Redactions to Reveal: Poetry in an Age of Censorship

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The censorship of artists is not a new practice, but it feels lately like events and structures are realigning the boundaries of personal expression. As regimes around the world attempt to control or discredit the way they are portrayed in the media, artists still struggle to slowly peel back the dark spaces when words fail to rise to the surface. John Gosslee’s Out of Context is a collection of 70 poems chosen from his earlier redaction project, in which 333 poems by well-known poets were beautifully printed on parchment paper before — without pausing to think or go back to correct his markings — Gosslee set out to rework them. This project explored the manipulation of the written word; ultimately, the 70 poems selected for Out of Context speak to the toll erasure takes on any given artist. Likewise, the collection highlights how an artist can feel empowered to seek a world of new meaning and relevance, while creating a space between personal expression and quiet reflection for a reader to reside in.

Out of Context arrives at a particularly complicated moment. Many of the challenges we are facing today are related to the influence and reach of the internet, and revolve around the interpretation and repurposing of language, “alternate facts” and all. Gosslee seems to have been emboldened by this moment — his redactions are a brisk yet carefully constructed reawakening of meaning, using work from poetic icons such as Marie Howe, Terrance Hayes, Sharon Olds, and Sandra Cisneros. In fortifying his message along the framework of those that came before him, Gosslee doesn’t so much as obstruct their words from being viewed, but forges new, deeply personal narratives to challenge his audience.

Like some of the pioneers of the practice, Gosslee shows a deft hand at selecting the path his own poem will tread, with some redactions seemingly walking that fine line between chaos and conscious creation. And while the charm of redactive poetry at times relies on the audience being somewhat familiar with what was originally on the page, it is best to approach Gosslee’s intimate interactions with the source material as newly harvested truth. While “Out of Context” provides the names and titles of the original poems, his voice erupts out of every page; the thick black markings not coming to represent censorship, but a celebration of poetic freedom expressed through the redactor’s eye. For instance, in “What I Mean When I Say Forever,” reclaimed lines like:
messy mathematics overlooking remainders–

the interplay of seasons


spread the petals at their feet. I may even add

a bit of wind to the ordinaries of day, if she’ll remain
express the beautiful interplay of quantified emotions and language.

Gosslee also proves that there is some humor to be found in his redactions. For example, in “Fun Mentals,”(built out of the skeleton of Rae Armantrout’s “Fundamentals”) the poem is reshaped into an exploration of size and emotional relatability.
Why is it

to be


is terrific,

but to be



Redaction poetry is as much a visual experience as it is an emotional appeal through words. Most of the arrangements — such as “An Venture” — are particularly stunning when viewed from a physical remove. The deliberate change from partial scratches to thick blackening and then back to a combination of the two reveals that Gosslee is mirroring the conflicted range of emotions carried throughout the piece. In other poems, the markings are heavier, more subdued, speaking to a kind of resignation.

Gosslee’s poems seem to ask “How can we be seen when there is so much set in place to obstruct truth?” In communion with this question, there are moments in Out of Context wherein Gosslee reveals a passive relationship to the original text. Choosing instead to work within the adage “less is more,” Gosslee reshapes two lipogram poems by Cathy Park Hong, “Ballad in O” and “Ballad in I” by stripping the stanzas down and leaving them bare. These redactions bind the reader’s focus to Hong’s use of assonance and not on the surrounding adornments of narrative and setting.

The book is a meditation on building from the past; Gosslee allows us to question whether context matters when words are passed between bodies. The project can be seen as a practice in poetic indulgence; a celebration of both the tactile and visual senses; or a selfless orientation among poetic voices. When Gosslee converses with the past, as he does in the beautifully crafted “Turn Your Work of Art,” the reader is witness to a unity between the voices in the collection. The lines:

in danger of wanting

permission to


Before you die
seem to turn the collection inward. Gosslee’s conversation — though one-sided — also measures art, not as a single point to reach, but as sustained note in time.

The idea of using published poems by other poets as a framework is challenging, and some may call into question Gosslee’s intentions when creating Out of Context. The act of blacking out the words of another artist’s work and, as a result, changing the meaning of the piece, is a dangerous balancing act, one of which Gosslee seems well aware. In a conversation with the L.A. Review of Books, Gosslee acknowledges the “violent” nature of his redactions, as well as his own privilege and power to execute them. “It was very important to me to cite each of the original authors and the original work as the title of each piece to invite readers to explore the original,” Gosslee tells LARB. Not only is it problematic, some would say, for an artist to strike out another artist’s’ words just to supplant them with their own, but a more complicated (and weighted) issue arises when his practice viewed as a white man retooling the work of poets from marginalized groups, re-working without being invited so to do.

