“We Are Not Responsible” was originally published in Harryette Mullen’s collection Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002). Rehearsing and repurposing the standard rules of linguistic engagement, Mullen mines both Roget’s Thesaurus and The American Heritage Dictionary in a study of the logics and limits of our world. In her book, Mullen absorbs the hierarchical and categorical commitment of Roget and registers the editorial history of the American Heritage, which was compiled with the assistance of a democratic usage panel that included poets Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps, as well as feminist author and editor Gloria Steinem. Mullen’s writing is a sensual, playful, and heartbreaking demonstration of the constraints of writing and society as much as it is a primer in the art of defiance.
~ ~ ~
Harryette Mullen (b. 1953, Florence, AL) is a poet and a professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she teaches creative writing and African American literature. Her poetry has been hailed by critics as unique, powerful, and challenging. Her collections of poetry include S*PeRM**K*T (1992), Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002), Recyclopedia (2006), and Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary (2012). Mullen has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (2005). Sleeping with the Dictionary was a finalist for a National Book Award, a National Book Critics Circle Award, and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Recyclopedia won a PEN Beyond Margins Award (2007).
WE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE
We are not responsible for your lost or stolen relatives. We can-
not guarantee your safety if you disobey our instructions. We
do not endorse the causes or claims of people begging for hand-
outs. 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 resent-
ments. 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 lug-
gage 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 were 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 that we are bound
to respect. Please remain calm, or we can’t be held responsible
for what happens to you.
Mullen, Harryette. Sleeping with the Dictionary. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.