OVER 20 YEARS AGO, in her groundbreaking Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination, Toni Morrison looked forward to a time when it would be possible to study literature for clues into the “unsettled and unsettling” processes of racialization. Her essays examined the role of American literature in mediating racial knowledge, analyzing key 19th-century texts for clues to the ways whiteness and blackness construct one another in our literature, in our storytelling tradition, and by extension, in our lives.
Here’s one noteworthy totem Morrison uncovers: at the end of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket,” immediately after a black man on Pym’s boat dies, “a white giant rises up.” Pym and Peter enter an opaque white fog and are showered by a cloud of white ashes. Morrison describes this terrifying white opacity as an uncannily frequent American literary presence, noting that “images of impenetrable whiteness” appear again and again “after the narrative has encountered blackness.” According to Morrison, literary figures of white opacity respond to sites of anxiety and violence: they appear “in conjunction with representations of black or Africanist people who are dead, impotent” or who have been subjected to violence at the hands of white forces. Indeed, reading Poe, Morrison proposes that this figure of suffocating white opacity emerges in order to veil racial trauma. It is as if the fog descends as a kind of self-protective gesture. Having experienced racial trauma, the narrative creates a veil that descends to obscure or even deny racial knowledge. The opaque white veil allows such characters to sidestep encounters with racial violence.
But as Morrison reads Poe and the 19th century American canon, she is also calling not only for more careful readings of our existing literatures, but more probing accounts of lived experience, the texts with which we craft and fathom our lives. Reminding fellow writers that she is no mere critic, Morrison notes, “writing and reading are not all that distinct for a writer.” Morrison implicitly invites storytellers — especially white storytellers — to more carefully read (and then write) their narratives of race. Asking for such stories and inquiry is itself a historically charged undertaking within American racial discourse. It’s worth remembering that merely examining and naming the white body as white has been construed as a charged act. Melville’s Ishmael — the ultimate anonymous narrator — has historically been presumed white simply because he occupies the space of voyeur-reporter describing (other) racially marked bodies. Indeed, if the white fog in Poe provides an apt figure to describe the way white characters manage their experiences of racial trauma and violence, this figure of “opacity” corresponds rather neatly with more common ways that white experience is described. There has been in the academy (and beyond) for some time a great deal of discourse that positions white experience as nonexistent or neutral and so-called ethnic or racial experience as “other.” It is worth noting that the figure of blinding whiteness that follows traumatic violence shares a form with the more banal “experience of non-experience” which has often policed the margins of literary inquiry (both critical and aesthetic), in which knowledge of race or racial experience — or even acknowledgement of racial perspective — is shrouded, emptied, or denied.
Morrison then, asks us both for new criticism and new stories. In particular, she invites literary practitioners to read the racial fogs out of which they themselves construct narrative. How can writers who have avoided thinking about their racial experiences as racial begin to read and write about those experiences? Which instincts towards silence or omission might a (white) writer engaged in this process have to overcome? What is at stake in naming spaces where race, racialization, and racism occur in white lives? If the rhetorics of white experience are partially maintained by rhetorical strategies of not-saying, not-knowing, self-normalizing, what does it mean to craft stories of white experience in which racial processes are destabilized, unveiled, or revealed? In short, how does a subject take responsibility for moving from whiteness to witness?
There cannot be prescriptive answers to such questions. But three contemporary poets — Jake Adam York, Rachel Richardson, and Martha Collins — have begun to give aesthetic form to such inquiries as they struggle to name and claim some of the paradoxes of inheriting white codes, bodies, and privilege. Each works both within and without the “fog” Morrison describes. Each attempts a close reading of his or her own patterns of racialized experience — attempting, in self-marking to make legible uneasy codes that converge upon their lives and bodies. In doing so, each tries to make the occluding cloud that often serves to normalize white violence somewhat less blinding, and perhaps, to chart some way through it.
In Persons Unknown and A Murmuration of Starlings, two-thirds of a triptych written before his untimely death in 2012, Jake Adam York looks outward, backward, and down. He travels the South, reading not texts, but landscapes — cities, rivers, roads — for what they can and cannot reveal about racial violence. Revisiting martyrs of the Civil Rights era in Mississippi and Alabama nearly 50 years after church bombings in Mississippi killed four girls, York recalls a staggering number of crimes “no one sees.” By unsettling such silences he wants to write hidden victims “back into history.” His person-by-person excavation of both victims and victimizers dramatizes a regional (and national) tendency toward amnesia — forgetfulness layered over failure to condemn.
