Why Tribute African Americans?

In a comment on last week’s very brief post, Cafais asks, “Why, in 2009, is a tribute to ‘African American’ poets necessary?” It’s a very important question, of course — I asked the same as part of the promotional blurb for the issue.  The main point, Cafais writes, seems to be that black poetry should be allowed to flourish — but wouldn’t we all agree that this should apply to all kinds of poetry?  Why focus on race at all?

The question is too big for a single issue of a magazine to answer, or for a single person to answer, I suspect, but I’d hoped that we could at least help cultivate an answer within the body of our audience.  The point wasn’t to provide a solution, but rather, to open up an internal dialogue on race.  But Cafais is a subscriber, who’s read the issue, and still he asks — so maybe I should attempt an answer.

The short version is simple.  I consider myself a liberal, open-minded person — I’m young, and like almost everyone in my generation, I find it difficult to even comprehend the fact the Civil Rights Act is only 45 years old (that my parents were alive during segregation!).  The idea itself is completely foreign to my sense of morality, alien to my entire world view.  It seems like we’re so far past that.

And still, I’ve learned more about my self and my country in putting this issue together than in any other project I’ve ever worked on.  If the issue can have that kind of profound effect on me, I think it can have an impact on others as well.

Another short answer: As Cafais mentions, there was a time when African American authors were segregated to the back of the book, with the implication that their poetry wasn’t real poetry.  As always, our “Tribute” is a tribute — a celebration of black poets that, rather than echo that wrong, hopes to move beyond it.

The long answer stretches the bounds of articulation.  I think the center of all poetry is empathy.  This is the only medium where your audience is the medium:  poetry is an art of ventriloquism; a poet is using your body — your breath, your heart beat, your vocal chords — to produce his voice.  Together the two of you are working symbiotically to create an acoustic and linguistic experience — every single time you read the poem.  It’s the only experience we have where you’re not just stepping into someone else’s shoes, you’re stepping into their body, their mind, their moment in time.

Unless we’re an African American in the United States in 2009, we cannot know what it’s like to be an African American in the United States in 2009.  Unless we lived as a black American through the civil rights movement, we cannot know what it was like to live as a black American through the civil rights movement.  The fundamental lesson when dealing with issues of race or gender or sexuality isn’t that we should all be treated equally (that should be self-evident), and it’s not that we all have different experiences — it’s that we can’t know those other experiences, trapped as we are, within our own private world.  If we want to try to understand other experiences — and we should — then we need help.

When I was an undergraduate I attended a lecture that tried to teach us how to visualize a multidimensional space as a way to better understand superstring theory.  We started with a three-dimensional sphere, and imagined how that collapses into an infinite series of circles in two dimensions.  Then we went back to the sphere and tried to do the opposite, blowing it out into 4-D — it looked like a kind of donut, where any point on an infinite number of spheres translated to a point on the surface of the donut.  It wasn’t easy, but after an hour of straining our minds to the brink, most of us could get at least a fleeting grasp of the image before it fell apart again.  We felt good — and then the lecturer said, “Now just do that 7 more times and you’ll have the 10-dimensional space required for M-theory.”

That’s how issues of identity work.  I can’t know the experience of being a woman, let alone the million experiences in being the woman that is my wife.  I can’t know the million experiences in being the black man that is Terrance Hayes.

But poetry, as a fundamentally empathetic medium, gets me closer than anything else.

You might then ask, why not just publish the poetry of Terrance Hayes?  Well, obviously, we do — several of the poets from this summer’s tribute section have appeared in Rattle in the past.  I can’t be sure, but I’d bet that there isn’t a single issue of Rattle that doesn’t have African American poets in its open section.  The difference is, those poets appear without a context — we read those poems without an awareness of their self-identities, and so they only speak to the topics they directly address.

In gathering together 30 African American poets, we’re providing a context where the poems can speak to each other, as well as to a broader whole.  The collective effect, I think, is exponential — the overall impact is magnitudes larger than it would have been, had the poems appeared individually, scattered throughout an issue.

Obama aside, we’re not living in a post-racial America.  There are still lessons to be learned, wounds to be healed, experiences to understand.  The very reaction like that of Cafais (and please don’t feel like I’m singling you out, you’re not alone) is evidence enough.  In the past we’ve done tributes to Native American poets, Italian poets, Vietnamese poets, Filipino poets — none of which were met with skepticism or unease.  With this issue I’ve had those doubts myself.  Race is still a sensitive subject in this country, a horrible historical fact that we haven’t finished dealing with yet.

So that’s why a tribute to African American poets is necessary in 2009.