On Race and Craft
TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT REVISITED
Years ago, in a positive review of my first poetry book, a critic cited the long lines in a poem as influenced by the long lines of Allen Ginsburg. Titled “Song for Uncle Tom, Tonto and Mr. Moto,” the poem referenced anticolonial and anti-racist positions around the globe, and the long lines were actually influenced by Aimé Césaire’s Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land). Had the reviewer been aware of Césaire and the Négritude movement in Francophone literature, the literary influence would have seemed obvious.
A couple of decades later, Junot Díaz published The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel chronicling the misfortunes of a Dominican family both in the Dominican Republic under Trujillo and in America. One of the novel’s minor features was an extensive use of footnotes. In a couple of reviews, the influence for these footnotes was cited as David Foster Wallace. But Díaz himself has explained that the use of footnotes was influenced by Patrick Chamoiseau’s Texaco, a novel set in Martinique at the time just before and after slavery was abolished. That Díaz would have been influenced by a fellow Caribbean writer is quite understandable, especially given Chamoiseau’s focus on Creole linguistic and cultural practices and the shared themes of political repression, colonialism, and racism in both works.
Both of these misreadings of influence are relatively minor. Still they point to the ways that ignorance of the traditions of writers of color and the history of colonialism and racism can easily lead to a lack of understanding in how writers of color practice their craft and how their work should be contextualized literarily. In both instances, a white male American writer is deemed as possessing a greater influence and universal relevance than is actually the case. Just as significantly, the influence of a writer of color goes unnoticed. I would add that while Díaz and I have read Ginsberg and Césaire, David Foster Wallace and Patrick Chamoiseau, our respective critics had only read the white writer of each pair.
Several times in the past few weeks, I’ve encountered instances where discussions of literature and race have been placed in opposition to considerations of craft or the “true” concerns of literature. Such critiques also take the form of a supposed opposition between the political and the aesthetic. Within institutions, an increase in the number of writers and artists of color can also be met with similar grumblings or critiques: X is supposed to be an educational or an arts institution, not a political or social service organization; the purpose of X should be art and not political correctness. In these instances, it’s almost as if the writing, critical theory, and presence of writers of color are viewed as infecting the house of literature and must be quarantined and excluded.
Many writers of color and white writers understand that such arguments are specious and that such oppositions are attempts to keep writers of color from challenging the aesthetics and power of white writers in the literary world. But those who believe in a greater inclusivity are sometimes at a loss as to how to argue against such opposition. In contrast, those who oppose investigating issues of race within the house of literature—whether in terms of craft, evaluation, tradition, and canon or in the workings of institutions—often seem quite certain of the basis of their positions. They state their beliefs as if pronouncing eternal verities handed down from Parnassus and the literary gods of the past. They invoke seeming universal truths as if self-evident.
But such truths are not self-evident—as sometimes becomes apparent when you ask such critics, How do you define craft? By whose authority? Do you think craft is simply about the structure of sentences or the teaching of poetic forms? Wouldn’t a better and more realistic definition of craft include whatever tools a writer needs to improve her work? The modernist critic Kenneth Burke—whom even Harold Bloom approves of—defined literature as “equipment for living.” Could it be that the equipment white writers think they need to conduct their lives might be different for writers or readers of color? If I am a writer of color, why do you the white writer get to determine what “equipment for living”—what literature—I need?
Similarly, if you are a white writer, by what basis of knowledge do you claim to know all the tools that a writer of color requires to improve her craft? Might it even be the case that some tools that a writer of color uses could be either outside the common knowledge of white writers or even in opposition to some of the tools offered in a white-dominated workshop—especially taking into account Audre Lourde’s famous observation, “The tools of the master cannot dismantle the master’s house”? And if you the white writer have never examined in any concerted way the traditions of writers of color, what they have said about their craft, how do you know that if you yourself didn’t do such study, your own writing might not improve?*
If literature involves creating language not simply to describe but to understand one’s reality, why wouldn’t a deeper understanding of race in your present and your history expand your ability to write about that reality? If literature is a search for the truth, how is it that exposure to the ways that America has lied about the realities of people of color—and thus of white people too—would harm that search? Do you understand that the same arguments about craft and technique were used to delegitimize other cultural productions by black Americans such as blues, jazz, and rock and roll (it’s not music; it takes no skill, technique, or learning; it’s not aesthetically valid; it’s just noise)? If the neglect of writers of color in the past and the present involves, at least in part, racial bias, as it has in other cultural exclusions, how can one confront that bias without a reference to race?