If Poe’s Pym disappeared into a white fog, York’s poetry actively recovers shards of the trauma and violence that have gone (and indeed still go) into maintaining the white/black color line. He examines ways this critical racial violence has been minimized, both by a history that disregards victims and protects perpetrators, and by a culture that prefers to forget than recall. Following Morrison’s injunction to overcome “every well-bred instinct … against noticing.” York visits sites that lack overt monuments, naming aloud what we “cannot hear.” Speaking requiem, his poems act as audible trace: “A city is a kind of memory,” York writes of Jackson, Mississippi. But Jackson’s plaques denote where Welty lived and not where Medgar Evars did. York speaks into and against this unevenness: “City of Ghosts, / you can’t abandon your history, / and it won’t abandon you. /You watch each other, / you call each other’s names.”
Calling names, York positions himself as interlocutor for the silenced. At the place where Mack Charles Parker’s body was recovered from the Pearl River in 1959, York writes:
the rivers heal their quiet,
[…] they fill their scars so perfectly
that remember feels like forget.
Indeed, York routinely finds that sites of Civil Rights era lynchings are unmarked and unmarkable. In fact, he resorts to writing in negations: “There are no answers. / There is no one to ask.” At the now-vacant lot where Joseph Thomas was murdered by a sniper in 1967, York expands his work to include everyone who has been the victim of a killing:
but not a killer
for everyone who simply disappeared,
who walked out
as if into air, taken —
into a fog’s unknown hands,
leaving nothing but a name
a date, and that fear
constant as water,
that anyone could be next.
Here, the “not” and the “unknown” map the negative space unresolved racial violence now leaves behind. York can’t change that absence, but he can call us to attend to it. Indeed, in York’s work, the surreal, otherworldly fog Morrison identified in Poe re-forms as the mist out of which anonymous racial violence is delivered. In this fog, anonymous acts of terror are committed by unnamed, unprosecuted white people against black ones, but the fog is also the force which allows this violence to go uncondemned and thus become normalized, to become lost in a wider fog of white amnesia. As Morrison notes, crimes against the black body are “enforced through silence.” York expands Morrison’s trope, showing what the “nothingness” of a white fog can do, what the silence surrounding it is for.
But York does not only look outward. He also tracks the ways a racist society reads his own white body as he moves through public space. Looking for Medgar Evers, Emmett Till, and Reverend James Reeb, York reflects on how his outward appearance renders him safe, neutral, invisible. Large, white, and bald, he travels in a body that disguises him from those who might take offense at his motives. His whiteness protects him.
But for York, this disguise comes at a cost. His own bodily form can feel like a mask or trap, turning him into a “person unknown” to himself. Walking, he “catches that curve / in a window or a windshield / that wrecks my face / so for a moment / I can mistake myself / for a redneck at the end of a joke.” The active voice in “I can” is no accident: York acknowledges how he can, when he needs to, disappear from scrutiny or threat behind the opacity of his bodily form, and the ways he (even unknowingly) participates in what he calls “a conspiracy of color.”
Indeed, York also explores how often he is covertly or implicitly asked to act as a conspirator in racial narratives he didn’t choose. More than once York’s presence elicits racist remarks from people who believe he’ll agree with them. In “The Second Person,” York visits a Southern history museum and speaks with a woman who says of a neighboring town: “I just love it / you know—there are no darkies there.” York describes the conversation as “an echo the heat or the history / in our voices draws us into— / someone else’s version of ourselves.” In the second person, York observes his own othering: how skin, voice, and place inscribe him into a historical hegemony his own private reflections do not and cannot will away. And he meditates on the way his own experiences in this racialized body (seemingly neutral, white, and male) also lead him to feel crafted as a character separate from his wishes, intentions, and longed-for self. At such moments, York depicts the way the “I” he would prefer to know colludes uncomfortably with the larger mechanics of racialized privilege. Race is a sticky force. York strains imperfectly within his disguise. He argues that this kind of racial encounter may be familiar to many readers: it could happen to any of “you.”
In Copperhead Rachel Richardson localizes her own racialized experience within the thorny context of family inheritance. The word “copperhead” is both Civil War slang for a northern sympathizer with the Secessionist South and the name of a deadly snake. Richardson, a white descendant of Louisiana planters, sees her own roots as forked and flickering. One of her first decisions is whether to engage her own history at all. She realizes that she is neither particularly invited to, nor is anyone urging her to open it. Returning from elsewhere, Richardson drives on the wide Natchez Trace path and notes as she passes: “The world keeps its silence. / No one blames me for a thing.”
