The Negro Has No Fear

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UNIA Parade

In just one year, The Offing has become known in literary circles as a site that pushes beyond boundaries while bringing into the center voices that have historically been shunned, silenced, and oppressed. This is actively an anti-racist mission, rooted in part in opposition to anti-Blackness. That particular focus was critical to the concept of The Offing because anti-Blackness continues to be prevalent in the global human community. Especially in an American context where as Scot Nakagawa has written, “Blackness is the fulcrum,” we must grapple regularly most grievously with the deathly fallout of anti-Blackness as well as other ways it disrupts our ability to thrive, to make art, and to connect with one another.

The Offing set its intentions, but white supremacy is everywhere. Behind closed doors, all was not well at The Offing. The essay below will describe a series of incidents that speak to the larger problem of a hostile environment within The Offing for many editors of color. Rather than be ashamed to present it for the public to read, I believe that in doing so, we demonstrate the very best possible outcome of such a harrowing situation: we are taking responsibility by publishing the story of what happened, with a commitment to change. In a few weeks we will go on hiatus for the summer, and during that time, we will be actively rebuilding The Offing into a more nourishing and sustaining ecosystem for every person involved in its creation.

Part of doing this work is publishing the following essay. It should be known that in a laudable act in line with The Offing’s mission, former Editor in Chief Darcy Cosper, whom I have recently replaced, was the first to agree to publish it.

Around the same time, it became clear that Darcy’s leadership of The Offing was compromised by her limited competency leading a diverse masthead. I write this not to impeach her skills; over and over the staff have told me of her first-rate abilities as an editor. But we must recognize that leading and working with a diverse community that is engaged in the radical act of authoring change is a competency. It is not a skill one is born with. Unfortunately it is not a skill that MFA programs bother to teach either. And it is not one that should be learned on the job, at the expense of those who are already the most marginalized.

Time will tell whether I do this job any better. But as a Black Jewish queer agender/cissex female of working class and immigrant origin, I understand in a deeply personal way why it is important for Casey Rocheteau’s voice to be heard at this moment. In this essay I recognize my own story as an often lonely Black theoretical physicist. I hope others will hear a voice like theirs too.

Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, Editor in Chief

A respected elder Black poet said recently that now was the time to take stock and recognize that the current era of black poetry was much like the end of the 19th century. It was a reference to Reconstruction-era building, to a libratory atmosphere. I took heed when, at this year’s Split this Rock Poetry Festival, I watched an Asian-American poet announce to a theater of mostly white folks that he had several black women inside him. He went on to use the verb “Bojangling” in an ode to Nina Simone. He received a standing ovation from a mostly white audience. I texted a friend: “I hope you are prepared to use your poetry award money for my bail.” I was joking – my version of the turnt up angry black person. It’s a familiar defense mechanism, choosing to joke instead of making a scene when a racial nerve ending is pinched. I’m used to it. I do it for the sake of my own sanity, because I have to do it at least once a week.

It has been several weeks since I returned home from the annual conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP). I knew then it would take time to process all of what transpired – the excitement, the crowds, the disappointments and the social media interactions- particularly this tweet from Darcy Cosper, former editor-in-chief at The Offing:

 

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I should note that I hadn’t met Darcy in person before AWP. I had been an editor of the Dead Letter Office since August. A few weeks before our first face-to-face, she suggested that I accept a contributing editor role, which essentially meant staying on the masthead and soliciting work instead of actively editing submissions. The suggestion was offered because The Offing tends to demand a lot of time from its editors; I try to make time for this unpaid, volunteer work, but can’t always because I have bills.

We met at entrance to the book fair so I could drop off copies of my book at the exhibit table. Her first remark to me was about how palpably tense the conference seemed in light of the most recent controversy in the poetry world. She mused, “Is a fist fight going to break out?”

I’m fairly certain she was referring to the predatory allegations, documented by VIDA, against Thomas Sayers Ellis, but she didn’t specify. To her, the spectacle was public controversy. For me, it was a more personal conundrum, as I knew the parties involved. I chose silence in response to her question; I didn’t care to entertain conjecture.

