Conceptual poet and U Penn professor Kenneth Goldsmith posted this status on Facebook after viewing a tweet by a poet on Saturday, March 13th. Her tweet was about Goldsmith, but not directed at him in his mentions, and was in response to his uncreative desecration of the body of Michael Brown at Interrupt 3, a conference held at Brown University, March 12th-15th, 2015. Goldsmith read an autopsy of Michael Brown, reordering it to end with the description of Michael Brown’s penis. He titled it “The Body of Michael Brown.” Outrage from Goldsmith’s followers poured forth over the tweet in response to this performance, with one person telling him to “take care of you and yours.”
Goldsmith, invited to perform his work at the White House for President Obama in 2011, seems able to take care of himself and his own. However, a quick Internet search showed no results of Goldsmith’s support for #blacklivesmatter, nor of #blackpoetsspeakout, a point well made by Kima Jones.
In adherence to a long tradition of taking care of his own, Goldsmith is concerned with death threats, or at least this one made against him. But did the poet actually make a death threat?
“A death threat is a threat, often made anonymously, by one person or a group of people to kill another person or groups of people. These threats are often designed to intimidate victims in order to manipulate their behavior, and thus a death threat can be a form of coercion. For example, a death threat could be used to dissuade a public figure from pursuing a criminal investigation or an advocacy campaign.”—Wikipedia. Death threat. Death threat. Countless others have gotten far more explicit threats from Twitter accounts that are not suspended.
As of March 16th, the poet’s account is suspended.
It is difficult to tell when Goldsmith is being genuine. That is the nature of his work, which he has suggested people don’t need to read to understand, and of his online presence. Goldsmith is about Goldsmith. Did he feel threatened by the tweet? That is unclear, though in the past Twitter has refused to take action at all unless the person threatened reports it. Despite published policies prohibiting death threats, Twitter has not always suspended accounts of those who make such threats. However, enough people were threatened by the tweet that the account in question was disabled by Twitter, despite its miserable track record of taking death and rape threats seriously at all. Goldsmith himself doesn’t seem to take many things seriously, either, but there are things he should take seriously. Death threats are one of those things.
People of color are threatened with death for being born people of color. Nothing like a real and not conceptual death threat every day of your life.
CONSIDER THIS: A Partial List of Unarmed People of Color Killed by Police 1999-2014 (a partial list because the United States does not keep accurate records of the shooting of unarmed people of color by police):
Rumain Brisbon—Tamir Rice—Akai Gurley—Kajieme Powell—Ezell Ford—Dante Parker—Michael Brown—John Crawford III—Tyree Woodson—Eric Garner—Victor White III—Yvette Smith—McKenzie Cochran—Jordan Baker—Andy Lopez—Miriam Carey—Jonathan Ferrell—Carlos Alcis—Larry Eugene Jackson, Jr.— Deion Fludd—Kimani Gray—Johnnie Kamahi Warren—Malissa Williams—Reynaldo Cuevas—Chavis Carter—Shantel Davis—Sharmel Edwards—Ervin Jefferson—Kendrec McDade—Rekia Boyd—Shereese Francis—Wendell Allen—Nehemiah Dillard—Dante Price—Raymond Allen—Sgt. Manuel Loggins—Ramarley Graham—Kenneth Chamberlain—Alonzo Ashley—Kenneth Harding—Raheim Brown—Reginald Doucet—Derrick Jones—Danroy Henry—AIYANA JONES AGE 7 AIYANA JONES AGE 7 AIYANA JONES AGE 7 AIYANA JONES AGE 7 AIYANA JONES AGE 7 AIYANA JONES AGE 7 AIYANA JONES AGE 7—Steven Eugene Washington—Aaron Campbell—Kiwane Carrington—Victor Steen—Shem Walker—Oscar Grant—Tarika Wilson—DeAunta Terrel Farrow—Sean Bell—Henry Glover—Ronald Madison—James Brisette—Timothy Stransbury—Alberta Spruill—Ousmane Zongo—Orlando Barlow—Timothy Thomas—Prince Jones—Ronald Beasley—Earl Murray—Patrick Dorismond—Malcolm Ferguson—Amadou Diallo—Darren Rainey—Darrien Hunt—Ramiro James Villegas—Richard Perez—David Raya—Derek Williams—Ma-hi-vist Goodblanket—Clinton Allen—John T. Williams—Barrington Williams—Kyam Livingston—Jersey Green—Noel Polanco—Clinton Allen—Rocendo Arias—Dillon Taylor—Levar Edward Jones—Tony Robinson, Jr.— Naeschylus Vinzant—Anthony Hill
I do not know how many names I have missed. I do not know how many more POC were beaten or shot and not killed. I do not know how many died in police custody. I do not know. I do not know. I do not know. There is no way for us to know but to speak to each other more, because the United States does not keep reliable, specific statistics on these issues.
