Theory Teacher's Blog

Race Talk from tennis champion Serena Williams to comedian Amy Schumer, and why we need the poet Claudia Rankine

On July 3rd, I was spending a lovely afternoon having a picnic with my wife and some friends and their 5-year-old children in Central Park, not far from the Museum of Natural History. The weather was perfect. My sandwich, which I had bought at a little family-owned Italian store in my neighborhood, was out-of-this-world delicious. Suddenly, we overheard a loud commotion, some yelling, or some sort of argument. Everyone around us looked over to find out what was happening. A few seconds later, we saw a somewhat large young black man walking down the path, followed by a group of smaller, middle-aged white men, who were yelling at him. Although the black man was walking away from them, he would sometimes have to turn around to avoid getting hit, whenever one of the white men tried to throw a punch. The black man never punched back. I overheard someone on the phone, calling 911, and describing the scene pretty much as I have just described it. I wondered if the police would arrive to calmly break up the squabble and deescalate the situation. But this is not what happened. Instead, several New York City police officers rushed in, ran past the group of white men, violently wrestled the black man to the ground, and put him in handcuffs. It didn’t seem to occur to them that he might be the one who might need their protection. Several of us in the park approached the police to bear witness and suggest that they might have made a mistake.

Another mistake, I felt like saying to them. I wanted to ask, angrily, “what have you not yet learned since you murdered Eric Garner?” My mind flashed back to several months before when a rally protesting police violence had been dispersed by means of police violence — an aggressive attack on marchers in the street. My body tensed, recollecting what it felt like to see a police officer smiling as he watched another police officer kick a man on the ground, just a few feet from me. And on that day in July when our picnic was interrupted by this little fight in the park, the day before Independence Day, my wife and I were still in mourning after the terrorist massacre of nine people in the Emanuel AME church in Charleston on June 17th; we were still bewildered at the apparent unwillingness of the FBI to acknowledge a possible connection among the many church burnings that followed in its wake and the FBI’s refusal to consider any of these tragedies to be acts of terrorism even as white supremacist organizations publicly praised Dylann Roof’s hate crime and encouraged others to follow his example.

In that context, however related or unrelated all these events, thoughts, and feelings may actually be to each other, as I stood before the police, I was shaking with anger. But I knew that criticizing their behavior would only provoke a negative reaction and make things worse, so I simply told them in as few words as possible what I saw, and my wife pulled me back to our picnic.

Also a topic of conversation that day, earlier that week, on June 28th, the comedian Amy Schumer, who also lives in New York City, was criticized in a rather lengthy article in The Guardian for perpetuating racial stereotypes rather than using her humor to dismantle them. Indeed, one might wonder who is laughing at the joke: “I used to date Latino guys, now I prefer consensual.” The next day Schumer responded via Twitter to defend her comedy and said, “trust me, I am not a racist.” The story went viral on the internet, as you can see [here], [here], and [here]. Schumer had been criticized two years before [here] in an article written in the context of Dave Chappelle’s decision to quit stand-up comedy because of things his white audience would repeatedly say to him. But the criticism means more now than it did then because her popularity has grown, adding her to the list of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people and inspiring an article about her feminism in The Atlantic which reads almost like a college essay of literary analysis. In her stand-up routines, which I recently watched on YouTube, you can see Schumer acting out the persona of a dumb, self-hating, promiscuous woman with low self esteem who describes demeaning, alcoholic sexual encounters and makes offensive remarks about women’s bodies and racial stereotypes. Her defenders argue that her comedy very self-consciously draws attention to white privilege and rape culture — making visible and accessible things that most people prefer not to talk about.

About a week after our picnic in Central Park, on July 11,  Serena Williams won Wimbleton. Before the win, tennis legends John McEnroe and Chris Evert had already suggested that she was the greatest female tennis player of all time. But after the win, several articles appeared drawing attention to the history of racism that both Serena and her sister Venus Williams have had to face over the years, especially evaluations of their bodies [here], [here], and [here]. Some of the language deployed against the Williams sisters resembles the demeaning body-shaming language that Schumer satirically examines in her comedy. You can watch this video that illustrates this.

