At the LA Review of Books, Kim Calder recaps and analyzes the ongoing controversy surrounding American conceptual poet Vanessa Place. Over the past few years, Place has been carrying out a “Twitter project” in which she adopts the language and imagery of the African Americans depicted is racist films like Gone With the Wind. (Her current Twitter avatar is a picture of Hattie McDaniel, the actress who played Mammy in the film.) In response, many activists and fellow poets have denounced Place as racist, and have successfully lobbied to have her disinvited from conferences and speaking engagements. Kim Calder asks whether Place’s perform of racist tropes necessarily makes her racist:
Indeed, the material engaged by these performances is unquestionably racist. The more salient question in this moment, however, is whether this makes the performer, and the performances themselves, racist. If the former question seems as though it does not belong in a piece of art criticism, this may generally be true, but, in this case, when the attacks have been in part “about” Vanessa Place as an alleged racist, it becomes relevant. Place’s critics say that these performances uphold white supremacy, knowingly or unknowingly, by perpetuating racist text and images. Because Place has disseminated racist material, she is racist. Other critics are more concerned with the second question: do these works successfully perform an anti-racist critique, or do they unnecessarily retraumatize people of color (and black Americans in particular) for sensationalist purposes? Place, these critics say, utilizes abhorrent methods while telling us nothing new. We know Gone With the Wind, for example, is a racist text — and if we don’t, the battle is probably already lost. In this case, the performances are failed experiments. The former group would argue that they are experiments that would only be undertaken by a racist.
Racism is a serious charge. Despite her reputation for refusing to explain any of her works publicly, Place issued an artist’s statement a few days after being removed from the AWP adjudicating subcommittee. In it, she characterizes her work as wanting to interrogate “the white imaginary [… to] intentionally show […] the whiteness behind the blackface.” Critics have responded by stating that there is no need to “show” this whiteness, as we’re already aware that it’s there. I would argue, however, that by “intentionally” showing the whiteness, Place interrogates white people’s appropriation of black culture in a more nuanced (to use the term that the Mongrel Coalition says they will have none of) way by enacting this desire for what the “Other” has. One might also note that people of color already perform valuable interrogations of this desire (Jamaica Kincaid and Hilton Als both write powerfully on Gone With the Wind, for example). Yet, if there is a structural relationship between white and black Americans, a power dynamic that devalues black lives as it appropriates black culture, could it potentially be useful to examine that relationship from the structural position of whiteness? In other words, should we read Place’s work not literally, but structurally, and since white supremacy is a structural problem, might we consider work that approaches it on this level valuable?
Image: Vanessa Place