Amiri Baraka, “Legacy”

Baraka, Amiri. “Legacy.” Poetry Foundation,

poetryfoundation.org/poems/42557/legacy-56d221281526a

Summary and Discussion of Work
Legacy discusses the many different situations that may be described in blues songs, from the homeless man sleeping outside or wandering in the littered back alleys and deserted streets of the early morning hours in the south to getting drunk and traveling from town to town, finding each the same as the last. Blues itself, intended to deal with the complex and often contradictory or ironic realities of black life, offers Baraka a laundry list of options to discuss living conditions and life experience in the South. The subtitle of the work, “(For Blues People),” indicates that this poem is specifically for those who need to hear the message Baraka is conveying: the poem is for those people who are living in the conditions he describes as well as those who are experiencing life the way he describes in the poem. Starting the poem with poverty-stricken living conditions, he asserts that life is lonely and unable to offer much to the blues people than the wandering and possessionless life that they already have.

True to the blues tradition of travel, the narrator describes a person riding out to another space, but the rider still remains in a nowhere space or a twilight space: everyone around is sleeping, and the rider goes unnoticed as they ride through the space toward some supposed better spot or end, whether it be good or bad (represented by the sea). This is similar to the blues songs, which affirm living and state that it is worthwhile, but offers no real scapegoat for the conditions; Baraka’s narrative does differ slightly in that the sea represents some form of hope or greater option, but fits in with the idea that the point of travel was to find better life and hope for it, and then come to find that it is no different than the last space they exited.

 

T.S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Poetry Foundation,

poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/44212/the-

love-song-of-j-alfred-prufrock.

Summary and Discussion of Work
An old man sits and contemplates his entire life, measuring it in coffee spoons, lost hair, and becoming thinner with age. The poem starts with thoughts of spending nights in seedy hotels and eating at various restaurants. Twice, “women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo,” signifying the transience of life by the topics that last and come back to discuss, whether or not they have any real significance in people’s lives. There is also a discussion of always thinking that there will be more time to do things, whether or not there actually is. The narrator of the poem must come to a decision now that he has thought of all these things in his past: does he become a new person or descend into death and hell for his sins in his life? And if he does become a new person, what are his options? This decision is indicated by the quotation of the beginning at the poem from Dante’s Inferno, indicating that once the narrator descended into the murky darkness that was the lifestyle he chose, there was no exiting it, just like Guido, the false advisor discovered.

This poem was the real jumpstart to the modernist poems, particularly with its stream of consciousness narrative, which documents the change in attitudes the narrator has as he contemplates the different phases of his life. It also relies on the emotions that come and go and remain as undercurrents within that stream of consciousness: anxiousness, a desire to shake the world, and isolation, loneliness, and mistrust combined with insecurity. There is also the knowledge that he is floating within the world with no real roots: the industrialized world full of people busy doing frivolous things and looking at great individuals as topics of idle gossip and sightseeing opportunities may very well be a type of hell in and of itself.

Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Hughes, Langston. The Big Sea. 1940. U of Missouri P, 2001.

Summary of Work
This autobiography of Langston Hughes’s life details some of his life experiences from his early twenties into the end of his twenties and the beginning of the Great Depression. When he was a child, his parents split, and he lived with his mother for a time. He remembers having his parents try to get back together in Mexico, but that was the year of the great earthquake in Mexico City, and so his mother got scared and they went back. He was sent to live with his grandmother in Kansas and to go to school, and she was a proud woman who would never do service jobs for white people to earn a living. When she died when he was just before his teenage years, he went to go live with his Aunt. During this time his Aunt took him to a Christian church, where they were praying over people to be saved. Everyone had gone up but him, because he believed he would get to see Jesus in the flesh, and he did not want to be dishonest about coming to Jesus. Finally, filled with guilt that he is the only one who hasn’t been saved, he comes to the front at the alter, and his Aunt is overjoyed. That night, he cries over having lied. His mother remarried, and he liked the man. Hughes was elected the poet for his school (it was integrated) because people made assumptions that all black people had rhythm and could dance, so they must be able to write poetry. He wrote his first poems there. He admits that his entire life, he rarely majorly edited poetry once it was down on the page. He also admits that most of his poetry and other work was written when he was miserable or unhappy rather than when he was happy.

