McCrae Depicts Survival, Self-Doubt Through Verse

Louise Edwards, Arts Editor

Director of the Creative Writing Program Kazim Ali and Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Shane McCrae gave a reading together at Afrikan Heritage House on Thursday, Nov. 5 that featured works from their new books, both published this year.

McCrae, who went first, read the poem “How You Are Owned” from his book The Animal Too Big to Kill. “Growing up black white trash you grow up / knowing there are / Two kinds of white in the world one black / the / White like the crayon / You grow up calling flesh / that colors everything the color of imaginary peaches / and the white like every other white thing / Lord and the black like what your skin is like the / Black like what bad guys wear,” he read.

Much of McCrae’s powerful work illustrates the violence of internalized racism yet at the same time stands as a testament of survival. He prefaced the poem by explaining that he was kidnapped as a child and raised by white supremacist grandparents who didn’t want him to be in contact with his Black father. “You grow up owned by whites / not / Your body but your senses,” McCrae read, concluding the first section of the poem, “Slavery is Forever.” Here, McCrae emphasizes that owning someone isn’t about owning their physical body but about having power over their mind and self-image.
 The second section of the poem, “Aspirational Harm,” reflects the first section and grounds it by condensing the broader experience of internalized racism into a concrete image. “You when the doctor shows you / the x-ray think it looks / more real than you are / In the middle of a black void Lord you see / a broken white bone glowing,” it reads. In these lines, a sputtering syntax of fragmented sentences that characterizes much of McCrae’s work mirrors the image of the broken bone and lends emotional energy to the piece. McCrae’s voice rushed exasperatedly through disjointed phrases as he explained how disorienting it was to feel as if his mind was not his own.

While McCrae’s pieces are often autobiographical, many are also persona poems told from the perspective of historical figures or characters he imagines. In his fifth book, All Smiles in Hell, a long narrative poem, he tells a story from the perspective of Banjo Yes, a character McCrae constructed as a Black film actor from the early 20th century.

In the section, “Banjo Yes Receives a Lifetime Achievement Award,” McCrae notes that Banjo Yes is a name given to Bill, the Black actor, by a white boy who orders Bill to clean his shoes. “But that name stuck to me,” McCrae writes as Bill, “And when you see / A white boy talking on the screen that’s him / And when you see me smiling back that’s me.” This scene reflects how Black actors have historically been used as props, seen only as a foil and contrast to white actors’ peachy skin, which seems to exude goodness and importance onscreen.

Despite the fact that McCrae writes from a different perspective, themes of ownership and identity in the poem echo those of his personal narrative. The white boy imposes another identity on Bill, just as McCrae’s grandparents foisted a racist ideology on him. McCrae’s writing exposes his and his character’s layered identities. There is a self that internalizes racist ideology — a self that is disgusted with self. Another self is disgusted with racist ideology and with self because of such internalization of racism. In this paradox, it seems nearly impossible to imagine self-love. Through such retellings of violence, McCrae reclaims his own narrative and opens a space for self-empowerment.

Ali’s essays from his new book, Resident Alien: On Border-Crossing and the Undocumented Divine, paired well with McCrae’s choice of readings, as the prose explores his own complex intersectional identity. In the first section of his essay “Poet Crossing Borders,” Ali details how his body is scrutinized by security personnel at airports and how his identity is repeatedly interrogated. “It is not when I cross a border but when I cross back — back to my own home, my “nation,” as it were — that my body is subjected to various technological interventions,” Ali read. “I am separated from the group. X-rays pass through me. An image of me, a naked ghost, appears somewhere then disappears. I disappear.”

Ali explains how the U.S., his home, rejects his Muslim identity by subjecting him to an experience that has become routine for him. He also recalls McCrae’s image of “a broken white bone glowing” by exploring the symbolism of X-ray technology. On the screen, Ali’s body in transit fluctuates between visibility and invisibility, between the physical world and the spiritual world at a point between nations. His body is relegated to “the cordoned-off room” yet is also put on display in front of other travelers who may wonder why he is being pulled aside.

The situation is further complicated when one of the guards notices that Ali’s nails are painted a “fetching slate blue.” Ali wonders what the guard could be thinking. “I am annoyed immediately but what is more disturbing — that he doesn’t immediately understand that I pose no Al-Qaeda-supported security threat, or is it worse — that somehow that I take this sign of my Westernization and postmodernity to be a marker of queerness and thus excusing me from scrutiny, an evasion that perhaps any other Muslim man with more heteronormative behavior would not be able to escape?” he writes. “That somehow I am trying, from a position of odd privilege, to be clear that I am not ‘that kind of Muslim,’ that I am not like them.” In this twist, Ali demonstrates how queerness linked to Eurocentric liberalism could in fact distance him from the harmful stereotype of a Muslim terrorist and give him privilege. While Ali’s prose is well organized, it flows like stream-of-conscious thoughts, allowing the listener to enter the vulnerable space that Ali inhabits at this moment.

Both McCrae and Ali’s writing make visible their individual narratives and exposes larger systems of oppression. As Ali said in a question and answer session following the reading, “Social justice starts on a very individual basis. … The personal is political and the political is also personal.”

In an extension of their work to promote social justice through writing, Ali also said that the Creative Writing department has been working on finding ways to incorporate more performance poetry into the curriculum, as oral tradition in telling stories is important for many artists and communities of color. He hopes that a performance-based class will eventually be a requirement for Creative Writing majors.