Opinion

Why a White Poet Should Not Be Attempting to Reclaim the “N-Word”

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Vanessa Place’s ‘Gone With The Wind’ Twitter project featuring a profile picture of actress Hattie McDaniel (via Twitter)

Both literature and visual art share a common concern: they continue to grapple with questions of inclusion and diversity, and in many ways have done a poor job of righting the long-standing wrongs of white men who have dominated the landscape since forever. Women have made great strides over the last decade in leadership roles that offer lasting and substantial change in the written and visual art landscapes. And yet, those landscapes have remained quite monochromatic. By which I mean artists and writers of color have not even begun to catch up with white women in access to funding, art shows, publishing opportunities, or leadership roles.

In this monochromatic landscape, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has long been critiqued as failing to implement meaningful attempts at inclusion, in particular in planning its annual conference and selecting which proposed panels will be included. When the AWP16 proposal selection committee was announced last week, people noticed quickly that it included conceptual poet Vanessa Place. On May 16 a Change.org petition was created to ask AWP to remove her, pointing to her latest Twitter-based project as a racist line-by-line retelling of Gone with the Wind.

The Gone with the Wind Twitter project features a profile picture of actress Hattie McDaniel, whose appropriation has been termed as “literary Blackface.” McDaniel played Mammy in the Gone with the Wind movie, was a trailblazer for Black actresses, and dealt with controversy for being viewed by her contemporaries as portraying stereotyped roles while also being viewed by whites of her time as subversive and stepping outside of a Black woman’s place. The cover photo features a Jemima caricature in bright, garish colors of a vaudeville-esque performance sign. The visual choices of the project are just as appropriative and hurtful as the language: a long series of tweets that quotes Margaret Mitchell’s book and that, according to Place, “whites out” text and “reclaims” the n-word by using it liberally.

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Vanessa Place’s long series of tweets that quotes Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone With the Wind’ (via Twitter)

The group behind the Change.org petition and Twitter campaign was the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (MCAG), made up of writers and artists of color who challenge the literary world’s ongoing appropriation of Black and Brown bodies, histories, and narratives. Members and allies of MCAG are offended by Place’s attempt to reclaim the n-word and appropriate Black/Brown experience. The AWP responded to the petition and Twitter campaign by removing Place and issuing what was deemed a weak response. While the goal of having Place removed from the committee was met, critics continue to be concerned by AWP’s lack of a clear stance on the issue. Citing the merit of such conceptual poetry and its belief in freedom of expression, AWP went on to say:

We also understand that many readers find Vanessa Place’s unmediated quotes of Margaret Mitchell’s novel to be unacceptable provocations, along with the images on her Twitter page.

AWP must protect the efficacy of the conference subcommittee’s work. The group’s work must focus on the adjudication of the 1,800 submitted proposals, not upon the management of a controversy…

Many critics feel that the emphasis on having to manage a controversy rather than acknowledging that the work itself is blatantly racist is an insufficient response. It has also led to backlash from Place and her supporters who claim that critics have “silenced” her and that the various petitions “got her kicked off” the committee. The AWP’s statement does not take a stance against racist work but actually names two white, male literary theorists to uphold the work as valid expression.

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Vanessa Place created a second Twitter account to defend her position (via Twitter)

In a public Facebook post following her removal from the AWP committee, Place offered up an artist statement that begins as some sort of apology, but goes on in pseudo-artistic blabbery to try to explain her project as something that should challenge white people who are, like herself, “collaborators” with racism. By addressing her white audience, she only further demeans the reality that her detractors are, in fact, primarily people of color. Place eventually cleaned up the original text of her statement, replacing the n-word with the word “darkies,” as if it weren’t just as fraught with the racism she claims the project critiques.

Until recently, there was no public or private objection to @VanessaPlace. It has had approximately 1200 followers for some time, and, apart from a few messages mocking it as boring and occasional retweets of individual passages, no expressions of interest. My minstrelsy was easily absorbed into the easy silences around so much everyday stuff that doesn’t matter to so many.

These works are cruel. It is a cruelty to display these images. It is also a cruelty to insist that only people of color be responsible for the articulation or the embodiment of race, to bear the burden of my history as well as the history of that oppression. Blackface is white face. I cannot speak of the pain of having the image put upon me, but I can speak to the culpability of its imposition.

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(via Twitter)

Place concurrently manages yet another Twitter account which she took to in her own artistic defense, visually claiming that the critiques are an attempt to silence her, belying her apology for hurting people of color with the work. That seems to be how her defenders see the situation as well. Scott Jaschik published a defensive piece at Inside Higher Ed that uses inflammatory language around the AWP and Place’s detractors while suggesting, via a quote by novelist Dale Peck, that this is an issue of freedom of expression. The LA Times published Scott Martelle explicitly saying AWP made “the wrong move” and again pointing to Place’s right to free expression. Martelle goes on to tell readers that the racism is not in Place’s project but in the novel itself, as if it cannot simultaneously exist both places, and as if because a white man says Place’s work isn’t racist it’s suddenly fact. Both Jaschik and Martelle miss the point of the petition, which was never to infringe on Place’s right to create, and even to distribute, the work, but on her right as someone engaging in offensive racism and Blackface to then also have a hand in judging which panels should take place at AWP16. It isn’t so difficult to understand why critics don’t trust someone like Place to give sufficient consideration to panel proposals that will likely center on frequently marginalized voices.

As a white artist, Place cannot reclaim these words or these images as she says she is trying to do. Her attempt to hold up a mirror to her fellow white contemporaries has failed. In identifying herself as a “collaborator” in racism, she should be able to see how instead the project simply comes off as a reification of the racism in the book. Certainly Place has the freedom to engage in such a project and no one has stopped her. She is not, however, free from critique or professional consequences from those who do not wish to associate with work that harms the already marginalized, regardless of its stated intent.

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