March 17, 2011

“The Change”: A Failure in Ethics and Intelligence.

The music of “The Change” by Tony Hoagland is exquisite.  From the first line with its varied series of long and short vowels, “The season turned like the page of a glossy fashion magazine,” Hoagland strings together visual and verbal contrasts based on a tennis match between two tennis players, one black and the other white, which turn on the phrase, “Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—.”

The speaker in the poem, who is apparently white, observes a game with “some tough little European blonde/ pitted against that big black girl from Alabama, /cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms.” And although he appreciates the élan of the black tennis player with “her complicated hair/and her to-hell-with-everybody stare,” he confesses, “I couldn't help wanting/the white girl to come out on top, / because she was one of my kind, my tribe.”

The rest of the poem is devoted to the race and class differences between the players and the spectators, “bleachers full of people/ in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes,” and ends in an elegiac tone which laments the passing of an era: “It was the twentieth century almost gone, /we were there.”
Needless to say, “The Change’” has stirred up quite a bit of controversy and has prompted Claudia Rankine to write a response to her former colleague about the poem.  Rankine has also invited her readers to share their thoughts about the poem on her web site. Hoagland has written his rejoinder.
Yet what is interesting about the poem--besides the kind of gaze that Donna Aza Weir-Soley describes in Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings that white men reserved for black women such as Saartjie Bartman or “The Venus Hottentot-- is that most of the space in the poem is devoted to descriptions of the black tennis player. Given the amount of detail and attention that the speaker pays to the black tennis player, whom the speaker admires because she is “so unintimidated/ hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation/ down Abraham Lincoln's throat, / like she wasn't asking anyone's permission,” one could easily surmise than he is far more interested in “Vondella Aphrodite” than the “tough little European blonde.” But that is another story.
No, what’s really interesting about the poem is the distortion that it presents while at the same time claiming victim status. For despite the black player’s victory on the court, it is “the little pink judge” who confers status by placing a ribbon on her neck. “The little pink judge” and the “bleachers full of people/ in their Sunday tennis-watching clothes” control the levers of power, yet readers should empathize with the speaker and the spectators because the girl with "pale eyes and thin lips" won?  What is the moral ground for this empathy? Whiteness is a moral virtue? A tactical loss is equal to the loss of a century? Logic falls apart. The poem is a failure in ethics and intelligence.
“The Change” is the type of poem that seventy years ago black poets such as Robert Hayden would have had to slog through to learn the craft of writing while wiping the spit off his face. Fifty years ago, it was the kind of poem that African-American poets, who while they were aware of the poison, would have assigned to their protégés because of the skillful manipulation of language.
But that was then. This is now.
Fortunately African-American poets have a wealth of talent in writers such as Rita Dove, Yusef KomunyakaaPatricia Smithand Reginald Shepherd from whom they can learn the lessons of craft without the venom of subtle racism. For while Hoagland has written a technically flawless poem, which is an superb expose of a fin de siècle consciousness, the subject of race, which is only a fraction of our identity--we only think about race in the presence of others--is unworthy of its grandiloquence.

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