Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Douglas Kearney on "Thank You But Don't Buy My Babies Clothes with Monkeys on Them"

MONKEYS! Tried and tried but the monkey got in. On a bib slung over the booster seat where it beep-beeps toward me in a car with a city in the background. The monkey leans out the window, waving, his tail curled like a question mark. Asking me what? Curious George matching cards are scattered, loose tiles on our ceramic floor. Match the monkey to the monkey. No, the monkey doesn’t match the little girl. No, the monkey doesn’t match the little boy.

But the monkey goes with kids, say the clothes and bibs, the high chairs and toys. This marketplace monkey is an adorable almost-person, a hairy little mirror, often brown. As Sianne Ngai says of the aesthetic category “cute”, it performs a harmlessness yet infantilizes itself and the onlooker. Cuh-yoot.

Monkeys go guerrilla though! Martial monkeys. Cuh-yoot? The lady with the pet chimp? Ate her face off! And Caesar? Filthy handed, dirty ape’ded. King Kong? A century of snatching up white women and ruining the city. They wreck everything those irate primates.

The marketplace and martial monkeys intersect to generate the negro as monkey image, the racist representation that rides shotgun in a poem driven by a father worried about his children, their bodies and their selfhoods. Drives a poem called “Thank You But    Don’t Buy My Babies Clothes with Monkeys on Them” from its sonnet like start; through its anxious hear-no/see-no/speak-no; its historically-traumatized perseverations; its overwhelmed terror; to its shell-shocked calm.

Why does it drive to these places? Because in order to enact the fear I have I have to try to present the complex ambivalent cultural (political) components that aid and abet the fear. Beyond presenting them, my desire to work through (as in both via proxy and vain hope to resolve) the staged predicaments requires different coping strategies, disguised here as a poetics. Or is that the other way ‘round? Bananas.

And just to show I ain’t paranoid, that I’m not imagining things, Mary Gustoff, CEO of Brasskey Keepsakes shows up poem-side to hie off “Lil Monkey,” a black doll sold at Costco until those irate protestors wrecked everything. A reverse Elizabeth Eckford moment? Also bananas.

The child(ren) in danger. A particular terror for the parent(s). The black child(ren) in danger? The terror is enhanced by racism’s ability to turn children into adults and adults into children into monkeys into gorillas. There is a moment coming when my toddler twins, cuh-yoot now, will become, to a spectator, monsters. Kongs. Their monstrosity may be argued on TV by GROWN UPS with considerable resources marshaled to confirm it. It has nothing to do with who my children are. Nothing. And NOTHING. It has everything to do with what that nice lady remarking on my daughter’s eyelashes (how they curl!) might feel some Tuesday in twelve years. What some guy with a gun decides about my son. Ask Trayvon’s parents, Emmet’s, Elizabeth’s, Latasha’s. Who cries over a dead monkey? Who listens to a living one? How do you write about your children (personal) when their innocence can be easily rendered immaterial (political) by the culture they live in?

To see the personal in its continuity with the political is to see the infrastructure of our social interaction, the social interactions that lead to the “private” lyrical moment. In other words, it’s to “see.” The introspective is in the mind, in the individual who is in the society. Run! Try! But the poem you write and post on that site, in that journal, in that book is a part of the exchange. The political.

This poem makes no effort to separate the political from the personal. Because hearing no/seeing no/speaking no evil (I know, bananas!) is no charm, no way toward transcending them, just a deafness, blindness, muteness. Why be senseless as the racism? Well, it could make it easier for my wife and me to buy sock monkeys at Costco. “Yoo-hoo-oo. I wanna be like. . . ."


