"The Cracks Between What We Are and What We Are Supposed to Be": Stretching the Dialogue of African-American Poetry

by Harryette Mullen

This paper was also delivered at Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado, Colorado in Summer 2000.

In Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism(1997), a significant contribution to discussions of African-American literary production, Aldon Nielsen supplies a literary history for alternate traditions of African-American poetry. If both the recently diversified contemporary mainstream canon and the recently established African-American canon tend to include poets who are selected as representatives of blackness, Nielsen focuses his critical study on “…poets whose works interrogate what literary society conceives to be blackness, what languages and what forms are critically associated with constructions of cultural blackness…”(168) Their aesthetic and intellectual practices enable these writers and their readers to explore the possibilities and limits of prevailing discourses, with the flexibility to be interrogative as well as declarative.

        Here, in taking up the term that Nielsen uses, “interrogate,” I want to apply it in its original sense of “standing between and asking questions.” I would suggest that the poets whose work is interrogative in this way have located their poetry in a space between declarative representations of blackness and a critical engagement with the cultural and discursive practices by which evolving identities are recognized, articulated, and defined. The works of these poets have contributed to a dialogue that was initiated on the margins of both the mainstream culture and the traditional or popular culture of African Americans, a discourse on black alterity. This discourse of “other blackness” (rather than “black otherness”) has recently begun to move into a larger discussion of the multiplicity and dissonance—the flip side of unity or homogeneity—of African American cultures and identities.

        This exploratory interrogation of black identity as a social, cultural, and discursive formation raises critical questions about conventional representations of black identity, allowing the meanings of blackness to proliferate and expand, thus stretching black identity and making it more inclusive; but also allowing instability in defining what blackness is. If the Black Arts movement of the 1960s and 70s was primarily concerned with defining and empowering blackness, while helping to reverse the cultural “whitewashing” of African Americans, several poets associated with this movement defined blackness specifically in ways that celebrated young militant black male heterosexuals and their supportive female comrades, partners, and admirers, while frequently alienating other elements of the African-American communities they ostensibly hoped to organize and empower. Perhaps this orientation of the movement was intended to recruit an army of cultural warriors, attracted to black art as a safely masculine arena for young men who might otherwise have avoided what was regarded in some quarters as an effeminate activity.

         In their attempt to purge African Americans of cultural whiteness, some proponents of black power vilified middle class and homosexual lifestyles, seeing both as examples of blackness tainted and emasculated by decadent whiteness. Two primary sources for the most galvanizing rhetoric and influential styles of the Black Power and Black Arts movements, Malcolm X and Amiri Baraka, regarded themselves as having been corrupted by their earlier association with whiteness, queer sexualities, and a square middle-class background. Both men renamed themselves, creating new identities that inverted previously held values: Malcolm Little fled the middle-class pretensions of Boston's black strivers, transforming himself into a conked, reefer-smoking, lindy-hopping zoot-suiter, who later converted into a minister of the Nation of Islam, accepting Elijah Muhammad’s demonization of the white race; LeRoi Jones repudiated the black bourgeoisie and white bohemia, as allegorized in his 1964 play Dutchman. Although both eventually modified their radical positions, they contributed to the extreme rhetoric of radical black movements of the 1960s, as seen in the revolutionary style and swagger of militant leaders of the Black Panther political party. These charismatic leaders offered themselves as case studies for the project of purifying black identity and black culture of contaminating effects of white domination, with which they often conflated bourgeois culture, homosexuality, and the Judeo-Christian religious tradition.

        My remarks will focus not primarily on formally innovative work, but on recent black poetry that has been enabled by theoretical discourse and avant-garde practices. Black poets who began to publish in the 1990s have begun to incorporate into a more accessible poetic language the critical interrogation of cultural meanings of blackness. These poets are investigating the boundaries of racial and cultural identity, and articulating precisely the positions of class and sexuality that were excluded from the center of blackness as defined in the Black Arts movement. While additional names might be added to this discussion, I have selected as examples of this development in poetry the work of Elizabeth Alexander, G.E. Patterson, Akilah Oliver, and Suheir Hammad.

