Brian Spears

Poet, Editor, Teacher, Blogger.

Confronting Racism

I ended my class a little early and hurried back to Des Moines today because I had to join my partner and her colleagues and students at Drake University in a show of solidarity against racism. I say “had to” because I considered it a moral obligation. I wish it weren’t necessary. But some anonymous student or students have decided again (because this is not the first time) to try to terrorize the relative handful of students of color who attend Drake. Just over a year ago, someone carved a swastika into an elevator wall and left a racist message on a student’s whiteboard outside her dorm room door. And this semester it’s escalated. Students have twice now received threatening messages slipped under their doors and a white supremacist “group” out of Idaho robocalled the university’s phone system with racist messages. (Group is in quotes because there’s reason to believe it’s basically one guy trying to build a following.)

When the first note appeared, the administration and student leaders made an immediate show of solidarity with the students of color on the campus. The provost took the unusual step of cancelling all school activities for an hour today so this gathering could take place and so any student who wished to attend could do so without suffering any academic penalty. The turnout was impressive.

So why did I go? A couple of reasons. One is that I used to teach there, and some of my former students are among those threatened by these actions. I also went in support of my partner and her colleagues who are now having to help their students navigate these attacks just a couple of weeks away from final exams.

But I also went because one of the claims of white supremacists is that they are brave truth tellers and that all white people secretly agree with them, they’re just too afraid of the social penalties they incur if they say so out loud. The sad thing is that they’re not completely wrong. You don’t need to look any further than the last two sets of elections to see that there are plenty of white Americans who are perfectly fine with racists holding power.

This tracks with my personal experience. I’m 50 now, and I was raised in the deep south. One of my early memories from when we moved to Louisiana when I was 7 is of a newsletter from the Klan which appeared in our mailbox, and my dad’s anger as he threw it in the garbage. It wasn’t unusual to hear racial slurs in public, not even used in anger, just in casual conversation. And of course the structural racism was everywhere, but it’s only in hindsight that I recognize how toxic my childhood was.

But here’s the thing. While the situation has improved some, it’s only done so on the margins, and recent events both locally and nationally show that any advancement made toward ending or even reducing racism can easily be stripped away unless people stand up, and when I say people I mean specifically white people because it’s on us to end racism in the US.

Racism is about power, and white people still have most of it. Marginally less than they did when I was a kid in the 70’s, but still most of it. And it’s not like we earned it either. It was bestowed upon us by structures built and maintained by our ancestors, structures so old that they are part of the landscape now, more mountain than mall, more sky than skyscraper. But even though these structures may look, at first glance, to be both permanent and indestructible, they are not. Any structure can be pulled down. It takes people with power willing to do it.

Power is relative. I don’t feel powerful most of the time. I’m not famous. I’m not a boss. I don’t have a fancy job. But I can walk into a room of strangers and be seen instead of ignored. I can walk through a department store and never feel security watching me. When I speak, people don’t assume I have an agenda, and if I pretend to be an expert on a subject, no one ever questions my credentials, no matter how dumb my opinions are. That’s power, and I did nothing to earn it. I have it because these structures we all grow up in send the message that I look the part of a person with power and should be treated as such.

So if I want that to change (and I do), I have to use my power both to pull down those structures and to stand against those people who want to maintain and strengthen them. And I want to be clear about something–going to a show of solidarity or a protest in itself doesn’t do much. It has to be part of a much larger effort.

But it’s an important part all the same, because messages matter, symbols matter, public statements matter. When white supremacists say that they are brave truth tellers, it’s my job, and the job of my fellow white people, to tell them that they are liars in the loudest, most public way possible. That’s what Drake University did today, and I was proud to be there.



November 15, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Shakespeare in Translation

I decided a number of years ago that I wouldn’t pass judgment on poems or collections other than to say that they didn’t work for me for whatever reason. I try to articulate those reasons when I review books or talk about poems, but sometimes the answer is as simple as “I am not the intended audience for this work.” Sometimes what I mean is that the poems aren’t making me work enough. That’s not to say I need poems to be deliberately obscure or hermetic or syntactically disjointed (tho I don’t often mind a bit of that), but I want to engage with the poem, and that means it can’t all be spelled out for me.

So I got this book in the mail a couple of days ago, and man, am I not the audience for it. That’s not unusual–I get a lot of books because I’ve been editing at The Rumpus for almost 10 years now, and I’m basically on every mailing list there is at this point. It’s titled Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Retold, and it’s a first book by a British writer named James Anthony who, based on the bio in the book, doesn’t have much in the way of formal training in poetry or writing. And I want to give him credit here–he did a lot of work on this project. He “translated” all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets into contemporary English, and kept the iambic pentameter and the three quatrains + closing couplet structure intact. But my problems with this work can be summed up by the description of the book on its back cover.

That third paragraph starts “This collection of masterful reinterpretations brilliantly demystifies and breathes new life into Shakespeare’s most personal work.” And that’s a completely fair description of what this book does. For example, see if you can guess which sonnet this is from the translation:

Don’t let me say two people cannot wed
By false constraint: love really isn’t real
If, when life changes, love becomes misled,
Or when apart, one doesn’t love with zeal.

Those are the opening lines of Sonnet 116. And yep, it demystifies the hell out of that poem. And this is what I mean about not being the audience for this poem. I’m sure there are people out there who have to read Shakespeare’s sonnets and are intimidated by it because of the language or because they think they don’t know how to read poems and this could be an entryway into Shakespeare’s sonnets for them. And fortunately, this book has the Shakespeare on the facing page for comparison, so said reader could possibly compare the two and perhaps recognize where the original has more subtlety and room for interpretation. At least that’s how I hope this book will be read, if someone is going to read it at all. I’d really rather people read Shakespeare and dig the mystery.

November 4, 2018 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment