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The Black Interior


With a poet's precision and an intellectually adventurous spirit, Elizabeth Alexander explores a wide spectrum of contemporary African American artistic life through literature, paintings, popular media, and films, and discusses its place in current culture. In The Black Interior, she examines the vital roles of such heavyweight literary figures as Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Rita Dove, as well as lesser known, yet vibrant, new creative voices. She offers a reconsideration of "afro-outré" painter ...

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With a poet's precision and an intellectually adventurous spirit, Elizabeth Alexander explores a wide spectrum of contemporary African American artistic life through literature, paintings, popular media, and films, and discusses its place in current culture. In The Black Interior, she examines the vital roles of such heavyweight literary figures as Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Rita Dove, as well as lesser known, yet vibrant, new creative voices. She offers a reconsideration of "afro-outré" painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, the concept of "race-pride" in Jet magazine, and her take on Denzel Washington's career as a complex black male icon in a post-affirmative action era. Also available is Alexander's much heralded essay on Rodney King, Emmett Till, and the collective memory of racial violence.

Alexander, who has been a professor at the University of Chicago and Smith College, and recently at Yale University, has taught and lectured on African American art and culture across the country and abroad for nearly two decades. In The Black Interior, she directs her scrupulous poet's eye to the urgent cultural issues of the day. This lively collection is a crucial volume for understanding current thinking on race, art, and culture in America.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Elizabeth Alexander is one of the brightest stars in our literary sky . . . a superb, invaluable commentator on the American scene." —Arnold Rampersad
Library Journal
This fascinating collection of essays seeks to elucidate what poet Alexander (Antebellum Dream Book) conceives as "the black interior": "black life and creativity behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination." Currently a professor of English and African American studies at Yale, Alexander explores the state of African American artistic life through examples from popular media, literature, and film. Each essay takes as its starting point a prominent figure of the black interior (e.g., Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael Harper, Anna Julia Cooper, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Denzel Washington, and Rodney King) and explores the way in which the very notion of an African American "culture" impedes attempts at self-understanding and self-definition by its individual members. In one chapter, Anna Cooper (the fourth African American woman to earn a Ph.D., daughter of a slave, writer, and educator, whose Voice from the South would predate W.E.B. DuBois's Souls of Black Folk by 11 years) is forced to choose a restroom at an English train station: "I see two dingy little rooms `for ladies' and `for colored people.'." Highly recommended for public libraries; essential for academic libraries.-Felicity D. Walsh, Southern Polytechnic State Univ., Marietta, GA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Uneven collection of nine essays by Alexander (African-American Studies/Yale) examining the role of the black artist in the larger culture and within the black community. Early on, the author articulates her intent: to reveal what she calls the "black interior . . . black life and creativity behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination." She pursues this goal variously. Several essays explore the lives, imaginations, and creations of black artists and pioneers, among them Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Michael Harper, and Anna Julia Cooper. Others meditate on the significance of various cultural artifacts and historical events, including the murder of Emmett Till and the O.J. Simpson trial. Another group provides lengthy and not always engaging explications of poems by noted black poets. (Alexander is herself the author of three poetry collections.) The pieces here certainly display the considerable range of Alexander's interests as an essayist, though the results are mixed. Her literary analyses, overly technical for general readers, will no doubt interest professors of prosody. The more personal essays are appealing and even riveting, especially one about the evolution (or lack thereof) of Jet, which she calls a "little lozenge of a magazine." Another very strong essay, "A Black Man Says 'Sorbet'," explores the image of African-American men in American culture by focusing on Johnnie Cochran, Colin Ferguson, Basquiat, and David Hampton, whose weird story inspired John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation. She again pursues the issue of the black man's image in "Denzel," indulging in an overlong exegesis of the film Ricochet before emerging with the unremarkableobservation that buddy movies frequently float on streams of homoerotic energy. It's also hardly necessary for Alexander to tell us that Louis Armstrong was a jazz trumpeter. Her concluding piece on the Rodney King case, however, is a tour de force. A few of the parts are more powerful than the whole. Agent: Faith Hampton Childs
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555973933
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 1/1/2004
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 856,830
  • Product dimensions: 5.29 (w) x 8.51 (h) x 0.68 (d)