Gosslee seems cognizant, if unapologetic, of his work in relation to what was on the page before; beyond the opening pages of Out of Context are a small collection of Gosslee’s thoughts on the matter. In one, he writes:
The history of redactions is ancient and often inspects ideas of censorship, thought-control, and, in literature, the appropriation of non-poetic text into poetry. I wondered, what if the hand didn’t move over the newspaper like Austin Kleon’s Newspaper Blackouts…What if living poet’s works were the subjects?
What Gosslee asks of his reader throughout Out of Context is not to absolve him of these questions of authenticity but instead use them as a lens to parse each page. In this way, it becomes obvious that the change occurring is not merely that of the words on the page, but of Gosslee himself. What tethers the works together, through space and time, is his authentic reaction to the process of reading and rebuilding. Of a poem Gosslee drew from Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel, he writes
When I redacted a portion of Gabriel by Edward Hirsch, I cried. The love of a father for his son was so moving that I couldn’t help it. I thought about how I might feel in Hirsch’s place if I knew about the redaction of such a personally meaningful text. I thought about how I’d feel as a reader if I only knew about the redaction 50 years after Hirsch, and that helped me hold to the goal of the project…
It’s worth questioning the implication of authorship and erasure in his work; the “goal” Gosslee alludes to in the interview is as layered as some of the various poems he has chosen in this collection. Is it an invocation or reintroduction of past voices? Is it a more political stance, that which declares the impossibility of truly silencing the artist? Or is this more of an act to draw attention — a declaration that Gosslee sees himself as able to stand toe-to-toe with the poets which have moved him over his lifetime?

These are questions to carry through the collection. Out of Context should be experienced on its artistic merit. Yet it’s the project’s emphasis on gaining through loss, as well as its brazenness in committing what might be perceived as poetic transgression — that reminds us how artists lead the way in pushing the boundaries of expression, in times when the written and spoken word seems particularly challenged.

The Germ Has Spread: How America Elected a Reality Show President

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Back in June, an article titled “5 Reasons Why Trump Will Win” (penned by Michael Moore) showed up on my news feed and, because I was tracking the election rather closely, I read it. I then read it again. After the third time, I shared the article around and asked for people’s’ opinions. While this article and his subsequent rounds on talk shows have made Moore one of the many prominent figures that will be forever tied to Donald Trump’s unlikely run to the White House, there is one person who has him beat by roughly 30 years. When Neil Postman published Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business back in 1986, he set his sights on what he saw was a change in the way society was being swayed by the spectacle of the visual message in media. Unfortunately, even he could not foresee how his look into the harmful influence of television and media overexposure was completely foreshadowing the rise of Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, and our first “Reality Show President.”

It is necessary, before we juxtapose the Trump candidacy to Postman’s work, that we fully understand a few of the theories posed in Amusing Ourselves to Death. To rationalize his theory, Postman quotes the philosopher Lewis Mumford who, in his book Technic and Civilization, deconstructs our society’s propensity to become addicts of information. For this, Mumford uses the invention of the clock as an example. He believed that when we created this tool to measure increments of time, we effectively became “time-keepers, and then time-savers, and now time-servers.” In other words, we created a tool to measure time, and in doing so, produced a new form of currency that would come to shape our society — we crafted the golden calf and then worshipped at its feet.

Looking at our current relationship with media and what constitutes news in this day and age reveals that we have learned nothing from creating false idols. News and information are now produced in cycles, with hundreds if not thousands of people working to create content for every second of battery life on your cellphone. Postman, writing long before the smart phone, would trace our poisoned, ever-flowing information stream to our fascination with celebrity. He begins Amusing Ourselves to Death by claiming that our society’s unhealthy attraction to polarizing characters in media is reminiscent of the brilliance and spectacle of a city like Las Vegas:
Las Vegas is a city entirely devoted to entertainment, and as such proclaims the spirit of a culture in which public discourse increasingly takes the form of entertainment. Our politics, religion, news, athletics, education and commerce have been transformed into into congenial adjunct of show business, largely without protest or even much popular notice.
While it stands as a perfect representation of the times, and likewise a great visual, the analogy of Vegas seems almost pedestrian now. Postman was writing in the age before the reality star; a time when MTV was just a channel dedicated to music, and outlandish public spectacle did not equate ratings. Popular TV shows at the time included The Cosby Show, Cheers, and Family Ties — shows that served as reflections of what we told ourselves were American values. Conflict was only just beginning to seep into our TV sets, mostly through trashy talk shows hosted by the likes of Geraldo Rivera and Richard Bey.

