Unco Junto-  Art’s Obligation to Truth: The Case of ‘Wild Thing’

August 8, 2016

This blog is part of a monthly series titled “Unco Junto” (after the discussion clubs founded by Benjamin Franklin) in which I offer an introductory topic essay and a handful of commenters are invited to respond in any way they see fit. The goal is to provide a forum for long-form–and hopefully provocative–analysis in a media often dominated by superficial sound bites.


Art’s Obligation to Truth: The Case of ‘Wild Thing’

“Art is a lie that reveals the truth.” — Pablo Picasso

Some connection between art and truth has long been assumed. Artistic representations are sometimes said to reflect not necessarily a literal truth (in the case of impressionist painting, for example) but an essential truth. As one author notes, “This view does not understand the ‘truth’ in art as a matter of accurate representation. The artist is not seeking to replicate or resemble what we perceive. When they use representation, they use it to express a deeper sense of reality, something that tell us not (or not merely) what we can see but what we experience in a fuller sense. Artists use representation to convey their vision.”

Certainly there is what seems to be an element of authenticity or truth to poetry, for example. Who can read Shakespeare’s sonnets or Robert Frost’s poems without feeling that some nugget of reality is revealed? Psychology studies suggest that rhyming words and phrases “do more than jog our memory. They slip past the guard of our rational mind. We are more likely to believe a message when it’s put in the form of a rhyme. It’s called the Rhyme as Reason effect, and it’s shown to be effective as a persuasion technique and a sales technique.” Thus emotional images and messages evoked (in rhyming poetry, at least) may seem more important, truthful, and weighty. Poetry can also, of course, emphasize specific words and images through the isolation of words or phrases within the piece. When combined with emotionally charged content and themes (violence, outrage, and fear, for example), the results can be compelling indeed.

Yet poetry can also tell lies (or what might to modern ears be considered vile untruths), as in the 1912 poem by celebrated horror writer H. P. Lovecraft titled “On the Creation of Niggers.” In the cinematic medium, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will is regarded as spectacular, artistic filmmaking–“one of the best documentaries ever made” according to Roger Ebert at one point–in apparent service of odious Nazi propaganda. Riefenstahl later defended her film by noting that “Everything in it is true. And it contains no tendentious commentary at all. It is history. A pure historical film… it is film-vérité. It reflects the truth that was then in 1934, history. It is therefore a documentary.”

Lengthy essays–indeed many books–have been written about the relationship between Truth and Art, but I wish to focus specifically on the issue of what happens when celebrated art is based on a misunderstanding, error, or lie. There are many examples I could cite but I use a poem as a case study: “Wild Thing” by writer Sapphire, perhaps best known as the author of Push, which was made into the film Precious and won two Academy Awards.

Sapphire was interviewed by Andrea Juno in her book Angry Women, published by Re/Search Publications in 1991:

She wrote, “I wrote my ‘Wilding’ [sic] poem about an incident which took place in October, 1988, where 40-50 black and Hispanic males were running through Central Park attacking people. They attacked a guy on a bicycle, they were throwing stones at people–a male rampage was going on. The came across a female jogger and raped her and beat her almost to death… She’s still brain damaged; she has double vision so that for the rest of her life when she looks at someone, she sees two people; when there’s two people she sees four. And her memory is never going to be right, even though she returned to her job. But she survived because of her will–she was supposed to die; these kids evidently meant to kill her. I felt that there was a lot of denial on both sides, so I wrote a poem about that. I felt some black people were denying that these kids were murderers: it didn’t happen, it was a false arrest, they were jacked up, they’re making ‘too big a thing of it,’ just all kinds of weird denial like that…People do get arrested falsely for all these things. Yet somehow this just wasn’t the case here.”

In fact that was the case: Five young men were sent to prison for the attack but were finally exonerated in 2002 when convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes, already serving a life sentence for other crimes, admitted that he had in fact assaulted the woman, and acted alone. DNA evidence confirmed his confession, and he gave accurate details of the attack that were not publicly known. The case, which became an example of racial injustice, was described in the documentary film The Central Park Five.

Sapphire states of her “Wild Thing” poem that “I felt I’d merged with them–that while I was writing I was that kid; I was that anger; and I was that jogger. That’s what I was trying to do…. I could feel the comraderie of that gang (50 of them) and with the moon full in Scorpio that night. I could just feel them throbbing and running… the joy of blood on their hands.”

(You can read the full lyrics and hear the poet read the piece here).

