In a bizarre and counterproductive attempt to escape controversy, the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) ousted poet Vanessa Place from a 2016 conference subcommittee because one of her creative projects was attacked as "racially insensitive."
The project in question is a Twitter feed of the text of Gone With the Wind accompanied by a profile image of Hattie McDaniel, the actress famous for her portrayal of Mammy in the 1940 film. The goal, according to Place’s artistic statement, was to “show the inherent whiteness behind the blackface,” pushing the racism contained within the words to the forefront. She elaborates:
Certain white feminists have lauded Scarlett’s independence, and Tara’s Theme was played over the Oscar acceptance speech for ‘Django Unchained.’ While copies of Huckleberry Finn are routinely purged from public libraries based on depictions of race, GWTW has not been subject to the same approbation. ‘Gone With the Wind’ is a profoundly racist text.
People still took offense, finding Place’s project itself racist or, at least racially insensitive. An anonymous online group, the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, campaigned to have her removed from the AWP’s subcommittee. A Change.org petition followed.
The AWP caved under the pressure and removed Place from their subcommittee, saying in a statement that, “AWP believes in freedom of expression. We also understand that many readers find Vanessa Place’s unmediated quotes of Margaret Mitchell’s novel to be unacceptable provocations, along with the images on her Twitter page."
That statement doesn’t say the AWP believes Place’s work is racist. They simply don’t want to be troubled by controversy. Yet removing a poet based on the controversial nature of her work severely undermines AWP’s belief in free expression. The NCAC sent a letter urging the AWP to reverse this decision and reinstate Vanessa Place.
As our letter to the AWP explains:
AWP’s action violates the very principles of academic freedom that are at the heart of its members’ work. The logic of banishing Vanessa Place from the subcommittee could potentially be applied to many other situations: a creative writing professor’s work for instance, could be attacked as controversial. Would this be considered to affect the “efficacy” of his or her classroom teaching? Should such a professor then not be allowed to teach?
A discussion about free expression and race should not be too much for an association of writers to handle.
Read the full letter below.