While Postman looked to television as the source of our media addiction, the Internet age has amplified this by orders of magnitude. Retweet, Repost, Tag, and Repeat have become embedded into our everyday mantras along with brush your teeth and wash your hands. According to studies like one carried out by ZenithOptMedia, Americans consume almost eight hours of media per day, with that number steadily rising. Postman’s world became reliant on the effectiveness and speed of the televised message; we have grown into a society that gets bombarded by thousands of different messages each day. This has become so ingrained into our society, and we have become so numb to rolling this boulder up the steep precipice, that we have now slipped into a practice of relying on information that is served in small, bite-sized portions in order to consume more. I myself found Amusing Ourselves to Death only after reading the small blurb posted by a friend and clicking a link. Information served to us in this buffet format forces us to be selective. We can’t process everything, so instead we fall for “clickbait” articles, hashtags, and buzzwords. We have become a society hooked on riskier avenues of information, with riskier personalities at the helm.

I always take whatever Moore produces with a grain of salt, but I took notice of his open letter to America in which he detailed why Trump was destined to win in November. Moore likened the American public to a person who, looking at the spectacle of Niagara Falls, “wonders for a moment what it would feel like to go over that thing.” Trump was too much of a magnet, too much of a spectacle, for us to ignore. His supporters, people so dissatisfied with the effectiveness of their government, boldly chose to brave the roaring falls of a Trump presidency. To his opponents, Trump still served as a form of amusement. Both camps were fueled by entertainment we were fed by the sometimes ludicrous missteps of the media.

It’s saying a lot about us when we come to fully accept the deceptive candidate propaganda and attack ads that are built into our political climate. It’s saying even more when any candidate who attempts to take the “high road” and stick to the issues does so at the risk of coming off as human (just ask John Kasich). While some of us groaned and complained about “dirty politics” and the lack of civilized discourse, we also tuned into the presidential debates in droves to see what horrible thing Trump would say next. It became less about policies and more about quotable insults to post and share. As a result, the movement to get Donald Trump elected was fought on two fronts: one of image and one of misinformation. While Trump the candidate scowled into the camera and provided the entertainment value without any actual credible evidence for his claims, others worked to circulate false information online. While this is par for the course in politics, for this election, it proved to be highly effective in reinforcing the Trump base. According to a Florida PPP poll held in October, while 84 percent of Trump supporters believed that Hillary Clinton should have been imprisoned, another 40 percent legitimately claimed to believe that she was an actual living demon. Even to this day, months after Trump’s Inauguration Day speech, there are many fanatics who believe the toxic message spread throughout the campaigns.

Postman writes, “American businessmen discovered, long before the rest of us, that the quality and usefulness of their goods are subordinate to the artifice of their display.” During Trump’s run, the media produced several pieces of damning evidence to discredit him. Like the showman that he is, Trump turned the blame back onto the media, describing them as corrupt and “crooked.” In short, when Trump undermined the validity of the mainstream media, he effectively gave agency to fringe news outlets. Maybe during Postman’s time these outliers spreading fanatical misinformation would be nothing more than people handing pamphlets out in subways or having their hateful propaganda relegated to hard-to-find shows on the radio dial. But during our election, the Internet allowed for the sharing and re-sharing of this misinformation. And by the time anyone was ready to strike these claims down, it was 1,000 to 2,000 shares too late — the germ had spread.

Trump rolled through the entire process speaking (and tweeting) whatever he wanted to, knowing full well that, as Postman describes, “It is not necessary to conceal anything from a public insensible to contradiction and narcotized by technological diversions.”

Trump dominated his own message throughout his run — seemingly alienating women, immigrants, and the Black and Latino vote. But just like a train-wreck of a reality show, he was only rewarded for behaving badly. According to The New York Times, although he ranked the lowest in actual spending on advertising during his run, Trump received close to $2 billion in free publicity by news outlets and social media — yes, the same media he was condemning. As described in this article, the significance of “earned media” (as it’s called) “typically dwarfs paid media in a campaign. The big difference between Mr. Trump and other candidates is that he is far better than any other candidate — maybe than any candidate ever — at earning media.” This, coupled with Trump’s continued mastery of 140 characters to manipulate both his supporters and detractors into keeping his messages in circulation, led to a fundamental change in how we have attached truth to “celebrity” in this country.

By the time Election Day came, the Democratic Party (and eventually the media) had wasted all of their efforts trying to prove that he was unfit for presidency when in actuality, to his supporters, he became legitimized the more popular culture rejected him.  The Left, after finally deciding to take him seriously, tried to attack the man’s character without acknowledging that he was a character. That he was a product of a society that has been groomed, through the popularity of reality television, to reward people whose sole motivation is to rock the boat, even at the detriment of those who can’t swim.

In validating our reality show president, we may have just incited the absolute worst product of any reality show — the spinoffs. In electing Trump based on nothing but his celebrity status alone, this has allowed for the emergence of toxic figures such as Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer, Stephen Miller, and Steve Bannon to be featured on our TV screens.

