To Be Human, To Be I (conference talk)

Variations of this talk have been given at Goldsmiths College, University of London, Birkbeck College, University of London, and Leeds University.


To Be Human, To Be (Wh)I(te)

The Violence of Whiteness in Contemporary Poetry[1]



Lionel Shriver is determined to write about everyone. What she is less determined to do is question why she is able and allowed to write the universal human experience. Shriver defends the 2009 novel Little Bee, about a 14-year-old Nigerian girl, written by Chris Cleave, a middle-aged white British man, because ‘crime writers … don’t all have personal experience of committing murder’,[2] but of course murder is not historically constructed out of violent regimes of power to produce categories of humanity and subhumanity, while race is. Providing a response to similar cases, Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda suggest that


what white artists might do is not imaginatively inhabit the other because that is their right as artists, but instead embody and examine the interior landscape that wishes to speak of rights, that wishes to move freely and unbounded across time, space, and lines of power, that wishes to inhabit whomever it chooses.[3]


I think this is not where the problem is. The problem behind the primary layer of appropriation is that Little Bee was never intended to be read by Nigerian teenage girls. It is for white audiences in the Global North. The protagonist of the novel is there to prove the skill of Cleave, not her own autonomy. As Toni Morrison sees American literature, ‘Africans and their descendants were not, in any sense that matters, there; and when they were, they were decorative – displays of the agile writer’s technical expertise.’[4] If the only solution needed to pacify Lionel Shriver’s mask is a semantic shift in the code of representation – from Can I write like the other? to What can be literarily gained from being other and why do I presume I can write myself? – then the question is not embracing enough of the violence at work beneath the surface. The problem, rather, is that Lionel Shriver does not write about race at all. Almost no white writers treat their racialization and the historic force that has allowed them whiteness. It is not the sound that is the problem, but the silence beneath it. Toni Morrison writes of ‘the tremor that breaks into discourse on race … further complicated by the fact that the habit of ignoring race is understood to be a graceful, even generous, liberal gesture.’[5] When every Black, Asian and other non-white poet is poeticizing their racialization and not a single white poet feels the need to poeticize theirs, then poetry is white.

To destabilize this ahistorical myth of white neutrality we must find the silent violence of whiteness in contemporary poetry and turn its volume up. Whiteness must be made to speak, to explain itself, to justify its ubiquity, not to recede into more silence, spanning the totality of the Virtual.

I attempt to give voice to the implicit unspokenness of whiteness in poetry first by looking at one white poet in particular, AK Blakemore, and secondly by historicizing the silent violence of whiteness through a theoretical engagement with Denise Ferreira da Silva and Alexander Weheliye.[6] The sections are ‘Blakemore’ and ‘Blakeless’.



  1. Blakemore


The bad neighbourhood is Harlem, where the subject of the poem – whom we must call ‘i’ – is spending her twenty-third birthday. These poems were published when the poet was 27, so the Blakemore-obsessed reader knows we are already in the sad scenes of drug-spilt nostalgia so common to her poetry. These Harlemites cannot look at the sun with a full two eyes – in fact, they cannot even look at the sun, only inside it. They are subsumed in a totalizing force, and that force is diseased with diphtheria, a chronic bacterial infection. How does the sun become diphtheric? When its energy is a disease that silences. Diphtheria consumes the throat, the air passages, and covers the throat and tonsils with a grey membrane. Diphtheria kills by silence. It spreads into the organ of speech and contaminates it.

Although implicitly silenced against the commanding voice of ‘i’, the young foreigner contaminating this archetypal scene of Black geography with her obvious foreignness, these Harlemites are not linguistically blocked by this infectious energy. They are blinded. They are deformed, able only to look through one eye, and certainly not a neutral eye: a sexual eye, winking like a horny businessman at the other end of the bar. And through this sexualizing blindness their condition is defined. The discursive categorization of their otherness is retroactively posited once they have been sexualized and blinded by the sickening light: now, they live in a bad neighbourhood. ‘i’ is astute enough not to take responsibility for these lines, italicizing them as grammatically otherized from the upright words, by which she emphasizes her own difference: ‘i’ only describes this scene, not yet involved in the contaminating greyness of the sun.

In the first two lines a category of blind, diseased and implicitly silenced Blackness has already been created. In a perfect rehearsal of colonial history, ‘i’ moves straight on to defining the capitalist violence of her whiteness.


                        the night of my twenty-third birthday i spent
                        with a coke dealer in a pay-per-hour hotel in Harlem.
                        a woman at the front desk sold flavoured condoms.


‘i’ is deeply inside capitalist time, celebrating a birthday on holiday in New York at a hotel. Her coke dealer and everyone else, however, are in this sexually blinded Black world of Harlem, so they are defined against an absence of definition rather than against a solid subject: the violence of whiteness is silence – the white sun also has diphtheria, it is also diseased, but it does worse to the other than to itself. ‘i’, then, is not the coke buyer; the coke dealer must be defined, while she must not, although it is clearly her who has instigated this relationship by buying cocaine.

