In the opening pages of Claudia Rankine's tour de force Citizen: An American Lyric, she writes:
“You are in the dark, in the car, watching the black-tarred street being swallowed by speed; he tells you his dean is making him hire a person of color when there are so many great writers out there.
You think maybe this is an experiment and you are being tested or retroactively insulted or you have done something that communicates this is an okay conversation to be having.
Why do you feel comfortable saying this to me?”(1)
In this moment the reader is presented with an overwhelming sense of paradox. We assume that the identity of the speaker mirrors that of the author, a Black woman, a prominent writer and professor, a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and yet, still, Rankine's speaker is assumed to be a willing participant in a conversation premised on her erasure. Welcome to the “post-racial” era, which Rankine inhabits and excoriates with tremendous power and precision. As Rankine demonstrates, the world of poetry—often assumed to be a bastion of acceptance—is not immune to the subtle forms of racism that can offer inclusion and dehumanization in the same breath.
I reflect on this tension while reading the 2014 edition of the anthology The Best American Poetry. This year's anthology, published by Scribner in September, is edited by Terrance Hayes, a recent MacArthur “genius grant” recipient, National Book Award winner, and faculty member in the Cave Canem fellowship for African-American poets. The range, prowess, and sheer pleasure of the poems that Hayes selected for this year's anthology is remarkable. The Best American Poetry 2014 is a sampling of visionary work gathered at a watershed moment in the history of American poetry, in which there exists a growing racial, ethnic, and gender diversity at the highest levels of a field traditionally dominated by white men. However, while the poems selected by Terrance Hayes (as well as his inventive and playful introduction) offer us a hopeful vision for the future of American poetry, the anthology's foreword, written by David Lehman (the founder and series editor of The Best American Poetry), retreads an all-too-familiar argument that the future of literature is imperiled by writers and readers who have become fixated on issues of identity.
Lehman's foreword is ostensibly framed around the longstanding conflict between the sciences and the humanities, which Lehman claims has resulted in the increasing marginalization of humanities-based disciplines. He writes: “In 2013, front page articles in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal screamed about the crisis in higher education especially in humanist fields: shrinking enrollments at liberal arts colleges; the shutting down of entire college departments; the elimination of courses and requirements once considered vital.”(2) In response, Lehman argues for the continued relevance of the humanities, especially English, by quoting his mentor Lionel Trilling: “The classic defense of literary study holds that, from the effect which the study of literature has upon the private sentiments of a student, there results, or can be made to result, an improvement in the intelligence, and especially the intelligence as it touches the moral life.”(3) I agree that literature can have this capacity, but which literature, written by whom, studied by whom, and in what ways? Literature cannot inculcate critical thinking skills if it is studied uncritically. However, Lehman claims that “It is vastly more difficult today to mount such a defense after three or more decades of sustained assault on canons of judgment, the idea of greatness, the related idea of genius, and the whole vast cavalcade of Western civilization.”(4) Lehman is implying that those who critique the literary canon as being Eurocentric and patriarchal are in fact responsible for a decreasing interest in the study of literature. Of course, the opposite argument can be, and has been, made: that opening the study of literature to include a broader diversity of writers from different races, classes, genders, and sexual orientations increases the level of interest in literature because a wider range of people see themselves reflected in the work. As Jaswinder Bolina recently wrote about critics who bemoan the decline of poetry: “The thing that’s more troubling is that their nostalgia is for a time when self-expression was available to too few, when education and publication were far more limited than they are today. The times and places poetry mattered in the way its critic-defenders mean were those in which freedom of expression wasn’t the default for all.”(5)
The broadening of poetry's authorship is not only expanding its audience, but also enhancing the integrity, rigor, and scope of the field. Many of the poems included in The Best American Poetry 2014 are illustrative of the groundbreaking work being done by poets from communities who in the past have been excluded from publication and critical attention. Rather than recognizing this shift, Lehman continues his argument via the words of Heather Mac Donald, who he says “writes more in sorrow than in anger that the once-proud English department at UCLA ... has dismantled its core, doing away with the formerly obligatory four courses in Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton.” Lehman, quoting Mac Donald, states that these stalwarts of the Western canon have been replaced by “alternative rubrics of gender, sexuality, race, and class.” This all serves as setup for one whopper of a claim. Lehman writes, in reference to UCLA:
The coup, as Mac Donald terms it, took place in 2011 and is but one event in a pattern of academic changes that would replace a theory of education based on “a constant, sophisticated dialogue between past and present” with a consumer mind-set based on “narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.”(6)
One would expect that after unleashing this statement, Lehman would pause to explain or expand on exactly what he is hoping to accomplish by including it. No, he continues on his meandering discussion of the conflict between the sciences and the humanities before eventually handing the reins over to Terrance Hayes, whose introduction to the anthology appears next.
