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ASK

By Wanda Coleman

Black History Month approaches, and, it seems, is amazingly becoming a daily affair with the election of Barack Hussein Obama as our nation’s new president. I have never seen so many identifiably African-American faces on programming outside of BET, if most of our females look like White women dipped in molasses. This is both boon and bane. The positives are many and obvious, so I’m skipping them to focus strongly on one rarely discussed negative: People don’t ask when people don’t know.
I can’t count the times I have been embarrassed, lost a budding friendship (even a job opportunity), or gotten into life-threatening trouble because of the assumptions others make about me based on skin color, grade of hair and gender. Between ages 13 and forever, I have often entered a situation and immediately been handed a doobie, offered a line, a rock, or a glass of imbibe without being asked if I indulged. In every instance, I was met by a stranger who knew nothing about me and had not read my work. How I handled it depended. Learning diplomacy under such conditions has been quite the education.
The most recent incident took place two months ago in an insanely busy hospital emergency room, when the young intern taking my medical history cozied up to me and said, “Come on—you can tell me about the marijuana.” Looking at my dreadlocks, her body language inferred that she wouldn’t rat me out but needed to know if she were going to do her best to help me. (I had been severely burned in a home accident). “Damn,” I smiled, “I could use a joint right now! I haven’t had a good toke in decades. I simply can’t afford it anymore.” End of discussion.


On a visit to a Midwestern city, to do a workshop and reading at a community center, my wonderful hosts went out of their way to take me on a tour of places of specific interest to an African-American poet. I was grateful for their enthusiasm and went along willingly. Last stop on the tour was the city’s finest Black art museum. I was introduced to the director and given a tour through splendid digs. But from my perspective, the art it housed was heartsickingly beyond kitsch. It ranged from amateurish to atrocious. As my hosts and the director waited for me to sing praises, I covered by focusing on the remarkable architecture of the museum itself, skirting discussion of the paintings that detracted from its walls. On our way back to my hotel, I nodded vaguely in the affirmative as my hosts raved about them. I could think of no way to inform them that my tastes ran more to German and Abstract Expressionism.
There is something to be said for atmospheres, and during the O.J. Simpson fiasco of the late 90s, walking the halls of post-Bakke academia were extremely dicey. (The pressures of political correctness are stronger and far more confounding than peer pressure.) Confrontations were not to one’s face, but took place behind one’s back, or were “exuded” while being passed in English Department hallways. On some campuses the divide between Black students, Black faculty, and everyone else was not only palpable, it was highly visible, particularly on the quads and in the dining rooms—to the extent that I felt as if I had been thrown back into those 1950s I remember so well. All the high-tone talk about multiculturalism was just talk outchere in The Deep West, where more than a few “recent arrivals” felt secure enough to say aloud and in newsprint that “no one wants to be Black.” Ah—the ever-lowest common denominator still at work. Gingerly, I avoided the topic of O.J. altogether when teaching in the classroom. But not once was I openly asked what I thought about the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Neither friend nor foe on campus, Black, White or otherwise, had the courage or the decency. They simply assumed that I supported Orenthal James.
Not as sharp as I wished to be that day, I once managed to mangle a job opportunity by letting the biases of my interviewing committee undo me. (By 22, I had learned the hard way that one never puts down “poetry” or “writing” on the line next to hobbies.) Things were going famously well until I was asked, “What is your pet peeve.” Quickly, I fumbled for an answer. “My pet peeve is not being asked.” They requested an explanation or example and I fumbled for one. “Well—everyone assumes that because I’m Black that I love the Kennedys.” Faces froze and a chill traveled the room. The interview was immediately ended, I was dismissed and received no call back. Realizing what had happened, I chided myself on not being more articulate. I had nothing against the Kennedys, and had met one or another of the family on social occasions or by chance. What I shouldawouldacoulda done was to have continued thusly: “I very well may support the Kennedys, and if I had been old enough to vote at the time, I might have voted for JFK. But that is not the issue. The issue is respect. It is disrespectful to assume what I think—about anything—without asking, just as it is insulting to assume that I drink red wine and smoke marijuana. I may do all of that, and/or love the Kennedys to death. But I am entitled to be asked about such matters, because to not do so is a denial of my humanity.”
Less than a week into America’s new administration, the profusion of media pundits continue to hash over every move made by President and Mrs. Obama. Newscasters and journalists have made it plain that this will be standard operating procedure for the first 100 days and most likely beyond. My fear is not that our hopes will be assassinated. My concern is for the long-term, for the coming tsunami of political assumptions (they will be anything BUT post-racial) that may roar through our governance and culture like hurricanes Katrina-Rita, as this awesome national paradigm shift reaches its crescendo. I’m afraid that many of the budding promises of our new era will be washed away in the floodwaters.
Questions anyone?

