Why I’m Not Happy with AWP’s Response to the Vanessa Place Controversy

This weekend, I was, like thousands of other writers, directed to look over an incredibly racist twitter page. A picture of a mamie with bulging eyes stared back at me from the corner, and a slew of incoherent fake AAVE tweets written to embarrass and humiliate any dark-skinned person, stared back at me. Her durag askew, it took me a moment to recognize her as Hattie McDaniel, a character from Gone With The Wind.

It took me all of a few seconds to recognize what I was looking at: a white woman was using black voices and language to profit yet again. This was her “art.”  Was she there when black people were being killed in Ferguson or Baltimore? No. She was there to pilfer some caricatures and pick up a few dollars. I imagined her hunched over her computer eagerly tweeting the way she imagined black people to sound.

And then I looked at another corner – I, like many writers, had mutual friends with her. I stared at the faces of professors I loved, publishers I had promoted, and other literary elite who I had aspired to work with. These heroes, these people I thought so highly of? These people, did they look at Vanessa Place’s tweets and nod along? Did they think this was art? Did they think this was good or laudable? Did the people at AWP like this? Did the editors at the Poetry Foundation enjoy her work and see it as valuable? Did all of these people think this was okay? Did they mock the humanity of women of color along with her? All these questions and more ran through my head. It was like walking into a room full of your heroes laughing at you.

I know, I know there must be people out there reading this thinking, I liked her poems, I like Vanessa Place, what’s wrong with her work, how exactly does it even matter what she wrote, etc. I want you to imagine for a hot second that you have black students. Probably, some of you do. I want you to imagine you have writers of color who look up to you,that are young, and hopeful, and anxious. They look at you and think, I want to write like her, I want to write for her magazine, I hope that woman publishes my story someday. And then that student, that writer, sees what you like to read. You like to read Vanessa Place pretending to be a mamie on twitter. You read Vanessa Place flaunting a gross caricature of what these students and their bodies and their voices sound like to you. Your students learn something about you: you don’t really love them. You don’t really understand them. You laugh at them. You read and support and pay money to people who laugh at them and attack them. That is the person you are to them. And now, who will they write for? Who will publish their stories? Why do you want their labor but betray their trust?

AWP in effect said, we understand some people think Vanessa Place’s work is racist, and that’s really of no concern to us, but what is of concern is this controversy which we want no part in. They cited two white men praising Place’s work, and cited no one critical of it. And they created no institutional change that would stop this from happening again. They quietly removed her and removed themselves from the discussion without taking ownership for their actions and decisions.

AWP wants our money, our labor, but runs along with a red herring that people of color and activists who asked for Place’s removal want to attack her freedom of speech somehow. Place herself referred to herself as “silenced” on her social media platforms. To be clear, no one took away her freedom of speech, she was simply prohibited from getting paid to be one of the loudest biggest in the room at a particularly large literary conference. She’s still running her mouth right now. If she were truly silenced, we would not know she was tweeting from a Starbucks in Compton.

I don’t want to sound ungrateful. But I want you to know this is nothing but a first step. I hold AWP and my liberal white allies to a higher standard than what I’m seeing in this statement. If you are ‘with it,’ if you have a black or latino student you care about, if you want to see writers of color flourish in the future, find yourself one person who doesn’t understand “how this is racist” and explain it to them, and change them, because we can’t do it alone.

Olivia Olivia writes for the Rumpus, Salon, and The Portland Observer, among other places. She has been featured on NPR’s Code Switch, KBOO’s Between the Covers, and OPB’s Think Out Loud. She is a Tin House 2008 Scholarship Recipient and a VONA 2012 alumni. You can find follow her byline at facebook.com/oliviaoliviawriter or at www.oliviawrites.com.

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