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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The study of black poetry 1900-1930

 
 
 
 
The Study of African American Poetry 1900-1930
 
 
                                Begin with the possibility that the study of literary forms is one way of giving attention to specialized speech acts as texts and to how we might think about the roles texts play, beyond their being catalysts for personal aesthetic experiences, in culture(s).  Whether study is an individual activity or a collective (collaborative) one, it is never totally free.  We give attention to text and time, text in historical time.  It is no denial of our voices to accept that our study of African American poetry between 1900 and 1930 is indebted to previous thinkers and the pathways to knowing they provided; in this Institute, we may ultimately conclude by August 3 that we are indebted to Lorenzo Thomas and many others, but most importantly to Thomas who is the presiding spirit for the emerging conversation. We shall modify his pathway and the pathways created by Alain Locke, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Sterling A. Brown, Eugene B. Redmond, Stephen E. Henderson and the growing body of poets and scholars who tell us how we might elect to think about modern and contemporary poetry.  In all instances, texts, voices, and contexts associated with the first three decades of the twentieth century authorize, as Thomas urged, precautions.
                Understanding of the narratives we call history, especially the narrative we label “literary history” is predicated on belief that the narratives are not misleading (until they are proved to be so); they are simply incomplete.  The idea of incompleteness can be highlighted by some attention to the editing behind the representative anthology The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922; expanded edition 1931) and the more interpretive anthology The New Negro (1925). Editing is a special art of selection, implicated with cultural and literary politics and with motives both well-known and rather unknowable.  Anthologies are appetizers.  Study from a distance increases the chances of having a full meal.
                The work of  James Weldon Johnson and Alain Locke set terms for inspection in the study of expressive culture, of the poetry.  The poet/critic Johnson contributed a foundation upon which the philosopher/scholar Locke built a mythology that invites critical surgery.  The mythology I have in mind is explanatory of vexed engagement with the overworked phrase “double consciousness.” The levels of discourse given to us by Johnson and Locke are complementary.
                Cognition of place in the United States as an experiment in democracy stands behind Johnson’s “Life Every Voice and Sing” (a song that still has affective values) and The Book of American Negro Poetry.  Poetry has many locations and changes its address frequently.  For Johnson, poetry was expressive proof or evidence needed to minimize forgetfulness, to maximize the memory of things tampered with in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Poetry addressed a problem of compromised inclusion of people of African descent in the body politic of the United States.  The preoccupation with “race” in the United States sponsored the black/white binary, the them versus us stances which still have currency in the American republic and in its regard for literature.
                It may be instructive to move backward in time from 1931 to 1921.  In the 1931 preface, Johnson emphasized swift changes and his vision of a future for American poetry.  In 1921, as he was compiling his anthology, and despite what we now think about radical changes in the Jazz Age and the migration of black folk from rural, agricultural areas to urban, industrial and commercial areas, uses of artificial dialect retarded desirable change.  What was awry in the American literary mindscape needed changing.  Poetry was put in the service of change.  Even then language was a weapon. An assault on ignorance was necessary.  In the 1931 preface, Johnson broadcast some key ideas that are foundational for our study. That preface updated and slightly revised what Johnson thought about poetry that was moving differently than it had in 1921.  Although the sense of history that informed Johnson’s thinking was highly selective, it minimizes historical amnesia and gives weight to specificity.  It bids us to not be ahistorical in dealing with black poetry from 1900 to 1930 and cooperative in being bamboozled by what is hidden in deep recesses of the code term “universal.”
                Alain Locke’s   “Foreword” and introductory essay “The New Negro” in The New Negro (1925) map territory that is distinct from Johnson’s, primarily because he was writing about culture not poetry.
His aim was “to document the New Negro culturally and socially –to register the transformations of the inner and outer life of the Negro in America that have so significantly taken place in the last few years.” Like Johnson, Locke was annoyed by the habits of the American mindscape; the benighted viewers needed to see “truest social portraiture” and to discover “artistic self-expression.”  He believed that “so far as [the Negro] is culturally articulate,” one should “let the Negro speak for himself” by way of the poetry, fiction, drama, music, and critical essays in The New Negro. Contrasting the problematic Old Negro with the New Negro, who was vibrant with a new psychology, one that sought to minimize self-pity and to welcome “the new scientific rather than the old sentimental interest.”  Smashing the idols of the American tribes was to be embraced.  As far as poetry was concerned, Locke championed “the defiant ironic challenge of [Claude] McKay” and “the fervent and almost filial appeal and counsel of  Weldon Johnson.”  He quickly noted “between defiance and appeal, midway almost  between cynicism and hope, the prevailing mind stands in the mood of [Johnson’s] To America, an attitude of sober query and stoical challenge:
 