Comments (12)

  • On January 24, 2009 at 7:44 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    I think we have all experienced the comedy of errors of misplaced assumptions, though African-Americans have surely suffered more than their share. I remember being sort of stunned, many years ago, to learn that a fellow poet had been going around gossiping that I HAD DRAWN A GUN AND THREATENED TO SHOOT one of my teachers & mentors. All part of the “poet maudit” legend, I guess. Nobody knows the trouble-eye bean chorale, nobody knows but Jesus.
    Here’s my questions :
    1) Do you sometimes take a certain pleasure in being something or somebody others don’t recognize?
    2) Has anything ever happened to you along these lines which you found to be – really FUNNY?

  • On January 24, 2009 at 7:58 pm Michael Robbins wrote:

    >>Looking at my dreadlocks, her body language inferred that she wouldn’t rat me out but needed to know if she were going to do her best to help me.
    The body language of the intern wasn’t doing the looking, was it? And you mean “implied,” not “inferred.”
    >>Confrontations were not to one’s face, but took place behind one’s back, or were “exuded” while being passed in English Department hallways.
    In which case they weren’t “confrontations” (“front” isn’t in there by accident).
    I’m not going to make any assumptions about whether you care that your writing be free of solecisms.

  • On January 24, 2009 at 9:16 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    Michael, “body language” is the subject of “inferred”. Get it? It’s OK, grammatically.
    Also, someone can “confront” someone – imaginatively, psychologically – just as well behind their back as to their face.
    Lighten up, Whitey. What, you applying for an editor stint at Poetry Magazine?
    *
    p.s. I have NEVER, in my life, as far as I can recall, threatened ANYONE physically – directly or indirectly – with gun or without. I did have a couple of imaginary barfights with Jim Behrle, I admit. Back in the mid-70s, I verbally needled a group of Hells’ Angels, outside a Dead concert in San Francisco. For this, i got slapped to the ground by a fat giant member of the NYC fraternity, & had my guitar stolen. But, being considerate & empathetic & cordial, they got me into the concert free, through the stage door. I met Jerry Garcia there – & he was very friendly, but he couldn’t help me get my axe back.
    There may have been other occasions… I just can’t remember. Peace.

  • On January 24, 2009 at 9:21 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    OK, I did own a pistol, once. I even took it on a plane (again, this was a few decades back). But I never threatened ANYBODY with it. I never took it out of the box. In fact, I threw it off the Red Bridge into the Providence River, where it remains to this day.
    Peace & Gossip.

  • On January 24, 2009 at 11:37 pm Henry Gould wrote:

    p.s. you’re wondering what I said to so annoy the Hell’s Angels, right?
    They were having an East/West Coast reunion there, outside the Dead concert. There must have been 3 dozen of them, all spangled & leathery & tattooed & jangling. I referred to them as “Rotarians” . . . now that’s just asking for trouble. The assumptions we make about people!

  • On January 25, 2009 at 12:01 am Michael Robbins wrote:

    Henry, it’s obvious that I was objecting to the misplaced modifier, not wondering what was doing the inferring (the implying). I don’t think it’s too much to ask that people who are paid to write actually pay attention to their prose.

  • On January 25, 2009 at 2:47 am Tod Strait wrote:

    Wasn’t the president raised by white-folks in Hawaii? I don’t know what assumptions are being made but I don’t watch the news much. And, I will say that I was in a room full of white people and Indians (not Native-Americans) and they were remarking about how the “neighborhood ball” made them feel a bit alienated.
    Wanda, do you ask them? I assume that you probably don’t assume and that you do ask others.
    The problem is, unfortunately, it might not be the answer you want to hear. Dreadlocks have been around in India for millenia, yet when anyone who isn’t black has them they are immediately “trying to be black” or are a false rasta (or whatever). Racism goes both ways and it isn’t just white and black. If you have never made an assumption without asking than you must be superhuman. I mean, you can’t go around in dashikis lookin like “Nat X” in the middle of redneck palestine without catching a little slack from the locals ya know? it’s propriety and common sense.
    And if you think President Barry’s got it so bad, think about Clinton having to talk about all his, ahem, business in front of all those suits! ew!

  • On January 25, 2009 at 3:38 am Kevin wrote:

    Michael,
    You are harsh and have no place in the Obama Dispensation. Be gone!

