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“She’s from another space and time”: Janelle Monáe and Post-Soul Temporality

I’ve created a short film, compiled from pre-existing interviews and performances, which interrogates the messages delivered vocally and visually through Janelle Monáe’s afrofuturistic performances. I’m interested in the way that Janelle Monáe jumps through through time, mixing sounds and styles of the past with dreams of the future that endorse equality and full humanity for those often marginalized. That’s why I find it imperative to begin with her conception of the android, “the new other,” and Monáe’s personas, Cindi Mayweather and Wendy Bangs. I hope to highlight Monáe’s black feminist grounding and her devotion to the working class. What I find remarkable about her multitemporal performances is that Monáe never escapes the present; she always cognizant of and performing against the everyday lived realities that, oftentimes, constrain marginalized bodies. As she says, her tuxedo uniform (and I would also argue her larger body of work) is an “homage to the working class.”

I hope that my video functions in a few ways. I hope to create a small archive of the diverse influences Monáe embodies and from whom she draws inspiration. I love that she’s done thorough research of her history as a black woman and, therefore, is highly aware of the power within and pressed upon her body. Because she is aware of a complex racial history, I read Monáe as participating in a post-soul tradition through Signifyin(g), ultimately remixing the messages of those before her in order to pronounce a new vision of blackness. The last montage of my video is purposefully atemporal in the hopes that it would create a space that allows for a body that renders all possibilities of blackness possible. In other words, I want to showcase how Monáe embodies the radical politics of Angela Davis, the funky empowerment of James Brown, and the elegant sensuality of Dorothy Dandridge simultaneously. 

*7

“Let Me Ride”: An Automotive Reading

 

I’m interested in the “Golden Age” of hip hop, specifically West Coast rap of the mid-80s to mid-90s, for many reasons. Growing up in Los Angeles during this period, hip hop style informs my earliest memories and has, most certainly, shaped my world view. In my scholarship, I examine how those who, for this exercise, I will refer to as soul babies*, those who were youth in the Golden Age, remember (and disremember) this political, violent, and controversial period in hip hop. What is their relationship to a new generation’s sounds and messages? In what ways are they gatekeepers of the genre? How have the aesthetics and articulation of blackness modified from the Golden Age to our contemporary moment?

In the following critical response, I close-read a classic music video from this Golden Age that would radically change the soundscape of hip hop: Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” I consider this work to be a continuation of, a pushing forward and not against, Adrienne Brown’s theorizing around the hip hop car and its relationship to the social. In her published conference paper, “Drive Slow: Rehearing Hip Hop Automotivity,” Adrienne Brown argues the hip hop car “galvanize[s] types of looking, seeing, and being related to collective forms of ownership” (267). Brown contends that Paul Gilroy doesn’t fully understand the complex relationship of black rappers and property. Widening the masculinist narrative Gilroy writes, Brown analyzes the lyrics (specifically the pronouns) employed by Missy “Misdemeanor” Eliot in “The Rain” and Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s” to argue that the hip hop car is not a privatization that belies collectivity but, instead, the hip hop car “refuses to behave as [private property]” (271). I absolutely agree that “the hip hop car often remains rooted in the social, deriving its value from its proximity to the commons of creativity and performance” (272). The car is not only a symbol of wealth but a vehicle that signifies creative freedom, mobility, and autonomy.

I take up Brown’s call to “drive slow,” to listen and to look closely at the music and messages crafted for a collective audience. The multitudinous cars of hip hop are not junkyards of dead ideologies, but sites that house rich and living histories. I question if we can only read an “ambivalent politics” in the vehicles, which litter hip hop’s rhymes and videos (273).  I’m interested in tracing how the hip hop car as signifier of autonomous selfhood or black collective has altered over time. I think that Brown’s analysis can be extended with nuance: do the meanings attached to the hip hop car change depending on geography (East Coast, West Coast, Dirty South, rural, urban)? I’d argue yes. My reading of Dr. Dre’s 1993 hit, “Let Me Ride” attempts to excavate the hip hop car as it relates to the specific site of post-riot Los Angeles. A nuanced reading of the soundscape, lyrical content, and performance of “Let Me Ride” articulates a black automotivity of the Golden Age that claims a militant politics and declares the street as collective property. The car which cruises these streets, however, holds tenuous ties to collective values and, in fact, can expose the body and incite violence.

 

Creepin’ vs. Cruisin’: Precarious Black Bodies  

 

“Let me Ride” begins with a chilling image of Dre with his “Glock cocked” because “niggas want these” D’s, or Dayton’s, the classic wheels gangsters are known to sport on their modified lowriders. From the outset, Dre paints a portrait of an anxious driver, one with the material means to assert his power, but who is also vulnerable to the violence inner city streets beget. Dre’s LA is a city in which men will “try to take mine,” where men kill for property. Ownership is a matter of life and death, and paradoxically, it is the moment when one owns that one is marked. Ownership is an act of exposure, a being seen that requires drivers to check the rearview.

It’s important to note that “Let Me Ride” was the third single on the landmark album The Chronic, recorded and released just months after the infamous 1992 Los Angeles Riots. We must remember that the “trip to the South Side” Dre is taking is a trip to South Central LA, a place where two decades later, entire plots of land still house burned and empty buildings. Brown briefly reflects upon the linkages between the riots and the hip hop car, finding “a continuity” in regards to their “approach to property” (268). Extending her analysis, I find that Dre uses a language of suspicion throughout his narrative. To “creep,” “crawl,” and “slide” is to maneuver around forces of surveillance. In this space, the primary threat is not from white police forces, but from the black community to which Dre belongs. He speaks of “bodies bein’ found on Greenleaf with they fucking / heads cut off.” Dre raps bluntly about the reality for many black men confined to urban areas. In his hometown (specifically the highly contentious area of Greenleaf Boulevard which divides Compton from Long Beach) death for young black males is a daily threat. In this post-riot landscape, blackness is precarious and home is not a safe space.

While home may not be safe, black men and women still manage to create spaces of pleasure that allow for a type of limited freedom. The hip hop cars of the Golden Age add sparkle to decaying and blighted cities. While the lyrical content of “Let Me Ride” depicts a black existence that is stifled and constantly threatened, the visual performance of blackness depicts scenes of pleasure and collectivity that stem from ownership. Hip hop cars of the Golden Age do not only “creep” down the street in drive-by shootings, they “cruise” in glory, pompously displaying craftsmanship and a type of street beauty. In the music video for “Let Me Ride,” Dre rolls his pretty ’64 Impala through the hood as crowds gather to admire the flawless paintjobs, dope hydraulics, and shining chrome of cars that signify self-expression and success. But this is a public selfhood that allows for shared pleasure. They dance and flaunt their stuff while admiring the pimped-out cars. Men and women fill the streets of LA, claiming the public space as their rightful territory (the ’92 riots show this act can quickly turn violent).

