Poetry, Review

On Race and Art: Failures, Difficulties, and the Attempt


Reviewed by Muriel Leung

Over 40 writers and 12 artists contributed essays and artwork to the discussion of race and the creative imagination in the forthcoming collection, The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind (Fence Books, 2015) edited by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap. In 2011, Rankine penned an open letter for the New Media Poets website on race and art and gathered writing from a wide array of writers on the subject that eventually became this larger project of creative responses to a complicated and divisive issue. That the focus is on the “imaginary” points us to its double usage—at once referring to the imagination that powers an artist’s ability to invent as well as the tenuous definition of “race” in the fraught political history of its understanding in the U.S. As Loffreda and Rankine state in their introductory letter:

What we mean by a racial imaginary is something we all recognize quite easily: the way our culture has imagined over and over again the narrative opportunities, the kinds of feelings and attributes and situations and subjects and plots and forms “available” both to characters of different races and their authors. The racial imaginary changes over time, in part because artists get into tension with it, challenge it, alter its availabilities. (Loffreda & Rankine 2014)

By compiling these letters, essays, and art, the collection’s editors create a space for a necessary conversation that presses upon the urgency of both white artists and artists of color to speak on the stakes and consequences of the “racial imaginary.” They discuss the familiar trappings of artists creating art about race that, despite malicious, neutral, or benevolent intents—factors that are arguably futile but nevertheless occupy a great deal of space in debates about race and art—perpetuate and cause injury. The purpose of this collection is not to embrace the watered down politics of diversity and tolerance in the name of a totalizing “humanity” that erases how differences become violently declared in the embodied experiences of people of color in the U.S. bur rather highlight the various failures in attempts to talk about race and art and how these failures can ultimately be more generative than silence.

The scope of voices across this collection showcase a brilliant eclecticism of views on race and art with each artist possessing shared determination to (1) speak thoughtfully and honestly on race and the creative imagination (2) challenge harmful reproductions of racism, sexism, classism, and other institutional forms of violence in writing and consequently in our lived experiences (3) shift the conversation on how we talk about race and art away from a set of prescriptive tactics and more towards openness and possibility that does not preclude the responsibility with which we regard each other’s humanness—or as Loffreda and Rankine state, “history is not an act of the imagination.” It is perhaps this last objective that is often greeted with contention for what some would argue as a challenge to the presupposed limitless quality of art-making. For every argument that eschews the significance of responsibility in art-making, there’s a perspective that directs us to the debilitating detriments of this thinking. Such is the case in Ronaldo V. Wilson’s account of being accosted by police at a Los Angeles gas station for being a black man driving at night and the negotiations one makes at the moment of this violent occurrence; how every instance after is an attempt to grapple with this trauma, “of constant interpolation, slipping in, where one slips away, examining how one escapes and begins to process the story of survival, from contrition to understanding.” It is what Hossannah Asuncion calls the dilemma of “choosing a violent failure or a violent failure—to say something or to not say something” in her struggle to write about race. The stakes for an artist of color are written into flesh, through embodied experiences with race in the U.S. It is a privilege to evade the responsibility of examining race in one’s own art. Or as A. Van Jordan questions, “If you don’t intend to write about race but consider yourself a reader of work dealing with race, what are your expectations for a poem where race matters?”

It is important to note that this collection honors the rage, frustration, sadness, and determination of the artists of color represented, especially as these responses converse with the admissions, accounts, and critiques of white artists. Rachel Zucker opens with the French origin of the term “essay,” which means “to try” and as such, her essay reads as an attempt through footnotes and admissions to ascertain where her reasoning fails as she grapples with her identity as a Jewish woman writer and when “This essay is starting to feel like a white apology.” Frequently, white artists in this collection point out when their tone exacts their racial privilege as is the case when some critique the way they fall into the trap of congratulating themselves over even broaching the topic of race when the artists of color must contend with greater pressures to do so everyday. Kristin Palm ponders “where, in [the writing] community, is the room for stammering and stuttering? For humility?” Her question alludes to the fear that most white artists evade the topic of race because of the absence of accountability structures. Yet this “stammering and stuttering” feel necessary and can be productive if white artists are open to engaging with their failures to speak.

The Racial Imaginary shifts the balance of the conversation from modes that tiptoe around white privilege without challenging the power structures in place that make race such a volatile point of discussion. In the organization of the collected writings and artwork, we are led through a series of artists acknowledging that their thoughts on race are always in progress. The collection’s refusal to propose a fixed idea of race—by doing so would reinscribe the injury of homogenizing its very complicated notions—concludes with Dawn Lundy Martin who forges an analogy between the mixed company onboard her Greyhound bus trip and the ways different racial identities can coexist alongside one another. Or more eloquently stated: “You’re all in this shitbox together.” This gesture is composed of as many collisions as there are connections, and here, in this undeterminable space, is where the collection’s offerings end so that the dialogue it has started may continue off the page.


Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung

Muriel Leung is a multimedia poet and former teaching artist from Queens, NY. Her poetry and essays can be found or is forthcoming in Coconut, TENDE RLOIN, Bone Bouquet, Dark Phrases, and RE/VISIONIST. She is a recipient of a Kundiman fellowship. Currently, she is a MFA candidate in poetry at Louisiana State University where she also serves as the Assistant Editor of New Delta Review.