 
How would you have us, as we are?
Or sinking ‘neath the load we bear,
Our eyes fixed forward on a star,
Or gazing empty at despair?
Like Johnson, Locke argued for fuller recognition of the Negro’s contributions to American culture and the “releasing of the talented group from the arid fields of controversy and debate to the productive fields of creative expression.”  More than Johnson, Locke was concerned about “a spiritual Coming of Age,” marked by a new aesthetic and a new psychology of life.  The elaboration of what Locke meant is to be found in his essay “The Legacy of the Ancestral Arts” which is strategically placed after Cullen’s poem “Heritage.” “…what the Negro artist of to-day has most to gain from the arts of the forefathers is perhaps not cultural inspiration or technical innovations, but the lesson of a classic background, the lesson of discipline, of style, of technical control pushed to the limits of technical mastery. A more highly stylized art does not exist than the African. If after absorbing the new content of American life and experience, and after assimilating new patterns of art, the original artistic endowment can be sufficiently augmented to express itself with equal power in more complex patterns and substance, then the Negro may well  become what some have predicted, the artist of American life.”  Our study, in part, should confirm or disconfirm whether black poetry from 1900 to 1930 was able to manifest Locke’s vision.  Did the poets absorb the classical African discipline?
We can profit from Robert Hayden’s observation in the preface for the 1970 Atheneum edition of The New Negro that the Harlem Renaissance “ was more aesthetic and philosophical –more metaphysical …than political, “ although whatever happened to creative expression from 1900 to 1930 can not be divorced from a very long history of nationalism cultural and political. We can gain even more from how this point is embedded in Harold Cruse’s stinging critique in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), in Eugene Redmond’s ideas about the mission of black poetry in Drumvoices (1976), and in two books by Houston A. Baker, Jr. ---Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance (1987) and Afro-American Poetics: Revisions of Harlem and the Black Aesthetic (1988) along with Mark A. Sanders’s Afro-Modernist Aesthetics and the Poetry of Sterling a. Brown (1999) and Joanne Gabbin’s Sterling A. Brown: Building the Black Aesthetic Tradition (1985).
 
                The study of African American poetry 1900 to 1930 invites us to undertake any number of approaches and projects, all of them grounded in reading the texts (the poems) according to the received procedures of close reading and in placing the texts in contexts, apply the close reading procedures equally to various contexts and the then contemporary commentaries.  One small exercise might be reading Johnson’s poem “The White Witch” in tandem with Jean Toomer’s poem “Portrait in Georgia” (which is printed almost as a preface to the segment of Cane entitled “Blood-Burning Moon”) and reading both of them in the sunlight of what we know about the lynching of black males in the South.  Johnson achieves by urbane indirection in ballad stanzas what Toomer achieves with up-in-your-face modern imagism:
The White Witch
James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)
 
O BROTHERS mine, take care! Take care!
The great white witch rides out to-night.
Trust not your prowess nor your strength,
Your only safety lies in flight;
For in her glance there is a snare,
5
And in her smile there is blight.
The great white witch you have not seen?
Then, younger brothers mine, forsooth,
Like nursery children you have looked
For ancient hag and snaggle-tooth;
But no, not so; the witch appears
In all the glowing charms of youth.
Her lips are like carnations, red,
Her face like new-born lilies, fair,
Her eyes like ocean waters, blue,
She moves with subtle grace and air,
And all about her head there floats
The golden glory of her hair.
But though she always thus appears
In form of youth and mood of mirth,
Unnumbered centuries are hers,
The infant planets saw her birth;
The child of throbbing Life is she,
Twin sister to the greedy earth.
And back behind those smiling lips,
And down within those laughing eyes,
And underneath the soft caress
Of hand and voice and purring sighs,
The shadow of the panther lurks,
The spirit of the vampire lies.
For I have seen the great white witch,
And she has led me to her lair,
And I have kissed her red, red lips
And cruel face so white and fair;
Around me she has twined her arms,
And bound me with her yellow hair.
I felt those red lips burn and sear
My body like a living coal;
Obeyed the power of those eyes
As the needle trembles to the pole;
And did not care although I felt
The strength go ebbing from my soul.
Oh! she has seen your strong young limbs,
And heard your laughter loud and gay,
And in your voices she has caught
The echo of a far-off day,
When man was closer to the earth;
And she has marked you for her prey.
She feels the old Antaean strength
In you, the great dynamic beat
Of primal passions, and she sees
In you the last besieged retreat
Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,
Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet.
O, brothers mine, take care! Take care!
The great white witch rides out to-night.
O, younger brothers mine, beware!
Look not upon her beauty bright;
For in her glance there is a snare,
And in her smile there is blight.
 
