RACIST!

 

A poem by Tony Hoagland published nearly 10 years ago is making news.  Claudia Rankine decided to make an issue of the poem’s racism recently, both directly to him, and, more recently, in public, and Tony Hoagland responded to her by saying she is naive for being offended.  Here’s the poem:

The Change

The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine.
In the park the daffodils came up
and in the parking lot, the new car models were on parade.

Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—

The young girls show the latest crop of tummies,
          and the new president proves that he’s a dummy.

But remember the tennis match we watched that year?
Right before our eyes

some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—

We were just walking past the lounge
and got sucked in by the screen above the bar,
and pretty soon
we started to care about who won,

putting ourselves into each whacked return
as the volleys went back and forth and back
like some contest between
the old world and the new,

and you loved her complicated hair
and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,
and I,
I couldn’t help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,

because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips

and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
               so unintimidated,

hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,
like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.

There are moments when history
passes you so close
                you can smell its breath,
you can reach your hand out
                    and touch it on its flank,

and I don’t watch all that much Masterpiece Theatre,
but I could feel the end of an era there

in front of those bleachers full of people
in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes

as that black girl wore down her opponent
then kicked her ass good
then thumped her once more for good measure

and stood up on the red clay court
holding her racket over her head like a guitar.

And the little pink judge
               had to climb up on a box
to put the ribbon on her neck,

still managing to smile into the camera flash,
even though everything was changing

and in fact, everything had already changed—

Poof, remember? It was the twentieth century almost gone,
we were there,

and when we went to put it back where it belonged,
it was past us
and we were changed.

—Tony Hoagland, Graywolf Press, 2003

Let’s be clear about this: No one can discuss racism without being racist while doing so.  This is the very nature of the topic.  The best one can do, when it comes to racism, is to be either as absent from it as possible, or as present in it as possible.  

Never, however, get caught in the middle

When you are caught in the middle you are half-human, half-animal, for racism is exactly where the human and the natural meet, where society and skin, intersect. 

Racism is the Devil at the Crossroads.

Tony Hoagland took a few moments out of his life to write a racist poem, and, duh—he is now being called a racist.  

Tony Hoagland took a little walk, and, tempted by a misty shape, took a wrong turn.

As Jim Behrle astutely put it, Hoagland has “spinach in his teeth” and the spinach in his teeth has been pointed out to Tony by his now former-colleague, Claudia Rankine.  According to Behrle, Tony should be grateful.

Apologize, and take the spinach out of your teeth, Tony.

Claudia Rankine is less involved, finally, than Tony Hoagland, for she  represents only the inevitable discovery of Tony Hoagland’s sin.

Claudia’s hurt, whether she knows it or not, is not for herself, but for Tony; her pang of hurt and recognition was her realization that she had been called by the fates to bear witness to Tony’s wrong.

The fates are never racist.

Only the devil is.  

Claudia Rankine is not the subject here; she is merely the other shoe falling.

Claudia Rankine is the other half of the middle which Tony Hoagland unfortunately strayed into.

Never get caught in the middle; never be both in and out of the racist topic.  And secondly, the racist topic makes the speaker on it racist.  These are the two iron laws.

When you go to the Crossroads, you will always meet somebody.

Now there have been voices on the web during this little firestorm, wise voices, pointing out that Hoagland is not the person speaking in the poem—and, by the way, Hoagland clearly is not the speaker of the poem—, and that the poem bravely and thoughtfully explores the issue of race and the changing perception of race in the media, in Europe and the United States, in sports, and among shallow, fashionable people, and the poem is universal enough to include every thoughtful person in its sweep.

What these voices say are true.

But these voices merely murmur like the sly shape which tempted Tony to his fate in the first place.  These voices cannot save Tony Hoagland, for they are merely saying, “Tony ate spinach an hour ago;” they cannot take away the reality and the embarrassment of the spinach sticking out of Tony’s teeth.

