Since 2009, Vanessa Place has been tweeting Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, word for word.
As of Wednesday, she was nearing the end of Chapter 60, with only three chapters remaining.
Place’s intention is to stir up controversy around the racist American classic, and she finally succeeded last week when the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) heeded a Change.org petition demanding she be blacklisted from the organization for propagating offensive material.
More than 2,000 people signed the petition to drop Place, a conceptual poet and defense attorney, from a committee selecting participants for the AWP’s annual writing conference.
Petitioners wrote that Place’s Gone With the Wind project is “racially insensitive, if not downright racist” and that it “re-inscribes that text’s racism…in the flesh of every descendant of slaves.”
As a white woman, Place’s casual appropriation of racial stereotypes on Twitter was unacceptable, they argued. No doubt she would quietly deploy those very stereotypes and prejudices when reviewing potential panelists.
But Place’s provocative project is not as black and white—in both senses of that phrase—as her detractors make it out to be.
She writes in an artist’s statement that she believes Mitchell plays the role of “the blackface minstrel” in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 novel: as “the white imaginary,” the author appropriates the lives of enslaved blacks and romanticizes their relationships with white masters.
In re-appropriating the original text on Twitter, Place hopes to initiate a copyright battle between her and the Mitchell estate that would force them to claim ownership of Gone With the Wind’s racial stereotypes.
She’s tried this approach before, publishing a version of the original that highlights its racist imagery and language.
“Copyright is predicated on an idea of originality having value,” Place told The Daily Beast. “As a minstrel piece, the book is already an appropriation.”
The Mitchell estate isn’t biting. Meanwhile, Place is taking her time with her latest project, tweeting every line in the novel—every racial slur, every painstakingly misspelled word of dialogue from Mammy, the good slave, and Prissy, the insolent one.
Place isn’t calling for censorship. She simply doesn’t think the Mitchell estate should profit from Gone With the Wind book sales and movie distribution.
“Just as a criminal has no right to profit from his crime by selling a book based on that offence, it seems the Mitchell estate should not be able to collect on the crime of slavery and its criminal consequence,” Place explained.
Those who signed the petition for her ouster from AWP’s selection committee from would surely agree.
Indeed, it seems Place and her critics—many of whom are white—are on the same page about Gone With the Wind. All agree that it’s a profoundly racist novel.
But Place’s critics object to a privileged white woman employing racist language and imagery to denounce racism.
Timothy Volpert, a poet who helped implement the Change.org petition, believes Place’s motivations for tweeting Gone With the Wind are sincere. He claims to understand the nuance of her project, but says that doesn’t make it any less offensive.
“Place comes from such an extreme realm of privilege—in whiteness, in academia, which is a subsidiary of whiteness—that she has the luxury of convincing herself she can somehow fix racism by performing it,” Volpert wrote in an email to The Daily Beast.
Nor does he think Place’s project is effective. He argues that her attack on racism is only hurting those she aims to defend.
“Far from being a damning screed against the Mitchell estate, the only people her work is harming are the people already targeted by racism. The end result is that she’s merely reinscribing her own position within the racial hierarchy, not actually making any kind of comment on it.”
But Volpert’s analysis feels too narrow. If Place lost one of her privilege badges—if she wasn’t white and an “in academia”—would her attack on racism have more credibility?
Place’s project is an ambitious and controversial critique of racism. Whether it works as a conceptual art piece is a matter of subjective opinion.
As a professional provocateur, surely Place knew her project might backfire?
“I’ve been thinking about the ways this concept works for six years, so it shouldn’t surprise me that people who have thought about it for six days, or six minutes, have a different view of it,” Place said of her detractors, noting that her Gone With the Wind Twitter feed only had 1,200 followers and the petition had 2,200 signatures. At least half of those who signed it may not have even seen her project. “That said, the literary world does seem to take things pretty literally,” she added.
Still she didn’t expect to be removed from an AWP selection committee. She’s been attending and presenting at the conference since 2005, so the organization is familiar with her work.
Remarkably, they kowtowed to her critics—not on the grounds that the project perpetuates racism, but because it has suddenly made them look bad.
In a statement announcing Place’s ouster, the AWP wrote that it “believes in freedom of expression. We also understand that many readers find Vanessa Place’s unmediated quotes of Margaret Mitchell’s novel to be unacceptable provocations… The group’s work must focus on the adjudication of the 1,800 proposals, not upon the management of a controversy that has stirred strong objections and much ill-will toward AWP and the subcommittee.”
It seems backwards that an organization devoted to fostering creative free expression would change its tune in the face of “controversy.” (The AWP did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
“As it turns out, the organization may be meant to protect a lucrative trade show,” Place joked. “Writing associations should not be in the game of excising writers from the writing community.”
She added: “There appears to be a deep interest in community gentrification at the present, whereas my work tends to engage with community antagonisms.”
But Place is unbowed. She’ll continue tweeting Gone With the Wind to the very end. Never mind if the AWP takes her under its wing again when she’s done. Frankly, she doesn’t give a damn.