        Of these, Alexander is the most widely known and published, with two well-received books, inclusion in several anthologies, and the academic credentials that led to a faculty position at the University of Chicago. Patterson is a well-regarded emerging poet, who has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and whose first book has been noted in a publication co-sponsored by the Academy of American Poets. Hammad is also an emerging poet whose first book contains several poems that employ the urban vernacular style of hip hop and spoken word performance. Oliver, an adjunct faculty member at Naropa University, has the most edgily disjunctive poetics. Her work also emerges from a performance background, in her case as a founding member of the multiracial avant-garde feminist group, The Sacred Naked Nature Girls, whose collaborative work examines the social inscription of identity on the bodies of women.

        With two published books of poetry, The Venus Hottentot (1990) and Body of Life(1996) Elizabeth Alexander has given us work of clarity and complexity, that is at once pleasurably accessible and intellectually sophisticated. Her poetry offers a thoughtful meditation on the contradictions of postmodern identity, with the poet, herself the offspring of a materially comfortable and socially conscious black family, negotiating between popular culture’s bi-polar representations of blackness as a signifier of lack, deprivation, and negation, versus blackness as a signifier of conspicuous consumption, unaccustomed privilege, and unrestrained excess. Between opposing signs, she posits her intimate knowledge of black humanity, her observation and experience of creativity, energy, imagination, pleasure, as well as desire, unfulfilled yearning, and unmet need.

        In poems such as “Nineteen,”(The Venus Hottentot) “Haircut,” (Body of Life, 60-61) “Six Yellow Stanzas”(Body of Life, 51-54) and “Race” (Giant Steps, 19-20), Alexander’s location between cultural representations of whiteness and blackness provides the occasion for the poet to re-affirm her African-American identity as she simultaneously articulates her class identification as a product of the black and “high yellow” bourgeoisie. Alexander claims all of her experience as a variety of black experience: memories of debutante balls and dreams of giving birth to a yellow baby in “Six Yellow Stanzas”; a youthful sexual encounter with an older black working-class man, a Vietnam veteran she meets on her first job away from home, in “Nineteen”; to a haircut in Harlem that allows the poet to imagine herself a New York “flygirl,” as she travels on the IRT, self-consciously buys black in Harlem's black-owned businesses, and insistently connecting her personal and family history to the aesthetic, cultural, and historical movements of Harlem’s black community, where her unkinky hair and “riny” complexion blend into the continuum of textures and hues that constitute blackness. Alexander’s embrace of her own particular black experience extends to include even the once-taboo mention of a relative who passed as a white man, in “Race.”

        Through her participation in Cave Canem, a workshop retreat for African American poets founded by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady, Alexander has also served as a mentor for emerging black poets, including one I want to add to this discussion, G.E. Patterson. In a cover blurb for his 1999 poetry collection, Tug, Alexander wrote; “These poems are wide-ranging in voice, style, and epistemology, surprising as so many turns.” Derricotte also contributed an endorsement:

Many of these poems seem autobiographical. Yet, on second reading, one is not sure. Are these the poems of an ordinary black man's life, or is there a tug between several possible, even alternative, lives?.. .1 am so happy for this exploration which digs deep into the cracks between what we are and what we are supposed to be.

Among the poems in Patterson's book, one titled "Autobiography of a Black Man" is a clearly fictional, hyperbolically generic "autobiography" that stands as a sardonic critique of the conflicting representation of black men in popular culture as admired and despised exemplars of reckless masculinity:

I am The Black Man the whole world mythologizes and envies./.../I'm too big and damn powerful. The boss/on the job gulps hard and fast while I piss/into the cracked urinal. His hand shakes/as he follows me out, making small talk./.../Everyone fears and worships me. I know/I'm the motherfucking object of envy./I'm the be-all and end-all of this world.(37-38)

It is a position from which Patterson himself feels estranged, as a young gay black man, “desperate to be festive and loved.”(“And,” 64)

