Adrienne Rich’s essay Notes Toward a Politics of Location examines how ‘place’ is influential on artists, particularly poets. Starting with one’s body, she works her way out, from micro to macro, and examines the relationship between color, gender, and place. “I was born not only female and white, but Jewish- enough for geographic location to have played, in those years, a determining part…Had it not been Baltimore, but Prague or Lodz or Amsterdam, the ten-year-old letter writer might have had no address”. Rich uses her life and her experiences as examples of place influencing lives. Had she been born in Europe she would be a target, and if she survived would have grown to be a completely different person.
She was fortunately born an American in America, a title and a place that would mold who she becomes and her world view. Though she would have been a target in Europe, in America she was a political outsider like so many others, casualties of a white patriarchy. Insiders and outsiders alike are influenced by place; influenced to maintain status quo, influenced to be complacent, or influenced by push back. Rich pushed back with her words writing essays and poems from her experiences and education as an American woman. She was making political art as a political outsider, a practice that threatened white patriarchs but was also criticized and dismissed by them. She writes, “To write directly and overtly as a woman, out of a woman’s body and experience, to take women’s existence seriously as theme and source for art, was something I had been hungering to do, needed to do, all my writing life”. Her ‘place’ influenced her to view white patriarchy in a democratic society through a critical lens, just like ‘place’ influences every artist and citizen in how they view the world that they are a part of.
Langston Hughes was influenced by ‘place’ by experiencing America as a second-class citizen. His poem Let America Be America Again is exemplary for Rich’s thoughts on place’s influence on marginalized people. The poem reads like a dialogue between two people; one who can access the “American Dream” and one who cannot.
“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me)
Let America be the dream the dreamer’s dreamed-
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.) “
These two stanzas are describing and hoping for the ideal America, the ideal democracy where “Equality is in the air we breathe”. A country with a culture of acceptance and opportunity, something that brought millions to its shores. The text in parentheses is spoken by the marginalized, those with no chance at the American Dream who will be subjugated in helping someone else achieve theirs. These are “the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, / I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. / I am the red man driven from the land, / I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek-“.
America does offer a chance for success, but only for white male property owners. Hughes balks at the idea that the US provides freedom and equal opportunity for all. From his experiences, his orientation in ‘place’, America provided no opportunity or equality for all people.