Last summer, The Nation published a poem called “How-To,” by white poet Anders Carlson-Wee, in which the speaker, a homeless person who speaks African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which is also sometimes called Black English, gives advice on how most effectively to beg for money on the street. The poem’s publication unleashed what The New York Times called “a firestorm of criticism on social media.” This criticism focused on two main issues: charges that, in writing “How-To,” Carlson-Wee had engaged in a performance of literary blackface and that, in publishing the poem, The Nation’s poetry editors had supported him in doing so.1In response, those editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, issued an apology, which then became the focus of its own controversy. Katha Pollitt, who writes for The Nation, tweeted her disappointment, calling the apology “craven.” Grace Schulman, who was The Nation’s poetry editor from 1971-2006 wrote an op ed in the Times, in which she argued that the editors’ apology betrayed “a value that is precious to me and to a free society: the freedom to write and to publish views that may be offensive to some readers.” The editors responded quite thoughtfully to their critics here—you need to scroll to the bottom—but the debate about the role, responsibility, and accountability of literary editors, while crucially important, does not address the question of precisely how, from the point of view of literary craft, Carlson-Wee’s poem fails. That’s what I’m interested in writing about here.
***Responding to the poem in a Twitter thread—I have strung several tweets together into a single paragraph—Roxane Gay wrote this:
The reality is that when most white writers use AAVE they do so badly. They do so without understanding that it is a language with rules. Instead, they use AAVE to denote that there is a black character in their story because they understand blackness as a monolith. Framing blackness as monolithic is racist. It is lazy. And using AAVE badly is lazy so I am entirely comfortable suggesting that writers stay in their lane when it comes to dialect. The great thing about writing is that you can develop new lanes through research, immersion and…effort. There was none of that in this poem.So presumably, if Carlson-Wee had gotten it right, if he had indeed developed a “new lane” for himself in which he could write what Gay experienced as an authentic AAVE-speaking Black character, she would not have found the poem objectionable on these particular grounds. In other words, the problem was not the fact that a white poet had chosen to write such a character; it was the failure of craft that Gay saw in what she perceived as Carlson-Wee’s “lazy” use of AAVE that led her to call the poem racist. Here is Carlson-Wee’s poem:
If you got hiv, say aids. If you a girl, say you’re pregnant––nobody gonna lower themselves to listen for the kick. People passing fast. Splay your legs, cock a knee funny. It’s the littlest shames they’re likely to comprehend. Don’t say homeless, they know you is. What they don’t know is what opens a wallet, what stops em from counting what they drop. If you’re young say younger. Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray, say you sin. It’s about who they believe they is. You hardly even there.In a very thoughtful piece in The Atlantic, John McWhorter, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University who has “studied Black English a fair amount over the past 25 years,” disagrees with Gay’s assessment. He argues, providing specific examples, that “the Black English Carlson-Wee uses…is true and ordinary black speech.” I’m going to defer to McWhorter’s linguistic expertise and take him at his word in this respect: that there is nothing syntactically or semantically incorrect, nothing exaggerated, willfully flamboyant or mocking, in Carlson-Wee’s deployment of AAVE in this poem. That does not mean, however, that he was not, as Gay said, “lazy” in writing it. In fact, his apology, which I can now find nowhere except in The New York Times, suggests that he might even agree with that assessment: “Treading anywhere close to blackface is horrifying to me,” Carlson-Wee wrote, “and I am profoundly regretful.”