        Also writing from a perspective of queer sexuality, Akilah Oliver in her 1999 poetry collection The She Said Dialogues: Flesh Memory opens with a theoretical statement of the poet’s intention to “investigate the non-linear synapses between desire, memory, blackness (as both a personal identity and a non-essentialist historical notion), sexuality, and language.” She situates her text:

in the on-going work I've been doing in performance…as it relates to a critical interrogation of the African-American literary/performative tradition…The work I've been doing consciously seeks to disrupt this tradition, to play not only with language and form, but with the representational idioms of ‘blackness,’ ‘femaleness,’ ‘homogeneity’…as a kind of insurgent text within the African American literary tradition. I see the dialogues as part of the emerging outsider tradition in black literature which restates memory and identity in a post-Civil Rights framework. A framework which is multiplicitous...Stretching the dialogue...Making itself up as it goes.(4-5)

This statement indicates her familiarity with theoretical discourses of avant-garde performance and formally innovative writing practices, a critical awareness that enters into poems such as “she said loss, lost”(26-27) and “so where do you enter memory.”(46-47) With the examples of Pat Parker and Audre Lorde behind her (poets among the brave ones who emerged at a time when the conflicting radical interests of the Black Power, feminist, and sexual identity movements left a minefield of contested space for lesbians of color), Oliver confronts the complications inherent in her own identity as a black woman born in St. Louis and raised in South Central Los Angeles, trying to parent her son in the driven snow of Boulder, Colorado while involved in an interracial lesbian relationship.

        Her work explores the possibilities for freedom, innovation, and critical thinking in the conscious choice of outsider status, an escape from the sometimes oppressive spaces in which black people have learned to survive, to the sanitized spaces of affluence that white privilege affords, a space in which it is possible for a struggling artist to live off the fat of the land. Oliver recalls a journal entry in which she recorded her son’s first response to Boulder: “It looks so nice, it must be hiding something.”(Conversation with author, July 3, 2000) Like a tourist with an expired visa, Oliver turned a visit to Boulder into an extended stay instead of returning to a Los Angeles home rocked by earthquakes and riots. Although her sense of writing as insurrection was inspired by the insurgent poetry of the Black Arts movement, Oliver’s transgressive text challenges the essentialist identity politics of black cultural nationalism as much as it interrogates how white privilege operates in a place “so nice, it must be hiding something.”

Oliver sees her work as necessarily transgressive, requiring an intersection of the sacred and profane, as she creates a discursive space for the inclusion of all of her spiritual and physical, personal and political, individual and collective selves. The poet articulates her own sense of erotic desire and transcendence, aware that her existence violates what others cherish as sacred truth. Her work creates a discursive space for the inclusion of all of her spiritual and physical, personal and political, individual and collective selves. As in the work of Chicana author Cherrie Moraga, Oliver’s poetry profanes patriarchal religion as it sacralizes lesbian sexuality, seeking to escape the controlling discourse of church fathers regarding the separation of body and soul, the divine right of masculine power and privilege, the holiness of celibacy, the sanctity of heterosexual marriage, and the sin of homosexuality. Oliver also questions the secular significance of “black soul,” given the pervasive influence of African Americans on mainstream popular culture and the global impact of black performers and musicians.

tina turner on acid yodeling in arabic/...my favorite line already happened./on the radio a voice sounds like a teasing three year old/& the horn section goes nanananana. all cocky. closed fisted/salutes. how come nobody mentioned clitorectomy with/they dashikis on. like we were afraid a close look. a criticism. a rejection of a fixed ritual would pop the bubble./dreams are fragile like that. concealing as much as they/reveal. colors proscribed in song. imagining the world as/placed. fixed.//you a visitor in a landscape you don't control.//i want to know what the eyes smelled at the bottom of the/ships. i've seen that look of terror before. any asshole on/the bus pants hanging off his butt. X terrorizing a fashion/statement on hats & tee shirts. any black boy beautiful or/ ugly could be of my blood. one meaning of blackness. This/arbitrariness of circumstance. know it's all possible &/ nothing's true.(“she said loss, lost,” 26).

