Eds. Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap: The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind

Review by Matt Pincus

(Fence Books, 2015)

The Racial Imaginary, a timely anthology with writers responding and reacting to race and class in the academy and America, edited by Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, speaks to both the collective consciousness and awareness in American culture of present-day racism. Rankine’s sentiment In her collection Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, “You don’t know because you don’t care,” in reference to former President Bush’s hazy recollection of “two or three people” being convicted in Texas of James Byrd Jr.’s murder in 1998, still rings true in 2015. Farid Matuk, a contributor, also mentions the same murder in his addition to the anthology. Further, Angela Davis’s editorial last year in The Guardian where she, in light of the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, argues, “And they, in turn, represent an unbroken stream of racist violence, both official and extra-legal, from slave patrols and the Ku Klux Klan, to contemporary profiling practices and present-day vigilantes.” A vital theme in the collection is to represent race as a problematic affair in the 21st century, more specifically from the perspective of writers and poets.

Loffreda, in her “Open Letter” mentions, “In the academic world today it is possible to encounter smart white people who feel the presence of people of color is optional, since they already know ‘race.’” A problem for Loffreda, Rankine, and many others is that there is a myth surrounding writers and scholars, especially those working in the academy, that America lives in a post-racial world. She, and any person of color, knows it is not a post-racial world, but a racialized world enforced by culture, society, and politics. As white Americans, Loffreda suggests people should examine their own preconceptions and biases towards people of color before surmising they are beyond racial markers or borders.

In an extraordinary and moving essay by Francisco Aragón entitled, “And Here he Comes Smiling Intending No Harm,” he cites the lack of Latino/a poets reviewed in Poetry Magazine, published in the New California Poetry Series of UC Press, and in two 21st century anthologies of poetry published by Wesleyan University Press. He says, “Erased. Erasure. It’s a term I hear, am more aware of, these days.” Latino/a poets and writers are largely left out of American literary conversations because, as Aragón follows Richard Rodriguez, the film director, in saying, “America, mainstream American media, when it came to discussing issues of race in American life, was keeping the conversation and debate focused on black and white—omitting brown.” A preconception about race, and one perpetuated by American media, is that racial issues are essentially black and white, where one doesn’t recognize the overt racial anger and violence inflicted on Latino/as, Native Americans, Asian Americans, Muslims, and other nationalities and cultures not recognized in the larger consciousness.

All the professors, students, and poets who contributed to The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind return to candid and poignant statements made by Rankine and Loffreda in their introduction. The myth of the post-racial in America, the media’s dominant portrayal of the U.S. as a black and white nation, and also the inability for white citizens to investigate their own prejudices are three crucial themes. Drawing on the latter, Rachel Zucker’s classroom experience with an Asian American student speaks to what Loffreda describes as, “It is hard for us, because there is the feeling, back there in your mind, that there might be a skeleton in the closet you don’t know about, or one you don’t remember.” Maryam Afaq’s experience in a class on women poets during her MFA speaks to the former statement about the post-racial, while Jennifer Chang’s email to a fellow classmate in her PhD program abstaining from a Chinese New Year’s eve party centers on the inability for conversations about race in America to discuss narratives outside of black and white.

Europe’s continuing struggles with immigrants, the Paris terrorist attacks, and state governors in the United States playing the role of xenophobes towards Syrian refugees proves the political validity of Loffreda’s reference to racial ”skeletons in the closet.” Further, when white citizens are accused of racism, they react as one would expect, not with acceptance or understanding, but with anger. The same goes for white writers accused of racism. Other contributors who speak to these issues, among many others, are John Lucas, Edgar Endress, Jeff Wall, Alice Shaw, Nery Gabriel Lumus, and Charles McGill.

Max King Cap’s selection of artists adds a refreshing visual element to the anthology. He writes of EJ Hill’s This Is An Imaginary Border (2009), “In taping a border dividing the city of Chicago into north and south sides, the performance artist demarcates the traditional racial partition of the city—where African American housing concentration has changed little in forty years.”

The anthology, its editors, and contributors have created an important addition to a long list of important American documents that continues to be both unheard and neglected by a larger, and less tolerable populace. Writers such as Faulkner, Welty, Ellison, Baldwin, Wright, O’ Connor, Morrison, Erdrich, Diaz, Jones, and many others have made influential, timely cultural commentaries on society and politics. The essays collected in The Racial Imagination will continue to be important commentaries on themes of race in America for the years to come.