OR DAVID FOSTER WALLACE VERSUS JAMES BALDWIN
A couple of years ago, a black writer friend recounted to me an experience in her MFA program. On the first day of class, the white professor took my black friend aside and advised my friend that she should go to the remedial English center for instruction since there were grammatical errors in her poems.
My black friend explained that the poems were written in black vernacular. The white professor, tenured, with a distinguished chair, responded that if my friend continued to write in that way, her poems would not be published.
I shouldn’t have to add this, but my friend not only went on to publish poems and complete her MFA; she also earned a PhD in English literature, later worked internationally for the U.S. government, won literary prizes, and is now a college professor. My friend was acutely aware of the differences between black speech and the conventions of white literary and professional language. On the other hand, her white professor’s ignorance of the tradition of African American literature or, say, critical works like Henry Louis Gates’s The Signifying Monkey or Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark was not an issue that my friend, as a student, felt she could bring up.
In his introduction to Dismantle: An Anthology of Writing from VONA (a conference for writers of color), Junot Díaz critiques the damage done to student writers of color in MFA programs and critiques the racism and ignorance of their professors and fellow students:
I’ve worked in two MFA programs and visited at least 30 others and the signs are all there. The lack of diversity of the faculty. Many of the students’ lack of awareness of the lens of race, the vast silence on these matters in many workshops. I can’t tell you how often students of color seek me out during my visits or approach me after readings in order to share with me the racist nonsense they’re facing in their programs, from both their peers and their professors. In the last 17 years I must have had at least three hundred of these conversations, minimum. I remember one young MFA’r describing how a fellow writer (white) went through his story and erased all the ‘big’ words because, said the peer, that’s not the way ‘Spanish’ people talk. This white peer, of course, had never lived in Latin America or Spain or in any U.S. Latino community—he just knew. The workshop professor never corrected or even questioned said peer either. Just let the idiocy ride. Another young sister told me that in the entire two years of her workshop the only time people of color showed up in her white peer’s stories was when crime or drugs were somehow involved. And when she tried to bring up the issue in class, tried to suggest readings that might illuminate the madness, her peers shut her down, saying Our workshop is about writing, not political correctness. As always race was the student of color’s problem, not the white class’s. Many of the writers I’ve talked to often finish up by telling me they’re considering quitting their programs.
When Díaz placed a shortened version of this introduction on the New Yorker website, the responses in the commentary section revealed a barrage of ad hominem attacks and responses from white writers denying the truth of Díaz’s MFA experience as well as the experiences of other student writers of color. There was also the usual response by white writers: Well, I haven’t seen this or that form of racial bias or insensitivity or ignorance—that is, only if white writers themselves have seen things with their own eyes can they actually believe the accounts of people of color. Such a response is not, in its essence, that different from the response of white Americans to past black accounts of police brutality and injustice. The words of black Americans were not enough because, well, just because; there needed to be video proof that whites could see (and often even that is not enough).
Writers of color don’t have video proof of their reality, just their words. That their words and sense of reality continue to be dismissed, excluded, marginalized, and distorted links them to a struggle taking place everywhere in American society, the struggle for their communities to be heard and their truths to be acknowledged. Writers of color are engaged in aesthetic issues and battles, yes, but it is no contradiction to say that those issues and battles also include a political dimension. Certainly, they do not have to assent to assumptions about the nature of this conflict that exclude the very basis through which they make their case.
What would it take to prepare professors and students to critique the writings of students of color?
Obviously, part of this is a matter of reading. In “POC VS. MFA,” the condensed version of his introduction to Dismantle that appeared in the New Yorker, Díaz describes the dominant literary tradition in his MFA program: “From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro—and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid.” Díaz provides here a contrast between a list of white writers and a list of writers of color. If you’re a white writer and have not read the names on the second list, you need to start reading.
Even in 2015, you can become a very famous and accomplished white writer without feeling that you must be familiar with writers of color. I know a writer of color who told a white writer friend, “If you don’t read Baldwin, we can’t be friends anymore.” This white writer was in his forties and had won major book awards; he’s someone who could quote poems from any number of East European poets, who had studied Latin American writers. But this same white writer considered himself well educated without having read Baldwin.