As one reviewer wrote, “Sapphire’s brutally raw writing asserts that it is the ignorance and miseducation of our youth that causes tragedies, such as the rape of this woman, to occur. In the poem, ‘Wild Thing,’ Sapphire takes on the persona of a thirteen-year old African American boy named Leroy. Leroy’s pent up anger and distorted view of the world leads him to commit a brutal crime against a young woman.” Sapphire refers to the attackers as “a black wall of sin” and imagines Leroy shouting to his African-American gang, “Let’s get a female jogger!” who is “beautiful ‘cause she’s white [and] skinny.”

The poem, which was published in a NEA-funded journal, created a national controversy over what was seen as blasphemy. Sapphire writes that Leroy had been molested by a clergyman as a boy and that this sexual abuse contributed to his attack on the female jogger: “I remember when / Christ sucked my dick / behind the pulpit, / I was 6 years old / he made me promise / not to tell no one.” NEA chair John Frohnmayer was forced to resign in February 1992 after defending the poem.

If “art is a lie that reveals the truth,” what do we make of “Wild Thing”? We now know, of course, that she got it completely wrong and that the circumstances she thought happened, didn’t. We know that the attack was not, in fact, a tragic consequence of “the ignorance and miseducation” of inner-city African-American youth. It was instead the action of a mentally disturbed serial rapist–perhaps a fertile topic for a poem, but not one about the “wilding” Black teens who attacked a jogger in Central Park.

Sappire didn’t need to correct “black people [who] were denying that these kids were murderers,” since those kids were not in fact murderers; a racial injustice had been done, and her poem fueled it. She could not have felt the “comraderie” of the 50 men who attacked the jogger because there was only one man whose actual mentality and motivations are seemingly very different to those described by Sapphire. Nor, for that matter, is there any evidence that sexual abuse by clergy played any role in the attack. (The attacker, Matias Reyes, was a heavy cocaine user–and “complete lunatic” according to a former homicide investigator–who had an IQ of 74 and was a serial rapist and who later wanted to apologize to those he hurt; virtually nothing in “Wild Thing” is true.) The same artistic situation would apply to a mother who wrote a moving and heartfelt poem about her autistic child–and the vaccination she (wrongly, due to misinformation) blames for her child’s condition.

So what happened? Sapphire notes that “As a poet I go where my heart and soul takes me; I still may not have a totally accurate analysis of all the class issues within the black community–maybe people can nitpick one or two things.” Fair enough, but basing an entire poem–especially one regarded as powerful and moving–around an event that didn’t actually happen seems beyond “nitpicking.” Her defenders might say that, well, even though this case turned out to be a false accusation, others aren’t, and of course that’s true. But the poem was written specifically about this incident, this group of black and Hispanic minority men, not some abstract theoretical rape and attack. (Imagine a white poet who’d condemned “wilding” African-American rapists and who later acknowledges that while this particular group she’d written about may have been innocent, the core truth of her poem remains intact since there are plenty of other violent Black rapists in New York City.)

In light of the fact that most (if not all) of the sentiments, actions, and motivations attributed by Sapphire to the Central Park jogger rapist are not true, does that cheapen the poem? When brutality and sexual violence are used to “spice up” a storyline in a TV show or film, it is often criticized as exploitative and misogynistic (such accusations were leveled at Game of Thrones last year, for example). Presumably that was not Sapphire’s intent (since she believed the then-popular version of the story)-but then again she chose to include sensational and graphic details of rape and abuse that she could not have known-and had no reason to think were true. In this regard one personal trauma could presumably serve the poem’s function just as well as another; perhaps Sapphire could have invented a suicidal mother or an infant brother stricken with leukemia for Leroy instead of a molesting priest. If none of it is true (or anchored in the reality of the context of the poem) personal tragedies are interchangeable and therefore gratuitous.

Is this any different than a writer sensationalizing or exploiting sexual assault for dramatic purposes? If we posit that writers have an obligation not to sensationalize such horrors for dramatic license, is the nature of that obligation different for a completely fictional scenario and characters versus one that is based on real-life people?

Goodreads promotes American Dreams with the following blurb: “writing about an enraged teenager gone ‘wilding’ in Central Park….Sapphire’s vision in this collection of poetry and prose is unswervingly honest.” This raises the question: Can a writer’s vision about an event she misunderstood genuinely be “unswervingly honest”? Does this idea invoke a postmodern paradigm in which personal truths-even those which conflict with external truths and demonstrable reality–are inviolable and paramount? No one is omniscient, of course, and all writing is necessarily limited. A short poem cannot be held to the same standard of “accuracy” as a 50,000-word, fully referenced investigational book.

