An Open Letter to the Paris Review

UPDATE- Due to the amount of harassment, misuse and misrepresentation that resulted from this post I have a final essay about the issue. Please head to Literary Orphans and if you still don’t understand what is going on here, I got nothing for you. 

Dear Whitey and other assorted Whiteys,

In the wake of the continuing dehumanization of, murder of, lynching of Black children I see that you may want to find a way to use your position to make a statement.

The venerable Paris Review did this. (Also check out Donotlink if you would like to show people stuff on the internet but don’t want to contribute click money) The Ballad of Ferguson, Missouri.

Right now just about every Black person I know is in pain. We have to see on social media how many of our sometimes beloved friends are racists. We have to watch people who could be us or our children be murdered and blamed for their own deaths.

Many of us are reaching out to our elders, to other black people we admire for comfort. For something.

We want to make sense of things and one of the ways as we know to make sense of the senseless is through art.

I saw the title of the poem and I had this moment of gleaming hope that there woul be words to help. To provide a balm or something.

I wasn’t able to read it right away, but I was excited who could it be that has written a ballad about Ferguson.

Nikki Giovanni?

Some new amazing Black poet for me to love from afar?

Of ALL the amazing Black artists in the literary world, the Paris Review picked this guy:


The Voice of Ferguson
The Voice of Ferguson


Then I read it.

I read the first three lines and said to a friend on facebook “what the actual real fuck”

Fucking white people.

Listen Whitey and assorted Whitey’s involved in publishing this is why we don’t trust you.

Things like this, because let’s face it ever fucking time any publishing company has a chance to do something to combat it’s own Whiteness and prove just how not racist it is, well here we are.

Every goddamn time you fail.

You never apologize.

You are every writer’s abusive boyfriend that we can’t leave because we’re all so desperate to be loved by you.

You are why I have been carefully reconsidering the trajectory of my writing life.

So many of your trickled down lit mags I just, let’s be blunt I am not white enough.

I don’t write white enough.

I don’t want to expend 80% of my energy when I’m submitting in trying to figure out if my loud and never a secret critique of the whiteness of the literary industry is going to work for or against me. Or I think about the subtle anti blackness I see in so many “Diverse” magazines who are so not racist.

Do I really want those people to be my audience?

Also you obviously can’t police yourself and I have art to make so i don’t want to spend so much time trying to politely call out the bullshit.

God damn it.

For fuck sake.

Chicken hearted fair weather egalitarian shite.

The fact that writers I consider to be my Black Pantheon of Creativity and Beauty have told me privately at times how much I see but I know they can’t say these things publicly because they have careers and bills to pay, I just.

I want to burn this mother fucker down.

All of it.

I don’t even know what to say anymore.

God damn it White people get your shit together.


An Angry Black Lady

69 thoughts on “An Open Letter to the Paris Review

  1. This was fantastic. Absolutely fantastic. Especially this bit, ‘You are every writer’s abusive boyfriend that we can’t leave because we’re all so desperate to be loved by you.’ I do think that it’s mainly the patriarchal element; though I’ve met loads of racist white women – they just don’t tend to be in positions of power very frequently. At least not in the writing world. There’s also a huge class element that ties into the racism. These guys all seem to go to the same schools, get jobs (through connections) at the same universities or with the same publishers, and then cement their hold by writing for all of the major reviews. They SHOULD have picked a black writer. Preferably a female black writer. There are some things that they, or any white person, have no right to write about. They shouldn’t be allowed to be cultural tourists.

  2. What the actual fuck, Paris Review? And, best response. Evar. Thank you for writing this. We white people are evidently not gonna learn until we get get slapped bloody. It’s disgusting.

  3. I sincerely hope The Paris Review sees and reads this. I seriously doubt they will ever be capable of admitting, even to themselves, son what absolute pedantically pretentious condescending crap that poem is, and how inappropriate their editorial decision was to publish it.

  4. You could not be more right, and I thank you for saying it so clearly. He did nothing to try to connect — he just talked about his zipper. I can’t think of a more inappropriate gesture.

    TPR shut down comments, so there is only one there — some guy saying, “Amazing.” I hope he means it the way I do, but I doubt he does. I am amazed — gobsmacked — that a venerable journal would print such an awful poem, and that it would do so on such an important and tragic day. Your post helps to restore some dignity.

