Sometimes the meaning gets tripped up in a work intended to be a critique or commentary, and it ends up reading as the thing being critiqued itself. What do I mean? Take the debate around Mark Twain’s use of the n-word in Huck Finn, for example: Is this a commentary on racism or just a problematic, racist text?
This issue once again comes to the forefront in Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change,” a meditation on the “good old days” when white people were in power–both in the White House and on the athletic field. Is this also a problematic, racist piece of literature…or is “The Change” a commentary on liberal white racism? Or does it live somewhere in between, somewhere in the realm of too-shallow analysis–of not going deep enough in the act of thought necessary in the work of creating?
You decide. And then check out what these other fine artists had to say about this as well…especially Jericho Brown’s thoughts on how the creation of words is always a political act. Perhaps you may even feel inspired to add your own; respond to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Change by: Tony Hoagland The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine. In the park the daffodils came up and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade. Sometimes I think that nothing really changes— The young girls show the latest crop of tummies, and the new president proves that he's a dummy. But remember the tennis match we watched that year? Right before our eyes some tough little European blonde pitted against that big black girl from Alabama, cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms, some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite— We were just walking past the lounge and got sucked in by the screen above the bar, and pretty soon we started to care about who won, putting ourselves into each whacked return as the volleys went back and forth and back like some contest between the old world and the new, and you loved her complicated hair and her to-hell-with-everybody stare, and I, I couldn't help wanting the white girl to come out on top, because she was one of my kind, my tribe, with her pale eyes and thin lips and because the black girl was so big and so black, so unintimidated, hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation down Abraham Lincoln's throat, like she wasn't asking anyone's permission. There are moments when history passes you so close you can smell its breath, you can reach your hand out and touch it on its flank, and I don't watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre, but I could feel the end of an era there in front of those bleachers full of people in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes as that black girl wore down her opponent then kicked her ass good then thumped her once more for good measure and stood up on the red clay court holding her racket over her head like a guitar. And the little pink judge had to climb up on a box to put the ribbon on her neck, still managing to smile into the camera flash, even though everything was changing and in fact, everything had already changed— Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone, we were there, and when we went to put it back where it belonged, it was past us and we were changed.
For the Rumpus has detailed how poet Claudia Rankine began hosting an open call for submissions to dialogue about race and writing on her website after reading Hoagland’s poem. Like me, Rankine stumbled over phrases like: “little European blonde/pitted against that big black girl from Alabama/cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms/some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite” and “as that black girl wore down her opponent /then kicked her ass good /then thumped her once more for good measure.” Not to mention how the “black girl was so big/and so black,” or that “little pink judge” who “had to climb up on a box/to put the ribbon on her neck/still managing to smile into the camera flash,” is more reminiscent of language applied to slaves on the auction block or prize race horses ribboned than top athletes, awarded after victory. Nor was there any awareness in “The Change” that it was (and is) perpetuating the same kind of vilification that the Williams sisters, two beautiful talented girls, have borne so long–laughed out of tennis clubs, called men, threatened with steroid tests and ridiculed as “animals” and unfeminine, too strong. Nor that the entire conceit of the poem hinges on the parallel drawn between the “out-of-control larger than life Blackness” taking over the white world of tennis just as the “out-of-control larger than life Blackness” of the first Black President has taken over the White House to no good end; the earnest voice of the poem crying out for the nostalgia of the better times before this change, the lack of any narrative eye/narrative perch to analyze this narrative voice to create a narrative distance of awareness and commentary to separate author Hoagland’s voice, P.O.V., awareness, and politics from those of the speaker of the poem.
Writes Joshua Marie Wilkinson in thevolta.org: “Claudia [Rankine] has also offered us the following two passages from Richard Dyer to spark us: “As long as race is something only applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people” (9-10). Richard Dyer
“There is no more powerful position than that of being ‘just’ human. The claim to power is the claim to speak for the commonality of humanity. Raced people can’t do that—they can only speak for their race. But non-raced people can, for they do not represent the interests of a race. The point of seeing the racing of whites is to dislodge them/us from the position of power, with all the inequities, oppression, privileges and sufferings in its train, dislodging them/us by undercutting the authority with which they/we speak and act in and on the world” (10). Richard Dyer (link here).”
And, at AWP 2011, Claudia Rankine had this to say about Hoagland’s poem. You can listen also here.
Claudia Rankine: I don’t like using the word racist because if you use it it means you are an angry black person. Angry black people are the old black and everyone knows that’s pathological. The new black is accomplished, assimilated, and integrated. The new black reaches across the aisle. The old black is positioned in a no-win situation where to express an opinion based on what you see, experience, feel or deduce risks falling right into some white folk’s notion of black insanity.