But unlike the arguably documentarian Triumph of the Will Sapphire’s poem (at least implicitly) purports to present both the literal truth of what happened that night in Central Park, and also–importantly for this analysis–the metaphorical truth. We as readers understand that Sapphire did not interview the “wilding” men to access their innermost feelings and thoughts, that she is projecting and inferring. But we also assume that she has a correct understanding of the situation, some reality-based angle into the tragedy which anchors it in truth (if not Truth). She’s not writing about her own personal experience–how she felt about a cheating lover or the smell of rain in a new city, for example–she’s writing about other people’s experiences in a notorious real-life assault (or in this case some fictional people’s experiences presented as real).

I claim no special insight into poetry specifically, but in prose and journalistic writing the obligation to accurately reflect a person’s views and ideas are exponentially higher if they are those of another person, especially a real (albeit perhaps anonymous) person. Presenting your own thoughts and opinions is one thing, but putting the words and opinions in another’s head or mouth is quite another. In some journalism cases (Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, and Janet Cooke, for example), careers have been destroyed for fabricating or exaggerating others’ dramas and traumas.

We all make mistakes, and Sapphire certainly can’t be faulted for not knowing that the teenagers in her gang-raping “black wall of sin” would later be exonerated. But that raises another question: Given that the details of the case were fragmentary and speculative at the time she wrote the poem, should she have waited until more facts came in? Or should she write a new poem encompassing both?

What might her responsibility be, if any, to the truth and to her readers? Film critic Roger Ebert refused to revisit his earlier reviews–even ones for which his opinions might have changed–on the basis that it represented his ideas and opinions at the time. Yet there is a substantive difference between an opinion about an art form and an art form expressing an opinion based on a set of facts; Ebert may revisit a film and have a different opinion about it, but the film remains unchanged between the viewings. In the case of “Wild Thing,” the basic facts and truth have changed (even if Sapphire’s opinion of it has not); should a poem whose premise is proven wrong be revised or amended?

Had I written an article on a topic that was later revealed to be completely wrong, I would feel uneasy about having it continue to be read-if for no other reason than that it makes me look ignorant. A news story giving both sides of an issue in which one side is revealed to be valid is different than an advocacy piece, which “Wild Thing” clearly is. The poem is not about a Rashomon-like ambiguity or the fog of violence, but about the actions, beliefs, and pressures on 40-50 males led by a rage-filled molestation survivor named Leroy-who Sapphire presented as at least symbolically real.

Does art–or poetry specifically–have an obligation to truth, and if so what is the extent and nature of that obligation?


The Duty of the Artist

David Koepsell

Orson Welles, arguably one of the most brilliant filmmakers of all time, as well as an accomplished actor, became famous early for his 1938 radio broadcast production of War of the Worlds. For this adaptation, Welles used the style of documentary (I suppose, a “mockumentary” in modern parlance) to retell the H.G. Wells story so that some of those listening who tuned in after the disclaimer about the fictional nature of the broadcast believed that an actual alien invasion was happening, panicked, and in some cases became rather hysterical. It was sensation that concluded with Welles making a public apology, but he clearly relished thereafter his fame and time in the spotlight. He went on a few years later, after continued success in theater, to direct what many critics consider to be the best film in cinema history: Citizen Kane.

Citizen Kane also got Welles in trouble. The story, of a megalomaniacal newspaper publisher named Charles Foster Kane, is a thinly disguised critique of William Randolph Hearst and similar figures of
the time. Welles knew that Hearst would fume over the portrayal of the fictional character Kane, and kept production of the movie under tight secrecy fearing that it would never be released if Hearst knew it was largely based on his life. It is not biographical, though it borrows heavily from a number of well known, historical events associated with Hearst. On its own, even without knowing its connections to a real-life newspaper mogul, Citizen Kane is a masterpiece. Its cinematic artistry, and its auteur’s mastery of the medium and role make it essential study for students of film. So what difference, if any, does its relation to real-world events, and its artistic license in portraying them, make for us as consumers of art? Must art tell the truth? What duties does the artist have in regards to his audience?

Shakespeare’s “history” plays are largely based upon historical figures, though their accounts are quite clearly highly fictionalized, putting much better and more lasting words in their mouths than they likely could have conceived of, making them either more or less noble than they were, creating heroes and villains as the art demanded, though perhaps not as history itself had done. Ben Radford quotes Picasso’s famous musing on truth in art, which reads in full: “We all know that Art is not truth. Art is a lie that makes us realize truth at least the truth that is given us to understand. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies.”