***While the wording of that apology at least implies that Carlson-Wee intended his speaker to be Black, when I first read “How-To,” I did not see it that way. Probably because there are no other obvious racial markers and because I have heard white people speak non-standard English in a way that, in my memory at least, bears a strong resemblance to what Carlson-Wee wrote, I defaulted to the unmarked case and assumed the speaker was white. I still thought “How-To” was not a very good poem, though. Nothing the speaker in this poem says is particularly new in and of itself. Of course homeless people who beg for money on the street develop and share methods, strategies, and tricks-of-the-trade to get passersby to stop “counting/what they drop,” and of course those strategies inevitably require a kind of self-exploitation. What kind of begging does not? What is not obvious in “How-To,” however, is to whom or for what reason the speaker is speaking. Is he or she, for example, addressing another homeless person, or a group of homeless people who are new to the street and could use a few pointers? Or people more like readers of The Nation, whose lives are lived at a comfortable distance from the uncomfortable truths the poem is supposed to reveal? Or is this poem supposed to be a direct address to the reader—and what would that even mean, since there is no such thing as a monolithic reader? I can understand those who might say that not knowing which conversation the poet intended is a good thing, since it allows readers to find in the poem whatever is most meaningful to them—and I certainly would not try to argue someone out of feeling moved by the poem because of whatever he or she found there. Nonetheless, for myself as a reader, since I do not know what is at stake for the speaker, I cannot know what is at stake in the poem; and if I do not know what is at stake in the poem, then I cannot know what is at stake for me, for example in the irony of the title, which frames the experience of reading as one in which I am being given access to a street beggar’s “how-to” manual. Indeed, when I finished reading “How-To, after the initial tug at my gut that I felt in the last lines, which I do think are powerfully rendered, I found myself asking, So what? Given the absence of context, the poem felt to me more than anything else like an easy sentimentalization of the homeless, and I confess I was offended. This problem with the way the poem sentimentalizes the homeless would exist for me even if it had been written without deviating one iota from the grammar of standard English. The poem, however, was not written in standard English. Rather, at least according McWhorter, “[‘How-To’] is a spot-on depiction of [AAVE],” raising the question of what having a Black speaker does in terms of the sentimentalization I just described. One reason I think the last lines of “How-To” are powerfully rendered is the way Carlson-Wee has his speaker, as McWhorter describes it “alternat[e] between leaving out the be verb (a process actually subject to complex constraints in black speech—you don’t just leave it out willy-nilly) and using it…” Here, for ease of reference, are those lines again:
If you’re young say younger. Old say older. If you’re crippled don’t flaunt it. Let em think they’re good enough Christians to notice. Don’t say you pray, say you sin. It’s about who they believe they is. You hardly even there.The code-switching in the last two lines, from a more or less correct version of standard English to the (as per McWhorter) correct grammar of AAVE packs an emotional punch, at least for me, because it feels purposeful. I believe the speaker makes the switch to make a point. I just wish I knew what that point was. To be more specific, it feels to me inauthentic at best to represent a homeless Black person who has absolutely nothing to say about race and/or racial dynamics when explaining the ins and outs of street begging, regardless of who the audience is. Who that audience is, however, does matter deeply when it comes to how we understand the code-switching at the end of the poem. If the second-person address is supposed to be directed at one or more other homeless people, for example, regardless of that group’s racial makeup, the switch to AAVE syntax, at least to my untrained ear, would seem to signify an expression of solidarity. (I’m hedging because I am, obviously, not a speaker of AAVE.) On the other hand, if the second-person address is the speaker’s way of talking about her or himself (or even homeless people in general) to an audience of, as I suggested earlier, readers of The Nation, the code switch would seem to me to be more about the distance between the speaker and the audience than any commonality they might share. That Carlson-Wee did not work out in the language of the poem the complexities of the second person address, question of who his speaker is speaking to and why, is where the failure of craft in “How-To” lies. If I don’t know to whom this speaker is speaking, if I can’t glean some sense of why he or she uses a second-person address, or why he or she code-switches at the end of the poem, then all I am left with in understanding him or her is the decontextualized Black identity that is signified by the use of AAVE. This, then, lands the poem right in the middle of Roxane Gay’s critique, i.e., that Carlson-Wee “use[d] AAVE to denote that there is a black character in [his poem]” and nothing more. Or, to put that another way, that he chose a Black speaker, i.e., put on blackface, simply to make sure that his poem tugged even harder on the heart strings of those who read it. That’s the kind of racist cultural appropriation for which any artist would deserve to be called to account.
- Others were critical of the poem for being ableist—a conversation that is also important to have—but I am going to focus in this post on the racial critique. [↩]