Constructions of Whiteness

A panel proposal put together by the best triangle I’ve ever been a corner to. (Side note, do you know how hard it is to persuade a room of undergrads that a three-legged stool can’t wobble? I do know now. I mean, you get it, or you don’t, how to explain it?) For next summer’s CCWWP convention (that mouthful’s the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs) in Toronto. Has a thematic focus whose statement starts like this

As we live this moment of intensifying racial and gendered violence, discourses and policies of intolerance, and environmental crises, we are also bearing witness to and participating in a broad surge of resistance, resilience and reclamation as evident in movements like Idle No More and Black Lives Matter. Literature has always had a role in responding, intervening and shaping the historical and cultural present. We believe literature is a way to interrogate anew what it means to be human and living in shared humanity on this land and in this time. Literature creates opportunity for the difficult conversations between us that might address our historical present, how we are haunted and how we can proceed.

and can be read whole here. We wanted to speak to the theme without presuming to speak from anywhere other than where we were. And so this.

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates calls out the people “who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe that they are white.” He suggests that race is a shared fiction, one that served and serves the powers that wrote it, slavers, imperialists, eugenicists, white supremacists. Our ongoing shared belief in the fiction makes it real and lethal to Black kids on American city streets, Indigenous women of Canadian cities and prairies, countless others. This panel consists of three poets who, being white, can’t help but take part in the construction of whiteness. They’ll read from works-in-progress that ask whether whiteness might also be witness – how construction might also be re- or de-construction – and then open the room to questions and discussion.

Last summer, as Christopher Patton wrote the critical introduction to his book of translations from Old English, white nationalists were marching in Charlottesville, VA, and the air in Bellingham, WA, where he lives, was white with cross-border forest-fire smoke. His thinking sharpened some about ties between those thousand-year-old poems and white supremacy and climate change. Race wasn’t a thing when the poems were composed – tribe and ethnicity, yes, foreignness yes, but not race as we live in it now. And yet what were their warrior ethos and fear of the other, their love of gold and roiling suppressed anxieties, but raw material for the later construction of whiteness? Add profit motive and oceangoing ships and stir. Can a translator put such values back out in the world without validating them? What help is it, that other values run countercurrent in the poems, self-inquiry, dialogue, empathy for the outsider?

In the weeks and months after Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori entered hundreds of ruined homes alone, with his camera. Stephanie Bolster resisted writing about these haunting, voyeuristic images for years, before accepting that the only way out was through; her project, Long Exposure, began in the interrogative mode, with her own voyeurism-once-removed. Evolving politics intensified the questioning and made her see her witnessing as white. In the New Orleans thread of her manuscript, she writes from empathy with the (mostly poor, mostly Black) former residents of these homes, but her recognition of her own subject position means she knows others may see that empathy as trespassing – or, worse, slumming. Can good art arise from, even overcome, guilt? How to strive for aesthetic authenticity amidst this complexity? How to write while wondering what one has the right to see, to say, to feel? Yet how much worse to be silent.

Barbara Nickel witnesses daily the loss of a body of water; she lives on lake-bottom land. The former Sumas Lake in the Upper Fraser Valley of British Columbia was drained in the 1920’s to create farmland. Named “reclamation,” the drainage was an act of irrevocable violence against the land and the Stó:lo people whose lives had depended on the lake. When Barbara discovered that Mennonite settlers from the prairies were some of the first to farm the newly drained land, the tension of her own witness was increased to include the complicity of her own people. Her response is made from vestiges – poems found in historical and contemporary voices, texts and other more visible remains –sandpiper in a museum drawer. As she writes over/in/of the lake’s ghost, she questions her right to do so, asks which roles are authentically hers – inquirer, trespasser, artist, friend?

