Denise Duhamel

Dear American Amnesia
July 20, 2020 Duhamel Denise



I know you are only trying to make
white people feel better—
and some of us might even appreciate it,
but maybe it’s good you sometimes let us remember
certain things, like the origin of gratuities.
Racist restaurant owners “hired” newly freed
slaves who they didn’t have to pay
and passed on the expense to diners
who had the choice of tipping
or not. Any American waitstaff or stripper
today knows how temperamental
a customer can be—how grabby, how angry,
or sullen. How cheap. By 1938,
America established a minimum
wage, but not for hospitality
workers who were expected to live
off tips. (Translation: Ladies,
shake those tits.) The Great Depression
and Great Recession seem quaint and faraway
because you prefer we deep-six the fact
Wall Street hasn’t changed. But, Amnesia,
sometimes even you can’t repress
everything in us—consider our American paranoia
and guilt. Chomsky says zombies
are just the latest manifestation of our need
to be punished for what we’ve done
to the Indians and slaves. How easy it is
to make white Americans afraid. Afraid we’ll be
treated the way we’ve treated others. Jen Hofer asks,
through which holes does history break into our day?
Who built the White House?
Why are corporate cubicles shaped
like swastikas? Why are there so few
Asian leading men? When the 60’s
revolution happened, women turned
to vintage clothing so fashion magazines had to
do something to control them, get them back.
Enter diet pills and the term cellulite. Rueben
celebrated those bumps in his 17th century paintings,
but a 1968 issue of Vogue decried them
as a disease the most focused of women could cure
through exercise, diet, and rubbing their legs
with special rolling pins. Now the wage gap
is replaced by the thigh gap. How we hate
that persistent subcutaneous fat,
(that, coincidently, is white)
bubbling up like everything, Amnesia,
you’d rather we forget.

Denise Duhamel’s most recent books of poetry are Second Story (Pittsburgh, 2021) and Scald (Pittsburgh, 2017). Blowout (Pittsburgh, 2013) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. A recipient of fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she is a distinguished university professor at Florida International University in Miami.