“Portrait in Georgia”
Hair ---braided chestnut,
            coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes –fagots,
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath –the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
          of black flesh after flame.
        
The only problem with such an exercise is that it has already been done well by Cristina Stanciu. Nevertheless, it can be redone and can produce different results.  Another exercise is to study a year’s issue of The Crisis (or another magazine) during the 1920s, to identify how the poem placed on a page, and to speculate on how the poem’s discourse fits or doesn’t fit with all the discourses in the single issue.  I have used this exercise with undergraduates in a Harlem Renaissance course, and the results have been instructive both about poetry and the readers of poetry.
                Following the example forged by Lorenzo Thomas of discovering and researching the questions that existed outside the box of exhausting repetition of what a stuffy academic world wants us to say, our conversation and study of African American poetry can move from Platonic caves into the light of what is actually there to be seen.
 
Appendix:
 
Cristina Stanciu
“The Sinister Figure”: James Weldon Johnson’s “The White Witch” (1922)
and Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” (1923)
Before Richard Wright made the white female body less threatening to black masculinity in his acclaimed novel Native Son (1940) by mutilating the sexualized body of Mary Dalton in Bigger Thomas’s act of self-defense and political statement, the representation of the white female’s destructive power over black masculine subjectivity has been a recurrent theme in African American literature. The emphasis on the white body as sexual subject enticing the black man into the inherent dangers of white ideology displays two complex features: on the one hand, the white woman’s subjectivity -- while voiceless within the boundaries of her race -- is defined in relation to her sexual fantasies with the racial other; on the other hand, the taboo, untouchable white female body devours the black male body, thus giving “the primitive” a new meaning. As Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues, conventionally, black women were associated with “the primitive,” albeit the “libidinous” and “sexually free,” thus fulfilling the white ideological “reading” of the “primitive,” in opposition to the topos of cultural resistance it represented for African Americans (128). Nevertheless, Johnson’s “The White Witch” suggests, underneath the archetypal features of the beautiful white female body lies the savage, primitive, animal nature of the “panther” hunting for her prey, an episode which completely redefines the traditional “portrait” of the Southern belle:
And back behind those smiling lips,
And down within those laughing eyes,
And underneath the soft caress
Of hand and voice and purring sighs,
The shadow of the panther lurks.
The spirit of the vampire lies. (lines 25-30)
Johnson’s “The White Witch” uses the image of the white female body and its “vampiric” attributes to signal, at the literal level, the threat its luring presence implies; moreover, Johnson’s use of a speaker whose voice, one might argue, comes from the great beyond, intensifies the dramatism of the message and cautions “the younger brothers” against her sexual games. Thus the poem becomes a warning against the enticements of white sexuality: “O brothers mine, take care! Take care!” (line1). Similarly, Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia,” also read by critics as a portrait OF Georgia in its racial violence, examines the superimposed images of a black woman’s body and the ashes of a lynched black (male) body. As George Hutchinson has aptly remarked, Johnson’s white witch remains a “seductive” figure in comparison with Toomer’s “sinister figure” (233). However, it seems only fair to notice that Johnson’s portrait remains “seductive” only at a superficial level. While the last two lines in Toomer’s poem allude to a consumed death of the black male -- “And her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame” (lines 6-7) -- a similarly sinister message can be read in between Johnson’s lines: “My body like a living coal” (line 38). This line could be interpreted as a direct allusion to the lynch mob’s fire and immanent death despite its literal sexual connotation. Moreover, the allusion to KKK’s white ghostly costumes haunting the Southern nights may open up a new perspective on reading the “witch.” Despite lack of direct evidence, one may speculate that Toomer’s poem is written in direct response to Johnson’s “The White Witch,” given the common images and theme they share, as well as Toomer’s rearticulation of the white figure on the framework created by Johnson (hair, eyes, lips, breath, body), with a deliberate gender ambiguity. Also, chronologically, Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia” is published a year after Johnson’s.
