This month’s edition of The Writer’s Chronicle contains three essays that deal explicitly with racism: “Ferguson, Whiteness as Default, & the Teaching of Creative Writing” by David Mura; “In Our Way: Racism in Creative Writing” by Claudia Rankine; and “Towards a New Creative Writing Pedagogy” by Fred D’Aguiar.
Mura’s essay was, for me, the most striking. The piece looks at racism in the creative writing classroom. He quotes Junot Diaz’s introduction to Dismantle, an anthology from the VONA conference for writers of color:
“… one young MFA student described 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 in any US Latino community … The workshop professor never corrected or even questioned said peer.”
Another scenario illustrated by Diaz is familiar to anyone who has ever watched a Hollywood movie:
“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 peers’ stories was when crime or drugs were somehow involved. And when she tried to bring up the issue in class … her peers shut her down, saying Our workshop is about writing, not political correctness.”
Mura goes on to describe how a black friend of his, on her first day of an MFA poetry class, was told by the white professor to go to the remedial English center because of problems with the conjugation of verbs in her work. The student explained that the poems were written in black vernacular. The professor said if she continued to write in that style her poems would be unpublishable.
Mura’s excellent essay makes quite clear that white writers are incapable of seeing their biases and that the themes that animate writers of color – particularly racism, identity, and struggles for justice – barely register with white writers. The problem comes when white writers try to teach writers of color. As an antidote, Mura suggests whites read the canon of works by writers of color: Frantz Fanon, W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, bell hooks, David Henry Hwang, Edward Said, and Toni Morrison, for example.
Even more dramatically, he states that, if white writing teachers wish to reach all of their students including those of color, they “must first acknowledge their ignorance, how little they actually know of our world.” Not an easy task. As Mura notes, “that would require a spiritual humility and a dismantling of ego that would go far beyond any reading list …”
Claudia Rankine’s essay, adapted from a keynote address at the 2016 AWP Conference, looks at how the academy in which many of the participants teach is colored white for historical reasons: for centuries, black people simply weren’t allowed to enter. Some of the punchiest observations come from others that she quotes. Beth Loffreda describes a (white) colleague’s comment about maintaining diversity in a reading series that they organize: “Couldn’t we take a break from that now?” the colleague asks. As if diversity is an optional fad.
Rankine also quotes Fran Leibowitz: “What it is like to be white is not to say, We have to level the playing field, but to acknowledge that not only do white people own the playing field but they have so designated this plot of land as a playing field to begin with. … The advantage of being white is so extreme, so overwhelming, so immense, that to use the word ‘advantage’ at all is misleading since it implies a kind of parity that simply does not exist.”
And she brings up Toni Morrison’s observation: “In this country American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”
Rankine’s most salient point is about how poetry produced by black writers is often labeled “sociology” or “protest poetry” or “political poetry” but never just Poetry. This is because whites cannot relate to it, just as they cannot relate to racial struggle.
For anyone involved in the academy and/or in teaching creative writing, these essays are essential reading. Thanks to The Writer’s Chronicle for highlighting a much-neglected issue.