I’m trying to understand what lies just beyond our recognizing that helps constitute what we talk about when we talk about class. What does it mean to think about class at a time when cultural and political actors from all sides are rushing to deem this a post-race era, and indeed a post-identity-politics era? It seems a vindication of the old left over the new left, a vindication of labor organizing over slaver narratives, of finally fighting CEOs instead of fighting the literary canon, fighting to raise the minimum wage over fighting for increased representation, finally, substance over image, the real and real universal (after all, capital is the foundational ideology) over the sectarian and special interest. Unity over difference, or unity against the only difference that should matter, the difference between the boss and the workers, the haves and the have-nots, the 1% and the 99%.
But, to be plain about my thinking, I aim to introduce a note of melancholy, even at the risk of being deemed anti-revolutionary, or worse, I think, for a poet, at the risk of being dismissed as poor in imaginative capacity. I worry that the dawning awareness across the middle class that we are susceptible to drastic economic uncertainty and all the good intellectual and activist work coming out of that creates its own frenzy that finds a partner in the current frenzy to deem this a post-race era. These two tendencies can collude to create a critical discourse that, in its attempts to diagnose the ways economic conditions affect subjectivity, further erases the most egregious systemic exploitations of those conditions while doing little to help us encounter contemporary poetry. In poetry, perhaps more than ever, complex and multivalent thinking is happening about aesthetics and culture, about language, spirituality, politics, and imagination. It deserves better.
Walter Benn Michaels is well known for his 2006 book The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Michaels suggests that the language of identity has displaced a critique about economic inequality – that we now have a politics of recognition, but not a politics of redistribution (“Plots Against America”). And to an extent, I agree with him. I think of Kemron, a sixteen-year old African-American student, who told the Director of Diversity at the wealthy private school where I once taught that it was no big deal for us to let in rich black kids because they were just a different color. Kemron was right to criticize the school’s tendency to admit racially diverse kids with incredibly similar financial profiles while avoiding the harder work of contending seriously with Kemron’s class difference. Michaels has argued that “…in the utopian imagination of neoliberalism” we understand class difference “not as an inequality to be eliminated but as a difference to be respected” (“Plots Against America”). Yet in the limited but nonetheless consequential sphere of K-12 private education, Benn-Michaels’s “neoliberal left” seemed to have little sway as Kemron’s class difference was not to be respected, studied, celebrated; if it was recognized at all, it was as a thing to be reformed. Quietly and under the cover of respecting his racial identity, the school sought to redistribute access to wealth exactly by training Kemron out of his culture. I am not suggesting that the experience of living with limited access to wealth is something that should be enshrined, but if poverty is a culture, then surely we can tease out ways of knowing and ways of relating that this young man learned in his home and neighborhood apart from the hardships his circumstances imposed on him. The former could have been brought into challenging dialogue with the institution that purported to care for him, while the latter could be placed squarely in the cross-hairs of all concerned with Kemron’s education and future success. But let’s not deal for a moment with Michaels’ absolute conflation of income and asset on the one hand with culture on the other. Let’s assume it is true that race is nearly a non-issue, and that Kemron’s class position is fundamentally a different thing than his race, and that his class position can be addressed with the same tools of redistribution or access as anyone else’s class position. If this is true, it’s so within an incredibly small portion of the black population. We can name exactly how small that group is.
In the United States there are more blacks in correctional control today than were enslaved 10 years prior to the start of the Civil War, according to legal scholar Michelle Alexander. Her book, The New Jim Crow, argues that the gains of the civil rights movement are actually quite minimal and that Americans today live in a racial caste system. Fundamentally, her claim is that systems of racial control never went away; they only took on new forms, new articulations and new names. President Reagan’s War on Drugs made it easier for local law enforcement to charge drug offenders with felony crimes. Felons are the only group that can be discriminated against in terms of housing, employment, access to education, and voting, all with full consent of the law. Against the notion that black crime rates match black incarceration rates, Alexander argues this “war has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies consistently show that people of all colors use and sell illegal drugs at remarkably similar rates” (“The Age of Obama”). She continues,“The drug war was part of a grand and highly successful Republican Party strategy of using racially coded political appeals on issues of crime and welfare to attract poor and working class white voters who were resentful of, and threatened by, desegregation, busing, and affirmative action” (“The Age of Obama”). To add some stark figures to Alexander’s vision of a new Jim Crow: one in every 15 black men is incarcerated, according to the Pew Center Charitable Trusts, and when the 2008 study looked at black men ages 20–34, the incarceration rate jumped 40 percent to 1 in every 9, compared to 1 in every 106 white men. The Pew report also found “especially startling” incarceration rates among black and white women, noting one in every 355 white women ages 35–39 is incarcerated, compared with one in every 100 black women (“More Than One in 100”).
