This article proposes a framework for exploring the role of mobility in the rearticulation of agency relating to white and minority identities in poems by Lisa Suhair Majaj, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Suheir Hammad. In this context, we show how the political poetry of Majaj, Hammad, and Nye employs mobility to destabilize racialized structures and definitions underlying ethnic and white identities and challenge the invisibility of related power hierarchies and hegemonic discursive formations. Through translational representations of mobility, we argue, the poets and poetic subjects unmask racialized locations and map transformative itineraries shaped by choice and affiliation; the resulting identities are constantly negotiated and reshaped in relation to struggle, justice, and global concerns. The examination of mobility in this context also reveals the conditions of existence and circulation of white privilege to unmask its influence on ascriptions of human value and worth.
Before moving on to discuss the poems, it is important to nuance the notion of Americanness as employed in this article. Americanness entails a constructed set of characteristics which endow the American citizen with superiority and exceptionality. Such characteristics, discussed extensively by Steven Salaita (2005), Suad Joseph (1999), Louise Cainkar (2002, 2008), and Andrew Shryock (2008), include whiteness, masculinity, proximity to Europe, individuality, freedom, and patriotism. While it may seem simplistic to generalize about American characteristics in this way, it is important to note that such characteristics inform naturalization court decisions as well as deportation laws and legislations such as the Patriot Act and the Domestic Security Enhancement Act (DSEA). It is also these characteristics that inform narratives of “the American way of life” (Salaita, 2005: 155) and acts of xenophobia against Arabs, among other minority communities. This study draws on “myths” of Americanness that have proliferated from settler discourses informing European settlement on American land and keep reproducing themselves in naturalization laws and moments of crisis (such as the 9/11 tragedy).
Michael Dowdy has written extensively on this subject. In his book American Political Poetry in the 21st Century (2007), he presents an almost-comprehensive and critical study of contemporary American political poetry. His discussion focuses on two forms of poetry, namely, printed poetry and hip-hop poetry. The poets that Dowdy discusses encompass many ethnicities, and the poems he probes cover a wide variety of topics. Some of the most prominent poets he discusses in relation to poems of personal experience, for example, are Yusef Komunyakaa, Carolyn Forché, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Michael S. Harper. When it comes to more confrontational poems or hip-hop poetry, Dowdy discusses works by Amiri Baraka, Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, June Jordan, and Nikki Giovanni, among others. In his exploration of bilingual / multilingual poetry, Dowdy focuses on Latino/a poets such as Jimmy Santiago Baca and Tino Villanueva. It is worth noting, however, that although Dowdy discusses ethnic poetry extensively, nowhere in his book does he mention Arab American/Palestinian American poetry or poets. Not only does this gaping absence attest to the need to bring Arab American/Palestinian American poetry to bear on the discussion of American political poetry, but it also raises questions about the politics of inclusion/exclusion and the conditions informing the dissemination of Arab American poetry in general and Palestinian American poetry in particular.
We use the term “third world” in our discussion despite its various limitations. The segmentation of the world into first, second, and third worlds is being increasingly questioned. However, we think that these terms efficiently reflect the imbalance in power relationships between the center and the margin despite the forces of globalization. At the same time, we agree with Ella Shohat's statement in “Notes on the ‘Post-Colonial’” that “[t]he concept of ‘Third World’ is schematically productive if it is placed under erasure, as it were, seen as provisional and ultimately inadequate” (Sohat, 1992: 111). In this study, the term “third world” is thus used advisedly, with an acknowledgment of its problematic connotations but also with a recognition of its “productive” potential to evoke issues of inequality in power relations.
See, for instance, “taxi” and “manifest destiny” in Suheir Hammad, born palestinian, born black (1996: 11–14; 79–80).