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Tony Hoagland’s Poem on Race Heats Things Up at AWP

By Harriet Staff

On her blog, All Hook No Chorus, Sara Jaffe writes about an AWP panel during which Claudia Rankine addressed Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change.” The poem was read on the panel, and, as Jaffe reports:

The speaker in the poem recalls seeing a tennis match between “some tough little European blonde” and “that big black girl from Alabama.” The latter has “some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite.” Some people in the audience laughed at that line. I didn’t laugh. Although the speaker’s friend is rooting for the black player, the speaker “couldn’t help wanting/ the white girl to come out on top,/ because she was one of my kind, my tribe”.

After first reading the poem, Jaffe says that Rankine felt not so much angry as confused:

But Rankine mobilized the question: Where was she supposed to locate herself in relationship to this poem? Was she the “big, black girl”? She contacted Hoagland, a colleague of hers at the time, to ask him about the poem. He said, “This poem is for white people.”

Really?!? Wowzers! Hoagland apparently responded at length to Rankine and pointed out that it’s naive to read the speaker of the poem as being identical to the author. While that’s true enough, obviously, that observation makes it even more difficult to understand how a poem could be “for white people.” Hoagland’s response to Rankine goes on to say that racism is a part of American life, etc. – basically, “deal with it.” Jaffe concludes her post:

Hoagland may be aware of the legacy of racism in this country, but he is unaccountable to the power that that legacy has bequeathed to him. And one aspect of that power is the power to name (“We suffer from the condition of being addressable”). In “The Change,” when Hoagland employed an array of racist, exoticizing stereotypes to describe the black tennis player, he flaunted that power. He used language irresponsibly and stridently, without regard for where it fell. If there is another language, an alternate discourse, that can possibly ever serve as a challenge to the dominant mode of careless naming, it is one that illuminates, at every step how connected we all are to each other, and to the institutions in which we live with, in, and in spite of.

You can read Rankine’s own account on her blog.


Posted in Poetry News on Thursday, February 10th, 2011 by Harriet Staff.