Black Power, Female Athletes, and a Controversial Poem Called “The Change”

Tennis is not usually a topic of conversation at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs annual convention, which was held in Washington DC in February. But this year the buzz was about a tennis-player poem, of all things.

Called The Change by Tony Hoagland, the poem drew criticism from the poet Claudine Rankine, many audience members, and numerous bloggers, all of whom think it’s racist. (Rankine’s comments seem to have been removed from at least some blogs. She asks good questions, though, for writers about race.)

True, Hoagland describes a Venus/Serena Williams-like figure as “that big black girl from Alabama,/ cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,/some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite” and he claims he “couldn’t help wanting/the white girl to come out on top,/ because she was one of my kind, my tribe,/ with her pale eyes and thin lips.”

But I think the poem is ironic.

I think the narrator actually admires the black player, with her “complicated hair/and her to-hell-with-everybody stare”… so big/and so black, so unintimidated… hitting the ball…like she wasn’t asking anyone’s permission.”

Is this not a heroic portrait? Surely compared to that pale-eyed, thin-lipped white girl, who warrants no more description. She’s neither engaging nor powerful. The poet’s eye cannot rest on her; he’s clearly drawn instead to the black woman’s audacity and strength.

I think “the change” of the title is the end of white domination, and I cannot see that as an unwelcome change by the narrator. Note also his depiction of like the “little pink judge” who “had to climb up on a box” to adorn the black goddess with her medal.

Isn’t that just plain funny?

The world is changing. This is a good thing. Athletes are leading the way – and female and African-American athletes have long changed white attitudes, simply by showing up and showing off their athletic skills.

While I’m sorry the poem seems racist and offensive to some people, I like it, and admire Hoagland for tackling this subject.

I also see the poem as a man dealing with female size and strength; he’s intimidated, but in effect admits that.

When he depicts the black player holding her racket “over her head like a guitar” in triumph, how can readers not celebrate with this rock-solid rock star, and with all strong, minority people who have fought hard for their rights, and won?

— Mariah Burton Nelson, who loves it when her twin passions of sports and creative writing merge

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4 Responses to “Black Power, Female Athletes, and a Controversial Poem Called “The Change””

  1. Josh Says:

    I’m not much or a poetical commentator, but I don’t see anything negatively racist about the poem (as being focused on “race” it is a “racist” poem).

    As you mention Mariah, the author seems to me to be celebrating the black player. Are people upset because he’s against the white girl?

    “like some contest between
    the old world and the new,”

  2. Dr. Kwame M. Brown Says:

    Mariah, I love your take on this. As an ethnic minority (two of them, actually), I do not necessarily consider this poem racist. I consider it race aware, and difference-conscious, but certainly he is not meaning to subjugate anyone or denigrate their character based on skin color. Nor is he making sweeping generalizations – all of which are racist behaviors.

    He is merely providing contrast, and does in fact seem wholly impressed by the black tennis player to the point of awe. Now, had he extended this description to all black women or black female tennis players – THAT would have been racist!

  3. Mariah Burton Nelson Says:

    Hey Josh and Kwame, Great to hear from you! Thanks for taking the time to weigh in. It’s so important to think and talk about race, gender, and sports! 🙂

  4. Chukwunegro Dayi. M Says:

    As an African based poet, i see nothing wrong about the poem, i like it, it reflects acceptance of Africans in the sports by Euro/Mericans majority

    good narration also


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