In order to read her past — to decode it — Richardson breaks this silence, potentially making herself susceptible to blame. She tells private family stories in order to retrace family and speech codes she inherited before she was aware she was learning them. In doing so, Richardson shows how “secession” from something as enormous as racism is not simple or unilateral. Racism is a slippery, and also somewhat tribal, institution. The ways we come to self-knowledge are flawed. Richardson’s work is poignant because she has already learned to love a world she partially condemns, but also because she knows she does not have a neutral place from which to condemn it. About that world she writes, “The swamps and the silver coffee tray I loved with equal passion” and “for years no one lured me away.”
How does a speaker at once imbibe but also disentangle herself from such legacies? If York’s body was made strange in a plate-glass window, Richardson depicts intimate experiences, which upon later reflection cause her to doubt. Meanwhile, despite her best efforts, some events remain illegible, even to her. Richardson retraces an early childhood moment when her grandmother’s black maid tried to show her how to eat a fig, an instant her grandmother forcefully interrupted. Some code or knowledge was transmitted. Richardson depicts it this way: “I never remember / what was said, only the look of her in the doorway, // the eyes… / I won’t recall gestures, or // the way Lola looked…” she writes. The progression from “can’t” to “won’t” speaks volumes. Some force beyond Richardson’s own willingness has policed — even veiled — her memory, denying her access to this moment’s central divisive trauma. But the poem’s title, “The Refrain,” suggests that precisely because the moment is veiled, its memory snags and eddies. Because Richardson cannot remember content but only the event’s forceful implication, the moment spins in her mind, retaining uneasy power.
Richardson the storyteller cannot be silent. She re-crafts these memories precisely because it is the only way she can attempt to fathom their tangled centers. Yet Richardson knows she imagines imperfectly. At times her project is as dreamlike as the assembled snake that she “conjured” as a child. In that poem, Richardson admits she’s “inventing the snake / inventing the venom.” Indeed, for Richardson, the true venom of inherited racism is both real and imaginary, present and strangely absent from sites where she would try to find it. Indeed, Richardson often hints at some other violence she has not yet been able to reveal. “My grandmother is hurting no one,” she claims, and yet her poems lurk in the shadow of historic harm. In the poem “Relic,” Richardson discovers a white Ku Klux Klan robe from an unspecified location. Like the grandmother “not hurting anyone,” this object now seems calm, even vulnerable: “frail white folds / softened, demure. No burn.” In fact,
[i]t sat, silent, like any other contents
of any other box: photographs
of the dead, heirloom jewels.
The silence surrounding the artifact is unsettling. What is Richardson’s relation to this piece of history? What is her duty to this particular piece of inheritance — be it cultural, familial? What would she be told now if she asked about it? Is the violence of this object “dead” or merely locally silent? Morrison reminds us that a writer’s combinations of “intentions, blindness, and sight [are] part of the imaginative activity.” By making the margins of her knowledge visible, and by pointing towards her spaces of blindness, Richardson raises important questions. Does she turn away too quickly from difficult knowledge, veiling access to something like truth, or does her writing — full of absences — dramatize places where family loyalties, speech codes, and mental geographies betray her?
Something like blame hangs in the balance — our desire to find the venom, to extract it.
It is possible to blame Richardson for being from the family with the heirloom jewels, boxes, the historically charged relics. It is of note that one might move toward blame just at the moment that Richardson explores the marks (class, wealth, history) that the umbrella category of “whiteness” exists partially to obscure. Meanwhile, in Richardson’s writing, echoes of racist legacies reappear in uncomfortable places. The Klu Klux Klan robe seems temporarily impotent, but Richardson traces a morphing essence, a series of tropes that fade in one place only to reform elsewhere. Racism is embedded in Richardson’s family past, but it is also securely rooted far beyond it.
In exploring the highly personal transmissions of inheritance, Richardson’s poems weigh the price of learning to read one’s own codes more closely. In one poem, a Richardson poses as a child with her grandmother’s longtime servant and not-ever-quite friend: “And in this picture— // my grandmother must have taken it— / you’re smiling, probably because / we’ve been told to. And I’m smiling too / fierce with new teeth.” She both depicts entanglement and works towards rescue.
