takomabibelot: Sara S. Miller’s 1994 Bronze Portrait Bust Of Gwendolyn Brooks, Washington DC, 2007 (CC)

From The Hedgehog Review:

In poetry classes and workshops I have taught in recent years, questions about identity have acquired a special urgency, particularly when they touch on the taboo of “appropriation”—the artistic use of the experiences of people whose identities different from one’s own.

Recognition is a scarce commodity, its value inversely proportionate to its scarcity. We want to belong to our group and we want to stand out. And if we can’t stand out as individuals, then we’ll let the group do it for us. It is like variations in a metrical poem: The more there are, the less important they become. If everyone were famous, no one would be. At the same time, the marketplace argument can cut both ways. Depending on the fashion of the times, the favored groups are always changing. And there are always favored groups, and groups struggling for favor.

Whatever my own hesitations, I usually end up challenging the idea that there are things we must not write about, for fear of giving offense. “The last thing imagination is designed to do, or should want to do,” I’ve said in more than one class, “is stay in a lane.” I might mention Gwendolyn Brooks’s “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” a poem in which, in response to the death of Emmett Till, Brooks adopts the perspective of a white woman intoxicated by racialized myths and the violence they justify, a violence the woman endorses. “I don’t see any reason why I couldn’t write a poem from the perspective of a black man or woman,” I say. “Most poems are bad, and the chances of success are always slim, for sure, but I’d like to think I have the right to try.”

A student of Japanese and Latino descent in one of my classes pushed back strongly when I advanced that line of reasoning: “That’s different,” he said. “Black and brown people can write from a white perspective because they aren’t part of the white power structure. When you do it, it’s cultural appropriation. We should just focus on our own culture, and not raid someone else’s. It just isn’t kosher.”

I thought at first that he was joking, using the word kosher. But no one laughed, and he wasn’t smiling. I said, “That’s an interesting word, kosher. A hundred years ago it was a word only Jews used, and only among each other. Now it’s so mainstream it’s hardly even a Jewish word.” I wanted to ask the student what he meant exactly by “white power structure,” but frankly, on this occasion (as on others), I was afraid to give offense.

Still, I continue to wonder: By “white power structure,” do people mean redlining and other unfair lending practices, police brutality, or biased hiring? Does it also include the cars we drive, the latest devices we avidly consume, the huge chunks of time devoted to social media, selling ourselves and our enviable lives to thousands of “friends” we’ve never met? Is anybody pure? Is any culture? Even while we’re all caught up in various systems of power, and despite the rigid monolithic metaphor—white power structure—the systems that make up our social life are neither fixed nor fated, but are constantly in flux, emerging and dissolving unpredictably. And though it may seem like a small thing, I was deeply touched and heartened by how “naturally” a word like kosher had been assimilated from “my” culture into the American speech of a gay man whose father was Japanese and mother Latina. What better evidence of both the assimilationist metaphor of the melting pot and the identity-driven metaphor of a tossed salad. The exchange with my student seemed proof to me of just how impossible it is to privatize culture, how culture is not a thing or a piece of property you can build a wall around. Never unalloyed, it exists and flourishes through promiscuous intermingling.

“My Identity Problem”, Alan Shapiro, The Hedgehog Review

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