I recently came across this recent clip of poet and professor Rita Dove on Big Think, responding to the question: Are we striving toward a post-racial literature and art?
Let’s agree to set aside for now the over-hyped connotations of the term “post-racial.” What Dove is attempting to speak to here, it seems to me, is the question of what exactly it is we are aspiring to, as a society, when we claim to value social justice, equality, and mutual respect through an appreciation of cultural difference.
If you are a black writer, the goal of your striving may be a future unburdened by the need to “insist upon your presence” and in this, Dove beautifully echoes the grievances leveled by James Baldwin before her, and Zora Neale Hurston before that. Another goal, Dove suggests, is to gain the respect of a reader who will not demand to be spoon-fed an explanation of “racial quirks” within the text. Free of the need to explain things, writers can devote their energy to telling good stories, to developing their craft, confident that the audience will be willing to project themselves into an unfamiliar experience.
I get this. No one wants to be what my family likes to call, “The Ambassador of Negro Relations,” having to explain to the uninitiated every single detail about black life 101 (as if we could anyway). But doesn’t the role of an effective published writer or artist necessarily contain an element of ambassadorship? If they don’t consider the creative deployment of “little reference points” to be a good use of their energy and talent, then I can’t help but wonder how readers are supposed to deepen their common knowledge about anything outside their comfort zone. How else are white folks going to figure out what we’re doing with Murray’s Pomade? (Google? Wikipedia? A Black Friend?)
It seems to me that explaining things is what fiction does best. I appreciate writers like Flannery O’Connor, Amy Tan, and Jhumpa Lahiri for challenging me to wake up and learn more about people I don’t know, but I’m also grateful for the efforts these writers make to clue me in to new details. I remember reading Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants growing up as a teenager in North Texas. Outside of The Diary of Anne Frank, I had never read a book about Jewish lives, never met a Jewish person, never even been to New York for more than a weekend visit with Frieda and my dad to see The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway. There were small details in The Tenants that I didn’t understand – the central conflict is between two black and Jewish neighbors in a crumbling NY apartment building – but I latched onto the moments of exposition and context in the novel until I could gather enough information to follow the story’s eye-opening revelations.
I fear that I’m reading too much into Dove’s off-the-cuff remarks. Perhaps she is not speaking to me (or t0 you) but to those who would prefer to see only themselves in works of creative art. Perhaps she is referring to the way agents, publishers, and other gatekeepers reward stories and poems that are more easily digested and blurbed. Writer should be able to tell the stories that they want to tell in the way that they want to tell them. I appreciate the fact that Dove also wants to spur the public into taking their responsibility as readers seriously. Her own poems are an elegant balance of subtlety and forthright language.
Dove has also said, in another Big Think segment, that “we live our lives in detail, all of us. We walk down the street. We breathe. We hear things. We try to transcribe it in generalities and the details are what make us come alive. I wish someone had said that just at the beginning, so I wouldn’t have felt so discouraged when I began writing and thinking who would want to hear the stories of a young black girl growing up in the Midwest?’”