You Can Say It’s Not Racist

You can say it’s not racist, and make claims of formalist innovation, but that doesn’t excuse the gesture in its context. Only the confident possession of a certain type of world view could lead one to call for “a panel discussion around the intersections of art, racism, and offensiveness” at AWP. For one thing, GWTW is a soft target: despite the racist depictions of Mitchell’s characters, few would find much value or controversy in dragging the novel out of its furzy southern crypt in today’s heated public climate of racial violence, where the illegal actions of white cops and their institutional managers are so nakedly displayed. What exactly does Place want her audience to take away from her mammy tweets in this context?

Place’s critics challenge the calculated exploitation of her decisions to mime black bodies and voices and images in contemporary climates of violence towards African-Americans in the U. S. But condemnation in the strongest possible terms should be aimed at the American literary institutions and audiences that participate in the P(l)acification of racial realities. Communities do indeed censor violent speech (a social action) when it fails to function as a relevant and meaningful expression of public potential. Place’s unstable sense of kairos and Goldsmith’s reduction of Michael Brown’s body show the limit of conceptualist poetics: it is a practice now motivated by sensationalism and violence. The gesture of such appropriation-based poetics belies an attitude determined by racial and social inheritances of cultural power. The self-expression of the Conpo author is filtered through the appropriated text or mammy avatar. A roundtable discussion is not required to tease out the unsettling performative claims Place tweets.

I’m reminded of a poem by Amiri Baraka who somehow insisted on aspiring to forms of wisdom as part of the obligation of being a poet. Such forms might be interesting for poetry now:

Bad People

We want to be happy
to check
the definition

We want to love
& be loved
What does that

Then you, backed up against
yr real life

claim you want
only            to be correct.

Imagine the jeers,
the cat calls
the universal dis

such ignorance
creates. (SOS 344)

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