Is this Twitter feed racist? Is it racist but good art? Is it racist but bad art? Under what circumstances can a white writer use racist language and imagery to denounce racism? Who gets to decide? Why?
In case you haven't been paying attention: For several years, conceptual poet and defense attorney Vanessa Place has been retyping, word for word, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. She uses as her Twitter profile pic a photo of Academy Award-winner Hattie McDaniel, who played “Mammy” in Victor Fleming’s film adaptation of the novel. For Place’s background image, she uses a cropped illustration of a black woman from the cover of a piece of sheet music called “Jemima’s Wedding Day”—an image widely regarded as offensive. Even Place would agree that it's offensive.
For context: Conceptual poetry, like conceptual art, privileges a reader’s thoughts about the text over the author’s rhetorical devices within the text. One of the most successful writers in the movement, Kenneth Goldsmith, said it best: “My books are better thought about than read.” These writers imagine the text not as a thing that should absorb you, but as a reflecting pool into which you can look and see and think whatever you want to see. Conceptualists claim this dissolves the imperialist and patriarchical hierarchy implied by the traditional relationship between author and reader.
Conceptualist poets have enjoyed a lot of critical success from big, fancy critics like Marjorie Perloff. They have their magazines, their presses. Kenneth Goldsmith read at the White House. However, recently, the conceptualists have been experiencing a little blowback. Cathy Park Hong’s essay in the journal Lana Turner basically argues that conceptualism is a racist institution. A little more recently, Kenneth Goldsmith caught a bunch of shit for reading a “remixed version” Michael Brown’s autopsy as part of a performance at Brown University. He read from one of the official autopsies, and edited it a little so that the piece climaxed on a phrase describing Brown’s genitals.
Place is a major figure in the conceptual poetry movement. You might know her from the controversial book, Statement of Facts, wherein she presented as a poem a list of actual legal briefs about sexual assault and rape. In another book of hers, Boycott, she collects important feminist texts, removes any mention of women, and then replaces them with men. This is all to say: literary provocation is Place's wheelhouse.
With her Gone with the Wind Twitter project, Place told me yesterday, she's hoping to draw a copyright infringement case from the estate of Margaret Mitchell. In the interview below, she hints that she would love to go into litigation, presumably because a courtroom would be another platform for her overall project of critiquing and provoking.
But many people of color have not greeted Place’s project with open arms. Place was supposed to be on a committee to determine panelists and speakers for the 2016 writing conference AWP, but some writers rose up with a petition claiming that Place’s work was racist and that she should therefore be removed from a position that would allow her to select writers for the conference. That petition was written by guy named Timothy Volpert, supported by the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, and signed by writers like Saeed Jones of Buzzfeed and Tim Donnelly of the Boston Review.
On Monday, AWP responded by letting her go. Place is not on the committee anymore.
In response, on May 19, Place published a statement on her Facebook page. In it, she apologized for the pain people have said she caused, but she went on to explain her reasoning behind using the racist images and language. It basically boiled down to two big thoughts. Thought #1: She believes she is participating in the fight against white supremacy by initiating a copyright dispute between herself, Mitchell's estate, and the state. Thought #2: She believes white people need to write about race because their silence on the matter suggests complicity with racism and also is an exercise of their privileged position in society. She says her use of racist imagery is "vomit" induced by the poison of white supremacy.
The responses to her response have been mixed. On Facebook and Twitter, many writers of color and allies have responded with outrage, groans, calls for Place to stop, and very considered essays. Place's defenders have accused these writers of not getting it, and of censorship.
I wanted to see how Place felt about the response to her work, so I interviewed her over Facebook chat.
Lots of people of color say that @VanessaPlace hurts them. Do you plan to continue with the project knowing that they claim to be in pain?
VP: No. I am sorry for the hurt that the work has caused: the project was intended to be a limited social media piece. I did not promote the feed, and anyone who followed it was there voluntarily.
Much of the hurt seems to have been caused when the images were used more widely in the petition campaign.
You didn't plan on that? Some groups of people think @VanessaPlace was calculated to create controversy and draw attention without regard to the damage that it might do.
VP: I started the feed in 2009. For six years, I have been committing an ongoing act of copyright violation. I have never publicized the piece, though I have tried in various ways to get the Mitchell Estate to issue a cease-and-desist order. The controversy over me is not one that I sought.
