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Craft Talk 5: On Appropriation (A closer look at Anders Carlson-Wee’s “How-To”)

Last sum­mer, The Nation pub­lished a poem called “How-To,” by white poet Anders Carl­son-Wee, in which the speak­er, a home­less per­son who speaks African Amer­i­can Ver­nac­u­lar Eng­lish (AAVE), which is also some­times called Black Eng­lish, gives advice on how most effec­tive­ly to beg for mon­ey on the street. The poem’s pub­li­ca­tion unleashed what The New York Times called “a firestorm of crit­i­cism on social media.” This crit­i­cism focused on two main issues: charges that, in writ­ing “How-To,” Carl­son-Wee had engaged in a per­for­mance of lit­er­ary black­face and that, in pub­lish­ing the poem, The Nation’s poet­ry edi­tors had sup­port­ed him in doing so.1

In response, those edi­tors, Stephanie Burt and Car­men Giménez Smith, issued an apol­o­gy, which then became the focus of its own con­tro­ver­sy. Katha Pol­litt, who writes for The Nation, tweet­ed her dis­ap­point­ment, call­ing the apol­o­gy “craven.” Grace Schul­man, who was The Nation’s poet­ry edi­tor from 1971–2006 wrote an op ed in the Times, in which she argued that the edi­tors’ apol­o­gy betrayed “a val­ue that is pre­cious to me and to a free soci­ety: the free­dom to write and to pub­lish views that may be offen­sive to some read­ers.” The edi­tors respond­ed quite thought­ful­ly to their crit­ics here—you need to scroll to the bottom—but the debate about the role, respon­si­bil­i­ty, and account­abil­i­ty of lit­er­ary edi­tors, while cru­cial­ly impor­tant, does not address the ques­tion of pre­cise­ly how, from the point of view of lit­er­ary craft, Carl­son-Wee’s poem fails. That’s what I’m inter­est­ed in writ­ing about here.

***

Respond­ing to the poem in a Twit­ter thread—I have strung sev­er­al tweets togeth­er into a sin­gle paragraph—Roxane Gay wrote this:

The real­i­ty is that when most white writ­ers use AAVE they do so bad­ly. They do so with­out under­stand­ing that it is a lan­guage with rules. Instead, they use AAVE to denote that there is a black char­ac­ter in their sto­ry because they under­stand black­ness as a mono­lith. Fram­ing black­ness as mono­lith­ic is racist. It is lazy. And using AAVE bad­ly is lazy so I am entire­ly com­fort­able sug­gest­ing that writ­ers stay in their lane when it comes to dialect. The great thing about writ­ing is that you can devel­op new lanes through research, immer­sion and…effort. There was none of that in this poem.

So pre­sum­ably, if Carl­son-Wee had got­ten it right, if he had indeed devel­oped a “new lane” for him­self in which he could write what Gay expe­ri­enced as an authen­tic AAVE-speak­ing Black char­ac­ter, she would not have found the poem objec­tion­able on these par­tic­u­lar grounds. In oth­er words, the prob­lem was not the fact that a white poet had cho­sen to write such a char­ac­ter; it was the fail­ure of craft that Gay saw in what she per­ceived as Carl­son-Wee’s “lazy” use of AAVE that led her to call the poem racist. Here is Carl­son-Wee’s poem:

How-To

If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl,
say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna low­er
them­selves to lis­ten for the kick. Peo­ple
pass­ing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee
fun­ny. It’s the lit­tlest shames they’re like­ly
to com­pre­hend. Don’t say home­less, they know
you is. What they don’t know is what opens
a wal­let, what stops em from count­ing
what they drop. If you’re young say younger.
Old say old­er. If you’re crip­pled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Chris­tians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hard­ly even there.

In a very thought­ful piece in The Atlantic, John McWhort­er, a pro­fes­sor of lin­guis­tics at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty who has “stud­ied Black Eng­lish a fair amount over the past 25 years,” dis­agrees with Gay’s assess­ment. He argues, pro­vid­ing spe­cif­ic exam­ples, that “the Black Eng­lish Carl­son-Wee uses…is true and ordi­nary black speech.”

I’m going to defer to McWhort­er’s lin­guis­tic exper­tise and take him at his word in this respect: that there is noth­ing syn­tac­ti­cal­ly or seman­ti­cal­ly incor­rect, noth­ing exag­ger­at­ed, will­ful­ly flam­boy­ant or mock­ing, in Carl­son-Wee’s deploy­ment of AAVE in this poem. That does not mean, how­ev­er, that he was not, as Gay said, “lazy” in writ­ing it. In fact, his apol­o­gy, which I can now find nowhere except in The New York Times, sug­gests that he might even agree with that assess­ment: “Tread­ing any­where close to black­face is hor­ri­fy­ing to me,” Carl­son-Wee wrote, “and I am pro­found­ly regret­ful.”

***

While the word­ing of that apol­o­gy at least implies that Carl­son-Wee intend­ed his speak­er to be Black, when I first read “How-To,” I did not see it that way. Prob­a­bly because there are no oth­er obvi­ous racial mark­ers and because I have heard white peo­ple speak non-stan­dard Eng­lish in a way that, in my mem­o­ry at least, bears a strong resem­blance to what Carl­son-Wee wrote, I default­ed to the unmarked case and assumed the speak­er was white. I still thought “How-To” was not a very good poem, though.