    I wrote a poem for Michael Brown, and I offer it here not because it’s a stellar poem, but because I hope it shows an honest attempt to connect to the tragedy. This is a time to connect, to come together, to rage and to mourn and to heal. Seidel just compounded the problem with his stupid and insulting poem.

    No Indictment in Ferguson

    for Michael Brown, 1996-2014

    Someone is keening, someone
    is building a fire. These
    are the oldest ways.
    We stand together in rage
    or grief because someone
    has taken this son, someone
    has left him broken
    in the road. This prayer
    is a smoke bomb
    I pick up and sling back
    at forces that won’t
    disperse. There is no war
    against my white sons,
    asleep in their beds.
    I linger over them
    for Michael. Though
    he is left to lie,
    he will be granted
    no rest.

  5. Rose Fox

    I have encountered a lot of clueless white men in my time and I’m still utterly stunned that one of them thought the best way to honor Mike Brown and the people of Ferguson was to write about his fly being open. (It’s especially awful in light of Wilson’s testimony and its focus on imagined threats of emasculation.) And the utter slap-in-the-face gall of writing “I wouldn’t want to be a black man in St. Louis County”… truly shameful.

    I’m sorry this bullshit took you away from your writing. Thank you for taking the time to give it the calling-out it deserves.

  6. Enjoyed this. Thanks. The photo you put up of Nikki Giovanni is brilliant! He looks like a caricature. Its almost like the Paris Review did a humour piece. Whiteness laughing at itself. Look at this picture of this old white dude. The image of senile smugness and self importance masquerading as calm rationality on race. The Greco-Roman epistemological imperialist.

    Unfortunately, it is no joke. This move was made in all sincerity.

    1. Nikki Giovanni is a woman, a Black woman, thus the question mark after her name. Ms. Barber read the title of the poem and was asking herself if perhaps it could be Nikki Giovanni or another Black poet she had yet to read. The White man who wrote the poem is Frederick Seidel. Truly, it is the most inappropriate poem The Paris Review could have picked. You’re absolutely right that it seems like a satire. It could have been written by The Onion! So bloody sad.

      1. Oh. Well, that’s embarrassing. Thanks for pointing out my ignorance. I think I need to go check out some of her work. Any recommendations? I am South-African, and my knowledge of African American writers is limited to Cornel West, Maya Angelou Malcom X and very recently the incredible Bell Hooks.

      2. Jeanne G.

        You might also want to check out Zadie Smith, from Wiki: “Smith has won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2006 and her novel White Teeth was included in Time magazine’s TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005 list.”

        You may have been specifically looking for African American writers and she’s British. Not sure if that matters. I’ve read one of her books, and she definitely does not shy away from racial/socio-political issues.


  7. Jeanne G.

    So only black people are qualified to write of black issues, or of race relations in general? I see tons of reverse racism in your post, and people come along and laud you for it. Let me add my own wtf?

    He’s a white privileged white guy, who could be writing about his fancy cars and smoking jackets, and golf clubs, but since he’s from Missouri and gives a damn, he writes about this issue. Wades into the mire, knowing he’s going to get criticism and possibly more death threats (if you write anything political you’re going to get it from all sides, incl. the one you are siding w/ – it’s a given). You might want to consider that as you say, you can’t write “white enough”, well, we whities can’t write black enough to suit you either, obviously. He’s doing what he can, how he can. Could you maybe appreciate that he’s trying.

    I loved his poem. I’m a writer too. I doubt much of anything I write would be well received in a “black” magazine. It goes both ways.

    I am also a strange little woman who likes pie. Best to you Shannon.


    1. Few things. Reverse racism is not a thing, google it. And I honestly cannot cut through the rest of what you said because your basic premise is dead ass wrong. If all you got out of this is what about the white people, this is not a space for you.

      1. Vandoren

        Your post makes it very clear you judged him for his skin color, before you even read the poem. You display his picture because you think it’s laughable that an older white man in a suit might say anything about Ferguson. You don’t like the poem because it’s a bad poem, but you HATE the literary establishment because it was written by a white man?? Our worlds are being pushed further apart, and I’m losing hope. By the way, Google doesn’t prove or disprove the existence of reverse racism; a (likely racist) chump I work with can apparently find you a bunch of sights that reference studies that show racism doesn’t produce disproportionate conviction rates for blacks vs. whites. That is ridiculous, and so is the noble savage notion that people of color are incapable of racial prejudice simply because white institutional racism still exists.

