As I’m sure you all have, I’ve been following the Vanessa Place/Gone With the Wind controversy since its inception. And as I’m sure you do, I have a lot of feelings and thoughts about it. As time passes, I realize I am less concerned with Place’s project itself and more concerned with issues of conversation around it: the way Place chose to describe the project’s argument, responses of various groups to it and the responses to those responses.
In listening to the LA Review of Books’ radio show’s episode on the matter (https://lareviewofbooks.org/essay/radio-hour-debating-vanessa-places-gone-with-the-wind-controversy) I realized my most complex feelings were in response to the luxury of some White intellectuals to make this a question of censorship. To say that those who petitioned for Place’s removal from the AWP subcommittee for the upcoming year are censoring Place is to blatantly ignore the effect of racist language on people of color.
Gone With the Wind is a historical artifact. The very reason why I don’t believe in omitting the word “nigger” from historical texts or in the phrase “the n word” is because I think we should be confronted with the terrifying efficacy of that word and its history every time it appears. If we acknowledge it, the history is less likely to repeat. I am not saying that racist language in historical artifacts should be censored, just that if appropriating and resurfacing that language is done without acknowledgement of its original intent (to degrade, dehumanize), someone should reconsider. If we make this a conversation about censorship and authorship, the history of American racism is dismissed and ironically can insidiously implant itself in the present and future. If racist language is used without that acknowledgement, it becomes easy for the White intellectual, for example, to dismiss racism as existing only in the past. To analyze Place’s piece solely within parameters of “capital A Art” and not those of the people on the other end of it is dangerously narrow-minded. The question is not “Are those who were offended by Place’s use of Mitchell’s text censoring her?” The question is not whether or not Place is racist or should be allowed to use this language as a White person.
Every single time I hear the word “nigger” I have a viscerally negative reaction. I get immediately sick to my stomach. Do you? (Beware: White guilt has similar symptoms.) When I saw Gone with the Wind for the first time at age 12, nightmares of Mammies and Aunt Jemimas plagued me for weeks. Reading the dialogue makes me feel inexplicably horrible. Were you were able to transpose yourself onto Scarlett O’Hara, partake in the nostalgia the book and film aim to conjure? I recently read an article praising Scarlett O’Hara as a pseudofeminist icon and yelled at my computer: WHAT ABOUT BLACK WOMEN?? HOW CAN WE IGNORE THE RACISM OF THESE CHARACTERS TO PRAISE THEIR “FEMINISM”? (There’s always a fight between sexism and racism in my head; racism always wins.) (Also, I’ve been writing something for a few years now called Feminism is for White Women and didn’t identify as a feminist for years out of protest.) The question is: How is it possible that some (non-racist, “progressive”) people are so removed that they have coherent, intellectual discussions about artifact and censorship without ever suggesting Don’t you think we should just lay offensive dialect approximations and racial slurs to rest? Somehow, White people have managed to use racist language to dehumanize people of color again, this time under the guise of experimental art. I was comfortable dealing with my everyday racism before I was confronted with Margaret Mitchell’s too. I don’t know. If Place hadn’t said she wanted to “take her slaves back” and create a “slave block of words” (according to her artist statement and the change.org petition that got her removed from the AWP subcommittee) maybe I would give her the benefit of the doubt and say she was trying to bring awareness or to comment on the fact that racism is certainly not an anachronistic experience. But I can’t. Visit the Twitter account for yourself @vanessaplace. Tweet and/or Facebook us your responses.
Part Two is re: Kendrick Lamar as a revolutionary, and a successful example of reappropriating racist language. Coming soon.