Penn Professor Sparks Controversy With Michael Brown Poem

Brown's autopsy was the basis for Kenneth Goldsmith's work.

goldsmith colbert

Kenneth Goldsmith, left, appeared on The Colbert Report in 2013.


A Penn professor has stepped into controversy for a new poem describing the autopsy of Michael Brown, the young man whose shooting by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., sparked months of protests around the country.

The Daily Pennsylvanian describes how writing professor Kenneth Goldsmith generated the anger with a March 13 reading of “The Death of Michael Brown” at Brown University:

At the conference that focused on digital culture, Goldsmith read a poem titled “The Body of Michael Brown” as Brown’s graduation photo was projected behind him. The poem was simply a copy of the medical examiner’s report on Brown’s autopsy with some changes to make the medical terms more understandable to the average person and to enhance the “poetic effect.”

The Brown Daily Herald reports the performance ended the conference early:

Many audience members and other performers felt “profoundly uncomfortable” following Goldsmith’s performance, said co-organizer Francesca Capone GS, who is studying literary arts. Two other scheduled performers expressed reluctance to present, and so organizers decided to end the event early, Capone said.

Many conference attendees criticized Goldsmith, a white male, for appropriating a black body for his poetry, thereby aestheticizing racial violence.

“As much as 20th century art and literature would like to promote the erasure of the author, as Goldsmith does, he is enacting a history of violence and appropriation of marginalized bodies,” said Rachel Ossip ’15, a fifth-year student in the Dual Degree program.

“This is linked to an author’s position and privilege, which cannot be ignored,” Ossip added. “Art should never be an excuse for racial violence.”

The conference concluded Sunday with an open discussion that included prepared responses from attendees. In the wide-ranging conversation, Goldsmith’s performance became a jumping-off point for a discussion of underrepresentation of people of color in poetry, fine arts, higher education and the “Interrupt” conference itself.

Much of the criticism involves whether Goldsmith, a white man, appropriately used minority suffering for his own art.

“He is not black. He is not from Ferguson. He is not related to Michael Brown. Did he speak to the Brown’s relatives? If he didn’t are we to think that Brown’s death, because that of that freely available autopsy report, are we to believe that Brown’s body is now freely available to the public. This is a black body that Goldsmith is rendering in his reading,” poet Jacqueline Valencia wrote. “That alone is the reason that concerned me.”

The next day, Goldsmith said on Facebook he had received a threat for the poem:

On Monday, Goldsmith announced he was asking Brown University not to make public a recording of his reading. “There’s been too much pain for many people around this and I do not wish to cause any more,” he said.

Goldsmith has long been well-known in the world of poetry, giving a reading at the White House in 2011 and appearing on The Colbert Report in 2013. That same year, he was named the first poet laureate of the Museum of Modern Art.