Writing

How Intersectionality Made Me a Better Poet

When I was in graduate school I took a class on poetry and politics. We read a lot of Russian and Polish poets. I loved reading Akhmatova and Milosz, but the class did not help me understand how I could write political poetry. If anything, it dissuaded me from writing anything political, because my life was so privileged in comparison to the poets and essayists we read.

The path of a poet’s career is sinuous. I found myself teaching intersectionality (the idea that everyone is affected in varying amounts by their race, class, gender, and other factors and thus their relationship to institutional power and privilege and/or oppression) to college students a few years ago. Our current president got elected. And my hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, became synonymous with white supremacy.

One of the reasons well-meaning white people are racist is because we often think we are the norm. We don’t have to think about our race, because our society is designed for people who look like us and come from our backgrounds. And so we say and do and sometimes believe racist things.

I decided to write a poem about Charlottesville. I would place myself into a context rather than assuming that my experience was the universal experience of childhood. I would write about and question my own intersections. What my younger self didn’t understand was that we live in a white supremacist society, which means that our societal systems are designed for white people. (The black kids at my high school worked a hell of a lot harder than I did to be in the advanced, college prep classes, to take one example.) So I am a participant in an unjust system. This is something I can write about.

Writing about poetry writing sounds insufferable in the abstract. As does poking through assorted ideas about race and representation. But I am pleased to find a way to talk about social justice that doesn’t sound trite or borrowed from someone else. (The poem begins in a bookstore.) And if the poem doesn’t work, which is always a possibility, at least I will have begun to question how my race affects my life, which is something my younger self did not even know could be a question.

What are you questioning?

(photo by Eze Amos)

5 thoughts on “How Intersectionality Made Me a Better Poet”

  1. What am I questioning? Now there’s a question. When I was young, I read a lot about the United States, and I watched a lot of TV, and I formed an idealized childhood picture of the US—as most of us did in the 60s and 70s. I read Captain America and Superman comics (I still do). I remember a panel in one, where the young Spider-Man was questioning a paternal Captain America about how to be a hero, especially one wrapped in the nation’s flag, at a time when a lot of values were being questioned. Captain America, given voice by the writer J. Michael Straczynski said:

    “Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.

    This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences.

    When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world: ‘No, you move.’”

    Maybe I’m naïve, foolish, even childish, call it whatever you like, but I always wanted a hero that could live up to something like that speech. And the US seemed to give voice to that idealism in its very Constitution, and to lay it at the base of its most cherished national monuments:

    “Give me your tired, your poor,
    Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
    The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
    Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
    I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
    — Emma Lazarus (1849–1887). The New Colossus (1883).

    In later years I read Harper Lee and Samuel Clemens, who gave me a darker insight into American history, yet always kept the flames of American heroism alive:

    “But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution gentlemen, is a court. It can be the Supreme Court of the United States or the humblest JP court in the land, or this honourable court which you serve. Our courts have their faults as does any human institution, but in this country our courts are the great levelers, and in our courts all men are created equal.” (p. 274)
    — Harper Lee. (2012). To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Anniversary Edition. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.

    “This infamous doctrine of allegiance to party plays directly into the hands of politicians of the baser sort — and doubtless for that it was borrowed — or stolen — from the monarchial system. It enables them to foist upon the country officials whom no self-respecting man would vote for if he could but come to understand that loyalty to himself is his first and highest duty, not loyalty to any party name.

    Shall you say the best good of the country demands allegiance to party? Shall you also say that it demands that a man kick his truth and his conscience into the gutter and become a mouthing lunatic besides?”
    — Clemens, Samuel (1887/2011). Party of Allegiance: Being a portion of a paper on “consistency,” read before the Monday Evening Club in 1887. In the Complete Works of Mark Twain (1835–1910). Delphi Classics (2013).

    Sadly, the United States now has a Supreme Court occupied by at least two sex-offenders, and stacked against justice for American citizens, such that it is in the process of denying women rights over their own bodies. The words at the feet of the Statue of Liberty now seem like a bitter and offensive joke as human beings sit in cages in the Lone Star State.

    You mentioned your hometown, and as an outsider, Charlottesville—to me at any rate—has not become “synonymous with white supremacy”, but rather a sad example of some brave souls who stood for true American ideals, and were run down by the hatred stoked by the demagogue in the White House. The highest elected office of the United States is now occupied by someone bent on the destruction of the environment in pursuit of obscene wealth; a liar; a racist hatemonger; a self-confessed sex offender; a homophobic bigot; a financial criminal; and an individual who has trampled the American Constitution into the dirt, whilst brazenly denying his offenses to the entire world. I try not to use the words “man”, or even “human being” in describing the 45th president of the United States, who has shown himself to be an abject failure of humanity at every opportunity. What am I questioning? I suppose the very nature of a nation:

    The common elements of fascism — extreme nationalism, social Darwinism, the leadership principle, elitism, anti-liberalism, anti-egalitarianism, anti-democracy, intolerance, glorification of war, the supremacy of the state and anti-intellectualism — together form a rather loose doctrine. Fascism emphasises action rather than theory, and fascist theoretical writings are always weak. Hitler’s Nazism had rather more theory, though its intellectual quality is appalling. This greater theoretical content is mostly concerned with race, and it was Hitler’s racial theories that distinguished Nazism from Italian fascism. (p.178)
    — Ian Adams. (1993). Political Ideology Today. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

    I suppose I am questioning, in unutterable sadness, whether a nation—formerly of such beautiful ideals—is slipping into fascism before the eyes of the world. And I am asking, when will the real America think enough is enough?

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  2. It makes more sense when you consider the fact that many of the people who signed the declaration of independence promising life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness owned other human beings and denied them the rights they claimed for themselves. This is the founding paradox of the United States. And the fact that this is rarely discussed or that it is explained away is part of the problem. Our current president did not come out of nowhere. Unfortunately.

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  3. And on the subject of America’s first black President, can anybody think of any other President in history who became the subject of formalized racist attacks by a political movement claiming that he [Obama], despite his Hawaiian birth certificate, was born in Kenya, or was a closet socialist Muslim? What other President in history, would have to witness his partner being referred to as an “ape in heels” (http://time.com/4571315/west-virginia-michelle-obama-ape-heels/) by political adversaries? Obama may have been the first black President of the United States, but he and his loved ones (including his children), faced racist abuse because of it, that no other President in history ever has ever had to suffer. That, to me and I believe most other rational individuals, is symptomatic of a white-supremacist society.

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