Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Race and the poetry of John Beecher

One of the most common complaints I've heard when discussing poetry that deals directly with issues of race or racism is how inaccessible these poems are or rather how they fail as poems precisely because they rely on a racial or ethnic crutch.  I often wonder what is this racial crutch?

I am thinking now of a piece I read by Aracelis Girmay in which she discuss the issue of race and audience or more precisely the perceptions of white audiences when reading so called "ethnic poems." Aracelis writes: 


The racial crutch becomes clear now: an "ethnic poem" is problematic because it raises issues of privilege. To write of race or racism is to write from outside the margins of a "white center,"a center in which those who belong hold the only human experiences by default. A poem written outside this center cannot possibly succeed as it automatically rendered lacking of the aesthetic or human values that would make it universal; its existence outside this circle of privilege prevents those within the circle from ever appreciating it "humaness."

beecher.jpgBut it is not only those whom belong to the circle who over-impose these restrictions on poetry that deals with race. I am also often confronted by poets of color who find it troubling to read poetry written by white poets in the voices of minorities or which deal with issues of race. Which brings me to the poetry of John Beecher (1904-1980). Take for example the following poem: 


Chayney

The field boss claimed his privilege. Her knife
quenched all his lust for black girls. She got life
in the Big Rock and swung a chain-gang pick
a quarter century before she broke.
To save her keep they kicked her out, paroled.
Root, hog, or die! Thereafter she despoiled
our garbage cans of what our pampered pets
repudiated. We capering white brats
dogged her around, mocking that tethered gait.
She shambled, rolling-eyed down every street
in Birmingham, mumbling of "Jedgment." All
our minds were shackled by her chain and ball.

The poetry of John Beecher doesn't appear in any anthologies nor is he a part of the cannon, he is in essence a forgotten poet but his poetry nevertheless can teach us a multitude about race and poetry. Beecher not only unveils the classism prevalent in his lifetime but also the racism that comes with it. Many of his poems speak from the perspectives or voices of black Americans, often using racial epithets. John Beecher was not black, he was white. Which reminds me of James Baldwin's saying "as long as you think you are white, there's no hope for you." Beecher certainly did not see himself as just white nor do I see myself as just Mexican.  Perhaps because I write from an ideological perspective it does not bother me to hear/read white writers speaking from the perspectives of minorities just as I do not see myself not able to speak from the perspective of "whiteness." As long as these poems help to break this center which renders only certain experiences as human or universal by default and excludes the great majority of the earths peoples--the poor and the brown--I will not be made uncomfortable by this type of poetry. Again, perhaps because I write from an ideological perspective I can say that I am more at home with the poetry of John Beecher than with other Latino writers whom refuse to speak about race or class. 

To read more poems by Beecher click here.

Lauro

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