Back in May, I had the privilege of attending part of a poetry conference at Yale University, hosted by their Institute of Sacred Music (ISM) & Divinity School (YDS). I also successfully stealth-camped in the Yale parking lot, but that’s another story. (Note to self: In future, try to look up Couchsurfing hosts farther ahead than last minute.)
It was excellent. (The conference – not so much the car-camping part. That was pretty nerve-wracking & sleepless. And cold.) I wish I could’ve stayed for all of the conference, but I’m grateful for what I was able to attend. I also regret missing Chistian Wiman speak (though I geeked out on an internally-contained, very minor scale when I sat a couple of rows away from him in the chapel & saw him in the dining area). But if I had gone to only the first workshop, that alone would’ve been worth it.
It was a class taught by multimedia artist, Kenyon Adams, called “Poetry Our Loud: Techniques for Reading Poetry in Community.” (The other excellent workshop I attended was “Poetry in Public Spaces: Using Poetry to Build New Communities,” led by Kayla Beth Moore – both she and Kenyon Adams are alumni of YDS and now work at Grace Farms in New Canaan, CT—which I definitely want to visit at some point!)
Several things Kenyon Adams said in that workshop struck and have stuck with me over the past few months. Three of them in particular keep recurring to me:
- A somewhat offhand, by-the-way side comment he made while lecturing about the body & poetry: “Disembodiment is the enemy of Christianity, since this is a Christian conference, after all.”
- Two books recommendations that he told us we needed to take back to our congregations (the conference, as it turns out, was mostly intended for clergy & lay-leaders) and insist that they all read – and so contribute towards fighting racism in America. One book was Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine; the other was Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi.
- And this, as he was describing how his speaking voice used to be quite breathy and not his true, full-bodied voice: “I used to speak like this [demonstrating], because I wanted white people to like me and not be afraid of me, when really [transitioning to his true speaking voice] who white people should be afraid of is their own selves, since they are by far the greater perpetrators of violence, against black and brown people in this country.” (The wording’s not exact, but it’s as close as I can recall; and I think my memory on this is pretty accurate.) I also clearly remember physically getting chills as Kenyon spoke, particularly when his voice transitioned from the former breathy version to its current strong one—the change was that dramatic, and his words devastatingly on-point.
Back to the books: I’ve since read Citizen, and it’s excellent. (A bit longer, Stamped is still on my to-read list.) I would highly recommend it. Technically-speaking, one of the neat things about this book is its unique style, juxtaposing images with Rankine’s writing. Citizen requires more work than I always encounter in a piece of poetic art, and I appreciated the process of putting in a bit more effort than usual to engage with this work.
What brought Citizen to mind again today was part of a podcast I was listening to, an On Being interview of Eula Biss: “Let’s Talk About Whiteness.” In the interview, On Being host Krista Tippett references something else Claudia Rankine, the author of Citizen, wrote:
MS. TIPPETT: You [Eula Biss] cite this essay by Claudia Rankine that she wrote in The New York Times Magazine after the Charleston — the massacre in the church in Charleston. She wrote, “I asked another friend what it’s like being the mother of a black son. ‘The condition of black life is mourning,’ she said bluntly —” mourning, M-O-U-R-N-I-N-G — “For her, mourning lived in real time inside her and her son’s reality. At any moment, she might lose her reason for living. Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering, there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.”
And you [Eula Biss] wrote, “Sitting with her essay in front of me, I asked myself what the condition of white life might be.” I know that word “complacence” is something that you reflected on, but I wonder how would you think about that question right now, what the condition of white life might be, how to start to summarize that or to evoke that.
Lots of questions all-round. 111 years before the publication of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, another poet wrote the following to a young aspiring artist in 1903:
…I want to beg you, as much as I can…to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.
Of course, Rilke wasn’t writing to that young poet about race, as far as I know. At least not directly – his words could be considered a catch-all for any questions that might come up in one’s life. Still, these words of Rilke’s are ones I think of quite often for myself, and these days, often in relation to both art & race.
Some of the questions I’ve been holding —trying to live—lately:
- What does The Resistance look like in a mostly-white, rural context?
- What’s my role to play in deconstructing white supremacy and contributing to the cause of pursuing racial healing & justice in this country? In my county? In my own self??
- How does art, and specifically poetry, intersect with the above, and with other justice causes/pursuits—and without disintegrating or crossing the line into the territory of propaganda?
- How to pursue conversations with other white people who aren’t thinking about these things as actively/often as myself, without alienating them or being/coming across as self-righteous?
- How to change the imagination/cultural myth(s) of White America???
- How does faith come into all of this?
I do think I have some answers to these questions, actually. Or “responses,” or beginnings of answers at least. They’re also questions that I thought about a lot during this summer, during the Multifaith Social Justice program in which I was participating at Stony Point Center (SPC). (I also surprised myself, btw, with how much I referenced poetry in conversations with other Summer Institute participants! It was revealing & helpfully insightful for me…)
And one of the answers that I keep coming back to is that it’s super, SUPER important for white people—white Americans—to actively educate themselves on race. So that’s another thing I’m continuing to pursue this fall—my own self-education re: race relations & history in this country. It’ll be part of my work.
To that end (and in case you’re interested in them for yourself or to share with others), here are some of the resources I’ve been/will be drawing on:
- Peace Primer II, which draws from Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Scripture & Tradition, and was authored by Ken Sehested, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb, and Rabia Terri Harris (the latter two being women I met and learned from this summer at SPC)
- “White Debt” by Eula Biss (NYT essay)
- “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic); Coates is also the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Between the World and Me, which is EXCELLENT and I highly recommend to you – I went the route of the audiobook version (read by the author) and was very glad for this choice
- Curriculum for White Americans to Educate Themselves on Race and Racism, from the website Citizenship & Social Justice