A volume in the Poets on Poetry series, which collects critical works by contemporary poets, gathering together the articles, interviews, and book reviews by which they have articulated the poetics of a new generation.
Elizabeth Alexander is considered one of the country's most gifted contemporary poets, and the publication of her essays in The Black Interior in 2004 established her as an astute critic and cultural commentator as well. Arnold Rampersad has called Alexander "one of the brightest stars in our literary sky . . . a superb, invaluable commentator on the American scene." In this new collection of her essays, reviews, and interviews, Alexander again focuses on African American artistic production, particularly poetry, and the cultural contexts in which it is created and experienced.
The book's first section, "Black Arts 101," takes up the poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Sterling Brown, Lucille Clifton, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Rita Dove (among others); artist Romare Bearden; dancer Bill T. Jones; and dramatist August Wilson. A second section, "Black Feminist Thinking," provides engaging meditations ranging from "My Grandmother's Hair" and "A Very Short History of Black Women and Food" to essays on the legacies of Toni Cade, Audre Lorde, and June Jordan. The collection's final section, "Talking," includes interviews, a commencement address-"Black Graduation"-and the essay "Africa and the World."
Elizabeth Alexander received a B.A. from Yale University, an M.A. from Boston University, and a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania. She has published four books of poems: The Venus Hottentot (1990); Body of Life (1996); Antebellum Dream Book (2001); and, most recently, American Sublime (2005), which was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize. Her play, Diva Studies, was produced at the Yale School of Drama. She is presently Professor of American and African American Studies at Yale University.
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Power and Possibility
ESSAYS, REVIEWS, AND INTERVIEWS
By Elizabeth Alexander
THE UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN PRESS
Copyright © 2007
All right reserved.
Chapter One Black Arts 101
In the course of writing this essay I have found something that surprised me: Dunbar matters very much to contemporary African-American poets. And I have also discovered how Dunbar matters to me. Several years ago, in conversation with another African-American poet, I mentioned that when I was growing up my father would occasionally recite Paul Laurence Dunbar's "The Party." He did so joyfully and apropos of nothing but exuberance, as far as my brother and I could tell: "Dey had a great big party down to Tom's de othah night / Was I there? You bet. I nevah in my life see such a sight. / All de folks f'om fou' plantations was invited, an' dey come, / Dey come troopin' thick ez chillum when dey hyeahs a fife an' drum."
This was always a thrill. He had "slipped into the vernacular," as we said, vernacular always having the article the and one's movement from another kind of speech to said vernacular always described as "slipping." I think, actually, that noticing and loving these shifts in diction are what made me a poet, growing up around my mother's Sugar Hill Harlem queen's English; my grandfather's Jamaican music and vocabulary, use of figurative language; my grandmother's soft, drawn-out Alabama vowels mixed with etymological wizardry and syntactic starch shaped by her teachers in the 1920s at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C.; my father's magnificent Harlem vernacular; the Yiddish inflections and improvisational suffixing and wry humor of my parents' Jewish New York City schoolteachers; and then, oh how can I forget, the fluent Cackalacka spoken on the streets and front stoops of Washington, D.C., where I was reared in its eternal springtime. How could I not become a poet in the midst of all that cross-pollinating American English? I should be a much better poet, actually, with all of that to draw upon.
But during this conversation with my black poet friend, she replied, "My father used to recite 'The Party' too!" This was surprising to both of us; I had thought of my father's recitation as being unique to our family, part of your own particular orality, our family syllabus. But the coincidence with the other poet gave me a sense of Dunbar as a poet whose legacy was intimately related to black home space and oral practice.
Certainly, if you asked a handful of contemporary black poets to quickly name who has influenced their work in the canon, you would be more likely I am certain to hear Brooks, Hayden, Hughes, and for younger writers, Sanchez, Baraka, Clifton, Dove, and Komunyakaa, named before Dunbar. Yet I suspect Dunbar resides in the gray matter of many black poets, the sub rosa given that crucially undergirds much of our practice regardless of background, training, region, and aesthetic. For, really, the century and the tradition are in some ways very short. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks leapfrog the entire twentieth century for us if you think of how Brooks was personally known and in our midst for my generation of poets, and her long correspondence with Hughes as well as her early correspondence with James Weldon Johnson takes us directly to Dunbar himself. In other words, a Dunbar is only a great-grandfather to today's practicing poets. Though it was a busy century for African-American poetry and African-American people, none the less we are not far from what some might see as the significant beginnings of our traditions, the first black poet to do it "as a job," if you will, the very idea of the black poet, with attendant issues and contradictions in the life lived and in the aesthetics that remain relevant for us today.
