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There must be a word for the feeling of my whiteness. Something like the knot in aeronautical. Something like stretchery. There must be a way to taste whiteness. To sing it. If there is a word for the tightness of an overtuned drumhead, the pinch of a trampoline spring when you’re in the air, what is it.
• • •
This book documents white American identity as it occurs in everyday moments of a
This book attempts to document
s a white American identity as it occurs accrues in moments of a my
documents shows where whiteness clearly so I can revise see
My book attempts to documents the an accretion of white American in my life and from across whiteness history
• • •
In The Velveteen Rabbit. Not that everyone in this children’s book is white (although they are). But what the rabbit itself is stuffed with. There. A bit of fluff stuck to my shirt. I go to brush it off, it becomes the dusk of Maine summers. Behold. The velveteen rabbit was viral, it held contagion, it was supposed to be burned. Instead it became real, it multiplied.
• • •
Just a second ago I wanted to take your hand. We are standing before the boy shot by police, an image as big as a room. How to comfort someone viewing brutality? Who am I to comfort. Is comfort damaging? I wanted to offer you a hand massage. I wanted, if not relief, at least communion. As someone danced with me in a stairwell for a moment at my mother’s funeral. Someone brushed my hair back, touched my face. I wanted to offer you something in this place.
Wanted something for myself in this place
• • •
If I write about a father, it becomes a white father. When I describe a flower it becomes a white flower. They were growing all along in my poems, and I didn’t know. The dinners in my poems were white dinners. The unmade bed, a galloping whiteness. Following this logic, when I write about boys, they become white boys. Here then is a thing I can do as a mother, as a writer. If I write about your son, he becomes a white son. So long as he is in my poem, he can concern himself with delight, not with staying alive.
• • •
Taking down my name, the insurance agent brightens. “K-A-T…oh, Katz,” she says. “Are you kin to—”
Kin, in her voice: Kee’-in, she says as she fills my name in a blank, then stops, straightens her dress, looks into my face, and translates: “are you related to the Katz radio station family?”
• • •
In the space where kin was: KATZ, urban gospel AM station in St. Louis. Someone at KATZ hired Gracey Lowery, first black female deejay in Missouri.
No, no relation
In these poems is there no kin, there is related to, whose metal legs unfold beneath round rented tables at which my relatives stood after the funeral, spooning tuna salad onto plates.
• • •
Let’s say there’s such a word as kinned. Kinned, to have been pinned lightly, as a flower to a dress. Kinned, to have been carried in the mouth and set down, as by a mother animal such as a cat. Kinned, bound to another person by agreement or signature.
• • •
We were six families who brought names with us to Vietnam. These names we brought with us to name the babies were an invasive species that clung to our luggage and strollers and footsoles.
Some of us thought ourselves saviors. Some of us shut ourselves in hostels with the white American names we brought with us. The names we brought with us spread. The names we brought were so big they split the seams of silk áo dàis.
Grandmothers threw handkerchiefs over us and said “keep the babies out of the sun.” We carried the babies against our chests, in sweat, against our chests. The names we brought with us passed through our soaked shirts to their faces. We tracked ourselves through caves and dress shops and bathrooms and embassies and alleys and cafes and rice fields and crab nets.
• • •
“Why do you need ‘kin?’ ” Hoa says. “Why do you need access to all the words?”
• • •
Sal has a pail of blueberries, Willy a chilly Victorian, a camelback sofa, a sister named Rose. Pat, gentle verb, turns over, shows its belly. Otto is a fish; the policeman’s hair smells like pencil shavings. Lori is lost. Mary, blind. Jamie and Claudia steal dimes from a fountain. Harriet (four inches tall) is a fair coxswain. Pet and Patty drag the plow for Hanson. Sam camps. Sam walks slowly up to wild things, which trust him. Fern is up early, ridding the world of injustice.
Not that all the names in the children’s books are white (although they are, no way to prove it). But how it feels to notice their accrual: a coolness in the blood, like an injection of contrast dye.
This poem ends too big a wind blew out of the sky.
• • •
[How you know you are
not a Vietnamese mother]
How you know you are
not a Vietnamese mother
do not forget to keep the baby out of the sun
not beautiful enough Not are you beautiful
"Do they give infants milk in Vietnam, I bet not"
How do you know
you are you are not a Vietnamese mother What is it you must tell him of the world That there is a woman he came from What is it you are afraid to tell him that she loves him
You do not
• • •
In this poem, a space where “nut brown” and “wood” used to be, words my son has used to describe the color of his arms. Today he says, for the first time, “I am black.” Meanwhile I wait in the usual space for his color-of-my-arms word. It will be something easy and light, like a summer bed sheet. Today he says, for the first time, “you are white.” Black and white have just the right scale in this poem, not too small and not too large.
• • •
In this poem whiteness hides inside the names that live in the stories I make up for my son. Once upon a time there was a boy and the boy’s name was — why not, Hykeem, Montray, Tariq. Having reached into a jewel case and stolen this name, Tariq, the edge of my hand is stuck with jags of broken glass. Is how my son looks at me when I say, Tariq.
• • •
[Remember the right song to sing the baby] Remember the right song to sing the baby
would not have dug his nails into his birth mother my
arm till it bled
You are l
et yourself go careless
Look at your sun-stained arms
You forget to bring him to Huong so she can teach him
teach us Vietnamese
how to know you are
not his right Vietnamese mother You checked that box was checked for me
by grandmothers who threw handkerchiefs over us in sun
Keep the boy white they said by any means
Joy Katz’s latest collection is All You Do Is Perceive. Her work in progress, White: An Abstract, attempts to document American whiteness. She co-founded, and collaborates in, an activist art collective, Ifyoureallyloveme. She lives in Pittsburgh.
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