Which brings me back to Welles. In the early 1970s, Welles was hired to direct a film about the famous Hungarian art forger, Elmyr de Hory. During the course of creating what he later called his “film essay” about de Hory, he interviewed Clifford Irving, who was de Hory’s biographer. Irving would later be disgraced as a journalist for his role in publishing a fake autobiography of Howard Hughes. His fraud would result in jail time for himself and his accomplice wife, and he would return voluntarily the money received from the publisher. The copies of the fake autobiography were destroyed and Irving would later go on to write about the scheme itself, which was portrayed in the successful movie based on the book entitled The Hoax. In Welles’ movie, which muses on these various deceptions, and gleefully catches de Hory making numerous, genuine Picassos and other amazing, original fakes of various artists in a plethora of styles, Welles recounts the story of his then-partner, Oja Kodar’s romance with and inspiration for an entire Picasso period, complete with dozens of Picasso masterpieces featuring Kodar. Welles describes a dramatic encounter in which Picasso, enraged at Kodar’s exhibition of the Picasso/Kodar period, and his discovery that the pieces were all forged allegedly by Kodar’s (also Hungarian) “grandfather.” Welles then stops and apologizes. He has intentionally deceived us. None of that happened. The Picassos of Kodar were real, beautiful, and displayed as part of the story, but the story was untrue. The pieces were (presumably) created by de Hory, though we never discover if that is true. They are all in the style of Picasso–and closely enough to fool art experts, as indeed hundreds of de Hory’s works have. Welles ends by quoting the Picasso statement on art and lies above, muses about his own good fortune in using fakery and lies in his own profession, notes that Citizen Kane was originally supposed to be a biography about Howard Hughes, and bids us good night.

How should we feel about the fact that we are routinely lied to through art? Do artists violate some duty to their audience by such acts? What of less obvious cases of deception, such as Shakespeare’s use of artistic license to bend the history around famous figures and put words in their mouths? I would argue there is no duty at all, except our duty as consumers of art to not care at all about the connection of the artist’s works to the “real world.” The intentions of the artist do not matter. The works stand for themselves, and their only role is to be consumed, to inspire some emotion, to fulfill some aesthetic purpose and no more. Some duty may be violated when, as in the case of Irving, a lie is purported to be true, but even a splendid lie may be appreciated as having some artistic merit.

A more philosophical account of “art-as-lie” is given by Kendall Walton in his 1990 book Mimesis as Make-believe. The whole game we play in viewing art is imagining the fictional truths portrayed by the art to be real. That is what makes art work, Walton argues. Consuming art is an act of fiction-playing in which we are meant to take as true that which is depicted by the artist regardless of its correspondence to the real-world. We are playing, essentially, the game of make-believe just as children do. In a work of philosophy, history, or science, references to facts are documented with sources. Artists have no such duty. Our duty is to suspend disbelief when confronted with art. At most, artists have a duty to not portray art as something other than art. Clifford Irving violated his duty in attempting to pass off what may have been fine art as history. De Hory never signed his works, and admitted his profession as a forger, and made impressive, original works of art in the style of numerous masters.

Art and the real-world are orthogonal. They have nothing to do with each other, except to the degree in which the real-world hosts works of art and artists. Beyond that, we should expect artists to lie, and play the game of make-believe that we are meant to play with the art. Leave the artist out of it and commune with the work. It’s only make-believe.


Cantril, Albert Hadley, et al. The Invasion from Mars. A Study in the Psychology of Panic. With the Complete Script of the Famous Orson Welles Broadcast (Howard Koch’s Freely Adapted Version of HG Well’s War of the Worlds). By H. Cantril, with the Assistance of Hazel Gaudet & Herta Herzog. Princeton University Press, 1940.

Carringer, Robert L. The Making of Citizen Kane. Univ of California Press, 1996.

Welles, Orson, and Oja Kodar. F for Fake. Criterion Collection, 2005.

Walton, Kendall L. Mimesis as Make-believe: On the foundations of the representational arts. Harvard University Press, 1990.

David Koepsell is Director of Education for CFI. He was executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism from 2003-2008 and has been a co-instructor with the CFI Institute since 2012. He holds a law degree (1995) and PhD in Philosophy (1997) from the University at Buffalo, and has authored and edited numerous books, as well as popular and scholarly articles, and has spoken to audiences worldwide on issues relating to civil rights, secularism, science and technology, ethics, humanism, and ontology.