Wishing to scrap the New Critical dictum that the poem is not directed to anything outside itself, but succeeds or fails on the strength and flexibility of its own inner mechanisms, the Tony Hoagland School, wishing to find avenues of escape from the death-pale chill of the New Critical, audaciously pokes and prods the edifices of the outside world until brown chunks and organic pieces crumble into and grow in the very center of the poem itself, and when something like this happens to Tony Hoagland, such as the Claudia Rankine Incident, the New Critical Death’s Head, like a grinning English Queen, says under its breath: See?  I told you!  The world will ruin the transparent poem every time!  But here’s a lesson for you—at the Crossroads!  Mr. Naive!

The more racist you are, the more New Critical you must be.

Even the bravest and the most innocent of hearts who leave the New Critical castle will die, like those millions and millions of confessional poems from 1960 onward, whose poets spoke their souls in prose about every intimate subject under the sun.  What variety!  And now, what dull death!

In his recent piece on the Rankine Incident, Jim Behrle writes, “I am racist,” but, “it’s something I work on every day.”  Behrle needed to say this.  Otherwise Behrle couldn’t, with impunity, write of the Rankine Incident:  “Tony Hoagland is among the most undertalented and overrated poets in America.  Seems like he’s an asshole, too.”

Behrle instinctively knows one cannot walk into a racist discussion like a toddler walking into traffic. 

You are either aloof, or guilty.

“I am racist…”

It’s the iron law.

14 Comments

  1. February 13, 2011 at 5:59 pm

    Why do I feel like the poem’s subtext (and secret subject) is the sort of resentment/anxiety that dull academic (white male) poets of Hoagland’s generation feel towards the identity politics movements that gained so much power in liberal arts circles in the late 20th century? But instead of fighting that little pobiz turf war directly, he decides to make a mess of an honest sporting event and athletes who I promise you are concerned with nothing but being in the moment and returning volley.

    My biggest problem with the poem is that it is an historical anachronism. As it happens, I’ve been reading a great Joe Louis biography this week (thanks for my local library’s black history month table display). Naturally the book spends time discussing Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion, and his historic fight with Jim Jeffries, the original “great white hope.” The “my kind/my tribe” rhetoric and fear of the ominous black menace is just a less vicious version of Jack London’s contemporary reaction to Johnson’s ascent. Newspapers all over the Anglo-Saxon world fretted about how Johnson’s domination “changed everything.”

    Of course, within living memory of the civil war, that prize fight did inevitably have some very significant historical symbolism attached to it. But a black athlete besting a white competitor in the 1990’s? Whatever. I would never suggest we live in a color blind society, but I do think that few people watching that tennis match would ever see that creepy symbolism that Hoagland’s dredging up. If anything, it seems like his racism is forced intellectualism rather than the true, visceral response he’s trying to present it as. That makes it a lot worse, in my opinion.

    • thomasbrady said,

      February 13, 2011 at 6:31 pm

      Briggs,

      I think your take on it is just how the anti-Hoagland camp is feeling.

      Your sports point is a good one:

      “[Hoagland] decides to make a mess of an honest sporting event and athletes who I promise you are concerned with nothing but being in the moment and returning volley.”

      On Gallaher’s blog I said it was perhaps the sports topic that was creating most of the issue, for a couple of reasons: sports has a middlebrow vibe, and thus the highbrow has an extra incentive to be offended: middlebrows can’t really be trusted to be honest about race. But also, sports tends to make us root for one side or the other, forces us to pick ‘a side.’ But your counter-point is a good one: sports can also be transcendent: ‘winning the point’ is color-blind.

      Tom

  2. Noochness said,

    February 13, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    “No shaved heads,” the air force said,
    “If you do that, then you’re a skinhead”—
    Then Michael Jordan did it,
    And many brown-skinned airmen followed suit—
    Well, they obviously weren’t skinheads—
    So the air force’s rule became moot.