One can do reading lists, and they are useful. But what is more difficult to change is the basic mind-set of many white writers, one with both conscious and unconscious components. That mind-set assumes that the reality of people of color, their lives and their consciousness, are secondary and minor, are not universal, are not required understanding, are optional. Obviously, when my writer of color friend demanded that his white writer friend read Baldwin, that white writer was making a conscious choice not to read Baldwin, a choice based on the belief that Baldwin was not a canonical writer and thus inessential.
This same mind-set is what Toni Morrison refers to when she writes in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, “For reasons that should not need explanation here, until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white. I am interested to know what that assumption has meant to the literary imagination. When does racial ‘unconsciousness’ or awareness of race enrich interpretative language, when does it impoverish it?” Though Morrison qualifies her statement by the phrase “until very recently,” one wonders how many white writers today actually wrestle with how their work might be received by readers of color. Every writer of color is certainly aware that white readers will be reading their work, just as writers of color are aware that the evaluation of their work in the so-called mainstream literary world will, to a large part, be influenced by what white readers make of it.
In viewing the difficulties of her position in terms of writing about race, Morrison asks: “What happens to the writerly imagination of a black author who is at some level always representing one’s own race to, or in spite of, a race of readers that understands itself to be ‘universal’ or race-free?” As Morrison points out, the danger for her is not in resorting to the tropes white writers have used to construct “literary blackness”:
Neither blackness nor “people of color” stimulates in me notions of excessive, limitless love, anarchy, or routine dread. I cannot rely on these metaphorical shortcuts because I am a black writer struggling with and through a language that can powerfully evoke and enforce hidden signs of racial superiority, cultural hegemony, and dismissive “othering” of people and language which are by no means marginal or already and completely known and knowable in my work. My vulnerability would lie in romanticizing blackness rather than demonizing it; vilifying whiteness rather than reifying it. The kind of work I have always wanted to do requires me to learn how to maneuver ways to free up the language from its sometimes sinister, frequently lazy, almost always predictable employment of racially informed and determined chains.
This passage brings up a key issue regarding the teaching of writing: What if the work of a student writer of color displays some of these missteps Morrison alludes to here? In typical MFA programs, would the white professors be aware of these “racially informed and determined chains” Morrison refers to? To achieve such awareness, white writing professors would have to educate themselves in the same tradition that Morrison writes out of and is thoroughly familiar with. And if white professors are going to prepare themselves and their classes to deal with works by students of color, they would also have to educate the white writers in the class in the traditions of writers of color. But even with all that, neither white writing professors nor white students would bring to the class a lifetime of experiences living as people of color in this society and interacting with a community of color.
But let’s say a white writing professor has done at least this literary and intellectual work, and let us acknowledge that a white writing professor might have educated himself enough to read the work of students of color within the broader context of both white writers and writers of color, of American writers and global writing. Other questions still remain to be asked. First, would the white writing professor feel comfortable critiquing the student of color? Second, would the white writing professor be able to provide his critique in a way that the student of color would trust and respond to positively?
To answer these questions, let me start with a “talk” David Foster Wallace would give to certain black students. This talk didn’t involve creative writing specifically, but it does reveal certain racial dynamics that occur between a white professor and a student of color, dynamics Wallace seems unconscious and ignorant of.
In the essay “Authority and American Usage,” in Consider the Lobster, Wallace gives a written version of his specialized talk on Standard Black English versus Standard White English.
I don’t know whether anybody’s told you this or not, but when you’re in a college English class you’re basically studying a foreign dialect. This dialect is called Standard White English. From talking with you and reading your first couple essays, I’ve concluded that your own primary dialect is [one of the three variants of SBE common to our region].
Wallace goes on to explain some differences between Standard White English and Standard Black English. He then concludes:
I’m respecting you enough here to give you what I believe is the straight truth. In this country, SWE is perceived as the dialect of education and intelligence and power and prestige, and anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE. This is just How It Is. You can be glad about it or sad about it or deeply pissed off. You can believe it’s racist and unfair and decide right here and now to spend every waking minute of your adult life arguing against it, and maybe you should, but I’ll tell you something—if you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously, you’re going to have to communicate them in SWE, because SWE is the dialect our nation uses to talk to itself. African-Americans who’ve become successful and important in U.S. culture know this; that’s why King’s and X’s and Jackson’s speeches are in SWE, and why Morrison’s and Angelou’s and Baldwin’s and Wideman’s and Gates’s and West’s books are full of totally ass-kicking SWE, and why black judges and politicians and journalists and doctors and teachers communicate professionally in SWE. . . . And [STUDENT’S NAME], you’re going to learn to use it, too, because I am going to make you.