Robert Blaskiewicz

If I were to limit my reply to the question raised at the end of Ben’s essay prompt, (“Does art-or poetry specifically-have an obligation to truth, and if so what is the extent and nature of that obligation?”), I would say, “No, it doesn’t.” Then I imagine we’d sit around awkwardly while the second half of the prompt was just hanging in the air….

The relationship of truth to art is one of these questions that is literally as old as philosophy. There is really no satisfying answer, and, honestly, getting to the answer is not as important as the mental workout you get trying to find one. The question was framed by the Greeks (isn’t it funny how often things go back to the Greeks?) as a matter of imitation. There were two types of artistic imitation: mimesis and diegesis. Mimesis has as its root the word for “actor,” so it is an embodiment or impersonation of something real or natural–often it will be applied to theater and realistic paintings. Diegesis is a form of imitat
ion through narration, which is closer to what I see in the Sapphire poem. I think that while in eras past, diegetic approximations to reality were highly prized in some forms of creative writing (novels and short stories especially–let’s not even get into historical or autobiographical writing at the moment), that is no longer necessarily the case. Art owes reality very little. It certainly doesn’t need to acknowledge it.

Insisting that art always somehow has to be “true,” that is, correspond accurately to the real world, leads to an irritating, misguided rule that people sometimes impose on literature, one that I’m afraid that Ben came really close to invoking: “Certainly there is what seems to be an element of authenticity or truth to poetry, for example. Who can read Shakespeare’s sonnets or Robert Frost’s poems without feeling that some nugget of reality is revealed?” The idea that poetry must somehow reflect the life of the author or is in some way historical or autobiographical is the first mistake that people who think that Shakespeare isn’t really “that” Shakespeare make when they are confronted with something as ambiguous as the sonnets. They feel like they are referring about real people, but there is no reason to expect that the Dark Lady was real, nor must we imagine that Shakespeare had a crush on a Young Man. In more extreme cases of this fallacy, Shakespeare deniers (really, the literary studies equivalent of young earth creationists) claim that the person who wrote the plays must have been royalty because how else would he be familiar with, say, the language of falconry or the intricacies of court life? This ignores the role of imagination in the creation of literature.

This was the first time that I had read Sapphire’s poem, “Wild Thing,” and I think that you could make a good argument that the poem is an exercise in imagination prompted by the wall-to-wall coverage the Central Park jogger case received in the late 1980s. As Sarah Burns noted, the reporting surrounding the attack on the Central Park jogger, really one of the most widely publicized crimes on the 1980s, focused on the savage and debased nature of the crime. The New York Daily News published a front page headline: “Wolf Pack’s Prey.” A lot of the language used by the narrator to describe himself uses animalistic terms. For instance, “I eat your fear/like a chimpanzee/ow ow/ow whee/ow!” or, “I’m the ape/ black ape/ in white sneakers” or, “I’m fast as a wolf.” While the kids who arrested were completely innocent of the rape of Trisha Meili, they were in the park participating in what was called “wilding” in the press, namely a large gathering of youths mobbing and attacking innocent people; this is, of course, a racially fraught word. In a New York Post column published after the attack, “A SAVAGE DISEASE CALLED NEW YORK,” Pete Hamill (quoted here) described the activity: “They were coming downtown from a world of crack, welfare, guns, knives, indifference and ignorance. They were coming from a land with no fathers.. .. They were coming from the anarchic province of the poor. And driven by a collective fury, brimming with the rippling energies of youth, their minds teeming with the violent images of the streets and the movies, they had only one goal: to smash, hurt, rob, stomp, rape. The enemies were rich. The enemies were white.”

Subsequent characterizations of the teens’ supposed behavior generally acknowledged these influences–drugs, poverty, fatherlessness, the media–as partly responsible for what happened in the park that night. This passage could almost be considered an outline of the topics that appear in Sapphire’s poem.

Donald Trump, apparently a perpetual attention whore, added his two cents in full page ads that ran in the New York papers. In it, he gave his assessment of “criminals of every age [who] beat and rape a helpless woman and then laugh at her family’s anguish”: “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence. […] I am not looking to psychoanalyze or understand them, I am looking to punish them. If the punishment is strong, the attacks on innocent people will stop. I recently watched a newscast trying to explain the ‘anger in these young men”. [sic] I no longer want to understand their anger. I want them to understand our anger. I want them to be afraid.”

