White Mischief

Can you see me?”

                                — Jimi Hendrix



We should regard the text as the only source of meaning, argued Wimsatt and Beardsley in 1946. The details of the author's life are extrinsic, irrelevant to the task of interpretation. “What does it matter who is speaking, someone said.” Michel Foucault said that Samuel Beckett said that, without really establishing why that mattered. Jean Genet, more than a half century ago, asked, in a preamble to The Blacks, “What is a black? First of all, what's his color?”


Recitative: “How You Sound”


In March of 2012, a mother contacted the administrators of George C. Marshall High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, with a complaint about one of her son’s teachers. “We take these allegations very seriously, and we’re investigating,” the principal of the school would later report, responding to an inquiry from a journalist for The Washington Post (“Fairfax Investigates”). The source of the complaint, unusual in this day, was a poetry lesson in the son’s ninth grade English class. The teacher, identified as a veteran educator named Marilyn Bart, who has taught in the Fairfax schools for more than two decades, had asked the student to read aloud in class the Langston Hughes poem “Ballad of a Landlord.” A seemingly innocent exercise, indeed a commonplace in our post-canon wars era of English instruction, the problem had not been the poem’s content, but rather a disagreement about the proper way to realize the poem aloud. According to the complaint, the teacher expressed dissatisfaction with the level of “blackness” in the student’s reading of the poem. According to a fellow student who witnessed the exchange, “he was just sitting there reading normally like any person would,” when the teacher instructed him to read “blacker.” Permit me to underscore certain phrasing in this eye- and ear-witness account: “reading normally,” “like any person would,” “blacker.” The student who was the source of the complaint refused to continue in the voice he was being admonished to adopt, at which point the teacher read the piece herself to demonstrate what she had in mind. Presumably her reading was not normal, not like any person, and more “black,” at least to her own hearing.


What might that mean? According to the fourteen-year-old who had been singled out in class, “She sounded like a maid in the 1960s. She read the poem like a slave, basically.” One well might ask why this student thinks maids in the 1960s sounded like slaves, and wonder at the source of his understandings of race and sound, but far more pressing is the question of the teacher’s own prior assumptions in the matter. Just what does “black” sound like to her, and what does it mean that it doesn’t sound like her black students’ “normal” reading? Does she believe that a poem written in 1940 requires a contemporary reading in keeping with her suppositions about what black people might have sounded like then? “She told me, ‘Blacker, Jordan,’” according to the student. “C’mon, blacker. I thought you were black.” Here we might pause to ask why The Washington Post feels compelled at this point to give provide an orthographic representation of young Jordan’s speech, “c’mon,” when they do so for no other speaker quoted in the article ( a fact rendered yet odder when we consider that young Jordan was quoting his teacher). We might also pause to consider how it is that everyone reading this report assumes, correctly as it turns out, that the teacher is white, despite the fact that her race is never identified in the piece. Perhaps because of something else included near the end of the report. On another occasion, attempting to speak of ethnic stereotypes, this same teacher showed a picture of a grape soda and asked Jordan to explain its meaning. “‘I do know the stereotypes,” the student explained to the reporter’” (though I confess the grape soda stereotype was one I had never known of), but ‘”she could change the questions so I’m not like the king of black people.’”


Well she might, but in contemplating the racial rhetorics operating in this episode, we should probably note as well something said by the complaining mother. “If the teacher thought the poem should be delivered in a Southern dialect, she could have said so without referring to race.” The Langston Hughes poem makes no reference whatsoever to the geographical region in which it takes place. By 1940, Hughes had been living in New York for many years, and many readers assume the poem is set in Harlem. But again, there is nothing in the poem to root such an assumption. Hughes himself was born in Missouri and the Mid-West never really left his accent. (To hear Hughes's own reading of this and other poems, click here.) Who among us, post New Criticism, post Deconstruction, believes that a poem need be read in the accents of its authors, or of its time? In our putatively post-racial world, what does it mean that a ninth-grade English teacher has absorbed a set of conventions about what “black” sounds like that she would impose upon her black students, or at least those students she thought were black?  


I will admit that while I recoil from discussions that frame these issues in terms of sensitivities, I have a certain sensitivity growing out of my own educational background to just this issue of in-class recitation. I attended a predominantly black undergraduate institution in which my fine teachers, as I do to this day, asked students to take turns reading poems aloud. It somehow fell out that when my turn rolled around, I was often faced with a dialect poem, but I quickly learned that if I simply read what was on the page, without adopting any voice not my own, the rest of the class was fine with my rendering. None of my black professors ever demanded that I try to read a poem “blacker,” nor did they insist that my African American fellow students attempt to sound like Fitzgerald when we were studying modernisms. The other students did on occasion expect me to serve as their native informant: I was, for instance, while we were discussing a Chesnutt story, expected to pronounce on the question of how white people regard the issue of miscegenation.


That, of course, was then: pre-canon wars, pre-post-racial, almost pre-post-structuralism. I don’t know how the Fairfax County Schools have adjudicated this student’s complaints, as there have not been follow-up stories in the Post. (D.C.’s NBC affiliate, on their web site, carried the unfortunately worded headline “Fairfax Teacher Probed over Racial Insensitivity Allegations,” wording that itself sets a benchmark for insensitivity at a time when Virginia politicians were in fact proposing to probe women.) What is of importance to discussions of cross-cultural poetics in this episode is something far weightier. It is clearly not enough that we have all agreed that race is a social construction. One job for cross-cultural poetics is to examine the mechanisms of this construction. How does the present day rhetoric of race reproduce race for a post-racial nation? How does the very term “post-racial,” with its presupposition of race, operate to silence exactly the mode of analysis I am here calling for? Where do our assumptions about how poems sound racially come from, how do they evolve, and how does “sensitivity” rhetoric serve to cloak their operations? Even after more than a decade of “whiteness studies,” these questions remain largely unaddressed. When young Jordan, responding to his teacher’s imprecations to read the Hughes poem as she thought a black poem should be read, asked her if she thought all black people speak that way, she “reprimanded him for speaking out of turn . . . and told him to take his seat.” A student, asked to read, is out of turn when asking a question. A student, “thought to be black,” does not bring sufficient historic, perhaps histrionic, blackness to his reading, is out of turn, is told to return to his seat. We might do well to recall that as Stephen Henderson set out to define black poetics in his Black Arts era book Understanding the New Black Poetry, he defined Black English straightforwardly enough as English as spoken by any black person. What is it that must already be in place for a Fairfax teacher to assume that the English spoken by her black student is inadequate to the realization of a Langston Hughes poem? How is it that a ninth grade English teacher, arbiter of so much in her students’ approaches to poetics, is the arbiter of how black sounds?