Noth­ing the speak­er in this poem says is par­tic­u­lar­ly new in and of itself. Of course home­less peo­ple who beg for mon­ey on the street devel­op and share meth­ods, strate­gies, and tricks-of-the-trade to get passers­by to stop “counting/what they drop,” and of course those strate­gies inevitably require a kind of self-exploita­tion. What kind of beg­ging does not? What is not obvi­ous in “How-To,” how­ev­er, is to whom or for what rea­son the speak­er is speak­ing. Is he or she, for exam­ple, address­ing anoth­er home­less per­son, or a group of home­less peo­ple who are new to the street and could use a few point­ers? Or peo­ple more like read­ers of The Nation, whose lives are lived at a com­fort­able dis­tance from the uncom­fort­able truths the poem is sup­posed to reveal? Or is this poem sup­posed to be a direct address to the reader—and what would that even mean, since there is no such thing as a mono­lith­ic read­er?

I can under­stand those who might say that not know­ing which con­ver­sa­tion the poet intend­ed is a good thing, since it allows read­ers to find in the poem what­ev­er is most mean­ing­ful to them—and I cer­tain­ly would not try to argue some­one out of feel­ing moved by the poem because of what­ev­er he or she found there. Nonethe­less, for myself as a read­er, since I do not know what is at stake for the speak­er, I can­not know what is at stake in the poem; and if I do not know what is at stake in the poem, then I can­not know what is at stake for me, for exam­ple in the irony of the title, which frames the expe­ri­ence of read­ing as one in which I am being giv­en access to a street beg­gar’s “how-to” man­u­al. Indeed, when I fin­ished read­ing “How-To, after the ini­tial tug at my gut that I felt in the last lines, which I do think are pow­er­ful­ly ren­dered, I found myself ask­ing, So what? Giv­en the absence of con­text, the poem felt to me more than any­thing else like an easy sen­ti­men­tal­iza­tion of the home­less, and I con­fess I was offend­ed.

This prob­lem with the way the poem sen­ti­men­tal­izes the home­less would exist for me even if it had been writ­ten with­out devi­at­ing one iota from the gram­mar of stan­dard Eng­lish. The poem, how­ev­er, was not writ­ten in stan­dard Eng­lish. Rather, at least accord­ing McWhort­er, “[‘How-To’] is a spot-on depic­tion of [AAVE],” rais­ing the ques­tion of what hav­ing a Black speak­er does in terms of the sen­ti­men­tal­iza­tion I just described.

One rea­son I think the last lines of “How-To” are pow­er­ful­ly ren­dered is the way Carl­son-Wee has his speak­er, as McWhort­er describes it “alternat[e] between leav­ing out the be verb (a process actu­al­ly sub­ject to com­plex con­straints in black speech—you don’t just leave it out willy-nil­ly) and using it…” Here, for ease of ref­er­ence, are those lines again:

                        If you’re young say younger.
Old say old­er. If you’re crip­pled don’t
flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough
Chris­tians to notice. Don’t say you pray,
say you sin. It’s about who they believe
they is. You hard­ly even there.

The code-switch­ing in the last two lines, from a more or less cor­rect ver­sion of stan­dard Eng­lish to the (as per McWhort­er) cor­rect gram­mar of AAVE packs an emo­tion­al punch, at least for me, because it feels pur­pose­ful. I believe the speak­er makes the switch to make a point. I just wish I knew what that point was.

To be more spe­cif­ic, it feels to me inau­then­tic at best to rep­re­sent a home­less Black per­son who has absolute­ly noth­ing to say about race and/or racial dynam­ics when explain­ing the ins and outs of street beg­ging, regard­less of who the audi­ence is. Who that audi­ence is, how­ev­er, does mat­ter deeply when it comes to how we under­stand the code-switch­ing at the end of the poem. If the sec­ond-per­son address is sup­posed to be direct­ed at one or more oth­er home­less peo­ple, for exam­ple, regard­less of that group’s racial make­up, the switch to AAVE syn­tax, at least to my untrained ear, would seem to sig­ni­fy an expres­sion of sol­i­dar­i­ty. (I’m hedg­ing because I am, obvi­ous­ly, not a speak­er of AAVE.) On the oth­er hand, if the sec­ond-per­son address is the speak­er’s way of talk­ing about her or him­self (or even home­less peo­ple in gen­er­al) to an audi­ence of, as I sug­gest­ed ear­li­er, read­ers of The Nation, the code switch would seem to me to be more about the dis­tance between the speak­er and the audi­ence than any com­mon­al­i­ty they might share.

That Carl­son-Wee did not work out in the lan­guage of the poem the com­plex­i­ties of the sec­ond per­son address, ques­tion of who his speak­er is speak­ing to and why, is where the fail­ure of craft in “How-To” lies. If I don’t know to whom this speak­er is speak­ing, if I can’t glean some sense of why he or she uses a sec­ond-per­son address, or why he or she code-switch­es at the end of the poem, then all I am left with in under­stand­ing him or her is the decon­tex­tu­al­ized Black iden­ti­ty that is sig­ni­fied by the use of AAVE. This, then, lands the poem right in the mid­dle of Rox­ane Gay’s cri­tique, i.e., that Carl­son-Wee “use[d] AAVE to denote that there is a black char­ac­ter in [his poem]” and noth­ing more. Or, to put that anoth­er way, that he chose a Black speak­er, i.e., put on black­face, sim­ply to make sure that his poem tugged even hard­er on the heart strings of those who read it. That’s the kind of racist cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion for which any artist would deserve to be called to account.

  1. Oth­ers were crit­i­cal of the poem for being ableist—a con­ver­sa­tion that is also impor­tant to have—but I am going to focus in this post on the racial cri­tique. []

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