Coon songs were racist American entertainments around the turn of the 20th century, songs performed in blackface but created by and performed for white people. Each one was a violent cultural lobotomy; to revisit them is to wander the corridors of a derelict asylum with its twisted, glowering equipment.
When a mixed-race group of American artists and writers planned to revisit coon songs in front of an audience in a performance during the course of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs conference in Seattle next month, the Frye Art Museum agreed to host the fraught event. But when one of the artists, a white woman, posted an announcement on her Facebook page using the title Coon Songs, Kitsch, and Conceptual Writing, and a real historical ad—with an illustration of a ventriloquist and blackface dummy—the museum canceled the March 1 event.
Museum director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, who is white, made the decision, and in a phone interview, she refused even to repeat the title of the performance or specifically describe the image on the announcement, saying only that "the potential to cause hurt and harm was just not an option for us."
Douglas Kearney is a poet and performer who was part of Coon Songs, Kitsch, and Conceptual Writing. The first poem in his first book, Fear, Some, in 2006, was called "The Poisonous Coon," a character who also glared forth from the cover of the book. Kearney is black, and in a phone interview about the event and its cancellation, he said of his fellow panelists and maybe the museum, too, "I don't think that everybody involved has as much skin in the game—pun intended. If the title was Coon Songs, Dyke Shit, and the Maiden, that would be different."
But, he said, "That's not me saying I'm glad it got canceled... I also don't want to take the perspective that it was just cowardice to cancel it... I'll put it to you this way: I teach at CalArts, and I tell students, if you're doing work that's provocative, you can't be surprised when people are provoked. You also can't only be interested in provoking.
"But if I am provoking, I would like to have something that somebody could look to concretely and say, 'That was provocative.' To be denied that opportunity is a disappointment."
Cathy Hong, another of the five artists—whose celebrated 2012 book Engine Empire is playfully brutal and brutally playful in its dealings with race and language—wrote an e-mail response to the cancellation.
"Race—among poets and institutions like the Frye museum—is always handled with kid gloves," Hong wrote. She is Korean American. "Discussions are hygienic, safe, and always compartmentalized: Black poets talk in their corner, Asian poets talk in theirs, Latinos talk in their corner, and white poets listen politely or have the luxury to ignore it altogether. We have to be ethically tidy. When it's a mess. The panel would be a trans-racial talk and performance that welcomed the mess, welcomed the hurt, welcomed the absurdity and the contradictions."
The group members designed their event together to be a cross between an earnest intellectual discussion and a dangerously unscripted performance. Each performer could intervene in the conversation at any moment with a performance, and those performances could change the direction of the conversation.
The poet who was chief organizer of the event, who posted the announcement to her Facebook page with the offending image, is Vanessa Place. She is someone who welcomes the hurt.
A blogger on the Huffington Post called Place's work "ethically odious," a distinction she then added to her bio. It may be her specific stance, and her role as organizer, that most frightened the museum off. Place performs pieces—of found texts, often from legal briefs that are part of her day job as an attorney for indigent sex offenders—packed with racial slurs, ventriloquizing that language in her own contemporary white body.
"The white gig is to act like we don't have anything" to do or say about race, Place said in a phone interview. "I think you run into the very attractive danger of it not being our problem, or our conversation. So while I very much admire, like, the work of Ronaldo [Wilson, another of the five, author of Poems of the Black Object], it doesn't take any burden off my shoulders. I can't just say, 'Well, why don't you go watch them?'"
After one performance, a black poet told Place, "That hurt." Place responded, "I know. I know." Whether she actually knows—whether she has, as Kearney says, "as much skin in the game" of racist speech—Hong, Kearney, and Wilson, as well as a white poet named Daniel Tiffany, who writes about another dirty word when it comes to poetry, "kitsch," all still want to perform Coon Songs, Kitsch, and Conceptual Writing alongside Place in Seattle.
"I have serious questions about her performance," Hong wrote, "but I do respect her for taking that risk."
"What was interesting is that you had these folks from all these different backgrounds coming together," Wilson said. "Sometimes you need shock... to open up a new space. Even for something as beautiful as swimming, you have to plunge your arms into the water, to disrupt things in order to glide."
This event could still happen in Seattle. The performers will be here, and Seattle is primed for Coon Songs, Kitsch, and Conceptual Writing. Hell, maybe Seattle's newest linguistic theorist, Richard Sherman, will be in attendance, after he's done schooling America on racist language and winning the Super Bowl.
So who will step up with a venue?
If Coon Songs, Kitsch, and Conceptual Writing were to remain in an art gallery, where interdisciplinarity and boundary-crossing are the norm rather than exceptions, there's art up now in Seattle that could make a stirring backdrop.
Ronald Hall's Gallery4Culture show, The N Word, comprises candy-colored paintings of racist caricatures incorporating digital historical images and empty text balloons. Hall has a background working at Nintendo, and his art pictures American racial history as a video game crossed with a seductive nightmare. IDxID: New Identities Revisited at the Washington State Convention Center gallery is a group show of photographs, videos, paintings, and other objects pained and pleasured by the constraints of identity. And lastly, the tidy, ghostly glowing of Dylan Neuwirth's white neon tweets mounted on the walls at Vermillion—their content clever but blank—are the perfect foil for a messy performance of embodiment, race, text, and the search for the objective voice. Neuwirth beautifully created a hall of gleaming neon text, each tweet a cool, white mouth tethered to a power source strapped to a cinder block on the floor, forming a room full of bodies that speak but don't say anything.