It’s not a chance to take. The path is preordained: to think this is to be that. Don’t go there. Don’t be like that. Supreme Court Justice Roberts simply forgot the right words to swear in our first black President. He was probably nervous. Don’t go there. Don’t be like that.
So if white people are not allowed to use the n-word, and we know that is a understanding rarely disregarded, then apparently black people are not allowed to use the r-word or, in news jargon, play the race card. But sometimes, I have found, you have to hazard a little insanity.
* * *
I once had a colleague who wrote what some readers perceived to be a racist poem. When I first read it I thought, “What?”
Why I stuttered I don’t know but sometimes the purity of an emotion gets tripped-up by thought: This poem is an exploration of narcissism in our society, a parody, perhaps. Nonetheless, certain phrases from the poem stuck in my craw. Phrases like “I couldn’t help wanting / the white girl,” this “tough European blond,” “to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe, / with her pale eyes and thin lips” were being “pitted” against phrases like “so big and so black,” “big black girl from Alabama” with “cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms” and “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” Were these phrases intended as a performance of the n-road?
I let the book close on the desk and stared out the window through non-existent trees. There is a parking lot out there. And though my emotions can at times feel wrongheaded, sometimes you just have to say it—what the fuck? It took me a minute, the kind that folds out into months, to get over the actual words on the page.
When I brought my gaze back to the poem, rereading, it occurred to me the poet was outing a certain kind of white thought. I already knew the nice white lady and her husband who always held the door open for me (thank you) might be thinking of me as the “so big and so black,” “big black girl from Alabama,” but I wanted my colleague to tell them right there in his poem that that kind of thinking…well, it’s just not right. But his point, it seemed, was this was whiteness thinking, surely not all of whiteness, and the black girl as “unintimidated” as she was was simply a sign of the end of the twentieth century. Lord, the times they are a changing. And for this brand of whiteness that is where that thinking stopped.
* * *
When asked what his thinking was while working on the poem, my colleague said this poem is for white people. Did he mean it was for white people to see themselves and their thinking? He did not say that. He said it was for white people.
What I heard was, I don’t need to explain myself to you, black girl. And though the last time I looked in the mirror I looked like my black mother, and not how she looked when she was a child, I was transporting the language of the poem, black girl, to refer to myself, and getting even angrier. And though I realized this was me thinking as him, and not in fact him speaking, when offense is being taken offense is heard everywhere, even in the imagination.
And because I could taste the vomit of Reconstruction and slavery in the back of my throat, I wasn’t saying much, but he was starting to shout at me so in his imagination somebody else must have been speaking. Needless to say, before our conversation started it was over. I can still see myself back then confused at the rate of escalation, given that I was so used to everyone reassuring everyone that everyone accepted everyone and race didn’t matter. Who let America in the room? How did things get out of hand so quickly? I sometimes wonder if one of us had had the presence of mind to say, easy slave girl, slow down grand Wizard, could anyone have laughed.
* * *
As I walk across the parking lot I wonder why he didn’t just say his poem is for white people because it is calculated to make them feel uncomfortable in the grey areas. No one was calling for a lynching in this poem, which we all know as criminal, racist behavior, but this other thing, this lack of support for the American tennis player, this identifying by skin color with anyone else across the Atlantic simply because the one right in front of you has black skin and claims all the same rights, was that not too racism? I imagine there were a trillion ways to worry my question, which is to say, he might have treated me like a friendly colleague asking a real question since the book was in the bookstore without a Whites Only sticker.
I was black people and I, as his colleague, had taken the time to read his book as an act of collegial support and respect. Instantaneously, my collegial assumption, the visibility I was claiming, the shared space, seemed like his moment of what? What! In short, his answer sounded like fighting words. And they were. And they weren’t.
As I turn his answer around and around like an object I am trying to find a place to store, I see it burns at both ends. Perhaps by invoking the “whites only” language of Reconstruction, he was suggesting his poem, as a language act, lived in that place. But even with this positioning, it’s not clear he wasn’t also directing the historically exclusionary signifier at me—he was after all speaking to me—but I really can’t speak for him.
Not long ago I was in a room where someone asked the philosopher Judith Butler what made language hurtful. I could feel everyone lean forward. Our very being exposes us to the address of another, she said. We suffer from the condition of being addressable, by which she meant, I believe, there is no avoiding the word-filled sticks and stones of others. Our emotional openness, she added, is borne, in both its meanings, by our addressability. Language navigates this.
For so long I thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase me as a person, but after considering Butler’s remarks I begin to understand myself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts. Language that feels hurtful is intended to exploit all the ways that I am present. My alertness, my openness, my desire to engage my colleague’s poem, my colleague’s words, actually demands my presence, my looking back at him. So here I am looking back, talking back and, as insane as it is, saying, please.
Hoagland had this to say in response.