In his late teenage years, his biological father wrote to him that he wanted him to come down to Mexico. His mother was upset about it, but he went anyway. There, he found out that his father was considered very American because all he cared about was money, but he was wiser than other Americans that came to Mexico because he was interested in keeping and saving his money. He hated Mexicans and many black people, and all poor people. Hughes was fairly miserable his first year there, because his father was always trying to force him to hurry places, and because he had to do bookkeeping and was no good with numbers. He got so angry at his father that it made him physically ill and he couldn’t eat for weeks, which landed him in a hospital that cost his father $20 a day to keep him there. After he was feeling better, his father sent him back to the US.  But the next time he went down to stay with his father, he spent more time to learn Spanish and became better friends with the Mexicans in town. A German woman also stayed with them (she later became his father’s wife), and she made the space more pleasant. His father expressed that he wanted to send him to college somewhere in Europe and have him come back to Mexico to be an engineer, but Hughes said he wanted to be a writer and did not want to go learn things he was no good at. His father told him that writers made no money and that if he was going to pay for college, Hughes would go where he wanted him to. He would also not be allowed to leave Mexico until he agreed to his father’s wishes.

So in order to escape, Hughes started tutoring Mexican children so they could speak English. Word spread that he was good at his job, and soon he was able to raise his rates and take on as much work as he wanted. He also got offered two jobs at colleges to teach English, and he took both jobs because scheduling worked for him. While working these jobs, he is lucky to narrowly escape death because a man who the German woman’s relation was working for thought that the German girl was sleeping with Hughes, and he, enraged, came to the house, shot the girl in the head three times, and went in search of Hughes to kill him, but couldn’t find him because he wasn’t home. The girl miraculously survived, and the man was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

Hughes had made quite a bit of money, and he started thinking that he did want to go to college, but in NYC at Columbia. He and his father fought about it, but eventually his father agreed to send him there. On the train to New York City, he was mistaken as Mexican and when he said he was black, white people in the South would not serve him. He remembered the struggles of living as a black man in the US, and contemplated why it was so difficult for white people to interact with black people in the US when it was so easy for them to do so in other countries. He spent a year at Columbia, only to find he really disliked college, and so he quit and started looking for a job. But his father at that point had cut him off, his mother was looking for work and struggling, and he could not find a job that would take him, even if it were available, because he was a black man. He finally found a job working at a shipyard, and in the meantime he was having some of his poetry published by Crisis magazine. Alain Locke wanted to meet him and he had met several major figures of the New Negro movement, but he told Locke no because he was nervous and because he knew that Locke wouldn’t be able to get his way around the docks very easily and it could kill him if he weren’t careful. Before Hughes sets off to sea on his first voyage, he tosses all his books from college into the ocean, ridding himself of their weight both literally and figuratively.

Hughes set sail to Africa eventually and landed in many ports to find that the Africans did not consider him a black man because his skin was more brown than black. This astonished him, and he also saw the terrible effects of colonialization. He recalls having to watch a prostitute and a young girl coming on board in hopes of receiving money, and receiving no money but being forced to have sex with all the men on board who were interested, which was a group of about 30 men. He tired of this type of exploitation as well as the economic exploitation. As they were about to leave, he bought a red monkey, and many of the other soldiers did as well. There were adventures on the ship with those monkeys getting loose and winding up drowned or in missionaries’ beds or in the masts, but eventually all were caught. There were also many more antics and debauchery, and all the men were fired upon returning to the US. Hughes made his way to Cleveland, where his family was staying, and found himself penniless in order to make it there with the monkey, named Jocko, who he had bought for his younger brother. His mother was very upset to have it in the home, but his stepfather and brother liked it, so the monkey stayed. Then his stepfather’s mother came to town, and his mother had an ally to protest about the monkey. Then when his stepfather had the monkey out on the town one night and it got scared and destroyed the carpeting of a pool table, it cost them 25 dollars to have it replaced, and his mother was furious. Not long after Hughes left to go back to sea, she sold the monkey.

His second voyage, he got off to stay in Paris, but found himself unable to get a job because he was not a musician, dancer, or performer. He makes friends with a Russian dancer who got sick and whose company had dissolved, and who had no money. They share a cheap room, and she finds a job before he does. He finally gets a job as a doorman and then, through someone who liked his poetry, found a job as a dishwasher and then a cook. When the club he is working at goes nearly bust, they tried to fire the head cook, and he brought out a knife and threatened everyone, and they let him stay. And when they tried to fire Hughes, he threatened them again, so he got a job as a waiter. During his time there, he saw many fights and other antics. The Russian lady got a job at La Havre, and she leaves him, very sad. He then falls in love with a girl named Mary, who is very well-to-do. But when her father finds out what she’s been doing, first she is very chaperoned, and then she is forced to leave. Soon after that, he spends some time with Alain Locke, who is in town, and then when one day he is waiting on a famous poet, he shares his work. The poet “discovers” Hughes, and then he became wildly popular and many people came to the club looking to get a photo with the poet. He has more poems published but is never paid for them.