Wallace then comments about this “spiel” and the way it was received by his students of color:
I should note here that a couple of the students I’ve said this stuff to were offended—one lodged an Official Complaint—and that I have had more than one colleague profess to find my spiel “racially insensitive.” Perhaps you do, too. This reviewer’s own humble opinion is that some of the cultural and political realties of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realties with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them.
For certain readers of color, one of the clues that this is a white guy talking is the phrase “This reviewer’s own humble opinion.” There’s nothing humble at all about how Wallace addresses these students of color and critiques their English. Wallace not only knows that he’s an expert in discussing the academic arguments surrounding SWE and SBE; he is also convinced he knows the way the world works, and he knows what respect is, and he knows what it is to tell the “truth.” He assumes there is one version of the “truth” and that he has simply laid down that “truth” to the student of color—and to whichever colleagues find him “racially insensitive.” He is giving the student of color a gift, and the student ought to see that. If the student rejects his gift, it’s all on the student; the student simply doesn’t want to hear the “truth.” Similarly, his colleagues who call him “racially insensitive” are wrong. He, Wallace, cannot be “racially insensitive” since he is not a hypocrite; he is not “pussyfooting around” but instead is supposedly keeping it real.
In all his nonfiction, this passage is possibly the only instance where Wallace says anything significant about any writers of color. But the problem here is not that Wallace has not read black writers. Rather, it’s that Wallace seems to think that his allusions to Toni Morrison and Gates—that is, his seeming knowledge of black literature—provides him with free reign to say whatever he wants to his black students. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, for me to imagine Toni Morrison or Jonathan Edgar Wideman giving a talk exactly like this to a black student—which is not to say that Toni Morrison or Wideman would not want the student to learn SWE. Nor does Wallace imagine how even the same speech he makes might be heard differently by a black student if Toni Morrison were giving that speech and why that might be.
Wallace maintains that he is not engaging in anything “toxic,” yet not for an instant does he entertain the possibility that his position as a white male professor might make his student regard him as potentially “toxic.” He’s speaking to an African American student who comes from a community where SBE is the dominant language, and he exhibits no understanding of what that student’s life might have been like, the distance she might have traveled, to get to his office. He clearly has no idea how much she might distrust both him, the white male professor, and the institution he represents, or how his very words might simply confirm and echo the stereotypes she suspects are in the minds of the white people she encounters at this predominantly white institution.
Wallace presumes he knows what the student of color needs—that student needs to hear and heed Wallace’s spiel on SBE and SWE. Moreover, that student of color should know that Wallace means her well because Wallace knows he means that student of color well. Any doubt on the student’s part of Wallace’s intentions or his truth is irrelevant. The only reality—and “truth”—that matters is Wallace’s. In other words, for Wallace his own epistemology must be the only relevant epistemology. He doesn’t consider that in his encounter with his black student, Wallace is encountering a very different epistemology. He doesn’t understand that the less than satisfactory reaction to his talk might stem from this clash of epistemologies.
I showed Wallace’s talk to a black poet friend. He said that his parents did instruct him that he should learn Standard White English, that he should be familiar with both SWE and SBE. But then he said that if David Foster Wallace had talked this way to him, my black poet friend—one of the gentlest and most congenial people I know—would have wanted to strangle Wallace.
In short, aside from some of its faulty premises, Wallace’s whole spiel is wrongheaded in tone and approach. Yet he is completely unaware of the possibility of this.
Wallace makes a fundamental mistake by ignoring a principle that is part of any basic instruction in rhetoric: you must be aware of your audience and how that audience will receive your message. Wallace has no idea how what he is saying and the way he is saying it will be received by a black student whose first dialect is SBE—a student who is in her first or second year at a university where the standard language is SWE and where the faculty and students are overwhelmingly white; a black student who is listening to a white male professor tell her what the social reality of this country is and what that student will need to get ahead in this country no matter what her path will be in life. In other words, Wallace has no idea how his “truth” will be heard by his black students.
Oh, wait. He does. He’s offended them.
