Claudia Rankine, Tony Hoagland, and "The Change"

    Final Thoughts

By Nordette N. Adams

When I first wrote about the racial controversy involving Tony Hoagland's poem "The Change" and Claudia Rankine's response, I didn't elaborate on my opinion. However, after getting some emails, seeing that this drama's flow will not wane, and chilling out on Mardi Gras, I'm inclined to flesh out my thoughts for anyone who cares to read more.

If Tony Hoagland chooses to elevate the voice of those in white America who fear the kind of change that makes the U.S.A. a nation struggling to live up to its ideals, if he wants to echo the hysteria of some white people who lament little losses of their great power over people of color and a passing away of ideologies that equate "only-white culture" with "American culture" (and we learn from another of his poems, "Food Court," discussed here that "The Change" is not the only poem he's written that echoes this fear or concern), then I gladly leave him to his own devices. One published poem on this topic is a comment; more than one is a timbre of his authentic voice emerging. But do we need his poem to hear this kind of American voice?

To be clear, I don't think that's really what Hoagland wanted to do with the poem. I think he's using offensive language in "The Change" within the context of his own self-realization that he has consumed, like most white Americans, racist ideologies, and that human beings, being what they are and barring exceptional self-control, by nature receive passively such ideologies; divided into tribes, they are willing to lift their own above others. Therefore such racist/tribalistic notions that we see in "The Change" surface in thoughts and sometimes speech. Yes, he's using a poetic narrator, but if you go beyond the poem and listen to what he said in his response to Claudia Rankine, Hoagland asserts, "I am a racist ..." (And he also finds himself under lots of other labels. Read Hoagland's full response to Rankine at Poets.org. He says his poem is not "racist" but "racially complex").

Are his fellow poets giving Hoagland more attention simply because he's an Ivory Tower academic, one of a group that some naively assume to be overwhelmingly "liberal" and "progressive," and so, (mythically) racism-free having been hurled into the arms of multiculturalism? I think that's exactly what people are doing.

Hoagland makes no apologies for who and what he is. I'm pleased some of his contemporaries are willing to call him out on "The Change" and that they perceptively question the poem's diction and ask whether poets need be so offensive when making a point, but with his admission in his response to Rankine of having this common character flaw, "racist thinking," he is being more open than many other white people who preface some of the the most appallingly racist comments heard with "I'm not a racist, but ...," often giving excessively reductive assessments of painfully complex social injustices or speaking without ever hearing themselves from some 21st century version of the paternal racist's page.

And there are others who would smile and indulge as well the glint of "hipster racism" and never consider that its classification as "hipster" makes it no less stinging nor exempts it from perpetuating the status quo. Perhaps Rankine's critique of "The Change" and the resulting discussion will cause some in the academic poetry community to stop looking at Hoagland and start examining themselves. (I find the shock and awe over the Rankine/Hoagland incident enlightening in itself.) To Hoagland's credit and considering the title of the collection from which this poem comes, What Narcissism Means to Me, I say, "At least he sees clearly that this kind of reflection--pondering necessary change in terms of little European blondes battling muscular black women with names like 'Vondella Aphrodite' (aka Venus and Serena) is a sign of narcissism." A lot of people don't make that obvious connection between egomania and racism or classic hubris, which usually marks the downfall of the great in literature.

I'm glad Hoagland knows who he is and that he is not afraid to say it, but just as I don't spend my time visiting white supremacist websites to see how what they said yesterday is different from what they're saying today (they don't change), I won't waste my time reading more of Hoagland's poetry as though it's something unique or as though the world lacks innumberable venues where white males air their frustrations and their epiphanies daily. When he says something I don't know already about white anxiety and the psychological roots of white supremacy, I'll look him up again. But for now, he's saying nothing new in a nation already flooded with views that sound similar on the surface. He was quite correct to declare that his poem "is for white people," but perhaps simple-minded in thinking that the white people who need to hear what he is saying are even reading his poetry or if they are reading it that they will know he's poking them in the eye on some level while struggling with his own frailties.

Certain segments of people who are white have always bemoaned the good old days when they had more power than they do currently or the world was more the way that they thought it should be and always to their benefit. For instance, pick up a book of what white southern writers wrote in Louisiana during the 1930s under the FWP and you'll have your fill of the privileged weeping over the loss of an antebellum lifestyle, going so far as to suggests that black people loved it back then. Go to any Tea Party rally and at some point you'll witness tears for America with calls to "take our country back." Really, you need not leave the house. Turn on Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck's show (each with far more fans than Hoagland can ever claim readers) and you'll hear the voice Hoagland expresses in "The Change" for most of the hour but without any overarching ethos that implies they're whining little narcissists.

With this kind of poetry, however, and undoubtedly knowing that he does not truly publish for "only white people," Hoagland is in danger of appearing to position himself in flow with the prosaic. He reveals only to those who weren't paying attention to multi-voiced America as much as they thought that educated white people can still have much in common with the rank and file whites of conservative populist movements--a fear of the other and a willingness to exploit that fear. That he gets these poems published is also a lesson. It tells us that the more things change, the more they stay the same: Hoagland and others like him still benefit immensely from the same white privilege his narrator and his narrator's tribe think is fading away. That's the real lesson in "The Change."

But I see that the poem is facing the same challenge that satire often faces when read or seen by people in the middle of controversy: it's misunderstood and labeled offensive (and I'm not saying Hoagland intends the poem as satire). Like that infamous New Yorker cover of Barack and Michelle Obama in the White House with guns, Afros, and Muslim-associated imagery, it offends people so much that they don't look at its deeper message.

If white readers walk away from "The Change" mumbling, "Finally, someone is saying what I've wanted to say for years about those other people taking over America," then the poet has failed. However, if they walk away thinking, "Damn! Is that how stuck up and full of ourselves we sound engaging our Great White Hope fantasies? If I think this way, then I may be a narcissistic racist," then the poet has hit his mark. The message the poet may hope to send (given the title of the collection), however, seems lost on those he hopes will receive it.

Nevertheless, the more troubling thing about "The Change" is Hoagland's willingness to offend his black female colleagues in order to deliver his rhetorical message. His willingness to offend black women smacks so much of white male privilege that it's difficult to give him a clean pass on "The Change." That's what Hoagland should consider in the wee hours of morning as he contemplates impending self-actualization, that he doesn't mind hurting black colleagues like Claudia Rankine in order to save the souls of white folks. What! Are she and her tribe less important after all? And that is the question that draws our eyes away from the poem's narrator and into the eyes and white face of Mr. Tony Hoagland and his cooly academic tribe that expects readers to analyze the poem but not feel the whip of its words slicing their backs.

Lagniappe: If you don't like to read this much stuff, there's always Jay Smooth.



Thank you, Jennifer, for directing me to your post.

Postscript: I know that Claudia Rankine hoped people would continue to discuss matters of race but leave her and Hoagland's names out of the discussion; however, that hope is futile given the nature of the Internet. And since I have been writing online about race for years, facing it and its players directly, I don't know why I would camouflage the exigency behind this post. Sorry, Claudia. Sorry, Tony. I do not know either of you, but your names are forever attached to this psychic goo; once you squeeze toothpaste from the tube, it's hard to force it back inside.

Read responses to the Hoagland/Rankine discussion and matters of race in poetry at Claudia Rankine's venue NewMediaPoets.com

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Related: Top 10 Reasons I am Not a Racist  ||  Define Your Racist: 12 Examples  ||  The Season of Our Discontent or Life with the "N" Word  ||  Removing "N" Word from Huckleberry Finn: More Southern Revisionism Gone Wild

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