Later that same day, I went out to dinner with two other black women poets, one of whom had invited Darcy to join us. I was wearing a shirt that reads “Ratchetness as Praxis” and, in all likelihood, talking too loudly in mixed company — go figure. At a audible downslope in the conversation, someone asked what praxis meant. I offered an adequate definition that included a Foucault reference, but Darcy still insisted on looking it up on her phone. I guess she thought I would wear a shirt emblazoned with something I couldn’t define, or maybe she assumed my field of expertise was ratchetness. Her behavior may sound minor, but evidentiary information sometimes does. In that moment, I barely batted an eye. In fact, it was only upon reflecting on all the instances that led up to the tweet, and my subsequent resignation on Twitter, that it even struck me as out of pocket.

Behind the scenes, The Offing is a journal with an incredible roster of talent behind it and a high level of visibility after only a year in existence. Since Day 1, The Offing was Darcy’s ship to steer. She is, by all accounts, a phenomenal editor with many years of experience. But there were always two major ‘human resources’ disconnections to me. First, the editorial protocol asks for 10 hours of unpaid labor weekly. While unpaid labor is often the standard for lit journals, The Offing’s staff is largely comprised of folks who come from marginalized communities, or folks who can least afford to work for free. The issue at hand, however, is that the magazine’s mission “actively seeks out and supports work by and about those often marginalized in the literary conversation, including people of color, women and gender non-conformists, and members of the LGBTQIA and differently abled communities.” This might not be so problematic if The Offing weren’t — like most of the literary world — a magazine founded and driven by an able-bodied, straight, white cis-woman, as an official channel of the overwhelmingly white LA Review of Books. There is something to be said about awareness of a lack of diversity in the field, but as evidenced by the tweet, “awareness” doesn’t account for much when it comes to being actively anti-racist. In other words, despite her having the best intentions and excellent experience, I nonetheless began to ask ‘how is this magazine truly an agent for change if it seems to exploit the very population it seeks to serve?

I know that when Darcy wrote the tweet it was supposed to be a gesture of appreciation, nothing malicious. However, on my end, it felt like being called a slur. For those inclined to do so, feel free to roll your eyes and think the words ‘race card’. I dare you. I’ve been called a nigger by white people to my face, and I’ve been called a nigger without the word ever being said. This wasn’t that, not exactly, but language contains all kinds of coded variations on a theme – Walking embodiment. Not my business. Bojangling. I am well-versed in the ways whiteness protects itself, the ways it always rushes to its own defense.

There is a similar dynamic of protecting one another in my own community. I quickly found out about the tweet because another black editor texted me a screenshot. I wouldn’t have been paying attention otherwise. That tweet could have floated in cyberspace without response for who knows how long. Before I replied to Darcy, I asked a friend “on a scale from 0 to Cardi B, how hard should I publicly quit on Twitter?” I was told “always Cardi B”. Moments after I responded on Twitter, I received another text, this one from Jayy Dodd, (now former) senior editor at The Offing, that was simply this screenshot of Darcy’s Twitter direct message to him:

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Jayy is one of my best friends. We were together for 90% of the conference. Darcy was well aware of that fact and, in a moment of what I can only presume was panic, asked him to evaluate her whiteness instead of considering how what she said about me might have directly impacted either of us. If that isn’t showing your privilege, I don’t know what is. Why is it the job of people of color to constantly police someone else’s ‘whiteness,’ which in this case simply means lack of sensitivity and cultural forethought? Why do people of color bear the brunt of explaining, on a fairly regular basis, white people’s mistakes?

A full day later, she emailed a personal apology including a request for my permission to publish a public apology so that other folks might learn from her mistake. Having had some experience with publicly-issued apologies, I declined consent. At least once a year, I feel compelled to post a Facebook status that simply reads “public apologies are not real apologies.” Some people seem conflicted by this statement. To me, a sufficient apology comes when the wronged party is ready and willing to receive it, and goes something like “I’m sorry that I hurt you. I will do everything in my power not to do this again.” It’s simple. If you hurt an individual, and you value that person, you apologize. If the thing you did impacts a larger group, you apologize to each person individually and address people’s individual concerns. Public apologies are for politicians whose dick pics end up on Gawker. They are PR stunts, attempts to save face, so that everyone realizes that the apologizing party recognizes they did something wrong. Public apologies pander to a distinct “aren’t we all human and fallible?” moment.