But Postman didn’t just warn us against the popularization of polarizing figures. In its most telling chapter, entitled “And Now … This,” Postman explains the start of the Reagan era, citing details eerily similar to those we have seen in our 45th President, more than years later. He writes, “President Reagan’s aides used to become visibly alarmed at suggestions that he had given mangled and perhaps misleading accounts of his policies or of current events in general.” Substitute their names in this quote and maybe Trump’s insistence to evoke similarities between himself and Reagan are worth some merit.

What may provide the most revealing mirror of our current culture is what Postman writes about the quality of information circulating at the time. While Reagan was providing dubious claims on specific events throughout the world, the media was faltering in its attempt at properly providing a filter for its audience. He states:
What is happening here is that television is altering the meaning of ‘being informed’ by creating a species of information that might properly be called disinformation. I am using this word almost in the precise sense in which it is used by spies in the CIA or KGB. Disinformation does not mean false information. It means misleading information — misplaced, irrelevant, fragmented or superficial information — information that creates the illusion of knowing something but which in fact leads one away from knowing.
In just this small section, Postman sums up what our news outlets and mainstream media sources have been up against in Trump’s first 30 days in office. In that time, I have yet to find a better definition for what we are now calling “fake news” and “alternative facts” than the one Postman outlines in this chapter.

Postman warns that during the Reagan presidency, this all led to an oversaturation and overexertion by the press and the people who avidly follow politics. Reagan’s “disinformation” eventually became so common that the news outlets and citizen’s seemed to care less about its validity. In other words, they had reached a threshold for the amount of “disinformation” the public could absorb before the abnormal became the norm, regardless of how many articles reporters produced. In other words, while the press continued its stand on fact-checking the president, the audience (the American public) became complacent in the face of the constant bombardment.

This leads to a section of Postman’s which should be outlined and sent to anyone who is already beginning to feel “Trump fatigue.” Our president and his mouthpieces are attempting to use the same tactics Reagan and his administration used to handle things such as White House leaks and unflattering press. As a result, the usual way to engage in critiquing our current presidency is doomed to fail. Simply pointing out inconsistencies and outright fabrications will not be enough to win out in the end. To understand this better, Postman does a fantastic job at describing the two schools of discourse at play here. Explaining his own upbringing, he calls his approach “typographic discourse” which is a linear way of disseminating fact from fiction. To Postman, an essay written by one of his students cannot contain a paragraph with one view posed as “true” and then be directly followed an opposing viewpoint that is then also posed as a truth. Postman writes, “The difference between us is that I assume…one paragraph and the next to be connected, to be continuous, to be part of the same coherent world of thought. That is the way of typographic discourse, and typography is the universe I’m ‘coming from.’” He then explains that the new form of discourse — one that we are facing right now during this presidency — is fragmented discourse, which he describes as “The fundamental assumption that the world is not coherence but discontinuity. And in a world of discontinuities, contradiction is useless as a test of truth or merit, because contradiction does not exist.” Trump’s uncanny ability to brush aside full-blown media pieces about his numerous inconsistencies and contradictions proves that this is a coordinated effort to use fractured discourse to demoralize opposing voices.

There are differences between the world we live in and the one Postman is outlining in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman wrote that while the Reagan administration was tactfully adjusting the the quality of information coursing through the country to best suit its needs, it wasn’t actively trying to bend the mainstream media to its whim. He explains, “The President does not have the press under his thumb. The New York Times and The Washington Post are not Pravda; the Associated Press is not Tass. And there is no Newspeak here. Lies have not been defined as truth nor truth as lies.” Aside from the Russian propaganda parallels (which today pick up a whole new meaning), many people wonder whether Trump is in fact trying to do that very thing. His war against the media — going as far to name The New York Times, WaPo, and the AP by name as detriments to society (“enemy of the American People!”) is, for many, a move to control or outright silence media who print dissent. And, many could say, the “lies defined as truth and truth defined as lies” has been part of the Trump mainstay since he announced his candidacy.

For those who did not vote for Trump, it may be assuring to know that Neil Postman survived two terms of the Reagan Presidency. Does Postman offer any advice on avoiding electing another reality show president?  While he admits that he lacks the competence to find a “cure” for America’s addiction to spectacle, he does offer a few ideas. Most notably, Postman believes we should curb the amount of time spent within the media loop to avoid oversaturation. A second, more humorous, piece of advice would be to “require all political commercials to be preceded by a short statement to the effect that common sense has determined that watching political commercials is hazardous to the intellectual health of the community.”

For now, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman is a must-read in the Trump era, both for the public and those covering this presidency — a resource for those of us who aren’t here for the spectacle.

