By Jay Besemer
The premise is straightforward, if not simple: four years ago the collaborative online conversation called Open Letter was founded by poet Claudia Rankine to expansively engage the challenges of race in creative practice. Participants addressed the presence or absence of race in their work, as well as the intricacies of living and working as raced (classed, gendered, sexual and diversely-abled) bodies. The results were both astonishing and necessary.
The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind is a volume of particularly salient responses from that conversation. Edited by Rankine, Beth Loffreda and Max King Cap, this Fence Books release is vital reading. Despite the uncomfortable, awkward and high-stakes emotional terrain, this is an exciting, inspiring book. It’s also almost impossible to put down, inviting many repeated readings.
The Racial Imaginary is inspiring precisely because it offers no simplistic “solutions” or pretense of consensus. Its form and content both serve as antidotes to one manifestation of racist slipperiness: the tendency to impose universalizing, difference-erasing elisions onto individual experience and thought. The token other has no hold here, nor the externally-determined “representative” or “spokesperson” who stands in for all (apparently) like hir. This in itself offers readers a great deal of hope.
In Rankine and Loffreda’s introduction, we are given help in contextualizing the book:
This collection then is best approached as a document. A moment in time, here. A series of moments in a series of individual creative lives, a collective transcript of people who were, in this time in this place, moved to respond to a question. Much can be gleaned from its incompletion, its absences, the detectable pressures on both what is here and what is not, and for those reasons too we present it to you as a document (14).
Indeed, this book is a document—an original artifact. As such it contains many individual analyses of the challenges encountered when directly engaging race in creative work. But it does not attempt to condense the awkwardness of subjectivity into a falsely coherent and legible conclusion. In that way it remains true to the open-ended framework of the project that sparked it. The concerns it tackles are too important and too complex to be hammered into yet another slick, anodyne, consumable form.
One thing becomes immediately obvious as we engage with this book: when contributors bring in their own raced, embodied experiences as creative practitioners, they also bring in their experiences as members of economic classes, language users, workers in academia or outside it, and people situated in families. In other words, these texts do not attempt to pick out the “race stuff” from the other life factors against which any individual person rubs from day to day. This is important, because it rightly complicates the field of discussion. Here’s Ari Banias succinctly de-simplifying:
[D]espite being queer and transgender, I know I benefit enormously and unfairly from a structure in which my work is usually being read by white readers, who are more likely than not to identify with the racial experience (whether explicit or not) represented in my poems (39).
So, while Banias has had his own experience with non-consensual othering, he knows he still holds a not-so-slight advantage because his writing slots in more comfortably to a publication system set up by and for people of his skin color and gender. A similar “owning up to privilege” move happens in many of the texts of white-identified writers, though by calling it this I commit the oversimplification error myself. Tess Taylor, for example, puts forth some of the issues involved in truth-telling her family’s slave-holding past. And Lacey M. Johnson addresses the sickly disorientation involved in being outed as “white trash” in academia (among other things), in a powerful examination of passing. All of these writers pop the conceptual bubble that forms with the notion that whites are somehow beyond or outside the reach of race.
One of the most important threads through this book is that of the real trauma incurred while simply moving through life as a person with brown or black skin. Several contributors speak directly of the ways this damage is carried in the body throughout one’s life, how it is repeated both externally and internally. Ronaldo V. Wilson writes about cop encounters while driving (and the alarming psychological transformations these incidents bring about in him), relating these experiences to early studies of trauma and memory. In a heartbreaking passage, he says,
The event, you correctly suspect, will occur again, and though it will leave you, you continue to hope, untouched by hand, baton, bullet or fist, what cycles is your narrative’s constant repetition and spread (77).
Not only is the traumatic encounter repeated externally (detained again and again for driving while black), but every incident sparks a new cascading cycle of internal revisitation—retraumatization—as he attempts to make sense of the experiences. Yet there is no redemptive “sense” to be made. This is why the violence endured by othered people is so fresh, so raw, no matter when it occurred. It is always occurring and recurring, from within and without.
Wilson recounts the further violence of being blamed for the racist encounters he endures, but the most incisive discussion of this mechanism of power is taken on by Farid Matuk.
In a devastating example of intersecting dismissal and dehumanization of people of color by police in the Jeffrey Dahmer murders, he asserts that othered bodies do not get to choose their own performance. [They…] are blamed as the authors of the projections their bodies are made to bear, projections that serve to keep power hidden, operative, and pervasive (142).
Matuk’s focus on bodies is highly appropriate. From contributor to contributor, The Racial Imaginary expands upon its title by insistently invoking the body. It becomes clear that for the authors included, the question of racial presence in their work is a question of the body and its affects. Yet no one essentializes, no one reduces raced experience solely to flesh matters. And the “imaginary” is present too in the ways racial trauma is processed, how we think and feel and imagine our way through the violence we bear or perpetrate—for anyone is capable of both.
This bodily emphasis is also highlighted by the decision to include visual documentation and examples of artworks engaging with the Open Letter themes. Max King Cap’s selections are placed within the book’s subsections just as the text pieces are, a highly effective choice that gives text and image the additional power of cross-media dialogue and solidarity that models a useful blurring of conceptual borders. The works included are heavily and powerfully involved with the raced body in the world. Even those works that do not directly frame the body as subject are clearly the result of physical interaction with materials. William Pope. L.’s language-based White People are a Desalination Plant in Puerto Rico and Nery Gabriel Lemus’ declarative wall sculpture I Once Knew a Latino address the body without foregrounding it.
The work begun with the Open Letter project is continued in The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind. We, who read and discuss this book, who think about it and struggle to articulate our thoughts, are participating in the continuation of the project. It is necessary work. The goal is not to move “beyond race,” out of messy bodies and cultures and differences. The work must incorporate these things, embrace the complexity and conflict and error, without fear or the violence it brings. Can we do this? Let’s try—hard.
The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind
Edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda and Max King Cap