I never studied Dunbar in school, not high school or undergraduate nor graduate school, even in African-American literature classes. African-American studies in the 1980s, when I was educated, had other business to attend to, mostly black women's literature (represented by the novel), the complex and thorny questions of criticism and theory, and literary resurrection and historiography. There just wasn't time for Dunbar, who I think, to be honest, might also have seemed a little old-fashioned, his majors and minors dichotomy set in stone.
My father's recitation of Dunbar was for pleasure, not for the purpose of creating another Negro poet. For me, there was something about his move into a vernacular poem that exposed me to and preserved-for the poem is fixed and not evolving language, even as its interpretations are fluid-something that either might not last or might not otherwise be known to his children that also connected him back to his mother and her parents. Why did he quote it to us? Was it to keep alive, if not specifically dialect, perhaps a holistic black world in an era of fevered integration? Despite the reference to plantations in the first line, I don't think my father thought of it as a slavery poem but rather as a "black space" poem that connected him, and thus, me, to the linguistic black communal speech that he grew up with that was not my experience as part of an integrating generation. When I asked him how he came to know the poem, he remembered the Countee Cullen anthology Caroling Dusk as one of his mother's favorites, and he believed he found the poem there, though "The Party" is not found in that volume, so the mystery continues. "Countee Cullen lived in the neighborhood, you know," he told me, activating my already hyperactive Harlem-as-Valhalla, born-after-my-time nostalgia. Then he told me, "The Party" was also a poem that many of his Harlem friends knew. In his group of boys, he said, you know that "if you recited it, someone would join in with you." Mind you, this was sometimes taking place in front of a building at 149st and Convent Avenue called the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments. But the young men didn't necessarily connect what they were saying to where they were saying it. They were woofing, being black together, marking black space with this poem.
In his 1991 introduction to his classic study From Behind the Veil, Robert Stepto coins the useful phrase "family bookshelf Afro-Americanists" to describe scholars of his generation who could say, "The first Afro-American literature course I took was the first one I taught." He is not only describing autodidacticism but more precisely a passing on of literary tradition that occurs within a black family or nonschool community context.
Scholars are beginning to loosen the knot between the fixed poles of Dunbar's "literary" and "vernacular." Dunbar was not so dichotomous. Yes, the "dialect" poets are obviously so, but even to name them effaces their sense of versification, of organization in verse, at the expense of their diction. They are not transcription. They are closer to English verse than they are to speech. When you look at the dialect and the standard poems side by side, their sense of verse, line, and meter is not at all dissimilar. And I would argue that as Dunbar's dialect poems are shaped by literary sensibilities, his literary poems are enlivened by vernacular energy and a rhythmic mastery that also emanates from that same source. The greatest of his standard verses are clearly not written out of a solely Anglo-American tradition. Perhaps that is Dunbar's genius, that high-low fusion that is also the greatest possibility of African-American poetry.
Back to "The Party." Think of the pleasure to be found there or in Sam Cooke's "Havin' A Party" or Luther Vandross's remake of same, with the "live" voices in the background echoing those more sinuous, sexy, breaking out of the sixties of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up," or even in "Madea's Family Reunion," which ends with a party on the very ground the slave ancestors ended up buying from their masters, the very cabin. In "Diary of a Mad Black Woman" as well there is a great big party held in the yard of the matriarch "Madea." Or think of Dave Chapelle's Block Party. The party scene is very important in black culture, and I think Dunbar's poem influenced it more than we know. Work is over. There is a vision of community here, and of an evanescent utopia. Displaced and dispersed families are reunited. For in Dunbar's poem the plantation context is at hand. "All de fouks from fou plantations was invited and dey come." They are called by "a fife and drum"; the slave community crosses plantation lines and assembles by wordless clarion call, echoed later in Baraka's more explicitly political call in "SOS": "calling all black people, black people come on in." They style, they fuss, they eat, and then they "dance dat suppah down," use the whole night because the day brings endless work and the brutalities of servitude that are not named in the space of the poem but haunt it because from the beginning we know we are in a plantation society. Dunbar is not eliding the horrors but rather preserving the space the slaves made for themselves. There are several instances in the poem where performance itself is embedded into the text. Dunbar is taking us as close as he can to the force and presence of those aspects of our culture that literary form will struggle to capture throughout the next century and also which is the powerful bedrock of black creative expression. In many volumes "The Party" comes right after "When Malindy Sings," another poem in which readers are invited to behold, hear, and witness the act of singing as part of the reading of the poem.
