Editors' Note: This essay is one of a group of essays on Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde. Read the rest.
Since the spring of 2014 a series of informal, monthly “conversations” about issues related to “Women in Intellectual Life” have been taking place in the UC Berkeley English Department. Initiated somewhat casually, they have taken on enormous importance for the 25-30 women graduate students and faculty members who participate; there turns out to be a very wide range of issues to consider, with varying degrees of discomfort and dismay to confront. During the course of the third conversation, one student of color interpolated a comment, namely that she found it almost impossible to discuss race with UC Berkeley students. She had grown up in one part of the South and gone to university in another. Nowhere had she found the topic as seemingly taboo as at Berkeley.
If white writers were unaware of black American linguistic innovation, it wasn’t because it wasn’t there.
Later a friend told me that a small group of teachers at Berkeley High School, wanting to address the academic achievement gap at the school and to explore the ways race may contribute to it, invited students, parents, and other teachers to join in their discussions. According to one of the teachers involved, it took five years before the participants could talk with relative comfort about race.
This fall, as the “Women in Intellectual Life” conversations continued, a parallel series on race began. I was asked by a student to organize this initiative, but two of my black faculty colleagues agreed with my sense that it shouldn’t be a white faculty member who sets this particular discussion topic in motion. Which is to say that it shouldn’t be me, a WASP from a relatively privileged background, who does so. My colleague C.S. Giscombe has been hosting the conversations. They entail hard work, but have been revelatory (not least of the fact that “of color,” while encompassing an almost too diverse range of subjectivity, also doesn’t cover much of what’s most real, painful, impossible, and live in it). I myself am aware of the multiple ways in which my own relationship to race is confused, rendered turbulent by yearning, guilt, and a variety of other good and bad feelings. But I have willingly left my comfort zone and participated in the conversations, nonetheless. Not least, perhaps, because I trust the people who are involved. Trust is key.
Everyone involved seems to recognize that in these conversations about “Race in Intellectual Life,” a challenge is being thrown out. Race—for many reasons—raises issues that are far harder to confront than gender. And, apparently, they are particularly fraught for well-intentioned, well-educated, liberal-to-leftist people (e.g., many UC Berkeley students and faculty members).
I can’t definitively answer this question, of course. There are many possible answers, most of them valid. It is worth noting, for example, that the faculty-of-color (i.e. not white) feel strongly that it would be inappropriate, not to mention offensive, for a white person to publicly take race up as his or her issue. And I think this is right, and will remain so, until white people come to experience whiteness as itself a racially marked condition, and thus as a limit-condition rather than a state of freedom. White people will have to lose their distance from race, will have to get raced. Comfort zones are often realms of ignorance.
In the wake of the killings of unarmed, young black men by white police officers, and with the onset of an overwhelming realization of the degree to which, in the U.S., regardless of the nation’s increasingly non-white population, the lives of non-white people continue to be deemed unimportant, race is, as it were, coming out of the closet. That it should be in such a horrible context is itself horrible. But it may be that the “Black Lives Matter” protests have begun at last to bring race home to white people. Certainly many of us have felt, perhaps for the first time, that we are seen by people on the street as white and, by young black Americans behind the bullhorns or at the front of the crowds, as the problem. “Shut up! Step back.”
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Was it the case, as some have recently argued, that back in the era of the long becoming of the Language writing movement (say 1975-1990), literary work by writers of color was deemed irrelevant to white avant-gardists? I don’t think so. My own scene was predominantly white, but writers of color provided somewhat more than a mere token presence, given the importance of such people as Lorenzo Thomas, Ted Pearson, Erica Hunt, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, David Henderson, and (a little later) Harryette Mullen to it. But that presence wasn’t recognized as per se non-white. As I remember it, we thought and talked well about power structures, gender, capitalism, imperialism, and we spoke very little, if at all, about race.
There were a small number of avant-garde/experimentalist/innovative writing scenes flourishing in the 1970s-1980s. A smaller number were what could properly be called activist. Of those, probably the most important involved writers associated with the Black Arts Movement. It is often said that that movement served as the artistic arm of the Black Power Movement, and, insofar as its goals were political, that seems accurate. It is on its political grounds, as a protest against, and alternative to, white hegemonic power, that the Black Arts Movement is patently activist. But, given the sheer aesthetic power of much of the writing done under its rubric, the Black Arts Movement created work that was more than merely message-bearing. Real aesthetic discovery was underway, and much of that coincided with work coming out of another activist scene, the Language writing movement, which emerged about five years after Amiri Baraka founded the Black Arts Movement and almost fifteen years after the emergence of the Umbra collective on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. In the San Francisco Bay Area Ishmael Reed’s Before Columbus Foundation was a real force from its founding, its American Book Awards established precisely to correct the failure of the US publishing establishment’s high profile awards to acknowledge the diversity immanent in American literary production.
