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Sunday, November 16, 2008


I am, by the way, about sick of hearing people say that they don't see someone's race. Why not see it? I think this is part of what Langston Hughes' essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" critiques. Lately, very well-meaning liberals (black, white, Latino, and other) tell me that when they see the man for whom they voted in the recent election, they don't see a black man. Instead, they say they see an intelligent man or a family man. First of all, this is a lie; everyone who sees him sees that he's black. Secondly, the statement suggests that, in their minds, one cannot be intelligent or love one's family and be black at the same time. Finally--and this is what bothers me most of all--the comment seeks to erase one of the things that may be a virtue to him given the great task he must do.


Anonymous said...

Definitely a fun post by Jericho Brown. I think though he might also want to include another dimension in his critique of the antagonism (or more often concealed antagonism) between white teachers and white students with students of color in MFA programs.

When Brown says,

"Black writing is hardly ever so safely nurtured in MFA programs because white workshop instructors and students think they know exactly what black poets ought to be writing."

I think that could be complicated in a constructive way. Often white instructors and white students have NO IDEA what black poets ought to be writing. As a result, they fall in one of two problematic positions. And I think they often then do one of two things: 1.) if the work isn't explicitly about race, they breath a deep sigh of relief. or 2.) (and I find this much more common and even more common when the student of color writes explicitly about race) : they invariably and unequivocally praise the work, offering NO ENGAGEMENT WITH THE ACTUAL WORK. I think the most disheartening thing having been a white student in workshops run by white instructors was that there was such a failure to offer a meaning ful critique of work by students of color when they write explicitly about race. It was always "courageous" and "meaningful" and "honest" and "beautiful." The critique never went further, because to say something unaffirmative about the piece meant that you might be considered racist.

As a white teacher, I try to change this problem (as I do as a writer) with students of color. When they choose (I in no way suggest for any student what their content should be except if I am trying to teach a formal issue which is almost always the case) to write about race, I try (as I do with all my students) to evaluate the piece in terms of aesthetics, politics, and ethics.
But it is hard work, important work. How does a white teacher engage his students in meaningful, critical, "emotionally and intellectually authentic discussion" (which may be sincere yet offensive) of a student of color's work at the same time enact the spiritual/pedagogical responsiblity in protect marginalized students from attack, useless misintepretation? How does a white person balance these goals, responsibilities? Carefully and with a lot of self-reflection. Sometimes I fail, sometimes I do good, but I love (and sometimes abhor) struggling with this central question.


Steve Fellner

Christopher said...

In order to break down barriers within a classroom, we must first acknowledge our "races." But then each person within the room must work towards not pigeonholing each other towards writing anything but what the writer wants to write about.

Another generalization of MFA programs is that professors try to get all of their students to write one way or the other - and really this is a misconception that some teachers take to all writing courses on all levels.

I have, sadly, had discussions of colleagues who did not want their student to write about their life - their depression and some horrible family drama - simply because the teacher did not think the student could separate themselves from the critique of the writing. This is a fear of many professors - we can't make students understand
that it's about the writing and not about the person.

I find this untrue, or at least something a teacher
should fight through, so to speak. I am getting slightly off topic. I am now back - when I was in my MFA program the teachers did a strong job overall (male or female, black or white) of allowing the students to write what they wanted.

However, there was some steering, or at least observable predilections of each professor. I knew that writing heavily metaphorical poems was going to be more favorable to one of my two favorite writing teachers ever - the "black" poet Crystal Williams. I use quotes simply because she, like Jericho Brown, and myself, are more than our colors - though we shall include these in the conversation.

We shouldn't pigeonhole any poet based on color. I agree with Brown there. But, directly to Brown's argument that not focusing on Obama's race does not ignore his blackness. That is just an annoying, illogical general assumption.

I am annoyed by his reductive wording. Yes, some people probably are pretty hokey and try and pretend that "race" isn't an issue AT ALL. But to some, and many people I know, when they say race isn't an issue when looking at Obama - they simply mean he's an intelligent, awesome, kickass son of a saintly woman and g-ma. His color is less of a fear to the general public, not ignored, just no longer feared to the point that it disabled him or misrepresented him through stereotype. Instead, the very fact that he was elected President shows that overall, that our country can see beyond color as an issue of not supporting a person. That our country will no longer hold one back based on stereotype of their skin.

Brown just invigorates a misconception when he says that looking beyond color "suggests...one cannot be intelligent or love one's family and be black at the same time." No, it simply suggest that he is a man and people are seeing him for that.

Not simply a black man. That he is black is visually evident. It is his character that allowed people to see beyond the obvious. And more importantly, his character allowed him to break a million sad stereotypes of black people- so much so that people are able to acknowledge the man as a man. We are, in essence, as a country breaking the general stereotype that race will hold one back. We are not, in looking at characteristics other than skin tone, erasing his blackness. That is a completely separate thing.

