Recently, the Washington Post ran an empty op-ed column to highlight the disappearance of Saudi national and Post contributor, Jamal Khashoggi. In 2017, a number of papers in Ohio ran blank front pages to demonstrate the necessity of local reporting. In 2013, the New York Times perplexed readers by running two pages of empty space punctuated with only a URL “wordsarelife.com” — it turned out to be an advertisement from 20th Century Fox for the film The Book Thief.
We don’t often leave spaces blank in America — it goes against everything capitalism stands for. When newspapers were mass printed in the nineteenth century, the type set was small and the objective was to fill as much space on the page as possible. This maximalist style of printing served two purposes: creating an even print finish (empty space can create an imbalance for the ink roller, causing individual bits of type to get too much or not enough ink), and getting the most profit from the material used.
In his essay “Stillness,” Charles Baxter describes America’s aversion to blank spaces: “The distrust of silence and stillness comes to us as a form of muddleheaded late-Puritanism, which looks upon idle hands as the devil’s playground, and silence, like Hester Prynne’s silence, as privatized rebellion, a refusal to join the team.”
Recently, the company Fiverr came under fire for a series of ads dedicated to “doers” with taglines such as: “You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer.” Fiverr’s ads condition us to celebrate people who overcome the odds by overworking their once idle hands. Figures like the single mother working three jobs or the man who walks ten miles to his job have become cultural archetypes for American grit. This narrative erases the fact that the odds are overwhelmingly against women and people of color, who often work twice as hard just to be seen. If you’re working hard in America, you’re supposed to fill space. You fill it with words, with speech, with developments, with images, and, mostly importantly, with profits.
Being silent can often be synonymous with being complicit — a fair accusation for those in a position of privilege who refuse to leverage their power for the good of others — but it can also be a tool of resistance.
Between 2006 and 2009, I took fourteen different standardized tests. The SSAT (one practice, one real), SAT (one practice, 3 real), ACT (3 times), AP US History, AP French Language, AP US Government, AP Statistics, AP English Language and Composition. I did well on none of them. I sat with that first page in the test booklet, the one that says THIS PAGE LEFT INTENTIONALLY BLANK, and suppressed my panic attacks.
I once had an economics teacher in high school who asked our class what we thought the profits of our (elite, private) school were. We guessed our futures — what jobs we would one day have, how successful we would be. He laughed. “It’s your test scores,” he said. He then showed us a recruiting pamphlet for our school: it listed our average ACT and SAT scores and the number of Ivy League schools attended by our graduates.
Of all the tests I did poorly on, AP Statistics was by far the worst. I gave up mid-way through the exam and began drawing pictures of the proctor and other test-takers in the blank pages of my test booklet. I received a 1 out of 5, I assume for filling in my name correctly.
It’s a common misconception that the introduction of Gutenberg’s press in the fifteenth century standardized all printed books. None of the Gutenberg Bibles are identical. Keeping with the medieval tradition of illuminated manuscripts, the Gutenberg Bibles were printed with large gaps at the start of each section so that individual letters could be illustrated by hand.
Doris Cross didn’t consider herself a poet when she began erasing dictionaries in the 1960s. Throughout her career, she was resistant to titles — poet and conceptualist among them. In her own words: “I am just involved with the idea of leaving things — In this case, words, where they are found.”
Cross’s art was concerned with highlighting connections already present. She looked for the rhythms hidden within a text and brought them forward by removing the excess. She paved the way for Ronald Johnson to erase Paradise Lost and Jen Bervin’s erasure of Shakespearean sonnets in Nets.
When we talk about erasure, Doris Cross’s name doesn’t often come up. Her work, though prolific, isn’t archived on the internet. Interviews with her are few and far between. What I’m saying is that she was erased.
Activist Emma González was among the survivors of the Parkland shooting who helped draw over two hundred thousand people to the March for Our Lives demonstration in DC in March 2018. Of the many inspiring speeches given that day, hers is a standout — primarily for what she doesn’t say. After she lists the names of her classmates who were killed, and all the things they wouldn’t be able to do, González reaches an emotional peach and then: silence.
