Editors deal with race in a very specific way. We politely correct authors who think “flesh” is an actual color. We try not to get all nostalgic in disturbing ways. We encourage inclusiveness. We (OK, I) post a few interesting links addressing racism. Fighting racism through editing is reasonably straight-forward.
But what about writing? You have all the responsibility as a writer. And if you’re white, as I am, it is ten times easier to say something stupid about race because I (we) live in a society where whiteness is privileged. Some of you grew up with the song “Everyone Is a Little Racist Sometimes“. I have a certain amount of education, awareness, and home-training, but I say or think or assume stupid shit sometimes.
But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t write about race. Did you hear about Tony Hoagland and Claudia Rankine? It was a big poet scandal. (Aside: I love poet scandals; I can’t help it. Everyone is so articulate about their rage and anger.) Hoagland wrote a poem about one of the Williams sisters, and it was racist. Claudia Rankine called him out on it. Instead of saying “I was trying to capture a certain mindset, that of a middle America racism,” he said “my poem was for white people.” Claudia Rankine is black, and Tony Hoagland seemed to be saying directly “my poem is not for you.” And yet, they were colleagues; both taught poetry at the University of Houston. Claudia Rankine started a project called “Open Letter Responses,” where writers wrote about their own experiences of race and racism. You can lose hours reading them.
I’m trying to write some poems that are about, among other things, race. What was it like being a kid in the South? I am privileged in that race is just a small part of my experience. I am trying to both be honest and not be an asshole. And it takes time. It takes readers who let me send them awkward poems and tell me when my work could be misread or is just plain old racist. It takes my trusting my readers. It takes more drafts than the other poems to make sure I get it right. And I’m okay with that.
Sparks wrote in a comment “Everyone with something helpful, illuminating and true to contribute to the conversation should be writing about race.” I can write true. But is it illuminating? Is it helpful? I am not a formal cultural critic. I rant and rave about cultural criticism all the time to my friends and family, but to write it formally on the page for all my stranger-friends? I don’t know. It’s easier, for me, to write about it in poems. But is it educational or is it just blathering? Time will tell I suppose. If I tell the best truth I can, that is all I can do to be illuminating. As one of my former professors says about memoir: it is about placing yourself, not just in your life, but in a time in history and showing how history, as well as your life experience, has made you who you are.
How do you write and talk about race? What holds you back and what sets you off?