But wait. Their sense of offense doesn’t matter. He, Wallace, is telling the truth. That’s all that matters. He knows he is not racially insensitive. And that’s that.
It’s clear Wallace never stopped to ask his black students: “Why do you think I’m being racially insensitive? Is there something here I’m missing?”
What would I do with a student like the students Wallace addresses in his spiel? First, I would try to be cognizant of the fact that SBE has been the language of this student and her community; any hint of disrespect of that language from me would be taken as disrespect toward not just that student but the student’s entire community. I would understand that SBE is the language spoken by those who love this student and whom this student loves, those who brought her up and those in the community in which the student grew up. So I had best tread lightly lest I insult those the student loves, who raised, supported, and helped make her who she is. I would recognize that the elephant in the room is the assumption that those who speak SBE are less intelligent, less complex human beings, and that they are marked for second-class status as citizens. I would understand that even if I do not share this prejudice, the student has little reason to believe that is the case. Indeed, there are many good reasons for the student to suspect that I do hold such prejudices—and this would be even more so if I were white like Wallace.
At the same time, I would understand that SBE has been used by American blacks for centuries and has enabled them to survive slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary American racism, and under those conditions, American blacks have used SBE to create aspects of American culture that are essential to all Americans, no matter their color. I would acknowledge that all Americans owe a debt to SBE and those who have spoken it for their contributions not just to American culture but to American history and justice. While someone like Martin Luther King Jr. learned SWE, there were thousands of his followers whose primary language was SBE and without whom King would not have been able to accomplish what he did; the civil rights movement was not just the SWE-speaking King but unsung blacks who spoke SBE and who faced down death threats and jail and the KKK in order to rid America of Jim Crow segregation.*
Taking all this into account, in relating to this student, I would assume that because I’m an Asian American, that student might have some distrust of me. Certainly, the student would regard whatever I say differently than if a black professor or her parents were saying something similar about SWE and SBE. I would assume that I needed to know more about the individual student. I might have pockets of ignorance concerning who that student is and what that student’s experiences have been and what his or her particular truths might be. I would know that until I earn the student’s trust, I would have to proceed with caution. I cannot presume from the start that the student should trust me and what I say. I would know that in the interchange between the teacher and the student, it is not just the student who should be critiqued. The student is critiquing me. And I would understand that the society the student lives in has probably given that student a lot of reasons to regard me with wariness. Many people of color, for instance, are aware that Asian Americans are viewed as the model minority, and that certain Asian Americans have chosen to play the “honorary white” status in order to be accepted by the white majority.
Finally, I would have to learn more about the student as an individual—his background, the student’s self-perception and view of his place at the university, what has motivated the student to work to get to this point, for clearly he hasn’t gotten here without overcoming any number of barriers I might not be aware of. I would take clues from the student as to what he thinks he might need from me, and this might not be, at this moment, a spiel about SWE and SBE. Instead, the student might need simply to feel as if he just might be able to trust me, that I’m there to help him, despite our racial difference and the differences in our backgrounds. The first thing I would have to do with this student would be to establish an authentic relationship with him based on who I am and who the student actually is.
In his essay and his spiel, Wallace does not feel the need to understand his black student’s reality or to empathize with how the student views the world and his place in it—not that he should become the student, which he can’t, but that he should try at least for a moment to understand what it is like to walk in the student’s shoes. He can’t or won’t let himself imagine why his black students might distrust him or what experiences have reinforced that distrust. Nor does he think it his job to try to earn their trust.
But, after all, why should he do this? He’s a white male professor. The student is supposed to listen to him, submit to his superior knowledge.
Here we come to a requirement that is not often discussed in the teaching of creative writing and perhaps cannot be adequately discussed in that realm, but I’m going to talk about it anyway: spiritual humility.
For me, perhaps the basic text for the spiritual examination of race is the writing of James Baldwin. “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy,” an essay in Nobody Knows My Name, contains a key section where Baldwin lays out his differences with Norman Mailer as a typical white man:
There is a difference, though, between Norman and myself in that I think he still imagines that he has something to save, whereas I have never had anything to lose. Or, perhaps I ought to put it another way: the things that most white people imagine that they can salvage from the storm of life is really, in sum, their innocence. It was this commodity precisely which I had to get rid of at once, literally, on pain of death. I am afraid that most of the white people I have ever known impressed me as being in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order, against which dream, unfailingly and unconsciously, they tested and very often lost their lives. It is a terrible thing to say, but I am afraid that for a very long time the troubles of white people failed to impress me as being real trouble. They put me in mind of children crying because the breast has been taken away.
