“Even the Best” Whites Don’t Get Race

Lucille Clifton at St. Mary's College of Maryland

In yesterday’s post I mentioned that a noted poet once mentioned me in a poem critical of whites. The poet is Lucille Clifton, formerly a colleague at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, now retired. The poem appeared in her book quilting. I’ll quote the poem and then give the backstory:

note to my self

it’s a black thing you wouldn’t understand
(t-shirt)

amira baraka—I refuse to be judged by white men.

or defined. and i see
that even the best believe
they have that right,
believe that
what they say i mean
is what i mean
as if words only matter in the world they know,
as if when i choose words
i must choose those
that they can live with
even if something inside me
cannot live,
as if my story is
so trivial
we can forget together,
as if i am not scarred,
as if my family enemy
does not look like them,
as if i have not reached
across our history to touch,
to soothe on more than one
occasion
and will again,
although the merely human
is denied me still
and i am now no longer beast
but saint

How do I know that Lucille had me in mind when she wrote “even the best”? Because years later, after I had taught the poem a number of times, I asked her directly and she confirmed it. Here’s what happened.

In the fall of 1990, Nandi Crosby (Sharon then), a very interesting black student with a tough history, walked around campus wearing a tee shirt with “South Africa” on the front and, on the back, “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand.” A white first-year women felt confronted by the statement and wrote a letter to the student newspaper. From that moment on, letters poured into the publication.

Sensing a teachable moment, someone set up a panel. As I had taught courses on African American literature, I was asked to participate, as were Nandi, the white student, and an African American philosophy professor. I remember noticing Lucille in the audience.

I don’t remember anything that I said but, knowing myself, I can imagine what I might have said—probably something along the lines of “different opinions should be respected, it’s good that we’re having these discussions, we should avoid shouting at each other and work towards dialogue, etc.”

Did I restate what Nandi was saying (and without questioning my right to do so) in ways that violated what she was actually saying? Given that I believe that most of what people say (especially about race) is layered and has to be interpreted, this is a real possibility. What about wanting her to choose words that I could live with? Well, it’s true that I was rendered uncomfortable by her t-shirt, and Lucille probably sensed my discomfort, even if I didn’t express it directly.  That she felt something deep within her was rebelling against such a restatement, that she felt she couldn’t live in the presence of it, is an unsettling thought.

I think I was innocent of wanting to “forget together” past racial injustice. But it is true that I was not as focused on racial injustice as Nandi and Lucille were, so in a way I did trivialize their stories and overlook their scars.

I think that Lucille’s words were directed as much at St. Mary’s as they are at me, and I can see why. She knew that many distressed students of color were coming to her for comfort and may have been struck by how they felt there were not others they could turn to. Perhaps she felt that her white colleagues were ignoring her own distress as well. So even though she was at a college that was awarding her a distinguished professorship (this represented substantive progress since we were once segregated), her colleagues didn’t seem to be having a genuine dialogue with her about racial issues. In fact, by making her our “Saint Famous Poet,” we might even have been inoculating ourselves against racism charges. Were we canonizing her so that we didn’t have to engage with her?

If so, then maybe she wrote this angry poem to wake us up.  I have been at St. Mary’s poetry readings where Lucille has hesitated about reading this poem and then gone on to read it anyway. Often she has read it after expressing her affection for St. Mary’s, as though she was delivering a message of tough love to one she cares about. One sometimes offers such messages when there is hope of change.

Lucille regularly says that her mission in life is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  As one of the comfortable, I can benefit from some afflicting.

This is not the only poem in the collection where Lucille talks about people complaining that she focuses too much on past racial injustice. In the poem that precedes “note to my self,” she writes, “i am accused of tending to the past as if i made it.” In that poem, she sounds like she is almost predicting a fire next time, talking about how the history of the oppressed is gathering up steam. When this history has gathered up enough facts about the past and is “strong enough to travel on her own,” Lucille warns, “beware, she will.”