When the club had to close down for refurbishment and because of lack of business, he goes with some Italians to see Italy. He has enough money to enjoy his time, and Locke is also there and takes him to Venice and they enjoy their time. However, while in Genoa, he has his passport and all his money stolen, and the US embassy and consulate refuse to help him, so he lives homeless and in poverty, unable to get a job that will pay him enough to either get back to France or to find safe passage to America. He finally gets passage as a workman on a ship bound for NYC, and he is nearly kicked off in Spain for being late back to the ship, but he makes it back to the US with a quarter more than he had in France when he first landed. He makes his way to Washington, where his relatives are, and they want him to work in the Library of Congress, but it has too many needed qualifications and Hughes needed work, so he started working doing wet wash laundry for twelve dollars a week. His mother and the relatives had a dispute, and so he found them different accommodations, and they struggled to make ends meet. Carl Van Vechten contacted him and helped him publish a book of poetry at this point, but the elitist community would not welcome him or his mother because they were poor.

He makes his way back to Harlem in hopes of going to college, but he can’t get a scholarship. He talks of meeting Van Vechten and Jean Toomer, who could pass as white and refused to be labeled a “Negro Artist” much to critics’ dismay. He also met Zora Neale Hurston, who he had a good relationship for years until a dispute over a co-writing project. He speaks of Vechten and his parties, the decadence of the Harlem Renaissance and how the area was a victim of its own image. Hughes finally makes a bit of money off of some poetry, works as a personal assistant for a time, gets patronage to go to college at Lincoln, and visits and explores the South and takes a short voyage to Cuba and Jamaica, which he liked very much and would have kept doing if he hadn’t had to go back to college. During his final college years, he wrote a survey of the issues of the color line at Lincoln college, where all white professors taught a nearly all black student body. The founder of the college came up to him at graduation to tell him that as time passed, he would see that there was no way for him to do what he did in founding the school unless he could have had white patronage and made concessions. Hughes disagreed with him.

Around this time, he also received patronage to write and finish his novel Not Without Laughter, which he wishes would have been better because it is about the best of his family members. He receives a major literary award for it. He tries to write other things, but the white patron dislikes his work, and finally they part ways, and it makes him sick like he was with his father. He remembers all the decadence and security he experienced and remembers seeing the other people in the street starving because of the depression, and he remembers the disgust the white chauffeur had over being forced to drive a black man places. He went to the doctor to see what was wrong and spent a lot of money doing it, was told first he had a Japanese tape worm, and then told by a white doctor that he had no such thing. Then he got tonsillitis and had to have them out, using up the last of his money from the Park Street patron. After that, he immediately got better from his illness brought on by anger over the patron. It is during this time that he had his dispute with Hurston over the play they had been working on, and while it had been in production, it had to be shut down over the dispute. After that he went to Haiti and decided that he would make money writing for a living, and at the time of writing the autobiography, that is what he had done successfully.

Discussion of Work
This book gives an adventurous story about Langston Hughes’s life during his twenties. Its major dealings in terms of themes that cut across works of African American writing are the color line, economic oppression and poverty, travel narratives, and artistry, particularly writing and music. Hughes regularly comments on the struggles of being a black man, particularly when it comes to finding housing or a job. While he knows that other races are discriminated against, he knows they also have an easier time finding work, which makes all the difference. And he struggles with the knowledge that many of the black elite are not interested in changing the situation because they feel that there can be no progress unless they tell the white people what they want to hear. He states that while the Harlem Renaissance was happening, the majority of the black communities in America felt nothing change in their situation or economic or social standings. Economics and travel go hand-in-hand for Hughes, who travels in order to get money, which he can never keep as he comes back to the US, or even as he simply travels from one country to another. Job opportunities do not change, and while he doesn’t experience the same type of color prejudice, he does experience it in that the natives of the countries he visits dislike him for being a threat to their jobs.