      2. I’m honestly out of patience. If you want google to prove something rather than taking some time to learn some shit I got nothing for you. You have missed my entire point. If you can’t understand why a marginlized person takes issue with something and further you can’t understand why at this particular moment in US history using the voice of a.) the oppressor and b.) who is part of the dominating culture of literature was a mistake, I got nothing for you.

        I only approved this comment as an example. I will ask politely that you not return. Your calling up of the noble savage thing is disgusting and deeply offensive.

    2. First of all, I have to agree that the poem is awful and I sincerely don’t think it was published on its own merits. It’s not that white people are not “qualified” to write on race issues. It’s just that if you’re going to use limited space to publish a piece on the topic, maybe, just maybe give it to a *good* poem written with sincerity by someone whose life directly affected by the topic?

      Or maybe someone who knows something about being marginalized? If not a person of color then a woman, a disabled vet, anyone except a successful white guy with lots of publishing credits? Please? (P.S. I’m white.)

  8. Jeanne G.

    You read that faster than I posted it, so I’ve a feeling you haven’t yet registered what is the main gist of what I’m trying to say.

    I don’t give much of a shit about what about the white people. Do you think I don’t know that I get all sorts of passes in life because I’m white? Damn straight I know it. Does it piss me off to no end, because it’s not fair, and shouldn’t be that way? Absol-fucking-lutely (that’s also a word you can’t google).

    So here was the gist: he’s trying. Can you try and give him a bit of credit for that? I’m trying. However clumsy or disconnected we can be, doesn’t mean we don’t care. I doubt I can convey to you how deeply I do care. So I’ll stop here.

    1. If your gist is that I should clap for more White voices being at the fore in a time when that is not what is needed no I got you. However as I said, you lost the plot with the reverse racism thing.

      Also showing a complete lack of understanding as to why I am angry, why I have been angry and why I continue to be angry,

      So if you’re that aware give not telling Black people to pat Whiteness on the back for trying. It’s 2014 and way past time for Whiteness to recognize and police itself.

      No they didn’t try. They did what every establishment thing does, picked the Whiteness. I remain unimpressed. They had a chance and failed. So as I said previously this is probably not the space for you.

      Good day.

      FYI my reading comprehension is pretty good. I entirely understood what you said.

      1. “That white guy totally shat out a poorly constructed and insincere poem for which he was well-paid by a prestigious publication because he cares about black people! Stop being so reverse racist! It hurts my white-feels.” *eye roll*

    2. Dear Shannon,

      I totally get why you’re angry. Yes, The Paris Review got it wrong. Yes, the poet got it wrong. Yes, you absolutely have a right to be angry. It makes me sad that more people can’t see the whole, huge, and devastating picture of racism. I think what is happening with the more inane comments in this thread is a lack of critical thinking. The following can be found here:

      “Critical thinking is the ability to think clearly and rationally. It includes the ability to engage in reflective and independent thinking. Someone with critical thinking skills is able to do the following :

      1) understand the logical connections between ideas
      2) identify, construct and evaluate arguments
      3) detect inconsistencies and common mistakes in reasoning
      4) solve problems systematically
      5) identify the relevance and importance of ideas
      6) reflect on the justification of one’s own beliefs and values

      Critical thinking is not a matter of accumulating information. A person with a good memory and who knows a lot of facts is not necessarily good at critical thinking. A critical thinker is able to deduce consequences from what he knows, and he knows how to make use of information to solve problems, and to seek relevant sources of information to inform himself.”

      We are not an informed society. We are not a society with a good system of education. We are not taught to think. We are not taught compassion. We are not taught ethics. We are certainly not taught critical thinking. I feel blessed that I have an insatiable curiosity. Otherwise, I would have no education at all.

