AROUND 1980 WE SAID NO MORE POETRY ABOUT FOOD AND GRANDMOTHERS
One privilege that comes with ‘white privilege’ is to ignore ‘ethnic’ details behind which are hidden whole lives, the experiences of entire generations, entire histories of people. White privilege, combined with a certain class outlook, allows someone (anyone, of any background) to partake of blithe ignorance about whose land this used to be, who used to live on the creek, what these trees meant to those people, what this terrain used to say to them each season, what happened here in the meantime, the original names for the terrain and the original species in the ecology, who grew this food, who picked it, who cooked and put it on the plate, who’s doing the dishes afterwards. Details related to issues like those were inconvenient, purposely ignored or often viewed with outright hostility. Bad Day at Black Rock.
When I was coming of age, I understood that the dominant culture loved to see itself in the mirror of an apartheid imagination (all white media, all white movies, all white TV—codes of censorship explicitly prohibited miscegenation of the imagination and race-mixing of the intellectual vocabulary) and that, even more, the dominant culture from this vantage could view everything dispassionately, not with any racist hatred necessarily, but simply from the supposition that the apartheid vision was the true standard, the ideal, the “pure product of America,” to paraphrase William Carlos Williams.
It was not at all clear, given the outrageous violence, repression and assassinations of the 1960s and the Vietnam War that the dominant culture would accommodate any change at all. To this day, U.S. mass media remains deeply segregated. When I was growing up you could count recognized black writers who were nationally known on one hand. Those black writers (Wright, Ellison, Baldwin, Baraka, etc.) and a second generation of women writers, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange, worked bravely and overtly to democratize the culture. Right in their footsteps, Maxine Hong Kingston, Jessica Hagedorn, Ana Castillo, Sandra Cisneros, Leslie Marmon Silko, with a cohort of others in poetry and other arts, broke open the field of publishing for everyone, showing how it could be done, that the stories were there to be told and books by the millions would sell (and did).
But in 1980 Sandra Cisneros hadn’t published yet. At that time, I read poems by these authors in small press publications like Ishmael Reed’s Yardbird. I had heard that Jessica Hagedorn was doing theater in the Bay Area with poet Ntozake Shange, who had written and produced a piece of feminist dynamite called For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf. Before everything broke open, local Asian, Latino, or regional collectives self-published their own representative authors, democratizing culture at the grassroots. Because the dominant culture had overlooked writers of color for generations, much of the publishing in these years was devoted to recuperation, both of pioneers such as Carlos Bulosan or Zora Neale Hurston, as well as documenting some of the experience of previous generations, generations who struggled and sacrificed in the shadows far outside of Hollywood or any official American culture, their stories untold and heroes unsung. In the 1970s there was an outpouring, fresh literature written and edited by students in campus publications, artists, activists and students in community journals, leftist newspapers and small press xeroxed-and-stapled numbers, a raw outpouring, and there was a lot of well-intentioned literature about food and grandmothers.
I don’t want to name names. Not all poems about tea or tortillas, conflict with the old folks about preserving old ways and white rice are bad. It was not all bad, and the writing was not all the same. Mei-mei Berssenbrugge published poems in Gidra (L.A. 1974) that already were not about food or ‘yellow fever’ or grandmothers. But the tropes were used, heavily used. Some images felt terribly worn out, no matter how much we understood our personal survival had entailed untold sacrifice or how much we desired to become foodies later on in life (or in my case, needed to learn basics of cooking). But the purposes of literature were not to sell Orientalism to the dominant culture: Not to sell us as Other to the culture who marginalized us and Othered us. Not to ethnography us for Others or even to ourselves—not to archive our lost generations for some museum or cyberspace or university collection. But instead, the purposes of literature were more like what’s happening in this image here, below:
This photo shows Robert F. Kennedy meeting student leaders of the East L.A. high school walkouts in 1968, showing his support for their demands for Chicano teachers in the schools, Chicano literature and history in their classes, and an end to corporal punishment for infractions. RFK was assassinated a few months later, but this picture shows Filipina Paula Crisostomo on RFK’s right (played by Colombian American actress Alexa Vega in the 2006 HBO movie), Crisostomo is now a dean at Occidental College—and on his left, Harry Gamboa, who became one of L.A.’s most important artists, one of the foremost Chicano artists in the U.S., flashing a peace sign. However, you can’t see the most important thing going on in this picture. The kids are changing the culture, changing their world, changing themselves. In documentaries, movies and books, they said their leadership and their actions changed forever the way they felt and the way saw themselves. You can’t see that in a picture. Only the participants can tell you what that’s like.