Do you understand that in almost any political situation, the status quo is invariably defined as nonpolitical and neutral while any threat to the status quo is deemed political and partisan? That such a difference is not a real difference but one of semantics? Do you understand that the status quo in any cultural field has a political effect, just as a change in the literary status quo will also have a political effect?
By whose authority do you claim your definition of the aesthetic as excluding race or the political to be universal? What arguments can you make to support that universality? Does such universality include all writers and artists or only some? Have you, consciously or unconsciously, made an a priori assumption that most of the writings and criticism of writers of color aren’t worthy of study? And if the vast majority of the writers and artists you cite are white, how can you prove that your views are not based on the racial segregation of your reading and learning? How can you prove that your criteria do not originate in a history of racist practices that have been used to exclude people of color not just from literature but from all areas of society, particularly positions of authority and power?
Finally, have you considered the principle that diversity—not monoculturalism—of thought, of people, of cultural influence, increases creativity? That a wider range of reading, of literary practices, will open up possibilities and new insights, much more so than a segregated white-dominated literary bubble?
To those writers of color confronted with white critics who oppose the issues of race as part of craft, I offer these questions as a way of starting—or perhaps ending—the conversation. Note that many of my questions begin with asking for a definition of terms. Once the definitions of the opposition are established, you can then question by whose authority those definitions are given universal application and meaning. Invariably, the opposition has not proven this universality—since, in actuality, it does not exist—but simply asserted it. The opposition has never truly considered that other definitions and terms and tools are possible and that people of color do not have to accept the universality of white definitions and terms that form the bases of white racial arguments. Of course, invariably, the refusal of people of color to accept this presumed universality infuriates their opposition, not simply because they have refused the (il)logic of their opponents but because they have refused the opposition’s power over them.
But to answer such critiques completely, I would need a whole book at least. Or I could begin with a reading list with works many conservative literary folk may not have read: Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, Edward Said’s Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism, James Baldwin’s The Price of the Ticket, Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s Signifying Monkey, David Palumbo-Liu’s The Deliverance of Others, Kevin Young’s The Grey Album, Bertolt Brecht’s writings on theater, the criticism of John Berger, Chinua Achebe’s Hopes and Impediments, Martin Espada’s Zapata’s Disciple, or almost any book by a poet of color in the University of Michigan’s Poets on Poetry series. Also relevant would be W. E. B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Marxist criticism, feminist criticism, GBLT criticism, scholars like Claude Steel on stereotype consciousness and stereotype threat. . . . This list could go on and on.
I realize many of the works on my list are works of literary, cultural, and political theory, though of course the essays of Baldwin or Berger have become now as standard literary texts as the essays of Matthew Arnold or Emerson. Yet such seemingly nonliterary works certainly have helped form my own sense of what literature is, how it functions in the world, and how it is evaluated, and it has influenced how I approach my own writing; this, I would argue, is also true for many other writers of color.
We turn to literature to find expressions of our reality and our consciousness that are more complex and accurate, that expand our understanding of ourselves and our world. In this way, literature involves a struggle against the cliché, the stereotypical, against untruth and facile assumptions. Such a struggle often possesses political implications; as John Berger puts it in an essay in Portraits: “Reality, however one interprets it, lies beyond a screen of clichés. Every culture produces such a screen, partly to facilitate its own practices (to establish habits) and partly to consolidate its own power. Reality is inimical to those with power.”
