Tess Taylor, herself a descendent of Thomas Jefferson, examines, in a bright and thoughtful essay, poetry that addresses racialization from a white perspective. Snippet: How might writers who have been discouraged or even disinvited from thinking about their racial experiences as racial begin to read and write those experiences? Which instincts towards silence or omission would such a writer have to overcome? What is at stake in naming spaces where race, racialization, and racism occur in white lives? If whiteness is partially maintained by strategies of not-saying, not-knowing, self-normalizing, what does it mean to craft art in which whiteness can be destabilized? In short, how does a subject take responsibility for moving from whiteness to witness?
Three contemporary poets—Jake Adam York, Rachel Richardson, and Martha Collins—have been remarkably successful at giving aesthetic form to these questions as they struggle to name and claim some of the paradoxes of inheriting white experience. How does each work against the “fog” that Morrison describes? How does each deploy, reveal, and break racial codes? How does each position the expression of racial knowledge, especially racial knowledge white writers have often failed to acknowledge or reveal? It’s worth noting that merely examining and naming the white body as white is historically itself a charged act. Melville’s Ishmael—the ultimate anonymous narrator—has historically been presumed white simply because he occupies the space of voyeur-reporter describing (other) racially marked bodies. In contrast, Collins, York and Richardson self-examine and self-mark. They call attention to their own bodies, stories, and speech, attempting to read the uneasy codes that converge upon them. In doing so, each tries to make the occluding cloud somewhat less blinding—and to show a way through it.