The poet Claudia Rankine meditates on the significance of Serena Williams in her recent, award winning book of poetry and essay, Citizen: an American Lyric, published in October just last year (2014). There, Rankine recalls a series of infamous matches: one a 2004 match when Serena Williams kept her cool while a judge repeatedly made incorrect calls that cost Serena the match. Upon review, that judge was dismissed, presumably for making racially biased calls on the court, and subsequently tennis tournaments began using a new Hawk-Eye technology to review decisions in order to prevent such bias. Although Serena Williams usually does compose herself well, the media has tended to dwell upon moments in 2009 and 2011 when she expressed her frustration loudly. Rankine reconsiders these moments by meditating on memory and its emotional effect on the body, a recurrent theme throughout her book. She notes how Williams’s angry remarks to judges often explicitly alluded to earlier experiences when she had encountered racism on the court. The body has emotional memory.

Rankine also reflects on this photo of the champion tennis player (and also amateur Sports Illustrated swimsuit model) Caroline Wozniacki imitating Serena and drawing attention to her body shape. Rankine comments, “in this real, and unreal, moment, we have Wozniacki’s image of smiling blond goodness posing as the best female tennis player of all time.”

A photo isn’t really worth a thousand words. A photo provokes — or perhaps requires — a thousand words, because our initial reaction to this photo might be little more than, “what the fuck?!” However, it turns out that Wozniacki and Williams are actually very close friends, as we learn from the March 2015 issue of Vogue, which features Serena on the cover and in which the two of them discuss that photo among many other things. But still, the photo takes on a life of its own beyond the intention of the author, and it is read in relation to other images. Wozniacki’s intentions are less important than the existence of the cultural codes and symbols that were available to her — that enabled her joke and all that it could mean to various audiences.

Amy Schumer has remarked that she too presents an “image of smiling blond goodness.” She is quite aware that her appearance is part of the humor that self-consciously acts out clueless white privilege and juxtaposes a faux-innocent looking facial expression against explicit descriptions of demeaning, soul-crushing, drunken sexual adventures with men of various ethnic and racial backgrounds. She also comments on a broad cultural imaginary of black, brown, and white bodies that impact our self-esteem, comparing her own appearance to that of black, Latina, and Asian women.

What I didn’t know about Rankine back in January when I read Citizen is that it wasn’t the first time for her to talk about Serena Williams and the relationship between language, the body, and memory. She had done so earlier in 2011 at the Associated Writing Programs Conference in response to a poem by Tony Hoagland. I came across this event by accident after a friend had lent me Hoagland’s book What Narcissism Means to Me. Both Hoagland and Rankine’s books were published by Graywolf Press — Hoagland’s in 2003 and Rankine’s in 2014 — and both were nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry. Rankine’s won that award as well as several others. My friend told me that he liked the way Hoagland’s poetry turned ordinary speech and experiences into revealing and beautiful reflections.

I had never heard of Hoagland before, so I didn’t know what to expect when I began reading. The first poem, “Commercial for a Summer Night,” begins by describing a conversation among friends, ventriloquizing their voices, juxtaposing what they see on television, the silliness of their comments, the beauty of a beach on a summer night, and ultimately their friendship to reflect rather beautifully on American culture. The title poem similarly presents a conversation among friends about various isms from Socialism to narcissism, but it is really a meditation on loneliness, and it concludes that “deep inside the misery of daily life, love lies bleeding.”

But then I got to Hoagland’s poem “The Change” which is about Serena Williams, or Venus Williams, it’s hard to tell which, because Hoagland alludes to her obliquely, deliberately remembering her name incorrectly in racially coded language.

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–

I looked up from the book and exclaimed to my wife who was reading her own book on the other side of the living room, “what the fuck!?” I paused for a moment before finishing the poem. It goes on to say that he wanted the white girl to win because “she was one of my kind, my tribe,” and remarks again on the bigness and blackness of the opponent, “hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation down Abraham Lincoln’s throat,” and finally concludes with a historical judgement that “everything was changing… It was the twentieth century almost gone… and we were changed.” It wasn’t clear to me what change Hoagland was describing at the sunset of the twentieth century.

