Four Poems About Race by White People
from American Poetry Review, May / June 2016
Getting off the plane in Newark, New Jersey, a few years ago, before the Dodge Poetry Festival, I looked for the car service hired to transport poets to the festival grounds. It turned out I was riding in the same car as _______, a Native American poet, whom I had not met before.
"Oh, it's nice to meet you," I said. "You and I are on the same panel on Sunday—'Poets on Race in Poetry.'"
Although she and I look pretty much the same—we both could pass for Minnesotans—she looked at me like I was crazy, and burst into laughter. "What race are you?" she said.
_______'s assumption, one shared by most Americans, is that white skin color is disconnected from racial identity. Whiteness is the background against which race happens. "Race," in its usual contemporary use, is a word for a negatively experienced cultural condition, in a dominantly Caucasian society, entailing discrimination on the basis of skin color. In the United States, of course, that assumption is ninety percent true; degrees of brownness have been and continue to be the basis for Dantean social and economic oppression. By comparison, Whiteness is historically "unmarked," i.e., is a historically untraumatized, state of skin. Or, as the blues musician Big Bill Broonzy puts it:
If you's white, you alright,
If you's brown, stick around,
But as you's black, oh, brother,
get back, get back, get back
Nonetheless, race is the elephant in the living room of American life, and its presence is sensed by all citizens—sometimes acutely, sometimes in violent denial at a great remove. The fact that race's relevance to their lives is denied by a certain percentage of Americans does not mean it does not press upon their vision. Each time the six o'clock news reports a black man shot in some American street, every time a middle-class citizen locks her car doors while driving through a poor part of town, a little pressure-wave of unease ripples through the American psyche, at least on a subliminal level. That shadow, with its complex tension between memory and denial, has been upon the country as long as we have been alive. It is hard to imagine a future free of such shadows.
Ironically, as long as race is considered to be the exclusive problem of—and the discursive property of—people of color, our situation is perpetuated, unacknowledged, and petrified. As long as white is an unremarked-upon color ("What race are you?"), we are stuck with the bone in our throat.
In our time, the necessary vocabulary doesn't seem to have been devised that whites can use to name, explore, or describe their own racial discomfort. Speech about race is constrained by the political phobia of saying the wrong thing in the wrong way, a linguistic paranoia that locks us in paralysis. Very little can be said about race in America by a person of "no color" that is not subject to critique. "Unqualified" to comprehend the subject, white people are expected to be silent.
One sometimes wonders about similar backwardness in the allegedly progressive arts world. Isn't it a form of segregation to always have the Hispanic writer introduced and interviewed by another Hispanic writer, the Asian American writer introduced by the Asian American critic? Aren't the presumptions behind such studied orchestrations of culture mechanical and racist? Isn't it part of our liberated vocation to ignore and shun such sanctions? Isn't our job as creative writers to speak first and analyze later, to unearth the unspoken, to be reckless? Our great freedom is that we are not politicians, nor dissemblers for profit. We don't have to worry about reelection. We are allowed to track the muddy footprints of ambiguity and ambivalence on the living-room carpet of propriety. We want to act on behalf of enlightenment, not as self-appointed guardians of fashionable caution.
By way of hopeful testimony, this essay offers four poems by four white American writers who attempt to engage the topic of race in America. Their strategies are wonderfully diverse: oblique and garrulous; cunning in omission and sneaky with metaphor; frank with confession and enigmatic with ambiguity. The variety of their methodologies, and what the poems expose about our ongoing awkwardness, is rich and resourceful. Most of all, these poems acknowledge race in America as a shared complexity, not the exclusive burden of one group.
Jeffrey McDaniel's poem "When Was Heaven Desegregated?" approaches racial reality head-on, with a vivid and witty bluntness. McDaniel is a gifted metaphorical thinker, and he employs his inventive analogical skills as tongs to handle the charged topic poetically. Here's how his poem begins:
Watching the news about Diallo, my eight year old
asks—why don't they build black people
with bulletproof skin? I tell Jake there's another
humans change colors like mood rings.
You wake up Scottish, and fall asleep Chinese; enter a theatre
Persian, and exit Puerto Rican. And Earth
is a junkyard planet, where they send all the broken humans
who are stuck in one color.
Dark humor and a science fiction flavor allow the poem a way to comment on this impossibly large subject.(1) McDaniel is also clever in the construct of his rhetorical fiction: a grown-up person explaining the facts of life to a younger one is conventionally allowed to simplify reality through analogies. Just as the younger cousin suggests that bulletproof skin might be helpful to African American existence in America, so the older speaker can offer an alternative, Utopian vision of what a "normal" society would look like, "humans change colors like mood rings. / You wake up Scottish, and fall asleep Chinese."