Image Credit: Pixabay.

What Percival Everett’s ‘Erasure’ Can Tell Us about Authenticity

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When I first read Percival Everett’s Erasure, it was assigned to me by Gregory Pardlo. Years removed from his Pulitzer Prize, Pardlo was a professor in Hunter College teaching “Multicultural Literature,” a course as challenging and thought-provoking as the man himself. For an entire semester, Pardlo (lovingly) demanded that we see the error of labeling creative works as “Asian” or “Black;” he told us that ascribing a culture with homogeneous traits does not empower the people lashed to said traits, that the authors who peddle this work are reinforcing, unconsciously or not, the foundations of institutional racism. Shuffled between Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, I opened up the pages of Erasure and was immediately annotating line after line, scribbling in the margins, folding pages for future reference.  Everett posed a question that remains unanswered 15 years later, although the argument is louder, or more visible, than ever: Who is qualified to write about underrepresented communities? What is the “authentic black voice?”

In Erasure, we follow the absurd life of Thelonious Ellison, or Monk, as he’s known: a protagonist whose biggest, fiercest antagonists are his own intelligence and boredom. A writer, Monk is told throughout his life — by black and white constituents — that he is “not black enough:”
I have heard this mainly about my novels, from editors who have rejected me and reviewers whom I have apparently confused and, on a couple of occasions, on a basketball court when upon missing a shot I muttered Egads.
Though he shares his name with two African-American artists, Monk tries to distance himself from what passes as African-American art in the present day. Existing in a world of his own, Monk is constantly reminded that he is “different,” even within his own family; his writing hinges so close to his own interests and intrinsic intellect that it comes across as alien. Monk’s own father tells him when he’s young:
‘You have a special mind. The way you see things. If I had the patience to figure out what you were saying sometimes, I know you’d make me a smarter man.’
While Monk’s intelligence and overall awkwardness seems to barely keep him afloat both in his writing career and academia, he begins to notice that another writer is benefiting from public ignorance. Throughout the story, Monk is forced to confront the success of We Lives in the Ghetto, a fictional book written by Juanita Mae Jenkins, which is lauded by critics and owes its success through its inclusion of prostitution, underage pregnancy, and violence. This has earned the book the reputation of epitomizing what one review calls the “experience which is and can only be Black America.” Monk sees Juanita — an allusion to Sapphire, the author of Push, and others of her ilk — as the embodiment of everything that he feels is wrong with cultural classification in the literary world.

Everett lays out the two major pitfalls of navigating author authenticity. The first deals with the stress writers of color deal when navigating their own narratives. Pushed to the brink, Monk pens My Pafology, a book triple stuffed with every stereotype imaginable (its chapters are titled “Won,” “Too,” “Free,” “Fo”) and ships it off to the publisher. He aims for the manuscript to be so emphatically rejected, for it to completely insult every person who turns its pages that Monk can then point to it as proof that the black experience in America is not universal. He banks on these people in power, the Gatekeepers of the publishing world, being able to identify his obvious dishonesty. He wants to be found a liar.

But of course, My Pafology become regarded as an opus of the African-American experience. As his own personal narrative unravels, Monk accepts the book deal as the offer price soars, and even dresses up to pose as the walking stereotype and author of My Pafology, Stagg R. Lee. By becoming the writer he hates, Monk becomes an extension of the industry bigotry he was intending to fight. By this time, Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, the man whose name calls back to icons of African American art and culture, vanishes, erasing himself while attempting to fit the model he is forced into. Everett paints the people in the publishing world and academic circles, who aid Monk in his self-immolation, as completely out of touch with reality. They are imbecilic, cartoonishly naive.

In the current literary world, there are failsafes built into the process of publication to manage author authenticity, although they are not absolute. We can plan parades for the new emerging voices, but a James Frey or, more recently, a Michael Derrick Hudson will come around to disrupt the common order. Hudson found himself sitting on a poem which had been rejected (on his count) 40 times by publishers. So he changed the name — not of the poem, but his own. Michael Derrick Hudson became Yi-Fen Chou and now Chou’s poem, “The Bees, the Followers, Jesus, Ancient Tigers, Poseidon, Adam and Eve,” quickly found itself published and honored in the Best American Poetry Anthology of 2015. The editor of that year’s poetry selection was none other than Sherman Alexie who, in an explanation for his selection of Chou’s (or Hudson’s) work, laid out the credentials for his process. While these included specifics such as not selecting work from friends and not factoring in a poet’s larger body of work, there were two rules that helped Hudson become our real-life Monk. Alexie made the decision to pay special attention to underrepresented demographics, namely women and people of color.