The contemporary version of these last sentences is “white people’s problems,” and this contemporary term connotes a certain awareness—or is it deflection?—on the part of white people toward the privileges bestowed on them as white people. But the protection of white innocence? That continues to this day.*
White writers who still resist the inclusion of the writings of people of color or who relegate such writings to a secondary status are indeed “in the grip of a weird nostalgia, dreaming of a vanished state of security and order” in which their lives and works are primary and unchallenged in their primacy. But this belief in the primacy of white writing is slightly different from the belief that no matter the challenge or charge of racism or racial bias, the white writer or the white writing professor must always be innocent. David Foster Wallace’s self-absolution against the charges of racial insensitivity is just one example of this.
In Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village,” published in Notes of a Native Son, he observes: “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” But throughout Wallace’s interchanges with his black students, he insists on his innocence. What buoys this insistence is ignorance: Wallace does not know what he does not know. He has never questioned if the ways he regards his black students might still be shaped by an ideology and psychology of white supremacy, since Wallace thinks he, like so many white liberals, has escaped all that. Similarly, your average white writing instructor just knows he or she cannot be guilty of racial bias; that is impossible.
And yet lingering within the consciousness of white writers and whites in general resides the suspicion that they are guilty of such charges. What happens then if they allow that guilt to rise to their consciousness? How will they be able to look at or live with themselves? How will they then proceed in their interactions with people of color?
As Baldwin observes, it is not people of color who are fooled by protestations of white innocence. It is white people who are fooled—or rather, who fool themselves.
What if Wallace had said to himself, “Maybe I am being racially insensitive. Maybe the anger and hurt expressed by my black students at my spiel is, at least in part, justified. Where is the truth in my black students’ reactions against me that I don’t see? What are the limitations in my understanding of who they are and how they see me? What if my words have an effect I am not aware of? And what if my blindness to all that is my own racism?”
If Wallace had asked himself such questions, he might have opened himself to a whole new way of thinking about the world. Certainly, his exchanges with his black students would have produced very different and perhaps more positive results (he implies that many of his black students did not go back to him to learn SWE). He might have then allowed the possibility of engaging his black students on a level where they were both equal. In such an equality, his own ignorance and his own guilt would need to be seen not in a white context but a black context.
That ignorance would include the weight of negative racial stereotypes that society has placed on his black students, stereotypes that have implicitly and explicitly denigrated these students; these stereotypes and the culture in general have hoisted onto these black students a weight that they are told they must carry—while Wallace and other white liberals can feel excluded from any responsibility for the negative effects of these stereotypes. Thus Wallace would have to take responsibility for the ways he and other whites are buoyed by these negative racial stereotypes—they know they are not that—and can easily ignore the effect of these stereotypes on people of color. Perhaps then there would be many things about this system that his black student might teach him; perhaps there is a huge portion of our social reality—the lives of people of color—that Wallace might be relatively ignorant of.
Such a stance on Wallace’s part would have required humility, true spiritual humility. But his insistence on his own innocence prevents that.
What would Wallace have had to give up to question his own innocence? Partly he would have to subdue his pride and embrace a sense of humility; he would have to entertain the fact that this black student in his office, this stranger, might teach him something about himself. In such a state of transition, as Baldwin so eloquently expressed in The Devil Finds Work, a person recognizes that her own identity is constantly in progress, constantly in the process of revision and reformulation:
The question of identity is a question involving the most profound panic—a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall. This question can scarcely be said to exist among the wretched, who know, merely, that they are wretched and who bear it day by day—it is a mistake to suppose that the wretched do not know that they are wretched; nor does this question exist among the splendid, who know, merely, that they are splendid, and who flaunt it, day by day: it is a mistake to suppose that the splendid have any intention of surrendering their splendor. An identity is questioned only when it is menaced, as when the mighty begin to fall, or when the wretched begin to rise, or when the stranger enters the gates, never, thereafter, to be a stranger: the stranger’s presence making you the stranger, less to the stranger than to yourself. Identity would seem to be the garment with which one covers the nakedness of the self; in which case, it is best that the garment be loose, a little like the robes of the desert, through which robes one’s nakedness can always be felt, and sometimes, discerned. This trust in one’s nakedness is all that gives one the power to change one’s robes.
