Sunday, January 11, 2009

"You know I don't mean you"

Written by Claudia, crossposted from The Bottom of Heaven



This week I spent some quality time with Dear Darkness: Poems by the incredible poet, Kevin Young. He draws on his Louisiana roots in this new collection, mourning the loss of family and faith with the characteristic voice of a bluesman. Poems such as “Another Autumn Elegy” are particularly moving, while other verses use images of food in funny and surprisingly reflective ways. Take the “Prayer for Black-Eyes Peas”: “harbor me & I pledge each / inch of my waist not to waste / you, to clean my plate / each January & like you / not look back.”

But I was especially excited to discover that Dear Darkness reprints what is, without a doubt, one of my favorite poems about the adolescent negotiations of race:

“No Offense”

If you wonder why
I’m not laughing, go ask
Brian, the sixth-grade cutup
the one with the most dirty jokes
who requested the tribal African song
Tina Singu each music class, black
vinyl spinning while Brian made
faces, knocked his knees together
like eggs. If you are curious about
me, just ask the boy who riddled
the whole playground or me
& my friends walking
home: What do you get
when you cross a black person

with a Smurf? I am sure today
he would answer you, would explain
now that he meant No offense just
like he did then above the crowd
of girls leaning close or the boys
trying to get his timing down,
just as after the punchline
he always said You know I don’t
mean you. It’s OK. And when
you see that boy whose last name
I don’t seem to remember, be sure
to tell him that this here Smigger
could care less yet could never care
more, that my blue
& brown body is more
than willing to inform
him offense is one hostage
I have never taken.

– from Dear Darkness: Poems by Kevin Young

When I first read “No Offense,” I thought about Nikki Giovanni, who wrote in 1968 that “childhood remembrances are always a drag / if you’re Black.” Perhaps Kevin Young’s poem is the “Nikki-Rosa” of our modern and supposedly more-progressive generation, one meant to reap the benefits of desegregation and civil rights struggles. (At least, that’s what Rudy, Vanessa, and Theo Huxtable would have us believe.)

So what I find most striking about "No Offense" is the unmistakable rage - and sadness? - that lingers beneath its playground pranks and pop culture references. Young skillfully creates that familiar moment when so many black youths are first confronted with the racial implications of privilege and difference in this country. His ironic tone becomes more and more combative as the poem moves us from a sixth-grade music class to an implied hostage crisis. And then there is this odd, politically incorrect Smurf joke, told through the shared language of 1980s Saturday morning cartoons, with its hidden punchline ("Smigger") and the kind of double meaning ("blue / & brown body) that would make Louis Armstrong proud.

I’ve encountered more than a few kids like Brian, the jokes heard and overheard on the playground, and the humiliating non-apology: you know I don’t mean you. Kevin Young is only a few years older than me, which is probably why the sting of that single, perfect phrase - “It’s OK” - feels so uncanny. But reading “No Offense” doesn’t make me feel depressed or angry. For me, there’s something thrilling about seeing a shared experience, even a painful one, so precisely re-imagined. Like comparing scars and war stories with an old Army buddy you’ve never met.
I’d love to hear other thoughts on Young’s poem. Does it strike a chord with you, too? Or do you have a different view?

Tami's note: I have been working on a post asking which is most offensive to our modern society: Calling someone a racist or actually being one. It's sometimes hard to tell in "post-racial" America. Increasingly, the mainstream is quick to take offense at the people of color's offense at "harmless" prejudice--Smigger jokes, "Magic Negro" ditties, tomahawk-wielding mascots, Carlos Mencia's want-to-be-edgy "beaner" humor. We're just too damned sensitive, y'know--too P.C. But I wonder if those who wish we would stop talking about racism so much realize how often people of color swallow our offense.--it starts on the playground and continues in the dorm room, in the board room, in the bedroom, etc. Do they know how many times we hear "You know I don't mean you" or "No offense?" Just asking.

Look for my post on Tuesday.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this poem "No Offense."
I'm amazed in this day and age that this kind of joking isn't eliminated from public discourse.
And I've always explained what P.C. really means-- Plain Courtesy.
The prime offenders of the "can't you take a joke crowd" are usually teenage boys.
And knowing how each day I hear sexist nonsense all over the place, it's not a question of how much anger I swallow, but that there is not enough time for me to confront every stupid boy or man that pulls this garbage off.
In all white groups, I can assure you that racism is alive and well. This election proved that sexism and racism are continuing to be dandy dance partners, and that most in America still don't get the damage this does to young girls and boys who have to deal with the playground bullies.
Very few men ever say "You know I don't mean you" when they voice a sexist joke by the way. With women they feel they can stomp on us and get away with it. That's the difference.