Christopher Galzek reveals how mass incarceration impacts seemingly unrelated issues of legislative representation and real estate values in New York State. The famous 1787 compromise between slave-holding and free states allowed nonvoting slaves to count as three-fifths of a citizen for the purposes of apportioning congressional seats. “Today,” Galzek notes, “thousands of people are removed from urban districts…shipped upstate, where each counts for a full person. In this way, prisoners bolster the voting power of rural districts, while being unable to vote themselves” (“Raise the Crime Rate”). Moreover, Galzek finds the depopulation of entire communities in Brooklyn such as Fort Greene and Clinton Hill to catalyze a real estate boom that benefits wealthy white folks with children. Galzek punctuates his argument noting “Often, the new inhabitants… consume and sell the very same drugs that got the previous tenants into trouble. Since they’re white, they do so with impunity” (“Raise the Crime Rate”).
In 2013 the U.S. Census Bureau set the poverty threshold at an income of $23,624 for a family of four (“Poverty Data”). The Bureau’s latest rates for poverty levels broken down by race and ethnicity are from 2011 with poverty rates among African Americans and at more than double the percentage of white Americans: 11.6 percent of whites live in poverty while 25.8 percent of African Americans are under the poverty line (“Poverty Rates”).
The organization Black Demographics defines the middle class income range as between $35K and $100K, which, in 2007, accounted for 43% of U.S. households. The Black alone households total about 14.7 million. Of that, approximately 38.4% are in this definition of middle class. That totals about 5.6 million black households in the middle class. And that number is the answer to the question that matters: what is the absolute fewest number of blacks that need to be let into the middle class for this to be deemed a post-race era? In any case, that number is shrinking. 2008 data shows significant backsliding by African American children. Among those who were raised in the middle-income group, some 45% of African American children moved to the poorest group as adults, compared with 16% of white children (“State of Working America”).
Ultimately, while the imperative to circulate capital in faster and faster networks of exchange may be beautifully and perfectly free of racial, sexual, or gender prejudice; we still end up with a majority white middle and upper middle class that, at least in urban centers, must come to understand the value of its capital as partly determined by the forced migration of black people out of real estate and into correctional facilities. We have majority white communities that must come to understand their access to the pleasures of illicit drugs as intimately tied to the incarceration of blacks. And we can continue in this vein. While the category of slave is presumably the lowest rung of any class structure, it’s still the case that the highest concentration of slaves today in the United States, 46%, serve in prostitution and sex services, so you have again an ostensibly purely economic system that overwhelmingly subjugates women for the pleasure of American men, an ostensibly purely economic system that subjugates one identity to another (“Modern slavery thriving in the U.S.”). Since the majority of women enslaved for the sex industry are Chinese, Mexican, and Vietnamese, we’re talking about women of color being subjugated for the pleasure of American men. While it may be true that we should hardly settle for having a bi-racial president or an African-American Oscar winners, neither should we allow a focus on class to obscure the power and privilege of very specific racial and gendered identities and the systemic exploitation of other very specific racial and gendered identities.
Michaels and other critics of so-called neoliberal progressives would say that even if you reapportioned poverty to eliminate over-representation of blacks and Latinos, in other words, if the poor were made up of blacks, Latinos, Asians, whites, men, women, etc. in the same proportions as those identities exist in the broad population, we would still have poverty. Following this reasoning, if we eliminate poverty first, we’ll do away with disproportionate inclusion of minorities within the population of poor because there’ll be no poor. This critique, though, is emblematic of bad faith. It creates a choice where none needs to exist. To cleave a fight against a race-based caste system from a fight against poverty as such by claiming that the latter is more foundational simplifies a complex problem and perhaps unwittingly, perhaps with full volition, buttresses white supremacy.