You could probably convincingly argue that Sapphire is trying to understand the kids given what was assumed about their immediate circumstances in the media–exactly the opposite of the perennially incurious Trump’s reaction. In that way, you might consider the poet as trying to imagine a perspective to which no healthy mind has access, an imaginative empathetic leap. This is not to say that she agrees or approves of that mindset, only that she is striving to understand it.

At the same time, I think that by floating somehow a necessary link of the poem to truth, one puts on artificial constraints on the artist after the fact, which is not fair. We should not expect or ask the poet to revise her work based on what came many years later. The poem, as it stands, serves as a testament to how the Central Park joggers was perceived at the time, a concrete example of how people were misled by the less than honorable handling of these kids’ story. I think the poem is more revealing in its error than it would be if it were revised for purposes of historical accuracy.

Bob Blaskiewicz is Assistant Professor of Critical Thinking and First Year Studies at Stockton University, where he specializes in and teaches about World War II veterans’ writings, science and pseudoscience, extraordinary/paranormal claims and conspiracy theory. He is the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s “Conspiracy Guy” web columnist, a blogger at skepticalhumanities.com, a regular panelist on the live weekly web show The Virtual Skeptics (Wed 8PM Eastern), and contributes a monthly essay to the Skepticality podcast.


Lauren Fonseca

In his prompt, Ben cites the possible truths that poetry and art might reveal. I would argue that a poem like Sapphire’s “Wild Thing” might represent a meta-truth. Even though this poem is based on a false premise, the truth it reveals is the author’s willingness to assume guilt when an arrest is made and readiness to construct a history around a perpetrator that fits her world view. So, the poem itself may not represent an essential truth, but the context around the poem and its creator does.

I will first admit that I have not studied Sapphire’s work previous to this prompt, so my arguments may be easily refuted. It appears that Sapphire is attempting to create a fictionalized version of a real person that would coincide with her specific argument that inner-city African-American youth are uneducated and disadvantaged, and, therefore, predisposed to bad behavior. I was first struck by the details of “Leroy’s” life. Early in the poem, we learn that Leroy’s mother can, with her welfare check, buy him “$85 sneakers” and “a coat / $400, leather like everybody else’s,” but cannot “buy [him] a father.” Leroy is also the victim of sexual abuse by a priest at the age of six. He cannot read. He is disrespectful to his teachers. He also admits to abusing animals (“like the time I busted / the kitten’s head”). These details assume that a male of color, specifically one accused of aggravated sexual assault, must come from a fatherless Section 8 household, is illiterate, and is abused/abusive. These details also feed the mythology of the black welfare queen who spends her money frivolously and cannot provide a stable home to raise a child.

All this backstory leads to the crime in question. All this backstory is made up. Because there are no available details about the upbringing of the Central Park Jogger rapists, Sapphire, citing creative license, can create a story as she sees fit. As Ben states, “perhaps Sapphire could have invented a suicidal mother or an infant brother stricken with leukemia for Leroy instead of a molesting priest. If none of it is true (or anchored in the reality of the context of the poem) personal tragedies are interchangeable and therefore gratuitous.” While I do agree that the details of personal tragedy as motive are interchangeable, Sapphire chose these specific details to highlight the dangers of an “ignoran[t] and miseducat[ed]” black male.

The problem, obviously, is that this particular crime was not the result of such an upbringing; very different societal failures contributed to this crime. Sapphire admits, “I still may not have a totally accurate analysis of all the class issues within the black community.” I am not sure if that counts as an acknowledgement of her mistake. This lack of an acknowledgement reveals to me the truth that when bad things happen, we want to blame the thing that works best for us: not necessarily the thing(s) at fault. The fact that Sapphire uses the term “nitpick” to describe what her critics are doing shows us that she does not see the mistake as an error worth addressing. While Sapphire admits to not accurately representing “class issues within the black community,” her flippant attitude toward her inaccurate representation reveals her own willful ignorance. That truth is worth revealing.

Lauren Fonseca is the Academic Support Coordinator in the Tutoring Center at Stockton University. She dreams of writing science-themed poetry, but currently has her hands full teaching and mentoring college students. She’s a fan of Tori Amos, electronic literature, the semicolon, and cat videos.


I’d like to thank the writers who offered their insightful thoughts, comments, and reactions on this topic. Obviously we could have additional responses to these responses (and so on), but the format isn’t really conducive such recursion. I hope you found the pieces as interesting as I did, and readers are of course welcome to continue the… conversation. Check back next month for a new topic!