 

The Car as Reconfigured Spaceship

 

“Let Me Ride” samples the 1975 funk classic, “Mothership Connection (Starchild),” by Parliament. Parliament was and remains revolutionary for dreaming of black life sustained elsewhere, of a utopia-in-space accessed through the Mothership (a spaceship that will deliver black peoples from their earthly existences). Parliament’s funky, bass-slappin’-grooves and future-seeking lyrics have the ability to make bodies writhe and wiggle, to expand minds beyond the confining conditions that prohibit full black subjectivities. Parliament’s Afro-futuristic sound and performances provide imaginative spaces of mobility and escape.

Not only does Dre participate in the African American tradition of signifyin’ by sampling “Mothership Connection,” Parliament also samples black music before its time. “Swing low sweet chariot,” is the first line and title of a Negro Spiritual, a slave song that pleads to go “home” in the arms of “a band of angels.” Like Parliament who would later re-work these lyrics, the Negro Spiritual hints that enslaved black bodies are constricted and tired, but likewise have the capacity to dream of an elsewhere, a utopia for a “soul [that] feels heavenly bound / Coming for to carry me home.” Parliament adopts and reshapes this message for its soulful audience of attentive listeners searching for liberation and full citizenship. Parliament updates the vehicle of escape from chariot to spaceship, perhaps implying that death is no longer an option; instead, innovative and creative means of negotiation and escape must be utilized. Instead of disposing of the body in their search for elsewhere, Parliament changes the lyrics of the Negro Spiritual to a demand: “let me ride.”

I think we can read difference into the ways Parliament and Dr. Dre employ the phrase let me ride. In Dre’s world, the car offers the space for individual expression and creativity, but is not a vehicle of escape. The music video for “Let Me Ride” ends with the men driving their lowriders and women to a Parliament Funkadelic concert. Live footage from Parliament’s wild, psychedelic concert is spliced with scenes from Dre’s hood, and the resulting juxtaposition is startling. Escape is not an option in for brothers like Dre in Compton.  Indeed, the car is yet another form that allows for restricted pleasure and places the black body at risk.  In this sense, we can read let me ride as a plea for selfhood unthreatened by violence.  Dre questions, “why can’t you let me get my roll on?” or, why can’t you just let me be? Unlike Parliament’s funky spaceship, the hip hop car in Dre’s reality does not allow for transformation or escape.

*I borrow this from Mark Anthony’s Neal’s book Soul Babies. He uses the term to refer to post-soul artists born after the Civil Rights Era who respond ambivalently to that generation’s ideology. I see a similar progression in hip hop. In “Let Me Ride,” Dre uses the funky, political sound of the 70s in order to remix and refashion a new expression of blackness. So too do we see an artist like Kendrick Lamar, a post-Golden Age rapper, alluding to the sounds and messages of an earlier form of rap to articulate his contemporary subject position. We have yet to fully identify and name these shifts throughout hip hop’s legacy.

Citation

Brown, Adrienne. “Drive Slow: Rehearing Hip Hop Automotivity.” Journal of Popular Music Studies 24, no. 3 (September 2012): 265–275. doi:10.1111/j.1533-1598.2012.01333.x.

 

*58

"For Wilderson, afro-pessimism takes seriously the longue durée of social death in Atlantic history and thereby pursues an investigation of “the meaning of Blackness not – in the first instance – as a variously and unconsciously interpellated identity or as a conscious social actor [animated by legible political interests], but as a structural position of non-communicability in the face of all other positions"

ANTE-ANTI-BLACKNESS: AFTERTHOUGHTS [1]

Jared Sexton - African American Studies - University of California, Irvine

(via howtobeterrell)

Jamaal May, “I Do Have a Seam”

A poem I keep returning to as I explore the contrapuntal form

*59

odinsblog:

Remembering Civil Rights hero, Medgar Evers

*3

With Meth & Red after a dope show!

*10

black sound

afrofuturism

funk

resistance

the break

the inheritance of soul. 

preach.

*31
Lately, I’ve been having this intense and wholly internalized love/hate relationship with the work of Kevin Young. His poetry has certainly been influential to my writing style and subject matter—when his poems are good, they’re really good. He’s also inspired me to keep writing about what I love, confirming that there’s a devoted and hungry audience for my scholarship which explores black feminism, black sound, black form. So, I was really excited when The Grey Album: On The Blackness of Blackness dropped last year. I wanted to love it, I was hoping it would become another one of my academic bibles alongside Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop or Moten’s In the Break, but instead, I’m left wanting more.
Let me explain. At just over 400 pages, The Grey Album is expansive in its reach as it touches on everything and everyone from Langston Hughes to slave narratives to the art of quilting and the Wu-Tang Clan. But The Grey Album’s breadth is also its blemish as Young moves backward and forward, linking forms of black creativity throughout time and space. The result is a type of thick reference manual where Young close-reads certain material, but only ever partially. I imagine I’ll be picking up this text ritualistically throughout my career, but not to contribute to my theoretical framework or to quote in a piece of writing. Instead, I find it really useful for referencing particular artists and works when establishing a vocabulary around poetry and sound. His descriptions are thick and his use of language is playful (sometimes too much so)—I love his jazzy, associative, and nonlinear style of writing. It stimulates the senses, sparks the synapses, gets creative juices flowing and fingers snapping. 
I understand that Young embodies the blackness he’s theorizing, therefore his work is recombinant and pastiche-like—it performs in black style using refrains, improvisation, call and response. Young riffs and storeys but, I find that much of his literary analyses are half-realized—he’ll drop beautiful one-liners like, “Pleasure is a revolutionary act in the face of pain,” without really explaining what he means by revolution, without fully exploring the multitudinous facets of pleasure. 
But enough of what frustrates me. Let’s get to what I find just beautiful about Young’s work. The entire read is fascinating, but here, I’ll restrict myself to the final half of the book which is dedicated to soul, hip-hop, and the articulation of a post-soul poetics. What I found amazing is that Young and I are writing about the same exact things! Pleasure and desire, post-soul aesthetics, the articulation of self, the consumption of blackness, rebellion. 
My Master’s thesis, titled, “Performing and Sounding Disruption: Coded Pleasure in Jay-Z and Kanye West’s ‘Otis’” pays particular attention to the intersections of the visual and the aural in order to decipher how Jay-Z and West encode desire, pleasure, and imagination beneath boastful rhymes and material opulence. I find that Jay-Z and West adopt American symbols of prosperity and freedom and, in disruptive fashion, resignify black masculinity in the cultural imagination. Soul sound, as intoned through Otis Redding and James Brown, lends a politics of brotherhood and radicalism to Jay-Z and West’s articulation of affective black masculinity. I decipher the coded discourse of disruption that’s embedded within the song’s sonic structure. Young too finds forms of coded resistances and pleasures in black cultural production. I have a book’s worth (quite literally) of thoughts about The Grey Album and its intersections with my own work, so instead of a comparative reading, I’ve pulled out some of Young’s brilliant one-liners. These are the moments I found resonant and revealing. 
 