...i need to flick myself in such a way that the moans/eat me alive. no witnesses. church hats. round boxes stuffed/in closets. my mother told me i was a girl. i wanted to call/her god but the timing never seemed right...in the marketplace of dreams isis found/oriris' penis. fragmented. i want a myth that would not/explain some thing. to enter the church doors on my knees./i want jesus to fill me up. want the holy ghost to shout in/tongues. want to flick in the pulpit.(“so where do you enter memory” 46)

        Finally, I want to turn to a poet whose inclusion in discussions of “black poetry” gives us an occasion to ask to what extent “blackness” functions as a political, rather than a racial or cultural designation:

poppin that yo baby yo/ yo baby yo?/me to turn around you expect after/you show me no kind of respect?//the sneakers you wearin cost more than/the soul you sold to pay for them?//…yo baby yo/ yo brotha yo/ them gold chains/are tighter than you think.(42)


may i have a vegetable hero?/ no white/rye or wheat/brown/yeah a brown bread hero/brown/born and bred//no mayonnaise thank you/never liked it as much as/mustard i'll take spicy yellow on sweet brown mustard over/bland fatty mayo/anyday//no cheese please/cheese is to the west/the spice of the east/why smother in cheese/when i can enhance/spice dance/with turmeric sumac or curry/no mucous building cheese on my hero/I vegetables of the brown earth/between two layers of brown bread/no flesh of creatures/no white bread/no salt no sauce/thank you//a brown bread hero/brown born and bred/white has never been/my hero. (59-60)

“Yo Baby Yo”(41-43) and “Brown Bread Hero” (59-60), poems included in Born Palestinian, Born Black(1996) were written by a woman who is the daughter of Palestinian refugees. Hammad was born in Jordan and lived for a time in Beirut before moving with her family to Brooklyn.

         Her work, on the one hand, suggests a more expansive definition of blackness that encompasses more than race. Identification as black may also have to do with such issues as shared experience, cultural fluency, political solidarity, and styles of verbal performance. In “Brown Bread Hero,” Hammad’s aversion to the smothering blandness that she associates with the dominant culture's ideology of whiteness takes her into the political and cultural terrain of liberatory darkness.(Perhaps she also alludes to lactose intolerance, a genetic trait common to peoples of African, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean descent that distinguishes their traditional dietary preferences from those of Northern Europeans.)

        On the other hand, Hammad’s verbal performance in “Yo Baby Yo” points to the constructedness of black language, black voice, and black experience (or any other language, voice, and experience) reminding us that indeed blackness is a social construction, that any language, culture, or dialect is acquired. Hammad's poem might be read as an illustration of the availability of contemporary black vernacular and its formulaic tropes to others besides African American speakers and writers or, less generously, as a caricature of urban black vernacular that is uncomfortably similar to those found throughout mainstream popular culture, including the gold and platinum CDs of hip hop artists.

        To conclude my discussion, Suheir Hammad, Akilah Oliver, G.E. Patterson, and Elizabeth Alexander have all written poems that trouble the waters of blackness. These poets give us opportunities to re-examine the boundaries that were drawn in order to define the declarative blackness celebrated in the Black Arts movement. Questioning such boundaries of class, sexuality, and even race itself, they all indicate in different ways and from different subject positions that blackness has become a space for critical and aesthetic interrogation both from within and outside the canon of African-American literature.

Works Cited

Alexander, Elizabeth. The Venus Hottentot. Charlottesville, VA: UP of Virginia, 1990.

_____. Body of Life. Chicago: Tia Chuca Press, 1996.

Hammad, Suheir. Born Palestinian, Born Black. New York: Harlem River Press, 1996.

Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997.

Oliver, Akilah. The She Said Dialogues: Flesh Memory. Boulder.: Smokeproof Press/Erudite Fangs Edition, 1999.

Patterson, G.E. Tug. Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 1999.

Young, Kevin, ed. Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers. New York: Perennial, 2000.


BIO: Harryette Mullen is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Muse & Drudge. Her fifth collection, Sleeping with the Dictionary, is forthcoming from University of California Press. She teaches African-American literature and creative writing at UCLA.



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