whiteness in slam poetry/lit scenes

I loved being part of LTAB (this really awesome big festival where high school students around Boston compete via spoken word) and think it is an amazing amazing event. I volunteered this year and was so moved but I have been thinking a bunch about the judging. LTAB follows the very popular spoken word judging style of picking random people off the street or in the audience to rate poetry on a scale of 1-10.

Watching the judging really opened my eyes to the problematic aspects of performative poetry, and english in general. I noticed that many PoC where getting extremely low scores while judges tended to favor white poets who used more “traditional” and “eloquent” language (two words I use while rolling my eyes because these concepts themselves are also highly problematic). 

The fact is that the lit we teach in schools and harolded as “the best”, “brilliant” and “sophisticated” is the product of white people. We tell our children stories through white mouths and create a culture that associates “traditional” (aka what we have chosen to record and call our nations traditions) English with beauty and worth. I remember the first piece of lit my class read from  PoC was a raisin in the sun and everybody hated it because they though the language “wasn’t beautiful” and was “sophomoric”. Complaining about how they “couldn’t understand the characters”, that they weren’t developed and it wasn’t a “layered story”. For anybody that has read Raisin in the Sun those are all completely not true. What happened was a class of white student rejected blackness in favor of a safe and restrictive definition of worth tied with colonial and racist roots.

Similarly, at the festival the second that a PoC used AAVE their work was discredited because it rejected whiteness. It rejected the exclusive and oppressive definitions of “proper, smart and serious" expression. It rejected colonialism and the history of occupation and assimilation. It said "I don’t need your whiteness to express myself” and I think people were threatened by that.. the implication that white society does not have exclusive rights to expression, beauty and literature. Spoken word demonstrates even more obstacles because not only are the words of PoC on display for critique, but also their movement, voice and bodies. 

White poets throwing around SAT words they didn't even know and mimicking every charles dickens-esque author they had been taught in school were celebrated for their maturity and sophistication. Meanwhile PoC were written off as “uneducated”, “childish” etc… I recall hearing one judge whisper to her boyfriend that kids needed “to stop using all this ‘ghetto’ language and pick up a book”. Oh yes, because all books of value are written in the language of whiteness and conform to the elitist form of English expression. Even in their most personal confessions and beautiful stories, these PoC where still being asked “but can you be more white please?”

As an avid member of the spoken word community and a white poet I have benefitted from this oppressive system. Often going to mics with friends and having them bash on the “hip hop poets” as they called them. They would raise me up (me full knowing that they had completely out-performed me) and talk about how “beautiful” my language was in comparison to theirs. I have heard things like “I think they didn't sound professional” or “they just got high scored because that judge was a minority”. Even “but why do they have to write a poem about race every time?”. I once heard a wise woman say she would write until people started listening, this is a quote I have shared with them. Admittedly In my past exchanges I should have been stronger. I should have expressed deeper outrage at my poetry family being disassembled by the mocking of any poetry that is not a beacon of whiteness. By shrinking away when the conversation got more heated I played into the system and there is no excuse for that. I have done better in recent months but better is still not enough.

Admittedly I have also once heralded this idea of whiteness subconsciously. Devaluing any that did not bend to my concept of “literature” and in so becoming the opressor. This is not some new revelation on my part, PoC in and out of the poetry community have been screaming this from rooftops forever and I am embarrassed that it is only this year that I realized the importance of challenging this aversion to blackness in our language, expression and writings. Literature and our concept of “good literature” is horrifically white-centric and silences PoC. It is important that as I enter the English field that I remember that.