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Sunday, August 12, 2018

Two-faced

Recently, The Nation published a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee called How-To that caused a stir. See, the poem's written by a white guy, but the narrator of the poem is a black guy speaking something like African American Vernacular English (AAVE). To hear the news headlines, the reason that the "PC police" are offended by the poem is that the author is a white guy who wrote from the point of view of a Black guy. To hear most tell it, the literary world will come to a screeching halt if we keep accusing people who write across cultures of cultural appropriation. The famously liberal Stephen King tweeted: "what next? Apologies for women who write from the male point of view, or vice-versa?"
This last quote from Stephen King really made me cringe, and not just because it called to mind all of Stephen King's many and various crimes against AAVE. It's because he missed the point entirely.

See, the "PC police" weren't only upset about the author's use of AAVE. Obviously writers have to write across cultures. Obviously, when we write a character, she should speak in a manner consistent with her culture and upbringing. If anyone's arguing that white folks should only write about other white folks, I'm up to throw down about it. The problem is the whole package of the poem. So in the poem, the speaker, using really poorly rendered Black dialect, is a homeless guy giving another homeless person tips on how to lie and manipulate people when panhandling. "If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl/ say you’re pregnant," the poem says. 
The problem isn't that the author used Black dialect, it's that the author used a cartoonishly bad take on Black dialect to create a Black character who is a poor, shiftless, lying grifter. That's not "writing across cultures," that's minstrelry. See, back in the day, up until the the 1970s, there used to be minstrel shows, where white actors would cover their face in black makeup, paint their lips bright red, and perform variety shows in which their Black characters were painted as poor, stupid, lazy, and shiftless. And they did all this while appropriating Black music and dance. Wikipedia quite eloquently explains why these shows were so insidious: "minstrelsy made [harmful stereotypes about Blacks] palatable to a wide audience by couching it in the guise of well-intentioned paternalism."
Sound familiar?
The poem How To brings the tropes from minstrel shows roaring back. Why does the lying hobo character got to be black? Does Lee write other poems in bad AAVE where the narrator isn't just a collection of harmful stereotypes? And the poem, even if it weren't for the blackface buffoonery just isn't that good. I'm sure The Nation is drowning in submissions from talented Black poets who actually write authentically, and yet they chose to elevate this white dude who clearly has no idea of what he speaks.

My view on writing across cultures, and there are those who disagree, is that we should 100% absolutely do it. But we should do our homework. If you want to write a Black character who is homeless, you read about AAVE, you read other poems in AAVE. You - and this is a hard one - listen to Black people when they talk. You read about homelessness, you read work by homeless and formerly homeless people. You - another big challenge - listen to homeless people when they talk to you. And if that all seems like too much work, then sorry, you're too lazy to have a poem published in The Nation.


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