To extrapolate from a Richard Wright remark, black America and white America are engaged in an argument over the description of reality. And of course, literature is an essential element in those conflicting descriptions. To think that once that argument enters the realm of literature, we are not engaged in a conflict over race is the sort of denial on which whiteness, as it is traditionally practiced in the United States, is built. Whiteness has traditionally been regarded as the neutral status quo. Thus when writers of color and indigenous writers describe their lives and tell their stories, they are exposing a reality that a society of white supremacy has always worked consciously and unconsciously to deny. There is a significant gap in quality between Gone with the Wind and Beloved, and that gap involves differences in language and style and in the depth and complexity of characters, but that difference of quality cannot be severed from Morrison’s exposure of realities Mitchell denies, particularly in regard to slavery. Such a comparison is an illustration of a more useful principle or definition of craft: The pursuit of reality and truth is always part of the practice of craft.
What many people also don’t quite realize is that power can establish itself not simply through repression but also through pleasure. As Michel Foucault explains: “What makes power hold good, what makes it accepted, is simply the fact that it doesn’t only weigh on us as a force that says no, but that it traverses and produces things, it induces pleasure, forms knowledge, produces discourse. It needs to be considered as a productive network which runs through the whole social body, much more than as a negative instance whose function is repression.” Thus literature can function as a pleasure that reinforces the existing structures of power and perceptions of our reality, or it can function as a pleasure that comes from exposing those structures by expanding our sense of and understanding of our reality.*
I would argue that many of those who object to including the issues of race in discussions of literature are attempting to defend the existing structures of power and existing perceptions of reality, rather than expanding and critiquing them. When a young white male poet tells a female poet of color in a workshop, “I’m just not into identity poems,” he seems to be remarking on the quality of her poem. But what he’s really saying is that he gets no pleasure from any poems about racial or ethnic identity, no matter their quality. He is also saying, I don’t want to know who you are or what your reality is; moreover, contemplating that is unpleasant for me—namely, it doesn’t give me pleasure. But why would this be so? For one thing, poems concerning racial identity point to the limits of poems that this young man does receive pleasure from; in certain ways, this spoiling of his pleasure is what fuels the emotion behind his dismissive remarks: “I am comfortable being ignorant, and being forced to confront my ignorance not only causes me pain, it takes away from the pleasures in what I enjoy, and in ways I can’t articulate, this enrages me.”
But of course, the opposite is true for the female author of the poem about her racial identity. She finds pleasure in such poems and aesthetic worth—of course depending on their quality—and this pleasure is tied to her struggle to articulate who she is in the face of a culture of white supremacy. It is a pleasure that derives from discovering a truth denied. Obviously, the young white male poet could also receive this pleasure, but to do so, he would have to begin undergoing a transformation and interrogation of his own identity.
While this debate seems to take place in the realm of aesthetics, this opposition of pleasures is part of the struggle over race that is taking place everywhere in society, and it is both an aesthetic and a political question.
Yes, both of the above quotations come from Marxist theorists. So let me quote here from that old literary conservative T. S. Eliot:
What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.
Eliot argues that no poet or work of art stands alone. Poets must be aware of the works that have come before them; an individual poem takes its meaning within the context or “order” of the works of the past. In my experience, writers of color never argue that they don’t have to know white literature of the past, whereas white writers frequently argue that the literature of people of color is inferior or extraneous or nonessential.
At the same time, Eliot is also arguing here that the new work alters our perception of the tradition and past works; the new work forces us to view the tradition and previous works within a new order, a new context. In this process, our evaluation of older works is altered, and our understanding of previous works transformed. The tradition is neither static nor some Platonic ideal; it is always evolving, and we evolve with it.
Years ago, I taught a course titled Third World Postcolonial Literature in English. At the time, I knew little of such work, and the field of postcolonial studies was still developing. As preparation for the course, I read Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism; there he argues that certain canonical works cannot adequately be contextualized or critiqued without an understanding of the process and history of colonialism. Said applied these principles in analyzing canonical works, such as Yeats’s poems (which Said placed within a context of anticolonialist efforts to establish the culture and history of the colonized), Austen’s Mansfield Park (where the whole supporting infrastructure of Mansfield Park, based on colonialism and slavery, is absented from the lives and consciousness of the novel and its characters), and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (whose roots in colonialism and whose racism should be entirely obvious to us now).