“Soul is filled with community, one filled with calls you could respond to” (249). 
“The dominant mode of the soul era is metonymy, a word or phrase standing in for something else” (253).
“Pleasure in soul does not deny, but combats pain. For at its best soul is not simply style, or struggle, but strategy” (257).
“The African American emphasis on Elsewhere also insists that all we see ain’t all there is” (261). 
“Soul is ritual” (265).
“Post-soul culture is exactly this tension between sacred and secular, between past and future, between degradation and redemption—realizing degradation can be just what leads to redemption. Or, remapping the world in your own image” (289). 
“The sainting of Tupac after his murder is an attempt to reconcile his best songs with his worst rhetoric” (303). 
“Dancing, funk reminds us, is a form of listening” (309). 
“There’s something in hip-hop that, despite its protests to the contrary, wants to be misheard, and even unheard” (313). 
“Hip-hop too takes the smallest bits, the breaks, and makes them bigger: the boom-bap is itself synecdoche. Scraps don’t stay that way, but are sampled, sung, looped, riffed, and plain ripped off. This looping, existensial always, is the most radical version of nostalgia—repetition as a kind of recognition. Or desire” (333).  
 “Structured around the “Hesitation Blues,” Ask Your Mama  is the first poem of the break, anticipating hip-hop by a decade or more”
“Such songs describe how once, “It was all a dream,” describing the illusions of the American dream while mourning its disappearance. Hip-hop nostalgia is a form of conjure, conjure being one response to a history found in fragments. A remix” (361).
“In hip-hop such mourning is in its very structure, made part of the music” (384).
 
Some things I viscerally disagree with and would like to discuss more:
“Hip-hop needs less prosody and more poetics” (377).
“Despite her on-screen debut in Sister Act 2, Hill’s vocal quality remains far from church—its far more typically technological” (388).
“If hip-hop has any chance to go beyond the ends of the record, it will be in the hands of women” (390).
 
*I realize that I haven’t performed the close reading I would usually do in these posts, but there’s just too much going on in The Grey Album to do it justice. Plus, I’m going to take this as an opportunity to boast about my thesis in person with my prof :)

Lately, I’ve been having this intense and wholly internalized love/hate relationship with the work of Kevin Young. His poetry has certainly been influential to my writing style and subject matter—when his poems are good, they’re really good. He’s also inspired me to keep writing about what I love, confirming that there’s a devoted and hungry audience for my scholarship which explores black feminism, black sound, black form. So, I was really excited when The Grey Album: On The Blackness of Blackness dropped last year. I wanted to love it, I was hoping it would become another one of my academic bibles alongside Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop or Moten’s In the Break, but instead, I’m left wanting more.

Let me explain. At just over 400 pages, The Grey Album is expansive in its reach as it touches on everything and everyone from Langston Hughes to slave narratives to the art of quilting and the Wu-Tang Clan. But The Grey Album’s breadth is also its blemish as Young moves backward and forward, linking forms of black creativity throughout time and space. The result is a type of thick reference manual where Young close-reads certain material, but only ever partially. I imagine I’ll be picking up this text ritualistically throughout my career, but not to contribute to my theoretical framework or to quote in a piece of writing. Instead, I find it really useful for referencing particular artists and works when establishing a vocabulary around poetry and sound. His descriptions are thick and his use of language is playful (sometimes too much so)—I love his jazzy, associative, and nonlinear style of writing. It stimulates the senses, sparks the synapses, gets creative juices flowing and fingers snapping.

I understand that Young embodies the blackness he’s theorizing, therefore his work is recombinant and pastiche-like—it performs in black style using refrains, improvisation, call and response. Young riffs and storeys but, I find that much of his literary analyses are half-realized—he’ll drop beautiful one-liners like, “Pleasure is a revolutionary act in the face of pain,” without really explaining what he means by revolution, without fully exploring the multitudinous facets of pleasure.

But enough of what frustrates me. Let’s get to what I find just beautiful about Young’s work. The entire read is fascinating, but here, I’ll restrict myself to the final half of the book which is dedicated to soul, hip-hop, and the articulation of a post-soul poetics. What I found amazing is that Young and I are writing about the same exact things! Pleasure and desire, post-soul aesthetics, the articulation of self, the consumption of blackness, rebellion.

My Master’s thesis, titled, “Performing and Sounding Disruption: Coded Pleasure in Jay-Z and Kanye West’s ‘Otis’” pays particular attention to the intersections of the visual and the aural in order to decipher how Jay-Z and West encode desire, pleasure, and imagination beneath boastful rhymes and material opulence. I find that Jay-Z and West adopt American symbols of prosperity and freedom and, in disruptive fashion, resignify black masculinity in the cultural imagination. Soul sound, as intoned through Otis Redding and James Brown, lends a politics of brotherhood and radicalism to Jay-Z and West’s articulation of affective black masculinity. I decipher the coded discourse of disruption that’s embedded within the song’s sonic structure. Young too finds forms of coded resistances and pleasures in black cultural production. I have a book’s worth (quite literally) of thoughts about The Grey Album and its intersections with my own work, so instead of a comparative reading, I’ve pulled out some of Young’s brilliant one-liners. These are the moments I found resonant and revealing.

 

“Soul is filled with community, one filled with calls you could respond to” (249).

“The dominant mode of the soul era is metonymy, a word or phrase standing in for something else” (253).

“Pleasure in soul does not deny, but combats pain. For at its best soul is not simply style, or struggle, but strategy” (257).

“The African American emphasis on Elsewhere also insists that all we see ain’t all there is” (261).

“Soul is ritual” (265).

“Post-soul culture is exactly this tension between sacred and secular, between past and future, between degradation and redemption—realizing degradation can be just what leads to redemption. Or, remapping the world in your own image” (289).

“The sainting of Tupac after his murder is an attempt to reconcile his best songs with his worst rhetoric” (303).

“Dancing, funk reminds us, is a form of listening” (309).

“There’s something in hip-hop that, despite its protests to the contrary, wants to be misheard, and even unheard” (313).

“Hip-hop too takes the smallest bits, the breaks, and makes them bigger: the boom-bap is itself synecdoche. Scraps don’t stay that way, but are sampled, sung, looped, riffed, and plain ripped off. This looping, existensial always, is the most radical version of nostalgia—repetition as a kind of recognition. Or desire” (333). 

 “Structured around the “Hesitation Blues,” Ask Your Mama  is the first poem of the break, anticipating hip-hop by a decade or more”

“Such songs describe how once, “It was all a dream,” describing the illusions of the American dream while mourning its disappearance. Hip-hop nostalgia is a form of conjure, conjure being one response to a history found in fragments. A remix” (361).

“In hip-hop such mourning is in its very structure, made part of the music” (384).

 

Some things I viscerally disagree with and would like to discuss more:

“Hip-hop needs less prosody and more poetics” (377).

