I read a poem today and identified with the poet’s experience.
Then I read that the poet was a black man. I’m not.
I suppose that is good because it promotes commonality and
appreciation of shared experiences which cross ethnicities —
an experience of the old, “We all bleed red.”
At the same time, writers write in idiosyncratic ways which
are reflective of their ethnic origins and, of course,
this is to be celebrated for its authenticity.
Still…there is something about the selectivity we use to
go about identifying writers that is disturbing in its
Then I read that the black poet was the first black man to
hold a position in English at a particular, major university.
He wasn’t simply described as being on the faculty.
Then I read that he was the first black poet laureate before
the position was called poet laureate not that he was
a poet laureate.
And yes, I know these are distinguishing accomplishments.
As I said, when I read the poem I didn’t know that the poet
was black. I didn’t even think about that. I just thought
it was a really good poem not a really good poem by a
black man — simply a poem with which I could identify.
I wonder if that now dead black poet ever just wanted to
be thought of and referred to simply as a poet instead of
being put in a particular category — like I thought
of him before I knew he was black.
White poets aren’t described as white poets, as some
kind of qualifier, although writers like Hemingway and
Fitzgerald and others have been described as “now dead
white writers.” That was after they died. I don’t think
anyone ever referred to them as white writers when they
There’s a part of me that thinks ethnic identity in
literature is just fine, that it is what it is, and
should be celebrated, in which case, it should be
practiced universally. All ethnicities always
should be named for everyone.
But there is a part of me, when I think about how it
is now, that just gets a bad case of the hiccups.
Maybe some day when whites are not the majority, whites
will be identified by their “whiteness” like, “Here’s a
white guy and he’s a really good poet” — but then, maybe,
God forbid, it will be accompanied by the unspoken, racist
thought — “surprise, surprise!” — intended or not.