  • On January 25, 2009 at 6:22 am Michael Martin wrote:

    Okay, let’s move from grammatical issues to the topic of the prose written (see, it probably should be written prose, but hey)….
    I’m a poet and I enjoy wearing baggy jeans. I have a large behind (thanks Dad!), large thighs, and I am generally a large bodied person. (I weigh 200 pounds, am 6’3, but I am built like a football player, dad played for the Saints, its inherited). I like to wear earrings in my ears. Some rings, sometimes, and maybe a necklace. I am dark skinned. Dark chocolate brotha, you could say (and I am sometimes called such).
    My baggy jeans do not hang off my ass constantly, though sometimes they hang slightly below my waist because of my long legs. It is difficult to find the perfect fit because the normal dimensions of 32×34 dont work. And it feels comfortable not to have a pair of jeans riding about my waist. My clothes are generally not form fitting. They have room. I like room. I am claustophobic, and I just plain ol enjoy the style, too.
    When I go to poetry readings, people expect me to do spoken word pieces, or be an “angry black man”. When my poetry is more inbetween the oral tradition and poetry written for the page.
    The presumptions once I begin reading can be seen on their faces. They’re surprised. Sometimes pleasantly, other-times, not so much. I can hang with the homeboys, but also go to the academic circles and hang there too.
    One guy in the audience at a reading of mine made the comment that the poet reading after me was “A real poet”, because he was staying true to his ethnicity. I did not have the heart to tell him of the legendary libraries of Timbuktu… the scholars living there the whole known world would visit. I didn’t have the time to point out the reflections of daily African-American life in my poems…I didn’t have the heart to tell him I grew up not only in the south, but was born there, and also lived nearly everywhere else, grew up around many ethnic types, and how my family and I are very in touch with our roots.
    See, people will expect things of you, and project these ideals onto you. And then become pretty “miffed” when you don’t fit the mold of their assumptions. Crazy, no?
    I as an African-Americans (as people in general, but in America this focus is different), I am entitled not only to be asked questions such as, “Why do you write about things that don’t have to do with black life in America, or racial issues?”
    I am entitled to be asked these questions as I am entitled to respond, “I do.” You can see it in small inflections and large strokes. One cannot focus-down a poets entire poetic life to a small group of poems heard/read. It is a small window. A part of an ongoing dialogue just as that question after the poem adds to the dialogue. It gives us the chance to respond, open a symposium, clear up any misconceptions. because, as Yusef Komunyakaa said in his recent mtvU interview, we should “Be inquisitive. And not just for the sake of information, but just because … it keeps us connected to who we are.”
    He was answering a question directed to newcomers to poetry, but it can be applied to all communicative humanity.
    Connected to who WE are. Ms Coleman writes, “My concern is for the long-term, for the coming tsunami of political assumptions (they will be anything BUT post-racial),” for good reason.
    People aren’t wondering where they are getting their information. They’re not thinking about when they compare a black leather jacket to an African-American’s skin, one is truly black and the other is brown. And when they juxtapose a white-T to Caucasian skin, one is not white.
    We are all shades of brown. Some lighter, some darker. Once we begin to realize this, the trouble of assumptions will start to fade…hopefully.
    (Maybe I’ve gone on too long…)

  • On January 25, 2009 at 10:33 am Henry Gould wrote:

    Michael,
    the point is, you’re not her editor. If you want to be her editor, take it backchannel. Professional editing is done behind the scenes, which is as it should be. You could have made a friendly editing suggestion that way. But you chose to deflect the point of her post & to focus on nitpicking quibbles – close to insulting. Why? Just to get a rise? Turn up the heat instead of the light?

  • On January 25, 2009 at 6:12 pm Kent Johnson wrote:

    Perhaps a stretch, but of possible related interest (excrement is mentioned), one of the liveliest and most fraught debates ever conducted around the subject of Flarf is now ongoing at Dale Smith’s Possum Ego. http://www.possumego.blogspot.com/
    Highly recommended. Most of it is down a few posts, with nearly 50 comments so far.
    Kent

  • On January 27, 2009 at 5:35 pm NKM wrote:

    Wanda,
    I want to apologize for the rude and predictable deflections threaded beneath your post. That said, I can certainly relate to the content of your post.
    As a poet beyond the pale, I’ve had my share of annoying assumptions. I’ve been told my poetry reminds “them” of Agha Shaheed Ali despite my never having read the man at the time.
    A friend said she thought of me as “a gay Indian poet.” When I countered that meant I ought to think of her as a ‘straight American botanist” she paused and floundered with, “That would only make sense if we were in India.”
    Being pigeonholed is frustrating–and yet it provides the impetus to write verse relevant to it. But I wonder, when one is marginalized by one’s cultural nexus as a poet, how often can you really be perceived as writing outside your margin unless you change your name to Mike McGillicuddy and never allow your readers to see a picture of you. Rhetorical.


Posted in Uncategorized on Saturday, January 24th, 2009 by Wanda Coleman.