Obama himself has tried to make his skin color a non-issue because he understand the implicit, visual argument made by his win. Yes, you can see a black man - but you also saw a family-oriented, highly intelligent person.

I would agree with Brown if I knew that those same people pretended they couldn't tell his skin color, and denied that he is dark skinned. That we were all in actuality colorblind. But, we are not. But we don't have to be color obsessed.

Christopher said...

And one day, hundreds of years from now, perhaps, perhapas, perhaps we will have had an LGBT president. That will be an awesome milestone, but in order for that to happen we need to be able to make the majority of the general public see that their stupid a$$ fear of "the other" is foolish. Yes, one's sexuality is important to them, as an individual, and to our culture. But, we need to work towards shedding that all an LGBT person is is LGBT, just as we have to remember that being straight, white and male doesn't necessarily make me fall into all of the stereotypes of a SWM.

There is always going to be "the other," to each and every person, but what is wrong with being able to see past our differences, and actually voting on people based on what we have in common - as Americans, as people?

I don't think acknowledging our likenesses is such a bad thing, or that it necessitates ignoring our differences. But, it does allow us to say our differences don't matter; we are allowed not to be homogenous but still hold on to those parts of us that connect.

More than anything, divisive rhetoric just holds back progress as much as rhetoric that ignores our differences completely.

newzoopoet said...

Wow, simple and thoughtful.

James Allen Hall said...

"Not simply a black man."

Perhaps to be a black man in America is not a simple affair.

Perhaps to speak--or lead--from a black male vantage point (a subjectivity informed by oppression) is important.

Is different from how I'd speak or lead.

Is different from how a straight white male might lead. Even if they're not racist.

Say it 100 times before you go to bed: I will not see straight white maleness everywhere I breathe.

There's too much work left to be done to say that the visibility of subaltern identities doesn't matter. That they shouldn't be seen.

This from a guy who never thought to point out his partner's race when describing him to long-distance friends for the first time.

But, maybe I was just tired of people (not my friends) saying, "Oh, you like the chocolate, huh?"

Wanda Sykes, 2012. I'm just saying.

Anonymous said...

Of course, all of that matters. But it doesn't mean, if you read the rest of what I said - which puts that one tiny part in better context - is that simply not focusing on Obama's race does not mean people don't understand the value and importance of his race. In fact, I've talked about the idea of race with both my mom, sister, and brother when talking about our voting - and how we were disgusted how race did matter to many of the people in our hometown. Perhaps it's because we grew up experiencing racially-mixed relationships that we can talk about one's other qualities and still hold on to the moments when our own larger family looked down on us, or when my mom was called names much worse than a lover of chocolate.

Perhaps living in Chicago, seeing the change in mindsets, and having many many of these kinds of discussions with the students I see every day (I teach two universities - one happens to be 90% black), and talking about how much Obama's blackness mattered to my black students - for a majority of them it didn't. And you can say "they are just saying that," but a lot of students complained and were infuriated by the fact that friends and family were reducing down Obama's success to "We're in charge now" type mentality. They are angry because as people they don't want to be seen as only black, and they are mad about that being a main issue with some, or many, depending on where you are at and who you listen to.

But, trials aside, personal issues aside, personal attachment to one's skin and their ability to identify aside - Jericho Brown misspoke to accuse people's "non-addressal" of skin color in praising Obama as being indictment that they beleive "one cannot be intelligent or love one's family and be black at the same time." It's simple logic. Just because I don't speak of something, doesn't mean I'm denouncing the subject. I'm just choosing to focus on other qualities.

Obama's skin color is evident. What Brown says is like saying, how dare people not acknowledge that MJ is black when they talk about him being the best b-ball player ever. No, qualify that with his race first! He's the best black b-ball player. No, MJ is just the best (and he's also a Chicagoan).

That's the point. Brown's projection of what people don't talk about and what words and thoughts he puts in their mouths is just a bad assumption.

It's like saying that when talking of my love of s'mores I speak of the chocolate and the marshmallow but not the graham cracker. If I choose to vote this my favorite dessert and used chocolate and marshmallow as my support, and not the cracker, does that mean I'm saying the graham cracker is irrelevant. Hello no. That cracker is what makes the s'more a s'more. I know that. I don't need to talk about it. Or, if I didn't, it doesn't mean some other time I wouldn't talk about it.

For the sake of discussion, though, Obama's presidency is historic and I think all of those foolish, colorblinded liberals understand it is because a dark skinned man is going to lead the country. A man who is black, but is also a f-ing man. A man who has wrestled with the idea of race his whole life and in his book is never quite sure.

And I am happy and excited for what comes. What further progress we can make with Obama as president, as a black man, but just as importantly, as a professorial leader - and not one of these war mongering fools like McCain.

If because I, as a professor, choose to have voted for Obama because he is professor-like, studious and diplomatic, with great oratory skill, and he represents Chicago... geeze, forget that and just acknowledge that he's black isn't first and foremost on my mind.

-Christpher the longwinded