Caroline Van Linthout: On "White Things"

In “White Things”, Anne Spencer uses the imagery of colors in order to condemn the racist ideology in a poetic way, avoiding the lament-type protest poem or angry ineffective rhetorics (see J. Lee Greene, MAPS). The poet makes use of the conventional dualism “black vs. white”, and more particularly of the connotations that are traditionally associated with these two colors, only to reverse it and show how white is actually evil or negative, and black good or positive. However, in her attempt to invert this binary opposition, Spencer dangerously tends to re-inscribe the black/white polarity, which might eventually undermine her own efforts. Yet, the language and the images that she uses prevent her from falling into this trap. Indeed, it is important to point out that in Spencer’s poetic language, the adjective “black”, actually stands for all things and beings that are non-white.

The first three lines, along with the title “White things”, establish the context of reading of the poem, drawing parallels between and defining the terms which the poet will challenge throughout her poem.

 

Most things are colorful things (…)

Black men are most men (…)

White things are rare things (…)

 

The double equation between on the one hand “colorful” and “black”, and on the other hand “things” and “men” is obvious but nonetheless complex. Whereas the appropriation of blackness under the more generic term of “color(ed)” (or vice versa) is clear and does not pose any major problem as far as the connotations are concerned (notably because black, like all colors, is defined against white), the assimilation of things with men (or of men with things) is more problematic because it inevitably sounds reductive and again tends to reassert the racist ideology Spencer tries to deconstruct. The title itself already holds multiple meanings and posits the complexity of the relationship between things/men on the one hand, and white/non-white on the other hand. Indeed, the title “White Things” immediately evokes its opposite, namely “Black Men”, which would be a rather clearly stated opposition if the opening lines of the poem did not blur the limits of definition of the terms “white”, “color”, “thing”, and “men”. Who can, or even should, be considered to be men? What does the term “thing” refer to? What or who is black/white?

The poet/speaker is aware of this confusion, and tries at once to clarify the ambiguity. First, Spencer does not restrict her critique of racist ideology to the dual opposition “white vs. black”, but she expands it so as to eventually encompass all non-white or “colorful things” which are part of the world. Therefore, one should read “White Things” in terms of white vs. color, or white vs. non-white, instead of the traditional black vs. white. It is true that the white category remains the default term against which everything is measured, but this might be read as a part of Spencer’s critique of the white colonizing mind. White power is so strong that even when the dichotomy is inverted, it remains the oppressive norm which colors can never defeat. Whether it is reversed or not, whiteness is always the default: “white things are rare things”, but they nonetheless exert their power over “most things”, i.e. colorful things. This impossibility of change certainly comes from the fact that even though the wide panel of colors that the poet opposes to whiteness may culturally be richer and more varied, this variety also weakens their power because despite their regrouping under the common label of “colorful things”, the word “color” itself contains and implies diversity, as opposed to “white” which designates one single and well-defined thing. However, rather than weakening her critique, this linguistic aspect of the poem serves Spencer’s argument: her inversion of the traditional dichotomy black vs. white does re-inscribe the dichotomy, and whether it is deliberate or not, it should be interpreted as part of Spencer’s intent and critique. The inescapability out of white power and oppression is not only her central theme, but also present in her treatment of language and images.

As for the ambiguous use of “things” and “men”, the second part of the first line makes clear what the so-called things are, and thereby attenuates the negativity one might infer from the integration of men into the same category as things: “Most things are colorful things –the sky, earth, and sea”. For Spencer, “things” are not mere worldly objects; they are all the natural elements, doted with life and beauty. “Things” represent Life; this idea will prove particularly relevant by the end of the poem, when the poet makes a connection between the white color and death. White, which is first associated with things, and then gradually with men, should be provided with life –far more than things–, but it eventually turn out to lack a certain life-like quality. The simultaneous reading of “colorful things” and “black men” is confusing but also illuminating insofar as it establishes the identification of “black” with “colorful”, and “men” with “things”. On the one hand, the poet affirms the resemblance between mankind and natural things, but on the other hand, the ever-changing associations of colors with these categories prevent the reader from creating a definitive interpretation of the meaning of these terms.