  1. Hi Douglas,
    I found your poems a challenge, but a good challenge – like biking 5 miles more than your body finds customary, but knowing a café with great food is at the end of the trail. This is to say that I really enjoyed your poems. They have many layers. I want to complement you on the playful, humorous layer in each poem – you are not afraid to tackle an edgy subject using an element of laughter. That you are also able to make the anger speak through the poem is a true talent.
    I had not heard about the monkey dolls at Costco issue – I googled it just now and feel a bit more informed. I wish I had known about it when my daughter was home from college on Spring Break because I would have liked to know what her classmates are saying. Some facts up front that will allow you to draw (probably the right) assumptions – she goes to Brown Univ., she is bi, our family is white and liberal. One evening, she and I had a deep discussion about the tragedy of Trayvon’s death and the subject of hoodies being used to stereotype individuals.
    Then she brought up the movie – The Hunger Games. You might already know this, but apparently, there is a heated internet discussion on the casting of the characters. I haven’t read the book (I can’t bear to read the story because of the subject, and I won’t see the movie either for the same reason). She told me that many people were taken aback that their favorite characters were not white. Some of them claimed that it even “ruined” the movie for them. We were both saddened to hear this. She had a lot more to say. My daughter attended an international baccalaureate school and met a full spectrum of people and perhaps we both felt that her generation would be more tolerant than previous generations. It hurts to acknowledge that I’m wrong on this point. Wishful thinking, I guess.
    Reading back over what I’ve written, my note seems rambling and without a point. I think I just want to tell you that I enjoy your poems and that I wanted to add to the discussion about racism and to say that your efforts to speak out are always going to be needed. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for the post, Gwenn! Rambling is fine. It's messy, isn't it? I have heard about the response to the casting in The Hunger Games and have read an article citing passages of the book in which those self-same characters are actually described as being darker skinned. I haven't read the books so I won't comment further.

      I will say, however, that "casting" is often a motherlode of delightful glittering racism! Glittering, I say! "Representation" is just as shiny as a minstrel's sweaty and cork-blacked forehead.

      As far as tolerance, I have mixed feelings toward the term, though I know you use it with the best of intentions and sincere optimism for it as a vehicle for a more equitable and robustly diverse society. We tolerate things that are not right, things that make us uncomfortable (with the onus on tolerated). Yet that keeps the tolerated person or thing in a state of abnormality and disruption when the fact is (at least when dealing with other humans) she or he is not generally abnormal. Or to put it another way, that that person's difference could irk us is not her or his problem as much as it is ours (of course, a hostile culture MAKES it her/his problem). So "tolerant" seems off. I mean, sure, we could tolerate a person behaving like a jerk, but to use the same emotional skillset to deal with, say, a massive group of people with a sexual orientation different from mine, is sticky.

      Anyway, again, thanks!

    2. Hi Douglas,
      I’ve spent many odd moments this month thinking about your reply and the word “tolerance.” You are right – tolerance is the wrong word, and I had not quite understood why. So I began to think that perhaps “acceptance” was a better word. And then I went to a poetry reading in the OB Hardison series that is held at the Folger Theater (in DC). This particular reading was by members of the Dark Room Collective. Eight poets sharing the stage, then a ninth artist joined them. (And there were − as I discovered − other members in the audience.) Wow.

      This evening’s event was another instance of what I have been experiencing all of April since reading your response. All month it has seemed to me that every other news report or column or book I read was wrestling with the issue of race and racism and the challenges facing minorities. Everywhere and each day I looked and listened and saw the subject of racism as an issue in one form or another (against Arab, Asian, African, Black, Filipino). I live in DC and so issues of discrimination and the subject of race-relations are all around.

      After this evening’s reading, I think that the correct word (at least the one I’m looking for) is probably “witness.” To witness – both as a poet and as a reader. Also, on this, the last day of April, I heard another news article – this one on NPR, on All Things Considered. “The ugliness of racism is at the heart of a new museum in Michigan. The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia at Ferris State University in Big Rapids features thousands of troubling artifacts and sometimes horrifying images.” This is a form of Witness.

      I want to thank you for two things. First for being so gentle and intelligent in your response to my clumsy note to you at the beginning of the month. I’m grateful for that. And second, I want to thank you for provoking me to think more about what you wrote and about what I was thinking and then giving me an opportunity to re-think. Thank you. I’ve gone back – this afternoon – to read your poems again, and they are much more alive on a second and third reading; particularly after your note on this blog on what you were responding to you when you wrote the poems.

      I’m rambling again. Thank you for your patience!
      Yours truly,

    3. Dear Gwenn,

      Thank you so much. I apologize for the delay, but I haven't had sense enough to access the comment option correctly.

      I like "witness"—it's active and has useful connotations. I agree that the museum provides an opportunity and challenge for us to witness and be witnesses.

      Now, you've set ME to thinking. It's interesting to consider the possibilities of that term. I wonder how it functions in the images of the now infamous "Ooga-Booga" cake (a bit of performance art photographed/video-recorded at a gathering featuring the Swedish Minister of Culture). The gathered celebrants' smiling faces are now inextricable from the cake as a performance in itself; they were an audience (witnesses?) but now they are performers as witnesses. Involuntary spectactors? Many have commented that there is dissonance between their witness and what they are witnessing. Thus witness, in this case, is perhaps more clearly an active process?

      Anyway, thank you so much for your patience as I figured out how to comment again.