Mis-Writing Race Is a Failure of the Imagination


In February at the AWP Conference in Washington D.C., Claudia Rankine gave a talk about Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change.”

Afterward, she posted a call for responses to the conversation that started at AWP, and today she posted those responses here. Included among them is a piece by Rumpus reviewer and Poetry Book Club Board member Sean Singer. It is reproduced here in full:

I did not attend AWP this year; nonetheless, I feel compelled to respond to the debate.

Poems are about celebrating and confronting their subject matter and their attitude toward the world. In my opinion, a writer should show affection for the universe in a piece of writing.

All societies have their psychopathic elements, and America is psychopathological about race. I think it is irresponsible to ignore race in a piece of writing either in terms of content, form, psychological space, point-of-view, theme, or historical perspective. In both my creative and academic work I write about race frequently, either as a triumphant view of jazz culture, or as a critique of, for example, the immense problems facing the black metropolis of Newark, New Jersey.

The advantages of writing about race are plentiful: you stake a claim against the national psychosis, you put your facility with language to work for social justice, and, if you’re white, you remove the cobwebs of white privilege from your eyes. I don’t think a writer should ignore the question.

Everyone has a right to his or her opinion, but those who are informed have more of a right. For someone to claim that almost all poems about race come from a person of color’s point-of-view is patently absurd. If anything, the exact opposite is true. The default speaker of many poems from Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams to John Ashbery and Billy Collins is that of the egocentric, androcentric white male sitting in the living room and gazing out the window and marveling—all the while being subtly superior—at the world. To pretend that race is a force majeure and beyond the scope of such poems that on the surface have no racial element is historically inaccurate. Such poems are at best acts of bullying; that is trying to control the reader’s feelings without revealing his own. At worst they are part of the ludicrous racial psychopathology that responsible writers must try to overturn.

Besides being a poet, I am a scholar working in American Studies, and therefore am interested in historical facts. It is facile to assume that the speaker in the poem is the same as the poet, but from the time we begin to read as children and continuing to the time beyond when we have our precious MFA degrees and are taking part in the ridiculous literary marketplace, we do not pause to question the vicious and relentless invisibility of race in what we read and write.

Hannah Arendt said that: “One can resist only in the terms of the identity that is under attack.” Our entire system of the literary marketplace is inequitable. If a student feels embarrassed or that she will be misunderstood in confronting race in her poems, then dishonesty and Socratic bullying will take place in the classroom rather than everyone learning how to be a better reader. In the modern university system, diversity and multiculturalism are often thought of as being interchangeable; but are they different? And, if so, what are the differences? Such tropes are usually only thought of in terms of something to celebrate, and never in terms of what race is really about, which is power.

Even the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement are traditionally ignored in most classrooms in America as an attempt to make them invisible. Just to offer one example, Rosa Parks is remembered for “accidentally” becoming a Civil Rights icon for not giving up her bus seat; that she did so not intentionally, but spontaneously. The historical record shows, in fact, that Parks was actively and militantly political for more than 20 years prior to the bus boycott. We festishize neatly calibrated stories to absolve our responsibility. We engage in acts of self-deception if we say that poems are merely about self-expression and have no role to play in our own political militancy.

I think that misreading or miswriting race is a failure of the imagination. To write about a subject using abstractions, vague language, or generalities is not a technical problem. It is an ethical problem. Writers must act ethically and empathically if they are to understand not only “where the other person is coming from”, but the psychological space of the reader. It is the responsibility of the writing teacher to teach students how to read empathically. The only purpose of a writing workshop is to create better and more sophisticated readers; creating better writers is only a by-product and should not be the main concern.

I do not believe race can be constructed separately from history. Our attitudes about race have been designed, foisted upon us from above, and made us sick. Even assuming that the speaker of “The Change” is not the writer, there is a categorical difference between that poem and James Baldwin’s “Going To Meet The Man,” a 1965 short story told from the point-of-view of a white, racist sheriff who overcomes erectile dysfunction while remembering a lynching. In Baldwin’s story, though the reader hates Jesse, Baldwin has infused him with some pathos. In Hoagland’s poem the speaker is scornful, reactionary, and can barely hide his contempt not only for the black tennis player, but also for the reader who exists only as a thoughtless vessel in which contain the misinformation the speaker says and thinks. The speaker in “The Change” is more like someone in a Raymond Carver story, uneducated and wondering why the universe has passed him by.

An argument can be made that “The Change” demonstrates empathy for the racist tennis fan in the poem by coming around to his point-of-view, but if that is the case, why the unmitigated scorn, the easy humor, and the prose-like lines? To claim, at the end of the poem, that the twentieth century was a sepia-toned space that we pine for and long for, is historically ignorant. Like the McCain-Palin supporter who uses coded words to cover their racism, the speaker here shows off his ignorance and culpability like a badge of honor. The speaker in the poem is acting cruelly to suppress his guilt.

For someone to say “the poem is for white people” is a way of obviating the writer’s responsibility. It is analogous to a murderer saying to the jury: “Well, I killed her for all the other murderers out there.” I’m white and I don’t want to read something that preordains a narrow, self-aggrandizing view of what I am as a reader. “The Change” is written in the first person plural, “we”. In my view, this is a way of subtly controlling the reader. I advise all writers to eliminate “we” and “everybody.” The writer should instead name the guilty parties rather than lump the guilty and innocent together in the same rubber bag. This flaw in a piece of writing is a misreading of Freudian projection, or attributing one’s faults and desires onto others.

There have been books successful at inventing the language of racial identity. I suggest books by Nathaniel Mackey, bell hooks, Jay Wright, Melvin Dixon, Bob Kaufman, and Angela Y. Davis. The African American sculptor Elizabeth Catlett said: “We all live in a given moment in history and what we do reflects what level we are on in that moment.” In my view, we can take the shortsighted, scornful, cynical view of a poem like “The Change” or we can use our art form to work for social justice. Paying attention is a form of generosity. To me, if you are not writing and reading about race, then you are not paying attention; you do a disservice to the reader to treat her like a vestibule for casual jokes about a black tennis player. It does not create an interesting poem or create an interest in the reader to do so.

The obvious thing to do in a situation like this is to read some of these successful books. Let’s all do that now.

Sean Singer

Harlem, New York City

Sean Singer’s first book Discography won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize, selected by W.S. Merwin, and the Norma Farber First Book Award from the Poetry Society of America. He has also published two chapbooks, Passport and Keep Right On Playing Through the Mirror Over the Water, both with Beard of Bees Press and is the recipient of a Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has recently appeared in Memorious, Pleiades, Souwester, Iowa Review, New England Review, and Salmagundi. He has a Ph.D. in American Studies from Rutgers-Newark. He lives in Harlem, New York City. More from this author →