The Nation in July published a short poem “How-To” by Anders Carlson-Wee. The poem will not be remembered as a great work of art, but it is easy to see why it appealed to the editors at The Nation. As Carlson-Wee explained, he “intended for this poem to address the invisibility of homelessness.” Speaking from the position of a black homeless person, the poem offers advice for beggars on how to tug at the heartstrings of petit-bourgeois marks.
“If you’re young say younger.
Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hardly even there.”
Carlson-Wee, who it must be said is white, seems to have had his heart in the right place, showing his sympathy with the homeless and his contempt for those who offer charity in order to boost their self-esteem. Or at least that is what he and the editors at The Nation thought. Until the gates of the twitterverse loosed a tsunami of moral condemnation, as Jennifer Schuessler reports in The New York Times:
“But after a firestorm of criticism on social media over a white poet’s attempt at black vernacular, as well as a line in which the speaker makes reference to being “crippled,” the magazine said it had made a “serious mistake” in publishing it.
“We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem,” the magazine’s poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, wrote in a statement posted on Twitter last week, which was posted above the poem on the magazine’s website a day later, along with an editor’s note calling the poem’s language “disparaging and ableist.”
“When we read the poem we took it as a profane, over-the-top attack on the ways in which member of many groups are asked, or required, to perform the work of marginalization,” they wrote. But “we can no longer read the poem in that way.”
Mr. Carlson-Wee also posted his own apology. “Treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me, and I am profoundly regretful,” he said in a statement posted on Facebook and Twitter.”
Carlson-Wee’s offense was that he imitated black dialect. One of the critics leading the assault was Roxane Gay. Gay makes important points, but it also must be said that she wielded her weapons via Twitter, hardly the medium for thoughtful criticism.
“You will note that I, a black person, do not use AAVE [African American Vernacular English, rsb] in my writing because I was never exposed to it. I would fuck it up if I even tried. Know your lane. This isn’t complicated.”
It is one thing to say that Carlson-Wee’s poem is bad and suffers from poor use of African American vernacular. But Gay raises the stakes. No one can write in black vernacular who doesn’t speak it naturally. That certainly includes white writers: “The worst thing about white writers trying to use AAVE in their work is that they do it without recognizing the syntactical rules or that there are syntactical rules. Instead they racist all over the page.” But it also includes black writers who don’t speak speak AAVE. Similarly, Gay argues that men shouldn’t write women characters. The demand to “know your lane” is the mantra of arguments against cultural appropriation. And while Gay suggests that even she cannot use AAVE, it is solely white people who use AAVE who are racist.
“The reality is that when most white writers use AAVE they do so badly. They do so without understanding that it is a language with rules. Instead, they use AAVE to denote that there is a black character in their story because they understand blackness as a monolith. Framing blackness as monolithic is racist. It is lazy. And using AAVE badly is lazy so I am entirely comfortable suggesting that writers stay in their lane when it comes to dialect.”
There is a difference between criticizing a poem and policing who is allowed to imagine a fictional reality that offers insight about our real world. The charge that a poet is racist because he is white and failed to fully succeed in his efforts to express the true language of a homeless black person-as well as the demand that poetry editors prostrate themselves to prove they are not racist simply because they published a poem that others don’t like-is evidence of the confusion of our moment around race.
It may very well be—indeed it is certain—that Carlson-Wee and the editors at The Nation harbor prejudices. As Gay recognizes, she too harbors prejudices. To hold prejudgments is necessarily human. The effort to eradicate prejudice is dangerous, as Hannah Arendt recognized. Rather, it is the work of politics to illuminate and transform unjust prejudices; thus, the effort to raise people’s consciousness about their prejudices is a political necessity.
Criticism of the poem and the editorial decision to print the poem is important. But the demand that certain opinions expressed by certain races and sexes are to be banned and condemned as racist and the demand for apologies and mea culpas is the kind of imposed social conformism that Hannah Arendt worries about throughout her work. We are witnessing how a self-proclaimed cultural clique transforms itself into a censorious force. Not only is the demand for mass conformity dangerous to human freedom; it also makes ever-more-difficult the anti-racist effort to dissolve the petrified prejudices of the past and the present. It may be that what we need today is fewer people who know their lanes and more of us willing to imagine ourselves traveling new roads.
by Roger Berkowitz