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BYO Canon (and Other New Year’s Resolutions)
I remember being in college, charging white friends $1 each at parties to touch my Afro, wondering when, if ever, the world might shift to make me a little less of a unicorn. Or, at least, for the onus to not be so much on me to explain myself. Growing up, sometimes I felt like I was using a different language than everyone around me. I’d heard about the myth of 2018, when white people would be the minority. Apparently, it was already happening. But I made the mistake of assuming that the population demographic shift would coincide with a power shift. Here is the secret weapon of the white supremacist patriarchy, the answer to “how can another cop walk free?,” the reason why the term “minority” doesn’t need to correspond with actual data: it’s in the mind.
One of my resolutions this year is to be aware of when my thoughts are not my own. Do I feel guilty about not finishing Fates and Furies because I wanted to read it, or because it was hyped as the year’s must-read uber-white narrative? Do I hate the way I look today because my hair isn’t how I like it, or because television told me only white women with thin hair are truly beautiful? Is Wallace Stevens really that important to me, personally? I want to be aware of when the systems I don’t trust, the systems that make me afraid for my life, have made their way into the way I think and how I see the world. It sounds hard, and I’m not claiming I’ll be able to even spot all the ways that I have gotten into bed with the supremacy, but it sounds easier and better than losing weight, quitting smoking, online dating.
I felt something shift this year. For worse, yes—death and the disintegration of society was impossible to ignore. But with that, our patience shifted, as it does every few years or so, before we get tired and move on to something else. This year I was discovered.
It was as if white friends blinked and there I was, newly black. I got emails, texts, hugs, apologies from those who’d awoken. I never realized, they often confessed, what you’d be going through. I hope I never made you feel this way, leaving me to examine my remaining feelings: forgiveness? Sorrow? Jealousy? Leaving me trying not to dwell in frustration about how long it had taken, collectively. That it had taken not one but all of us speaking against what we used to silently accept. That it had taken literal murder. That it had taken white allies to legitimize the cause.
Then there’s the F word. Feminist. For this one, I thank Beyoncé, Roxane Gay. Finally, after wave after wave, after decades, it was on everyone’s tongue. My personal politics turned kitschy buzzword. My identity again examined under fine-toothed think-piece. This year there was so much talk. It gave me literal oxygen, inflated me into personhood. But now, on the eve of something new, I am ready for progress. Now that I’ve been abstract, I’ve been conceptualized and hashtagged, I am ready to just be.
I have been writing essays and poems and reading them out loud to solemn rooms until the words sound hollow, like bird calls or traffic noises. I’ve been rehearsing and rehashing and rephrasing the same lines in interviews and during pillow talk and at lunches. I’m saying I’m tired, I’m saying let’s do better, I’m saying I’m black “so I don’t forget.” But sometimes I wish we’d all just shut up. Are we talking to avoid actually cultivating more woke lives and literary communities?
Here’s the thing: I don’t really care who Marjorie Perloff is. I know she’s a name I hear, as a poetry critic, but her name sort of washes over me. My ears don’t perk like they do when I hear Toni Morrison. Which is to say, I don’t really get who she is and I don’t understand why she’s part of my life, much like a Kardashian, and much like older white men regard Toni Morrison. Then Marjorie Perloff, an 84-year-old white woman, showed her Fox News-level racism and defended Kenneth Goldsmith’s “art” by vilifying Michael Brown (“That big black man, is scary, isn’t he? Am I right?”) with literally no grace at all. No concepts, no Great Literary Critique to hide behind. Just fear of otherness. Just hatred. I’m not afraid of men who look like Michael Brown, my brother, my cousins. I’m afraid of old white women who are comfortable and celebrated enough to get away with fear-mongering. I’m so afraid of hate.
This can’t be about her. It isn’t. She is representing others. It is not the first or last time Perloff or someone of her “caliber” has disguised hateful supremacy as academic critique (cut to when she slandered Elizabeth Alexander; to when she, again, gracelessly, found too many brown poets in Rita Dove’s Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry for it to be taken seriously). Gatekeepers and “legends” who reinforce exclusionary racist politics by time and again “critiquing” minority poets right out of the conversation (“This is her world,” explained Fred Moten. We were not invited into it. We have moved in down the block, and she is afraid). “Legends” who talk about us in the abstract. Whose “facts” and reasoning we’ve come to depend on, to uphold so much that even when they render us invisible, shape us as monsters, as fools, as meritless, we might unconsciously stop and wonder if they’re right.
This fleeting knee-jerk moment of internalized hatred, of second-guessing my own humanity and worth, this brainwashing; this is how the supremacy works. And it is working. It is The Canon. It is Important. This is the moment, the sickness I want to investigate in 2016. This is what I must distance myself from, lest I trade in all sense of dignity, worth, and self-actualization for a seat at a dirty table and a plate of bland food.
What have we learned from the call-out initiatives of 2015? Now that we’re comfortable identifying the oppressors amongst us, the bruised fruits in our bowl, what now? When do we stop giving space to the voices that are dragging us down as a community? When do we reshape what the community even looks like? What do we owe Marjorie Perloff, to Kenneth Goldsmith, to the university system, to the legal system, to The Canon, to Legacy? I’d rather honor those to whom I do owe my consciousness and liberation in poetry: Audre Lorde, Mickalene Thomas, Erykah Badu, my grandmother, my friends. By claiming them as my canon, do I fear missing out, being left out, being seen as uneducated or ignorant? I want to resolve to build a new canon. I want to stop pretending I’ve read and cared about books by racist authors, just because I was assigned them in an Ivy League English class. I want to stop nodding thoughtlessly to criticism written with classist, exclusionary mindsets. How must I, a Black woman poet, look, subscribing to the rules of a system that was and is still designed and assured to keep me out? My momma surely did not raise no fool.
Image at top: Barbara Kruger.