The next day, still disturbed, I didn’t know what to make of this poem. I wondered about the poem’s voice. Since the poems that preceded this one had sometimes placed the poet’s conversational self in dialogue with his friends, I wondered if in “The Change” he was adopting a naive and stupid persona, performing something of an act, like Amy Schumer. Did he mean to reveal, as I think Amy Schumer does through her absurd comedic character, the collective American psyche, our id, and what some white Americans are embarrassed that they secretly think? Was he exposing some aspect of our unconscious that needs to be brought to the foreground and made visible so that we can honestly address it?

So, I googled the poem, and that’s when I discovered Rankine’s 2011 “Open Letter” to Hoagland along with his rather dismissive and condescending “Letter in Response” in which he reaffirms his tribal identity (whatever that is) rather than question it. I encourage you to click on the hyperlinks, where you can read and hear a recording of the whole event, at which another poet Nick Flynn read out loud Hoagland’s “The Change.” I appreciated that in her open letter, Rankine also remarked that her initial reaction was the same as mine (and I quote), “what the fuck,” and I also appreciated her effort to understand it and open herself to its possibility in spite of her initial reaction.

I am still troubled by the poem. I don’t want to simply dismiss it as a racist poem. I tried to imagine how Hoagland really feels about any of this, but I couldn’t. So, a few days ago, I went to Poets House in New York to take advantage of their beautiful little library that overlooks the Hudson River, and discovered a new book, published just this March, entitled The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. There Rankine and Loffreda begin their introduction by cautioning against passing simplistic, self-righteous judgments that are polarizing, self-defeating, or even distracting from the day-to-day reality that structures our lives as well as the reality of what is truly awful and what is truly beautiful.

It seems a lot of us here when asked to talk about race are most comfortable, or least comfortable, talking about it in the language of scandal. It’s so satisfying, so clear, so easy. The wronged. The evildoers. The underserving. The shady. The good intentions and the cynical man. There are times when scandal feels like the sun that race revolves around. And so it is hard to reel conversations about race back from the heavy gravitational pull of where we so often prefer them to be.

I wondered whether the reason why we so often talk about race through the language of scandal is because the history of slavery, genocide, segregation, and racism in America is our national scandal. How else could we talk about it? But what I believe Rankine and Loffretta are suggesting is that we risk projecting a long history of systemic oppression onto the individual person whom we may be addressing in a way that is debilitating for both the white and the black person.

Their book is a complex meditation on how race permeates our lives and our art. Citing the philosopher Judith Butler, they note that “writers of color often begin from the place of being addressed… and to be addressable means one is always within stigma’s reach.” They then offer a tentative definition of the “racial imaginary” as “the scene of race taking up residence in the creative act.” We have already repeatedly seen in the media how Serena Williams’s body appears always within stigma’s reach, but what does this mean for our art? Does Hoagland’s poem about Serena/Venus Williams merely repeat and contribute to the very stigma that the Williams sisters have repeatedly struggled against? Or does Hoagland’s poem critically expose the horrible depth of that stigmitizing impulse by presenting the scene of race taking up residence in his creative act?

In their conclusion, which I supposed could be read as some belated advice to Hoagland — advice that perhaps Amy Schumer should also think about — Rankine and Loffreda write, “part of the mistake the white writer makes is that she confounds the invitation to witness her inevitable subjectivity with a stigmitizing charge of racism that must be rebutted at all costs.” Both Hoagland and Schumer reacted by putting up walls, entrenching themselves, denying that they are racists, asserting their right to write whatever they want, and reacting against the stigma of being associated with racism. What they didn’t do was pause to reflect on the stigma of race that they had themselves invoked. What they didn’t do was open themselves to dialogue.