“Despite her on-screen debut in Sister Act 2, Hill’s vocal quality remains far from church—its far more typically technological” (388).

“If hip-hop has any chance to go beyond the ends of the record, it will be in the hands of women” (390).

 

*I realize that I haven’t performed the close reading I would usually do in these posts, but there’s just too much going on in The Grey Album to do it justice. Plus, I’m going to take this as an opportunity to boast about my thesis in person with my prof :)

*11


Things don’t fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept. –Lucille Clifton, Generations


There’s so much to say about Lucille Clifton and her poetry, but I find myself short of words. I’m all feeling and fragments, devoid of language, lost in the liminal space between spirit and mortal worlds. I’ve spent the last two weeks lost in Clifton’s words, crying and laughing and haunted—feeling like my house was “full of them,” ancestors conjured through reading (32). 
Legacy & Collective Memory
While scanning the library’s shelves, I picked up Lucille Clifton’s Generations (1976), a short memoir that vacillates between the death and burial of her father, and the stories of legacy he would tell. This memoir has helped me to begin to understand Clifton’s writing style, tone, and thematic obsessions. Generations is the story of her roots and a source for tracing the memories and voices that echo throughout her prolific poetic work.
Each chapter of the Generations beings with an epigraph from Walt Whitman’s iconic “Song of Myself” and in many senses, the two authors are comparable. Both authors practice a type of ecopoetics and like Whitman, Clifton utilizes the “I”—or in Clifton’s case, “i”—to encompass many voices in one. But unlike Whitman who speaks for American men, Clifton’s articulation foregrounds black American women, ultimately rewriting the poetic American narrative. But her subject matter is capacious. For instance, the poet mourns in “sorrow song” for the “eyes of the children / of middle passage, / for cherokee eyes”—her vision and voice are all-embracing, beyond the self and sweeping. Clifton resists capitalization and thereby redacts and equilibrates histories and sorrows. In this fashion, the nameless fetus in “the lost baby poem” takes the weight of Malcolm X’s death. Clifton entangles personal loss with national mourning. In Edward Whitley’s examination of Clifton and Whitman, he states that

Clifton’s response to Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ speaks with a double voice as she embraces the Whitmanian spirit of inclusion and celebration, but replaces the autonomous individuality informing so much of ‘Song of Myself’ with a collective, generational sense of self based around an expanding African American family (Whitley, 48).

Whitley is right to notice Clifton’s collective and expansive sense of self, but I think he fails to fully account for the deeply personal testimonials that lie at the center of her work. For instance, The Terrible Stories (1996) recounts the loneliness and sorrow of a woman facing breast cancer, but also the innate fortitude required for survival—strength she links to the endurance of a history of black tragedies. I find this balance between omnipresence and solipsism, expansiveness and isolation within Clifton’s poetry to be remarkable. 
The Dead
Clifton is shaman, earth-mother, elegist, griot. She has a keen ability to commemorate and unearth buried bodies and stories. I have to agree with Toni Morrison when she states in the forward to The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, that not enough work has been done around how Clifton conjures the dead.  In Generations, she does this through her father’s voice beginning her story with ‘Ma Ca’line,’ (Mammy Caroline) her great-great-grandmother, a woman born free in Africa and who died free in America, though her children would be born enslaved. She remembers her father’s stories of Ma Ca’line walking from New Orleans to Virginia at eight years old; her daughter Lucy (Clifton’s namesake, another Dahomey woman) sentenced to hang for shooting the white, “carpetbagger” father of her child. She fondly recalls her mother, the magic woman, who died at 44 and devotedly loved her father despite her own illness and his abuse. I find that Clifton has a deep sympathy and love for the spirits which haunt her, no matter how hurtful their presence may be. This can be acutely felt in “sorrow” (see picture)*
Brevity
Practicing an astonishing economy of language, Clifton’s poems are brief but dense. In her forward, Toni Morrison writes that Clifton’s work is “seductive with the simplicity of an atom, which is to say highly complex, explosive underneath an apparent quietude” (xxxi). Clifton’s diction and rhythm are singular. Her ability to evoke such deep feelings with so few words is unsettling, earth-upturning. Take for instance her ode, “eldridge”
 
the edge of this cleaver this straight sharp single- handled man will not rust break, or be broken
 
I love the formal qualities of this poem, written during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, for so many reasons. Deceptively simple language sharpens the tension that results from sudden expansion and contraction, moving from disyllabic to monosyllabic lines, only to explode in trisyllabic intensity in the ending couplet. The sudden caesura that follows the discordant-sounding “break” provides a staccato quality that embodies the militant, “by any means necessary” attitude of the Black Panther Party. Sound is working beautifully here. Clifton balances the smoothness (and Cleaver certainly was smooth) of euphonious “s” sounds with the jarring clack of words like “handled,” “rust,” and “broken.” Her attention to line break and the edges of this poem embody a peculiar type of violence and beauty that speak to the era in which its written.
Naming and the Occasion Poems
 “Who remembers the names of the slaves? Only the children of slaves,” states Clifton (Generations, 6). A “Dahomey daughter” and descendant of slaves, Clifton finds importance in naming, remembering, commemorating. Her anthology amplifies this endeavor as national events like the Kent State shooting, Hurricane Katrina, Columbus Day ’91, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. [This is the type of work that I hope to publish. I’m currently working on a contrapuntal poem that relies on repetition for its effect. Weaving together the narratives of Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, I hope to present these stories as palimpsest to show how past informs present]. Along with tracing a legacy of black women who perform spirit- and recovery- work, I realize that these are women who are re-writing national narratives. I really enjoy Clifton’s “occasion poems” which celebrate herself, but one in particular that is sticking with me is “4/30/92 for rodney king”
so the body of one black man is rag and stone is mud and blood the body of one black man contains no life worth loving so the body of one black man is nobody mama mama mamacita is there no value in this skin mama mama if we are nothing why should we spare the neighborhood mama mama who will be next and why should we save the pictures
 
 
 
Notes:
*I also have some deeper issues with Whitley’s essay subtitled, “Bringing Lucille Clifton’s ‘Generations’ into American Literature.” Whitley subsumes Clifton’s work beneath a Whitmanian theoretical frame that doesn’t allow space for the uniquely black feminist lifeblood that runs through Clifton’s poetry. I also think that Clifton’s canonical influences move beyond Whitman—where is the scholarship that discusses her relationship to Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Carlos Williams?
**I’ve discovered the Lucille Clifton papers at Emory University. It would be amazing to take a look at this huge archive of material. There are correspondence letters with fellow poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, drafts of Generations (edited by Toni Morrison), unpublished children’s stories, and so much more. I’m most interested in her “spirit writing,” a type of unconscious writing practice that channels the spirits. Most of this writing is “indecipherable,” but I wonder what type of specialized reading would be necessary for translating this nonstandard epistemology. Clifton has a different way of knowing and writing the world that I believe would require a unique methodology that accounts for the immaterial cosmos and the earthly world
*** Silly I know, but its just dawning on me how I am tracing a genealogy of recovery-work performed by black women poets. Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, Nikky Finney, M. NourbeSe Philip
 
Sources:
Clifton, Lucille. Generations: a Memoir. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1976. Print.
—-. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010. 1st ed. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2012. Print. American Poets Continuum Series 134.
Whitley, Edward. “‘A Long Missing Part of Itself’: Bringing Lucille Clifon’s ‘Generations’ into American Literature.” Identities 26.2 (2001): 47-64. Print.
 

