Poetry Betrays Whiteness
Among the many pointed questions that Lucas de Lima raises in “Poetry Betrays Whiteness” is that of how positions of unitedstatesian privilege can be used “to fight structural inequality and global anti-blackness.” This far-reaching essay touches upon, among other things, conceptions of race in the U.S. and Brazil; afro-Brazilian artists who have offered alternative conceptions; and a fascinating discussion of the ways that Brazilian Portuguese has been shaped by indigenous and African influences.
Lucas concludes by drawing our attention to a racist and sexist post on Harriet in 2008 that I had never seen before, and which sadly seems illustrative of the disgusting racism embedded in U.S. literary institutions that has been exposed in the past few years. Lucas asks, among other things, for the Poetry Foundation to take responsibility for the publication of the racist post it provided a platform for. This is a fair request, and one that I second. We should know why such posts are published. Editorial policies surrounding racist content should be clearly articulated and transparent.
And since my original drafting of this introduction the current editors at Harriet have stated that they were not aware of the existence of this racist image and that tomorrow the post in question will be removed. The conversations were detailed, and the editors did move quickly to respond. However, a request for an apology from the Poetry Foundation has as of now not been answered. Writes Lucas:
I'm disappointed PF would not feel the obligation to publicly apologize to its readers for a post that has been up for nearly a decade now. I expected more from an organization that aims to represent the poetry community at large, including Native readers and poets.
In my role here as curator, I want to acknowledge Lucas for this activism, for this clarity, and for this willingness to speak candidly in the face of blatant racism. We need to have these conversations to keep exposing the social conditions that allowed for this offensive, supremacist imagery to be produced, circulated and deemed acceptable for inclusion in a poetry blog. Looking at this episode directly, we can hope, might be a step towards preventing its reccurrence in the future.
At the same time, I don’t want to lose sight of the other crucial aspects of Lucas’s post. Like the Afro-Brazilian artists we here read about, Lucas moves us beyond critique and asks us to imagine radical new visions that re-embody histories that have been rendered silent and invisible.
Another reason this essay is important to me is that it seeks to connect the anti-racist, anti-neoliberal work Lucas does as a poet and activist and scholar in the U.S. to specific writers and artists in Brazil working to expose and denounce the murderous racialization policies inflicted upon peoples of African descent in Brazil. Lucas draws our attention to Afro-Brazilian artists who celebrate “not subservience but dignity, not fear but rebellion, not hopelessness.”
I want to think about Lucas’s writing in a context of a transamerican, hemispheric poetics that, in the words of poet/scholar Michael Dowdy (whose 2013 Broken Souths: Latina/a Poetic Responses to Neoliberalism is a must-read for those interested in what a critical, transamerican poetics of the Americas might look like) animates “radical intersubjectivies between North and South among Latino and North and Latin American poets to contest official narratives” of political power. Dowdy pairs North and South American Latinx/Latin American writers to underscore the ways in which their poetics critique and offer alternatives to neoliberalism and its discourses. Lucas takes a similar approach and uses hemispheric linkages to offer incisive critiques of racial formations, the “global logic” of whiteness, and the ways nationalism is inextricable from racist ideology. Here Lucas provides a complex thinking through of cross-racial alliances with the hopes of eventually locating “a blueprint for solidarity and transformation.”
When I’m in Brazil—the country with the largest Black population in the world outside of Africa—I am not a light-skinned Latino or a person of color. I occupy the position of a white person.
Lately, moving between racial categories has magnified my political feelings. The more time I spend in the country I left as a child, the more I hone the grief and rage that whiteness, as a global logic, provokes in me. For every Black person killed by the police in the U.S., countless more are killed in Brazil. In both places, the rise of police brutality and mass incarceration is one condition of racialized life. Another is the exploding suicide rate in Native communities, particularly among youth.