Like Richardson and York, Martha Collins explores the impossibility of separating herself from a racist legacy, yet her most recent work drills into the sometimes-unconscious hidden grammars of racial knowledge. White Papers explores the author’s knowledge of the way race is bound up in daily transactions, judgments, and assumptions. White readers (or perhaps any readers) may well find it hard to read White Papers without implicating their own reading in the charged codes of daily racial knowledge. Here, for example, Collins describes the town where she grew up:
But mostly because they rarely spoke
of or noticed or even whispered
about and did not of course…
“Did not of course” — what? Befriend? Know? Fall in love with? Collins’s sentences are full of pronominal dividing lines, calling attention to the unseen gap separating an “us” from a “them.”
Her sentences are also full of ellipses. Her forms reenact silences that encounter and articulate painful divisions, forms of knowledge that seem so embedded they can pose as assumptions. Indeed, Collins crafts many poems in the first person plural, assuming a collective presence that “we” — who read and parse — already grapple with. Both the we and the silences in the poems imply collective knowledge so basic it need not be spoken. We (any one of us of any race) may say we do not know what a white code is, Collins’s poems argue, but we surely do recognize it in action.
And in Collins’s work, these codes act. If York and Richardson explore their unease at being called on to be conspirators, either of space, voice, or inheritance, Collins’s sentences enact already established conspiracies. They dramatize ways that racial knowledge creeps up on speakers, appearing in the grammar of everyday life. Yet Collins also deftly uses this grammar against itself, calling her readers to contend with the implications of the divisive, painful, and uncomfortable knowledge her poems make plain. She often writes in folded sentences:
we saw them mostly saw
ourselves what did
we didn’t know
where we were living
Within these tumbling clauses, Collins enjambs a telling question: “what did / we didn’t know.” She challenges her readers to name the hidden-in-plain-sight. This may be some of the hardest and most necessary work of all. Quoting A.S. Byatt, Morrison describes the “sense that the text has appeared to be wholly new, never before seen, is followed, almost immediately, by the sense that it was always there, that we, the readers, knew it was always there, and have always known it was as it was, though we have now for the first time recognised, become fully cognisant of our knowledge.” Collins’s work makes plain the act of naming the text of racial codes, and in discovering them learning to name them as already learned, already her own.
Collins also uses fragmented, charged language to represent her flawed process of coming to racial knowledge at all. She recalls her childhood: “white, as Jesus was white” and “My heart was black with sin.” She does bristle at these memories, and, in particular, at the moment when she wrote in school about Brown v. Board of Education, “Yes but not yet.” But Collins does not stop in the flawed past. Her poems charge her to continue naming the uneasy racial codes of the present. This is a process of active watching and also sometimes of falling short. One of Collins’s poems lists the privileges her (white-skinned) life has afforded:
could get a credit card loan car
come and got without a never had
to think about a school work job
to open doors to buy a rent a nice
This poem may embody the most banal white code of all. Rather than write in the we of group privilege, Collins crafts a poem where the first person is absent, or rather, the first person assumes itself. This privileged but absent self takes so much for granted it need not articulate its own presence. To use Morrison’s trope, it is fully fogged in. Collins depicts the base state of “just normal, just white” — of being allowed to pass, unremarked — the very base state that embodies the daily fog of white privilege.
How should poets talk about race? Is it enough to trace violence, to explore embeddedness and inheritance, to reveal coded sites? None of these things necessarily makes a poem successful. Finishing this essay, I turn to York’s last and posthumous work, Abide, which came out this past summer. The work is about lynch mobs and racial violence, and also about music and childhood, record grooves and tape decks, and about the place where — York writes — “you become so attuned, you almost hear the light.” In this book, music becomes a light-filled emissary, a place for bridging time and dividedness. It strikes me also that this figure of song offering some space for the hoped-for transcendence is, in fact, also the goal of these poems: to use the lyric to reach through race, to speak from and name a place where the charged silences of racial codes can be broken down and opened up.
What are the forces by which those of us who are white became white? In what spaces is that whiteness constructed and maintained? York, Collins, and Richardson map these spaces if only because the choice not to explore racialized experience allows it to retain its uneasy power. This project is what Collins calls “this un-learning / untying.”
Twenty years ago, Morrison wrote that, yes, studies of African American experiences and colonialisms have proliferated, but that this “well-established study should be joined with another, equally important one: the impact of racism on those who perpetuate it.” What is that impact? The question remains. Indeed, we are still learning to name it.