Neither poem, incidentally, shows up in the selection past poems Blessing the Boats, which won the National Book Award of Poetry in 2000. I’m not sure why not.

So how do I feel about being referred to, even if anonymously, in the poem? Part of me wants to argue, “Wait, I’m not as insensitive as all that.” Part of me wants to go on the attack: “People treated as saints don’t have any grounds for complaint.” Part of me feels oddly complimented, as though “even the best” is a B- from a famous professor who is flunking everyone else.  And who then tells the world about your grade.

But the better part of me sees that she has given me, and given us all, a gift. If we are not going to dwell forever in our racial fears and angers, we need to look at our reluctance to examine racial tension. Lucille’s poem is a tough gut check that can help us overcome the illusory belief that we can just ignore race.  The poem shakes up people of good will and helps us see what is really going on when students like Nandi wear t-shirts that expose the racial divide.

As I see it, part of Nandi was saying, through her t-shirt, “I wish you would try to understand what I’m going through.” Her defiant “you can’t” could have been a protective way of asking for understanding, a vulnerability masked under an assertion of a certain kind of superiority. And maybe Lucille, in her poem, is asking for such understanding as well. I realize this is a bit tangled and I will revisit the issue again. My general point is that anger doesn’t have to be seen just as a drawing of lines. It can also function as a disguised invitation.

There is a sequel to Nandi’s story. I had Nandi in an African American literature class two years later. Among the assignments was one where the students were to write a “race autobiography” about how race had impacted their lives. Nandi wrote a remarkable account of growing up in inner city Baltimore—how she was abused by her father and how she was raped by an acquaintance at 14 and underwent an abortion. Learning this about Nandi gave me a new perspective on Lucille at that panel. Knowing about Nandi’s past, Lucille would have seen the discrepancy between Nandi’s past and how we were responding to her t-shirt. She was saying, “It’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand,” and we proved that we in fact did not.

In other words, from the point of view of these two black women, the words on the shirt were not only a stating a criticism. They were stating a fact.

By the way, I don’t normally reveal what my students write in their essays. Nandi’s story is now public, however, because Nandi went on reveal the details in If My Soul Be Lost: A Self Portrait. She is now an associate professor in sociology at the University of California at Chico. (Here’s an article about her.) She has traveled a long journey.

So I don’t judge her for that t-shirt, and I don’t judge Lucille for writing this poem. Rather, I applaud their insistence that we face up to race problems.  If I had chosen the words for Nandi’s t-shirt–say,  “Join me over a beer if you want to start racially understanding”—I wouldn’t have generated the conversations that Nandi started. Nor would I have sold many t-shirts.

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4 Comments

  1. Posted August 6, 2009 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    What a curious omission to the award-winning volume. I’m not much into poetry, but Lucille’s words always get to me.

    I visited my parents this past weekend and within 2 hours my mother managed to complain about GatesGate and real estate taxes. She routinely complains about taxes so I was prepared to let that one roll, but I was really taken aback by her comments about the first issue. My brother, who sometimes has a keen sense for drama, raised it during dinner. I said, literally, “no comment.” My mother went on to relate how she heard a black woman on the radio talking about how she had to teach her sons to behave in police presence, and how “I bet white mommies don’t have to do the same.” My mother thought that was a ludicrous statement, and railed about how of course she had to teach her children how to behave, it had nothing to do with race.

    She talks about race as though it’s not an issue because it’s not an issue for her. My experience is fundamentally different from hers if for no other reason than I am not white. Sometimes it seems she forgets, or it’s almost as if she doesn’t know, that I am non-white (which is, of course, different still from being black). I think it’s precisely the perspective you write about today of just not getting it. She uses words like “my black friend” and she describes me and my generation as “you young people.” We are separate and different, and there is always a distinction of how we are separate and different from her.