Artistry is the other large portion of this narrative. He shows several of his poems and discusses when he wrote them and why. Much of his work was strongly influenced by blues songs and structures, which can be seen throughout much of his poetry with the AAB writing format, just as many blues lyrics are written. He also talks about how dance and music were a rich part of many black people’s lives, specifically citing the many rent parties and house parties he went to, some of which were certainly to help pay people’s rent, but others which were just hosted to be hosted. He provides several examples of printed up tickets for these events. He states that these parties were the spaces where he liked to be because black artistry was not put on display for racist white audiences. His understanding of what it is to be a black man or a black person in general is changed and given more value in an all-black space.

However, he also discusses the problems that come with the assumptions that all black people have rhythm and can dance and sing: he could not dance or sing, and those were almost the only jobs available to him in Europe and even in the US. The stereotype led to success for some, but not for long for many: once they were injured or could no longer work or could not work the grueling schedules or create enough new material, they often died in poverty. It ultimately narrowed black people’s options and avenues for success, even as it provided a rich culture and outlet for many. In discussion of his own work, he also talks about how a narrow view of what black artists should create doomed his work Fine Clothes to the Jew because critics and general public readers alike felt that the dialect and blues structures should not be used in his art: white people saw enough of that elsewhere, and writing was supposed to highlight the best to show people that black artists were capable of high art. The strict rules placed upon what a black artist could write or create further limited what people read, and who could be successful in the field of art.

Randall Jarrell, Poetry & The Age

Jarrell, Randall. Poetry & The Age. Ecco P, 1980.

Summary of Work
In this critical work, Randall Jarrell discusses the age of Modernism in poetry as well as the criticism surrounding that poetry. He states that while there is much lament over the current state of poetry readership, or rather the lack of readership, that there is nothing that poets can do about it except for to continue writing and attracting their current readers, because the world will only get noisier as new technologies take hold of people who once would have been readers. He also insists that poets need to make sure that their work is quality and that references and obscurity serve a purpose rather than simply being there in order for the work to be called poetry.

Jarrell takes a look at Robert Frost’s work, and he states that despite Frost’s later work, which is often filled with a conservative and overimportant and self-indulgent attitude, he is one of the best poets of the age. He specifically cites “Frost’s obsessive themes, those of isolation, of extinction, and of the final limitations of man” as reasoning for his high designation of Frost and his work, despite the poems that he finds less quality. The main argument for his awarding Frost the rank of great poet is the nonchalant and matter-of-fact way in which Frost puts forth the previously mentioned themes in his work.

Looking at the age he lives in, Jarrell states that criticism has caused less and less literature to be written, and just as importantly, less and less literature to be read. In an age that thrives on critics’ readings of supposedly great literature, both the average reader and the scholar spend more time reading criticism than actually reading literature, and therefore, when asked about important works of literature, they cannot answer that they’ve read them, because they have been too focused on criticism, most of which is dull and useless to the larger populace. Jarrell believes that criticism and theory evolved in English departments much as statistics and raw data and studies evolved in psychology and sociology: scholars in those fields did not want to be looked down upon by the hard sciences, so they found a way to make their field look like scientific fields. The problem with this for English is that it’s made people come to rely on critics’ readings of literature instead of coming to an understanding of the literature themselves. It’s also caused the USA to largely disregard poetry, since so few critics write about it and deal with it in comparison to fiction works.

Of John Ransom, Jarrell states that he is writing in the time of Modernism and is yet not a Modernist; Ransom’s poems are far too structured and perfect in their form to be Modernist (which one doesn’t find surprising when knowing that Ransom is the founder of New Criticism). His poetry ranks among the great poetry because of the way the form helps to make matters of morality and living ambiguous: people are unsure whether they should be looking at light and dark as good and bad, or if they should at once be rooting for both and neither.

Of Walt Whitman, Jarrell states that while many critics have lamented his work and are not ashamed of saying they have never read it, Whitman’s work is in fact great poetry. He states that certainly, there are many mistakes and failings of the work, which any critic can tell you. However, many critics fail to understand that the sentimentality of the work combined with the bombastic and often ridiculous use of language and the disorganized forms of many of his poems are what make the work great. Rather than stick to forms as Tennyson did, Whitman chooses not to limit his subject matter with form, and instead experiment with language and organization to capture what is the heart of America.

Wallace Stevens, he states, has much of a tourist feel to his work, which many readers resent. His poems that fail are the ones that strive to be philosophy, and poetry is a bad format for philosophical musings in Jarrell’s opinion. Yet Stevens shines when writing about the similarities between America and Europe, and creates forms that eloquently speak clear messages to his readers. He goes on to give more, similar readings of other American poets’ work, such as Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams. Indeed, he finds that Stevens and Moore and Williams have much in common, but that it is far harder to anthologize Williams in any adequate way.

