Poetry & Race Roundtable        (page 26)

Timothy Yu:

Part Two:
I’m deeply impressed by the depth of the conversation that’s been going on here, and I’m grateful to everyone who’s participated in it. I want to try to complete some of the unfinished thoughts from the first part of my response.

I think it’s safe to say that most of us are unimpressed by Hoagland’s “defense” of his poem. It’s perhaps all to easy to argue, as I did, that Hoagland’s apparent mea culpa is not in particularly good faith, and indeed that it arrogates to itself the authority to pronounce on “Americanness” while obscuring its own true subject position—that of whiteness.

To my mind, however, Hoagland’s poem and his defense of it do raise one useful question, one that many of us have also tried to address (and that Claudia’s quotation from Richard Dyer elaborates): how should white American poets, who are often seen not to “have” race, write about race in their poetry? Should white American poets write about race at all?

This question, it seems to me, is the true focus of the anger and resentment underlying Hoagland’s defense of his poem. It is an all-too-common expectation in contemporary American writing that authors of color—those who “have” race—are the ones whose job it is to write “about” race. White writers have no such responsibility; indeed, some white authors may feel actively discouraged from writing about race, lest they be seen as presumptuous—or, at worst, that they be accused of racism themselves.

The source of this sentiment—that writers of color should write about race, and that white writers should not—is far too complex to go into here (it’s one I tried to address in my book), but it’s clear that both white and non-white poets might feel that it places uncomfortable restrictions on their work. A poet of color who does not treat racial themes in a conventional way may find his work rejected or ignored because it is “not ethnic enough”—as when Orlando described a judge’s demand that he write more “as a Native person.” And a white poet like Hoagland may feel such expectations as a censorious restriction on creativity and self-revelation. The real source of Hoagland’s rage, I think, is not animosity toward African Americans or anger at Rankine, but a bristling resentment that he feels he is not allowed to write about race: “it seems foolish and costly to think that the topic of race belongs only to brown-skinned Americans and not white-skinned Americans. But many poets and readers think that.”

What Hoagland resents is his sense that he does not have the right to write about race in his poetry—that only poets of color are thought to have that right. If we understand this, it’s easy enough to see his poem as an inverted allegory of this situation: just as the “big black girl from Alabama” asserts her right to rule the white-dominated sport of tennis, the white poet uses her to assert his own right to write poetry about race—a realm from which he feels white authors are unjustly excluded.

Of course, I don’t think that any of us are among the “many poets and readers” who think white writers should steer clear of race (I don’t think Rankine is either). Indeed, I think we are all interested in moving beyond the simplistic paradigm that states that writers of color should write about race (i.e. they can write only about certain established topics in conventional ways) while white writers shouldn’t (i.e. that they get a free pass or aren’t implicated in race). As Evie suggests, there are many ways beyond these simple binaries, and I think it’s clear that the poetry/race interface is taking new and unexpected shapes in contemporary writing, beyond poems that are “about” race by poets who “have” race.

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