Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Why it matters that the University of Oklahoma fraternity chant was also a poem

By now you've heard or read about the anti-black chant by members of fraternity at the University of Oklahoma. Here's the text of the chant:

There will never be a nigger SAE [two claps]
There will never be a nigger SAE [two claps]
You can hang‘em from a tree,
but it'll never sign with me
There will never be a nigger SAE [two claps] 

The chant has been rightly condemned. The university has disbanded the fraternity and expelled two of the student leaders. And of course, there's the strong possibility that officials at the University of Oklahoma and officials at other universities will take this moment as a "teaching moment."   

Speaking of which, I wonder how many literature professors and poetry enthusiasts will discuss the chant as a poem.  How many folks will take a moment to annotate or analyze it, consider its historical context? A recognition that the offensive chant could also be read as a poem signals that poetry or at least poetic or stylized language has more diverse functions and outcomes than we typically acknowledge.

We often discuss poetry in celebratory terms. We regularly speak of the power of language as displayed in poems. We talk about how poetry helped us, soothed us, empowered us, enriched our consciousness or understanding of the world. But what about the power of words to do dirt and damage? If poems can help, then can't they also cause hurt?

Last month, some of my students and I were annotating The Black Book and noticing that in addition to containing uplifting images of African Americans, the book is also filled with derogatory images, including white actors in blackface, and troubling caricatures of African Americans. Middleton Harris, Toni Morrison, and the other organizers for the book wanted to make sure that people reading and looking through The Black Book understood that American and African American histories also contain many recurring problematic episodes, not just moments of triumph.

Viewing that fraternity's chant as a poem might incline us to take some time to analyze its meaning and implications. We could talk about the use of such strong language (i.e. "nigger") uttered by white speakers presumably for white audiences about black people. We could highlight the allusion to lynching (i.e. "hang'em from a tree") and consider how it ended up in a performance by students at the University of Oklahoma in 2015.  

As a chant or poem, we can note that the piece is done in rhyme in part so that it's easily remembered and passed on from generation to generation. It's not a "good" or award-winning poem, but that's part of the point. It's supposed to be bad, humorous, folksy, off-the-record, and entertaining, which is why a group of young white men (and women) were apparently enjoying it so much. Perhaps, their reception to the piece also deserves our analyses.  

Poet Erica Hunt recently observed that "The world is in the text and the text is in the world: every artistic practice is imprinted with its particular tensions of audience, time, and place." Such is the case with those cadenced and, I dare say, "poetic" words sung by members of that fraternity. 

1 comment:

jward said...

If poems involve "abrasive remembering," they can induce pain. You'll hear more about that in July.

J.W.Ward, Jr.