I think of nation-states as inherently militarized spaces articulated through each other. When Frederick Douglass said Brazil was less racist than the U.S. in its treatment of freed slaves, he anticipated the self-fashioning of a ‘racial democracy’ whose mixture would be defined against U.S.-style segregation. Like the vast majority of Brazilians, I have mixed-race ancestry. Because my nonwhite ancestors survived, I am alive and need to be explicit about the horrors of miscegenation—the rape of African and Indigenous women by Portuguese men. My light skin is the result of policies that whitened the population by incentivizing European immigration at the turn of the century. I think all the time about how the state transmits white supremacy through my body. My phenotype encodes a national fear of being too black and brown. As in other slaveholding societies, the idea that Brazil could one day be Haiti haunted the elite.
To inherit this blood-soaked history means many things. As a writer, I need to go beyond the narratives of immigration or U.S. imperialism that are expected of me. But neither is it enough to acknowledge my colonial lineage. The guilt of proximity to whiteness is not enough. White guilt is no recipe for aspiring race traitors. What I need is something most of my elders don’t have. I’m talking about a blueprint for solidarity and transformation.
“So-called Latin America,” Lélia Gonzalez wrote, “is, in reality, much more Amerindian and Amefrican than anything else.”* In proposing the term Amefricanity, Gonzalez scrambles the category of African-American and gives it an Afro-centric spin. When I read her brilliant essays, I am reminded that my accent in Portuguese is the influence of Tupi, an indigenous language once widely spoken. I am reminded that the slang I use around my trans and queer friends is based not on the language of Camões or Pessoa but Yoruba, the surviving tongue of West African slaves.
I point this out not to say #weareallafrican.
I point this out to say my ideal worlds in poetry and beyond are not white.
Language is already imbued with these worlds.
It took a kind of unlearning to figure this out.
This unlearning will never end.
Written by Pedro Casaldáliga, Pedro Tierra, and Milton Nascimento, Mass of the Maroons is a musical spectacle that blackens Catholicism. Prohibited by the Vatican, the first production debuted near the end of the dictatorship in order to “bring to light, even if this light blinds the hypocrisy of some, the methodical terror by which white, Christian, Western civilization—in the name of faith—converted millions of Africans into firewood for the capitalist furnace of the so-called ‘New World.’” I’ve only listened to the soundtrack, but the musical’s feverdream of Marxist liberation theology and Afro-Brazilian religiosity feels like the opposite of U.S. poetry communes. It’s worth mentioning that the need to separate and classify is part of what drove the Western invention of race. Non-Western epistemologies, on the other hand, tend to provincialize this need when they stress connection and relationality. In redefining resistance, Mass of the Maroons blurs the line between insurgency and the sacred arts. If it was a Vodou ritual that catalyzed the Haitian Revolution, the mass’s refusal to purify or secularize becomes the origin rather than the dilution of politics. This is the ground on which ancestrality survives and speaks back:
“Mass of the Maroons aims to expose the lie that the former slave masters and their sons in power try to impinge on us. This is why it celebrates not subservience but dignity, not fear but rebellion, not hopelessness but the hope that blacks and whites will one day create their New Palmares.”
Located in northeastern Brazil, Palmares was a federation of maroon communities estimated to number from 11,000 to 30,000 inhabitants. It endured attacks for over 90 years and consisted of runaway African and Native slaves as well as Jews, Muslims, and poor whites. There is a reason you probably haven’t heard of Palmares. There is a reason it was overtaken, its leader beheaded, in 1695. As Neil Roberts argues in Freedom as Marronage, Maroons are more than a historical reality. The flight of slaves, in other words, offers the possibility of reorientation here and now. Marronage is a trans-historical vision of revolt enfleshed in the present as well as the past and future: “Flight can be both real and imagined… Freedom is not a place; it is a state of being.” A blackened, radically convivial world that lies buried yet pulsating, enmeshed with the present one, Palmares is dangerous to know about as a real place and alternative state of being. To know of it is to demand more from what Roberts calls the “liminal and transitional social space” poetry would be capable of rebuilding. This “agency within potentiality” is not metaphorical but the sky of Adão Ventura’s “I, Black-Bird”:
cicatrize the burns of iron branding,
close my fugitive slave’s body
at the gates of maroons.