I want to recognize that the coalition of groups working under the name of Occupy4Prisons who organize a national day of action on Feb. 20th each year. Prisoners themselves are organizing and resisting through hunger strikes such as the ones conducted at the Ohio State Penitentiary (“Ohio State Penitentiary”). In poetry, I recognize C.D. Writght’s One Big Self (photography by Deborah Luster) as a necessary prison documentary project that dutifully foregrounds its ambivalence about the ethics of artistic documentation. In reviewing the book, Alan Gilbert goes a step further: “While Wright’s poems at times explicitly address the racism and classism undergirding U.S. society, the lacunae surrounding each broken line of One Big Self silently attest to what remains unsaid and unacknowledged in the larger culture.” So that’s something.
But in general, I worry there’s a real danger here precisely because a post-identity utopia is really seductive. Here I turn to one treatment of the poem “Jakob” from the book Black Life by Dorothea Lasky. Here is the poem in its entirety:
JAKOB I am sick of feeling I never eat or sleep I just sit here and let the words burn into me I know you love her And don’t love me No, I don’t think you love her I know there are clouds that are very pretty I know there are clouds that trundle round the globe I take anything I can to get to love Live things are what the world is made of Live things are black Black in that they forgot where they came from I have not forgotten, however I choose not to feel Those places that have burned into me There is too much burning here, I’m afraid Readers, you read flat words Insidehere are many moments In which I have screamed in pain As the flames ate me
This is reviewer Robert Dewhurst, writing on this poem in the online journal Jacket2:
…Lasky’s work carries forward an underrecognized, immanentist literary materialism of extreme presence, negative affect, and wild lyric impersonation … I’m always disappointed with the way people talk about it… Opposite the confessional, one signal ethic of Lasky’s writing is a spectacular disabling of lyric personality… She begins declaratively sick of feeling, and then lets her own abject and disaffected persona unravel and self-immolate… In other words, Lasky disables the affective singularity of first-person lyric enunciations by over-inhabiting the form to a kind of self-destructive, nearly ontologic limit point… Have you ever heard Dorothea read? She shouts the poems… When Lasky deadpans loud lines like Identity politics are bullshit, or I have to be protected/ because I am so afraid…the poet’s startling voice creates an affective, material immediacy between herself and the audience that riskily opens the room up to an unprecedented sort of anti-identitarian, emotional access to her writing. (Dewhurst)
I want to emphasize that the bulk of Dewhurst’s review I find quite brilliant, particularly his framing of Lasky’s work in terms of “a stylistically diverse line of usually forgotten and mostly soul-sick writers who’ve inhabited language literally,” folks such as Penny Arcade and John Wieners (“Dorothea Lasky”). But I’m not really interested here in Lasky’s poetry. I think it’s fine stuff and the Dewhurst review helps me see and sympathize with its poetics of “self immolation,” this idea of over-inhabiting a category in order to transform it I find compelling and an apt description of some moves I’ve tried to make in my own work, so I want to recognize and respect an affinity there. However, the rush to label Lasky’s work “anti-identitarian,” his slide from personality to identity seems symptomatic of the post-identity politics discourses I am trying to track. In Dewhurst’s reading Lasky’s poem “disables” individual pathos, not, say, femininity or whiteness or wealth. I am with Dewhurst to a point, Lasky, I think, does disable the very thing those who enjoy any kind of identitarian privilege get to escape into, namely, the fantasy of being only unique personalities. But Dewhurst repudiates the possibility that disabling personality would serve to make identity categories all the more visible and thereby subject to critique. I would rather not bury the text under the body. The body has become the looking glass. When we step into it, we step into the universality of biology, the pain and pleasure of nerves, not politics, and for this alone I’m suspicious of its uses in contemporary poetics. What I read in Dewhurst is actually a nearly oppressive investment in the body, so we get an “extreme presence” that leads to “material immediacy.” I’d rather read Lasky’s text and performance as invitations to occupy particular rhetorical positions. On the page she offers a rhetorical position that “self-immolates” and “over-invests,” yes, but that over-invests not in “personality,” but perhaps in femininity with its assumed emotional and romantic vulnerability. At the podium, she dares us, perhaps, into a masculinist position that might dismiss her performative intensity as hysterics. But such readings assume first that gender constructions are worth engaging. Dewhurst’s enthusiasm for Lasky’s work seems to rest on the wholesale assumption that to recognize identity is to reify it, as if the responsibility lay with the person who wants to critique identity, as if by talking about gender politics and oppression one is ultimately asking to be oppressed. We see this tendency at work as well, I think, with some of the online backlash to the VIDA counts.