The problem may be that my poetry engages with systems, including systems of authorship. What does it mean to do work that is not original but still comes from the same systems that we participate in, and claim it as poetry.
It seems people were responding to the imagery of Hattie McDaniel as your profile pic and the cover of Jemima's Wedding Day as your background, in addition to the lifted text from GWTW. Were you using those images to draw a suit from the estate?
VP: In part. While we all "know" that GWTW is a racist text, but that doesn't stop its circulation as property, usually under the romantic image of Scarlett and Rhett in locked embrace. Mammy is the archetype that is also Jemima, that is still Jemima, still there to serve. This seems a fairer image of GWTW than the other.
Do you still plan to draw a suit from Mitchell's Estate with your edition of GWTW?
VP: I'm trying. It is easier to draw out antagonism from people who wish for harmony in poetry than it is to get the Mitchell Estate to sue over a Twitter feed.
In your artist’s statement, you say this case will put the State in a bind because you’d be forcing them to “uphold Mitchell’s right to profit from her appropriation against [your] appropriation of her.” Many would note that the State is shooting black dudes in the street in the broad light of day and imprisoning them in disproportionate numbers. In this context, why pick your battle via copyright dispute?
VP: There needs to be activism. There also needs to be art. Art does not have to defend itself against the charge of imprisonment of people. Art might need to defend itself against the charge of ownership and authorship.
Put another way, in California a criminal cannot receive any profits from his crime—not from book sales or interviews, or movies of whatever week. The money has to go to the victims. Maybe the proceeds from GWTW should go to reparations.
And maybe art isn't supposed to enact social solutions but open up art's own social problems.
Then why pick an early twentieth century novel like GWTW? Why not a more popular, contemporary novel? Isn't the target too easy?
VP: GWTW sells more than 250,000 copies a year; the theme was played during the 2012 Oscars. There are sequels and prequels done and commissioned. It is a cash cow in addition to being a staple of Americana. It seems good to try and kill a cash cow, especially with something as supposedly free as social media.
Are you confident that you'd win the case if Mitchell's Estate sued? How do you imagine that working out?
VP: I'm an appellate criminal defense attorney. I'm used to losing—again, this is an art project which uses social issues that are not pleasant or resolved. I'm not presenting entertainment, though that litigation might be entertaining.
I guess I'm not clear on where the art is, here. In your artist's statement, it seems like you mean the art is in the notion of creating a situation in which the State would officially have to uphold a racist position. If that's not where the art is, then are you saying the art is only in the language and text of the Twitter feed?
VP: The art is the situation.
But the situation doesn't have to have a particular outcome.
What's the ideal outcome for you?
VP: I don't have an ideal outcome. That would require imagination. Or a utopian vision.
Would you say the same thing if I said "best" or "favorite" instead of ideal?
VP: For who? The best thing for people who don't want to be confronted with racist imagery? For people who love GWTW? For people who want social media to be a gentrified online community?
It is enough to ask questions. Everybody has answers.
For those who claim to have been oppressed by GWTW, and by the system that creates such a book.
VP: For those, maybe it would be enough to get the proceeds from the book. Or at least it would be something.
And something is generally better than nothing, in law and art.
A quick return to a statement you made earlier: You said, "You're sorry for the hurt the work has caused." You know people are going to call that a cop out. Do you think you've unintentionally done a racist thing, and that you want to say sorry about that?
VP: No, I think I've reiterated racist things. I am sorry for the pain that has been caused to people who were unwillingly subject to those things and did not deserve to be hurt. I think that white Americans perhaps deserve to be hurt by them, and not on behalf of anyone else.
But now I'm confused! If you put reiterated racist things on Twitter, people are going to be exposed to that unwillingly, no? If someone searches "Vanessa Place," as a fan, they're gonna see Hattie McDaniel.
VP: As a fan, they probably know my practice. I use the violence of my culture in my art. Is Hattie McDaniel an inherently violent image? She hasn't been to legions of moviegoers. Mammy, on the other hand....
Kara Walker uses violently racist imagery to make art about the racial imaginary—the American imaginary. This project does the same thing. Some art offends, and sometimes it is the job of art to be offensive because the world art mirrors and moves is offensive.