The ethereal appearance of the “white witch” at dusk (both a poetic and a threatening, illusory time) is suggestive of her dual nature: on the one hand, a fairy-tale character (her external body is recreated by the speaker in colorful images); on the other, a life-threatening “vampire” (the internal body is suggested by an accumulation of prepositional phrases that direct the reader’s attention to the preying essence of this luring body: “back behind [those smiling lips],” “down within [those laughing eyes],” and “underneath the soft caress,” lines 25-27). Consequently, under the conventional portrait of the white woman (red lips, fair face, blue eyes, golden hair – the Arian ideal) lies the destructive Medusa, an epitome of the modern white world in search for “primal passions” (line 51), threatening black masculinity. If, indeed, we can read both Johnson’s and Toomer’s poems as exemplary representations of the black persons’ contact with the white world in the big cities during the Great Migration – the white body becoming thus the female-gendered white world – then both poems may reflect the modernism’s lack of vitality and its appeal to the “primitive” in order to revigorate the Western waste land.* Johnson’s speaker cautions the young brothers against the modernity’s (albeit “the white witch’s”) entrapment of their racial capital in an attempt to revitalize modernity. Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ argument, informed by art historian Gill Perry, emphasizes the white culture’s appropriation of primitive tropes in its artistic endeavors, as a critique of modernity. Moreover, she insists that “blacks have often been used by whites as an image of the unconscious of whites – fecund, productive, creative […] in the factory of whiteness” (122-23). Johnson’s poem cautions the black ethnicity against succumbing to such ideological traps, underlining the impossibility of such a (racial) union, “cruel-sweet”:
She feels the old Antaean strength
In you, the great dynamic beat
Of primal passions, and she sees
In you the last besieged retreat
Of love relentless, lusty, fierce,
Love pain-ecstatic, cruel-sweet. (Johnson, “The White Witch,” lines 49-54)
Whereas the geography of Johnson’s poem is not clearly defined, thus emphasizing flight from the “white witch” regardless of her topographic emergence, Jean Toomer’s portrait is located tentatively “in Georgia.” Barbara Foley has emphasized Toomer’s concern “with contemporaneous episodes of racial violence” (“In the Land of Cotton…” 184), underscoring an important aspect students of Jean Toomer, the modernist writer, tend to forget: “Toomer may have written in a densely symbolistic modernist idiom, but he did not substitute myth for history” (“Toomer’s Sparta” 749). Thus the social relations Toomer criticizes in this work, particularly chaotic and failed human relationships – including inter-racial relations -- need to be interpreted as the writer’s engagement with history rather than its disembodied transcendence. Besides establishing a racist “outline,” poems like “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia” deromanticize the traditional female embodiment by recreating a worn out “face” rather than a sexualized body, a fragmented body of “purple” and “channelled muscles” which announce the old body’s disintegration, portraying a different kind of natural fruition, as it becomes “nearly ripe for worms”:
Face –
silver-gray,
like streams of stars,
Brows –
recurved canoes
quivered by the ripples blown by pain,
Her eyes
mists of tears
condensing on the face below
And her channeled muscles
are cluster grapes of sorrow
purple in the evening sun
nearly ripe for worms. (Toomer, “Face”)
Discussing this poem, Laura Doyle has offered a very insightful approach of “Face” as a revision of the “body-cataloguing blazon poem” through a deromanticization of the female experience of embodiment (86). In the tradition of the blazon, “Face” offers a careful depiction of female body parts (face, brows, eyes), but the critique becomes implicit in Toomer’s emphasis on pain rather than youthful exuberance. As Eldridge suggests, however, the beauty of this woman does not derive from her association with “superior” attributes (202). Instead, the external beauty is replaced by inner suffering and pain, becoming a relevant instance of what Elaine Scarry has called “the body in pain.” Moreover, the fusion of the woman’s features -- which add a dose of masculinity (“her channeled muscles”) to this portrait of decaying and decomposing female body -- with natural phenomena, also in a state of in-betweenness, point to Toomer’s ironic use of the blazon tradition in a poem that defies formal (prosodic) constraints, and its adaptation to Southern soil. As Doyle concludes, “Unlike the idealized virgin in a Petrarchan blazon, this woman has gray hair, her body quivers with pain rather than desire or duplicity, and her fate is death rather than love” (86-87). The death of this “Face” figure – fragmented, but still bearing the unseen mark of race, rendered through the braided hair, “like a stream of stars” – seems to be emblematic of the death of the entire culture, “purple in the evening sun,” awaiting decomposition, being “nearly ripe for worms.
