Christina Scheuer: On "White Things"

Anne Spencer’s “White Things” swiftly denaturalizes the relationship between and the hierarchy among “black” and “white” by pathologizing whiteness, marking it as a dangerous aberration rather than a sign of superiority. In doing so, Spencer relies on the language of race relations in the United States in order to radically undermine it, for if a drop of black blood makes someone black, then “Black men are most men,” and “pure” whiteness is both extraordinarily fragile and “rare.” Spencer revisions a racist legal and social history by recasting “Black” as a quality of coalition and connection – something that unites “most men” and excludes those who identify as white. In these first lines, Spencer also sunders the associative link between the qualities of “rareness” and “preciousness,” for it soon becomes clear that “the white” destroy precious things rather than possessing any valuable qualities themselves. Also, by writing that “They stole from out a silvered world – somewhere,” Spencer insists that the “white things” have no real home and that, as Maureen Honey suggests, they have found a place only through colonization and the violent appropriation of other people’s homelands (MAPS).

Despite Spencer’s withering critique of white power, Keith Clark insists that Spencer didn’t write “protest” poetry – as if the term “protest poem” can only refer to poetry that exhibits a very specific rhetoric and form. Clark writes, “the persona of ‘White Things’ addresses race metaphorically,” and yet the poem’s power relies very explicitly on the material reality of race relations (MAPS). For example, the first lines of the second stanza provide a sickening image of the “creation” of whiteness that relies on references to the history of lynching; here, whiteness works not only as a metaphor, but also as a reference to the very real quality of the burned flesh of black men:

 

They pyrred a race of black, black men,

And burned them to ashes white, then

Laughing, a young one claimed a skull

For the skull of a black is white, not dull

 

In this stanza, whiteness not only acts as an agent of murder and destruction, but it is also created out of that destruction, a move that rewrites the white, Christian origin myth as a story of death and violence rather than the creation of life.

As Susan Gubar notes, the “White Things” are never named as people, though the actions of attempting to dominate and destroy the earth and the lynching scene are very clearly the actions of “white men” (MAPS). By identifying “white people” metonymically through their imperialistic, racist, and extraordinarily violent actions, Spencer provides a scathing criticism of “white rights” or Manifest Destiny. When the line “but the white are free!” is read through the lens of the rest of the poem, it becomes clear that the “white” are “free” to destroy all things of color and beauty. By speaking about the “freedom” of “the whites,” Spencer calls attention to the historical links that bind the Enlightenment rhetoric of freedom and human rights to the violent histories of imperialism, so that white freedom is almost always predicated on the violation and colonization of “black” or non-white bodies.

Spencer’s poem can be read as a global – rather than just a national – critique of racism, Like Langston Hughes “White Shadows,” which addresses his “Dark brothers” around the world in the hope of finding a place “Where the white shadows/ Will not fall,” Spencer’s poem simultaneously critiques white imperialism and calls attention to the global connections between “black men.” Spencer and Hughes’ references to black internationalism reveal their concerns for global politics and their awareness of linked oppressions. Spencer not only critiques white domination and the colonization of people, but also their destruction of the natural world, which they have “blanched with their wand of power.” Spencer reveals that this “wand,” as phallically powerful as it appears, is actually a curse because, like Midas’s touch, it destroys everything that it tries to appropriate.

J. Lee Greene (MAPS) argues that the lines in the last stanza “suggest the likeness of men (‘For the skull of a black man is white, not dull’) in that all men are men and are basically alike in the eyes of God,” yet Spencer seems to be suggesting otherwise. In the process of reversing racial discourses that cast non-white people as “naturally” inferior or inhuman, Spencer suggests that the “White Things” have dehumanized themselves through their destructive actions and, in doing so, have made a mockery of both God and humanity. Gubar writes, “The only hope the poem holds out persists in the quotation marks of the last line which contain the possibility that the God who made (black) men (not white ghouls) is a deity of color who will refuse to hear or heed the deadly malediction.” However, the poem’s ending suggests that the “young ghoul” is swearing to the master of hell, not of heaven, which raises the dual possibilities that hell is the source of the “white things” and that the work of a heavenly or benevolent God is already being systematically destroyed. The suggestion that white domination has effectively driven God out of the world is echoed in Spencer's poem “(God never planted a garden),” in which the “keepers” that God placed in the “garden” destroy the garden and drive God out of it. Spencer’s poems provide a series of chilling revisions of the Christian creation myth: instead of the “white men” being created in the image of God, they are rising out of the ashes of black bodies, and instead of a man and a woman being evicted from the Garden of Eden, God is being systematically evacuated from the garden of the world.

 

Copyright © 2006 by Christina Scheuer

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Criticism Overview
Title Christina Scheuer: On "White Things" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Christina Scheuer Criticism Target Anne Spencer
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 02 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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