      Stay your course, Shannon. Back it up with everything you can learn about it. Fight the good fight and know that I am a white woman who thinks every single day about racism and all the subtle ways it manifests. Know that I am a white woman who never lets one of those subtleties pass without making comment. I was horrified at the racism at the National Book Awards! Here is what I posted on fb that another writer (a white man) had to say about it. His name is Alan Heathcock and he is an extraordinary writer. The link is to the incident at the awards:…


      “It’s been sad to see more than a few people trying to soften or even justify what Handler said, so I’m compelled to chime in. What he said made me cringe in the moment, then just made me angry on behalf of Jacqueline Woodson. To be clear, I think it makes it all the worse that he pulls the “we’re friends, so I’m now going to make a racist joke that I know is racist but I’m going to say it anyway because, you know, we’re friends.” Because this isn’t between friends. This is on the stage of the National Book Awards. What kind of friend does that? So we can all be talking about his shitty joke instead of celebrating her amazing book? So that she, I’m sure, will have to answer questions about watermelon everywhere she goes? That’s not a friend. If he adores her and loves her work–as he claims–then he allows her big moment to be adorable and properly filled with reverence. Smart and well-meaning people can be stupid and make mistakes. Maybe this is one of those cases, but we still need to say what he said was stupid and a mistake so folks don’t get any wrong ideas about what’s right and appropriate.”

      What followed on my fb post was an exchange with a “friend” about making jokes in light of the National Book Awards. I am purposefully omitting her name because it serves no purpose.

      She: Nat’l Book Awards is not a backroom roast.

      Me: Even then, there’s no place for racism. It was heartbreaking–after my brain stopped threatening to explode!

      She: Roasts have always been vulgar. Remember when Whoopie was dating Ted Danson and he came out with her onstage in blackface? People do some dumb sh#!.

      Me: True enough, “People do some dumb sh#t!” This doesn’t fall into that category for me, though. Black people can poke fun at and make comments about themselves in any way they want (including dragging their blackface-painted boyfriends on stage). White people, however, can never, ever use racism as a joke, not in “making fun, ” or for any other reason. I think it’s important to call this out as racism because it’s the only way it’s ever going to change. For many of us who are white, our racism is so subtle and it’s been there for so long that we fail to notice it. We fail to notice, also, because we have never experienced the overwhelming effects of racism. As women, we can equate some of the effects of sexism to bigotry but it’s not really in the same ball park as racism. Women, for instance, are not profiled by the police because they are women. I think we have to change every detail about the way we think and talk. I like that saying–“Bring the body and the mind will follow.” When I stop asking for “flesh tone” as a color (think lingerie or stockings), I am telling my brain that there are other flesh tones besides ones for white people. Eventually, I begin to hear racism in all its subtleties. Not long after that I catch myself when saying something that is racist. Soon, I catch myself before the racist remark is uttered. It’s such a small adjustment–“flesh color”–but it changes my way of thinking which, in turn, changes the way I behave. Can you tell this is a big one for me? Maybe just a little, huh?

      There was no response from her after that.

      Last but not least, the following link is an article on why reverse racism isn’t possible.THIS IS NOT SOMEONE’S OPINION; IT’S CRITICAL THINKING and recognized as such.

      All the best to you and keep writing!

  9. Vince C.

    Jeanne G. is absolutely correct. Seidel is guilty of being white and writing a poem about Ferguson. That’s all. If this isn’t reverse racism, I don’t know what is. (I don’t care whether “reverse racism” is a legitimate phrase; you know what I’m talking about.) The Paris Review is under no obligation to judge a poem by its title. If you don’t like it, here’s my standard response: Instead of being destructive, be constructive and write an appropriately black poem and submit it.

    1. Criticism, even harsh, angry criticism is not destruction just as me saying I don’t care for a piece of literature isn’t hating the author. That is frankly reductive and juvenile. I care enough about poetry and literature in general to be critical when people in positions of power make terrible decisions and this was a terrible decision. This is not reverse racism this thing I wrote is the result of White privilege punching me in the face during a time when they had the chance to do something beautiful and great. As I told Jeanne G if you don’t want to understand where I’m coming from here and your answer is to be Black (as if I have a choice) and write them a poem then this is probably not the spot for you nor am I the writer for you.

  10. That poem is certainly amazing, if by that you mean “amazingly awful.” Where does The Paris Review get off with this crap? I agree with you, Shannon. In all the world, they couldn’t find a black poet to express some sincere emotion, and they threw up this piece of garbage instead? Shameful. Even if we didn’t know that the author was white, this poem is offensive and aggressively ignorant. I kind of want to spearhead a petition to get it removed now.

