People whose concept of themselves is largely dependent on their racial identity and superiority feel threatened by a multiracial person. The insistence that one must align oneself with this or that race is basically racist. And the notion that without a racial identity a person can’t have any identity perpetuates racism…I wish I could say that race isn’t important. But it is. More than ever, it is a medium of exchange, the coin of the realm with which one buys one’s share of jobs and social position. This is a fact which I have faced and must ultimately transcend. If this transcendence were less complex, less individual, it would lose its holiness. (“Ai (1947-2010)”)

I did not know this about Ai—that she felt this way, but then I only know of Ai what I have read in her poems. A student, in a dialog about the matter of race, quoted Ai for me. I found this fascinating. The problem with talking about race and writing is that the discussion becomes about race and writing. And soon, it becomes about race. This is a problem because it leads us to wonder whether race is that important at all. And as Ai points out in what is essentially a conflicted series of statements, race is important.

I have sometimes thought that when I am in discussions about race, race is not as important to me as I have to make it because I am in a discussion about it. And yet, the moment I think this, I realize that I may be being careless because those who want race to not be important are people who I ultimately suspect.

I have never quite understood the desire not to be known as some kind of hyphenated writer. This anxiety or impatience is the most common quarrel against race in writing among people of color. I hate, they say, to be known just as a black poet like that means something. Why can’t they just accept me as poet, period? Apparently being accepted as a poet period is attractive. I have tried to see the attraction, and frankly, I have not quite been able to embrace it.

What I do understand is that the quarrel is not entirely about not wanting to be just a black poet. The quarrel is about what “just a black poet” means to those who want this poet to be “just a black poet”. In a community where for centuries that limitation is inevitably pejorative and demeaning, where the idea that someone is “just a black poet” means that person is parochial, locked in a certain discourse and way of thinking that has no “universal” appeal, and is engaged in work that is lesser, I can understand the poet not wanting that label. The implication, you see, is that if the poet were not black, they might never have gotten into the anthology, the course syllabi, the university position, the festival list, the reading series, etc. The “black poet” is thus useful only for the liberal aims of diversity. And behind that is a notion that such a poet is just not as good as the other folks.

Now, I understand that bit. I understand it because I have had to call out a few friends of mine for their underlying implications in that regard. “Man, you really got into that journal? It is so hard for white male poets these days to get any of that kind of attention, you know?” Well meaning statement, yes, but ultimately, the underlying idea is that my race has gotten me in, not because there is intrinsic value in what comes with my race—value that goes beyond a quota effort, but because my race is something that will make the folks who have let me in look good.

Oh to be a black basketball player! When a black basketball player gets into the NBA, the expectation is that his or her blackness comes with some intrinsic value that will make the team better. This expectation may be racist, but it is one derived from a proper valuing of the tradition of strong black basketball players.

Already, in this blog, I have grown tired of the discussion because it is now a discussion about race and it is one that won’t go very far. You see, I have to believe that my blackness—and for me that means so many things that include my Ghanaianness, my Africanness, my Jamaicanness, my South Carolinaness, my love of reggae, my love of the black history, my fascination with Caliban, my fondness of Gerard Manley Hopkins (you see where this is going?)—is inextricably connected with what I produce as a poet, and that which I produce will not define blackness in any simple way for anyone.

As it happens, my “blackness” is going to disappoint a lot of people who think it is one thing. It is never one thing. It is a lot of thing. And what I like about my blackness is that it allows itself to be a lot of things and be black anyway—maybe because of it. This may confuse people—perhaps the same people that Ai is talking about when she talks of those who are threatened by multiracial people. But I struggle with some of that idea. After all, there are very few black folk in America (and the Caribbean, for that matter) who could seriously not be called multiracial. So if they are multiracial, then their decision to be called black (those that do) can only be racist when racism is a generic, no pejorative term to describe people who are thinking in terms of race.

But I know what Ai is doing. Ai knows that in America people became black for economic reasons. And those who benefitted from that genius act of blackness creation were not black folk. She knows that blackness in America is defined by the ideal of white supremacy. Hence that largely absurd notion of someone being black by dint of having on drop of black blood in him or her. Economically, in slave economies, this is a genius innovation. It increases the number of blacks and thus the normal of slaves and potential slaves. The added benefit is that it privileges and protects the idea of white separation and authority. Multiracialism, therefore, is a threat to that economic construct. Slavery has long been over and even much of the legacy of that system has also gone, but the construction persists and is embraced by black folks who soon saw the value in the numbers game, too.

But my blackness is about being able to talk about what this thing actually means in ways that can be moving and enlightening. Ai knows that the answer cannot be to deny race altogether. She knew this and she never lost sight of the importance of that. But she remained conflicted by the matter.

I am not even certain that anyone will dare to tackle this topic in the blog beyond what I have written. I can’t blame folks. It is a vexing issue, and one wonders whether anyone sees it as a genuine problem in the world of poetry. Well, I am being rhetorical there. Of course it is. Here is how race shapes how I program (and by “program” I mean edit, judge, curate, plan reading series, etc). I look at my list, and I say to myself, who can give me a perspective that none of these folks are not giving to me? I ask, who can add to this picture making by their voice, their discourse and their view of the world? Sometimes I think of a nationality, sometimes, a gender, sometimes a school of poetic expression, and sometimes, I think of race. It is about the work, of course, but the work is about what the work is about and sometimes the work is about the race of the worker. And that is fine, no?

Originally Published: April 7th, 2011

Born in Ghana in 1962, Kwame Dawes spent most of his childhood in Jamaica. As a poet, he is profoundly influenced by the rhythms and textures of the country, citing in a recent interview his “spiritual, intellectual, and emotional engagement with reggae music.” His book Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius (2007)...