Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Among the readings for the graduate seminar in black philosophy and theory that my students and I completed not long ago were the collected writings of philosopher and artist Adrian Piper, in which, among so many other projects, she reproduces the calling card she had printed up for use in one of her on-going projects from the 1970s.  Because Piper is, as we so deftly put it in America, a light-skinned black person, she has had the experience of being in a group of white people and hearing one of them tell a racist joke.  She had cards printed up that she would present to the tellers of such jokes, cards that explained that she was in fact a black person and that she found the telling of the joke objectionable.  This was not merely a personal campaign, you must understand, but was a sort of philosophical theater, for the presentation of the card was not simply a means to carry out a personal fight with racism.  The reporting of the event and the circulation of the card as reproduced in Piper’s writings and exhibitions as well as in the writings of others was an extended event that brought insufficiently reflective people to a reflection upon the workings of race in consciousness.  My students and I had the discussions you might expect regarding the transformations brought about in the presentation of the card, those moments in which the recipient had to make an immediate ontological and epistemological shift as a person previously seen as white became, in the moment of reading the card, perceived as black.  Then I presented my students with an additional conundrum.  We had been reading texts by Charles Mills and Tommy Lott in which those philosophers proposed a number of mind-boggling thought experiments regarding race.  I asked my students to imagine a situation in which a white-appearing person, a person much like Piper herself, presents the teller of a racist joke with a card announcing that the presenter of the card is “really” black.  Then I asked my students to consider what difference it might make in their understanding of this situation should they subsequently learn that the white-appearing person presenting the card was in fact a white person.

Adrian Piper was/is a central figure in an earlier era of American conceptual art.  Her day job for many years has been work as a philosopher specializing in Kantian aesthetics.  In both worlds, American art and academic philosophy, she has had to contend with a larger discourse that doesn't recognize her presence, has difficulties with the merest fact of her being as a black person doing these things.  Her art has often taken that fact, the ways that our conceptions of race frame our conceptions of art and philosophy, as the reconceptual core of her works.  In one extended work she created a male persona complete with side burns and mustache, seemingly of mixed race, which she inhabited in the streets and public places of New York.  Responses to her (as him) were part of the work.

I think of Piper and that work a great deal while listening to the arguments surrounding conceptualism in poetry in the present.  There are questions I would enact if I had her knack for embodying them.  Why is the public face of conceptual poetry so incredibly white?  Is today's conceptualism a sort of white masque?  Is the enlisting of poets such as Harryette Mullen, Claudia Rankine and others in the anthology Against Expression a mask for that expression of whiteness or an act of acknowledging black conceptual poetics? If the latter, then why is the public face of conceptual poetry so incredibly white?