Open Letter: A Dialogue on Race and Poetry
This conversation was presented by the Academy of American Poets at the Associated Writing Programs Conference on February 4, 2011. Claudia Rankine began her talk with a reading of Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change." She then presented the following dialogue.
Claudia Rankine: I don't like using the word racist because if you use it it means you are an angry black person. Angry black people are the old black and everyone knows that's pathological. The new black is accomplished, assimilated, and integrated. The new black reaches across the aisle. The old black is positioned in a no-win situation where to express an opinion based on what you see, experience, feel or deduce risks falling right into some white folk's notion of black insanity.
It's not a chance to take. The path is preordained: to think this is to be that. Don't go there. Don't be like that. Supreme Court Justice Roberts simply forgot the right words to swear in our first black President. He was probably nervous. Don't go there. Don't be like that.
So if white people are not allowed to use the n-word, and we know that is a understanding rarely disregarded, then apparently black people are not allowed to use the r-word or, in news jargon, play the race card. But sometimes, I have found, you have to hazard a little insanity.
* * *
I once had a colleague who wrote what some readers perceived to be a racist poem. When I first read it I thought, "What?"
Why I stuttered I don't know but sometimes the purity of an emotion gets tripped-up by thought: This poem is an exploration of narcissism in our society, a parody, perhaps. Nonetheless, certain phrases from the poem stuck in my craw. Phrases like "I couldn't help wanting / the white girl," this "tough European blond," "to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe, / with her pale eyes and thin lips" were being "pitted" against phrases like "so big and so black," "big black girl from Alabama" with "cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms" and "some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite." Were these phrases intended as a performance of the n-road?
I let the book close on the desk and stared out the window through non-existent trees. There is a parking lot out there. And though my emotions can at times feel wrongheaded, sometimes you just have to say it—what the fuck? It took me a minute, the kind that folds out into months, to get over the actual words on the page.
When I brought my gaze back to the poem, rereading, it occurred to me the poet was outing a certain kind of white thought. I already knew the nice white lady and her husband who always held the door open for me (thank you) might be thinking of me as the "so big and so black," "big black girl from Alabama," but I wanted my colleague to tell them right there in his poem that that kind of thinking…well, it's just not right. But his point, it seemed, was this was whiteness thinking, surely not all of whiteness, and the black girl as "unintimidated" as she was was simply a sign of the end of the twentieth century. Lord, the times they are a changing. And for this brand of whiteness that is where that thinking stopped.
* * *
When asked what his thinking was while working on the poem, my colleague said this poem is for white people. Did he mean it was for white people to see themselves and their thinking? He did not say that. He said it was for white people.
What I heard was, I don't need to explain myself to you, black girl. And though the last time I looked in the mirror I looked like my black mother, and not how she looked when she was a child, I was transporting the language of the poem, black girl, to refer to myself, and getting even angrier. And though I realized this was me thinking as him, and not in fact him speaking, when offense is being taken offense is heard everywhere, even in the imagination.
And because I could taste the vomit of Reconstruction and slavery in the back of my throat, I wasn't saying much, but he was starting to shout at me so in his imagination somebody else must have been speaking. Needless to say, before our conversation started it was over. I can still see myself back then confused at the rate of escalation, given that I was so used to everyone reassuring everyone that everyone accepted everyone and race didn't matter. Who let America in the room? How did things get out of hand so quickly? I sometimes wonder if one of us had had the presence of mind to say, easy slave girl, slow down grand Wizard, could anyone have laughed.
* * *
As I walk across the parking lot I wonder why he didn't just say his poem is for white people because it is calculated to make them feel uncomfortable in the grey areas. No one was calling for a lynching in this poem, which we all know as criminal, racist behavior, but this other thing, this lack of support for the American tennis player, this identifying by skin color with anyone else across the Atlantic simply because the one right in front of you has black skin and claims all the same rights, was that not too racism? I imagine there were a trillion ways to worry my question, which is to say, he might have treated me like a friendly colleague asking a real question since the book was in the bookstore without a Whites Only sticker.
I was black people and I, as his colleague, had taken the time to read his book as an act of collegial support and respect. Instantaneously, my collegial assumption, the visibility I was claiming, the shared space, seemed like his moment of what? What! In short, his answer sounded like fighting words. And they were. And they weren't.
As I turn his answer around and around like an object I am trying to find a place to store, I see it burns at both ends. Perhaps by invoking the "whites only" language of Reconstruction, he was suggesting his poem, as a language act, lived in that place. But even with this positioning, it's not clear he wasn't also directing the historically exclusionary signifier at me—he was after all speaking to me—but I really can't speak for him.
Not long ago I was in a room where someone asked the philosopher Judith Butler what made language hurtful. I could feel everyone lean forward. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she said. We suffer from the condition of being addressable, by which she meant, I believe, there is no avoiding the word-filled sticks and stones of others. Our emotional openness, she added, is borne, in both its meanings, by our addressability. Language navigates this.
For so long I thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase me as a person, but after considering Butler's remarks I begin to understand myself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present. My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague's poem, my colleague's words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him. So here I am looking back, talking back and, as insane as it is, saying, please.