This is a response to Claudia Rankine’s request for “thoughts on writing about race” following her public critique of Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” at the 2011 AWP conference.
To Whom It May Concern
Years ago, when I was in graduate school, I ran into one of faculty members in my program, an African American novelist I won’t name, in Borders Books just across the street from campus. He was in a hurry—going to catch a plane—and needed to buy a copy of his own new novel to bring to a friend. I hurried with him over to the Literature section, and we didn’t find the book. How could this be? It had just come out. It was in every other bookstore in town.
Then a thought came into my head—I’d spent more time wandering around Borders than he had—and I took his elbow, unthinking, and led him around the corner, and popped the book out from its place in “African-American Fiction.”
African-American Fiction, where James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, Ralph Ellison, Andrea Lee, James Weldon Johnson, Edward P. Jones, Colson Whitehead, all resided.
He had an expression on his face that I won’t try to describe.
I am a white American of English, Portuguese, French Huguenot, and Pennsylvania Dutch descent, some of whose ancestors were the Cushman family of Plymouth Colony. My wife’s mother is part Bengali, part Punjabi—originally from what is now Pakistan—and her father is descended from Hungarian, Galician, and Russian Jews. Which is to say that my son and daughter, who are all these things, are descended from people who, at times, disliked or despised each other, who struggled to exclude each other from citizenship or privilege.
When I write fiction, I try to write toward my children’s future—which is not to say toward some dream-world where all these conflicts are resolved and forgotten. Quite the opposite. I want to write fiction in which these conflicts, historical and present, are out on the table. In which there is friction and discomfort—specifically along racial, ethnic, cultural, linguistic lines.
I’ve been disappointed for a long time that more writers like me (which is to say white writers) don’t seem all that interested in seeking out these spaces of conflict and discomfort. But I can see why they don’t.
I take it for granted that part of my background and my psychology is racist, that my psyche has been shaped by the lifelong experience of privilege in ways that I will never fully understand. But taking it for granted is only a entry point and a provocation to try to understand these things by the attentive unpacking of the mind: in my case, through writing, through Buddhist practice, and through therapy.
I think that a great deal of the psychic pain I have experienced in my life has to do with anxiety—largely unconscious anxiety—over maintaining my status as a privileged human being. I think that unconscious racial anxiety permeates our culture to a degree very few of us want to admit. And I hold a certain kind of faith, probably an absurd kind of faith, that in writing about these unconscious structures, in bringing them to my readers’ attention, I will make them less powerful over my own mind.
I’m certainly not writing about them to be popular or sell books. In my experience, beyond a certain point, the American publishing industry is very uncomfortable with writers who represent characters markedly different from themselves.
Which brings me back to the point of the anecdote above.
The critic Mark McGurl, in his recent book The Program Era, describes much of contemporary American writing as “autopoetics,” which I understand to mean at least two different things: 1) writing that is essentially autobiographical, even if it is nominally “poetry” or “fiction,” and 2) writing that is assumed to be autobiographical or self-descriptive, authenticated by the identity of the writer.
Autopoetics is very convenient for the publishing industry, and the culture industry, because it allows marketers, salespeople, journalists, bloggers, and critics to streamline the story of the book and the story of the author into one story. It allows for niche marketing. But it does very little to promote more than a superficial sense of empathy or interrelatedness among readers or writers, and it also promotes naïve and essentialist definitions of culture, ethnicity, and race.
Autopoetics, in its default, unspoken mode, suggests that writers of color, or of some “different” ethnicity, are always writing about their own background, and that white writers who dare to mention race are doing something exciting, daring, and extraordinary. Neither of those things ought to be true. Neither of those assumptions accords with the world we live in.
In 2008, on his blog Do The Math, the jazz pianist and writer Ethan Iverson (who is white) wrote a long series of posts on the always-simmering controversy over the role of white musicians in jazz. Racially antagonistic language, and attitudes, are an integral part of jazz history. To choose one vivid example that has always stuck with me: the drummer Art Blakey, whose music I dearly love, was once quoted as saying that “the only way the Caucasian musician can swing is from a rope.”
Iverson writes that “Racial stereotyping is best avoided in elevated dialogue, but nonetheless racial stereotyping will occur in any serious discourse about jazz eventually. At that point valuable discussion is often suddenly halted when one side or the other perceives racism or is worried about being racist. I actually don’t mind racial stereotyping too much. America is the melting pot of diverse cultures, and all good American art has race ‘in the mix’ somehow. Hopefully my earnest and underdone phrase ‘All in the Mix’ doesn’t shut the door to further discussion the way ‘racist’ does.”
The literary world is not the jazz world, which is by its very nature multi-racial, intermingled, and collaborative across color lines (despite the efforts of some ideologues, like Wynton Marsalis, to suppress the history and energy of such collaborations). The literary world is still, aesthetically speaking, intensely stratified. Black and white and Chinese and Filipino and Latino writers teach in the same programs, sit on the same committees, and share the same publishers, but only rarely do they read one anothers’ work with any kind of serious engagement. It’s possible, indeed likely, that a white poet could operate in 2011 effectively as if African American poetry doesn’t exist. And, to almost the same degree, vice versa.
What this means is that discussions of race in American writing—discussions involving writers of more than one group, that is—often feel as if they’re starting from square one. Oh—do we really have to go into this again? I once saw a book on classroom management for college teachers called When Race Breaks Out. As if it’s like strep throat, as if it has to be medicated, managed, healed.
What often happens, in these situations, is that the “healing” involves choosing a scapegoat, someone on whom all the community’s energies—its shame and anguish, its pain and frustration—can be concentrated for a short period.
Scapegoating is not healing. But it is the logical consequence of the complacency, the inertia, and the vacuous self-satisfaction that marks so much of our literary culture.
I think what Iverson is trying to do, in proposing the phrase “All in the Mix,” is to say: we can feel insulted, we can even feel attacked, or threatened, and say what we feel, without having to respond in kind. Of course, there are times when the aggression or insult is overwhelming and no dialogue is possible. But as Americans we are so heavily invested in shame, avoidance, and denial that most of us have never experienced authentic, face-to-face dialogue about race at all.
I would like to see us try to mix it up more. I see it happening in the work of Thomas Sayers Ellis and Junot Díaz, Danzy Senna and Susan Straight, Jonathan Lethem and Colson Whitehead, in Tony Hoagland’s “The Change” and Claudia Rankine’s critique of “The Change.” But I’d like to see much more of it in our public arenas. More squirming in the audience; less sleepy applause.
I’m hoping, but I’m not holding my breath.