L.A. Kennedy

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Questions over the response of the Poetry Foundation and the National Book Critics Circle to BLM protests have sparked a wave of resignations

Alison Flood

One family joins the Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago last week.

One family joins the Black Lives Matter protests in Chicago last week. Photograph: Natasha Moustache/Getty Images

The US literary establishment is in turmoil after a wave of resignations from the Poetry Foundation and the National Book Critics Circle over their responses to Black Lives Matter protests.

The Poetry Foundation, established in 2003 after a multimillion dollar donation from the philanthropist Ruth Lilly, had been harshly criticised in a letter from almost 2,000 people, including the award-winning poet Ocean Vuong and many other writers, over its brief response to BLM on 3 June. The Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine “stand in solidarity with the black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism”, said the statement, and “as an organisation we recognise that there is much work to be done”.

But an open letter from critics called the statement “vague” and “worse than the bare minimum”, saying that the foundation had been asked for years to redistribute its “enormous resources” to marginalised artists.

“Given the stakes, which equate to no less than genocide against black people, the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence. We demand that the Poetry Foundation and Poetry magazine do more and do better,” said the letter, calling for the resignation of both the president and board of trustees chair, and for the “significantly greater allocation of financial resources toward work which is explicitly anti-racist in nature”. Until the demands were met, the poets said, they would not be submitting any work to the magazine.

Board chair Willard Bunn III initially responded saying that the organisation “has a lot of work to do”, and needed to reflect “as an institution on how we can participate in and support the nationwide call for dismantling white supremacy”. Both Bunn and president Henry Bienen subsequently stepped down. The Chicago Tribune reported that Bienen’s statement to the board on his resignation said he had “lost respect for the staff who did not defend themselves or the foundation from attacks they knew to be false”.

The statement continued: “Perhaps some of these attacks could have been headed off if I personally had allowed it to be said the Poetry Foundation was racist, complicit, or whatever else some people wanted. To do that would have dishonoured you, the board, me as president, and the foundation and its work.”

The uproar was echoed at the National Book Critics Circle, where board member Hope Wabuke resigned after posting an internal letter from “one of the longest-sitting” board members of the organisation. Wabuke had been helping to draft a statement in support of Black Lives Matter which sees the NBCC admitting its “culpability in this system of erasure of BIPOC voices in the cultural and intellectual conversation”.

The letter writer, who was not identified by Wabuke but subsequently named online, said it was “absolute nonsense” for the draft statement to suggest “white gatekeeping stifles black voices” in US publishing or that the industry operates “with the full benefits of white supremacy and institutional racism”.

“I do not admit any culpability,” the letter continued. “I do not see any erasure. I resent the idea that whites in the book publishing and literary world are an oppositional force that needs to be assigned to re-education camps … In my 40 years of literary and publishing life, I’ve seen far more of white people helping black writers than of black people helping white writers.”

Wabuke wrote that she had been trying to get the NBCC to “put out a simple statement that says Black Lives Matter and racism is bad for one week now”, but that their tactic had been a series of denials, attacks and delays. “I know that a narrative is now going to be created that by speaking up against the racism I experienced I am going to be painted as a bully. But ‘our silence will not protect us’, as Audre Lorde says,” wrote Wabuke, who resigned from the board of the NBCC with immediate effect “because racism”.

The organisation subsequently posted its full statement in support of Black Lives Matter, saying that Wabuke’s work was “essential” in its creation, and “salut[ing] her work and recognis[ing] her devotion” to the NBCC.

“In the course of our committee’s discussion with the rest of the board, a board member responded to the statement with an email that many of us saw as racist,” it said. “Before a planned vote on the statement today, details from the board’s internal discussion were released on social media, and some board members have announced their resignation. We are in deep, thoughtful discussions about the future of the organisation and are committed to making deep structural changes.”

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