In the following excerpt from her new book Minor Feelings, out this week from One World, the poet and essayist Cathy Park Hong defines the titular emotions by way of the comedian Richard Pryor.
Like most writers and artists, Richard Pryor began his career trying to be someone else. He wanted to be Bill Cosby and went on shows like Ed Sullivan, telling clean, wholesome jokes that appealed to a white audience. He felt like a fraud. In 1967, Pryor was invited to Vegas to perform at the famous Aladdin Hotel. He came onstage and there, in the spotlight, gazing out into a packed audience of white celebrities like Dean Martin, he had an epiphany: his “mama,” who was his grandmother, wouldn’t be welcome in this room. Pryor was raised by his paternal grandmother, Marie Carter, the formidable madam of three brothels in his hometown of Peoria, Illinois. His mother, Gertrude Thomas, was a sex worker in his grandmother’s brothel before she left Pryor in his grandmother’s care. In his stand-up, Pryor speaks frankly about his lonely childhood in the brothel: “I remember tricks would go through our neighborhood and that’s how I met white people. They’d come and say, ‘Hello, is your mother home? I’d like a blowjob.’ ”
His biographers David and Joe Henry write that that night in Vegas would forever mark “the B.C.–A.D. divide” in Pryor’s life, when Pryor killed the Cosby in his act and began to find his own way in comedy. Pryor faced his audience in Vegas and leaned into the mic and said, “What the fuck am I doing here?” He walked offstage.
Watching Pryor, I had a similar revelation: What the fuck am I doing here? Who am I writing for?
Poets treat the question of audience at best ambivalently, but more often with scorn. Robert Graves said, “Never use the word ‘audience.’ The very idea of a public, unless a poet is writing for money, seems wrong to me.” Or poets treat the question of audience speculatively, musing that they are writing to an audience in the future. It is a noble answer, one I have given myself to insinuate that I am trying to write beyond contemporary trends and biases. We praise the slowness of poetry, the way it can gradually soak into our minds as opposed to today’s numbing onslaught of information.
We say we don’t care about audience, but it is a lie. Poets can be obsessed with status and are some of the most ingratiating people I know. It may baffle outsiders why poets would be so ingratiating, since there is no audience to ingratiate us to. That is because the poet’s audience is the institution. We rely on the higher jurisdiction of academia, prize jury panels, and fellowships to gain social capital. A poet’s precious avenue for mainstream success is through an award system dependent on the painstaking compromise of a jury panel, which can often guarantee that the anointed book will be free of aesthetic or political risk.
Watching Pryor, I realized that I was still writing to that institution. It’s a hard habit to kick. I’ve been raised and educated to please white people and this desire to please has become ingrained into my consciousness. Even to declare that I’m writing for myself would still mean I’m writing to a part of me that wants to please white people.
I didn’t know how to escape it.
In Pryor, I saw someone channel what I call minor feelings: the racialized range of emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed. Minor feelings arise, for instance, upon hearing a slight, knowing it’s racial, and being told, Oh, that’s all in your head. A now-classic book that explores minor feelings is Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. After hearing a racist remark, the speaker asks herself, What did you say? She saw what she saw, she heard what she heard, but after her reality has been belittled so many times, she begins to doubt her very own senses. Such disfiguring of senses engenders the minor feelings of paranoia, shame, irritation, and melancholy.
Minor feelings are not often featured in contemporary American literature because these emotions do not conform to the archetypal narrative that highlights survival and self-determination. Unlike the organizing principles of a bildungsroman, minor feelings are not generated from major change but from lack of change, in particular, structural racial and economic change. Rather than using racial trauma as a dramatic stage for individual growth, the literature of minor feelings explores the trauma of a racist capitalist system that keeps the individual in place. It’s playing tennis “while black” and dining out “while black.” It’s hearing the same verdict when testimony after testimony has been given. After every print run of Citizen, Rankine adds another name of a black citizen murdered by a cop to an already long list of names at the end of the book. This act acknowledges both remembrance and the fact that change is not happening fast enough.
My term “minor feelings” is deeply indebted to the theorist Sianne Ngai, who wrote extensively on the affective qualities of ugly feelings, negative emotions—like envy, irritation, and boredom—symptomatic of today’s late-capitalist gig economy. Like ugly feelings, minor feelings are “non-cathartic states of emotion” with “a remarkable capacity for duration.”
Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance. You are told, “Things are so much better,” while you think, Things are the same. You are told, “Asian Americans are so successful,” while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase these feelings of dysphoria. A 2017 study found that the ideology of America as a fair meritocracy led to more self-doubt and behavioral problems among low-income black and brown sixth graders because, as one teacher said, “they blame themselves for problems they can’t control.”
Minor feelings are also the emotions we are accused of having when we decide to be difficult—in other words, when we decide to be honest. When minor feelings are finally externalized, they are interpreted as hostile, ungrateful, jealous, depressing, and belligerent, affects ascribed to racialized behavior that whites consider out of line. Our feelings are overreactions because our lived experiences of structural inequity are not commensurate with their deluded reality.
Cathy Park Hong is the author of three poetry collections, including Engine Empire and Dance Dance Revolution, which was chosen by Adrienne Rich for the Barnard Women Poets Prize. Hong is a recipient of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Her poems have been published in Poetry, the New York Times, The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, Boston Review, and other journals. She is the poetry editor of The New Republic and full professor at the Rutgers University–Newark M.F.A. program in poetry.
Excerpted from Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, by Cathy Park Hong. Copyright © 2020. Available from One World, an imprint of Random House.