  11. For what it’s worth (and maybe it’s not much) these are the two poems I saw my white and non-white writer friends and networks sharing the most in the wake of Ferguson, both from fairly well-known sites. I hadn’t seen anyone share the Paris Review poem, despite the Paris Review being incredibly well known, so perhaps it (rightfully) didn’t resonate as much as the two below. I think they’re stunning:

  12. Reblogged this on Under the Radar and commented:
    Thought it was just me when I read the poem, so I scrolled through the peanut butter, washed my feet, and moved on. Do it all the time. Prob’ly won’t stop actually. But I appreciate that someone took a minute to speak on it. Because it does get old–the peanut butter trudging, that is. Read on.

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  14. poetesque

    Dear Godtopus. White people in this thread who are whining about reverse racism (NOT A THING): this is the moment, here in this post, this thread, for you to stop talking and listen. Not to tell the OP to listen more carefully to you. Check your privilege.

    Shannon, *thank you* for this post. I didn’t even understand the part about the fly, but Seidel’s poem pissed me off. I’m putting together a post soon with links to as many Ferguson poems by poets of color as I can find. For what it’s worth.

  15. Pingback: Better Poems for Ferguson | The Poetic License

    1. Jeanne G.

      Love this. The eloquence and balance of the writer is impressive. Enjoyed his Seidel synopsis, and that he gave it a fair shake. It mostly lines up w/ the one I’m writing, plus new insights (though mine is turning novelette). And also the Danez Smith poem that I’ve had the pleasure to meet before. Was actually going to post it, w/ another from Rattle.

      Thanks for posting. Thanks for passing it through, Shannon.

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  20. Sushil Suresh

    Absolutely brilliant spot-on article by Shannon Barber. This doesn’t just apply to writing but to every form of expression and behaviour. Forget about writing or getting published, if you can’t walk the walk and talk the talk you’re not going to have any one to talk to even in your personal private life. If you want to express your political views and have them heard and understood, people there is a way to say it, and that particular way permits a certain degree of variation.

  21. Pingback: After the Ballad. | About that Writing thing.

  22. I had not read that poem. And honestly, I don’t understand it. Fuck, I’m white and I don’t understand it.

    How can someone be so utterly disconnected while believing at some appalling, narcissistic level that they are speaking to the horrific ugliness that is Ferguson. It is exactly – exactly – that capacity for disconnection that is a the core of Ferguson.

    It’s not that you’re not ‘white enough’ Shannon; It’s that you’re not inhuman enough. You aren’t monster enough. You’re not Nazi enough. You’re not bloodless enough, or dead enough.

    And I’m so glad you’re not. So fortunate to know you. Hugs,


  23. Is it just me or can we expect more, demand more and pull the plug on elitist literary publications’ disrespect?

    On behalf of ALL people, and for the love of poetry, BALLAD OF SEAMUS WHITEY AT LA PARIS REVIEW

    I am sorry. Damn good post. And seriously, I am sorry.

  24. Hey Shannon,

    When I first read this, I thought to myself “Now this is a voice of the future.” You’re saying uncomfortable things that people aren’t entirely ready to hear. I say that’s an amazing and visionary thing. It’s never easy, though, to be the one saying things ahead of the curve, because you’ll have everyone come to tell you you’re wrong by pointing out how Things-Are-Supposed-To-Be.

    I hope you’ll keep writing and saying what you say in spite of how exhausting it can be.

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  28. Clark

    Typical racist BS/race baiting from the blog’s author. Did you even read the poem? It’s spot on. All the rioting and looting was pointless.

    1. You sure told me. Thanks for demonstrating a spectacular lack of critical thinking or understanding of what racism actually means. Good job holding up that White Supremacy. Brava. Feel free to not read my work and please don’t return to my space. Dueces.

    2. Clark… And perhaps the message of that shouldn’t have come from an old white man who doesn’t really understand the situation and has no compassion from those who are in it and literally under fire.

      That poem in the Paris Review was about looking at Ferguson as the fashion piece of the moment and highlighting a poet they believe to be a big name.

      It has nothing to do with Ferguson, even if he crowbars the name in the title.

  29. Bill

    I doubt the angry respondent thinks enough of the poem to understand that she is illustrating his point.

    The angry letter is engaging with the text. The writer of the letter is so obsessed with its being written by Whitey (oh, and with penises) that it literally does not and could never matter to her that she’s participating in the bleak processes of inversion and extraction and disappearing that the poem traces.

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