  3. Noochness said,

    February 13, 2011 at 10:23 pm

    The mighty Boston Celtics
    Have no pink-skinned players around—
    But so long as they keep winning
    I don’t care if their players are brown.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    February 13, 2011 at 11:18 pm

    A comment on another blog mentioned this poem as a better look at racism than Hoagland’s:

    On The Subway

    The boy and I face each other.
    His feet are huge, in black sneakers
    laced with white in a complex pattern like a
    set of intentional scars. We are stuck on
    opposite sides of the car, a couple of
    molecules stuck in a rod of light
    rapidly moving through darkness. He has the
    casual cold look of a mugger,
    alert under hooded lids. He is wearing
    red, like the inside of the body
    exposed. I am wearing dark fur, the
    whole skin of an animal taken and
    used. I look at his raw face,
    he looks at my fur coat, and I don’t
    know if I am in his power —
    he could take my coat so easily, my
    briefcase, my life —
    or if he is in my power, the way I am
    living off his life, eating the steak
    he does not eat, as if I am taking
    the food from his mouth. And he is black
    and I am white, and without meaning or
    trying to I must profit from his darkness,
    the way he absorbs the murderous beams of the
    nation’s head, as black cotton
    absorbs the heat of the sun and holds it. There is
    no way to know how easy this
    white skin makes my life, this
    life he could take so easily and
    break across his knee like a stick the way his
    own back is being broken, the
    rod of his soul that at birth was dark and
    fluid, rich as the head of a seedling
    ready to thrust up into any available light.

    –Sharon Olds

    Is this poem less offensive than Hoagland’s?

    • Noochness said,

      February 14, 2011 at 10:01 am

      Her guilt is so wrenching,
      And the “boy” isn’t even a hermit—
      Since she’s so uptight and vulnerable,
      She should get a handgun permit.

  5. Statement said,

    February 14, 2011 at 7:54 am

    Statement by PoemOfTheWeek

  6. Statement said,

    February 14, 2011 at 8:10 am

    The run of history in a thick soup of rain
    The brown colored condiment in a clear bottle
    The inexpensive aftershave and give away shampoo
    Two pairs of runners on a canvas chair.

    An empty tin
    Unironed shirts
    Traffic sounds rattling in the moist breeze
    A historic evening of words surrendering
    In the mouths of politicians in sombre dress
    Grey hair dyed dark
    Tasteful tie with moderate knots,
    The co-ordinates of sincerity in the eradication of war.

    Television-dressed leaders, consigned by history
    To a passionate cause, lining pockets, in the equality
    Of flags and pardes, a jumble of yesterday’s news
    Holding the chips for tommorow’s game; cold-coiled
    Reality a level of talk and trust constantly tied, tested
    And untethered by events, departure and return,
    The simplistic consistency of two tribes, vying, in wait
    For a sign of belief in each other’s rights
    In the conflicting song of a patriot dead, dying for truth
    And lies put into our heads, centuries of silent wrongs

    And bloodthirsty rights.

  7. Statement said,

    February 14, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Statement by PoemOfTheWeek

    I beg thee Goddess of the dead who make this hand move
    Across your row of letters

  8. thomasbrady said,

    February 14, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    Statement,

    I see you are a “priestess.” Welcome.

    Poetry has historically been anti-priesthood. Here’s an example, and since racism is a kind of madness, I think this is appropriate:

    Counting the Mad

    This one was put in a jacket,
    This one was sent home,
    This one was given bread and meat
    But would eat none,
    And this one cried No No No No
    All day long.

    This one looked at the window
    As though it were a wall,
    This one saw things that were not there,
    This one things that were,
    And this one cried No No No No
    All day long

    This one thought himself a bird,
    This one a dog,
    And this one thought himself a man,
    An ordinary man,
    And cried and cried No No No No
    All day long.

    Tom

    • Diane Roberts Powell said,

      July 8, 2015 at 6:56 am

      That’s the best poem you’ve ever written.

      • noochinator said,

        July 8, 2015 at 9:28 am

        “And this one thought himself a man,
        An ordinary man,
        And cried and cried No No No No
        All day long.”

        Yes, this is unforgettable — good critical acumen, Diane!

  9. thomasbrady said,

    July 8, 2015 at 12:49 pm

    that poem is by the late Donald Justice. His work has a very melancholy tinge, bordering on the morbid, perhaps. He appreciated music. One of the better 20th century poets…

  10. noochinator said,

    September 18, 2015 at 10:48 pm

    Hoagland’s poem reminded me of Roberta Vinci’s charming post-game interview after her win against Serena Williams at the 2015 U.S. Open:


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