Starting Off Poetry Month By Talking About Race

There’s been a lot of chatter in my poetry networks lately about what obligations white poets have to talk and write about race.

Reginald Dwayne Betts started it off with this article “What It Is,” and his now infamous line, “Don’t write about being white,” which is a quote by Louis Simpson discussing Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems in 1963. You can imagine the kerfuffle. Sadly, a lot of people read the headlines, but not so many read the article.

  • This story “Should White Writers Write About Race” is a thoughtful response and expansion by Holly Karapetkova.
  • This article is Reginald’s response to the kerfluffle he started, and an explanation of the irony he sees and hears in many of the comments he’s read.

Both are worth your time, no matter what color your skin, no matter what race you identify with. Any amount of conversation on this topic is a good thing.

I’m a white woman. I live in a town where more people don’t look like me than do, which is not the case in most of the US. These are facts, but we may have opinions about them, too. I’m inviting my own version of a conversation about race with my 2015 International Poetry Cantos project, which is going to be as successful as it’s going to be, or not, but will be my best effort to reflect some of the cultures I see around me in my town.

This year for Poetry Month I’m going to search out poems about race, by white folks and poets of color, written about experiences in America. It will be an interesting — and I hope fun — project, even though I expect many of the poems won’t be pretty or nice, as they can’t possibly be if they are honest.

I’d like to start today with “Dillusion” by Langston Hughes, the first poem Knopf chose to send out for it’s annual “Poem A Day” project.  Read what Knopf’s Borzoi Reader has to say about the poem, and the accompanying letter that Hughes wrote in 1926, having dropped out of Columbia University which he found “generally unfriendly.”  I think there is something heartbreaking about the lines “Be kind to me, / Oh, great dark city.” I remember being alone in a big city in my twenties, wondering about poetry, sex, love, work, acceptance. We are often disillusioned in our early youth, as we notice our ideals not matching reality. In this poem, Hughes seems to know his city intimately and to know that it can hurt him. I wonder what won’t come again — youth, optimism, faith?


I would be simple again,
Simple and clean
Like the earth,
Like the rain,
Nor ever know,
Dark Harlem,
The wild laughter
Of your mirth
Nor the salt tears
Of your pain.
Be kind to me,
Oh, great dark city.
Let me forget.
I will not come
To you again.


2 thoughts on “Starting Off Poetry Month By Talking About Race

  1. Parthenia M. Hicks says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful post and especially for placing yourself as a white woman in the midst of a non-white city, a sort of inside-out version of what most people with white skin experience in our culture. I look forward to your insights and poems. Your post reminded me of a time, quite a few years ago, when I read a poem of mine aloud in a poetry workshop run by Al Young. It was one of my first times reading aloud in a critique circle and I was a tad nervous. When I finished my reading, a woman with white skin told me that I had no right to use the voice I had used in my poem – that I was not black and not earned the “right” to speak as though I were a black person. Following that, everyone in the class angrily agreed with her – except for Al Young and one other student. I learned a lot that day – to stick with Al Young, a black man who was not offended by my poem and encouraged me to follow my voice and the sole young (also white) woman, who agreed with him. The odd thing is – I had never imagined my poem or the “protagonist” in my poem to be black – or white. I had just followed the creative nod to write and speak the words inside my poetic imagination and the way in which they landed on the page is what felt right for me. A couple of years later, that poem went on to win a prize and at the reading I was overwhelmed by the positive reception of the audience, many of whom came up to me to thank me for writing it – both white and black. I left believing that what they took away was the content, the meaning, the effort of my work – and not that I, a mixed race person, was writing in any voice other than the one inside me. As poets, we are a part of the discussion about race and we are obligated to participate and to remain as truthful as we can.

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