In fact, McDaniel's use of poetic fantasy implies that only sci-fi logic can account for the world's bizarre history of racial insanity. To approach the topic in the first place requires a certain protective divorce from reality, and McDaniel's poem frames racism from such a great distance—from even farther off than the detached distance of Whiteness. It makes racism both less real and more real.
In the second section of the poem, the poet brings societal reality much closer, through a personal anecdote about his own white "immunity" to persecution. Here the speaker dramatizes his own experience in the system of institutionalized racism.
. . . Then Jake asks do they
have ghettos in the afterlife? Seven years ago
I sat in a car, an antenna filled with crack cocaine smoldering
between my lips, the smoke spreading
in my lungs, like the legs of Joseph Stalin's mom in the delivery
room. An undercover piglet hoofed up
to the window. My buddy busted an illegal u-turn, screeched
the wrong way down a one-way street.
I chucked the antenna, shoved the crack rock up my asshole.
The cops swooped in from all sides,
yanked me out. I clutched my ass cheeks like a third fist gripping
a winning lotto ticket. The cop yelled,
White boys only come in this neighborhood for two reasons: to steal
cars and buy drugs. You already got wheels.
I ran into the burning building of my mind. I couldn't see shit.
It was filled with crack smoke. I dug
through the ashes of my conscience, till I found my educated, white
male dialect, which I stuck in my voice box
and pushed play. Officer, I'm going to be honest with you: Blah,
blah, blah. See, the sad truth is my skin
said everything he needed to know. My skin whispered into his pink
ear, I'm white. You can't pin shit on this
pale fabric. This pasty cloth is pin resistant....
"When Was Heaven Desegregated?" is a poem that narrates a white speaker's confused experience of the racialized world. In its self-scathing intensity, it might be condescendingly consigned to that poetic category called Confessional, but its circumstances resonate beyond a speaker's singular experience. Every possessor of white skin's privilege, says McDaniel's speaker, is a sinner, one who enjoys the leisure of unearned advantage.
The speaker recognizes that he is entangled in a collective injustice, and is a beneficiary of racial imbalance. The speaker's guilt is not just channeled into middle-class self-contempt, but projected into a fierce contempt for the entire system, the system in which white boys walk and black ones are locked up. McDaniel's surrealist, mechanical imagery ("I found my educated, white male dialect, which I stuck in my voice box") extends the cyborg, self-alienated imagery, established earlier in the poem, of a "robot world" where human beings on automatic pilot are helplessly enmeshed in a broken system. This speaker, though white, is not insensible to the hellish split in American consciousness.
McDaniel's poem exhibits nerve in taking on the difficult subject with a skillful blend of worldly truth and imaginative license. His use of fantasy leavens, but does not whitewash, the factual realism which is also part of the poem. This poet's way of handling this topic—a topic that most white poets simply avoid—is ingenious, substantial, and bold.
The strategy of Lucia Perillo's poem "The Wolves of Illinois" is more ambiguous and glancing in its treatment of Whiteness and race. In Perillo's poem, the contact between black and white Americans is not frontal, dramatic, or especially commented-upon—but peripheral, uncomfortable, and inarticulate. The situation is simple: at a nature sanctuary, members of two races find themselves alongside each other, seeking a glimpse of wildlife. What the reader gets is a view of another kind of creature—the complex, under-articulated wildness of everyday race relations. Here's how Perillo's poem begins:
When I stopped along the road and climbed the platform that the wildlife people built, I saw the dead grass moving. A darker gold that
broke free from the pale gold of the field.
"Wolves," said the man who stood beside me on the platform. On his other side stood his wife and children, I assumed, dressed as if
they'd come from church,
a boy and girl, her scalp cross-hatched with partings from her braids. Note that this is my way of announcing they were black
or African American, I am shy not only of the terminology but of the subject altogether ...
In Perillo's poem the drama of racial estrangement is projected, in part, onto the absence of adequate language—What do I call this? wonders Perillo's speaker, narrating her story to the reader. Is the word black or African American? Is it coyote or wolf? Having to choose between different names for things becomes emblematic of the incomprehensible and perhaps uncrossable breach between brown and white:
and my being torn about language makes me nervous from the start. "Look at the wolves," he told his children ...
"Those are coyotes," I said ...
... Because I know the wolves were coyotes;
the wolves were coyotes,
and so I said "There are no wolves in Illinois." ...
"I am shy not only of the terminology but of the subject altogether," says Perillo's honest speaker, " ... and my being torn about language makes me nervous from the start."