I do know a disproportionate number of POC are incarcerated in the United States. I do know that Goldsmith’s performance caused many people pain, distress, frustration, sadness, and incredible anger.
“I am requesting that Brown University not make public the recording of my performance of ‘The Body of Michael Brown.’ There’s been too much pain for many people around this and I do not wish to cause any more.” –Kenneth Goldsmith, Facebook, March 16, 2015
How generous. How generous. How generous. Whose pain is he responding to? Whose pain? Whose pain is he responding to? If he’s done the thing, why would he hide it to save more suffering for “many people around this?” He justified the thing as art online after he did the thing. He performed this thing in a public space, to a human audience. He retweeted people urging others to reserve judgment until they got to see the thing. He tweeted and posted on Facebook instances of people defending him, his work, his intent, his genius. He defended himself and the thing, and now he wants to hide the thing. Should Brown keep the thing hidden? I don’t want to see the thing. I don’t need context. There is no context that could make appropriate a white man looking to provoke by having taken Michael Brown’s autopsy out of context, reordered to end with a description of his penis. But what if others want to see the thing that Goldsmith suggested via retweets should not be judged without having been seen?
Meanwhile, if you want to but cannot see this thing Goldsmith no longer wants you to see, this thing he claimed to have received a death threat over, perhaps pass the time by turning your eyes to the number of people of color who receive death threats, abuse, and harassment not only on the street but online, on the daily. (In order to do this you may have to know some of these people, because threats against them go largely unreported.) These are usually anonymous but highly specific death threats including names of parents, addresses, phone numbers. The are threats of rape, death, and assault against members of people’s families that come after things like essays criticizing a publication, criticizing any man anywhere ever, criticizing a video game, criticizing a poem at the Paris Review, posting a selfie while fat, posting a selfie while Black, blogging while Black, reporting while Black, posting recipes on the Internet while Black. Or while of any other ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender besides White Cisgender Male. Equally disturbing is how little attention the women of color who get these threats receive. Major search engine results produce top hits mentioning primarily white feminists. (Of course. Of course. Of course.)
The majority of the search results pointed to Anita Sarkeesian. Roxane Gay was a notable exception to the whiteness of the top results. The rest were more or less about Lindy West and a handful of other white women. To learn more, I contacted several women of color to ask how frequently they receive harassment of violence threats of violence and death online. The answers: ALL THE TIME. ONCE A DAY. TWICE A WEEK. ANY TIME I OPEN MY MOUTH. ALL THE TIME. DAILY. WEEKLY. DAILY. ALL THE TIME. ALL THE TIME. What were the nature of the threats? Racism. Slurs. Threats against their bodies, especially in the cases of trans women and gay women. Threats against their lives, their websites, their jobs, their pets, their families, their cars. Specific threats. Vile, horrid, and underreported threats. Threats so common that some women, like blogger and poet Shannon Barber, are hardly even shaken at this point. But poor, poor Kenny G. So many decrying his terrible death threat.
WAIT. NO. THIS IS NOT ABOUT HIM, THOUGH HE WANTS TO MAKE IT SO. NO. NO. NO. I urge readers to go to THE MONGREL COALITION AGAINST GRINGPO and read “The Mongrel Coalition Killed Conceptualism.” Here’s a screenshot of part of it.
Just as the art, creative writing, and reporting of people of color is marginalized, so are the very real and constant threats of death and violence faced every single day. While Goldsmith has his defenders, and has the right to live free of the threat of death for his work, his engagement at Brown University showed utter complicity with white supremacy. The offending tweet seemed to be shocking to many of Goldsmith’s followers, almost as though they did not know these things could happen, or as if they were shocked that they happened to a man upholding white supremacy. White supremacy, the ultimate death threat. White supremacy, a threat so real that Rumpus contributor and journalist Olivia Olivia, who writes about race, class, feminism, and abuse, writes under a pseudonym in an attempt to protect herself from the threats of violence she faces daily. She lives on an upper floor of a building with security. In fact, an entire Reddit forum exists to tear apart her blog and hurl abuse at her.
She writes anyway. She says NO. So many write, perform, create, and simply walk down the street anyway. They say NO. It should not be the sole responsibility of POC like Olivia Olivia—and so many more—to take these risks, and say NO alone.
If you do not say no to white supremacy, you are saying yes. I say NO. I say NO. And now, I will listen.