I was browsing Robert Rauschenberg’s white paintings, hoping for something with enough texture visible to work in that upper heaven, top of the post, and came to this. Am caught by how all context is. Context of Black Lives Matter, the image is wake-up appalling. Context of Black Mountain, it’s American mid-century innocence enterprising. Phaidon‘s text on its generation, the painter collaborating with John Cage composer:

Rauschenberg said that Cage was the only driver in Manhattan willing to collaborate on such an unusual scheme. Perhaps this is a suitably flip comment to accompany so brisk a work. When asked if the work is a little like a musical stave, the artist demurred, preferring to compare it to a Tibetan prayer scroll. Yet, Cage drove over Rauschenberg’s scroll in the very same Model A Ford that he had carried him to Black Mountain College in a few years earlier; and doesn’t this single track bring to mind a little something of Cage’s featureless score for 4’33” – the silent work that’s never quite rid of the world’s noise?

A few closeups from it:

Road music. Rowed music. Rode music.

That innocence, it’s not gone, it ne’er was.

Augustine, whiteness, alienation

From the intro to the OE translation book. On the trope of exile and how it enacts Augustine’s “region of unlikeness.” But madness in Charlottesville and moral turpitude in Washington got in there. Am wanting to think through how the poems, composed by white men before “whiteness” was a thing, still inform this thing we know now as “whiteness.” The poems hold some of the raw materials – patriarchal culture of violence and valour and stoicism; will to dominance; constraint of women and suppression of what’s thought feminine; default stance of fear and suspicion towards the unknown; I could go on. Add ships and maps and a thirst for wealth and stir.

But also in them I find – mindfulness and curiosity, a tolerance for ambiguity, values of restraint and moderation, a love of beauty, playfulness, and the thought that much in the sense world could be animate, with its own ways of thinking and feeling through.

Caught between wanting to diagnose a sickness, and celebrate an innocence.

From Unlikeness Is Us: “Vagrant Introduction”

Exile in these poems is the felt reality of unlikeness. Unlikeness aware of itself, studying itself, in conversation with itself, maybe working to transmute itself, or to accept itself, or maybe mired in itself in alert despair. But keenly aware of itself. Unlikeness not aware of itself is alienation. On the other edge of the country I call mine for now a node of alienated whiteness drove through a crowd yesterday and killed someone. His idiot crew had flags on pointy sticks and torches, pointy sticks.[1] These poems may be ancestors to those supremacist pricks. They’re not on the hook for them, I insist that, but they may provide clues to them. The loneliness in the Anglo heart, the character Western restlessness later takes in it, bold and practical, industrious, venal, unscrupulous, when the age of exploration and colonization starts, and how that goes for the others met – there are clues to that in these poems. Maybe also seeds of the grotesque absurdities of Anglo-Nordic pride as it beetles from the fringes of American life pretty much as I type into the White House bedroom. But that’s later. The poems are wakeful. They take Augustine to heart, they believe in his unlikeness. They take unlikeness in, estrangement from the astonishing felt tissue of the present and their own blooming singing rampant bodies, and that may be tragic error. It might be the tragic subject all these poems have in common. But they hold a wakeful engagement with their condition as it’s given them. So, exile, estrangement, but not alienation – they don’t shut down, they stay brave, eyes open, looking out, looking in. They are at the root of one of the world’s great traditions of interiority.

[1]. “When questioned about the rationale for Trump’s evenhandedness, the White House clarified that both the protesters and the counter-protesters had resorted to violence. This is notable in that the United States was once a country that did not see Nazis and those willing to fight them as morally equivalent. Aside from that, however, there were no images of anti-fascist protesters mowing down reactionaries with their cars.” – Jelani Cobb in The New Yorker.

P.S.? I hate hate hate having that photo there. Like the smell of fresh shit in a kitchen drawer. To lessen it I’ll note that the douchebags are using for their grand display tiki torches of the sort used to repel mosquitos at family BBQs. Ride, warrior, ride. (Noted by Vinson Cunningham, also in The New Yorker.)

P.P.S.? Not that there’s anything wrong with mosquitos, shit, or a douche, in their places.