White Mischief III
I want to talk about a poem published in a widely read book from 2003, a poem that was read by Garrison Keillor during his Writer’s Almanac segment on National Public Radio on January 11, 2008, one of what Keillor likes to term “pretty good poems,” a poem whose persona speaks of a tennis player he is watching as “one of my kind, my tribe” (“Writer’s Almanac”). This might strike a reader as something right out of the Black Arts era, a time when many African American poets wrote directly to a black audience and expressed open disinterest in what any white reader might have to say about their poems. In an email to one reader, the author of this poem, who in that same email states that he doesn’t “believe in explaining [his] poems to other poets,” asks, apparently rhetorically, “can you believe for a moment that many many poems written by black Americans, from past to the extreme present, have been written for African Americans, from James Weldon Johnson to Amiri Baraka?” (“Hoagland AWP Email”) It’s an odd question on many fronts, from the peculiarity of the term “extreme present” to the grammatical slippage at the end that would seem to suggest Johnson and Baraka were the people to whom the poems were written, rather than the writers of poems (though it is a fact that many, many poems have been addressed to each artist).
Now, of course the poet was speaking of a metaphorical tribalism when his persona thought of the tennis player, just as he is being metaphorical in his email when he speaks of poets as being his tribe. A tribe is a social construction. It is a construction that posits an inside and an outside. What I find worthy of lingering over is the way in which this poet constructs an inside and an outside of reading, a racially striated space that calls upon certain modes of operation on the part of his implied readers.
The poem that Keillor read is, what with being “pretty good” and all, not a product of the Black Arts, nor is it a poem by a black writer celebrating the prowess of the Williams sisters. It is a poem titled “The Change,” by Tony Hoagland, from his collection What Narcissism Means to Me. The email I have been citing was sent from Hoagland to fellow poet and putative metaphorical tribe member Claudia Rankine, as she prepared to speak of her reactions to Hoagland’s poem at a session of the AWP in Washington, D.C., in 2011. In the controversy following Rankine’s AWP presentation, few recalled that Hoagland had returned to this territory in a poem from his 2009 collection “Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty,” a poem titled “The History of White People.” When the two Hoagland poems are read in tandem, it seems fairly clear that they are, intentional fallacies aside, poems that attempt to chart transformations in the racial galaxy of American life, what might have seemed a noble task. The later poem, too, delineates a racial inside and outside, but with a curious difference. Both poems are in the first person, and yet the persona of “The Story of White People” describes his subject people in the third person plural, as if he is observing them from some poetic distance. Thus the reader is placed in the position of seeing white people as “a little / deficient,” as “being too far and too long / removed from the original source / of whiteness.” The speaker, albeit at one remove from the people he describes, characterizes their feelings about the change, portrays them as somewhat befuddled by it all, by this “mysterious” change in status. White people are metaphorically seen as long term “visitors / from the galaxy Caucasia,” raising the obvious questions of which galaxy the speaker is from and what planet this poet is writing from. The poem’s first person widens to plurality at poem’s end. This not so “dramatic or perceptible” change in whiteness “feels different,” none-the-less, and it feels so “to all of us.” At this point a critic might well put to the poem’s persona the question so pertinently put to The Lone Ranger by Tonto so many years ago: “What you mean ‘we,’ white man?”
The change that “The Story of White People” attempts to limn is “The Change” that has seemingly passed by the speaker of Hoagland’s “The Change.” In his responses to Rankine’s questions about this poem, Hoagland seems to think that readers have confused persona and poet, a problem he posits is especially acute “in contemporary poetry,” though he offers no explanation of why this would be more true in a reading of “The Change” than in a reading of “My Last Duchess.” One central problem confronting readers of Hoagland’s poem is its level of sheer incoherence. At one point the black tennis player is portrayed as “hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation / down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,” though I’m sure I am not the only reader who wonders why an African American would want to treat the Great Emancipator this way, and why that image comes to mind as this “black girl from Alabama” faces off with “some tough little European blonde,” who presumably has little connection to our racial history, apart from growing up a tad closer to the Caucasus Mountains, ground zero of the galaxy Caucasia in one ancient theory of racial origins.
