modern-day Blackface and minstrelsy came to my attention this past week as a conceptual poet’s work was critiqued. this white woman who is, apparently, modestly popular – and somehow important enough that numerous white men swiftly published defenses of her work. this white woman who, after the kerfluffle, issued a three-and-a-half page statement that can best be summed up in her own words: Blackface is whiteface.
a slap in the face.
after contributing to the twitter campaign and signing the petition that has been categorized as “getting her kicked off” the awp subcommittee that reviews panel proposals, i too wrote about her for a major publication. i spent two days staring down a Hattie McDaniel photo and a garish Jemima face on sheet music that decorated her twitter profile. i also looked at the other account, the one with the banner that reads “silencing vanessa place” and in which the poet/artist holds her turtleneck over half her face as a barrier. as if anyone had ever suggested that she should be stopped from the “work” she has been doing. the petition didn’t ask for her twitter account to be shut down, the account that serves as the “work” itself. no one suggested that she should be placed under house arrest, have her internet cut off and her publishing opportunities revoked.
a simple petition pointed out that it would be remiss for an organization to allow someone who produced such clearly racially insensitive work to also be responsible for selecting what panels might be included in a conference. it seems a legitimate concern for Writers of Color to have, that panels related to race, inclusion, and diversity in the world of literature might not have a chance to exist if the parties making the decisions were white people who make their living off of racist caricatures of Blackness.
i made myself ill reading tweeted passages of gone with the wind where epithets jumped out at me, where the voice of Mammy was mimicked. i made myself ill staring at a cartoon character intended to depict my ancestors with pop-eyes and big lips. i looked at the beautiful face of Mammy, played by Hattie, a Black woman, a real woman who existed and was the grandmother of someone still living today, that someone also a Black person. i read defenses written by white people who spoke of freedom of expression, with no sense of irony that their defense of the poet curbs the freedom of expression of Black writers.
i tried my best to write an article that laid out the situation in as close to a non-biased way as i possibly could. and i submitted it, edited it, re-submitted it and went to bed at a ridiculous hour, sick to my stomach from the texts and photos i had been forced to eat that day.
i had terrible dreams. dreams of being attacked. dreams of being raped in public places. dreams of white hands grabbing at me and white hands covering my mouth. dreams that my voice would be silenced, my body desecrated, my spirit murdered as passages from gone with the wind were read into bullhorns on street corners by this woman and her defenders.
i am aware that to others i look white. i am what many call “passing.”
the roll in my hips, my headwrap, my way of speaking, my style, my work, and the way my neck rolls and my accent comes out when i am angry speak of the truth of my blood. i am Indigenous. and i am Black. i am Diasporic Africa. i am a Hoodoo practicing swamp Witch. a Mongrel with the patience of the turtle and the danger of the mambo. i carry Yemaya and the White Calf Woman within me. beneath this light skin lies a heart that is made up from Kainai, Shoshone, and some indeterminate African mix. i hear drums beneath every other sound, write poetry to their beat, make magic in words, dance and paint to honor all my ancestors. Mammy, too, is inside of me.
my experience of my Blackness is unique. i do not bear the same scars, do not experience the same shames and overt hates that many others do. but i am still Black. in blood, in culture, in identity. Black.
another irony: when all was said and done and my essay had passed editorial eyes there was just one last piece that required a bloodletting. the editor marked all instances of the word Black to be changed to lowercase.
my identity is not a lower case. my culture is not a lower case.
i wrote back and explained that all other identities are granted capitalization, why would Black be any different.
style guides refute me. and white media is ruled by style guides, or so they tell me. we who questioned the style of this white poet were told it is conceptual and beyond our understanding. she is not required to adhere to any rules or conventions, not even those of simple respect for those she harms. but i, as a Black writer, i am bound by the style guides. my editor was kind. they went to their superiors and returned. the style guides refute me, but just this once, if it mattered so much, they would acquiesce to my request.
though she was ever so gentle, and i know she is not the power, i understood that they felt they were doing me a favor.
Black, with a capital B, was a blight upon their editorial policies.
freedom of expression has been brought to the forefront of an argument that was never about a white poet’s freedom to create and to write as she wishes, offensive as it may be. but in the same breath that i said her freedom of expression is not freedom from critique or consequences, i was again reminded
freedom of expression belongs to the white conceptual poets
because my freedom to express my identity is only granted as gift, a one time exception.
my freedom to be Black
is something they think they can still take from me.
but i will not be the woman behind the barrier, nor hiding behind a cartoon face.
i will not be silent
because i know i am free and it is not something they grant to me
Aaminah Shakur is an artist, art historian, poet & writer. A light-skinned multi-racial/multi-cultural mongrel, Shakur's work transgresses comfort zones, including their own. Their website is aaminahshakur.com.