There is nothing wrong with an editor’s choice to strictly follow these rules, and it’s commendable to hear that a person in Alexie’s position is being especially sensitive to the disenfranchised. But as David Orr points out in his New York Times coverage of the scandal, Alexie’s selection process reveals inherent holes in gauging authenticity. No matter what his intent was, he admitted to using a standard with very poor checks in place for success, which was exactly the fallacy practiced by the editors and publishers who greenlighted Stagg R. Lee. It is in these moments in which those who prepare to combat bias begin by performing a bias of their own, and this is the trap Alexie set his bed on. As Orr explains:
The problem, as the Yi-Fen Chou case demonstrates, is that this accommodation can be a tricky business when our ideas about excellence in poems collide with our ideas about the worthiness of poets.
This exposes a major flaw in artistic perception in publishing. In Erasure, everyone is fooled by Stagg R. Lee. And while Monk wrote My Pafology (whose title he later shortens just to Fuck) to fly in the face of convention — standing as a big fiery middle finger towards an establishment that he feels seeks to earn a profit by deciding which voices are heard and which are silenced — this plan backfires when the established “Gatekeepers” in publishing failed to get the joke. If anything, the Hudson/Chou debacle proves that even though we are now more intensely sensitive to issues of race and class, if a man is able to take the place of a more deserving writer with a simple Word document name change, this system is as flawed as what was already in place.

So what is different from the world Erasure shows us and our world now? If we can’t depend on the morals of the writer or the objectivity of the editors and publishers, how do we navigate the shoals of the authenticity debate? When Erasure was published, the power and reach of the Internet were vastly different from today. Reddit and Twitter have become socially acceptable places to air grievances and watch them either garner support or get ripped apart. The comments section of articles are modern-day gladiator arenas wherein combatants thrash their opponents, helmets of anonymity firmly fastened. It is in these arenas, ones which were basically absent in the world Monk inhabited, that a parallel set of Gatekeepers has grown in voice and influence. Now everyone can afford a soapbox. And while, the result is not always productive, there has been no greater time than now for social injustices to come to light with relative immediacy.

A perfect recent example is the publication of the book Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters, which has garnered attention primarily because of the glowing write-up it received in The New York Times. The story follows the journey of Victor (at some points also known as Jim): a freed slave who becomes a bounty hunter of other slaves against the backdrop of a United States that never abolished slavery. Winters is not a stranger to retooling history for his narratives (his Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters was popular amongst some critics for its conceit in the “mashup” genre), and novels involving slavery are not uncommon — many have surfaced in the last year. But critics took issue with the fact that Winters, a white author, is not only writing about slavery but also choosing to carry the voice and perspective of a black man. In the Times write-up (by Alexandra Alter), Lev Grossman is quoted as praising Winters for being “fearless.” Meanwhile, the book, ahead of its release, has already landed a television deal.

The backlash on social media was instantaneous. The primary question was why a white man writing about slavery in the skin of a black man constituted as a “fearless” act. Winters explained that his goal was to make literal the idea that “slavery is still with us” (which prompted the follow-up question, “With whom, exactly?”). But what also has people troubled is the fact that a white author felt himself “prepared” to write about the volatile subject matter of slavery by studying black pieces of literature. While you can be sure that Winters did “read and reread literary classics by Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Zora Neale Hurston,” to help place himself in context, many people cited this as a perfect example of how white privilege pervades publishing.

Yet this immediate public reaction is the beauty of our current culture. This is what Everett was missing in Erasure. And yes, while I tell my classes that if everyone is shouting, stomping their feet, and clapping their hands, the actual amount of progress during a debate is limited — there is still something valuable in the opportunity for a variety of voices to weigh in.

While working on the first draft of this essay, my first contribution to The Millions was published. My wife tapped me later that night and asked, “Have you read what’s happening in the comments section?” Reluctantly, I scrolled through what had become a fairly complicated discussion. While the posts began with a severe thrashing of Paul Beatty’s work, the topic of author authenticity immediately came up. By the time I read the last comment, the discussion had covered opinions on Beatty’s intended audience and relative merits, misunderstandings that were quickly clarified, and recommendations for authors and music that handled the topic better. What excited me the most was that the comments even delved into my current fascination with author authenticity. With a quick scroll of the page, questions arose regarding the standards of gatekeepers within the African-American literary community. One even went as far to state that, much like Monk himself, Beatty was both the self-aware victim having to cater to a low-set bar, and a willing manifestation of the irony: a black man preaching about the limitations of his culture while shoveling a story that fails to advance the discussion in a relevant way. Sure, they weren’t able to solve the issue in 21 comments, but in having the discussion alongside the article that sparked the discussion, there was a reasonably clear exchange of ideas and ideals. It would be in this platform that My Pafology, even after clearing the first two hurdles of the author’s ethics and publishers’ close-mindedness, would have been eviscerated by avid and watchful readers.