I responded to Darcy’s email by asking that she sit quietly with her mistake and reflect upon how she’d impacted other people and their careers –beyond our own. I told her I did not trust her to adequately teach other white folks not to do what she had just done. I’m not sure why she thought that within 24 hours she could get behind the wheel of a public how-not-to-do-racist-stuff statement when there was clearly a great deal more learning on her end that needed to be done. We agreed about one thing: our interaction was a teachable moment. To that end, I told Darcy I wanted to write this piece for The Offing, because not having a white person play expert on their own racist missteps was the bolder and more equitable gesture.

The editors at the LA Review of Books were not too keen on this idea. Darcy had already been asked to step down as editor-in-chief in the ensuing aftermath of what she’d said on Twitter, why humiliate her? A former executive editor of The Offing vehemently disagreed with LARB’s response and stood up for the restorative justice of publishing this essay, incensed that their inclination was to protect the person who harmed. In an environment that truly supported the marginalized, their preference would never have been up for debate.

Anti-blackness is everywhere. It’s as Diasporic as a drumbeat. We black folks in America live with its thousands of daily iterations. The literary world is not immune from them. In reality, Darcy is in many ways ahead of the curve when it comes to the ways in which white supremacy cements whiteness as canonical, espouses nepotism, and marginalizes other voices. She at least paid lip service to recognizing and working against inequitable conditions. The bar is so low as to be buried. At the end of the day, I’m barely concerned with Darcy, because the landscape has been unchanged for a mighty long time. I am more concerned with considering the number of ancestors, the number of black folks, who have risked life and security to make it possible for me to be a writer in the first place. Spending any part of my time contending with or coddling one person’s white fragility is actually just a damned nuisance.

Part of what took me so long to write this is that I spent a good deal of time over the past few weeks making moves. The first person I saw in real life the day I quit editing for The Offing was another black poet who paced the floor repeating “scared money don’t make money!” while reminding me how valuable our time is. My friends often bolster me, and this moment was a track on my black survival mixtape for the day: I needed someone to acknowledge what had happened and offer a viable alternative. We schemed on a new publication or a variation on an existing one, staffed exclusively by black folks. I spent the next two weeks making phone calls, checking in, taking meetings, brainstorming new paths and looking into ways to put money into black editors’ pockets. Thanks to the bounce pass, to the pivot, I was quickly able to see that focusing on what happened wouldn’t change anything for me personally, or in the literary landscape.

Part of the reason why The Offing had such a successful first year is because there is truly a need for such a magazine in our contemporary landscape, but when I consider its desire to control me, just in writing this essay, it’s staggering. There is such a stark cognitive dissonance at present — Black writers winning prestigious literary awards and facing watermelon jokes in the same moment, white editors wanting racial diversity while still publishing racist poems. The need for The Offing has always been a need for the diversity of its masthead and its contributors. I left, not because I’m an angry black person, but because I don’t want my face being used to bolster white peoples’ best intentions. Publications that celebrate marginalized voices should be led by marginalized people, and certainly should not be beholden to a publication with an exclusively white staff as The Offing currently is.

I’m tired of disingenuous nods to diversity that come only after realizing homogeneity is incredibly conspicuous. I am a black poet living at a time when this nation is murdering black people at an alarming rate, gutting the infrastructure of black cities, when Donald Trump is a presidential candidate. The very least I can do to carve out a space for my own sanity as a writer in this climate is to reject the idea that playing nice and sparing white folks from deserved humiliation is in my best interest. There needs to be a literary Juneteenth. We can’t rely on publications and presses that have, through the actions and complicity of their leadership, proven oppressive. For history to avoid repeating itself, we need to define sustainability for ourselves. This could mean expanding existing infrastructure, forming new platforms, or simply self-publishing. None of those things are as easy as plugging into what already exists, but given the state of the field, there needs to be a deep interrogation of what already exists to see if it truly values us, sees us.