L. said...

I absolutely can not wait for your upcoming post! I just actually just wrote about this on my own blog, and have always (well, within the past 2 or so years) why it seems that some people continue to paint being called a racist as equally offensive (if not more) than actually being on the receiving end of racism.

Anonymous said...

Yes L. you have hit the proverbial nail on the head. Why is this? To be on the receiving end of racism is so damaging, and this damage doesn't go away.
People who are called racists, are racists. They just don't see it that way, because they aren't on the receiving end of the abuse day in and day out.
The only way you can ever really "get" what racism is, is to be on the receiving end. It is experiential and NOT intellectual at all.
This nuance "why is it?" is something that people who claim not to be racists will never understand. They simply think they'll never be called on the carpet for this behavior ever, but times have changed!
Just every body read Tami! There's no excuse for ignorance now with all these blogs.

Lucie @ Unconventional Origins said...

I enjoyed this post at ARP and I liked hearing your thoughts over here. I look forward to your post Tuesday.

I am in a Race and the Law class this semester, and to some of the white men in the room being called a racist is as bad as slavery and Jim Crow. Seriously, they get really upset. To me, being so upset about someone calling you a racist is an indicator that you have your own prejudices you are not comfortable with tackling yet.

JimPanzee said...

This poem is brilliant...the language evocative and real. Although I question the descriptors of "with the voice of a bluesman" and "that would make Louis Armstrong proud." The poem, although good, evokes neither of these to me. Are you using them only because the poet is from Louisiana?

And in response to the commenter above me. A lot of white people don't like to be called racist because they feel there's an injustice in condemning someone for a fault that they don't feel they have. Of course, there's a sociological argument that there's a little racism in most people, but at an individual level such a judgment should be reserved until after some knowledge of the person, their background and preferences is established.

Nobody likes being accused of being something negative that they aren't. The natural reaction, I think, should be one of offense.

L. said...

"And in response to the commenter above me. A lot of white people don't like to be called racist because they feel there's an injustice in condemning someone for a fault that they don't feel they have. Of course, there's a sociological argument that there's a little racism in most people, but at an individual level such a judgment should be reserved until after some knowledge of the person, their background and preferences is established."

See, that's the thing I don't understand. If you knew someone who lied, and you knew they lied, would you hesitate in calling them a liar? Even if you only caught them in one lie. If you knew for sure they were lying, you would say "hey, you're lying" or "that's a lie" or simply "liar."

If someone does something racist, then that person most likely DOES have some prejudice against those of a certain race. I don't think that automatically makes them evil. If you do or say something racist and get branded as such but find that to be problematic, then don't do or say something racist. On the part of the person calling out the racist, I think it is their responsibility to explain why something was offensive and racist. But in no way, shape, or form is being called a racist equivocal to or worse than being on the receiving end of prejudice and oppression.

KL said...

Hi, thanks for posting the poem and a quick analysis of some elements that I realize I would have missed had you not explained them. The experience just reminded me of something a boy in high school once said to me while I was talking to him about something he must have considered non-female territory: "Wow, you're smarter than other girls." Yeah, "complimenting" the one at the expense of the many is not actually a compliment; "excluding" the one from an insult to the many is not a great reassurance.

Anonymous said...

@L, re: Jimpanzee:
"See, that's the thing I don't understand. If you knew someone who lied, and you knew they lied, would you hesitate in calling them a liar? Even if you only caught them in one lie. If you knew for sure they were lying, you would say "hey, you're lying" or "that's a lie" or simply "liar.""

Yes, they would hesitate.
What I believe Jimpanzee is leaving out is the similar tendency of the same faction to defend people they don't know, and who sometimes aren't even in the room, against charges of racism from people who *do* know the offender or at least know more about racism and its history, and even when the defenders know the *accuser* better than the offender, and subsequently normally would have better reason to trust their judgment.

Actually, the behavior you're describing is a common psychological defense mechanism, and in this case, it can really only be committed by someone with racist beliefs . I.e., one has to identify with the perpetrator more than the accuser in order to defend them when there is much more compelling evidence and reason to side with the accuser. Why would they do that??
I'm gonna go ahead and look for a horse instead of a zebra on this one: you're talking to racists and sympathizers. Many people who do this think they're calling for you to be being "humane" but they've betrayed their own preferred definition of "human" in the the process. Else, why insist on giving the "benefit of the doubt" to someone you have the most reason to doubt in that instance? Or instead of just remaining undecided instead of trying to talk you out of your perception? I know only two answers to those questions and both of them are racist.

People who weren't exhibiting racism might rather ask you to "rise above" offenses, without denying the content or its effects, but the fact that they're telling you anything, especially to do what you and your ancestors have already done for centuries and every day, instead of calling someone else to account for their negative actions, begs its own questions as well.

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