We should not let Lehman off so easily. His decision to quote Mac Donald's assertion that “Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his or her own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin” is, to say the least, baffling. Mac Donald's Wall Street Journal op-ed (from which this quote was taken) was reprinted from City Journal, the publication of the neoconservative think tank The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, where Mac Donald is a fellow.(7) Mac Donald, an influential conservative commentator who regularly gives public talks, appears on television, and testifies before governmental committees, is the author of such books as Are Cops Racist? How the War Against the Police Harms Black Americans and articles including “The Illegal-Alien Crime Wave.”(8) Mac Donald has advocated for racial profiling (of African-Americans(9) and Muslims(10)), and justified the use of torture by the US military.(11) Mac Donald has argued for the benefits of mass incarceration vis-à-vis reducing the crime rate(12) and stated that as a result of welfare policies "generations have grown up fatherless and dependent.”(13) In her article “Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?” Mac Donald refuses to acknowledge the existence of structural racism, what author Michelle Alexander calls “The New Jim Crow,”(14) and instead argues that the reason Black people represent a disproportionate percentage of the American prison population is that they commit a disproportionate number of crimes.(15)
Recently, Mac Donald wrote an article criticizing what she claims to be biased national media coverage of 18-year-old Michael Brown's killing by Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson, writing that, “A videotape captured the 300-pound Brown committing a strong-arm robbery minutes before his encounter with the police.”(16) Mac Donald also writes that “Ferguson’s population is two-thirds black, but five of its six city council members are white, as is its mayor. Conclusion: this racial composition must be the product of racism. Never mind that blacks barely turn out to vote and field practically no candidates.” Again, structures of racism, poverty, segregation, mass incarceration, voter disenfranchisement, and police brutality are conveniently ignored.
Given Mac Donald's history of racist publications and her membership in a think tank that institutionally targets people of color, she seems a rather dubious figure of authority on the state of the humanities in American higher education. What exactly are Mac Donald's qualifications? Prior to joining the Manhattan Institute, Mac Donald studied English at Yale and Cambridge, and then received her law degree from Stanford. A profile of Mac Donald in The New York Times notes that her shift towards a conservative political worldview came about as a backlash against the shifting currents of university English departments: “Her conversion occurred when she moved to New York in 1987 after an Environmental Protection Agency stint convinced her that she was not meant to be a practicing attorney. She intended to return to Ivy League academia. 'But the campuses had been taken over by multiculturalism and this yahoo rejection of Western culture by a bunch of students who had barely read a book,' she says.”(17) Mac Donald clearly harbors a deep resentment towards anyone attempting to expand the canon, and has built her career attacking communities of color and poor people, precisely the communities which the canon excludes.
Lehman's argument that academic challenges to the Eurocentric, patriarchal nature of the canon have driven students away from the humanities is a narrative drawn straight from right-wing think tanks. In addition to quoting Mac Donald, Lehman also references the article “Humanist: Heal Thyself” written by Russell A. Berman, a Stanford professor, a senior fellow at Stanford's conservative think tank The Hoover Institute, and the author of books such as Anti-Americanism and Europe: A Cultural Problem, and Freedom or Terror: Europe Faces Jihad. In his foreword, Lehman draws a connection between the decline in humanities majors from their mid-century peak to Berman's assertion that “the marginalization of the great works of the erstwhile canon has impoverished the humanities.”
Significantly, recent research has shown that this dropoff in humanities majors actually occurred almost entirely in the decade of the 1970s.(18) This shift can be attributed to women entering a broader range of career paths, as well as changes in the economy that put pressure on students of all genders to choose majors that would lead to more profitable employment. Thus, the assertion that theories of race, class, gender, and sexuality (which only became prevalent in the academy beginning in the 1980s) have caused a declining interest in the humanities is historically baseless.(19)
This panic over the supposed decline of the humanities mirrors conservative fears over the decline of our society as a whole, an anxiety that is often mapped along racial lines. Jeff Chang, in his new book Who We Be: The Colorization of America, writes about fears arising from the demographic shift by which, by the middle of the twenty-first century, the population of the United States will show a majority of people of color. Chang writes about Pat Buchanan's speech before the 1992 Republican National Convention that “captured the spirit of the growing backlash.” In this speech, Buchanan framed the discourse of what would become known as the “Culture Wars.” Chang writes:
He decried the “across-the-board assault on our Anglo-American heritage.” He said, “The combined forces of open immigration and multiculturalism constitute a mortal threat to American Civilization.” To him, faith in Euro-American ideals was the basis of culture, which in turn was the very foundation upon which civilization rested. “When the faith dies, the culture dies, the civilization dies, the people die,” Buchanan wrote. “That is the progression.”(20)
In Who We Be Chang argues that, throughout the 1990s, the Culture Wars—fought on college campuses, in Congressional subcommittees, and in the news media—represented a backlash by the white establishment against an increasingly multiracial society. Chang frames the Culture Wars as embodying what scholar H. Samy Alim has termed “demographobia,” or “the irrational fear of changing demographics.”(21) This logic bears a remarkable resemblance to the fear expressed by Mac Donald, Lehman, and Berman. If you substitute “canon” for “civilization” in Buchanan's speech, the meaning remains almost identical. It bears asking: When the same people who are defending the Eurocentric canon are also advocating for the very policies that attack young people of color, is it any wonder that these same young people might resist reading “canonical” texts?
Lehman's foreword to The Best American Poetry 2014 recalls the “Canon Wars,” a subset of the Culture Wars that played out in the world of poetry, most infamously in Harold Bloom's essay “They Have the Numbers; We the Heights,” which appeared as the foreword to The Best of the Best American Poetry 1988-1997. In his essay, Bloom assails writers concerned with identity for destroying the “aesthetic tradition” of Western literature, and claims that all those who desire an expansion of the canon belong to the “School of Resentment,” comprised of "the multiculturalists, the hordes of camp-followers afflicted by the French diseases, the mock-feminists, the commissars, the gender-and-power freaks, the hosts of new historicists and old materialists."(22) Lehman sounds similar notes but at a muted volume, more appropriate for our “post-racial” era.
Drawing from Claudia Rankine, I ask the question: What makes Lehman think this is an okay conversation to be having? It is staggering how at odds Lehman's foreword is with the anthology that it prefaces. After his coded diss against the very same groups of people who comprise Bloom's “School of Resentment,” Lehman praises Terrance Hayes, whose poems he says “reflect a deep interest in matters of masculinity, sexuality, and race,” and affirms Cave Canem as “the organization that has done so much to nourish the remarkable generation of African American poets on the scene today.” As in Rankine's car scene, there is a cognitive dissonance between the inclusion of writers of color and what is being said about them right to their faces.
It is striking that every single critic and scholar—other than Terrance Hayes—that David Lehman cites in his introduction is white. This is a perfect example of the need for expanding the scope of whom we read and give critical authority to. In fact, Mac Donald would very likely call many of the poems in this anthology an assault on the Western canon. To name but a few examples: Yusef Komunyakaa's “Negritude,” Camille Dungy's “Conspiracy (to breathe together),” Patricia Lockwood's “Rape Joke,” Kwame Dawes's “News From Harlem,” Jon Sands's “Decoded,” Rita Dove's “The Spring Cricket Repudiates His Parable of Negritude,” and Afaa Michael Weaver's “Passing Through Indian Territory.” These poems are nuanced, daring, and extraordinary. They disturb the notion that a “canon” is a fixed entity, stuck in a patriarchal, Eurocentric past. These poems have things to say to Shakespeare and Shakespeare has things to say to them. Let them be in conversation. This would truly represent the “constant, sophisticated dialogue between past and present” that Mac Donald invokes.
The canon is evolving, expanding, and changing. This is something to be celebrated, not bemoaned. In this way, there is a greater not a lesser place of importance for poetry in our public (and private) lives. While lamenting a declining interest in the humanities, Lehman paradoxically acknowledges that there is more poetry being written today than ever before.(23) This fact could point us towards a moment of opportunity rather than cynicism. Including the study of contemporary poetry that engages with issues of identity in K-12 education, undergraduate curricula, and graduate programs will not erode the critical reading and writing skills that Lehman believes are so essential to our society. In fact, studying the present landscape of poetry can give us new perspective and fervor in engaging with the poetic lineages that led us to this point (and vice versa). This is the missed opportunity of Lehman's foreword. He is stuck in a Culture Wars dichotomy of a past generation, rather than embracing the emergence of new possibilities for what poetry can become.
At all levels of the field, poets of color are writing and publishing some of the most visionary and paradigm-shifting work being written today, precisely because they are writing from an artistic perspective that acknowledges difference along lines of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation. This exploration of human identity has not weakened the writing. On the contrary, it has pushed the field forward by expanding the range of human experience that poetry can encompass. In fact—contrary to the arguments of Lehman, Mac Donald, Berman, and Bloom—a refusal to acknowledge the ways in which our identities affect our experiences is a profoundly limited, parochial view of human existence, not the other way around. Each and every one of us is circumscribed by our identities, even as we exist as multidimensional and nuanced human beings. This contradiction is worth investigating, and, as many contemporary poets have demonstrated, this kind of investigation can yield extraordinary results.
