Reading Race in American Poetry: An Area of Act

Ethnic Studies Review, April 3, 2001 | Go to article overview

Reading Race in American Poetry: An Area of Act


For some time now it has been fashionable when reviewing any sort of anthology to focus critical lens on what the anthology leaves out. In both formal and informal reviews of literary anthologies and collections of essays what an editor does not include in his or her text often takes precedent over the relative virtues of the texts actually appearing in the anthology itself. In the most postmodern of moments, absence erases presence.

Despite every good intention on my part to avoid such an approach, Reading Race in American Poetry: An Area of Act demands at least a passing interrogation of what it is not. What it is not is a book about the many races that comprise America and its poetry. For Nielsen and his well-respected contributors, the term "race" remains, in virtually every instance, interchangeable with the word "black." Imagine my surprise when I opened a book entitled Reading Race in American Poetry and found no essays on American Indian, Latino, Jewish, Asian American, or Arabic American poetry. To his credit Nielsen acknowledges the limited perspective of his book by quoting Shelley Fisher Fishkin's essay, "Interrogating 'Whiteness,' Complicating 'Blackness': Remapping American Culture," an essay with which Nielsen's book forms a revealing intertext:

Like Shelley Fishkin, 'I would not want my decision to frame this essay in black or white terms to be interpreted as a denial of the importance of these other groups and traditions [....] I am simply choosing to focus, at this time, on one particular aspect of a complex set of issues' (20).

Eric Sundquist asks for the same leeway in his To Wake the Nations: Race in the Making of American Literature, and because his and Nielsen's projects are so well-intentioned, the reader grants indulgences. …

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