It’s worth pondering the similarities between “The Change” and “The Story of White People.” Both present the shifts in racial history that have shaken our nation to its core as a seasonal thing, as something that has simply happened to us when we were attending to something else, perhaps tennis. Both poems, too, deploy the first person plural in a way that renders readers complicit with the personae’s insufferable speculations about race. In “The Change,” “we” are the speaker’s friend. We watched that championship tennis match with him on a big screen in a lounge, though why anybody other than perhaps Bill Cosby would remain friends with someone who makes jokes about Black people’s names eludes my powers of empathy. At least Hoagland puts the reader in the position of the person watching the game who loved Vondella Aphrodite’s “complicated hair” and her “to-hell-with-everybody stare.” “The Change” places us in the position of sharing a history with the speaker, but again, that history seems something that has simply crept up on us without our noticing. In the end, we were just there. The twentieth century was past us “and we were changed,” note the passive voice. Clearly, though, what bothered Rankine so much in her reading of this poem, and what has bothered so many about Hoagland’s defense of it, is that neither the persona nor the poet really seems to have changed at all, and the rhetorical vectors of the two poems would leave readers mired in the same stasis.
Hogland’s email to Rankine, after thanking her for the invitation to respond to what he calls her “AWP report,” starts out by condescending to Rankine in a breathtakingly offensive manner:
"To start off, let me say that I thought, back when we were colleagues, and I still think, that, to me, you are naive when it comes to the subject of American racism, naive not to believe that it permeates the psychic collective consciousness and unconsciousness of most Americans in ways that are mostly ugly."
While it is not impossible to imagine a black person who is naive on the subject of race, such a person must be rarer than visitors from the galaxy Caucasia, and the presumption of this sentence, hedged only marginally by such phrases as “to me,” is itself mostly ugly. Like his poems, Hoagland’s email is setting up an inside and an outside. Rankine, born in Jamaica, is naive on the subject of American racism, this despite the fact that nowhere in any of Rankine’s writings can be found anything remotely justifying the charge. Similarly, when Hoagland says that “it is foolish and costly to think that the topic of race belongs only to brown-skinned Americans,” he is absolutely as right as he is irrelevant. Rankine has never held any such costly opinion. Hoagland claims that “many poets and readers think that,” without providing a single instance of any poet or reader who in fact does think that. Given the history of white people’s involvement in the evolution of racial ideology, most of us would think them particularly well suited to reflect upon the topic. But then Hoagland is not really one for reflection. Turning again to the same rhetorical gesture of using first person plural to enlist us on his side of the lists, he writes “We drank racism with our mother’s milk, and we relearn it every day.” Well, no, many of us did not, and while we may learn something new about racism every day, as I did on the day I read this correspondence, we do not every one of us relearn racism every day.
This is a very old bit of sophistry that Hoagland relies upon. “Of course I am racist,” he writes, “and sexist, a homophobe, a classist, a liberal, a middle-class American, a college graduate, a drop-out, an egotist, Diet Pepsi drinker . . . “and his list goes on. This is the sort of insincere, white apologia that gives whiteness studies a sometimes bad name. By the time “racist” is placed on the same level as “a lover of women” the term has become meaningless. These are all subject positions Hoagland might occupy imaginatively in the writing of poems, but in his writing it seems a dilettantish visitation. The claim that everyone is racist has the effect of rendering racism unworthy of comment. In the end, Hoagland remarks that his poem is not “racist,” but “racially complex.” Where in the centuries since the commencement of the Atlantic Slave trade is the thinker who ever wrote that racism was anything less than complex? This, like the insinuation that everybody is racist at least a little bit, perhaps especially those “over-sensitive,” “politically correct” (and yes, Hoagland does reanimate that hoary term) black poets, is a move to dismiss precisely discussions of the complexities of race in our history and in our “extreme present.”
In her AWP presentation, Claudia Rankine tells of asking Hoagland about his poem and about his thinking while he was working on it. His reply was, “this poem is for white people.” I truly wish it were the case that these two poems taken together seemed to be doing the work of deconstructing racism in white readers. Whether that was Hoagland’s intent I cannot say. But we must attend to the structuring effects of his writing. In one portion of his email to Rankine, Hoagland claims poets as his tribe, and goes on to express his hope that “they” will “figure things out.” The one thing that comes across most clearly in his email is his belief that Claudia Rankine has not figured things out. What his poems and his response say most loudly to many of us is, “It’s not about you.”