Despite this unresolvable ambiguity, the identification of man with natural elements, i.e. nature, demonstrates the deep link –even, love– that exists between man and nature. However, man’s harmonious relationship with nature is not universal, as Spencer suggests by establishing a sharp contrast between white and non-white things or men.

As I have just said, the color imagery not only includes the African American population, but also the Native Indians of America: “The hills all red and darkened pine/ they blanched with their wand of power”. The redness of the hills directly refers to the so-called red man, i.e. the Indian. By integrating the Natives in her protest against white dominance and even oppression, Spencer shows her willingness to account for all victims of white power. This aspect of her writing is very interesting because at the same time as she associates man and nature (Indians with red hills for example), suggesting that nature and man are one and the same colorful thing, she strengthens her statement about the white people’s desire to dominate their environment, whether it is other men or beings, or nature itself. The first stanza exposes the white men’s desire for power:

 

Most things are colorful things –the sky, earth, and sea.

Black men are most men; but white are free!

White things are rare things; so rare, so rare

They stole from out a silvered world –somewhere.

Finding earth-plains fair plains, save greenly grassed,

They strewed white feathers of cowardice, as they passed;

The golden stars with lances fine,

The hills all red and darkened pine,

They blanched with their wand of power;

And turned the blood in ruby rose

To a poor white poppy-flower.

 

“White things are rare”, unnatural, coming from a “silvered world –somewhere”, but they nevertheless strive to impose “their wand of power” over the natural (colorful) world. The colonizing process that is suggested in this first stanza begins with the appropriation by the White of a land that does not belong to them –or to anyone. This gradual “blanching” of the natural world, is visible in expressions such as “they strewed white feathers as they passed”, or “they turned the blood in ruby rose”. This insistence on the process of whitening of nature –nature in its broader sense, that is physical objects and all living beings (men and animals) – which occurs through the colonization of people, but also of land reminds me of a passage in a novel (published in 1933, i.e. ten years after Spencer’s “White Things”) by a Lakota Indian writer, Luther Standing Bear:

Two lovely legends of the Lakotas would be fine subjects for sculpturing –the Black Hills as the earth mother, and the story of the genesis of the tribe. Instead, the face of a white man is being outlined on the face of a stone cliff in the Black Hills. (Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, p.43)

Spencer’s statement that the whites stole the land and freedom from the Natives (“red hills”), is most powerfully expressed in the ninth line: “They blanched with their wand of power”, which can be paralleled with Standing Bear’s reference to the Mount Rushmore. The Black Hills which meant so much to the Lakotas, have become “the face of a white man”. Hills are no longer “all red” but white(ned), so that their very appellation –“Black Hills”– becomes absurd since white people have taken possession of and contaminated them. White people have literally and figuratively blanched the land: the gold rushers have stolen the gold (i.e. the yellow color) from the hills, and the presence of these invaders suggests a white shadow over the hills. In both cases, the colors (the gold in the Black Hills is yellow, nature in general (and the Black Hills in particular here) is colorful) have gradually faded away. In other words, both passages from Anne Spencer and Luther Standing Bear eloquently demonstrate how the process of colonizing the land is tightly linked to human oppression. In this respect, another (well-known) passage from Standing Bear is worth quoting:

Only to the white man was nature a ‘wilderness’ and only to him was the land ‘infested’ with ‘wild’ animals and ‘savage’ people. To us it was tame. Earth was bountiful and we were surrounded with the blessings of the Great Mystery. Not until the hairy man from the east came and with brutal frenzy heaped injustices upon us and the families we loved was it ‘wild’ for us. When the very animals of the forest began fleeing from his approach, then it was that for us the ‘Wild West’ began. (Luther Standing Bear, Land of the Spotted Eagle, p.38)