I turn now to how I think Hoagland’s “The Change” fails as a poem by reading it in relation to a few of the later poems in the book: “Rap Music,” “On the CD I Buy for My Brother,” and “Poem in Which I Make the Mistake of Comparing Billie Holiday to a Cosmic Washerwoman.” The poem on rap music mostly comments on its “ugly noise” and suggests, with some attempt at humor, that “Black for me is a country more foreign than China or Vagina.” The metaphorical identification of rap music and racial identity to a woman’s sexual organ and a foreign country is so obviously absurd that it seems to dismantle — at the same time that it gives voice to — a somewhat pathetic cranky-old-white-man identity. We might well wonder if Hoagland is simply expressing himself or whether he is in fact witnessing his inevitable racial subjectivity, as Rankine and Loffreda ask. The poem concludes, as Hoagland’s poems so often do, with a twist that ask us to re-read the poem:

this tangled roar
that has to be shut up or blown away or sealed off
or actually mentioned and entered.

What does he mean by “entered”? It is the last word of the poem, and it seems to suggest that we start over; instead of violently rejecting rap music as much of the poem had until that last line, perhaps we should actually step into the beat and reconcile ourselves to the lyrics. But why doesn’t he begin his poem there, instead of ending it there? Would Hoagland’s poetry be more powerful and successful if he actually began with his last stanza and worked out the implication of what that could mean? Just as his other poem “The Change” suggests in its final line that “we were changed,” but at the same time refuses to truly inhabit that change, so too does this poem suggest we enter the foreign country of black music, but doesn’t actually enter it.

This poem is remarkably different from “On the CD I Buy for My Brother” in which he mocks country music: “the singer is a loner with a boner, and he’s a Gomer and a moaner and a longtime roamer.” Here, Hoagland’s parody of country music seems to come from within. He has entered country music and is familiar with its form. The poem concludes: “the singer goes on bringing the news that all the cliches are true and the sunsets are breaking their old records for beauty.” His mockery ironically reverses itself to become an appreciation for country music’s truth.

What is different about these two poems is that one engages in mockery from a position of affiliation (making fun of his own subject position) and the other expresses violence against an Other (distancing oneself from something foreign.) This difference is a difference we can see in stand-up comedy as well. Sometimes the ethnic or gender stereotypes are invoked in order to be dismantled from within the discourse, but other times they are invoked merely to reaffirm a distance and unwillingness to understand. A poet, like a comic or a politician, might attempt to connect, or affiliate, with his or her audience through the figure of a common enemy or just a common “other.” But good poetry and comedy doesn’t rest there. In Schumer’s comedy there is a dynamic interplay of affiliation and disaffiliation, as her voice shifts back and forth from the persona of the witty fool to the foolish wit. Sometimes she is herself telling her audience how it really is — she is the One Who Knows, with whose worldly wisdom we identify. But other times, she is an absurd parody of her subject position — the clueless one who doesn’t know, with whom we do not identify. This dynamic unsettles any identity affiliation one might imagine.

Race talk in general often begins with a performance of affiliation. One might make allusions to a foundational figure, whether Jesus, Thomas Jefferson, or Angela Davis. Or one might begin a sentence,  “I’m not a racist, but….” But, I wonder, perhaps creative race talk works quite differently, by imaginatively working through the consequences of disaffiliation and historically situated self-critique.

Perhaps.

Several months ago, I began a blog post tentatively titled “The Varieties of Protesting Experience.” (The title is an allusion to The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James.) I never finished it. It was overwhelming. What had prompted the idea for the blog post was when I attended a rally in New York’s Union Square in protest over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore. The protest against police violence tragically ended in an act of police violence, or so it seemed to me at the time, when I witnessed a police officer laughing a mere five feet away from me as he happily watched his fellow officer hit and kick one of the protesters who had fallen down in the street. I remember myself screaming, almost as if it were an out-of-body experience. That day was very different from how I usually experience protests, as a form of carnival, when peoples of diverse backgrounds and interests come together not only to give voice to their rage but also to joyously celebrate their togetherness. The next day, in my class on cultural theory, my students asked me about the event, and we began to raise questions about the communication of violence, about whether protest rallies actually do any good, about how we conceive of justice, about whether violent or non-violent strategies are more effective, and about what the role of art, poetry, and theory might be in this context. I wanted to write a blog post that might carefully respond to their questions. But I couldn’t.

July 16, 2015 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment