The Blind Spot
When we speak of race and poetry in this country, we must first ask what it means to be an American poet. In panels on poetry, the discussion often begins with Whitman and Dickinson (rather than, say, of Phyllis Wheatly), and of the five panelists, there is one person of color. We can almost be sure that the “non-racialized” writers won’t mention a poet of color.
I recall one such panel I attended at the New School in New York City many years ago, where Sonia Sanchez was included as the “one.” She spoke last, and tried in the moments she was given to cover race, racism, and the multicultural poetry spectrum. In other words, Sonia was making up for a great lack. The white panelists had, consciously or not, the luxury of speaking about a single poet, and examining that poet’s intricacies of American speech and cadence. Sonia was left to summarize the rest, carrying, if you will, the weight of history, of those who still, to this day, are considered “other.”
Two years ago, I heard a wonderful poet, (white and a woman) give a talk on political poetry. She explained that she had recently become politically active, and ran through a short list of Vietnam War era poets she labeled “political,” singling out Denise Levertov. Although I was amused by the newness of her enthusiasm, (I had been in the radical political movement for over 30 years), I thought, good for her. We need all the political poets we can get.
However, I was struck by the limitations of what she had chosen to represent political poetry: 1960’s American anti-war poetry, all by white poets. It was her definition that I balked at. Seated in the audience was Cornelius Eady, one of the teachers at this writer’s conference, whose book, Brutal Imagination, is, not only quintessential political poetry, but quintessentially American in that it deals with race, racism and a certain kind of American mindset.
The work of the white poets involved took/take many risks in terms of form and content, and there is much in their poetry to admire. However, each instance demonstrates a malady I term White Blindness, the inherently narcissistic point of view that “white” is the default human setting. This point of view absences such issues as slavery, the slaughter of Native peoples, the internment of the Japanese, etc., and the burden falls upon “racialized people” to interrupt the historical narrative and to correct it. This corrected narrative then becomes the “other” story, and is often relegated to an addendum.
The intrinsic conundrum of White Blindness is its presence as a physical and psychic blind spot masked by terms like Western Civilization, the Classics or even Democracy.
By definition, a blind spot is: A subject that somebody is ignorant about; an area or direction especially on a road, in which somebody’s vision is obscured.