    I think it is impossible to understand someone else’s experience when there is a factor so fundamental as race that is different. That’s not to say we shouldn’t try, but I think it’s much like men and women trying to understand each other. Neither has a clear understanding what pressures, pleasures, opportunities and expectations the other must live daily. We will forever be strangers to the opposite sex, but eventually we may all be brown. However, until then I don’t believe we can use words like “post-racial.” It is a fact.

  2. Rachel Kranz
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    As a white straight female novelist writing about race, gay men (of many colors), & straight men, I have a vested interest in believing that we can “understand”–and as a political person, I also do. But maybe “understanding” is a word that has to be played with.

    When I see that slogan, I feel angry politically, because I think if white people really CAN”T understand “Black things” like South Africa, then that really lets us off the hook. “I can’t understand why Gates did that,” “I can’t understand why Black women are terrified that their sons will be arrested or shot just for not behaving with the appropriate degree of humility,” “I can’t understand why Black people are upsetting about not getting cabs in NYC–sometimes I can’t get a cab either”–it opens the door for being able to say, “We all have problems, so shut up,” instead of, to quote Langston Hughes, “When you’re Black & have a problem, you h ave a problem’s mama.”

    BUT, when I see that t-shirt, what I hear is, “I’m tired of trying to get you to understand, and I’m celebrating the fact that I’ve decided I no longer need to.”

    Lucille Clifton, obviously, can’t say that, even if she wishes she could. As a poet whose poems–including the one you quoted, Robin–are often addressed to white people, and as someone who teaches at a majority-white college, she clearly sees her role as helping white people understand, at least some of the time. What is upsetting for her is that it’s such a hard job, “even with the best.” That probably wasn’t Nandi’s agenda. But what I imagine is that the issue became “that T-shirt hurts my feelings; how dare you say I don’t understand?” which is something else entirely. Then it becomes, “Why is it Nandi’s job not to hurt that young woman’s feelings, when that young woman or others like her say or do things that hurt Nandi’s feelings a thousand times a day?” I think that must have been the frustration in Lucille’s phrase, “even the best”–“Damn, even when you THINK you’ve finished the conversation, they still keep making mistakes. And *I* have to be the saint who gently reminds them, instead of the person who just says, enough already, I’m done with you,” which, as a mature person, she knows she can’t say, because if whites DON”T get it, she’s in trouble, given that she lives in a white-dominated country/world.

    “Understanding” is hard work, AND it’s always going to be imperfect. I still find myself saying & thinking racist things, but I also find myself saying & thinking sexist things & wonder if I’m saying anti-Jewish things also, even though I’m a Jewish woman; many gay people I know say things I consider homophobic; many working-class people I know say things I consider anti-working-class; I disagree with the way some Black people talk about race or other Black people. I also get upset & take it personally when someone says “It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand,” or when someone points out to me (or says something from which I can infer) that I have some kind of privilege they don’t. I HATE hearing that and/or finding out about it, even though I’m committed to thinking about things that way–but I still HATE IT. Being willing to do the homework (read the history, the poetry, the fiction or autobiography; have the conversations; do the self-examination) and being willing to be uncomfortable about it is one route. Being engaged in anti-racist struggle (joining the anti-apartheid group or the multiracial union or the civil rights movement) is another (and then there will be uncomfortable moments). I’m sure there are other ways–and all of them sometimes feel awful, though more often feel exhilarating or satisfying or just OK.

    THANKS, Robin, for opening up these dialogues & being willing to put yourself on the line so much as you do. And THANKS, Betsy, for sharing how alone you felt in hearing your mother make you and your experience invisible. I really do think there’s another option, and that it’s way more helpful to try to understand than to assert that we “can’t”–except, maybe, in the way that any one human being can never fully or continually understand any other. Then the quesiton becomes, whose responsibility is it–“theirs” to explain themselves to us, or “us” to do the hard work of reading, thinking about, & engaging with all the explanations that already exist…?