In the recordings, you can hear the mic pick up the sounds of González breathing, and at some points you can hear sniffling. Members of the audience briefly erupt in cheers and I wonder about those cheers — it sounds like they’re encouraging (perhaps listeners thought González was overcome with emotion and that’s why she stopped speaking), but I’m more inclined to believe the cheers are there because we don’t know what to do with silence and can’t fight our own inclinations to fill it. At one point, the audience begins to chant “Never again,” and later a few people can be heard yelling “We’re with you, Emma.”
What I admire most, what destroys and amazes me each time I watch the clip, is González’s resistance to offering reassurance to her audience. She doesn’t join in the chants. She gives virtually no indication that she can even hear them. She remains silent until six minutes and twenty seconds have passed — the amount of time it took the Parkland gunman to shoot down the school.
To quote Charles Baxter again: “It is a peculiarly American form of Zen enlightenment, when stillness can only justify itself by planting itself amid uproar.”
As The New Republic has noted, there was an uptick in the popularity of erasure poetry following the inauguration of Donald Trump. It’s oddly comforting to take the ugliest words from one of the most abhorrent men on earth and turn them into art — the idea that you can make Trump into a talking puppet, newly aware of his own misery and shortcomings, as Ariel Yelen does in her erasure of Trump speeches for Queen Mob’s Teahouse (“I am/ what is wrong with this country”). Latent in these poems is the desire for a world in which this man is mostly silent, unable to steal away our thoughts, time, and energy with his hateful ramblings.
One of the most striking examples of post-Trump erasure came from US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith. Her erasure of the Declaration of Independence was published in the New Yorker one year after Election Day. It opens: “He has/ sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people.” Smith makes a deliberate choice to erase the words of the Founding Fathers instead of Trump. It’s tempting to read the entire poem as an indictment of Trump and that wouldn’t be entirely wrong— but Smith has chosen some of the oldest words in American consciousness.
The white cultural memory tends to erase the unforgivable acts committed by this country’s founders, or that any precedent for Trump was already established in 1776. “He has plundered our —/ ravaged our —/ destroyed the lives of our — ” America was founded as the city upon a hill, a blank slate on which we would create, in the words of the Puritan leader John Winthrop, “a model of Christian charity” for the rest of the world to admire. But the land wasn’t really free for the taking, white America stole it. We plundered. We ravaged. We destroyed.
In the 1950’s, Robert Rauschenberg asked Willem de Kooning if he might have a drawing of his. Rauschenberg then proceeded to erase the drawing. It’s one of those pieces that enrages the average person in an art museum, evokes cries of “My child could do this!” And, yes, your child could and probably has done this. Just not with a de Kooning.
You can erase powerful men in their entirety. You just have to be one yourself.
Titus Kaphar does not consider his paintings to be an erasure of history, but rather an amendment. His painting “The Myth of Benevolence” features a portrait of Thomas Jefferson falling off its frame to reveal another portrait of an enslaved black woman hidden behind it. Kaphar has also shredded, removed, and covered historical figures. As Kaphar describes his work: “That’s the nature of representation; every time we represent something we alter it and slightly change it.”
Kaphar’s work doesn’t call for a removal of white figures — often, they’re still present, only obscured through paint or carefully carved out and placed elsewhere. He instead urges us to look at the figures erased by history, foreground their narratives, assert their significance.
I live in Wyoming now — as the second-least populated state in the US, it’s one of the more expansive blank spaces a person can seek out. Each time I leave the city limits of Laramie, I’m shocked anew at just how little there is out here.
Recently, I traveled to Jeffrey City, Wyoming. In the 1950s, Jeffrey City was a destination for those seeking jobs in uranium mining. The demand, largely due to the Cold War, was such that thousands of people moved to Jeffrey City. During the uranium boom, the city was outfitted with schools, community centers, churches, and apartment buildings. In the 1980s, all but 5% of the town’s population moved away. The uninhabited buildings are still there, along with a few eccentric stragglers.
Walking through the empty buildings of Jeffrey City, I wondered why the town hadn’t simply been torn down. But the thing is, there’s nothing else to do with the land. Most of the ghost towns of America are former mining towns— after the natural resources have been depleted and there are no more profits to be made, they become monuments to capitalist endeavors.
In front of one of the vacant apartment buildings, there’s a land marker that proclaims: “Jeffrey City: Biggest Bust of Them All.” Next to the sign is a map of Wyoming that can’t be read— it’s been whitewashed by the sun.