To Poets of Color Whose Work Has Been Called ‘Healing’
Shayla Lawson: It Is Not Your Job to Fix White People
Poetry is still the primary genre through which young people are introduced to writers of color. This is no accident; this education is a gentrification of our resistance. Poetry is easy to gentrify because schools and colleges teach it as a genre where the critic knows more than the poet. Schools still teach Gwendolyn Brooks’ “The Pool Players. Seven at the Golden Shovel.” as “We Real Cool,” emphasizing its jazz inflections—and Langston Hughes’ legacy of blues poetry as “A Dream Deferred”—with no mention of both poets’ long history of prose interrogating America, or even the slightest mentioning of both poems’ dictive investigation of social class.
What white instructors typically emphasize, in these lessons, instead of distinct elements of lineage and prosody, is the way our poetry makes them feel—a healing. They place our art squarely in a narrative that emphasizes the white oppression they find resonant within it: the sound of plantation workers singing spirituals, the sound of chain gangs singing hymns, the sounds their ancestors stole from blues and stole into the Savoy to hear jazz singers—a primitive freedom cry honed through white approval, not black discourse—discussing the acuity of our poetry and music indiscriminately, with no adherence to their obvious differences in craft.
Quite similarly, there is an inane amount of bandwidth given to generational trauma in the contemporary poetry written by young Black, Indigenous, Asian, and Latino writers, especially in interviews. This conversation sustains the Trojan horse appeal of our apparent advancement, but it’s exactly the poetic labor students of color have been groomed by their white liberal educators to do. A colonization of our intelligence. The eloquence with which we describe our pain is seen, by these people, as “healing” too.
In Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings, a white woman who had been a prisoner of war in the Philippines approaches Hong after her reading. “I wish you read your poems, we need poems to heal,” she says to Hong, who is an essayist. The “we” of her statement seems to represent an interracial alliance against white American bigotry; the “we” she projects in her statement, is that same whiteness. As a POW, she had plenty of work to do in her own healing, therapy, work another person’s art should never be held accountable for. But so many well-educated liberal white people invite us upon their pedestals, and into their venues and homes, so that we can serve this exact function—to let them heal. The “healing” these people are looking for is a distraction from their own generational trauma. Their problems are endemic, incestuous, festering and deep, and they are well aware of the white brutality they uphold through a thin, civil veneer of gratitude.
In fifth grade, I won a statewide D.A.R.E. essay competition with a poem linking crack ravaging the inner-city to the dangers of one sip of alcohol. I, an overly-sheltered small town kid who’d never seen a cigarette, was seated amidst a half-dozen white students from across Kentucky, some of whom who wrote, earnestly and candidly, about their experience watching opioid and meth addiction ravage the Appalachian mountains. I “won” because, to the panel of white teachers, cops, and government officials, my blackness represented a way “to heal.” I was an absolution from the drug deaths and gang violence they were ignoring in their own communities of impoverished, disadvantaged white people.
In college, these same marginalized white students would be taught scansion and traditional form by the same white mentors who encouraged me to write to the very edges of my black-induced trauma. “Poetry” for me was the place I was funneled as a talented student, desperately in search of praise. What I needed was therapy; what I was given was instruction on how to write my dysfunction in a way that upheld the institution. I saw the vampiric way my undergraduate classmates listened to my poetry, its anguish, and weighed it against the aspersions I got for any work that reflected my kindness, anger, and ecstatic joy, all of which they registered as a “lack of dedication to poetic craft.” There is a clear delineation between the craft I mentioned at the outset—distinguishing music from poetry—and the “craft” my mentors asked for, the kind that dogmatically tried to affix me to the canon of how white people perceived black art.
White people never wanted poetry from me; they wanted my pain. For me, prose is a place where it is harder for my art to be distilled into another culture’s anachronistic “healing” because it is difficult for even the unskilled reader to say the genius they witness is their own. Although we poets are bringing to poetry all of our joy and anger and inquisition—a full interrogation of those who limit the capacity of our human selves—they don’t hear it. They’re lulled by the “music” of what came before us, writers who had to be more tricky and surreptitious, and they’ve found redemption in that poetry. But we need a new one.
I encourage all of us who have been guided toward poetry in this particular way to switch to prose; specifically, essays. Essays precisely because of the difference in the word’s etymology: “essay” means something we have never been allowed to do, which is to try. We have been asked to be exceptional, exquisite, wise beyond age or reason. To heal them. To be poets—a word which means, etymologically, “to create,” specifically, “a fiction.” The fiction we sustain in poetry is that through the pain of our young people we will heal them. We don’t need another generation underserved by that lack of imagination in language, that complete lack of truth.
What you deserve is therapy—a word that means, at its root, “a healing.” A healing of their racism. A healing of their capitalism. A healing of insidious, systemic, oppressive desire for control. A healing of poetry. A healing of a disorder that is theirs, not ours.
This is Major by Shayla Lawson is available via Harper Perennial.