Things don’t fall apart. Things hold. Lines connect in thin ways that last and last and lives become generations made out of pictures and words just kept. 

–Lucille Clifton, Generations

There’s so much to say about Lucille Clifton and her poetry, but I find myself short of words. I’m all feeling and fragments, devoid of language, lost in the liminal space between spirit and mortal worlds. I’ve spent the last two weeks lost in Clifton’s words, crying and laughing and haunted—feeling like my house was “full of them,” ancestors conjured through reading (32).

Legacy & Collective Memory

While scanning the library’s shelves, I picked up Lucille Clifton’s Generations (1976), a short memoir that vacillates between the death and burial of her father, and the stories of legacy he would tell. This memoir has helped me to begin to understand Clifton’s writing style, tone, and thematic obsessions. Generations is the story of her roots and a source for tracing the memories and voices that echo throughout her prolific poetic work.

Each chapter of the Generations beings with an epigraph from Walt Whitman’s iconic “Song of Myself” and in many senses, the two authors are comparable. Both authors practice a type of ecopoetics and like Whitman, Clifton utilizes the “I”—or in Clifton’s case, “i”—to encompass many voices in one. But unlike Whitman who speaks for American men, Clifton’s articulation foregrounds black American women, ultimately rewriting the poetic American narrative. But her subject matter is capacious. For instance, the poet mourns in “sorrow song” for the “eyes of the children / of middle passage, / for cherokee eyes”—her vision and voice are all-embracing, beyond the self and sweeping. Clifton resists capitalization and thereby redacts and equilibrates histories and sorrows. In this fashion, the nameless fetus in “the lost baby poem” takes the weight of Malcolm X’s death. Clifton entangles personal loss with national mourning. In Edward Whitley’s examination of Clifton and Whitman, he states that

Clifton’s response to Whitman’s ‘Song of Myself’ speaks with a double voice as she embraces the Whitmanian spirit of inclusion and celebration, but replaces the autonomous individuality informing so much of ‘Song of Myself’ with a collective, generational sense of self based around an expanding African American family (Whitley, 48).

Whitley is right to notice Clifton’s collective and expansive sense of self, but I think he fails to fully account for the deeply personal testimonials that lie at the center of her work. For instance, The Terrible Stories (1996) recounts the loneliness and sorrow of a woman facing breast cancer, but also the innate fortitude required for survival—strength she links to the endurance of a history of black tragedies. I find this balance between omnipresence and solipsism, expansiveness and isolation within Clifton’s poetry to be remarkable.

The Dead

Clifton is shaman, earth-mother, elegist, griot. She has a keen ability to commemorate and unearth buried bodies and stories. I have to agree with Toni Morrison when she states in the forward to The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010, that not enough work has been done around how Clifton conjures the dead.  In Generations, she does this through her father’s voice beginning her story with ‘Ma Ca’line,’ (Mammy Caroline) her great-great-grandmother, a woman born free in Africa and who died free in America, though her children would be born enslaved. She remembers her father’s stories of Ma Ca’line walking from New Orleans to Virginia at eight years old; her daughter Lucy (Clifton’s namesake, another Dahomey woman) sentenced to hang for shooting the white, “carpetbagger” father of her child. She fondly recalls her mother, the magic woman, who died at 44 and devotedly loved her father despite her own illness and his abuse. I find that Clifton has a deep sympathy and love for the spirits which haunt her, no matter how hurtful their presence may be. This can be acutely felt in “sorrow” (see picture)*

Brevity

Practicing an astonishing economy of language, Clifton’s poems are brief but dense. In her forward, Toni Morrison writes that Clifton’s work is “seductive with the simplicity of an atom, which is to say highly complex, explosive underneath an apparent quietude” (xxxi). Clifton’s diction and rhythm are singular. Her ability to evoke such deep feelings with so few words is unsettling, earth-upturning. Take for instance her ode, “eldridge”

 

the edge
of this
cleaver
this
straight
sharp
single-
handled
man
will not
rust
break, or
be broken

 

I love the formal qualities of this poem, written during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, for so many reasons. Deceptively simple language sharpens the tension that results from sudden expansion and contraction, moving from disyllabic to monosyllabic lines, only to explode in trisyllabic intensity in the ending couplet. The sudden caesura that follows the discordant-sounding “break” provides a staccato quality that embodies the militant, “by any means necessary” attitude of the Black Panther Party. Sound is working beautifully here. Clifton balances the smoothness (and Cleaver certainly was smooth) of euphonious “s” sounds with the jarring clack of words like “handled,” “rust,” and “broken.” Her attention to line break and the edges of this poem embody a peculiar type of violence and beauty that speak to the era in which its written.

Naming and the Occasion Poems

 “Who remembers the names of the slaves? Only the children of slaves,” states Clifton (Generations, 6). A “Dahomey daughter” and descendant of slaves, Clifton finds importance in naming, remembering, commemorating. Her anthology amplifies this endeavor as national events like the Kent State shooting, Hurricane Katrina, Columbus Day ’91, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. [This is the type of work that I hope to publish. I’m currently working on a contrapuntal poem that relies on repetition for its effect. Weaving together the narratives of Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, I hope to present these stories as palimpsest to show how past informs present]. Along with tracing a legacy of black women who perform spirit- and recovery- work, I realize that these are women who are re-writing national narratives. I really enjoy Clifton’s “occasion poems” which celebrate herself, but one in particular that is sticking with me is “4/30/92 for rodney king”

so
the body
of one black man
is rag and stone
is mud
and blood
the body of one
black man
contains no life
worth loving
so the body
of one black man
is nobody
mama
mama
mamacita
is there no value
in this skin
mama
mama
if we are nothing
why
should we spare
the neighborhood
mama
mama
who will be next and
why should we save
the pictures

 

 

 

Notes:

*I also have some deeper issues with Whitley’s essay subtitled, “Bringing Lucille Clifton’s ‘Generations’ into American Literature.” Whitley subsumes Clifton’s work beneath a Whitmanian theoretical frame that doesn’t allow space for the uniquely black feminist lifeblood that runs through Clifton’s poetry. I also think that Clifton’s canonical influences move beyond Whitman—where is the scholarship that discusses her relationship to Milton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and William Carlos Williams?

