In 2011, Tony Hoagland, a white poet from North Carolina, published “The Change,” a poem about two famous tennis players, “a tough little European blonde” and “a big black girl from Alabama,/ cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arm/some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” These characterizations forced readers — or at least those among us not little, European, or blonde — to ask whether or not this was the same old racist “transgression,” or its failed critique.
At the AWP conference that year, Claudia Rankine presented an open letter to Hoagland in which she posed these questions, leading a charge to fight against what Judith Butler called the “word-filled sticks and stones” that make up the language available to us as poets and as human beings.
Hoagland replied with his own letter. Rankine chose, rather than continuing to engage individually, to “move the conversation away from the he said-she said vibe toward a discussion about the creative imagination, creative writing and race.” She made a public call for writing about race on The Rumpus, and the responses were collected into The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, published this month by FENCE Books.
We are honored to present moments from this exploration; we attempt to offer a sense of the anthology’s profound diversity — not only of identity, but of tone, of form, of approach, of emotion, of perception. The Racial Imaginary argues with, restructures, and remakes the canon, literary and otherwise, that has betrayed us, inspired and sparked us, led us here, and carves out some space to examine poetry’s, and literature’s, role in a much needed national discussion of race.
— Christine Larusso, Assistant Poetry Editor
From “Statement of Purpose”: If I hate myself, is it because I have absorbed the dominant prejudices of American society? Perhaps my feeling of anonymity is a sociocultural condition and describes how it feels to be a Chinese American woman in 2011. The individual in me cries out: “Must I be a type (stereo-, pheno-, arche-)?”
It is painful to be invisible. But it is also painful to be seen. Once, when I was a little girl in Elizabeth, our neighbor’s son yelled from across the street, “You Jap!” His grandfather had fought in World War II. I didn’t tell my parents. Weeks later, my parents invited his parents over for lunch and he wrote his name in red crayon across my chalkboard easel, so that it was no longer usable. My mother asked me why I let him do it. I told her I didn’t know I could stop him.
Many things I hate are in fact things I wish were not so. I hate the weather in winter. I hate throwing out yogurt because I forgot to eat it before the expiration date. I hate how much I want to — how profoundly I feel I have to — write this.
From “If I Tell These Stories: Notes on Racism and the White Imaginary”: My imagination is riddled with the stories racism built. My imagination is not a gentle place in which to play, to run and jump; it is not separate from the landscape I was schooled in. I am aware of how the island shows up there; all cut up into pieces, north, south, east, west. How plantation walls have morphed into the walls of high-end hotels and gated communities. How geography designates value. How, even while I was embarrassed by my association with a school of mostly white kids on a mostly black island, I also grew up believing in my specialness. The landscape of my youth pulses in my imaginary. That liminal place where streams of images and thoughts flow from unconscious and conscious places and commingle. A wetland where new stories are spawned. Stories which, if I am not careful, just repeat themselves. Repeat the bone structure and facial characteristics and speech patterns of the stories they come from.
From “How do we invent language of racial identity — that is not necessarily constructing the “scene of instruction” about race but create the linguistic material of racial speech/thought?”: You are a visitor — the afternoon sun in Los Angeles is bright and you find yourself settling into the view of one stunning mountain range after another. At night, you are still driving the big, white rental car, trying to figure out how to maneuver the wide turns at this 2:00 AM hour, but you cannot find your way back to your friend’s apartment. A pressure builds, perhaps the pressure of the self about to enjoy the late night, double dessert. You want to keep celebrating. Who knows when you will see your friends again? But you have to get back to square the bill. You have to pack. You get caught up in the struggle of trying to fill the gas tank up to match the three-fourths notch on the car’s check sheet. Out to gather donuts, two chocolate glazed, a croissant, one old fashioned (bought a glazed cruller by mistake), one glazed bow tie, and since the woman who looks like your mother tells you the cinnamon raisin rolls are fresh and warm, you get that for yourself.
The tank’s gauge never indicates the right amount, and the sky above Glendale doesn’t look threatening, then you feel the approach of the slowing car of which you are also so familiar, a familiarity you anticipate by feeling, the tightening around your heart. You sigh, not out of relief, but to stay calm. You slow down your step, and then a light bursts — Can I talk to you a minute? We’ve had some complaints about your driving. I got lost. I had to fill the rental car. I’m tired, a little sleepy. That’s not good. I’m Ronaldo Wilson, and I’m traveling. I got turned around. I’m sorry. Are you on probation? No, I’m a professor. I gave a talk today, and taught a class. We just gave a big performance, and soon, we have to leave and catch a red-eye home. I live in New York.
From “Signing and Resigning”: I couldn’t make the poem without her. The poem was a failure, and my workshop leader let me know as much with his silence during a classroom discussion regarding it.
And, reading it now, years later, I realize that it overdescribes, overreaches, imposes its ideas unsubtly. It was a failure because I needed too much from the reader. I needed the reader to feel slapped as I had felt slapped.
I needed to be the woman at the end of the poem, with all of her power to redefine that moment for my boyfriend and me.
My poem did not say: I am this black.
It said, I am this white. How dare you try and take that from me.
The poem must face opportunities for transcendence for the speaker, or it must turn its back on them and lose face. This is the difference between epiphany and critique, gaining power and losing it.
