate whiteness with superiority, power, and even literacy and literary heritage à la The Fugitives.) This is when his endings reach too comfortably for the epiphanic, redemptive line that salvages Hoagland the Poet:
On Rap Music:
this tangled roar
which has to be shut off
or blown away or sealed off
or actually mentioned and entered
On Racism and White Superiority:
Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,
and when we went to put it back where it
it was past us
and we were changed.
Yet, I would rather have his failures than nothing at all. At least his poems announce him as introspective in a self-critical way on this topic. Self-censorship should never be an option for poets.
Writing about race has to be so much more than writing about race, and moreover, race in poetry is not a mere discussion between black and white peoples of the United States, or a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, or some poeticized contraption set up to ensnare an overly sensitive group of readers who passionately believe in equity, justice, racial harmony, and change. It bears repeating again: for us to actualize as a country whose ideals and documents profess the value of a diverse ethnic and racial populace, we must begin to pen a body of poems that go beyond our fears and surface projections of each other to a fuller account of the challenges and reaches of an ever-evolving democracy.
About the Author
Major Jackson is the author of two collections of poetry, Hoops (Norton, 2006) and Leaving Saturn (University of Georgia, 2002), winner of the 2000 Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. He is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Vermont. Visit Major Jackson's web site...
Copyright © 2007 by World Poetry, Inc.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission
The poem "On the Subway" provides a historical point-of-view is regards to how Whites have, and still continue to, regard African-Americans. The poem beings with the speaker stating her fear that the youth across from her may attempt to rob her given he "has the casual look of a mugger." She, dressed in her furs feels obviously threatened.
The poem shifts toward the middle where the speaker recognizes that the young man may be regarding her with the same concern with which she regards him. She admits that he may be looking at her in such a way that would lead him to believe that she "is taking the food from his mouth."
In the end, the speaker recognizes that the color of her skin makes his life very easy; this mirrors that fact that the color of the boys skin makes his life very hard.
Historically, the most prominent happening which began the equality movement was that which happened on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. This event lead to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
Therefore, it could be seen as mirroring the Park's incident by placing the poem in a similar setting. While it does not take place on a bus, it does take place on a subway. This shows the current mode of transportation used by the masses today (in larger cities). This being said, this transfer to the subway also symbolizes that the prejudices of today's people still exist.
The only difference between the poem and both the past and today is that the speaker is able to put herself in the shoes of the young man.