It is also the rupture of “Birth” by Miriam Alves, another Afro-Brazilian poet:
A deaf drumming
hurts to hear
To live to live
trapped in the cage
I’ve already seen the infinite
I was constellation
Now I’m a wandering asteroid
I divided myself in two
Divided in order to not be subtracted
I stayed whole if dented in each piece
I cried because I was being born
How can I, as a scholar and translator, support the legacies of writers like Alves and Ventura? How do I not only fly in solidarity with them but also honor their visions of flight? The fact that I’m an immigrant writing in English could position me strategically as an ally to Afro-Brazilian poets who are marginalized back home. And yet, inside and outside of poetry and its institutions, our differential experience of racism matters. As Eunsong Kim would say, I’m the person cops wave to on the street. Just as I need to be discerning about my subject position and use my privileges to fight structural inequality and global anti-blackness, the bird of my current poems has a different body than Alves’s and Ventura’s birds. At the outskirts of the Amazon, I’m a chicken. Cowardly, colonized, and colonizing, I listen for the militant call of Ventura, former president of the Palmares Foundation. I learn from the cosmic song of Alves, once a member of the Maroon-inspired movement Quilombhoje. I respond not by claiming Black revolutionary discourse. It is through receptiveness to fearless voices of color that I, too, produce difference. If whiteness is property, fixity, transcendence—is the market-state itself, whether the U.S. or Brazil—I can’t afford to be ambivalent anymore about the history I incarnate. Respectability politics, tokenization, and ‘diversity’ do not redress this history—they are the divide-and-conquer tactics by which race is deftly managed, our movements co-opted and undermined. When only a chosen few gain from the work of many, solidarity crumbles. When I am rewarded for my anti-racism, it usually means I’m being used. Possessive whiteness is all too happy to enlist me in neoliberal mandates, in multicultural and homonational shields, unless I dismantle it within myself. Unless I demand, in myself and those around me, divestment from its reach.
Until whiteness is no longer the pivot of my world, my floating nest will never be real.
From a perch below airborne birds, my imaginative response lies in the process of decolonizing myself above all. As a chicken, I dream of flight from industrial farming and modern catastrophe.
In this dream I rip the ancestral sky.
In this dream I betray my landlocked species.
In this dream I refuse to be stuck inside empire’s dreamlessness.
Inspired by Bhanu Kapil’s white privilege exorcism, I invoke, in this blog, the screaming brown feather scanned into pages 64-66 of my book. After being digitized in black, my feather of grief comes to life here as a 3-foot tall breed of chicken known as Índio Gigante.
For my Native foremothers.
I animate the brown feather in the form of a huge indigenized chicken precisely so that it might stab this blog with its beak. Just as my book is ephemerally killed, shed, and started again.
I wish I were joking when I say this blog is guilty of forgotten violence. It is no surprise to see who authored this unspeakable post.
What is shocking is that it still exists. And has barely elicited denouncement. Of all the writers, editors, and scholars in the comments thread, only one thought to protest.
What are the conditions that make racist, misogynist degradation so publicly visible and invisible, that is, possible?
What does it mean when both Black and Native souls and bodies become a community’s empty shells?
It would only be ethical for the author, the blog, and its commentators to now be held accountable.
It would only be ethical for the community to hold itself complicit with the spectrum of imperialist violence and rape.
From anti-blackness to settler colonialism, the entire scale of this continent’s atrocities.
But as usual, I devastate my ancestors and myself with a question.
How much will poets care?
*All translations into English are mine.
Born in southeastern Brazil, Lucas de Lima is the author of Wet Land (Action Books, 2014) and the chapbooks Ghostlines (Radioactive Moat, 2012) and Terraputa (Birds of Lace, 2014). He is a contributing writer at Montevidayo. In a review of Wet Land, Marty Cain writes, “Rather than hiding behind an...