As I designed the course, it was clear to me that Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart should be juxtaposed with Conrad’s novel, and I also assigned Achebe’s essay on Conrad. There Achebe spoke of first reading Conrad’s novel. Having been educated in the British colonial educational system, Achebe, like a “good native,” identified with the European colonizer narrator Marlowe as he regarded the unintelligible African “savages” on the shore of the river. It was only later that Achebe thought: Those “savages” were my ancestors, could have been my grandparents or great-grandparents. Achebe then asked, Do I believe they were unintelligible savages? This train of thought led him to write his seminal novel, which explores of the life of an Ibo man just before and just after the first European colonists arrived. Achebe’s essay and his novel, explicitly and implicitly, critique the racism in the vision of Conrad’s novel, and in Achebe’s eyes, Conrad’s racism must lessen our estimation of the novel (though I would also argue that Conrad’s conception of what the world was and what realities the novel could contain was far larger than that of any of his English contemporaries).
Thus the new work can transform our evaluation of the past and the tradition. Just as Eliot’s poetry and criticism changed our evaluation of the Victorian poets—lowering them—and metaphysical poets—raising them—so Achebe’s novel and essay alter our evaluation and understanding of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Similarly, the reading list for my postcolonial literature course included Jamaica Kincaid, Derek Walcott, V. S. Naipaul, Ama Ata Aidoo, Bessie Head, Michelle Cliff, J. M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, and Salman Rushdie,* and it altered my sense of the tradition and its aesthetic values. By the end of the course, I realized that if I added Leslie Marmon Silko or Toni Morrison to this list, they would fit within the themes and concerns of the authors in my course. But if I added say Jay McInerney or John Updike or Anne Beattie, they would seem as if they came from another world. I was forced then to ask: When we talk of universal standards, whose universe are we talking about?
In the last fifty years, think of the writers of color who have entered the canon: Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, M. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Jonathan Edgar Wideman, Lucille Clifton, Amiri Baraka, Yusef Komunyaka, Rita Dove, Joy Harjo, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Díaz, Chimamanda Ngozu Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Gabriel García Marquéz, Maxine Hong Kingston, David Henry Hwang, Sandra Cisneros, Marlon James . . . the list could go on and on. And with each addition, the tradition changes. For example, with the addition of Morrison and other black writers in the second half of the twentieth century, Zora Neale Hurston entered the canon retroactively and increased in significance. At the same time, through the inclusion of Morrison’s novels and criticism, our understanding and perception of Cather, Twain, and Hemingway have been altered. Her Playing in the Dark demonstrates how these authors failed to critique and go beyond received categories of white and black. This lack in turn resulted in artistic deficiencies in the way these canonical white authors portrayed both their white and black characters—in other words, clinging to a white definition of social reality was a direct cause of a failure in craft.
What all this means is that those who write without an awareness of how present-day writers of color are altering our perception of past literature have stuck their heads in the sand. They are calling for a defense not of learning but of ignorance.
But what does all this have to do with craft?
Again, let me resort to T. S. Eliot and two quotations, the first from his essay on the metaphysical poets:
When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.
The second quotation is from his essay on Marvell:
We can say that wit is not erudition; it is sometimes stifled by erudition, as in much of Milton. It is not cynicism, though it has a kind of toughness which may be confused with cynicism by the tender-minded. It is confused with erudition because it belongs to an educated mind, rich in generations of experience; and it is confused with cynicism because it implies a constant inspection and criticism of experience. It involves, probably, a recognition, implicit in the expression of every experience, of other kinds of experience which are possible.
