Reading Race
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Reading Race

White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century

Title Details

Pages: 192

Trim size: 6.000in x 9.000in



Pub Date: 08/01/1990

ISBN: 9-780-8203-1273-6

List Price: $25.95

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Reading Race

White American Poets and the Racial Discourse in the Twentieth Century

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Reading Race examines the work of twentieth-century white American poets from Carl Sandburg to Adrienne Rich, from Ezra Pound to Allen Ginsberg, revealing within their poetry and casual writings a body of literature that transmits racism, even as it sometimes speaks against it.

Tracing the persistence of racial discourse, Aldon Nielsen argues that white Americans, throughout their history, have used a language of their own primacy, a language that treats blacks as an abstract other—an aggregate nonwhite—to be acted upon and determined by whites. White discourse drapes over blacks an intricate veil of images and understandings—assertions of inferiority; metaphors of exoticism; similes of animals; tropes of fertility, nothingness, and death—through which whites read race and beneath which blacks remain imprisoned.

"Words," Nielsen writes, "create and maintain relationships of power as surely as do prisons and arms." Speaking of the discourse of race in America, Nielsen identifies "dead metaphors"—words, images, ideas—that operate in much the same way as the "charged detail" of Pound or the "objective correlative" of T.S. Eliot. Embedded in the language, they are instantly recognizable to the native speaker. Poets, when they draw upon these metaphors, demand racist thinking in order to be understood.

No one who reads this can ever afterwards deny the explicit and implicit racism in American poetry. . . . An impressive, important work


Securely grounded in contemporary critical theory, this book is notable for its clarity and scope. The only comprehensive treatment of its subject to date



Gustavus Myers Award, Gustavus Myers Program for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights


SAMLA Studies Book Award, South Atlantic Modern Language Association


Eugene M. Kayden Press Book Award, University of Colorado at Boulder

About the Author/Editor

ALDON LYNN NIELSEN is an associate professor of English at San Jose State University and the author of two books of poetry, Heat Strings and Evacuation Routes.