A significant part of the history of American experimental writing is indebted to modes and tropes, rhetorics and lexicons, grammars and semantics that germinated not out of the grounds of Euro-centric white hegemony but from those of diaspora and poly-centric cultures of resistance and invention. Zora Neale Hurston, in her seminal, 1934 essay “Some Characteristics of Negro Expression” saw “signifying” as a fundamental strategy for innovative and subversive language practices and first brought some of its usages to the attention of white readers. These include circumlocution, shifting symbolic images, irony, word play, and the use of the semantically or logically unexpected. If white writers were unaware of black American linguistic innovation and ignorant of its impact on their own work, it wasn’t because it wasn’t there.
The Bay Area Language writing scene, with which I’ve been involved since 1976, was, in its first decade, hardly multiracial and, in its praxis, it seems not to have addressed race per se at all. Certainly we were thinking about the constructedness of race, but as a lived feature of subjectivity it escaped most of us. Our political thinking was addressed to discerning and, ideally, dismantling pernicious structures of ideology and the linguistic usages that maintained (and, often, disguised) them. One frequent manifestation of this was, in the poetry, to abandon message altogether. Or to relocate it, giving it articulation as poetics.
Discussions of race were prominent in some of the essays published in Poetics Journal, which came out of the Bay Area Language writing scene, but almost all of these essays were by writers of color. And the discussions were in the pages of Poetics Journal, and almost never in the conversations that were taking place at readings, bars, and parties. This failure—and I do think it is such—was, in part, a matter of bad faith: a failure to face what’s going on. In this sense, color-blindness is an exercise in bad faith. It may be well-meaning, but that’s irrelevant.
Aesthetic discovery, political discovery, and social discovery differ from each other, and, it seems, they develop unevenly. Language writing is having a long aftermath, as well as some longevity. With regard to the long overdue conversation about race, it is Language writing’s aftermath that excites me. Its landscape is increasingly multiracial, and the writers involved are increasingly conscious of the profound aesthetic purport of black, Asian, and Latino writings and the scope of their influence on innovative/experimental cultural production. I dare now to hope that we are overcoming the bad pastiche culture of the past quarter-century and can do other work, en face.
Editors' Note: Addendum added March 13.
I wish to correct and clarify two errors in my contribution to the Boston Review’s forum on “Race and the Poetic Avant-Garde.” Both errors appear in the penultimate paragraph of my piece. In my mention of essays published in Poetics Journal that addressed race, I neglected to mention Barrett Watten’s “How I Became Hettie Jones,” which remains one of the most astute and courageous of writings by a member of the “poetic avant-garde” on race and cultural production. That Watten was a co-editor of PJ makes his contribution to both real and possible conversations about race within avant-gardist circles all the more salient, vis a vis the BR forum. And it makes my failure to refer to it in that penultimate paragraph all the more egregious.
The other error concerns my use of the term “bad faith” without amplifying what I meant by it. I certainly did not mean that Poetics Journal was a reflection of bad faith—it was never ever that. “Bad faith” in Sartrean terms describes a state of mind in which one lies to oneself, being convinced of the truth of an idea or ideology to which one is holding. What I intended to confront—in my own conduct, not in that of friends or of PJ—was what I can best describe as a social practice of color-blindness: not addressing color with people-of-color. Color-blindness denies historical and cultural context to people of color (and, albeit very differently, to white people); color consciousness objectifies people of color and deprives them of human (or creature) commonality. Failure to talk about race (or failure to talk about it enough–which is certainly how I remember the situation) in favor of color-blindness was an act of denial: of a problem, of the otherness of the experience of people of color. And, to the extent that it incorporates the other, undifferentiated, into one’s own world, it becomes a vehicle for a subtle form of appropriation, or cultural imperialism. Thus far, I should add, in my experience, both within my family and in classrooms or with friends, it remains almost impossible, as a white person (or me), either to address race or to not address it without performing a social insult.