I realize only as I write this paper that I have written a poem called "The Party" which is a surreal, freaky-deaky grandchild to Dunbar's poem. The poem describes a party, a black block party in New York, and it opens "in the vernacular": "Obi had a big ole party." The speaker of the poem is dressed like Nefertiti; people drink rum and coconut water; Harry Belafonte appears; the party-goers dance to "an African band called Difunkt"; and the pregnant speaker's dress billows up around her, a flag of futurity and glorious possibility. The poem follows the exact same structure of Dunbar's "Party": declaration, then who came, what they wore, romantic drama, what they ate, how they danced, all in a joyous vernacular particular to time and place. In my poem appears a hydroponic baobab tree "whose roots explode into water"; the quintessentially African tree diasporizes within the poem in the way that Dunbar's poem can also be read as a story of diaspora and recombination in that he writes the slave community after it has in fact dispersed. The poems also have in common the wish to fix the beauty of black space and community. Consider here Dunbar's itinerancy, unusual for a black person of his time or frankly from anywhere, his movement from Ohio, Washington, Chicago, New York, England, all the time spent on the road to make his way as a black poet. My poem ends "rock on, rock on, rock on," which I think is meant to propel the utopic space into permanence, enduringness, eternalness, though it is evanescent. The stanzaic structure of Dunbar's poem is like a film strip; its narrative unfolds episodically, even cinematically. I suppose then what is interesting is that it literally never occurred to me that I was writing after Dunbar, but of course I was, and that is what is fascinating about influence, how it ferments sub rosa and comes up so that even the artist does not know she has borrowed, stolen, revised, paid homage.
I could explore at length the influence of Dunbar not just on contemporary African-American poetry but on African-American culture. Think of Abbey Lincoln's deconstruction of "When Malindy Sings." Or in film, for example, Zeinabu Irene Davis made her first feature, the ninety-minute Compensation in 1999, inspired by the brief Dunbar poem of the same name. The film is set in Dunbar's time. Davis uses silent film techniques such as title cards and vintage photographs to tell the stories of two love affairs between deaf women and hearing men. The film was made explicitly to be accessible to deaf and hearing viewers alike. How interesting that this short poem of a particular moment should move this very contemporary filmmaker narratively to the past but technically forward to innovation.
In the television film The Rosa Parks Story, directed by Julie Dash, we see a scene where young Rosa first meets Raymond Parks on a rainy day in the barbershop where he works. He is shaving a man and reciting "We Wear the Mask." The recitation is overlaid with a shot of a newspaper describing the woes of the Scottsboro boys, and one of the patrons in the shop cuts off the poem as though to dismiss its relevance to the more pressing social questions of the day. Poetry, and Dunbar, are for a moment put to the side of relevance. But don't forget that straight razor: The poem is reprised and finished when the white owner of the shop comes in and the men move their conversation about the Scottsboro boys into code speak. We later learn that Raymond Parks is helping the Scottsboro cause at great personal risk. He finishes reciting "We Wear the Mask" in the presence of the white boss in a powerful moment of signification. He has pulled one over on old Massa; not only has he hidden the fact of the black men's identification with and abettance of the Scottsboro boys, the scene also implies that the white man cannot understand or decode the Dunbar poem not only at the level of its signifying but also at the level of its elegant formal diction. This is to say, signifying does not always take place in the vernacular.
