The Poetics of Racialization (Part 1)

Craig Santos Perez
March 25, 2013
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Over at the Montevidayo blog, Sandy Florian posted an interesting piece on being a Latina poet who doesn’t write the kind of “sociological or ethnographic literature that gives voice to people with Latin American heritages who grew up in the Latino ghettos of New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.” Florian suggests that not writing “stereotypical Latino literature” has caused readers to question her heritage, and it may have even damaged her career.

Any “avant-garde” “writer of color” has probably experienced some version of this dilemma. This is not a new problem. In Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926), he describes a promising young poet who declares: “I want to be a poet—not a Negro poet.”

Hughes suggests that the poet might be thinking: “I want to write like a white poet,” “I would like to be a white poet,” and finally “I would like to be white.” He pitied the young poet because:

no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America—this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

Hughes suggests that writing about one’s race will “furnish a black artist with a lifetime of creative work.” He describes this kind of writing as being “truly racial” as it captures one’s “racial individuality” and “heritage of rhythm.” Despite this, Hughes also suggests that a writer of color should not be penned in, so to speak, by expectations from others, but that we must write “without fear and shame” from a space that is “free within ourselves”

Florian is not trying to run away from her race; instead, she is showing that Latina writers are multifaceted and that it shouldn’t matter whether she writes about a racial or non-racial experience. She claims: “underneath our thin facades of language and representation, we are all the same.”

I both agree and disagree with Hughes and Florian. I don’t think that if a poet of color decides not to write about her race, then she is trying to be white. I also don’t think that language and representation are “thin facades” and that we are all the same underneath. Colonial, imperial, and racial histories, politics, and ideologies make our variables languages and representations dense–so dense and entangled that sometimes the other is unrecognizable.

To me, it’s important to move away from this either/or binary and instead look at the complex poetics of racialization. Which is to ask, how are race and culture articulated within one’s poetic practice? How do racial markers/signifiers operate as aethetic and rhetorical devices? What “affect” is created in the reader when confronted with different forms of racialized writing? How can we, as writers, explore the wide range of racialized poetics in our work so that our poems are as dynamic and complicated and messy as our racialized identities? (I will talk more about this is my next post).

Turning to the professional/ pedagogical aspect of this discussion: Florian critiques those “liberal academics who presume that the employment of only minority writers who write about their ‘race’ (whatever that is) is liberating because it validates to their own minority students the value of their multi-cultural minority voices.” Whether or not this is true is hard to say–so I will come at it sideways: I think every poetry teacher (no matter what your racial/ethnic heritage is) should be well-versed in writing about culture simply because “culture” is one of the Major Themes of Poetry. Even if you don’t write about your own culture in your own work, all students–not just minority students–should have the opportunity to experience writing about culture.

In my Intro to Creative Writing courses, we always have a section on “writing culture” (alongside “writing self” “writing body” “writing family” “writing nature” “writing politics” “writing history” “writing the other” etc). During the “writing culture” section, the White-American students often struggle because they haven’t thought about how their experiences have been racialized–but it always ends up being a productive exercise and they learn a lot about themselves and their poetry. The students of color struggle as well, but moreso with how to write their racialized experiences in ways that don’t seem cliche to them (sometimes one or two of them will not want to write about their culture at all, for various reasons). Overall, it’s a lesson filled with important teaching/learning moments.

[to be continued]







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