**I’ve discovered the Lucille Clifton papers at Emory University. It would be amazing to take a look at this huge archive of material. There are correspondence letters with fellow poets like Gwendolyn Brooks, drafts of Generations (edited by Toni Morrison), unpublished children’s stories, and so much more. I’m most interested in her “spirit writing,” a type of unconscious writing practice that channels the spirits. Most of this writing is “indecipherable,” but I wonder what type of specialized reading would be necessary for translating this nonstandard epistemology. Clifton has a different way of knowing and writing the world that I believe would require a unique methodology that accounts for the immaterial cosmos and the earthly world

*** Silly I know, but its just dawning on me how I am tracing a genealogy of recovery-work performed by black women poets. Natasha Trethewey, Elizabeth Alexander, Nikky Finney, M. NourbeSe Philip

 

Sources:

Clifton, Lucille. Generations: a Memoir. 1st ed. New York: Random House, 1976. Print.

—-. The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton 1965-2010. 1st ed. Rochester, NY: BOA Editions, 2012. Print. American Poets Continuum Series 134.

Whitley, Edward. “‘A Long Missing Part of Itself’: Bringing Lucille Clifon’s ‘Generations’ into American Literature.” Identities 26.2 (2001): 47-64. Print.

 

*1

Brothers

(being a conversation in eight poems between an aged Lucifer and God, though only Lucifer is heard. The time is long after.)


1
invitation

come coil with me
here in creation’s bed
among the twigs and ribbons
of the past. ihave grown old
remembering the garden,
the hum of the great cats
moving into language, the sweet
fume of the man’s rib
as it rose up and began to walk.
it was all glory then,
the winged creatures leaping
like angels, the oceans claiming
their own. let us rest here a time
like two old brothers
who watched it happen and wondered
what it meant.

2
how great Thou art

listen. You are beyond
even Your own understanding.
that rib and rain and clay
in all its pride,
its unsteady dominion,
is not what you believed
You were,
but it is what You are;
in your own image as some
lexicographer supposed.
the face, both he and she,
the odd ambition, the desire
to reach beyond the stars
is You. All You, all You
the loneliness, the perfect
imperfection.

3
as for myself

less snake than angel
less angel than man
how come i to this
serpent’s understanding?
watching creation from
a hood of leaves
i have foreseen the evening
of the world.
as she as she
the breast of Yourself
separated out and made to bear,
as sure as her returning,
i too am blessed with
the one gift You cherish;
to feel the living move in me
and to be unafraid.

4
in my own defense

what could I choose
but to slide along behind them,
they whose only sin
was being their father’s children?
as they stood with their backs
to the garden,
a new and terrible luster
burning their eyes,
only You could have called
their ineffable names,
only in their fever
could they have failed to hear.

5
the road led from delight

into delight. into the sharp
edge of seasons, into the sweet
puff of bread baking, the warm
vale of sheet and sweat after love,
the tinny newborn cry of calf
and cormorant and humankind.
and pain, of course,
always there was some bleeding,
but forbid me not
my meditation on the outer world
before the rest of it, before
the bruising of his heel, my head,
and so forth.

6
“the silence of God is God.”
—Carolyn Forche

tell me, tell us why
in the confusion of a mountain
of babies stacked like cordwood,
of limbs walking away from each other,
of tongues bitten through
by the language of assault,
tell me, tell us why
You neither raised your hand
Nor turned away, tell us why
You watched the excommunication of
That world and You said nothing.

7
still there is mercy, there is grace

how otherwise
could I have come to this
marble spinning in space
propelled by the great
thumb of the universe?
how otherwise
could the two roads
of this tongue
converge into a single
certitude?
how otherwise
could I, a sleek old
traveler,
curl one day safe and still
beside YOU
at Your feet, perhaps,
but, amen, Yours.

8
“………is God.”

so.
having no need to speak
You sent Your tongue
splintered into angels.
even i,
with my little piece of it
have said too much.
to ask You to explain
is to deny You.
before the word
You were.
You kiss my brother mouth.
the rest is silence.
—Lucille Clifton

*2
Language, Form, and the Persona Poem in Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split
Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split is an era-defining text, an instant classic wholly deserving of the National Book Award. Finney’s carefully crafted open verse soars, not only for its rich and beautiful language, but for the construction of vivid stories seeping pleasure, coercion, and livelihood across time and space. I’ll keep coming back to Head Off & Split for lessons on form, style, voice, historical remembrance, storytelling, and vigorous wordplay. 
I’ll also keep returning to Head Off & Split because it is a collection written for me—an instruction guide for twenty-first century black girls. Opening with a dedication for Lucille Clifton, “Dahomey woman of light, laughter, language,” and an epigraph by Toni Cade Bambara, Finney ends her collection with prose-poem instructions entitled, “To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica” where she advises dreamers/workers/writers like me to “create pleasure that can stir up the world” and to “keep yourself rooted in the sun, rain, and darkly camphored air.” On a personal note, I’m taking keen notice of these instructions, turning Finney’s advice into daily mantra. 
Three themes mark the division of the collection’s parts: defiance in “The Hard • Headed,” desire in “The Head • over •Heels,” and [insert adjective I still haven’t unearthed] in her last section, “The Head • Waters.” Though tripartite in nature, Head Off & Split is distinctively whole as motifs and images resurface, lending Finney’s collection a multi-temporal vision that uncovers the past while simultaneously critiquing the present. For instance, Hurricane Katrina is everywhere in these poems. Finney follows her opening ode to Rosa Parks entitled “Red Velvet” with an unwavering imagining of the devastating Gulf Coast storm, told through the eyes of a survivor stranded on rooftop in “Left.” Finney’s political critique is damning and unflinching as she writes in “Kanye-West-Was-Finally-Right formation” of how black people of the Gulf Coast were left, stranded, and abandoned.
People who outlived  bullwhips & Bull Connor, historically afraid of water and routinely fed to crocodiles, left in the sun on the sticky tar- heat of roofs to roast like pigs, surrounded by forty feet of churning water, in the summer of 2005, while the richest country in the world played the old observation game, studied the situation: wondered by committee what to do; counted, in private, by long historical division; speculated whether or not some people are surely born ready, accustomed to flood, famine, fear.
 