I wanted to know more about Dunbar's influence today, so I wrote and called an unscientific sample of black poets, and I sent out my query to the list-serve for the Cave Canem poetry community, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2006. The community of poets who have attended both the summer workshop and the regional workshops is over five hundred. Kalamu's ya Salaam e-drum would have been another cyber-place to have found probably more black poets at a sitting, and it might have been interesting to see if more of a southern aesthetic and sensibility arose from polling those poets. But for the purposes of this short paper, I thought a community of over five hundred known to me made sense as a starting place. I asked a few very simple questions: In what context did you first come across Dunbar's work, Which Dunbar poem first comes to mind for you, If you are a teacher, do you teach Dunbar, What do you think is Dunbar's ongoing significance to poets, and What have you learned from Dunbar?
I was struck by the force of people's responses and the overall sense that for black poets regardless of any number of different factors, Dunbar mattered. Poets wrote back swiftly and forcefully of "their" Dunbar. People thanked me effusively for giving them the opportunity to think about Dunbar. Those of a more experimental vein saw Dunbar as someone to play with, to riff on, to deform. Formalists were in awe of his capacities, consistently sounding the note that his fluency and mastery as a formalist had been underestimated. Many people had a very keen sense of his career, his struggles with class and color, his tragic early death, his violence toward his wife. In that regard he was a kind of celebrity for many black poets. He was "ours," so we knew the details of his life as well as his work. No one told me they learned Dunbar from a white teacher or in a predominately white school. He was either learned in a black school, from a black choir director or drama teacher outside of school, or at home. Many poets talked about the formal challenges of dialect, that writing dialect is not at all easy. Over and over they said that he was often learned orally; there were many poets who, like me, never saw Dunbar on the page until long after we knew his poems. But there were, also, many who talked about having a book of Dunbar in the house. Several poets mentioned a light bulb going off when they realized the title of Maya Angelou's book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings came from a Dunbar poem as an important eureka moment of black intertextuality and literary lineage. One poet even said she had to fight in school with (black) classmates who claimed Maya Angelou made up the title herself!
Here are a few of the comments:
Lucille Clifton distinctly remembers her mother taking her on her lap, rocking, and reciting "The Party" and "Empathy." She recalled her mother as a great reciter and said that thus Dunbar "was a part of our own life. He became a part of my idea of what poetry was." She also said her mother told her that Clifton and Dunbar share a birthday, June 27, "and that was special to me." This calls to mind a similar maternal indoctrination into the tradition of black poetry, when young Gwendolyn Brooks's mother was known for introducing young Gwendolyn as "the Lady Paul Laurence Dunbar."
Reggie Flood: "My first experience of Dunbar was memorizing 'We Wear the Mask' for our African-American History week program.... My mother had me recite again and again those lines, not only to commit them to memory, but to learn how to 'become part of the poem' as she used to say. I remember that first moment years ago at the Formica kitchen table in Compton, my mom tapping out a steady rhythm to get me to respect the poem. In many ways it was my first real poetic experience."
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Table of ContentsContents Introduction....................1
I. Black Arts 101 Dunbar Lives!....................9
Sterling Brown: Where Academic Meets Vernacular....................20
Ode to Miss Gwendolyn Brooks (Ten Small Serenades)....................28
The Genius of Romare Bearden....................33
Living in Americas: Poems by Victor Hernández Cruz....................47
The Yellow House on the Corner and Beyond: Rita Dove on the Edge of Domesticity....................52
The One Who Went Before and Showed the Way: Remembering August Wilson....................62
Bill T. Jones Still/Here....................68
II. Black Feminist Thinking My Grandmother's Hair....................73
"Imitations of Life"? A Very Short History of Black Women and Food in Popular Iconography from Jemima to Oprah, or, When Is a Pancake Not Just a Pancake?....................81
Toni Cade's The Black Woman: An Anthology....................90
"Coming Out Blackened and Whole": Fragmentation and Reintegration in Audre Lorde's Zami and The Cancer Journals....................95
Black Alive and Looking Straight at You: The Legacy of June Jordan....................116
Memory, Community, Voice....................121
Kitchen Table Blues....................134
III. Talking A Conversation with Deborah Keenan and Diane LeBlanc....................139
Who Is the Self in Language? / Rooted in Language: An Interview with Meta DuEwa Jones....................154
Black Graduates' Celebration....................172
Africa and the World....................178