OPINION: Hugo House’s Passive Response to Racism Prompts Writers to Address the Violence of the Past

by Luna Reyna, contributing columnist

In June 2020, Hugo House, a Seattle nonprofit writing center, posted a brief message via email and on their website in an attempt to condemn racism and show solidarity and support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Below the statement, Hugo House promoted a short list of poems and essays by Black writers. But by July, over 200 writers of Color and allies had signed an open letter addressing the performative nature of the statement and the organization’s lack of real investment, advocacy, and endorsement of local Black writers and communities. 

“Hugo House’s recent email professing solidarity with the Black community rings hollow,” the letter reads. “The new civil rights movement makes clear that breaking down systemic and structural racism is all of our work, and we demand that Hugo House move concretely and transparently to invest its resources and make that change happen.”

While Hugo House acknowledged America’s history of violence against Black people in its initial statement, it shared no actual tangible actions it intended to take and provided no mention or reflection on the need for change within Hugo House itself. “While that email promoted a number of classes taught by Black teachers, many POC teachers have never had a class promoted by Hugo House,” the letter reveals. 

This lack of representation is a common theme in poetry and publishing communities all over the country. The 2019 Lee & Low Books’ Diversity Baseline Survey revealed that publishing staff, review journal staff, and literary agents of the publishing workforce are 76% white. Black people account for a mere 5% of these positions, eclipsing only Native Americans and Middle Easterners who comprise less than 1% of publishing staff. These same positions are also over 70% cisgender women, and more than 81% identify as straight or heterosexual. The diversity of editorial staff actually decreased since 2015, rising from 82% to 85% white. Literary agents follow this trend as well, as mostly white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender women.

These trends reflect more than a lack of representation, though. Representation contributes to economic opportunities and status. It illustrates who gets published, who is asked to speak on panels, who is offered institutional residencies, and even whose books are taught at these institutions. The resources afforded to white people maintain white supremacy in academia, writing, and publishing. 

“Hugo House has also failed to monetarily support efforts to bring in diverse voices, even when writers of color have done the work of recruitment,” the letter explains, revealing that recently a “POC poet from the East Coast was offered an honorarium far lower than that offered to white writers reading the same month.” 

The gatekeepers at Hugo House determine which writers are amplified and which are sidelined. And according to the open letter, “Hugo House’s leadership, board, and staff are overwhelmingly white.”

Rather than sitting with the potential discomfort of working with Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) writers and having uncomfortable conversations about race in spaces that have been historically white, Hugo House turned to a few token BIPOC.

“It has become clear that far too many of us have had personal experiences in which we were expected to do the work of making Hugo House more diverse and welcoming, without being valued or paid for that work,” the writers of the letter explain. “Hugo House has also tokenized some of us, repeatedly calling on the same, comfortable relationships with a few prominent writers of color while resisting investing resources to build new relationships with the many established and emerging writers of color in our community.”

The tokenization of the Black body and the bodies of other POC is not only a reflection of the ways in which writing societies dehumanize and devalue BIPOC work, but also, more tangibly, actual BIPOC lives. Kenneth Goldsmith’s “The Body of Michael Brown” in 2015 is an abhorrent example of this. Goldsmith, a white man, read Brown’s autopsy report at a conference at Brown University for over 30 minutes and chose to end the reading by commenting on Brown’s genitals — and was paid for it. White-dominated spaces continue to enjoy the consumption of Black bodies, whether through a modern-day form of lynching — such as the trauma porn of George Floyd’s death on video or Michael Brown’s autopsy photo — or the poetry of a visiting writer, underpaid and tokenized. This consumption is about ownership and maintains the race-power structures. Recruitment and retention of local POC teachers, as demanded in the writers’ letter, is imperative if Hugo House and other organizations intend to truly dismantle their own structural and systemic racism. 

There are many structural barriers to access the arts and arts education for BIPOC. Being able to afford to write is a privilege because of barriers like living costs, lack of childcare, inadequate accessibility, difficulties of location and transportation, the language of gatekeepers, and the missing cultural competence and sensitivity necessary for BIPOC to feel safe and welcome.

“And yet, despite the barriers of institutional racism both in the world and in publishing, words cannot express the earth-shaking immensity with which the Black cultural and intellectual imagination has shaped American arts, letters, and culture,” reads The National Book Critics Circle’s (NBCC) Anti-Racism Pledge. The NBCC’s Anti-Racism Pledge came after criticism of The Poetry Foundation’s statement last June that they “stand in solidarity with the Black community, and denounce injustice and systemic racism.” 

Hugo House made $5.4 million in revenue in 2019 and is worth $7.7 million in assets. The Poetry Foundation is worth over $250 million. 

“For years, your constituents have been calling on the Foundation to redistribute more of its enormous resources to marginalized artists, to make concrete commitments to and change-making efforts in your local community and beyond,” the Letter to the Poetry Foundation written in June 2020 reads. “Given the stakes, which equate to no less than genocide against Black people, the watery vagaries of this statement are, ultimately, a violence.”

It is this passive violence that has allowed the continued BIPOC erasure from history, through murders and disappearances, police violence, displacement, exclusion — and selective, tokenistic inclusion — and appropriation. It is this passive violence that empowers oppressors. 

The Letter to Hugo House from writers of Color and allies over the summer was followed by a public response from Hugo House last December, acknowledging past harm. Less than a week after releasing this letter and committing to becoming an anti-racist organization, Hugo House Executive Director Tree Swenson filled the development director position internally with a white candidate without ever advertising the position, according to a Feb. 5 Open Books newsletter post. Hugo House later notified the public that they were looking for a BIPOC individual to fill a part-time position as the new development director’s administrative assistant. This glaring example of institutional racism while claiming to be working on racial equity within Hugo House, “suggests Hugo House may be more committed to looking good than doing good,” the newsletter reads. 

On Saturday, Feb. 6, Open Books held a virtual event in order to update the community on whether Hugo House is meeting the demands of the original letter and what next steps may be necessary if Hugo House refuses to commit to the transparent, actionable change outlined in the letters. Some writers of Color and allies already believe that the recent hiring decision is representative of Hugo House’s lack of real investment in racial equity and believe boycotting Hugo House entirely may be the only way these demands will be heard. What is clear is that this will not blow over. Hugo House’s leadership will have to answer for past harms by implementing the anti-racist ideology they claim to be working towards or run the risk of losing the contributions and support of many of Seattle’s most vibrant poets and writers. The bare minimum will not stand. 

Luna Reyna is a South King County-based journalist. She is deeply invested in shifting power structures and centering the work and voices of marginalized communities. Whether she is investigating the impact of environmental racism or immigration as a movement journalist, interviewing an artist whose work sheds light on the casualties of war as an arts journalist, or covering restorative justice efforts as a self-described “Cannabis Chronic-ler,” her work is in service of liberation and advancing justice.

Featured Image: by Alex Garland

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