Everything has been taken from the racialized characters. The dealer has given drugs to ‘i’, the Harlemites have given their sight, money has been spent on keeping capitalist temporal order structured by hotel-hours, and the woman at the front desk is out of condoms (it is not that she ‘was selling’ condoms, but that she sold them all, leaving her nothing). They are covered in the grey membrane of diphtheria. The flavour has gone. The interesting turn here, from her coke-buying to the next scene, is that ‘i’ is not found by these racializing losses. Instead she is gendered. Buried in this otherized space, she becomes something between the subject and the subaltern: she turns from ‘i’ to ‘you’ and now listens, deforming herself into another gendered assemblage that can never be a whole body. They are diseased throats and closed eyes. ‘you’ is now an ear.


                        if you listen you find
                        people open up to you.

Displaced into non-subjectivity, she has become a second-person listener. Upon this happening, monumentally, another reality is observable; a virtual plane of possibility in which there is no body, but the assemblages of silent flesh open, they speak truthfully, because having disassembled the violent construction of their body as inferior flesh, they speak before the language of their oppression. As assemblages constructed by colonial/capitalist/patriarchal violence, in their deformity the Harlemites speak in the wound of the contemporary, in the bloody flesh before their discursive contamination in the diphtheric sun. Being turned into assemblages gave them a new language, a language in which they were a silenced disease, but deforming themselves gives them another new language.

Here the subject is gone, the body ejected from this scene of assembled subaltern flesh. But the code is still that of the whole body, the subject, or what Silva calls the ‘transparent I’.[7] The language, though, is beginning to look back on itself. In the line following the opening up, a noun is missing: ‘you see that pithy coruscating’ – pithy what coruscating? An adjective describes a noun whose being is defined by a verb, but here there is no noun. The solidity of the body has been disassembled as ‘i’ becomes ‘you’, as their blindness started speaking and she started listening. This leads, through the ‘white mask’ that protects itself from its own contamination, disguised properly in its anonymity, to the great realization:


                        an understanding that you
                        have no very deep understanding of what
                        it means to be human


Her (attempted) emancipation from humanity has been found in these lines. The ‘professional’ retains the ‘white mask’, the sun is still diphtheric, but she has spoken them into being, and in doing so she has spoken herself out of being. Now the human and the verb of its being (not the subaltern of the bad neighbourhood), through italicization, spatially posited at a deformed angle, is otherized.

The Poetry Society review of Blakemore’s collection specifically applauds her ‘obliteration of stigmas around “unspeakable things”’,[8] defining overtly sexual passages about ejaculation and oral excitement of various kinds as the unspeakable. Her work is much more complex than that. As da Silva summarizes, ‘when coupled with gender, race produces additional gender exclusion and, when coupled with race, gender produces additional race exclusion’,[9] so here it is insufficient to see Blakemore’s articulation as solely gendering. Her ‘obliteration of … [sexually] “unspeakable things”’ is not the apocalypse – the unveiling – performed in her poetry. The radical apocalypse of her work is that, in the action of spectacularly gendered sexualizing violence, she is constantly nodding towards the whiteness implicit in every word. The experience is gender, sex and violence, but the language is race, and all it ever says is whiteness.


        2. Blakeless


In ‘dandelion’, agential decisions are entirely the purview of the white speaker. It is the narrative structure of that subject, moreover, that racializes the racially foregrounded other, as Silva writes: ‘differentially constituted historical beings’ are produced by ‘modern grand narratives of science and history’ and ‘modern political spaces’.[10] It is the ubiquitous abstraction of whiteness speaking the other into being in its own colonial idea of dialectical ontology that creates Blackness-as-Other. As Toni Morrison summarizes while discussing Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not (1937), ‘Eddy is white, and we know he is because nobody says so.’[11] The elision of whiteness from the grand narrative of white History is crucial to the maintenance of its regime, because it is necessary to have a specific limit to the reaches of racialization. Proper Enlightenment colonial ontology must cap racializing assemblages at the white-skinned limit of the sovereign body. William Rasch finds the same self-removing centrifuge in a pithy summary of the law: ‘In the court of reason, all propositions are judged to be true or false, except the proposition that states that the court is a court of reason.’[12]

So we could rewrite this for our current purpose: In the world of whiteness, all humans are judged to be racialized except (white) Man himself.

