Poetry & Race Roundtable        (page 24)

Jaswinder Bolina (continued): It’s precisely because Rankine is likely very cognizant of the role race plays in the American milieu that her response to “The Change” is understandable. I especially get her reaction to the language in the poem, and am compelled by the final paragraph of her talk which states,

“For so long I thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase me as a person, but after considering [Judith] 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.”

Perhaps the most difficult aspects of being a minority in America are the moments in which I’m reminded of my Otherness, moments which occur with annoying frequency. On these occasions, I’m present in this country but also reminded how I’m inexorably different from its predominantly white identity. I’m made to feel in attendance but not invited. It’s something like being the party crasher hoping to go unnoticed while standing in line for the keg.

In spite of my sympathies with Rankine’s points, I also find myself agreeing with Hoagland that she appears to conflate her former colleague with the speaker of the poem. Her desire for the poem to be a more explicit critique or something of a morality play seems to misunderstand the poem’s intentions. She says, “I wanted my colleague to tell them right there in his poem that that kind of thinking…well, it’s just not right.” But the poem isn’t especially interested in doing this. Its tactic is that of a dramatic monologue which expresses racism such that an audience might recognize similar feelings in itself—which again reminds me of the similar tactic in David’s Curb or, more recently, Louis C.K.’s Louie—but this isn’t what Rankine is looking for. Her desire for pro-action, however, makes it appear as though she simply doesn’t get the poem in the first place. At end, I don’t believe Hoagland is a racist, I don’t believe Rankine is an incompetent reader, and I don’t honestly believe that she thinks of Hoagland as a bigot—as Timothy points out, she never even accuses him of this, though his response suggests otherwise. Instead, I’m reminded of sitcoms over and over again in thinking about this largely because so much of what’s going on here is founded on that exact type of misunderstanding. Jack Tripper’s constantly trying to do the essentially decent thing, and it’s in everyone else’s misreading of his actions and motivations that the comedy is born. At the same time, how vapid and redundant so many television comedies seem for this very reason. For all the seriousness and earnestness Rankine and Hoagland no doubt possess, watching this unfold felt a lot like watching a shoddily written t.v. show. And nobody’s laughing.

If Rankine’s greatest crime is bloated expectations for the poem, then Hoagland’s is his claim—according to Rankine’s talk—that “[the poem] was [written] for white people.” I get why she wants what she wants, and I get what he means in his defense of his work: the poem isn’t attempting to offer what Rankine is looking for; rather, it’s a brand of satire aimed at a particular audience. However, my issue with Hoagland’s defense is twofold. First, his statement reminds me of claims that a magazine like Maxim can’t be held accountable for its objectifications of women because it’s produced for men. Of course, Maxim isn’t attempting to make men cognizant of political complexities in the way Hoagland’s poem attempts to make “white people” cognizant of their ingrained prejudices. Still, the defense doesn’t hold up inasmuch as his book isn’t encountered strictly by a white readership, which leads me to my second problem.

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