“This trust in one’s own nakedness”—that is Baldwin’s phrase for spiritual humility. We are not all-knowing creatures. If we live in a village—and most white Americans live in an all-white village—we think that everyone thinks like us; we think our truth is the only truth; we think the way we see ourselves is the only way to see ourselves. But if a stranger walks into our village, or if we—god forbid—walk into a village of strangers, we are suddenly aware that there are other ways of looking at the world; there are other ways of looking at ourselves, at who we are, at our place in the world, at the ways we identify ourselves.
At that moment, to challenge the way one thinks about oneself, to contemplate transforming one’s identity is, as Baldwin observes, “a terror as primary as the nightmare of the mortal fall.” And so you can either refuse that new knowledge—by labeling it secondary or minor or subjective or nonuniversal—or you can admit that your view of reality is neither completely objective nor universal. And you will then have to change your robes—meaning your robes are not as splendid as they seemed a moment earlier; meaning you are not your robes, however magnificent and natural they have seemed; meaning you are, as Shakespeare observed in Lear, “a poor bare, forked animal,” a naked soul.
David Foster Wallace never let himself truly learn from the black students who walked as strangers into his white village. That is partly because he never saw what it truly meant for him to live inside his white village. Wallace never understood that he refused to accept his black students as equals, even though he thought he did. Because if Wallace had accepted his black students as equals, he would have learned something from them, and nothing in his essay indicates any such learning. For as implied in Baldwin’s words above, this shift of identity depends on your seeing that the stranger possesses a knowledge you do not possess; accepting that involves acknowledging that there are ways in which that stranger is knowledgeable and you are ignorant.
Admitting one’s ignorance is as formidable a task as admitting one’s guilt. That is why it is so difficult for white writing instructors to teach students of color. To truly engage in such teaching is to approach a terror primary as that of the nightmare of the mortal fall.
But suppose one entered that terror and began to investigate and explore its nature and then to write about it? That is one way for white writers and white writing teachers to move beyond where we are now, to prepare themselves and their writing for the America that is here all around them, and even more so, for the America arriving very soon in our future.
* Wallace’s talk presumes not just the preeminence of SWE but an unquestioned preeminence, and it’s hard for many writers of color to accept this premise. I could point to various works of literature that do use SBE, such as Their Eyes Were Watching God, as evidence of Wallace’s myopia. Or I could point out that when he says, “If you ever want those arguments to get listened to and taken seriously,” he’s presuming an audience that accepts SWE as the standard and uses SWE. Implicitly, he’s also saying that an audience that speaks primarily SBE cannot possibly change things. The fact that hip-hop, a form in which SBE predominates, has altered not just American culture but world culture totally challenges such an assumption. In obvious and not so obvious ways, Wallace is speaking the language of white supremacy, even as he seems to disavow any racism on his part. Apparently, he doesn’t think Audre Lourde’s famous observation might be relevant here—the tools of the master will never dismantle the master’s house. In other words, his very language relegates the community of the student who speaks and writes in SBE to a secondary status—not just politically or culturally but on a basic human level. And Wallace doesn’t see that he’s doing this.
* One sees manifestations of this not just in white conservatives but in white liberals, of which, perhaps the writers at the Associated Writing Programs conference is one the epicenters. In certain ways, I am never more aware we live in this country in segregated racial realities than I am at the AWP conference. At the recent conference in Minneapolis, I went to an off-site group reading each of the four nights. Three were readings by writers of color—Cave Canem (the African American poets conference), The Loft EQ Spoken Word Reading (mainly local Twin Cities poets of color), and VONA (a writers of color conference). In these readings, race, politics, history, and community all came up and of course all the events of the past year that have prompted the Black Lives Matter and the Million Artists movements. But on another night at AWP, I went with a black poet friend who was appearing at a reading with about twenty-five white poets and one Asian American poet. Other than my black poet friend, none of the poems engaged race, politics, history, or community; none of the poets made any reference to the killings of blacks by police in the past year. These white poets—and the Asian American poet—seemed to live in a very different country than the poets of color I’d listened to on the other three nights at AWP.