This explanation only accounts for the first half of the poem, while the speaker is a proper transparent I speaking in the first person. The narrator ‘i/you’ is speaking as a subaltern, as a gendered outsider to normative patriarchal corporeity; however, as da Silva makes clear, when the subaltern speaks she necessarily speaks as a transparent I, thus eradicating her own history.[13] ‘i/you’ is speaking otherness, but all she has to define herself and the Harlemites against is the Human; she is still describing an experience within the racializing code of white-or-other. By focusing attention on her experience the subaltern occludes any analysis of the language she uses to describe it, naturalizing the language she is using which will always be the language of the oppressor, leaving the liberal-historical subject as the neutral/natural speaker.[14]

Da Silva demands that inclusion in the historical/cultural paradigms of Enlightenment modernity be removed from any antiracist project, since ‘historicity cannot dissipate its own effects of power; it cannot institute subjects that signify otherwise.’[15] Subalternity signifies cultural and historical exclusion because of the historical violence of its definition as the subaltern, so the cure is not to illicit inclusion but rather to remove the centrality of that which claims the power to include and exclude, the centrifugal force that constitutes the centre of History, i.e. whiteness. The way poetry can radically subvert the racism of ubiquitous whiteness, then, is not by facile attempts at transracial inclusion, as Lionel Shriver and Chris Cleave proudly philosophize, but rather to satirize, ridicule and commit violence against the implicit unspokenness of whiteness.

Following Weheliye and da Silva, the assemblages of flesh cannot be raised to the metaphysical paradigm of the white/male/European body since the language of power would then be maintained, the racialized other still a caesura of signification in the ubiquity of white words that never say white. The other option, if we maintain our thinking within the ontological framework of capital, is to think with the excluded flesh that falls beneath the corporeal code of whiteness; to use the structuring mechanism of poetry to satirize, destabilize and remove the central cog of the centrifuge. Blakemore begins to uncover the co-constitutive forces of gender and race as discursive violences that force the inclusion of everyone into post-Enlightenment subjectivity. Her poetry does this in its presentation of the insidious violence of whiteness through her constant – though not overtly recognized – fixation on images and thoughts of white brutality. The narrator recognizes that she cannot speak as whoever she wants because language is never neutral. It is never released from the infinite web of history, society and space. For her to lose her subjectivity in Harlem, turning from a mouth into an ear, finding open wounds in fleshy assemblages, and losing her sense of “humanity”, whatever that might be, is a bold political act of antiraciality. We need more of that in poetry, and far fewer self-stabilizing justifications for the universality of the white voice.


tentative post script:

In this essay I have chosen to read Blakemore’s poetry as containing a criticism of its own employment of whiteness, which in my reading occurs when the speaker changes from ‘i’ to ‘you’. However, there are other, far more critical, ways this poem and whiteness in poetry more generally could be read. We could see the white speaker’s presence in Harlem as a colonizing gesture of the white saviour, extracting the raw material of drugs, Blackness and geographically fetishized subalternity and converting it into capitalist value firstly by its mediation through the white body which, by ingesting drugs and sleeping with the drug dealer, certifies them as speakable by the bourgeois language of white poetry, and secondly by claiming the radical act of negating ‘transparent I’ subjectivity as her own, as if only the speaker had suddenly discovered a method of non-subjective expression, without recognizing that the drug dealer, the denizens of the bad neighbourhood and the woman on the front desk never had subjectivity anyway; they had always radically negated white liberal subjectivity by being socially and historically excluded from it.



[1] ‘to be human’ is from AK Blakemore, ‘dandelion’, in Fondue (London: Offord Road Books, 2018), p. 53.

[2] Lionel Shriver, ‘Lionel Shriver’s full speech’, in The Guardian, 13 September 2016 <; [accessed 16/2/2019].

[3] Claudia Rankine and Beth Loffreda, ‘On Whiteness and the Racial Imaginary’, in The Lit Hub, 9 April 2015 <; [accessed 16/2/2019].

[4] Toni Morrison, ‘Black Matters’, in Playing in the Dark (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 16.

[5] Toni Morrison, ‘Black Matters’, pp. 9-10.

[6] Denise Ferreira da Silva, Towards a Global Idea of Race (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007); Alexander G. Weheliye, Habeas Viscus: Racializing Assemblages, Biopolitics, and Black Feminist Theories of the Human (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).

[7] Denise Ferreira da Silva, Towards a Global Idea of Race, p. xvii.

[8] Alexa Winik, ‘Book review: reclaimed experience’, in The Poetry Society, no date <; [accessed 19/2/2019].

[9] Denise Ferreira da Silva, Towards a Global Idea of Race, p. xxx.

[10] Denise Ferreira da Silva, Towards a Global Idea of Race, pp. 4-5.

[11] Toni Morrison, ‘Disturbing Nurses and the Kindness of Sharks’, in Playing in the Dark, p. 72.

[12] William Rasch, Sovereignty and its Discontents: on the Primacy of Conflict and the Structure of the Political (London: Birkbeck Law, 2004), p. 94.

[13] Denise Ferreira da Silva, Towards a Global Idea of Race, p. 184.

[14] Ibid., Race, p. xxx.

[15] Ibid., p. 7.