Earth to Big Mouth?
Almost a year ago, a prize-winning poet and sweet friend sent me an email telling me that I should respond to Claudia Rankine’s open-letter call. This friend and I talk often about race (I currently have an email of an article, “Black Men for Black Women?” from him in my inbox). We talk about class too, and one of his most memorable lines is: a Corrections Officer in Newark makes more than an Adjunct Instructor in Newark–what does that say about what we think of its citizens?. We talk about music, poetry, films, teaching, etc. This friend is White, and his pressing email message was about a racial conversation happening in the literary world; It was astounding how varying topics in our conversations came together in one puzzlingly, fucked-up situation.
You may have heard of poet Claudia Rankine’s talk at last year’s AWP conference and Tony Hoagland’s poem, “The Change,” which her talk responds to. Since Rankine’s talk, Hoagland responded to Rankine’s letter and several poets and writers have responded to questions that Rankine proposed to continue the dialogue at http://www.newmediapoets.com/claudia_rankine/open/open.html. Highlights include responses by Jennifer Chang, Ronaldo Wilson and Matthew Lippman’s Class.
As of today, the call is still open, but I have yet to respond, unless you count this post, which is more about not responding than a response. Sometimes I feel I have let two people down—Rankine and my friend—if not a whole race or gender or class or folk with “outrageous” names. Why can’t I bring myself to respond? There is no word count or page minimum to lull me into defeat. Besides, I have plenty to say. Hoagland’s poem involves a tennis match and I have watched, attended or videotaped several dozen (more including re-runs during rain delays). Or consider that I’ve referred to myself as an Angry Black Woman, a Blackwoman, a Woman Black, a Race Woman and a Womanist at one point or another in the last half of my life. I have more than plenty to say! But nearly a year after the perfect scenario to evoke the energies of these experiences and identities I have remained silent. Why?
I fall in and out of love with my race consciousness. I think I am silent and not looking for love/understanding right now because I am receiving it. Like suitors pining for my affection, poets responding to the internal struggle and subsequent angst of race give me a fill of attention and I am uninterested in doggedness. Yet, as poetic as that explanation may be, it is not only incorrect, but dishonest. I do not know the whole truth of my silence, but I do perceive ambivalence—a wish for this racial dialogue to cease and to remain—to cease with words that lean toward theoretical bullshit and to remain hopeful that words cause people to act, surpassing bullshit theory. I believe I might even perceive in myself a perfunctory shrug: both sides have a self-favorable plan…so history goes.
Unlike my silence, I don’t struggle to perceive or remember my feelings after I read Hoagland’s poem. They remain tangible. I wondered if Serena Williams had read it, if it was inspired by her and if commentators on the WTA tour felt they bared any resemblance to the poem’s speaker. After I wondered or during, I cried as I recalled Serena’s comments lamenting her athletic build on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey show. I cried more because sometimes I think Serena hits the ball so hard because she is an Angry Black Woman. Being an Angry Black Women happens to be a very fair-minded, reasonable posture as Nikki Giovanni has made poetically known.
Even now as I think of all of these events over again, perhaps silence has chosen me because I have been too angry to respond, too close to the hurt that causes the anger, too use to talking about a cause. Fine. I can live with anger, but not silence.
The Rankine/Hoagland situation has been tied together with various links to the unfolding by Poets.org at http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/22148. Read/listen to events in chronological order for the best continuity.