The contest to be right about the identity of wildlife is the superficial friction of the scene, but what becomes eloquent is not who wins, but the skirmishing, indirect, inarticulate manner in which the two protagonists struggle: never facing each other or allowing their disagreement to escalate. Each strives to be an "authority," but the buried dimensions of the struggle—personal pride, dignity, competitiveness, and American history—represent race relations in our time. Agreement seems impossible, concession is unacceptable, and direct confrontation is best avoided.
"Check out the wolves," he said (the minutes ticking)
(The minutes nuzzling each other's flanks) ...
The scene captures the fragility and uneasiness that members of one race feel in the presence of another. Symbolically, the situation also implies that the two people actually see two different realities. Some literary critic might say that "The Wolves of Illinois" is about language, but in fact it is about estrangement, separation, difference, and the inchoate burden of the American slavery legacy—though none of that is overtly named. Race is only an incidental smudge in the narrative, but that irritating, ominous, and profound smudge affects everything else. The incomplete, uninspected, unarticulated subject matter mirrors the way race is a peripheral; disturbing presence in the ongoing order of our days.
Lydia Davis is well known as a writer of short, obliquely angled fictions, but Davis frequently uses techniques that make it quite reasonable to consider her a poet. Her one-and-one-half-page piece called "Family" employs the sterilized factual tone of a police report. Writing in a flat, utterly objective voice with no inflection or accompanying commentary, Davis describes interactions observed between a number of characters in a public park:
... (1) Fat young white woman pulls white baby by one arm onto quilt spread on grass. (2) Little black boy struggles with older black girl over swing, (3) is ordered to sit down on grass, (4) stands sullen while (5) fat white woman heaves to her feet, walks to him and smacks him. (6) Little black boy whimpers, lies on his back on grass while (7) fat white woman plays with baby and (8) young black man orders black girl off swing. (9) Young black man begins wrestling in play with long-haired white girl who (10) protests while (11) tall, bony, wrinkled, mustachioed white man in baseball cap stands with arms crossed, back hunched, walkie-talkie attached to right hip and (12) black girl lies down with face in baby's face. (13) Baby peers up and around black girl when (14) white girl protests more loudly as (15) young black man slaps her buttocks and (16) older white man watches with arms crossed. (17) White girl breaks free of young black man and runs toward river crying as (18) young black man runs easily after her and … (19) older white man in baseball cap runs awkwardly after her, one hand on walkie-talkie at his hip. (20) Young black man picks up white girl and carries her back ...
"Family" places the reader in a state of uncertainty about these events and their meanings. What does it mean that the characters are of different races? Do our narrative stereotypes and anxieties help us interpret what is going on, or do they fatally distort our perception? Will the older white man produce a gun and use it in some violent defense of white rights? Is that white girl being harassed by that young black man?
The description of the "plot," and the lack of interpretation on the part of the narrator, provoke the reader to draw culturally conditioned conclusions—to impose various narratives on the events. Davis's stripped-down story elicits and showcases the stereotyped notions we bring to our everyday perception. Like the Rorschach blot test administered as part of a psychological assessment, Davis profiles the reader's conditioned projection of American racial assumptions. What is going on?
As it turns out, nothing bad comes to pass. It is simply "one family" on an outing, and our confusion arises from the mixture of the characters' races and ages, and their indefinite relations. At the end of the narrative, the family packs up and goes home, as peaceful and disorganized as any family on a picnic:
(34) White man returns with black man and bends to gather quilt and bag from grass. (35) White male in baseball cap holds small sleeping bag open while (36) young white woman puts baby in. (37) Young white woman orders black boy up off the ground. (38) Black boy shakes head and stays on ground ... (42) Older white man follows holding crying black boy by hand. (43) Family leaves playground and enters dusty road. (44) Family stops to wait for white man in baseball cap, who (45) returns slowly to park, picks up pair of child's thongs from grass, and (46) rejoins family. (47) Family walks on, heading toward marsh, short bridge and red sky.
In her ominous, deadpan, and quiet style, Davis's piece does one job of literature: it pressures us to fill in the blanks, and to feel what is there to feel. Her enigmatic orchestration threatens us with our own racialized imagination. That the trouble never arrives is a strange relief. And yet the American potential for violence and misunderstanding hovers around the scene atmospherically; for the duration of our reading, we feel that familiar curse.
Of the four poems featured here, Douglas Goetsch's narrative-meditative poem "Black People Can't Swim" offers the most positive portrait of racial coexistence.