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted August 6, 2009 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Before I started dating Julia, I had no idea that women experienced a different world than I did. I didn’t realize that stairwells and parks at night and parking garages (also at night) were not the same for women as they were for men.

    Nor did I have any clue what women experience on a monthly basis. I have seen all the women at a poetry reading stand up and cheer as Lucille has read her “wishes for sons,” in which she imagines men experiencing menstrual cramps. “Let them think they have accepted arrogance in the universe,” Clifton concludes. “Then bring them to gynecologists not unlike themselves.” In other words, seeing the world through an Other’s eyes can be a very humbling experience. But also an experience that opens one up.

    I very much like Betsy talking about how we need to keep trying to understand, even though it’s so difficult. And Rachel talking about why African Americans would just feel tired of constantly being misunderstood and tired of having to keep explaining. And how, by doing our homework, hard as it is, can ultimately feel exhilarating, or at the very least okay.

    In some ways, I think Lucille uses her poem to do some venting before she goes back to educating. Sometimes I tell my African American students (and also my women students when it comes to men) that they can see them missionaries, helping open the eyes of the benighted. Because if they succeed, then everyone’s life gets better. In other words, they get to be heroes. But the life of missionaries is never easy and one is not always thanked.

    Here’s another story I came across, Betsy, like the one your mother heard on the radio. I think it was Colbert King’s parents (he’s assistant editor, I believe, of the Washington Post editorial page) who taught him to always leave the house early so that he would be on time for appointments. Why? Because the sight of a black man running through a city automatically triggers police responses.

    Whether it’s walking through a park at night or running to get to an appointment, I, as a white man, never think twice. It’s insensitive of me in the extreme to complain about women and blacks complaining. And as affirming a life as I know to work towards changing the world so that these are no longer issues. And to change the world, we need to reach through our defensiveness and make common cause.

    I have a theory about the omission of those two poems, Betsy. Lucille seems to have picked poems about subjects that people were more open to hearing. At least in Lucille’s poetry readings, these race poems never got the same kind of positive response as did the child abuse poems or the women menstruation poems. Maybe she got tired of having to explain herself to even sensitive audiences. Maybe we just wore her out.

    And, sad as it is to say, maybe leaving them out helped her win the book award. But that is just cynical speculation on my part.

  4. Julia Bates
    Posted August 10, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

    While not understanding is exhausting, it is also the stimuli to lots of conversation and introspection and intraspection where we begin to share the richness that is ‘us’.
    We all now work, thanks to feminists and minority leadership, in a world where the wise stop and think about the context of the language they use. We begin to note on at least one or two levels, the baggage that language can carry. We become more self aware and responsible for the attitudes and information we want our language to convey. We are becoming heterogeneous enough that we can’t make assumptions about what the person sitting opposite us is thinking. The world may feel more dangerous, more risky, but also more varied and worth investigating. Julia

6 Trackbacks

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  2. By The Light that Came from Lucille Clifton on February 15, 2010 at 1:12 am

    […] at St. Mary’s College of Maryland from 1991 to 2007.  (I have written about her previously here and here.)  I can’t say that I knew her well.  Not many of us did.  But I talked to her […]

  3. By Lit’s Precondition: People All the Same on February 15, 2011 at 8:06 am

    […] posted on an illustrative personal example about how one of our African students, wearing a tee-shirt with […]

  4. By Political Commentary’s Most Cited Poem on December 20, 2015 at 4:57 pm

    […] use a personal example where “even the best” has been used on me. I’ve told the story of how Lucille Clifton referred to me in her poem “note to self.” I was trying to negotiate […]

  5. By Clifton, Ellison Help Explain Whitesplaining on February 22, 2016 at 10:41 pm

    […] Clifton poem is “note to self.” I’ve recounted the backstory in a previous post, where you can read the poem in its entirety,  so I’ll only note here that the occasion was a […]

  6. By Butler & Grappling with White Privilege on October 3, 2016 at 5:30 am

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