Discussion of Work
To start with my criticism of this work, it would largely be how vague that Jarrell is in his analysis of the poets whose work he chooses to look at. He outright admits in the beginning of his work that he finds Frost to be one of the best poets of his generation, which may be why he has a hard time doing anything but broadly stating that Frost has his small failing points while overwhelmingly focusing on what he likes most about Frost’s work. He does a much better job of critiquing poets like Whitman, when even when striving to defend his work, he can admit the many shortcomings of the poetry.

However, his discussion of the problem of the age of criticism is worth keeping in mind when looking at the current state of scholarship. A scholar in today’s world can hardly expect to be taken seriously if they don’t know the major names in criticism and theory; the literature often seems secondary in scholarship to the response academics have to other critics. I’ve heard many of my colleagues (and even myself) say that it is fine to have not read a work of literature if they have read the scholarship on it, because the scholarship will tell them all they need to know anyway. Often in graduate courses, we are told to start reading the scholarship about a work during, or even before, we read the work of literature itself. This scholarship can come in the form of introductory materials at the beginning of a new edition of the work, critical reviews, or scholarly articles from peer-reviewed journals. While I am certainly not a New Critic, I do believe that it is important to spend time with literature first and foremost, as that is the field we are in, the field of literature. Scholarship is secondary material, especially given that its subject matter should be literature (in my opinion).

Amiri Baraka, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note”

Baraka, Amiri. “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” Poetry Foundation,

poetryfoundation.org/poems/58013/preface-to-a-twenty-volume-suicide-note.

Summary and Discussion of Work
This poem, dedicated to Amiri Baraka’s daughter, considers the author’s existence and daily life, reflecting upon becoming accustomed and even consumed by the little pieces of every day, done every day. The first stanza could easily be a commentary on domestic life and the boredom of everyday life, and yet at the same time speaks to a discomfort of accepting being “enveloped” by the world as he enters it every day. His political position as a black man means that he is accepting less in society, or receiving less from the same everyday activities because he is in some way denied other opportunities. As he looks into nature, he sees the same amount of everything, and when the stars disappear, he can still see the holes they left. This could be thought of as opportunity disappearing from him the longer he is alive, and representing the fact that even though the same opportunities are seemingly as available to him as they are to everyone else regardless or race or circumstance, the reality is that they are not available to him, a black man. Yet despite those opportunities being unavailable to him, he can still see that they are there, forever unable to be attained.

The knowledge that opportunities will be forever unavailable to him and he cannot reach them, combined with a communal acknowledgement that black communities should accept the everyday status quo as it stands, leads people to stop hoping, and to stop singing. Singing as a communal release of anger and frustration and sadness, as well as a tool to bring hope to black communities, is an important part of the culture as well as an important part of political involvement, and the fact that the singing stops is not simply an indicator of complacency, but an indicator of acceptance of the situation that black communities are currently in.

That complacency and acceptance of a lesser position for black communities becomes dangerous when considering the legacy it leaves for black children; that concern leads Baraka not to a message of fear, however, but back to hope. He sees his daughter kneeling, praying aloud into her clasped hands, her eyes peering into the blackness of those clasped hands, and he sees those who are still speaking, even to God, and still hoping for a better life. While readers to not get to hear the words she speaks, they do get the image of her looking into “her own clasped hands,” an indication that she speaks not only to God, but to herself, reminding Baraka that the place for hope and desire for change starts from within, from speaking to oneself.

This poem, in comparison to other works Baraka wrote, suggests a change in how he feels about his relationship with America, or if not a change, then certainly an uncertain feeling about how he should direct his life course regarding his political and social life.

Maya Angelou, The Complete Poetry

Angelou, Maya. Maya Angelou: The Complete Poetry. Random House, 2015.

Summary and Discussion of Work
This book is a compilation of all of Maya Angelou’s poetry. There are three main themes that I find running through Angelou’s poetry: black history, the passage of time, and feminism/black feminism. Her work also readily pulls from the black musical tradition of work songs, gospel songs, and the blues to structure her poetry.

