Timothy Yu (continued):
What follows Hoagland’s avowal of racism is in fact more revealing than the avowal itself. The statement “of course I am racist” could be read as an acknowledgment of responsibility for the elements of “The Change” that trouble Rankine. For Hoagland to acknowledge that he is indeed racist would seem to ratify Rankine’s reading of its racially targeted message. But it turns out that Hoagland’s avowal of racism is meant to have precisely the opposite effect. For it is followed by a carnival of identifications that dilute, rather than reinforce, the acknowledgment of racism.
Hoagland presents himself as a Whitmanian collection of contradictions, allowing the trivial (“Diet Pepsi drinker,” “Triple A member”) to defuse the provocative (racist, sexist, homophobe). It would be easy to dismiss this as mere irony if Hoagland’s summary statement, “I’m an American,” weren’t so earnest. It’s earnest precisely because it is designed to subsume and trump Hoagland’s avowal of racism: racism is merely part of the “tarnished software” of “being American.”
But isn’t this, ultimately, exactly what Rankine points to in Hoagland’s poem—that its speaker arrogates to himself the ability to define “Americanness,” to mourn the destruction of his own definition of Americanness by the “big black girl from Alabama”?
Hoagland happily embraces the label “racist,” because it reinforces his claim to being American (while subtly denying Rankine’s; he is more American than she is, because the racist is somehow more aware of American complexity than the object of racism). The one label that he will not avow, that appears nowhere in his song of himself, is “white.” Hoagland avows the identity of “racist” not to take responsibility for his own subject position as a white man but to deny it, to give himself an out.
Take a look at the last identity in Hoagland’s catalog: “a single mother.” This is obviously an absurdity, one that is meant to draw our attention not just to the play of American identity but to the poet’s ability to adopt a range of personae. Hoagland alludes to this just before his avowal of racism, when he notes that “in contemporary poetry…a poem is often presumed to be in the voice of the author.” Ah-ha: Hoagland has caught us again in yet another naïve moment. Rankine has foolishly assumed that the speaker of “The Change” is Tony Hoagland, when of course we know it is merely a character invented by Hoagland who may or may not be coextensive with the poet.
Hoagland’s “honest” avowal of racism, then, becomes an empty one, since it can easily be waved away as part of a poetic persona. What Hoagland’s response really means is that he gets to have it both ways: he can write a poem that “honestly” displays racist sentiments (and even naturalizes those sentiments as part of “American” identity) while coyly disavowing those sentiments. He can have his racism and eat it too.
[to be continued...]
Note to Francisco: I believe the Robert Hass poem you’re referring to is “The Yellow Bicycle” linked to here.
It includes the following lines:
“Once, when they had made love in the middle of the night and
it was very sweet, they decided they were hungry, so they got up,
got dressed, and drove downtown to an all-night donut shop.
Chicano kids lounged outside, a few drunks, and one black man