A less optimistic rendering of the racial body in pain is captured by “Portrait in Georgia,” a highly-anthologized Toomer poem, which shares functional similarly to “Face,” as a preamble to the lynching story in “Blood Burning Moon.” More specifically, in the same tradition of the blazon poem, celebrated features of a (white) woman’s body are ironically linked with the dismembered body parts of a lynched and burned body of a black person, significantly of ambiguous gender. This lyrical portrait of a lynching episode is materialized in “Blood Burning Moon” -- a story in Jean Toomer’s Cane, where “Face” and “Portrait in Georgia” also appeared -- which dramatizes Louisa’s race-inflected double desire, for the white man Bob Stone and the black man Tom Burwell (whose name, a corruption of “burn well,” becomes emblematic of his tragic fate):
Hair – braided chestnut,
coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Eyes – fagots,
Lips – old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath – the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame. (Toomer, “Portrait in Georgia”)
Each line opens with an object of physical desire – hair, eyes, lips, breath, slim body – which recreates a specific image of a lynching scene, thus unifying eros and thanatos in an attempt to define both interracial desire and to mark the racialized body with the scars of historical “discipline.” Critics have oscillated between reading the last two lines as a Georgian portrait of “a lynched and burned black woman” (Jones xvii), or a white woman -- a “sinister figure” (Hutchinson 233) – which causes the lynching of the generic balck male for despoiling white womanhood. Eldridge also subscribes to this latter interpretation, suggesting that “The message is clear in all its grim aspects: white woman, symbol of life and beauty, is equally the symbol of violence and death” (211-12). George Hutchinson offers a very insightful approach to this portrait of a “white woman” whom he compares with James Weldon Johnson’s “White Witch” and Amiri Baraka’s Lula in Dutchman, suggesting an identity between the fragments of bodies in Toomer’s poem:
By superimposing the images of the white woman, the apparatus of lynching, and the
burning flesh of the black man, Toomer graphically embodies both a union of black male
and white female and the terrifying method of exorcising that union to maintain a racial
difference the poem linguistically defies. (233-34) (Hutchinson’s emphasis)
All the above-mentioned readings are legitimate and well supported, but they all miss Toomer’s deliberate superimposition of both racial features in a single, fragmented, ambiguously gendered body: “And her slim body, white as the ash / of black flesh after flame.” This superimposition of black and white images aims at collapsing not only racial boundaries – white and black bodies become one in death -- but sexual as well, by depicting the pained and incomplete embodiment of a new, nascent body, emerging after the consummation of the “flame” and the burning of black male and female bodies through an imaginative alchemy. Thus, by collapsing the gender binaries, both James Weldon Johnson and Jean Toomer signal in their poems the dangers of essentializing the body, and the threats of a long history of racism that facilitated the marking of a body by the other.
________
Notes:
Johnson’s poem also appeared in 1922, the “Waste Land” year.
Works Cited
Blau DuPlessis, Rachel. Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908-
1934. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 2001.
Doyle, Laura. “Swan Song for the Race Mother: Late-Romantic Narrative in Cane.” Bordering
on the Body. The Racial Matrix of Modern Fiction and Culture. New York: Oxford UP,
1994. 81-107.
Eldridge, Richard. “The Unifying Images in Part One of Jean Toomer’s Cane.” CLA Journal 22.3
(March 1979): 187-214.
Foley, Barbara. “’In the Land of Cotton’: Economics and Violence in Jean Toomer’s Cane. African
American Review 32.2 (Summer 1998): 181-98.
---. “Jean Toomer’s Sparta.” American Literature 67.4 (December 1995): 747-75.
Hutchinson, George. “Toomer and Radical Discourse.” Texas Studies in Literature and Language
35 (Summer 1993): 226-50.
Jones, Robert B. ---. Introduction. The Collected Poems of Jean Toomer. Eds. Robert B. Jones and
Margery Toomer Latimer. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press, 1988. ix-xxxv.
Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. New York: Oxford UP,
1985.
Copyright © 2004 by Cristina Stanciu
 
PROOF TEXTS ON DIALECT
Plantation Poems by Eloise L. Sherman (New York: Frederick Fairchild Sherman, 1910 (MCMX) and on the poem “Relationship” (23)
;Yes, mam, he call me Mammy
But he ain’t my chile, at leas’
He wasn’t
 till I  ‘dopted him,
Fo’ dat he des my niece.
The Pickanniny Twins (School Edition) by Lucy Fitch Perkins (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1931) –to be used by 3rd and 4th grade students
The Nicodemus series by Inez Hogan, published by E. P. Dutton (New York)
Nicodemus and the Houn’ Dog (1933)
Nicodemus and the Little Black Pig (1934)
Nicodemus Laughs (1940)

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