(Early) Monday Smackdown: Bard College Has a Quality Control Problem Here: Roger Berkowitz Needs to Learn to Quote Fairly and Accurately
I think that almost every discussion about "cultural appropriation" should be, instead, a discussion about: "don't be a d-ck". Clarifies matters immeasurably.
The brilliant national treasure Roxane Gay is, in my opinion, 100% correct when she writes: "stay in your lane.... The great thing about writing is that you can develop new lanes through research, immersion and effort..." That is not "being a d-ck". But When I read these exchanges (and Jennifer Schuessler's piece), I think Jennifer, Nina, and Burleigh are all being d-cks—especially Roger Berkowitz, who I think is being a major a--hole here, and doing so while claiming to be the heir and channeler of Hannah Arendt:
Jennifer Schuessler: "I wrote about the controversy over @thenation ’s publication of a poem by a white poet using black vernacular, with a little bit on the long debate over what counts as literary 'blackface' (looking at you, Vachel Lindsay & John Berryman)..."
Nina Burleigh: "Probably shouldn't wade into this but, by @rgay 'stay in your lane' logic, every entitled male screenwriter-white or black-should be banned from writing female characters of any race. I'm actually all for that, but piling on to crush the career of a young poet? geez..."
Roxane Gay: "Well, Nina, this is the problem with journalists taking tweets out of context and using them in their articles, instead of asking people for a more fully fleshed out statement. My tweets are my opinions...
...They are not bans and, frankly, it is absurd to frame a tweet as a ban.
The reality is that when most white writers use [African-American Vernacular English] 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.... And to criticize that poem is not a pile on. He is a young, healthy white man with a book coming out from a great press. Guess what? He will absolutely be fine.
Slippery slope arguments are a rhetorical waste of time but if you want to go there, fine. Most male screenwriters write women terribly. And the whole of current cinematic offerings bear this out. The Bechdel rule is still a thing because men write women badly. Until men can write women with nuance and depth, they should stay in their lane.
And to lay the crushing of a poet's career at my feet? When I have never tweeted about his little poem? You will note that my tweets about AAVE were not made in regard to his poem. How dare you?
Roger Berkowitz: "While Gay suggests that even she cannot use AAVE, it is solely white people who use AAVE who are racist...
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....
There is a difference between criticizing a poem and policing who is allowed to imagine a fictional reality that offers insight.... The demand that certain opinions expressed by certain races and sexes are to be banned and condemned as racist and the demand for apologies and mea culpas is the kind of imposed social conformism that Hannah Arendt worries about.... It may be that what we need today is fewer people who know their lanes and more of us willing to imagine ourselves traveling new roads...
Berkowitz's cutting his quote from Roxane Gay off after "stay in their lane when it comes to dialect..." when her very next sentence is: "The great thing about writing is that you can develop new lanes through research, immersion and effort..."—that is much more than simply being a d-ck. That is being a major, major, a--hole.
And as Roxane does note, it is distinctly odd that she is being accused of being too confident about her opinions, and is being held up as some authority over what is and is not legitimate to publish. It is (still) a free country. People can do what they want. People need to understand how their work is going to be read, to be able to handle those readings and the responses they generate, and to think about whether all of that together is moving the ball downfield.
Again: Just my opinion. You can be as much of a d-ck as you want. (Still) a free country. But do consider whether your actions and the responses they trigger are moving the ball downfield. And remember Dan Davies's "Advice for Contrariants": "Don't whine. That is all."