Poetry & Race Roundtable        (page 13)

Veronica Golos (continued): I’ve been grappling with the issue of White Blindness for a while, in my own work and in my teaching. Twenty years ago, I wrote a “spoken-word” poem titled Redemption Song. I’ll repeat it in parts:

         She was sixteen and white and didn’t know
what white meant…

         …Didn’t know that white was a construction
         not a skin color
         it was Attitude
         blankness in the face of shame
         ignorance in the face of blame…

         it was ideology – cause otherwise
         why don’t we have a John Brown holiday?

         …she was sixteen and didn’t know herself
         didn’t know how white is carefully cultivated
         the arrangement of being on high ground and never thinking
         how you got there, how it was built and by whom because no one
         …questions who and what and why
         they just say, my my my
         you got that job because you’re qualified.

         …Because she was sixteen and didn’t know
         whiteness is a conundrum which
         must be undone
         didn’t know she must unlearn
         burn those images off the brain but
         retain the knowledge of how they got there
         and why;

         ...and in the final analysis
         redemption is what it always is everyone:
         …slogging through the shit
         till you hit

The girl in the poem is only 16 – but she could be 36 or 66. We live in a world where white privilege is so deep, common, so natural that it goes unnoticed by those who have it.

One of the articles I read in preparation for this discussion was by poet Czeslaw Milosz, from The Witness of Poetry. He’s speaks about Poland after the war, and describes examples the “sudden crumbling of all current notions” and the complete devastation “of the way things were.” He states, “Perhaps the generations of Frenchmen who lived through the revolution and the Napoleonic wars felt something similar, and perhaps too Americans from the South felt they were witness to the ruins of their entire way of life after the Civil War.” I read this as a kind of blankness. Which Americans in the south is he speaking of? I suspect he is not referring to the enslaved peoples, who, I would imagine were jubilant at the “sudden crumbing of all current notions,” and the “ruins of (the) entire way of life”?

Closer to home is the response of Tony Hogland to Claudia Rankine’s critique in the passage Farid quotes. Hoagland says, “…of course I am racist, and sexist, a homophobe, a classicist, liberal, a middle class American, a college graduate, a drop out, an egotist, a Diet Pepsi drinker, a Unitarian, a fool, a Triple A Member….”

Hoagland first refers to himself as a racist, an admission that whites carry the fungus of racism with them. He then goes on to call himself a sexist, a homophobe. These all seem to go together. Even referring to himself as a classicist, thus including western civilization, seems to add to his admission. But then he goes on to call himself a liberal, a middle class American, a college graduate, a drop out. How do these labels line up with the racist, sexist homophobe? Are we to correlate the racist, sexist, homophobe with the egoist Diet Pepsi drinker? Hoagland minimizes the serious considerations of racist and sexist by including them with the labels of Diet Pepsi drinker and Triple A member. It is the classic dodge, the diminution of the serious into the ironic and the mundane, the so-called humorous.

I believe American poets must be bifocal – must understand paradox, negative capability if you will, and must embrace a more complete comprehension of history. This might result in poetry that is more complex, offers a truer internal deliberation, and a more careful attention to language. They/we must, as “non racialized” poets, understand how we are perceived by those who are racialized; for history follows us wherever we go. We are seen, by those who are on the “rim,” differently than we imagine ourselves. A brief exposure to a more complete and accurate history is not enough. The non-racialized poet must ingest and believe it.

Veronica Golos

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