Book Review: How I Learned to Be White (Tricia Knoll)

Reviewed by Michael Northen

In the Trump-fed divisiveness of the last few years, many white Americans are being driven to investigate their own complicity in the social inequalities and prejudice still current and continuing in the United States. Even those who once felt themselves to not have a prejudiced bone in their bodies are now having to look into the mirror of white privilege and see their own reflections. It is in this spirit that veteran poet Trisha Knoll has released her most recent and starkly titled book, How I Learned to Be White.

To be sure, Knoll questions her right to plow into this conversation:

Who am I to tell this story?
A white woman pushing seventy,

remembering words I wish I had not said,
door locks hammered down

against young black men on rain-slick city streets.

It's a good question, particularly in times when apologias for the past gain little sympathy from many of the groups that have traditionally found themselves marginalized. Nevertheless, as Augustine is reputed to have said, "Give me a child until he is seven and he's mine for life" and those white Americans born before the advent of the Civil Rights era constantly find themselves confronted with the need to question and account for those social forces that shaped them.

How I Learned to Be White is essentially a linear narrative. To achieve the telling of her story Knoll marshals a variety of poetic forms including uses lyrical, sonnet, prose poems, straight prose narrative, and citation. It is a story like that of many white Americans, several generations away from their immigrant roots, whose experience with African Americans and ethnic minorities in the their childhood was tangential at best. Knolls experience with "the first black person I knew" is recorded in "Mabel," the book's second poem. From the point of view of a young child, Mabel was simply a person with her own idiocentricities, who took the train to their suburban house from Chicago once a week to clean or help with child care. Talking with the young Knoll about the roses, marigolds, pansies and snapdragons in the garden:

She said we were flowers,
all the garden colors together
made it the best it could be.

Beginning with the next poem, "Deerfield, Illinois, 1959," however, Knoll records her increasing exposure to racist attitudes as her neighborhood protested the appearance of Martin Luther King and attempts to integrate the neighborhood. When she graduated with the first class of Deerfield High School in 1965. "No one in my class was black."

Not only does How I Learned to Be White develop the thesis of its title, it also backs up into a personal family genealogy that serves as a kind of case-study representation of the roots that many Americans claim. Interestingly, though, it is not the story of Little House on the Prairie wholesomeness but of a kind of a collective dysfunctionalism. A series of poems describe her grandfather, a prison warden who "thought it fine to raise his two daughters in Occoquan, Virginia's House of Correction" and photographs that "Told about my mother born in the prison, named Virginia for the state. Told how Grandfather chose the trustee to watch over my mother and sister – a murderer that he believed took the prison sentence for a sister who did the poisoning." To this Knoll adds how her mother witnessed the use of prisoners to beat up union organizers, engendering a fear in her mother that resulted in an apprehensiveness and distrust that spilled over to any encounters with difference she encountered.

One of the book's most interesting poems is "My Mother, the Police, and Me" a four part poem that begins with eight-year old Knoll witnessing her mother's fear and befuddlement at being pulled over by the police. A contrasting second stanza finds Knoll in 1970 outside the trial of Bobby Seale protesting while police spray tear gas. Fast forward to 1989 in rural Oregon.

A squad car flashes me
for out-of-date license tags. I spout,
"You pulled me over for tags?
I'm from Portland. Where police worry about real crimes.
This is all you do, pull people over for license tags."
My mother slaps my wrists on the gearshift.
She's hushing me, "No. No, don't, no," with a tremor.

It is in the poem's forth section that a delightful irony surfaces. In 2015 Walter Scott, a black forklift operator, was pulled over by police for expired license plate tags and shot. Despite her view of herself as a self-style activist who has distanced herself from her mother's racial biases, Knoll is forced to admit that perhaps her mother better understood the fear of a black American in the presence of police than she does.

Even those family ancestors who appeared to be on "the right side of history" cannot live up to the ideals that Knoll would like them to have aspired too. In the spirit of shooting fish in a barrel, the twenty-first century seems to have a particular penchant for chastising individuals of the past for not seeing things as we do. Civil War Union soldiers are a particular target because their motives for fighting generally had nothing to do with a belief in abolitionism or equal rights. What higher motives they had centered around keeping the Union together. In "Letters from Union Soldiers" Knoll acknowledges the difficulties her ancestors who fought for the Union suffered and wrestles with their relative lack of concern about slavery:

I wish they had hated slavery, held bellies on fire to fight for freedom.
These men of mine. Intertwining helixes of genes twirl down to me
in handwritten scrawls of blood-rust ink, buried in a band box.

Indeed, an almost Calvinistic concern with inherited guilt surfaces in several poems. Perhaps the most blatant of these comes in "DNA" with her disappointment that genetic testing revealed half of her ancestry to go back to the British Isles and the other half to Germany. She'd been hoping for some shred of evidence that she related to indigenous peoples or to rumors that she might be Jewish.

Acknowledgement of complicity is one thing. Assuaging the guilt, is another. "The Night I Didn't Stand Up" represents one small, but important step that Knoll as an individual was able to take. When Colin Kapernick kneeled during the national anthem in protest of the treatment of African Americans by police, she also remained seated despite the crowd around her taunting her. If at times, Knoll seems a bit too eager to demonstrate that she has seen the light, she is also cognizant of the fact that we are still all products of our backgrounds. This is represented nowhere better in the book than in the poem "But," a piece that cautions against self-righteousness. Upon hearing a woman from Mississippi defend her mother's racist behavior simply because she was her mother, Knoll admits that in this book, she herself has done exactly the same.

Whether or not one is totally in agreement with Knoll's views, her writing of How I Learned To Be White is a courageous act. She deals with combustible topics about which everyone has an opinion and there is no possibility of agreement. Moreover, if the poems occasionally veer too closely to self-congratulatory, they are never in-your-face polemics. These poems provide ample opportunity for individual readers to test their own background of beliefs and biases. Knoll should be commended for keeping the topics on the table and the dialogue open.

Title: How I Learned to Be White
Author: Tricia Knoll
Publisher: Antrim House
Publication Date: 2018


Michael Northen is the editor of Wordgathering and an editor with Jennifer Bartlett and Sheila Black of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: the New Poetry of Disability. He is also an editor of the recent anthology of disabiity short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (Cinco Puntos Press).