Let’s first focus on the phrase “disparate experience” in the first quotation. Throughout Western history, the definition of what constitutes legitimate literary experience and what constitutes reality has traditionally been the provenance of white people in general and white writers in particular. As Walter Benjamin observed, history is the tale of the victors. But what happens when the less powerful, the defeated, begin to speak? Throughout Western history, people of color and indigenous people have challenged white definitions and descriptions of experience and reality. And as history has progressed, more and more people of color have asserted their own sense of reality and history. At the same time, people of color have always had to acknowledge and know the experiences of whites and the ways they define both their reality and the reality of whites. People of color could not have survived without doing so.
This is what Du Bois meant when he spoke of the Negro’s double consciousness: Blacks have had to be aware of how the white master and white man thought of and defined both whites and blacks; yet blacks were also aware that the ways they thought of and defined themselves were different from white consciousness. Thus black consciousness was always more complex, not less, than white consciousness, since white consciousness was constructed in part on the premise that blacks were inferior and lacked a complex consciousness that required consideration. Black consciousness therefore always contained a wider and more disparate set of experiences, or at least a set of experiences that white consciousness would not even acknowledge existed. If the poet is supposed to be “amalgamating disparate experience,” then, whose consciousness contains more disparate experience?
If, as Eliot maintains, an essential quality of the poet is wit, and wit involves a recognition that “other kinds of experience . . . are possible,” what does this mean for white writers who write only from and of white experiences? Recently, at the GrubStreet 2017 Muse Conference, a reader for the O’Henry Prize stories remarked wearily of a preponderance of stories set in a kitchen with a white husband and white wife having an argument, usually in New York or some East Coast city. Such a preponderance bespeaks a lack of both worldliness and imagination.
In contrast, any college-educated person of color in this country understands that he must know how whites think and how the white world operates and how whites experience the world and their history. People of color are acutely aware that white people think differently and experience the world differently than they do. People of color know they will not be considered literate if they do not know white culture and specifically white literature. But they also know that they must steep themselves in the literature of their own traditions of color.
Beyond this, since many people of color have come to white-dominated countries from across the globe, they are particularly conscious of other cultures and traditions, other histories, and such an awareness informs their writing and the ways they evaluate and contextualize their own experiences and our writings. They understand that one cannot make sense of American history—and thus its literature—or world history—and thus its literature—without understanding how race affected and determined that history. Similarly, when I taught the Third World Postcolonial Literature in English course, I discovered that the conjunction of literature and politics and of literature and race was a central theme of almost all the global authors we studied, just as it is for writers of color and indigenous writers in America.
In this way, the calls for craft as excluding or being in opposition to any consideration of race clearly contradict Eliot’s call for wit and for “amalgamating disparate experience.” As I’ve said, such opposition is a defense against erudition and learning; it is a defense against encountering lives different than one’s own; it is a defense of ignorance. Moreover, it is enforced not by any logic of how literature is written or what the history of the world has been or the principles of creativity. Instead it is simply enforced by an assertion of power and a definition of reality as expressed by whiteness. In that way, it excludes not just the writings of people of color and indigenous people, but their thinking, their experiences, and the ways they express and understand their lives. If that is not white supremacy, then the term has no meaning—which, for some people, seems to be the case.
* In the workshop “Writing on Race” that I cotaught in the Stonecoast MFA program, we found that such study and investigation not only improved the work of writers of color but also of the white writers. The white writers became more fearless, more willing to explore difficult or painful issues, expanded their understanding of their lives and history, discovered gaps in the ways they understood themselves and their identity, their families, as well as society and history in general. The realities and narratives they explored in their work became more complex, more expansive, more inclusive, and more ambitious. They also became more literate and better read, and discovered not just one or two new works, but sometimes a whole tradition of new literary works and thought.
* When asked if literature and writers have a political effect, Marlon James has observed: Just ask dictators. They know that writers and artists have a political effect; that’s why they lock them up.
* Neither Coetzee nor Gordimer excludes the issues of race from their work or from their critical thinking about literature. Obviously, they both understand that the history of colonialism and of their country involves a consideration of race.