Oct 102013
 

A number of people in FYWP have been or will be teaching June Jordan’s essay from Reading Culture to their WR101 classes, so I thought this essay from the Los Angeles Review of Books might provide a useful complement:

FOR FIVE HOURS, Rachel Jeantel, a childhood friend of Trayvon Martin, sat on the stand and tried to recount the last conversation they had before he was murdered. They had known each other since they were in elementary school. Rachel Jeantel was still a high school student when she not only tragically lost her friend but also became the lead witness for the prosecution in the highly publicized murder case that polarized America. It was a trial that would decide if George Zimmerman, the man who murdered Trayvon, would face justice. That she was just 19 years old, a teenager, shell-shocked and in mourning, were a few of the least-discussed qualities of Ms. Jeantel. Instead her size, her color, and her speech thrust her into the headlines. Jeantel is a heavyset young woman with brown skin. In the aftermath, even smart publications could not resist drawing comparisons between Ms. Jeantel and director Lee Danielss unconfident, abused, broken bird Precious. It was a comparison that told us almost nothing about Rachel Jeantel and much more about people’s expectations of women who look like Rachel Jeantel: primarily, that if you are heavy and have dark skin in America you shouldn’t dare exist in real life. It was pretty inconvenient then, that on the stand, Ms. Jeantel — sotto voce too — refused to be anyone but herself.

Nov 192011
 
To the poet, though, the first question isn’t one of class or color. The first question is a question of language. Poetry—as Stéphane Mallarmé famously tells the painter and hapless would-be poet Edgar Degas—is made of words, not ideas. However, to the poet of color or the female poet, to the gay or transgendered writer in America, and even to the white male writer born outside of socioeconomic privilege, a difficult question arises: “Whose language is it?” Where the history of academic and cultural institutions is so dominated by white men of means, “high” language necessarily comes to mean the language of whiteness and a largely wealthy, heteronormative maleness at that. The minority poet seeking entry into the academy and its canon finds that her language is deracialized/sexualized/gendered/classed at the outset. In trafficking in “high” English, writers other than educated, straight, white, male ones of privilege choose to become versed in a language that doesn’t intrinsically or historically coincide with perceptions of their identities. It’s true that minority poets are permitted to bring alternative vernaculars into our work. Poets from William Wordsworth in the preface to Lyrical Ballads to Frank O’Hara in his “Personism: a manifesto” demand as much by insisting that poetry incorporate language nearer to conversational speech than anything overly elevated. Such calls for expansions of literary language in conjunction with continuing experiments by recent generations of American poets are transforming the canon for sure, but this leaves me and perhaps others like me in a slightly awkward position. I don’t possess a vernacular English that’s significantly different from that of plain old Midwestern English. As such, it seems I’m able to write from a perspective that doesn’t address certain realities about myself, and this makes me queasy as anything. The voice in my head is annoyed with the voice in my writing. The voice in my head says I’m disregarding difference, and this feels like a denial of self, of reality, of a basic truth. (my emphasis)

This piece about race and writing from The Poetry Foundation, written from a writerly point of view by Jaswinder Bolina, presents some interesting insights into what it means to be constructed as a minority writer writing in "Standard" English when that English also seems to be your primary language.  When my 101 students read June Jordan's piece they often struggle to see how Standard English is affiliated with whiteness and serves as a means of institutional racism.  In part, I think this it is because some of them sense that they are being implicated in institutional racism and tend to take it personally.  In part, it is because it's hard for many of them to see what it means to write in Standard English from certain subject positions.

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