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We Are Not Responsible

We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives. 
We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions. 
We do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for handouts. 
We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone. 

Your ticket does not guarantee that we will honor your reservations. 
In order to facilitate our procedures, please limit your carrying on. 
Before taking off, please extinguish all smoldering resentments. 

If you cannot understand English, you will be moved out of the way. 
In the event of a loss, you’d better look out for yourself. 
Your insurance was cancelled because we can no longer handle
your frightful claims. Our handlers lost your luggage and we
are unable to find the key to your legal case. 

You were detained for interrogation because you fit the profile. 
You are not presumed to be innocent if the police 
have reason to suspect you are carrying a concealed wallet. 
It’s not our fault you were born wearing a gang color. 
It is not our obligation to inform you of your rights. 

Step aside, please, while our officer inspects your bad attitude. 
You have no rights we are bound to respect. 
Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible 
for what happens to you.

—Harryette Mullen

Douglas Kearney reads and discusses Harryette Mullen's “We Are Not Responsible”

Transcription of Commentary

Hello there. This is Douglas Kearney, and I am reading Harryette Mullen’s “We Are Not Responsible.”

Well, first of all, I love Harryette Mullen. Her work is oftentimes engaged in what I think of as like a super serious kind of play, whether she’s using tons of puns or a lot of signifying techniques. Harryette Mullen goes in and addresses language, as language is a tool for power, and because it’s a tool for power it can be a tool for oppression. So Harryette Mullen oftentimes engages language as a kind of a plaything, but is always aware that it’s volatile, like somebody juggling nitroglycerin.

For me, one of the things that I really love about this poem is how it takes official language, or officious language—you know, the first line, “We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives,” riffs off of “We are not responsible for your lost or stolen items.” Which is, when you think about it as a sign that might be placed in a place of business, or a parking lot or something like that, is kind of an audacious thing to say: that even though you are here, under our auspices, it is not our responsibility if something bad happens to you. And there’s something about that that just strikes me, and it’s always stricken me as, well, a kind of passing on of the need to care for each other. “I am not responsible for what happens to you.” And, of course, Harryette Mullen amplifies that by overlapping that language that’s oftentimes about property—you know, your lost and stolen items—with humans. Relatives. Now, of course, the history of the United States of America includes several dark centuries in which a number of people’s relatives were someone else’s items. And so, in that moment, we have this collision between these two languages: the language of a kind of passing off of responsibility and, subtly, a language that is pointing at responsibility in that same line.

From there, the poem moves from a more kind of passed off hostility to these constant threats—“We cannot guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions” —all the way to “Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible for what happens to you.” It reminds me about what happens when, say, a person is shot by an officer, and that officer is not guilty of murder. It’s sort of like, well, apparently this person didn’t die, or wasn’t killed? Or something happened…because a kind of official language, a state language, protects itself. And because this is also the same language that creates laws and authorizes power, that protection is sort of self-circular, self-serving, or just a kind of a logic that is not airtight, but airless; it doesn’t allow for certain life to happen. And seeing that move between the kind of historical language to the language of “Your insurance was cancelled because we can no longer handle your frightful claims,” really just demonstrates how this same speech in many ways is just extraordinarily banal; you know, it’s like this sort of dull bureaucratic language. But what happens when dull, airless language takes charge of blood and bone, flesh, and peoples’ lives? What happens when, you know, a kind of antipathy, or an unnatural attempt at neutrality, is there to weigh in on actual human suffering?

So what the poem does, in my estimation, is sort of demonstrates how inhuman that language is, which—when you think about how oftentimes power dehumanizes those it oppresses—to think of that power as inhuman becomes, in that way, a reversal; a kind of radical reversal.

And one of the ways that Harryette Mullen’s work influences me is in how it uses these different registers of language; how it can take language from supermarket advertising (in the case of collections like S*PeRM**K*T, or even Trimmings, or in a collection like Muse and Drudge, where it can range from everything from TV theme song language to old folk songs), and blend them all together into this kind of volatile and oftentimes deeply pleasurable, even, when sometimes it becomes deeply disturbing sort of play with language. And in this way, I mean, in many ways it resembles, I guess we could say, the diversity of American expression. It’s not that the writing is subject to a kind of flow of pop culture that it’s not controlling; like, Harryette Mullen’s definitely holding the remote control and is definitely changing the channels and lingering here and sticking here. She’s turning the dial on her radio station, and occasionally listening to a jingle, and maybe occasionally listening to a verse from an old song. But that kind of volatile mix that doesn’t hold together necessarily—but still, through just this kind of force of personality of it holds together, strikes me in some ways as a very American way of working—a very African American way of working—and, so, a very American way of working in that regard.

Mullen, Harryette, “We Are Not Responsible,” Sleeping with the Dictionary. © 2002 by the Regents of the University of California.

Published by the University of California Press.

Related Resources

Douglas Kearney

Douglas Kearney

Read “That Loud-Assed Colored Silence: Protest” by Douglas Kearney

Douglas Kearney attended Howard University and earned his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, where he currently teaches. His work has appeared in many anthologies and he is the author of several chapbooks and poetry collections, including Buck Studies (2016), Patter (2014), and The Black Automaton (2009), which was chosen for the National Poetry Series. He has received a Whiting Writers Award and fellowships and scholarships from Idyllwild Summer Arts Poetry Workshop, Cave Canem, the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshops, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. Photo credit: Eric Plattner.

Harryette Mullen

Harryette Mullen

Harryette Mullen (1953- ) was born in Florence, Alabama. She was educated at the University of Texas and the University of California, Santa Cruz. She is the author of seven collections of poetry, including Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002), which was nominated for a National Book Award. Her honors include fellowships from the American Academy of Poets and the Susan B. Anthony Institute for Women’s Studies, as well as a Gertrude Stein Award in Innovative American Poetry and a PEN Beyond Margins Award. She taught at Cornell University, and currently holds a position in the English Department at the University of California, Los Angeles. Photo credit: Judy Natal.