In giving us the fall of Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, Percival Everett was forcing us to question whether it was possible to clearly define the African-American experience in our country. The intervening 15 years have seen further missteps as we try to determine the answer. But the conversation is moved forward, however discordantly, by the new guard of people thinking about art and equality. Our world is not like Monk’s, and yes, we have the Internet to thank.

Habitual Line-Steppers: Tracing Paul Beatty’s Influences

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“I’ve whispered ‘Racism’ in a post-racial world,” declares the protagonist of Paul Beatty’s The Sellout. And yet this is more a confession by Beatty himself, a warning shot by an expert marksman of diction. When his 1996 novel The White Boy Shuffle arrived, it was enough to satisfy fans of his nights onstage at the Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd. But it wasn’t until the release of The Sellout that Beatty stepped forward to share his audacious prose and penchant for outlandish diatribes with the uninitiated. The Sellout arrived as an examination of our present social dysfunctions, and succeeds in granting a marginalized group the chance to laugh, curse, scream, and celebrate.

In The Sellout, Paul Beatty introduces readers to a nameless narrator of African-American descent who lobbies for the reinstatement of segregation in his hometown of Dickens, Los Angeles. This is oversimplifying what Beatty pulls off on the page, which is a rich and calculated unearthing of social stigma and ignorance, on every side of the line — black/white, poor/rich, political/radical. With Beatty in the pilot’s seat, no one is safe. Page after page, he slings wickedly sharp satire that in lesser hands would hijack the entire narrative. Instead, Beatty’s page-long riffs land safely right back on the page, leaving the reader with just enough energy to shake her head and turn it over. “How come they never describe the white characters in relation to foodstuffs and hot liquids?” the narrator asks us. “Why aren’t there any yogurt-colored, eggshell-toned, string-cheese-skinned, low-fat-milk white protagonists in these racist, no-third-act-having books?”

In a 2000 interview with Rone Shavers for BOMB, Beatty was asked about the figures who inspire him to write with such unfiltered focus, naming Richard Pryor and Kurt Vonnegut: “By trying to be vulnerable and not (being) afraid to parody things that are important to you and to others. Those are two guys that I feel aren’t afraid to show the cursed antihero.” Beatty studied Vonnegut during the author’s boom in popularity, although he was never able to meet him. Beatty creates a lead character who –like Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim of Slaughterhouse-Five — is displaced in his own life following a violent event. In his period in time, Vonnegut connected displacement to the horrors of war by crafting a character who was “unstuck” in time. For Beatty, the institutional racism forged a character raging against the displacement of erasure. Both characters attempt to live out rational lives, but must do so using irrational means. But Beatty and Vonnegut’s scars are immensely different.

When the father of Beatty’s protagonist is gunned down by police, he attempts to resolve his anger only to find that his hometown of Dickens has literally been erased from the map. In order to be recognized by the rest of the world, he hires a slave to serve as his footstool (among other things) and then lobbies in America’s highest court for the reinstatement of segregation, as Beatty cartoonishly straps TNT to current realities. The character decides to face one injustice by burying it beneath another, setting off a series of beautifully awkward but truth-dispensing absurdities.

In every chapter, Beatty evokes, not only the pain of the African-American community, but also that of the various other cultures which society has enmeshed in the institution of racism. In one section, a character named Charisma Molina says the phrase “Too many Mexicans,” prompting a perfect example of a Beatty’s explosion of phrasing and social commentary.
The Indians, who were looking for peace and quiet, ended up finding Jesus, forced labor, the whip, and the rhythm method…White people, the type who never used to have anything to say to black people except “We have no vacancies,” “You missed a spot,” and “Rebound the basketball,” finally have something to say to us…Mexicans are to blame for everything. Someone in California sneezes, you don’t say “Gesundheit” but “Too Many Mexicans.”
Beatty wrestles this complicated issue to the ground by explaining that white supremacy is in constant need of placing the subjugated into a hierarchy: whites try to relate to black people by calling into question the character of other groups, dragging people of color into racial stereotyping.

Amazingly, Beatty did not write this book as a reaction to the current wave of police brutality and social injustice. According to Evelyn McDonnell, who has been following his career for over a decade, The Sellout was written and finished well before the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. But the message hidden within its pages harkens to our past and our future. Even the setting of The Sellout is itself a collision of the African-American past and present; the town of Dickens contains ghettos and farmland, a tapestry of the African-American struggle:
You know when you’ve entered the Farms, because the city sidewalks, along with your rims, car stereo, nerve, and progressive voting record, will have vanished into air thick with the smell of cow manure and, if the wind is blowing the right direction — good weed.
Beatty crafts Dickens to be possibly his most tragic character — that which comes to represent the beaten black body. Both are a commodity reaped after colonization. Both are treated as entities whose existence and nonexistence is decided by an elite few. The neighboring towns who voted to erase Dickens from the map did so stating that it was done “to keep their property values up and their blood pressures down,” a quote that could be plucked in this day and age from the mouths of city planners, neighborhood watches, and business owners who have never heard of Paul Beatty.

