I want to talk about the way people in the literary community are practicing rampant and violent anti-Blackness and perpetuating racism. This is the new coded language of Anti-Blackness and we need to be aware. This is about abuse and the use of gas lighting, as a means of silencing People of Color and Black people in particular.
In America, we frequently call upon the First Amendment for many reasons.
The first amendment reads as follows:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
To read the rest of the Bill of Rights click here.
At any time in my literary career, when I personally have spoken or written about issues pertaining to my Blackness and how I experience it, especially if I am criticizing Whiteness or individuals, I have been accused of being against free speech.
Recently, along with members of the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (MCAG for the rest of this piece) and many POC from around the literary universe have been loudly voicing our issues with a group of artists who we feel consistently behave in racist manners and who are placed in important positions of power and who are supported by the literary community financially, creatively etc.
Much of the current conversation about why we are all wrong revolves around the idea that in speaking out against what we believe to be the support of the rampantly racist work means that we are against free speech. Free speech has been brought into the conversation, not by those of us who have something to say about the racism in the body of work of Vanessa Place.
The petition to have Vanessa Place removed from an AWP committee that oversees panels was not about free speech.
From the original petition:
“We acknowledge the Place’s right to exercise her creativity, but we find her work to be, at best, startlingly racially insensitive, and, at worst, racist. We do not believe it is right that she have a hand in deciding whether panels having to do with race and identity will be a part of next year’s AWP”
Read it again.
Read the rest of the petition here.
In America, there are few easier ways to rile people up than to invoke the specter of censorship and impingement of the First Amendment. Those who are using that as their basis for dismissing the concerns of People of Color are using it as a bludgeon.
Freedom of speech is not armor. Regardless of who you are, having this freedom does not protect you or your body of work from criticism. Freedom of speech does not mean as more than one person has argued with me personally, that you can produce whatever you want to and expect no real world consequences.
Unlike a trial about obscenity, this does not involve the courts. No one has called for Place’s arrest, no one in the dozens of conversations I have had about this with other POC both publicly and privately has once mentioned that she should be banned or censored.
As you can see, she’s going right on doing what she’s doing and has not been jailed or otherwise had governmental interference.
Let’s be perfectly clear here for once and all.
Though I find Place’s work to be exploitive, appropriative and frankly disgusting. I fully believe she is entitled to do it. Yes, she can. Even though I find her at best repugnant, I stand with her in terms of the First Amendment.
If this were in fact a question of freedom of speech I would march with her in the street and shout for her rights to be respected.
That said, I do not want her in this position AWP Los Angeles 2016 Subcommittee because frankly I do not trust her to make decisions that likely involve POC.
Nowhere does anyone question Ms. Place’s rights.
What is happening is that rather than treating the serious issues this has raised as being worthy of further nuanced discourse, POC and Black writers in particular are laughed at, harassed and gaslit.
Gaslighting for those who are unaware is a tactic used by abusers to make the abused person question everything. In the context of the literary world what I’m observing is that POC are being told that we have it wrong. That we are obviously not sophisticated enough to understand Place’s desire to engage in what she calls a necessary cruelty to show White people about racism. We’re just against the First Amendment and must be stopped.
From AWP’s dismissive statement that neither addresses the actual problems with Place being in the position she was in, deems the majority POC people who had an issue as having “ill-will”.
“AWP believes in freedom of expression. We also understand that many readers find Vanessa Place’s unmediated quotes of Margaret Mitchell’s novel to be unacceptable provocations, along with the images on her Twitter page. AWP must protect the efficacy of the conference subcommittee’s work. The group’s work must focus on the adjudication of the 1,800 submitted proposals, not upon the management of a controversy that has stirred strong objections and much ill-will toward AWP and the subcommittee. Perpetuating the controversy would not be fair to the many writers who have submitted the proposals.”
The widespread use of coded language that all points towards POC and Black people in particular as being the bullies, MCAG has been painted as a “mob” because obviously it is impossible that Women of Color could or would want to pull together for solidarity, I myself have been called a bully, stupid and had my agency as a human being called into question constantly.