I am learning from Finney to be brave and intrepid in voice—to speak boldly about this contemporary moment and my particular subject position. But I think I am also learning that sympathy is necessary to create an affectively effective poem. I tend towards solipsism and have this troublesome mental blockage when it comes to imagining the worldview of lives distinct from mine. I find that Finney is most moving when she narrates the inner-lives of black women diverse as Condoleezza Rice, Rosa Parks, and Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the “secret” black daughter of Strom Thurmond. Finney traces a history of African American women coerced, complicit, resistant to, and restrained by their profoundly violent and racially complex environments. Let’s keep it real, Finney is audacious! I admire the way that she moves from a beautiful remembrance of Rosa Parks, to a stinging critique of the government’s response to Katrina’s black victims, then to a hilariously satirical sonnet crown that chronicles George W. Bush, and then finally, a complicated suite of poems for Condoleezza Rice. I haven’t seen another recent poetry collection so truthfully examine the relationship between national politics and the [visually, linguistically, spiritually] disruptive quality of black women. I am also inspired by Finney’s grasp of language—the interplay of sound and meaning. Her vast vocabulary is stimulating/rigorous/delightful. She is a poet who takes her time to fully flush out an image or story, and much of this work is done through word choice.
While I find the entire collection remarkable and could write on Head Off & Split for years [dissertation maybe, probably, must be], there are a few extra-special poems that have moved me deeply. “Negroes with Guns” is a poem inspired by the biography of Robert F. Williams, militant NAACP chapter member who called for armed self-defense. Finney fuses her own autobiography as young southern girl who could “blow the x out the Maxwell House can” (a rite of passage for the southern girl leaving home) with a narrative of backwoods “Black People Who Refused to Join King.” I am obsessed with the formal qualities of this poem: perfectly positioned line breaks and repetition that embodies the ritual shootings of backwoods black folk, of KKK raids, of black political leaders. I’m still pondering the function of reiteration, of double-articulation that runs through this poem.
 
back back of the shed, / into the hush hush air… the old old woods… the white white sheet… the Maxwell House can / can… the leaving leaving backsides… and try try to interview her… not her kitchen worry worry… her dark dark / gingerbread of face… heels bear down down on…
 
I’m going to have to think about this double-speak more, but it has a way of crystalizing a moment, making the white sheets that line a baby’s bed and the white sheets that cover the {heads} of terrorist night riders that much vivid, that much whiter against the dark dark faces tucked away in the back woods. There is also a unique fearsomeness to Finney’s repetition, a certain joyful pride in the melding of vernacular and lyric. **Still thinking, would love your thoughts! To close, I just have to mention “Cattails,” a romantic and lyrically gorgeous prose poem about the lengths one will go through driven by love. The poem opens, “One woman drives across five states just to see her. The woman / being driven to has no idea anyone’s headed her way.” For two days, the nameless woman drives, “sleeping in rest areas with the seat lowered all the way / back, doors locked.” The woman being driven to silently marvels “at the driving woman’s muscled spontaneity” but then shortly “announces she must go.” As a parting gift, the driving woman offers “sable-sheared cattails. / Five feet high & badly in need of sunlight & proudly stolen from / across five states.” Their bouquet reminds her “of what falling in love, without permission, smells like.” Head Off & Split is a similar collection of flowers gathered throughout time and space, offered as a gift of love for “brown poets.” Finney has created a lasting bouquet of poetry that serves as testimonial to pleasure, heartache, survival and joy—a testimonial about falling in love with the forbidden and secret histories of black women.

Language, Form, and the Persona Poem in Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split

Nikky Finney’s Head Off & Split is an era-defining text, an instant classic wholly deserving of the National Book Award. Finney’s carefully crafted open verse soars, not only for its rich and beautiful language, but for the construction of vivid stories seeping pleasure, coercion, and livelihood across time and space. I’ll keep coming back to Head Off & Split for lessons on form, style, voice, historical remembrance, storytelling, and vigorous wordplay.

I’ll also keep returning to Head Off & Split because it is a collection written for me—an instruction guide for twenty-first century black girls. Opening with a dedication for Lucille Clifton, “Dahomey woman of light, laughter, language,” and an epigraph by Toni Cade Bambara, Finney ends her collection with prose-poem instructions entitled, “To Brown Poets from Black Girl with Silver Leica” where she advises dreamers/workers/writers like me to “create pleasure that can stir up the world” and to “keep yourself rooted in the sun, rain, and darkly camphored air.” On a personal note, I’m taking keen notice of these instructions, turning Finney’s advice into daily mantra. 

Three themes mark the division of the collection’s parts: defiance in “The Hard • Headed,” desire in “The Head • over •Heels,” and [insert adjective I still haven’t unearthed] in her last section, “The Head • Waters.” Though tripartite in nature, Head Off & Split is distinctively whole as motifs and images resurface, lending Finney’s collection a multi-temporal vision that uncovers the past while simultaneously critiquing the present. For instance, Hurricane Katrina is everywhere in these poems. Finney follows her opening ode to Rosa Parks entitled “Red Velvet” with an unwavering imagining of the devastating Gulf Coast storm, told through the eyes of a survivor stranded on rooftop in “Left.” Finney’s political critique is damning and unflinching as she writes in “Kanye-West-Was-Finally-Right formation” of how black people of the Gulf Coast were left, stranded, and abandoned.

People who outlived  bullwhips & Bull
Connor, historically afraid of water and routinely
fed to crocodiles, left in the sun on the sticky tar-
heat of roofs to roast like pigs, surrounded by
forty feet of churning water, in the summer
of 2005, while the richest country in the world
played the old observation game, studied
the situation: wondered by committee what to do;
counted, in private, by long historical division;
speculated whether or not some people are surely
born ready, accustomed to flood, famine, fear.

 

I am learning from Finney to be brave and intrepid in voice—to speak boldly about this contemporary moment and my particular subject position. But I think I am also learning that sympathy is necessary to create an affectively effective poem. I tend towards solipsism and have this troublesome mental blockage when it comes to imagining the worldview of lives distinct from mine. I find that Finney is most moving when she narrates the inner-lives of black women diverse as Condoleezza Rice, Rosa Parks, and Essie Mae Washington-Williams, the “secret” black daughter of Strom Thurmond. Finney traces a history of African American women coerced, complicit, resistant to, and restrained by their profoundly violent and racially complex environments. Let’s keep it real, Finney is audacious! I admire the way that she moves from a beautiful remembrance of Rosa Parks, to a stinging critique of the government’s response to Katrina’s black victims, then to a hilariously satirical sonnet crown that chronicles George W. Bush, and then finally, a complicated suite of poems for Condoleezza Rice. I haven’t seen another recent poetry collection so truthfully examine the relationship between national politics and the [visually, linguistically, spiritually] disruptive quality of black women. I am also inspired by Finney’s grasp of language—the interplay of sound and meaning. Her vast vocabulary is stimulating/rigorous/delightful. She is a poet who takes her time to fully flush out an image or story, and much of this work is done through word choice.

While I find the entire collection remarkable and could write on Head Off & Split for years [dissertation maybe, probably, must be], there are a few extra-special poems that have moved me deeply. “Negroes with Guns” is a poem inspired by the biography of Robert F. Williams, militant NAACP chapter member who called for armed self-defense. Finney fuses her own autobiography as young southern girl who could “blow the x out the Maxwell House can” (a rite of passage for the southern girl leaving home) with a narrative of backwoods “Black People Who Refused to Join King.” I am obsessed with the formal qualities of this poem: perfectly positioned line breaks and repetition that embodies the ritual shootings of backwoods black folk, of KKK raids, of black political leaders. I’m still pondering the function of reiteration, of double-articulation that runs through this poem.

