Poetry News

A Look at Jean Genet's 1970 May Day Speech

By Harriet Staff

Jean Genet

Today we'll get things rolling with a healthy and helpful perspective from one of our favorite writers, the poet, novelist, and playwright Jean Genet—always words to fortify! At Hyperallergic, Tim Keane leads in with "Jean Genet’s Answer to Donald Trump," beginning with a line from Genet's 1970 speech at Yale University, “What is still called American dynamism is an endless trembling.” Keane looks at two instances where Genet engaged with American's trembling political landscape: at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago and in 1970 in support of the Black Panthers. We'll pick up during the 1970 speech where Keane writes:

The speech, read in its English translation by a founding Black Panther member, Elbert “Big Man” Howard, consists of a rousing appeal on behalf of Bobby Seale, who was then on trial in New Haven for murder (the charges were eventually dropped). Genet’s oratorical strategy, a full-scale assault on the toxic apathy of white liberals, remains prophetic.

Genet blames the prevalence of racism on his Yale audience. “It is very clear that white radicals owe it to themselves,” he declares, “to behave in ways that would tend to erase their privileges.” Closing on a provocative note, he further goads the audience by comparing universities to “comfortable aquariums […] where people raise goldfish capable of nothing more than blowing bubbles.” Reread in light of the response to controversial police killings of African Americans in Charlotte, Ferguson, and elsewhere, Genet’s words bluntly spell out the diplomatically stated ideas coursing through the Black Lives Matter movement.

As relevant as those remarks on racism are to today’s situation, Genet’s extended “appendix” to the May Day Speech, first published in a special edition by City Lights Books, represents a wider confrontation with white neoliberals and their snug institutions.

In the appendix, Genet broadens his offensive, declaring that the United States must acknowledge an inbuilt national “contempt” dating back to the country’s founding. Unless the nation owns up to this contempt, which “contains its own dissolving agent,” then that denial will cause “American civilization” to, quite soon, “disappear.”

And then he calls out those he sees as the enablers of this ongoing American contempt. First in his line of fire is an American press so prone to “lies by omission, out of prudence or cowardice” that even “New York Times lies” and “the New Yorker lies.”

Head to Hyperallergic to dig deeper into Genet's May Day lecture and its relevance to our current political situation.

Originally Published: January 23rd, 2017