Here are but a few recent examples of the way in which contemporary poets of color are shifting the field: Terrance Hayes won the 2010 National Book Award for Lighthead, Nikky Finney won the 2011 National Book Award for Head Off & Split, Tracy K. Smith won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Life on Mars, Vijay Seshadri won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for 3 Sections. Natasha Trethewey, the United States Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2014, was also, in 1999, the recipient of the first annual Cave Canem Poetry Prize. While titles and prizes should not be our primary barometer for assessing artistic merit or impact, these and many other authors point to a sea change taking place today in American poetry.
Terrance Hayes addresses this very issue in his introduction to The Best American Poetry 2014, albeit through a tongue-in-cheek aside. His introduction is written as an interview between himself and Dr. Charles Kinbote (the fictional narrator who appears in Vladimir Nabokov's novel Pale Fire). At one point Dr. Kinbote lists the posthumously published poets who were included in this year's anthology: “Kurt Brown, Joseph Ceravolo, Adam Hammer, Larry Levis, Jake Adam York. Interestingly, all of them are deceased white male poets. Is this to suggest the white male poet is a dying breed?” Terrance Hayes responds, “[laughing]: Of course not! You really shouldn't be drinking red wine and espresso.”
Obviously, white male poets (myself included) continue to participate in the field of contemporary American poetry, but we do not deserve to occupy a place of privilege above any other group of writers (and yes, as much as we may attempt to deny it, white male poets are a group of writers). In the words of Toni Morrison, referenced by Claudia Rankine during a recent conversation held at New York University: “If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, then you have a serious problem, and my feeling is that white people have a very, very serious problem.”(24) While white male poets may not be “a dying breed,” white male poets who tacitly endorse dehumanizing patterns of thought increasingly resemble what poetry most deeply strives to avoid: a cliché.
1. Claudia Rankine. Citizen: An American Lyric, (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2014), 10.
2. David Lehman. Foreword. The Best American Poetry 2014 (New York: Scribner, 2014), xiii.
3. Ibid., xv.
5. Jaswinder Bolina. "The Writing Class." Poetry Foundation. November 12, 2014. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/article/249164
6. Lehman, Foreword, xvi.
7. "Manhattan Institute Scholar: Heather Mac Donald." Manhattan Institute For Policy Research. http://www.manhattan-institute.org/html/mac_donald.htm
8. Heather Mac Donald. "The Illegal-Alien Crime Wave." City Journal, Winter 2004. http://www.city-journal.org/html/14_1_the_illegal_alien.html
9. Heather Mac Donald. “The Myth of Racial Profiling.” City Journal, Spring 2001. http://www.city-journal.org/html/11_2_the_myth.html
10. Mike Pesca. "NYC Mulls Effectiveness of Racial Profiling." National Public Radio. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4783791
11. Lance Morrow. “Necessity or Atrocity?” The New York Times, Books, January 29, 2006.
12. Heather Mac Donald. “Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?” City Journal, Spring 2008. http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_2_criminal_justice_system.html
13. Heather Mac Donald. "The Billions of Dollars That Made Things Worse.” City Journal, Autumn 1996. http://www.city-journal.org/html/6_4_a1.html
14. Michelle Alexander. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).
15. Mac Donald, “Is the Criminal-Justice System Racist?”
16. Heather Mac Donald. “Ferguson's Unasked Questions.” City Journal, October 6, 2014. http://www.city-journal.org/2014/eon1006hm.html
17. Robin Finn. "Excoriating the Enablers, in 12 Chapters." The New York Times, November 28, 2000. http://www.nytimes.com/2000/11/28/nyregion/excoriating-the-enablers-in-12-chapters.html
18. Colleen Flaherty. "Princeton Grad Student Takes on the Humanities Crisis from a Decidedly Gendered Perspective.” Inside Higher Ed, July 11, 2013. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2013/07/11/princeton-grad-student-takes-humanities-crisis-decidedly-gendered-perspective
19. Michael Bérubé. “The Humanities, Declining? Not According to the Numbers.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, July 1, 2013. http://chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Declining-Not/140093/
20. Jeff Chang. Who We Be: The Colorization of America (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2014), 119.
21. Ibid., 245.
22. Harold Bloom. “They Have the Numbers; We, the Heights.” Boston Review, April 1, 1998. http://www.bostonreview.net/poetry/harold-bloom-they-have-numbers-we-heights
23. Lehman. Foreword, xvii.