“Truly racial” is a useful way to think about the kind of racialized poetics that attempts to express a direct representation of a racialized voice and experience. “Truly racial” aims to capture “racial individuality” both in content and form (we can think about poetic forms influenced by jazz, native oral performances, etc). This kind of writing has also been called “identity poetry,” “minority poetry,” and “multicultural poetry,” to name a few.
Many minority and native writers achieved visibility and success through “truly racial” writing. Instead of critics and readers seeing this as simply one possible expression, they tended to prop “truly racial” as the essentialist form of ethnic poetry. Which is to say, they assumed that “truly racial” writing was the natural, pure, and only, form of ethnic poetics (some version of “the voice emerging from silence”).
These critics tended to ignore other forms of writing culture, or what we might call “impurely racial” or “experimentally racial” ethnic writing. This kind of poetry explores the ambiguity, indeterminacy, hybridity, and impurity of racialized experiences. This is a racialized poetry of indirect and incomplete representations. An early practitioner of this kind of work is William Carlos Williams, a contemporary of Hughes. Today, and during the last few decades, more and more “writers of color” are writing within this “ethno-avant” mode.
Additionally, we must consider “non-racial ethnic writing”–referring to ethnic writers who do not write about race or include any racialized signifiers in their work. Jose Garcia Villa is an interesting example of this (though some may disagree that his writing is “non-racial”); he once wrote:
But why have I not written poems or stories of social significance? Because I am an artist, and in the kind of art I believe in and to which I have given my whole allegiance, there is no place for anything that has to do with social, economic or political problems. The whole function of the poet is to arouse pleasure in the beautiful. Propaganda does something else.
The movement between “truly racial,” “experimentally racial,” and “non-racial” writing does not exist in some kind of evolutionary or developmental progression, as some critics have suggested (you know, the idea that ethnic writers emerged with their voices and then they evolved and read Derrida and language poetry and realized how naive their concept of voice and representation was). A more nuanced reading of ethnic poetry reveals that these three modes, and everything in between, exist simultaneously, and you can find examples of each throughout 20th and 21st century poetics. These modes also exist simultaneously within a single writer’s oeuvre. I think of the works of Truong Tran and Barbara Jane Reyes–read all their books and you will see an exciting and diverse array of approaches to writing culture.
Because critics and readers often assume that writers of color are essentially the representative voice, or are essentially hybrid and impure, we are often struggling against these essentialist stereotypes. In some ways, non-racial ethnic writers have it the worst of all because many readers can’t conceptualize such an existence. The potential problems that can arise from these essentialist expectations were nicely articulated by Harryette Mullen in an interview:
Well, I mean, one reason I wrote Muse and Drudge is because having written Tree Tall Woman, you know, and when I went around reading from that book there were a lot of black people in my audience. There would be white people and brown people and other people of color as well. Suddenly, when I went around to do readings of Trimmings and “Spermkit,” I would be the one black person in the room, reading my poetry […] it was interesting. But that’s not necessarily what I wanted, you know, and I thought, “How am I going to get all these folks to sit down together in the same room?” Muse and Drudge was my attempt to create that audience. […] and I didn’t think I was any less black in those two books or any more black in Tree Tall Woman but I think that the way that these things get defined in the public domain is that, yeah, people saw “Spermkit” as being not a black book but an innovative book. And this idea that you can be black or innovative, you know, is what I was really trying to struggle against. And Muse and Drudge really was my attempt to show that I can do both at the same time.
Poets, critics, readers, educators all have their own possessive investments, no matter what their ethnicity. Some will demand truly racial writing, while others will award the ethnic-avant, while others prefer the non-racial. Ethnic poetry–and writing about culture in general–is multiple, contradictory, and heterogeneous in form, content, and intention. The rhizome of aesthetic racialization reveals the complexity and performativity of ethnicity–and, by extension, the “ethnic poet.” Which is to say, “ethnic poetry” will never fit into any single “model minority aesthetic.”
Let’s conclude by once again quoting Hughes: “We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”