Ultimately, what is material immediacy outside of a given identity category? Is it the luminous particular of that thigh or this vowel held in that throat? My contention, my note of melancholy that I’d like to bring into our discussion is that all that “material immediacy” that “burns bodily,” like a good high, a good fuck, or a good poem, can only be temporary, no less powerful or valuable for that, no less necessary for the survival of spirit and imagination, but still temporary. What rushes in inevitably, and for some, lethally, is the force of identitarian category and identitarian narrative. And these forces settle like shrouds over the body. I will not pretend in my rush to articulate and diagnose class and in my rush to free myself into a utopian presence, that those shrouds aren’t various and variously consequential. “In the meantime,” as Marianne Moore wrote, “if you demand on the one hand,/ the raw material of poetry in/ all its rawness and/ that which is on the other hand/ genuine, you are interested in poetry.”
Alexander, Michelle. “The Age of Obama as a Racial Nightmare.” Tomgram. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 June 2014. http://www.tomdispatch.com/archive/175215/.
Dewhurst, Robert. “Dorothea Lasky, it’s unbelievable.” Jacket2. Jacket2, 19 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 June 2014. http://jacket2.org/reviews/dorothea-lasky-it’s-unbelievable.
Galzek, Christopher. “Raise the Crime Rate.” N+1 1 Issue 13: Machine Politics, Jan. 2012: n. pag. Web. https://nplusonemag.com/issue-13/politics/raise-the-crime-rate
Lasky, Dorothea. Black life. Seattle: Wave Books, 2010. Print.
Macartney, Suzanne, Alemayehu Bishaw, and Kayla Fontenot. “Poverty Rates for Selected Detailed Race and Hispanic Groups by State and Place: 2007–2011.” U.S. Census Bureau, 1 Feb. 2013. Web. 1 June 2014. http://www.census.gov/prod/2013pubs/acsbr11-17.pdf.
Michaels, W. B. “Plots Against America: Neoliberalism and Antiracism.” American Literary History: 288-302. Print.
“Ohio State Penitentiary Hunger Strike Demands.” Redbird Prison Abolition: Ohio State Penitentiary Hunger Strike Demands. Red Bird Prison Abolition, 13 Mar. 2013. Web. 25 June 2014. http://www.redbirdprisonabolition.org/2013/03/ohio-state-penitentiary-hunger-strike.html.
“State of Working America preview: Whites more upwardly mobile than blacks.” Economic Policy Institute. Economic Policy Institute, 9 Dec. 2010. Web. 25 June 2014. http://www.epi.org/publication/state_of_working_america_preview_whites_more_upwardly_mobile_than_blac/.
University of California, Berkeley’s Human Rights Center. “09.23.2004 – Modern slavery thriving in the U.S..” 09.23.2004 – Modern slavery thriving in the U.S.. The University of California, Berkeley, 1 Sept. 2004. Web. 25 June 2014. http://berkeley.edu/news/media/releases/2004/09/23_16691.shtml.
U.S. Census Bureau. “Poverty Data.” U.S. Census Bureau, 1 Jan. 2013. Web. 25 June 2014. https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/data/threshld/.
About the Author
Farid Matuk is the author of This Isa Nice Neighborhood (Letter Machine) and My Daughter La Chola (Ahsahta). New poems appear in The Iowa Review, The Baffler, Denver Quarterly, Poetry, and Flag&Void. Matuk teaches in the MFA program at the University of Arizona.