With this world as his stage, Beatty seems to relish having such a flawed mouthpiece — his very own “cursed antihero” — to guide us through the events of the book. Here is a man who, like Billy Pilgrim, is being forced to exist outside of society. But unlike Vonnegut’s protagonist, Beatty’s narrator comes to understand that his lot in life has also contributed to, and yes even benefited from, racism (he is a farmer of watermelon and weed), making him both an active practitioner and victim of the societal construct. In short, the narrator in The Sellout is able to carry the story, and do so with unapologetic zeal, because he believes that in his world, two wrongs do make a right.

Dickens is home to some farcical characters. The narrator is raised by his father, a brilliant social scientist named (of all things) Carl Jung who seems more interested in experimenting on his son than actually raising him. At another point in the book, the narrator goes on to describe someone as:
“(a) Living National Embarrassment. A mark of shame on the African American Legacy, something to be eradicated, stricken from the racial record, like the hambone, Amos ’n’ Andy, Dave Chappelle’s meltdown…”
Much like Richard Pryor, Beatty’s other lodestar, Dave Chappelle had made a name for himself on the stand-up circuit when, in 2003, Comedy Central gave him a 12-episode show. At the time, there was nothing like it. Saturday Night Live and the now cancelled Fox’a Mad TV were the only popular sketch comedy shows with a strong viewership. But the moment Chappelle’s Show launched, people of color were instantly drawn to it. This was long before the power and reach of social media, decades before “Black Twitter” became a sounding board for people of color. And yet, by episode three, on the strength of word of mouth alone, there wasn’t a black or Latino teenager I knew who was missing a new Chappelle’s Show every Tuesday night. We would cancel hanging out with friends, basketball games. I went as far as rescheduling a date so that I wasn’t behind on the references my friends were bound to make the following day.

Season one broke records in DVD sales for Comedy Central and in 2003, Chappelle signed a $50 million deal to produce more episodes, but in 2004, he ended up walking away from the show and going into hiding. The press speculated mental stress, fatigue, and even drug problems as possible reasons for the comedian’s sudden departure. Later, he would go on to dispel the rumors by explaining, “I’m not going to lie to you, I got scared,” he said. “The higher up I went, the less happy I was. Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous. You can get infamous, but you can’t get unfamous.”

Ironically, what had made the Chappelle’s Show valuable to African Americans, and what had likewise boosted Chappelle himself to superstar status, also shortened its lifespan. At its peak, standout sketches such as “Black Bush,” a sketch many years before Barack Obama was a household name, and the “Racial Draft,” a wild segment in which different nationalities participate in an NBA-style event to settle celebrity identities once and for all, became embedded in the cultural lexicon. The show’s clever routing of cultural tropes coupled with its exposure, was a testament to the craft Chappelle and co-creator Neal Brennan infused in the show’s weekly sketches and musical performances. Their subject matter was always raw, completely devoid of the political correctness of current television. And yet it was also oddly silly in a way, a perfect concoction of bite and R&B. The short sketches could be enjoyed simply for their ridiculous shock value alone. But many also dissected these pieces for their reflections on societal norms and saw the entire show as an expansion of the strides black comedians like Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor made before Chappelle’s time.

In many ways, the comedian could very easily stand in place of the narrator in The Sellout: both being intelligent and hilarious with their keen and unfiltered views of our society, and both having to come to grips with the responsibility — and the cost — of being empowered to act on that vision. All of the characters, regardless of how completely absurd they seem, are reacting to living in a time in which Beatty also resides; one in which he is daring to call something “‘Racism’ in a post-racial world.” These are people in pain, lost, forgotten. They are the “unstuck,” the “disappeared.” The denizens of Beatty’s America have to own their dysfunctions in order to be recognized. In the end of the story, a character that has been speaking down to and infantilizing his black community (a possible allusion to Beatty’s own thoughts on icons such as Toni Morrison), has been harboring a secret that derails his self-righteous standing. In short, Beatty is posing that these people need to play characters in order to protect their true selves from being swallowed by society.

So what does this mean for Paul Beatty the poet, the writer, the black satirist? “Once you get famous, you can’t get unfamous.” How does he avoid the pitfalls of becoming as absurd as his narrator, or the symbol trying to carry his entire community on his back? As his narrator puts it at the end of the book, “I’m afraid. Afraid of what I might say. What promises and threats I might make and have to keep.”