Monday, February 25, 2008

Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union on C-SPAN

For the last two years I've been fortunate to watch Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union meetings on C-SPAN, and just this last weekend I again had the great pleasure of viewing Smiley's remarkable forum that's a stark contrast to what's normally offered over the public airways. (C-SPAN will rebroadcast the event this Friday, Feb. 29, 2008; please check your local listings for exact airtimes.)

Such programs are inspiring for one simple fact: People rarely get to hear so many leaders of color take center stage and comment at length on important issues. In contrast, if these men and women appear on CBS, CNN, or MSNBC, they're often presented via an edited, ten-to-twenty second sound byte on a program most likely moderated and controlled by white people. (If any Caucasians are uncomfortable with the previous sentence, they should ask themselves this simple question: Would you be happy if the overwhelming majority of news and informational programs--and print media--were moderated and controlled by people of color?)

Tavis Smiley's annual event is sponsored by some major corporations (their names appear on the backdrops behind the participants) whose largesse must be commended; such sponsorship illustrates these corporations' commitment to promoting diversity: They "walk the walk."

I encourage everyone regardless of color or ethnicity to watch the rebroadcast of Tavis Smiley's State of the Black Union this Friday, Feb. 29, 2008, on C-SPAN; the participants' diverse comments (for such events dispel the mistaken notion that all people of color hold the same views) are engaging and thought-provoking.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Making the Visible Invisible

Fellow poet Sheryl Luna (her wonderful book Pity the Drowned Horses won the Andres Montoya Poetry Prize and was published by the University of Notre Dame Press, and the UND Press will publish her next collection titled 7 by 2010--kudos to the people at Notre Dame) brings up some valid concerns in a recent entry on her blog ( that warrant echoing.

Although various creative writing programs are attracting and graduating more poets and writers of color each year, including women of color, their increasing numbers don't seem to be mirrored in the empowered "literary circles and academic circles" that angers Luna and many like her. Another recent and similar complaint about the exclusion of Latino/a poets in a December "Poetry Marathon" held in Chicago also notes a similar frustration (see Francisco Aragon's December 20, 2007 entry at Even though 75 poets were contacted to suggest readers for the event, "not a single Latino/a poet was named." Considering the number of graduate creative writing programs in the Midwest, one would think that at least a dozen or more names would quickly come to mind to those solicited, but that was not the case.

Let's be frank: Poets and writers of color don't dominate or control most creative writing programs or organizations; on the contrary, if anything, diversity is often just a word in a slogan noted on academic and professional websites or printed on job announcements; diversity rarely manifests a physical reality in those "circles" other than nine letters on a bumper sticker. Rather, many Anglo poets and writers who are fortunate enough to be within those "circles" routinely use their power to promote others like themselves via tenure-track hirings, visiting professorships, and endowed reading series--but they want people of color in their classrooms as students as proof that they're "serving all communities." Hence, people of color count if we can bring in more revenue for departments and programs, but we don't seem to be as vital a component when it comes to deciding such questions: Who should we hire? Who should we publish? Who should we invite to read?

I used to be a member of a literary "association" in a California town that had a wonderful founding director whose generous spirit spurred him to promote diverse poets and writers; however, once that association's readings gained prominence and steady funding, the founding director was stripped of his position. What came afterwards was predictable: Mainly Anglo poets and writers were invited to give readings. Not surprisingly, I eventually ceased being a dues-paying member; I felt the association's leadership was not interested in inviting or promoting truly diverse authors who do indeed exist in America. According to the latest Bureau of Census report, over 50% of the population in the county in which the association thrives consists of "Spanish surnamed" people, but any year-long roster of the association's invited authors has yet to reflect such diversity.

Poets and writers of color readily support those in "literary circles and academic circles" by paying their salaries and NEA/NEH grants via our taxes, attending their readings, and buying their books. Is it asking too much that the patronage we've given be returned in kind?

Author Paul Kivel, whose book Uprooting Racism is a valuable contribution to us all, asks white people the following questions: "What do you stand for? Who do you stand with? What are you going to do about it?"

If we humans actually "do the right thing," to borrow from Spike Lee, the visible frustration that haunts Luna, Aragon, and others will eventually become invisible.