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The Tyranny Of ‘Problematic”

I am a poet.

I am a Black poet.

I am a black poet who likes to incite.

There are black poets who–in front of black audiences–transform themselves into the stereotypical outspoken, angry black artist, while in front of mixed or predominately white audiences, will temper their voices as to not upset people or make them uncomfortable. I am the opposite. I value the stomach-churning white discomfort more than I value applause or laughter. In front of black, Christians I sometimes will do a piece about atheism, and in front of conservative white audiences, I will do unapologetic poems about race. I don’t think it makes me more courageous or fierce. It is just my preference. I don’t value political correctness if it doesn’t speak to a truth. I don’t have a need to be liked.

And I might be wrong.

I have to admit that I am probably more calloused than most. I am rarely offended, and almost never outraged. When I started this site, I promised myself that I wouldn’t censor the comments. The comment section of some articles on NegusWhoRead are filled with vitriolic statements by white nationalist who found the article on Black Lives Matter or “White People Don’t Give A Fuck.” I don’t delete them because I am not outraged by them.

And there are a lot of them.

Which brings us to March, 2017

A few days ago at the College Union Poetry Slam Invitational (CUPSI) Mark Smith, the “founder” or “inventor” of poetry slam, was invited as the featured poet to what is basically the national competition for college poets. I cannot attest to the quality or content of the poems that he performed, but they were said to be misogynist, sexist and racist. According to reports (again, I cannot find video of what happened) he was booed, and people in the audience turned their backs on the stage. The backlash was loud and reverberated through the national poetry community. Someone even changed his wikipedia page to read:

Earlier in the week, the writer and humorist Luvvie Ajayi wrote a Facebook post that called out “activists”  for reportedly requesting “donations” via PayPal for their “labor” of activism. In the post, she also flung shade at mixed race activists and mixed race people as a whole. The original post is not available, but her response to the controversy is here.

And then there was Kendrick Lamar’s lyrics to his song “Humble” that some took offense to when he rapped:

I’m so fuckin’ sick and tired of the Photoshop
Show me somethin’ natural like afro on Richard Pryor
Show me somethin’ natural like ass with some stretch marks

Of course, there was the backlash against Dave Chapelle’s new Netflix special for his lingering on homosexuality, transgender people, and most notably, rape which I wrote about here:

Here’s the thing:

I don’t support racism, homophobia, misogyny, transphobia or anything of the like. I fight against it here, and in real life. I generally believe in a human being’s right to live, be and do whatever they choose as long as it doesn’t infringe on the rights of others. I don’t doubt Marc Smith said some racist shit, and I wrote about what Chapelle did in his special.

But what I also believe in, is the freedom of expression–not just the first amendment right that some so often trumpet–because that only extends to the government’s regulation of it. I believe anyone has the right to say and feel whatever they want. I feel the personal responsibility to try and be respectful of others, but I have no expectation of others to feel the same way. I do not delete or censor people who call me “nigger,” spearchucker, or any of the vitriolic names that fill the comment sections here.

I have met Luvvie. I know she made her living saying and writing what sometimes straddles the line between hilarious and offensive. I was not offended or outraged by her comments, but I am not mixed race, or even close to light-skinned. I read it knowing what Luvvie does–use humor to sometimes make relevant points.

I have met Marc Smith. I have visited the Green Mill (the club where he still holds a regular poetry slam) on the 30th anniversary of Slam. Although I lack the requisite sensitivity to be offended at the contents of a poem, I went to his place and embraced it the same way I visited Monticello or Gettysburg–accepting the history of racism in the space. It is historic, but I went in knowing that he is an old white man.

I have met Dave Chapelle. I watched his Netflix special knowing that I fell in love with his comedy when the world was a much more forgiving place. I know he pushes the line and uses off-color comedy as social commentary, but part of the reason I love him is that he gives no fucks.

I love Kendrick Lamar. I also know that hip hop is steeped in sexism and things most people will find offensive.

I do not say any of this to excuse them, but it all exposes a conflict I often struggle with. I often believe that white liberalism has given us the term “problematic” as a groupthink phrase to prime the pump of outrage. “politically correct has neutered art into self-affirmation.

The world has no responsibility to make us comfortable or happy.

