Poetry & Race Roundtable        (page 7)

Farid Matuk (continued):

Point of Need:
I remember arguing in graduate school with a fellow student about Hoagland's poems on race. My point was that if Hoagland indeed wants to have readers face their own racism, he needs to challenge us even more, that nobody needs to be brought into such cursory contact with their racism, that puckish stances or smugness or cheap laughs were poor tools for "digging it out of the ground."

The guy I was talking to countered that for a lot of white Americans Hoagland goes as far as they can get. I dismissed this argument at the time. Then a few weeks back I heard a story on NPR's All Things Considered about Spike Lee's critiques of Tyler Perry's films (the Madea franchise, for example). Basically, Lee believes Perry's films encourage harmful African-American stereotypes. Michele Norris, the show's host, spoke about the controversy with Toure, host of Fuse's On the Record and author of Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? , and Goldie Taylor, contributor to MSNBC and theGriot.com. You can read the full transcript here.

Here's an excerpt of the transcript that caught my attention:

Ms. TAYLOR: … What I applaud a Tyler Perry for doing is for taking very relevant, important things that some other filmmakers are just too afraid to touch and touch them in a special way that meets his audience at his point of need.
I don't think Tyler Perry is talking to Toure. I don't think he's talking to me, but I know that he's speaking directly to my mother, my sister, my cousins and meeting them at their point of need, and that's what art and filmmaking is about.
NORRIS: At the point of need, what do you mean by that?
Ms. TAYLOR: What I mean is that when women are talking about their own sense of brokenness, whether it is themes about incest or themes about domestic violence or joblessness or who we choose as mates, these kinds of very hard themes that Tyler has begun to paint the picture differently. And I think that when my mother and sister and cousins watch this stuff, they see a bit of a reflection of themselves, of their neighbors, of their sisters and friends.

So, I bring this up to suggest the possibility of considering the needs of white folks as we discuss race and poetry. Is Hoagland providing a service similar to the one Taylor sees Tyler Perry providing the black community?

If we eschew “political poetry” but expect poetry to do something like expand our capacity to empathize or to sensitize the reader to "alterity" or "otherness," then perhaps we are nonetheless attempting to make poetry serve some utilitarian end. So how get there in terms of race?

- Farid Matuk

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