Ota Benga, displayed at Bronx Zoo in 1906

I hear my fellow writers discuss poetry as an art form that humanizes certain populations of disenfranchised people. I hear it said that poetry humanizes the victims of various horrendous atrocities and circumstances. Yet, I’m never exactly sure what people are intending to say when they use the word “humanize.” I am thinking now about all of the scholars of Black Studies, especially the Afropessimists, who have discussed humanism for decades. In the words of Saidiya Hartman, in conversation with Frank B. Wilderson III, humanization is often a call for assimilation. Hartman says:

SH: I think that gets at one of the fundamental ethical questions/problems/crises for the West: the status of difference and the status of the other. It’s as though in order to come to any recognition of common humanity, the other must be assimilated, meaning in this case, utterly displaced and effaced: ―Only if I can see myself in that position can I understand the crisis of that position. That is the logic of the moral and political discourses we see every day — the need for the innocent black subject to be victimized by a racist state in order to see the racism of the racist state. You have to be exemplary in your goodness, as opposed to...

FW: [laughter] A nigga on the warpath![1]

And now I am thinking about other scholars of color who have also previously delved into the idea of humanism. Franz Fanon wrote about a new humanism that is only possible when Eurocentric notions of humanity are not centralized. Fanon wrote, “Let us decide not to imitate Europe: let us combine our muscle and our brains in a new direction. Let us try to create a new man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.”[2] This new humanism has also been spoken about by Sylvia Wynter, who argues against the singular depiction, or singular genre of humanness, as existing within the European man.[3] I am beginning to think about Hegel’s Master-Slave dialectic now. I am beginning to feel a bit out of my field. The word “human” has been covered so deeply by people interested in Black Studies, Critical Animal Studies, biopolitics, and other philosophies. The word “humanize” feels too broad for poets to say casually in reference to the impact of a poem, while still retaining any meaning.

 I am thinking about an article whose name I don’t remember, which says something like “Isn’t it patronizing to say that a work humanizes somebody else? Why do you, the speaker, get to decide who is conceived of as human and who is conceived of as less than human?” I am wondering—what is the barometer for defining humanity that is being used when a poet calls another person “humanized” through literature. What does it mean to say that literature humanizes someone who was once less than human?

In the introduction of the book HABEAS VISCUS: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human, Alexander G. Weheliye says, “Why are formations of the oppressed deemed liberatory only if they resist hegemony and/or exhibit the full agency of the oppressed? What deformations of freedom become possible in the absence of resistance and agency?” I am referencing this quote because I don’t think I’m particularly interested in my poetry “humanizing” another. Though, I am interested in depicting the deformations of liberation that my communities exist and dance in. I am interested in discussing and combatting the structural racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, etc. that I see occurring in the world.

According to Michel Foucault, “the ‘other' is the one over whom power is exercised.”[4] Though power does not necessitate violence, it allows violence against the other to be possible. Is it possible to fight against otherness/dehumanization without being called towards assimilation? Or is the fight not against otherness but against the roots of violence? What is poetry’s call to action when encountering the other, the not yet human? Are these two words synonymous in the poet’s vocabulary?

Maybe poetry can help us build new knowledge and perspectives about people of various experiences. Maybe poetry can evoke feelings of empathy within us and maybe that empathy may motivate us towards political action, but I just don’t know what it would mean for poetry to humanize somebody. What would it be for somebody to be less human before the reader encountered the poem? Is it our ability to understand and empathize with someone else that makes them human, according to the poet? What does that say about the reader and their relationship to the less-than-humans described? Is a person or character of a poem less human when they are less understood by the supposed reader? Maybe what poets mean to say is not that poetry humanized another person, but rather poetry provides an opportunity to better understand the experiences of others.

Or maybe I’m wrong.

[1] Saidiya V. Hartman and Frank B. Wilderson, III “The Position of the Unthought,” Qui Parle 13.2 (2003), 189.

[2] Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 252.

[3] Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, ed. Katherine McKittrick (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).

[4] Michel Foucault, "The Subject and Power," Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, ed. Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 220.

Originally Published: September 18th, 2017

Poet and activist Christopher Soto, who also uses the name Loma, is the son of El Salvadoran immigrants. He was educated at New York University.  In his poems, Soto engages themes of intimacy, trauma, and identity. In a 2014 blog essay for VIDA, Soto writes, “At dinner she asked why I...