This excerpt shows how colonization begins with the invasion of the land, which has then inevitable consequences for the other creatures living on this land, i.e. both animals and men, who all find themselves deprived of their natural environment. This also reinforces Spencer’s assimilation of colorful human beings to nature, as opposed to the white’s power relationship with it. As both Standing Bear and Spencer suggest, Indians –and by extension, Africans and all colored people– live in harmony with nature, whereas white people are always trying to dominate it. Spencer’s explanation for this phenomenon is that white racist ideology comes from “the marginalization of whites, their insecurity at being a minority, their guilt at appropriating a world in which they feel alien, their envy of a natural beauty not their own” (Susan Gubar, MAPS). These anxieties conjugated with the fear of the “Other” first leads to a certain distrust and racism towards the alien being, and then towards cruel actions perpetrated onto the so-called inferior beings, or “savages”.

The second stanza goes from the appropriation of the colorful nature (i.e. the colorful Life) onto a more “macabre” aspect of the colonization, namely the killing of the colorful human beings. Not only was the land whitened, but so was mankind, and this whitening or “blanching” process inevitably goes through miscegenation and eradication; eradication of color (which can be associated with life) in order to achieve the paleness and whiteness generally associated with death. Indeed, only in death do “colorful things” become white. The well-know expression “the only good nigger/Indian is a dead nigger/Indian” is best illustrated in this second stanza (see J. Lee Greene, MAPS) and becomes rather ironic here: “They pyred a race of black, black men,/and burned them to ashes white”. The repetition of “black” in the first line reinforces the importance of the white color: he was so black that the whites had to kill him. It is somewhat ironic that white people burn their “enemies” to turn them white since burning primarily implies a darkening (reddening and then blackening) process. Then, the colors and life disappear and make place for white ashes, i.e. death. The white people laugh before the white skull of the black corpse, as if they were celebrating the little whiteness they have finally achieved in their killing of colorful beings. But the white “ghoul” comes as defying “God with all his might”, which demonstrates that white colonization (and white in general) is unnatural because it disrupts the natural order of the universe created by God. Moreover, the ghoul has been generated by the hell (“by the hell that sired him”), which confirms the evil nature of white creatures and emphasizes their opposition to God.

The last line of the second stanza, and thus of the poem, is very explicit and significant insofar as it summarizes the racist imperialistic ideology the Whites have imposed upon the world for centuries (and which certainly continues today), definitively posing “man” and “white” as synonyms, and reducing any other being or object to an inferior level: “Man-maker, make white!”. This exhortation can be read as one addressed to God (the “man-maker”), which emphasizes the religious justification that imperialistic ideologies have often used to legitimate their deeds and their position in the racial hierarchy. In this last line, the voice shifts –this is clearly marked by the quotation marks– from a critique of white imperialism and colonialist past, to the reproduction of the imperialistic discourse itself. This change of tone and the use of direct discourse operate as an even stronger critique because they show the absurdity and danger emanating from such beliefs. Spencer may thus not resolve the ambiguity relating to her use of the terms white/black/colorful, and things/men, but this confusion accentuates the fragile nature of the white imperialistic ideology, because it is not only unnatural (i.e. against Nature, and therefore, against Life), but also rests upon dubious principles, such as the faith in a white God/man-maker, or the belief in the possibility of possessing the land and its inhabitants. As Emerson expresses in his 1846 poem “Hamatreya”, one cannot own the land but instead is consumed by it.[1] This simple but true affirmation deconstructs and shows the absurdity of the whole ideology of colonialism, which Spencer metaphorically criticizes in “White Things”.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Caroline Van Linthout.

 

 

[1] J. Lee Greene, Time’s Unfading Garden (Baton Rouge; London: Louisiana State University Press, 1977), p.123.

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Title Caroline Van Linthout: On "White Things" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Caroline Van Linthout Criticism Target Anne Spencer
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Jun 2020
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