Meet the Author

Elizabeth Alexander is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Antebellum Dream Book. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

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Table of Contents

Toward the Black Interior 3
The Black Poet as Canon-Maker: Langston Hughes and the Road to New Negro Poets: USA 21
Meditations on "Mecca": Gwendolyn Brooks and the Responsibilities of the Black Poet 43
"I am; I'm a black man;/I am:": Michael Harper's "Black Aesthetic" 59
The World According to Jet, Or, Notes toward a Notion of Race-Pride 91
Anna Julia Cooper: Turn-of-the-Century "Aframerican" Intellectual 99
A Black Man Says "Sorbet" 131
Denzel 151
"Can You Be BLACK and Look at This?": Reading the Rodney King Video(s) 175
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First Chapter

The Black Interior

By Elizabeth Alexander

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 2004 Elizabeth Alexander
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55597-393-0


"Today as the news from Selma and Saigon / poisons the air like fallout," wrote the poet Robert Hayden in the late 1960s, "I come again to see / the serene great picture that I love." In Hayden's poem, culture consoles and the artifact stands as a record of the human trace, a history of the individual voice and collective living spirit. Art is where and how we speak to each other in tongues audible when "official language" fails. It is not where we escape the world's ills but rather on place where we go to make sense of them. Each day's news brings word of human atrocity and violation, as too many of us linger in pernicious and calcified ideas of who "the other" is. In desperate times when a citizen's raised voice seems to make no difference at all, it feels useful to turn again to the art and popular culture with which we speak across difference, from each to each, to say, This is who I am, and thus, this is who we, collectively, are. What might we hope for and work toward? Culture is one way I take in the world and venture beyond my boundaries, where I often find politics as well as aesthetic joy so deep I experience it in my body, where I shift and have sometimes shifted others through my own writing and teaching. The work I do is culture work, and culture is what calls many of us in to the conundrums of the public sphere. Culture and politics need not present an either/or proposition if politics is restored to its original meaning - "of the polis," the village, the community. Sometimes we encounter truths in culture not necessarily verifiable against census records or voting rolls. Sometimes in culture we find what we are hoping for before we have been able to articulate or enact it. African American people are seen, imagined, and "known" through sociological and fantasy discourses, but the troves of our culture offer enlightening angles of vision. The historian laments caesuras in the historical record; the artist can offer deeply informed imagining that, while not empirically verifiable, offers one of the only routes we may have to imagine a past whose records have not been kept precious. The artist may, in fact, jog the historian to think in new ways about the data he or she might gather. What unites these essays is an idea, a metaphor, of what I call "the black interior," that is, black life and creativity behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination. The black interior is a metaphysical space beyond the black public everyday toward power and wild imagination that black people ourselves know we possess but need to be reminded of. It is a space that black people ourselves have policed at various historical moments. Tapping into this black imaginary helps us envision what we are not meant to envision: complex black selves, real and enactable black power, rampant and unfetishized black beauty. What do we learn when we pause at sites of contradiction where black creativity complicates and resists what blackness is "supposed" to be? What in our culture speaks, sustains, and survives, post-nationalism, post-racial romance, into the unwritten black future we must imagine? The cover image that this book is fortunate to bear is of Elizabeth Catlett's 1970 sculpture, The Black Woman Speaks, and it exemplifies my thoughts herein. Catlett has made potent, relevant art from the 1930s to this day, and her career has remained vital through dramatically changing times. She created this sculpture when her career was fully mature - at a complex, turbulent moment in this country's history - and like the mature Gwendolyn Brooks in 1970, Catlett's art managed to speak straightforwardly "to the people" at the same time that it evinced artistic power and mystery. The black woman's mouth and eyes in Catlett's sculpture are wide open. What is she seeing? What is she saying? What is inside? On the side of the sculpture, just behind the woman's temple, Catlett has inscribed a spiral-like symbol. The spiral is a symbol of infinity; this infiniteness of "The Black Woman's" inner life and imagination is the unyielding premise of these essays.


Excerpted from The Black Interior by Elizabeth Alexander Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Alexander. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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