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  • Poetry and Race:An Introduction
  • Jahan Ramazani (bio)

Why poetry and race? After all, race, in the sense of biobehavioral essences passed from parents to children, doesn't even exist. In the words of Kwame Anthony Appiah, genetics has shown that genes "are not inherited in racial packages," "so there are, sensu stricto, no races."1 But as a cultural category that constructs social difference, race not only exists; it's one of the most significant aspects of our lived experience. It shapes, styles, even gives rise to various forms of aesthetic enunciation, including poetry. Racism—the view that race explains natural differences in human abilities that make some people better or worse than others—is more publicly visible now than at any time since the civil rights era. Xenophobia continues to surge from the Americas to Western Europe, and from Eastern Europe to South and Southeast Asia. In the United States, a country that now bars entry to travelers from a number of Muslim majority nations, black and brown people still suffer disproportionately high rates of employment, rent discrimination, educational barriers, incarceration, child mortality, and violent death. At the home institution of New Literary History, on August 11, 2017, torch-wielding, hate-spewing, anti-Semitic, antiblack racists from at least thirty-nine states swarmed the University of Virginia's Lawn, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The next day in Charlottesville, a neo-Nazi murdered an antiracist protestor with a car, injuring many others. Like other progressive cities, Charlottesville had finally sought to take down statues installed as symbols of white supremacy, and like other institutions of higher education, UVa had finally been wrestling with its complicity in the long history of racial injustice. The contradictions of racial thinking are written into UVa's DNA: the institution's founder as well as one of the nation's, Thomas Jefferson, was a race-theorizing slaveholder whose words have inspired antiracist leaders of liberation struggles from India and Vietnam to the American South.

Why poetry and race? Over the last decade a series of high-profile controversies in American letters—which can be briefly, if incompletely, enumerated—have welded the discourses together in public perception, at least in the US. In two incidents in 2011, an African American poet [End Page vii] and white writers openly contended over racist diction and aesthetic value. At the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, a debate erupted between the poets Claudia Rankine and Tony Hoagland over the racializing language in one of his poems.2 Later that year controversy broke out in exchanges online and in print after the leading scholar of "mainstream poetry," Helen Vendler, faulted Rita Dove's "multicultural" selections in an anthology of twentieth-century American poetry, such as an anti-Semitic poem by Amiri Baraka, while the leading scholar of "avant-garde poetry," Marjorie Perloff, pointed to a poem by Natasha Trethewey as an example of the anthology's formally unadventurous poetry of "identity politics."3 Conceptual poetry was the next major flashpoint. In November of 2014, the poet Cathy Park Hong published in the journal Lana Turner a widely circulated essay condemning conceptualist Kenneth Goldsmith and other poets and scholars of the American avant-garde for marginalizing and tokenizing poets of color, ignoring their literary innovations, and belittling identity and race.4 Four months later, a furor erupted over Goldsmith's "poetry reading" of an edited transcription of police-killed Michael Brown's autopsy report, widely seen as racially clueless and offensive, but which prompted a sympathetic profile in The New Yorker.5 Around the same time another conceptual poet, Vanessa Place, as publicized in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Guardian, and elsewhere, drew censure for her Twitter art project retweeting Gone with the Wind, particularly her use of a "mammy" image as avatar.6 Two ensuing disputes involved racial masquerade. As discussed in numerous print journals and online sites, Sherman Alexie selected a poem for The Best American Poetry (2015), supposedly by Yi-Fen Chou but written by a white male poet who heisted the name from a former Chinese American schoolmate and claimed it was easier to publish under the assumed name. Alexie vigorously...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-661X
Print ISSN
0028-6087
Pages
pp. vii-xxxvii
Launched on MUSE
2020-02-04
Open Access
No
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