We get the heebbie jeebies as if we didn’t know who Dave Chapelle was. We bristle at Luvvie as though we didn’t know she makes off-color jokes. We call out Kung-Fu Kenny as if he doesn’t pepper the word “bitch” throughout his songs. The people who invited a 60-year old white man to give his innermost feelings to a group of barely legal college students act surprised when he says the shit that 60-year-old white men think.

Either you are faking outrage, or you’re stupid.

And here is the real part:

The all-embracing, kumbaya teen poets, the people mad at Kendrick, the people who want Luvvie to take back her words, and the people upset by what Chapelle say it, don’t want to have a real discussion about the validity of the points. They just want to silence the poem sayers, comedians and the rappers. Marc Smith believes straight white men have become marginalized. Kendrick believes there is something wrong with woman choosing fake body parts. Luvvie and Chapelle believe there is truth in their humor.

Even if one thinks they are dead wrong, it is intellectually disingenuous to believe their voices aren’t valid. I like that people criticized Luvvie, Kendrick and Chapelle, but we also act as if there isn’t an option to not read, stop listening to, refuse to support things we don’t like. I believe I am strong enough, smart enough to withstand ideas contrary to my own. I do not wilt like a flower. I think part of the tyranny of white liberalism is that they have reduced everything creative to exercise of milquetoast, self-affirming, redundant patting on the back. We are turning into a world where we all live in echochambers of confirmation bias. Republicans won’t even have a conversation with Democrats. All Christians are enslaved minds trapped in white man’s thinking. All straight men are homophobic sexists. We cannot withstand dissent. Should Marc only perform poems that the majority agrees with? Would Luvvie have a television deal if she didn’t push the envelope? Who wants a careful Dave Chapelle?

My conflict comes from the fact that I also feel these artists–once they put their feelings out for public consumption–must also realize that they cannot insulate themselves from the scrutiny that accompanies their ideas. They are sometimes as thin-skinned as the protests against them. Art is not a sanctuary that exempts one from criticism. I do not want the students at CUPSI or the women who think Lamar is sexist to be quiet. They are supposed to make noise. But I hope the public outcry doesn’t make Luvvie second-guess herself every time she writes a word someone might feel is offensive. Who wants to hear Dave Chapelle wax on about airplane food and raising kids? There are enough middle-of-the-road rappers who don’t feel the ned to say anything important, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to throw up in my mouth listening to social-justice-minded white poets explain racism and privilege.

The problem is, that the outcry forces the artist to re-examine his work, but the outraged protesters are never forced to examine the complexities of the subject they address. Outrage fosters a one-way conversation that always fails to address a specific issue. The only way to pacify the offended masses is with a heartfelt apology or by rounding off the sharp edges that poked their egos. I wonder how many of those poets walked up to Marc Smith and asked for a deeper conversation. “Problematic has evolved from an adjective to a groupthink dismissive phrase at which one dares you dispute. If you ignore accusations of being problematic, it confirms the original accusation. If you want to discuss it–well no one wants to talk to your racist, homophobic ass, because–after all–you’re “problematic.”

On Tuesday, a group at my alma mater booked the white supremacist, neo-fascist Richard Spencer (who created the term “alt right”) to speak at my alma mater. There was a concerted movement to ban him from the campus, and the school finally relented.

I wanted him to come.

I wanted him to come, and I wanted people to protest. He says he will not be silenced, and I agree with him. He has the right to say whatever he wishes, and the people who paid him to come speak have a right to hear him. I find his rhetoric despicable, but I honor his right to spew it. Apparently there is a group of people on campus who wants to hear what he has to say. I don’t know if it is intellectual curiosity (because I have read a lot of alt-right doctrine in an effort to understand white nationalism) or if they are sympathetic to his cause.

My hope is, while he inside speaking, students will protest, and if it gets ugly so be it. I feel about it the same way I feel about people searching for women’s liberation in the lyrics from a rapper from Compton, the activists mad at a dark-skinned humorist for flubbing humor about light-skinned people, the people  upset about an edgy, black comedian who said “fuck your $50 mill, I’m going to Africa”–acting edgy, or the poets who thought an old white man elevated to a deity wouldn’t act like an old white man who thinks he’s God…

What the fuck did you think would happen?

About the author

Michael Harriot is a renowned spoken word poet, the host of The Black One podcast and the editor-in-chief of NegusWhoRead. He is perpetually just getting warmed up because he has no chill. He is on Instagram and twitter as @michaelharriot

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