Los Angeles defense lawyer and conceptual poet Vanessa Place is offering a 2015 Maymester Humanities course at UC Boulder on technology and media poetics, specifically about the ways Twitter and blogging has altered art production and daily life. Recently, Place has stirred up controversy and was removed from an Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference Committee in Los Angeles for a Twitter feed on Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind.
Change.org recently posted a petition to remove Place from the AWP Los Angeles conference committee: “We acknowledge Place’s right to exercise her creativity, but we find her work to be, at best, startlingly racially insensitive, and, at worst, racist.” The petition garnered over 2,000 supporters. As a result of internet activism, the AWP removed Place from the committee.
A fierce debate has erupted over whether the AWP made the right move. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed column, Scott Martele believes Place’s ousting was the wrong move: “When an organization dedicated to advocacy on behalf of writers and writing programs, inherently extensions of free expression, penalizes writers for expressing themselves freely, the mission seems lost.” But should free speech protect racism?
Place’s tweets aren’t pretty. Much of it repeats blackface dialogue from the Gone With the Wind. They also include stereotypical illustrations of the “Mammy” character from the film version of the novel. But readers are left to decide whether Place’s intent is parody, satire, or critique. Without any familiarity with her work, it’s easy to conclude that the tweets are offensive and insensitive.
Place’s Facebook page addresses Mitchell’s novel as a “profoundly racist text,” which she believes contributes to a legacy of racial degradation in minstrelsy acts. Her artistic project attempts to point out racial stereotypes and degrading language, but questions arise as to the propriety of repeating such language on Twitter. If anyone is guilty of racism, is it Mitchell or Place?
Critics read Place’s tweets as insensitive racist diatribe and support the AWP’s decision. Regardless of the artistic intent of her Gone With the Wind project, a serious question arises as to whether Place’s project endeavors shock value or has any aesthetic merit at all: Is the Twitter feed racist or not? If so, then what is to be done? Because kicking writers off committees might not be enough.