May 22, 2015
Dear Intrepid Readers,
It’s been a pretty tense week in the literary world, so let’s just address the elephant in the room right off the bat. This week, AWP removed poet Vanessa Place from its 2016 convention planning committee, due to a petition with regards to activity on Place’s Twitter account. There are numerous articles about the controversy online, but for the sake of brevity, here’s the condensed version: Place has been Tweeting text from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind, using a photograph of Hattie McDaniel (the Academy Award winning actress who portrayed the character Mammy in the film adaptation) as her Twitter profile picture.
Full disclosure: as a self-identified and way less successful notorious established controversial poet myself, I personally think that Place is kind of an asshole with a gimmick who doesn’t actually love art, but loves controversy, and she reminds me of the characters in Art School Confidential. While those are some of my least favorite people in the world, that’s okay, because they, too, have their place in the world of art and literature. But that’s not what this editor’s letter is about. What this letter is about is accountability for what you say and its consequences, and how social media is changing how we culturally approach these things.
Naturally, a casual Google search of any combination of these keywords will turn up a slew of (white) journalists asking, “So what’s the big deal?” and decrying Place’s removal from the committee as “censorship,” which it is not. No one has stopped Place from posting on Twitter. No one has imprisoned her, no one has restricted her access to social media, no one has detained her, murdered her to quiet her voice, suppressed her words from being disseminated, or otherwise impeded her ability to keep posting and speaking as she wishes. That would be censorship. What we seem to be confusing with “censorship” is actually “consequence,” which most of us learned as children. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that you should, because actions have…wait for it…consequences.
If you’ve read Place’s artistic statement about the “Gone With The Wind” project, then you’ve seen that her defense (such as it is, because she seems to feel no need to be accountable for actions, under the blanket protection of “Because ART, That’s Why”) is that her appropriation of the Mitchell text was intentionally designed to be provocative and to goad the estate of Margaret Mitchell into a lawsuit over its intellectual property. Problematically, she states that her intention was to force Mitchell’s estate to claim ownership of the black voices in the novel, thus exposing an iconic American novel for its “blackface” and laying its racism bare (from whom was it ever hidden?).
…Uh, we all were already aware that Gone With The Wind was a pretty racist and problematic novel, right? So I suppose that I’m unclear on what this provocative expose was supposed to prove, since we already were aware that the text was racist at worst, problematic at best, and is really little more than a text that’s important in being demonstrative about the literature of a bygone era…you know, the one on the wrong side of history.
Essayist Karrie Higgins raised some pertinent questions about the whole debacle, asking, “If [this] was [Place’s] agenda, then shouldn’t Place be glad at the outcome of getting ousted from AWP 2016, largely due to a groundswell of outrage led by writers of color? Or does she only see a fellow white woman as the “rightful” opponent to her appropriation? If she will only be satisfied by a battle with the estate of a white author and not with descendants of the slaves portrayed in Gone with the Wind and other people of color in profound pain, is she not re-enacting the very racism she claims to want to expose?”
It all seems to come down to accountability for one’s words and actions. In this situation, accountability means losing a seat on the AWP 2016 planning committee—and we’re not saying that AWP’s response in this situation is ideal, either. Given a situation where they could have been firm and unequivocal in their purported dedication to equality within the organization and their opposition to discrimination against their members of color, AWP’s soft-pedaling of language falls tragically short of where it should be in 2015. An organization that is based in the business of words and the power that words wield choosing to use the word “controversy” in lieu of the word “racism” is one that is refusing accountability for their part in this situation—and refusing accountability for being the change that the literary world desperately needs. AWP’s statement re-affirms the (white) status quo of the organization—Place wasn’t removed from the committee due to the problematic nature of her public engagement; she was removed from the committee because of the negative publicity it brought to AWP. Period. And for an organization of AWP’s size, magnitude and influence to make this soft-pedaled statement that really says nothing is demoralizing, because it demonstrates unequivocally that certain members, certain writers, and certain voices are accorded more importance than others…unless they’re bringing bad press to the table.
So this week, as you go about your business of reading, writing, engaging in your literary community and following the developments in this story, take a moment to think about accountability, consequence, and the real issues of social justice that art, poetry, and literature allow us to discuss freely and most importantly, without censorship—and as we do this, let’s remember these words: “Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from accountability.” You have the freedom to say anything. But that freedom doesn’t protect you from consequence—your story is a blank slate. Choose what you say wisely.
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Until next week—
Allie Marini Batts, Managing Editor