"A poet is somebody free" ---June Jordan
To talk about race in America is, unfortunately, to often feel caught in a game of racial "gotcha," as we step around closed spaces in the present, kept that way by racial codes. And so, it's not surprising that many will do anything to avoid speaking, or writing, freely about race. Or, when and if they do, to feel exhausted and resigned by it. Many of us are concerned about being pigeonholed as one or another racial "types," or feeling like, as John L. Jackson calls it, a "racial sinner." As poets, how is it that we will use the same language that has run the errands of race to depict (and pick) the lock of bring free? And, how not to bring the diamond-headed needle of our attention into the dusty groove of, as Toni Morrison characterized our past, an "abused record with no chance but to repeat itself?"
Because race is America is just like bad fiction, with two-dimensional characters, predictable plotlines, passive verbs, subject-less sentences. Even our remedy-stories constrain, or can, if they too become more narratives to race-patrol; stories of heroism or helplessness, identities that become narrow containers. But it is possible to rewrite---meaning, not merely "revise," but to write poems that neither ignore racial codes, nor give over their power to them. That, like all good art, expand our vision of ourselves----all that we are, all that we are not----to introduce the "another world," as Paul Eluard put it, that's "in this one."
But in practice, this can feel a little like an enigma. We are fulfilling Stephen Dunn's "Little Essay on Form" (here, in its entirety): "We build the corral as we reinvent the horse." But what really do emancipated bodies and language look like? Partly, they look like us. Every anthology, an "iAnthology," a "myTOC." Like the maps from an earlier post, they take what is real---our real experiences, our real bodies, and the real encountered world---and use that to show that "another world" that is here, too, just hidden, by codes, from our view.
The step in rewriting that is most controversial, but maybe most necessary, is what Bertolt Brecht called the "alienation effect," the gesture, on the part of a poem, toward the script and the stage that racial codes want to hand down. As its name suggests, this can thus make us feel, as readers, like the poem is messing with us. Because it is. Brecht calls this process "liberating the spectator," or, bringing the audience into the work of art by acknowledging not only the script and the stage, but all of the context---the backstage, the fact that they are pretending----all of the elephants in the room. For, as Major Jackson pointed out in his now-famous essay from 2007, part of the problem of racism in America is that it is a "spectator sport."
Rashid Johnson's photo, above, uses this kind of effect, as did the map of the view from California. The California map playfully calls attention, via symbols and exagerration, to its own narrowness. In Johnson's case, as a black artist, he is calling attention to his ability or tendency to "talk white." It's an example of what James C. Scott calls the "hidden transcript," the kind of things that are said away from the "gaze" of the racial codes and their enforcers, whether thier enforcers are black or white. Scott calls these codes the "public transcript," in his cross-national study of cultural domination and resistance. The public transcript, which provides the justification and prosecution of its "rules," is by nature hidden, though in plain sight. It can only be expressed in codes, euphemisms, and other forms of disguise, in order to give the appearance of agreement and unanimity. Johnson, by un-hiding the hidden transcript, breaks with the whole performance. In an act of alienation, he calls the transcripts for what they are, and---without "confession," or autobiography---also shares with us some of his vulnerability, his humanity. Poems that do this can use any number of techniques; what qualifies them as rewriting race is that, rather than seeking "pretend racelessness," as Major Jackson put it, they seek to be race-real. So that, though we are still, by the terms of society, raced, we are awake inside of race, and awake inside of our art. From here, real choice begins.
Below is an example of a poem using a poetics of rewriting, or one kind of it. But I pick this poem because---since it is about reparations, the sine qua non of racially-taboo topics---it returns us acutely to the subject of "unthinkability," brought up in my first post. Meaning, that which the public transcript wants to banish, that which, the moment we see or read it, causes our thoughts to be filled with reasons against it (or for it)----whatever is the fulfillment of all of our racialized experience, our particular internalization of American race-based society. What Jackson calls "de cardio" racism, not the racism ("de jure") that can be addressed in the law, nor the racism ("de facto") that is overt, and obviously against all social norms.
Here, in Thomas Sayers Ellis’s, “The Pronoun-Vowel Reparations Song,” he plays with not only racial norms, but prosodic and typographical ones. Like the map of California, or Rodriguez's map of 55 states, he calls attention to his, and our, own narrowness, to encourage us to stand in a different place, a place that is less stable, but where we can hold our identities, and others' more loosely. He begins:
I O U,
B E F O R E U
B E F O R E
And then he introduces the “unthinkable,” that which our very definitions of what's "thinkable," or "possible," won't allow:
A E U O I
It is hard to "read" this poem. Hard not to immediately see it from "ideas" and scripts, the same old arguments, or the same old Let's Not Talk About That, Okay? But if the only thing it does is call attention to our familiar, euphemized, patrolling codes, perhaps that is alright. Its gestures leave us with a mystery and instability, the "unthinkable"----and can we call into that, too, the presence of our humanity? After all, as Robert Hayden put it, even when we acknowledge that we are "patterned," we can still have the choice--- to be "wild, free."