In Goetsch's narrative, the white male speaker is hanging out with a group of African American women; he is curious, garrulous, ignorant, and undefensive. The specific gift that Goetsch's poem brings us is the representation of our true, deep racial curiosity; the characters are neither frightened nor traumatized, neither angry, wary, nor self-conscious. Goetsch's speaker's guileless curiosity is charming. This, perhaps—the good faith of curiosity—may be the most healing asset Americans possess, and it constitutes our best argument for hopefulness. Merely to model, foster, and accommodate that curiosity, as this poem does, is a worthy poetic function. Here's how the poem starts:
When I told Patricia how much I loved the pool at the Y
she said, "Oh, black people can't swim,"
which made me grateful to be let in on this,
not the information, but the intimacy—
the fact that she could let fly with such a piece
of black on black attitude without the slightest
bit of shame or self-consciousness. We were in
a restaurant, me and five black women who were paying
more attention than any white females
I'd ever seen to a football game on the high
definition TV. . . .
Goetsch, like the other writers featured here, is a canny rhetorician, who must steer his unusual narrative through the treacherous politicized waters of objectification and "exoticizing the other." One smart choice he makes is to deliver his anecdote in dialogue form. As a consequence, most of the perspective upon women of color is delivered, not as the speaker's observations, but as reported speech, as the testimony of an "inside informant." What is more, the speaker greets his informants' revelations about the lives of African American women with an attitude of delight and wonder—his education is progressing.
That doesn't mean the speaker renders himself invisible, in the manner of the narrator of Davis's poem "Family." Here, the white speaker augments his narrative with authorial asides: "which made me grateful to be let in on this" and "We were all toddlers when Martin dreamed / of little black children and little white children / going to school arm in arm. He dreamed this too: / a restaurant table where we were free to reveal/ not just our true, but our mysterious, irrational selves / in the presence of the other tribe without apology."
Later in "Black People Can't Swim," the speaker asks about being escorted into a store by one of his African American woman friends.
. . . Earlier, on the walk over, she pulled me
away from the group into a leather shop
to show me a $200 Italian bag on layaway.
"And what did you say?"
"That's not what she wanted to hear."
They eyed each other, deciding who would tell:
"Honey, when a sister shows a man something
on layaway she wants him to buy it."
"No way—" but they were all nodding, and I had to
love this country, or this ten square feet of it,
where they could tell me about men and women
and race and layaway.
Goetsch's upbeat narrative depicts at least one small parcel of American terrain—"ten square feet"—in which MLK's dream is being realized, in increments. The ignorance of one race about another, in this scenario, can be relieved by frankness and friendship. It's a moment of good news, and it presents a counterpoint to the dark vision recorded in McDaniel's poem, and the irresolvable, helpless friction portrayed in Perillo's poem.
Of course, one can imagine a critic faulting Goetsch's poem for its easy optimism or its stereotyping, or for its "appropriation" of black voices by a white narrator, or even for his speaker's liberal passivity.
In fact, any of these four poems by white people about the topic of race could be faulted or disqualified for some sort of nearsightedness, oversimplification, or historical omission. But one might as well accuse empathy itself of being a presumptuous act of the imagination. To assume is not always an act of arrogant blindness; it can also can be an act of hope and courage, from which fresh possibilities arise.
It is worth our while to admire the range of these poetic tableaux, to appreciate the diversity of conceptual risks and technical skills employed to make each of these poems work on its own terms. In the world of a million stories, and a million standing places, no perspective has a monopoly. Different actualities coexist; what is true hides in some layered composite of all of them.
Each of these narratives displays a white speaker struggling to be aware of Whiteness as a color with consequences, and to comprehend race as a reality in which he or she is clearly one part. Likewise, these poems individually recognize the presence of Whiteness as an inconvenience, and sometimes as a kind of injustice, for others.
They trouble the question that many black and brown and yellow writers, and many women thinkers, have asked in the past—Who owns the terms? How can I find a way to converse with other viewpoints without using the terminology and discourse invented by those others? Do I want to have the discussion, and will I be permitted to say how the truth is for me?
Our dialogue about race is complex, unresolved, and will probably be endless, a thing to be enacted forever on our shaky, shattered, and traumatized national ground. It requires of us a belief in the willingness of others, and a trust that even our misunderstandings will not be intentionally misunderstood.
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About the Author
Tony Hoagland's most recent book is Application for Release from the Dream (Graywolf, 2015). His other books include Sweet Ruin (1992); Donkey Gospel (1998), winner of the James Laughlin Award; What Narcissism Means to Me (2003), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Rain (2005); and Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (2010).
American Poetry Review
Editors: David Bonanno, Elizabeth Scanlon