At some level, every social artifact in the United States, including creative work, is raced, which is to say, concerns race, since American history and society are by their very constitution predicated upon systems and processes deeply informed by racism, racialization and racial hierarchies. Even the "Declaration of Independence, as Betsy Erkkilä has noted in her essay "Franklin and the Revolutionary Body," proceeds from a racialized understanding of the new American nation and of American citizenship grounded in a particular understanding of Anglo-American whiteness. Writers, scholars and critics in a range of fields, going back centuries, have developed a rich discourse by which to understand this national and global racialized formation and trauma, and in the last 30 years, alongside the invaluable findings and critiques advanced in African American and other ethnic studies, "Whiteness Studies" itself has emerged as a distinct field. Yet it remains the case that too few white American creative writers or popular critics--though some, like Eula Biss, have been exemplary in this regard--are willing to place analytical pressure on whiteness, their whiteness, as a subject, on its naturalization and normalization, on its omnipresence and illegibility. Too few go beyond confession to investigate and trouble the social, economic and political privilege and capital that accrue to white people in the United States, or explore how whiteness, by masking and unmarking itself, nevertheless deeply informs the literature and literary practices that, conversely, are crucial to bringing it into being.
In her 2012 collection White Papers, poet Martha Collins does partake in an examination of whiteness, striving to exceed, if not surpass, the liberal imagination that preserves white privilege and power even as it critiques how whiteness functions in America, and in language itself. In forty-five untitled, mostly uncapitalized, often highly playful poems, many based on personal memories and experiences, others drawing from US history, past and present, Collins uses lyric form to x-ray whiteness's indelible and simultaneously invisible power. Though many of the references are expected--state-sanctioned racist violence by white Americans, white supremacy, the Ku Klux Klan, lynching, blackface minstrelsy-- what distinguishes these poems is Collins' skill as a poet, her faith in language and its limits, her wit and humor. Many poems read as though she raised an antenna to capture the warped frequencies underlining our body politic. "[A woman caller said two black men]" (poem number 37) begins
a woman caller said two black men
no the woman said two men were seen
when the cop came said the black were no
said almost nothing she hadn't seen
the one inside the white cop said
was angry hostile a black man who
asked for the white cop's didn't know (52)
This poem echoes Cornelius Eady's brilliant collection Brutal Imagination, while also referencing Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s July 2009 arrest at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, yet its associative repetition abstracts the scenario, impressing upon the reader its dangerous absurdity. In another poem, "[could get a credit card loan car]," Collins taxonomies in part what white privilege is and how it works, again abstracted beyond the personal to the structural:
could get a credit card loan car
come and go without a never had
to think about a school work job
to open doors to buy a rent a nice
place yard park beside a walk
in any store without a never had
to dress to buy a dress shoes under-
wear to understate or -play myself (41)
My chief concern about this book is whether white readers will seriously and actively engage with it; much of what Taylor takes up is second nature to people of color in the US, but might be more than a little helpful to the Lena Dunhams, among others, out there. White Papers is no The Invention of the White Race, but it is something.
In Apart, poet Catherine Taylor takes up the task of examining whiteness through her and her mother's experiences via the history and society of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa, where from 1948 through 1994 a state-sanctioned system of racial categorization, segregation and violence more than equal to the Jim Crow laws of the U. S. South held swap, warping the lives of everyone who lived within it. Taylor would not be the first white person, and certainly not the first white person with ancestral ties to South Africa, to address the apartheid system, but what sets her and this book apart--for she, like her mother, a South African native, and yet differently from her, is both psychically and geographically apart and a part of (party to) that system--is that she did not grow up there, but primarily in the US, only spending extended stays during childhood, until the Soweto Uprising in 1976. Apart unfolds like a densely-packed archive, ordered along the axes of affect, memory and anecdote, unfolding not as conventional memoir might, chronologically or historically, but in six sometimes unruly sections, combining poetry, prose, theoretical musings, documentary material, archival images, and annotations.
This approach mostly succeeds in depicting and embodying the messiness--the contradictions, the complexities, the multiple ironies, the experiential limitations--of being white in South Africa, of being a white liberal, as was Taylor's mother, who as a student attended the Black Sash Advice Group, a women's anti-apartheid organization, and Taylor is. It portrays the challenges of attempting to engage with the power and capital apartheid accorded both, conferred on all white people whose lives it touched, whether they wanted it, accepted it, or rejected it. Taylor rightly and repeatedly notes black South Africans' criticisms of white liberals' attempts to determine the shape of black freedom, and also attends to apartheid's intersections with class and gender issues. Her aim is "resonance", which "evokes associations and emotions," but which also "can result in catastrophic failure of the vibrating structure." Apartheid did collapse and South Africa is hardly a catastrophe, and although Taylor can never fully grasp or know how horrifyingly destructive apartheid was and remains for South Africa's black and brown peoples, she accepts those limitations here, and lives, however uneasily, with the "wreckage." As with Collins's book whether the people who might especially benefit from this text will read it remains a question, but no matter what Taylor willing gives readers "the world and the void," this complex work, her "love."