Friday, February 22, 2013

Terrance Hayes' "What I Am" and Pop Culture Identification

Terrance Hayes, May 2012 — via Pittsburgh Magazine

I’ve mentioned Terrance Hayes a few times already this semester, and I would love to share a poem of his with you, so you all can understand why he is one of my favorite living writers.  Hayes’ “What I Am,” from his 1999 book Muscular Music, is a poem with an incredible sense of youthful energy and verve (I highly encourage you to read it and listen to the recording of Hayes reading the poem, because I think the way he pitches his voice adds something beautiful and humorous – and even a little sad – to the text of the poem).

Much of Hayes’ work focuses on the junction between identity and identification – that is, what you perceive as yourself and the ways in which others perceive you.  “What I Am” is grounded in this tension, approaching it from the consciousness of a young, African-American man in the late-1980s.  Littered with pop culture references – we see everything from Head & Shoulders to McDonald’s to Michael Jackson to Nike high tops – “What I Am” is primarily concerned with the adolescent desire to fit in, while at the same time acknowledging the constant “Otherness” being imposed upon the speaker from various communities.

Hayes employs these cultural touchstones to function both as identifiers and anti-identifiers, in the sense that they signify some key aspect of the cultural representation of Black America, but fail to fully capture what it means to be a Black American.  Some of these references, like Michael Jordan’s basketball skills and Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, obviously carry weight in popular culture and youth culture, though the nod to Toni Morrison, a massive literary icon, lands within the poem in a state of uncertainty.  This has always struck me as both funny and sad.  I think Hayes does this to highlight the ways in which certain Black artists or athletes are appropriated by popular culture, while others inhabit a more complex cultural space; though Morrison is revered in both critical and academic circles, and her works have affected millions of readers – she also unabashedly confronts the worst of America’s history in a way that makes her less palatable on a “popular” level.

Also of note are Hayes’ line breaks and use of interrogatives within the poem, which magnify this tension on a formal level.

What do you think about how Hayes confronts race and identity in America?  Did you enjoy this poem?  Why or why not?


  1. I think that this is a really interesting poem for you to share. In a course where most of our literature is isolated to the twentieth century, this poem brings a sense of here and now to the race discussion. His numerous references to today's culture relate the themes of the work we have read thus far to the modern stigmatization of black Americans. I think it is important that you pointed out his format, a similar style to some of the other poems we have read for class. It has the feel of a stream of consciousness, and as you said, at a formal level. With the title of the poem being "What I Am" I assumed it would characterize Hayes. Rather, to me it came across as a story, a day in the life, with bits of his personal history thrown in. He references his ancestors and later on an African song. I wasn't able to grasp a complete understanding for the meaning of this poem, but I think that part of Hayes style here is complexity.

  2. I am glad that you posted this poem on the blog because I remember you mentioning it in class a few weeks back but I couldn't recall the name of it or of the poet, so now I know! I like that you're bringing our attention to pop culture, and contemporary society at large, here. I read the poem first, but I particularly enjoyed listening to Hayes reading this poem out loud. He reads it in a fast-paced manner, as if this poem is meant to be a rant, which gives light to the overwhelmed response we can have to all of the stimuli of contemporary culture and media (Hayes specifically mentions Head & Shoulders, Nike, McDonald's, and Michael Jackson). I especially like the line "They don't know if Toni Morrison is a woman or a man," as it emphasizes the ignorance and offensiveness that still goes on today.

    I wonder if we can relate this poem to what we have been reading in class so far? It's a difficult question considering the different time periods we are talking about ("What I am" was in the early 2000's?) But I think there is a connection here between Hayes' racial commentary and Fanon's focus on humanism. I am still trying to figure this one out, but can anyone make a connection here between Hayes and our class readings?

  3. Hi Maggie,

    This poem is life. There's so much to think about in this poem that you have to read it more than once. Every read allowed me to focus on something else and fully develop thoughts on others. The tone of the poem was smoove and thought provoking which I think makes it more relateable to a greater audience. Hayes' point about buying the white people shampoo connected with me. Outside of the normal products I buy, I always wonder whether generic products like Head and Shoulders would be good for me because I have a different texture of hair than their average customers. The idea of flesh colored band aids was the fave a few years ago. It was as if all of a sudden people realized that the color of bandaids didn't blend with everyones skin tone. I often also struggle to find nude anything, bras in particular that fit my skin color. Nude is suppose to be "flesh" colored, but in this white dominated society nude resembles a white skin tone.


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