My Time In Iowa: A Final Reflection on Racism in Higher Education

After the last few articles on my time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, I offer this reflection regarding MFA programs in creative writing, their ongoing default to whiteness in their administration, professors, and students, and how this injustice can be undone.

Structures teach people how to think, what to believe in, who to value and who to disparage. Aesthetic racism is real. Those who teach it are carrying on a race-based legacy of thought regarding high and low literature. This is dangerous. Why? Because it teaches our young ones how to think racially. We’ve got to stop the shooting of Black men in the streets, right-fucking-now; and we people in higher learning institutions need to undo racism by teaching a radically true American literature, where all the cultures and their–our–histories permeate our children’s minds, and keep that rich multicultural stew steeping all through their years of education.

We’re nowhere near there yet. And it’s going to be hard, especially for those who are the gatekeepers of more prestigious creative writing schools. It means big changes for those in charge of the MFA programs; it means they’ll need to lose a little of their privilege—for instance, hiring people of color to run the programs, and stepping down. Losing privileges means they’ll be heading toward creating an anti-racist MFA program.

I believe it’s our duty, we who are professors of the Humanities, to get this revolution going. We need to push our institutions to change. Radically. We need to learn how to seek out, and put sweat to, finding the brilliant writers living in the poorest corners of the United States–and, yes, I think we should pay attention to our own writers first, instead of flying in authors from other continents to teach creative writing. I’ve seen this before, when a program hauls someone in from Kenya or Colombia and crows that they’ve done something multicultural. They have; but looking beyond our borders is yet one more way of avoiding our intellectual, aesthetic involvement in America’s Original Sin.

Racism is a learned thing; we are constantly being taught it; none of us think non-racially. Anybody who says “I don’t see color” is a fool or a liar or both. If you live in this country, you think racially, and act upon those thoughts. One way to break this is through a thorough, deep, much wider education in the Humanities.

I believe that, if this country were a bookish one, where people turned to literature at night after supper, instead of surfing through the internet; if this were an educated nation where families were challenged by books to think in more complex, nuanced ways, we wouldn’t be in the racial cluster-fuck we find ourselves in (If Beth, the bitch who threw us out of her house, accusing us of harboring illegal aliens, had read a few decent novels in her life, ones that dealt with human suffering, hey, she might have let us stay).

Think about it: An enlightened people—isn’t that a marvelous concept? We must first start with the enlightenment of those in charge of the institutions. They have so much to learn, mostly about themselves.




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