 

back back of the shed, / into the hush hush air…
the old old woods…
the white white sheet…
the Maxwell House can / can…
the leaving leaving backsides…
and try try to interview her…
not her kitchen worry worry…
her dark dark / gingerbread of face…
heels bear down down on…

 

I’m going to have to think about this double-speak more, but it has a way of crystalizing a moment, making the white sheets that line a baby’s bed and the white sheets that cover the {heads} of terrorist night riders that much vivid, that much whiter against the dark dark faces tucked away in the back woods. There is also a unique fearsomeness to Finney’s repetition, a certain joyful pride in the melding of vernacular and lyric. **Still thinking, would love your thoughts!

To close, I just have to mention “Cattails,” a romantic and lyrically gorgeous prose poem about the lengths one will go through driven by love. The poem opens, “One woman drives across five states just to see her. The woman / being driven to has no idea anyone’s headed her way.” For two days, the nameless woman drives, “sleeping in rest areas with the seat lowered all the way / back, doors locked.” The woman being driven to silently marvels “at the driving woman’s muscled spontaneity” but then shortly “announces she must go.” As a parting gift, the driving woman offers “sable-sheared cattails. / Five feet high & badly in need of sunlight & proudly stolen from / across five states.” Their bouquet reminds her “of what falling in love, without permission, smells like.” Head Off & Split is a similar collection of flowers gathered throughout time and space, offered as a gift of love for “brown poets.” Finney has created a lasting bouquet of poetry that serves as testimonial to pleasure, heartache, survival and joy—a testimonial about falling in love with the forbidden and secret histories of black women.

*5

Black Feminism as Collage and Zong!

In line with the feelings I always experience after reading Elizabeth Alexander’s work, I spent the day inspired by and ruminating over her 1992 dissertation, entitled “Collage: An approach to reading African-American women’s literature.” I was led to this early work by my professor who suggested that Collage might help me articulate my perspective and methodology which, at times, seems fragmentary and unorthodox. Interested in black masculinity as performed and articulated in contemporary poetry, hip-hop culture, and the visual arts, I often find myself pulling from diverse discourses, media, temporalities and geographies. My first two years of graduate school have shown me that my worldview is expansive, for I fundamentally believe that this moment is informed by the moments before it and therefore, the type of black scholarship I aim to produce must be multi-temporal and “multi-spatial” in its intervention. Alexander, through “Collage,” has also taught me that to bend/break/meld generic boundaries is to follow in a black feminist tradition of articulating a specific identity position that defies certain artificial boundaries.

What I’ve been calling “remixing,” “pastiche,” “assemblage,” and “reimagining,” Alexander names “collage.” Theorized through the African American cultural tradition of quilt-making and the artwork of Remare Bearden, Alexander finds that the form of collage “maps a theoretical space in which they myriad particulars of [black female] identity can reside” (77). Pushing against DuBois’ concept of “two-ness,” and the lineage of male thinkers who take up this trope in African American thought, Alexander complicates the notion of double consciousness arguing for a theoretical lens that accounts for the complex intersectionality of black woman’s identity. For Alexander, collage relies on the “cut and torn” edges that indicate the creative process, that reveal the construction and refashioning of structures and histories. In this way, the act of writing is “akin to stiching” through “personal and collective memory” and unlike the mosaic which emphasizes the fragment, the collage reflects an identity which is “curiously whole” (40, 27). For Alexander, the collage is both a methodology for approaching the study of African American literature and a tool for creating it.

 The feminist intervention Alexander makes is pretty phenomenal. She traces a legacy of black women who have reclaimed the histories of their bodies, an act “no matter how subtle or articulated that process of reclamation might be” still “flies in the face of a lengthy history of bodily mis-representation” (14). Close-reading the form and content of Ana Julia Cooper, Ntozake Shange, and Audre Lorde, Alexander finds that black women deconstructed their “represented selves” in order to construct and narrate their selves on their own terms. Their collage-like texts re-form existing shards of the past to narrate the present and also point toward a possible future. The close-reading Alexander performs of Cooper’s A Voice from the South, Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf, and Lorde’s Zami and The Cancer Journals is meticiously extensive. If anything, “Collage” was a lesson in proper close-reading. Alexander moves through modes of address, generic conventions ranging from autobiography to satire, tone, style, and even syntax to highlight the ways in which these black feminist pioneers create new languages in the articulation for the “self-invented body” (178).

Instead of tracing the particulars of Alexander’s close-readings, I’m more interested in sussing out how Alexander’s collage model looks today. For my primary text, I’ll look quickly at M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong!, her genre- and language-defying poetic cycle that recovers the drowned Africans thrown overboard a slave ship in 1781. By orders of the captain, some 150 people were thrown alive into the sea in the attempt to recoup insurance monies from destroyed property. Philip grapples with how to narrate histories that can never be fully recovered (especially given that she has a one page legal document to work from), and in order to tell the “story that simultaneously cannot be told, must be told, and will never be told,” she stretches the boundaries of genre and the act of writing itself.

Zong! is a collage in the simplest sense—it is a type of mixed media work that combines legal text, poetry, and fragments from the author’s journal. Philip works solely with the original words of the legal ruling, Gregson v. Gilbert, to create her poetry—she deconstructs in order to reconstruct, rewriting the black body in the process. Philip literally tears the legal jargon to pieces and then re-stitches a counter-narrative that rearticulates African American history. Just as Alexander finds collage indicative of wholeness, so too does Philip as she writes in the archives silences.

Searching for reason and logic in the senseless deaths of captive slaves, Philip finds that writing—language, poetry, the page—are all limitations and “violent orderings” (192) that belie the complexities of her project. She instead mutilates language, ripping it to is pieces, “castrating verbs, suffocating adjectives, murdering nouns, throwing articles, prepositions, conjuntions overboard, jettisoning adverbs” (193). Mixing the mother-tongues of Dutch captors, Yoruba and Shona captives, and American readers (French, Greek, Hebrew, and Latin make appearances too), Philip deconstructs language to the point of intelligibility. Separating subject from object, word from constructed meaning, Zong! is a “cacophony of voices” that seem to scream from the bottom of the sea, demanding that not only must their tale be heard, but that property must re-transform back into human. Filled with sounds and silence (the blank space always makes me feel like I’m drowing) Zong!  is a poetic cycle of rupture and splicing—of collage—that in the creation of a new language for black articulation, counters the fictional and whitewashed histories available in the archives.

 

Sources:

Alexander, Elizabeth. “Collage: An approach to reading African-American women’s literature.” Diss. U of Pennsylvania, 1992. ProQuest Dussertations & Theses

Philip, Marlene Nourbese, and Setaey Adamu Boateng. Zong! Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

*2

The Air We Make Together: The Poetry of Jake Adam York

We visit memory sites, like the Civil Rights Memorial, but if memory lives only there, it isn’t memory any more. Memory lives in the breath we breathe, in the air we make together” —Jake Adam York

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