From “Exempt, Implicated”: A writer, it seems to me, has two options: to objectify her subjects or to assume the subject position of the “other.” I’m uncomfortable about how uncomfortable I am when poets write from a subject position that is not their own. For example, I recently read a manuscript of poems by a young father about his wife’s first pregnancy. There were many wonderful poems about his impending fatherhood. There were also a series of poems, sprinkled throughout the book, in which he writes from his wife’s perspective and these, well, they bothered me. I am uncomfortable about my discomfort because, in theory, I want to believe that assuming another’s identity can be an act of radical empathy, not to mention an interesting writing move. But in practice, I’m not so sure. In practice, the embodiment of another (in poetry but not in fiction, at least to my ears) feels abusive, intrusive, wrong. But the alternative — to objectify, to be always pointing out the other as other — feels wrong too.
From “Racing Stein: What Is Seen and Unseen in Taking a Hero Out for a Reread”: I believe that jazz taught me how to listen to American literature and hear its hybridity: how innovation is made alongside and within tradition. And how innovative and experimental art can also be crystal clear about injustices and the desire for equality. I also learned to make space for two aspects of essentialism: the value of identity pride in fighting for justice, and yet how, like gender, race is a moving target and race-only allegiances and generalizations always beg for expansion and show their exceptions quickly.
From “Feeling Colored”: You want to talk about race? Fine. Let’s talk about race. But these conversations often happen in academic, intellectual, and — in those ways — private spheres, where race becomes an idea completely disconnected from itself in action. And what is the point of that? You’re going to talk to me about the issue of race in America as an “issue” of “race” in “America.” I do not need to be turned into an idea to understand who I am.
From “Open Letter”: In a book I wrote about the murder of a young gay man in the town where I live, I tried to counter the blanketing whiteness of the town by counterposing some voices of color against the comfortably unaware voices of some of my white interview subjects. A white colleague told me that was a predictable move. It was a move, of course, a use. I didn’t worry too much about this, in the sense that I mainly tried to do it well and stay alert for mistakes. This is obvious: it seemed worse to leave some subjects out because to “use” them would be “a move.” This orchestration might not have been “natural” to me as a writer; but unnaturalness, unnatural engagement, was the best I could do at the time. I believed, still do, that whiteness was part of what made so many of the white people in my town react in certain ways to the murder, a reaction that became the dominantly reported reaction, because they were white. I also believed it might be useful to at least somewhat dislodge this dominant reporting. Did I use people of color to do this? Yes I did. I interviewed people of color because I reckoned they knew things I didn’t know, things that weren’t optional to know. I wanted the point of view to not settle in a single body. I wanted people to hear themselves, to hear people other than themselves — I wanted the book to do that for everyone. It was all moves. It was writing.
From “Love the Masters”: If I write race, I write it slant. I write it scat. I write it slipshod. I write it in the same manner I live it. Letting my work embody contradiction and delight. I love rumors about black men. I love the attention on the street in daylight. I smile at little children who want to touch my hair. Enjoy the seat beside me on the Amtrak that usually stays empty. Yet, when I put this in a poem, it’s always about the privileges that fear grants a man. And for it to be art, it has to say that and more.
White and black writers sometimes imply that the Black Arts Movement, the Protest Novel, and the Harlem Renaissance have the market on race writing cornered. That to write about race now is to limit your vision. That worries me, makes me feel I am trading in my veil for a blindfold.
The markers of identity in my poems are chosen because of sound. The name Amir appeals to me, and I’ve always loved the a that ends the names of so many black women. The streets that haunt my poems are from memory, the version of legacy that you get when you don’t have a history of college and middle-class home ownership in your family. There are people broken and breaking in my poems, people healing despite the cauldron of chaos they live in.
My poems are about race in the way their lives are about race. Race is liminal in America. It is both border and veil. Both what you cannot escape and what distorts your vision. Because race is intricate to the American narrative, and not just the African American narrative, but the American narrative, any questions of writers writing race is moot. The better question is what do we choose to know, both in life and in print.
From “Trespasses”: And then there are the invisible lines of maps, which have no corresponding mark upon the ground, in the soil, through the trees or the grass or the air, though it is possible to cross them. To cross the line, to toe it, to pass over an unspoken but understood border. And then there are the visible borders of cities, which are not so much clear and definite lines of demarcation as intervals of either condensation or dissipation, depending on whether you are arriving or leaving.
And then there are the invisible differences among people, which have no corresponding mark upon the skin, in the hair, under the fingernails or eyelids or lips. But there are words they speak to one another, and then there are words they speak to you, the outsider, and the difference lies not so much in the words themselves, which mean very little when it comes right down to it, but in the history of people speaking to one another in that place, which you could not possibly know unless you happen to also be from there, in which case it doesn’t need explaining.
From “Who’s Watching Anymore, Anyway?”: This context has little if anything to do with race. Except. Except I am a black American woman traveling on a bus — clearly the least attractive and comfortable means of travel that one might choose — and on this transport mechanism, one cannot easily set one’s self apart. My fellow travelers are from a mix of racial and ethnic backgrounds — most unidentifiable to me — though, mostly people of color. But here we are the same, or similar. The bus driver is mean to all of us without cause as if to say, You’re all in this shitbox together. And we are.
The Racial Imaginary © FENCE Books 2015