This is the literary world’s new way to flaunt Anti-Blackness couched in concern for the First Amendment and disbelief that POC and Black writers and artists in particular, have the ability to think for ourselves and come to conclusions that are shared by other POC.
This is gaslighting.
This is non-racists doing the work to support and maintain White Supremacy.
When in a call for work from POC a publisher uses scare quotes around “racially-insensitive” and makes it plain that the anger about the racism is “misplaced” and then they turn around and invite a POC author to submit what is that? This happened to me on Twitter the other day and my view is this.
If your position on an issue is known and the initial call for submissions from POC is to “challenge” and “debate”, the message whether intended or not is clear. That publication s ot there to do the work and will have a handy excuse when questioned about a lack of POC representation. They aren’t the first and won’t be the last to use this tactic. This is Anti-Blackness hiding behind the objectivity White privilege gives.
The problem with how the literary community is talking about this comes down to a few very important things.
Intent in this case does not matter. Whether people intend to be waving their Anti-Blackness flags high or not, it is what they are doing when they decide that POC and especially Black people are unable to think for ourselves “mob”, that we are unable to act in solidarity with each other so it must be a CIS White dude (accusation against MCAG), using the okay from a few POC to invalidate what any of the rest of us have to say, “challenging” us to defend ourselves, our work and our opinions on racism.
All of these actions speak loud and clear about who is welcome in the literary community and who is not.
It is abundantly clear that if you are a nice White Lady poet or have a long reputation you can behave however you want without consequences. You’ll keep getting published and funded. You’ll still get invited to host talks, etc. You’ll even be able to cast POC and especially Black people in the position of villain.
You’ll succeed. Your mission to get notoriety will come at a cost of being disinvited to some things.
If you are not one of those people this is what can happen.
When I started writing this piece I had the beautiful idea to make a solid wall of solidarity at the end. I asked people if they’d like their names listed as POC standing in solidarity against racism and Anti-Blackness in the literary community.
I got names.
And then yesterday I got a message from a young Black writer who had seen my call and was concerned. This person was accepted to an MFA program where they will have to interact with someone who has publicly used the language of free speech fear mongering, diminishing and been vocal about how “stupid” it all is. This person expressed to me that they are 100% behind this, but are terrified to ruin their academic literary career before it has begun.
And I understand.
A few years ago, I would have jumped at the chance to be the special POC and written something nice and calm, something asking for White people to maybe give us a little bit of a chance. I’d give myself good reason to believe that I would be treated fairly and not put in an automatic defensive position. I still thought if I were a nice Negro, if I just could hit that right pitch of subservience and niceness that I’d be heard.
I’m not mad at the person who wrote me. I got a few other of these messages. And I understand. This is the climate of the literary world.
As someone pointed out to me on Saturday morning, all my vocal anti-racist everything would probably ruin my career. I was told in all earnestness and I believe good will that my continued actions will lead to me never getting published again.
On one hand, I panicked a little.
And then I remembered being just like the young writer who wrote to me. Traumatized and beaten down and terrified to speak up.
I’m not that writer anymore.
I have made the decision to speak. Not because I am so Black and dimwitted someone showed me something and I’m blindly following some mob. I will speak because I don’t want to have to tell another Black author that their silence is okay and that I understand.
I refuse to shuck and jive to get in the big house.
I may not speak up every time, but I will speak up when I can where I can.
I will stand in solidarity with MCAG and the other writers and artists of color who refuse to be silenced or gas-light.
I stand with the silenced creators who are too afraid to speak.
I stand with those who are not eloquent in their rage.
I stand for myself.
Below find rather than the list I envisioned some writing by POC about this issue. As more get published I will add links to them. If you have written about these issues and would like your link included, please drop me a note.
Why a White Poet Should Not Be Attempting to Reclaim the “N-Word” by Aaminah Shakur
Letter to the Dean regarding a talk to be given by Vanessa Place by Professor Ruth Ellen Kocher.
Why I’m Not Happy with AWP’S Response to The Vanessa Place Controversy by Olivia Olivia