For instance, “Times-Square-Shoeshine-Composition” demonstrate the caller shouting his pride at his work with the “(pow pow)” (34) as the response to those calls. “One More Round” and “Pickin Em Up and Layin Em Down” have the same form, with the refrain taking the form of a work song. Many of her poems about black womanhood take the sound of the female blues singer lamenting the loss of a lover who has either died, left her for someone else, or left to travel to different towns. Even if the format is not a blues format, the thematic elements are there to call to female blues singer song traditions. The gospel songs are felt in her poems such as “Just Like Job.” That particular poem calls to an important part of African American Christian beliefs, as Job was the prophet who endured the worst of life and persevered, receiving all that was his and more for his long-suffering and faith in the Lord.

One very important poem in the collection is “Still I Rise,” which takes a blues-like form in its poetic structure and repetition of the title’s phrase. It, like much of her poetry, is revealing of Angelou’s life experience, which tells of being continually forced into the dirt but not losing her fighting spirit and keeping hopes alive for a better future. This poem has the question “Does my sexiness upset you?” (159) written within it, calling attention to the black female body and the stereotypes and concerns historically surrounding black bodies, particularly black female bodies. Many other poems within the collection in some way or another also discuss the black female body and its structure, highlighting Angelou’s comfort and confidence in who she is that befuddles others, both black and white. She discusses how a fear of one’s own body can lead to being alone and dying, and how bodies have been taken captive through slavery in the past.

She focuses poems on the events of Civil Rights, of slavery, and of black-white relations, emphasizing the struggles, the failures, the trespasses, and the understanding or misunderstandings about how race relations work, particularly in the South. The collected poetry feels, as it is structured, like a continuation of her autobiography cycle, but also including the biographies of those deceased, news reels or memoirs of those living with her in the present, and prophecies of what is to come for future generations.

Her work is far more formally structured than the works of other poets I have read for my comprehensive exam lists, taking formal rhyme schemes and African American musical formats. None of her poetry contained within the collection is more than a few pages long at maximum, most being a page or less in length. However, the poems seem to relate across theme within each book of poetry in the larger collection: black womanhood and relationships, both familial and romantic; history, Civil Rights, and black-white relations; and personal struggle and triumph combined with religious fervor and music.

Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric

Rankine, Claudia. Citizen: An American Lyric. Graywolf P, 2014.

Summary of Work
Citizen is a work of poetry about what it means to be black in America. Claudia Rankine starts her work by remembering experiences in her past—from the white girl in Catholic school who cheated off of her and thanked her by saying that she wasn’t very dark or didn’t look very black for a black girl to having her partner complain about having to hire a person of color as the fiction writer at the university—and how white people have made her invisible through their words and actions. When she went to walk into a board room for a meeting and overheard white people saying that when black people spoke to each other it was like listening to a different language, she thought about waiting a good while to go in the room. When a white friend used the term “hoe” to refer to her when she was late, she called her friend out on it by asking, “What did you say?” and her friend was too ashamed or embarrassed to repeat it. When she has called others out for using the N word to describe black teenagers or people, white people have been angry at her for calling them out or for taking offense at their use of language.

She actively discusses how language has power precisely because it makes racism hyper visible: the features that others despise about black people are brought to center stage. She discusses this at length by bringing up the competition history of Serena Williams. She talks about the outright racism that Serena has faced in her career, a black tennis player in an almost all-white sport. The racism got so bad that new tech was invented to prevent it, and commentators even outright had to admit the bias. And she discusses how well Serena has dealt with most of the hatred she’s received on and off the court. Yet when she has outbursts because of the built up resentment over racist actions that have damaged her career and person, the media sees her as insane.

Rankine also discusses how there is a man on youtube who has stated that in order for black artists to be successful they have to commercialize and channel their rage and anger. It cannot be real anger, but must be a kind that white people can consume in entertainment and feel like they can understand. And yet, Rankine knows there are other types of anger, and she states that every black person has had moments where they would like to beat down every white person they see because of that rage. And yet they cannot, because their bodies are rendered dangerous if they don’t present as white people want.

She presents a series of scripts about a variety of injustices black people have faced: murders by the hands of the police, lynching and beating and murder at the hands of white people, and police profiling as they strip search black people who do not even meet the description of the perpetrator they are looking for. She has a list of names that read “In Memory of . . .” that list all the black people who have died at the hands of the police at the time of the book’s publication. The “In Memory of” fades from the page as it continues, emphasizing that the names will continue to be added and cannot be numbered.

Using the FIFA World Cup event where the Algerian team member head butted another player in rage, she discusses how people of color are always expected to be better than everyone else in their behavior and are held to a higher standard than those perpetrating racism and hatred. As the Algerian is labeled a terrible person, terrorist, and a “typical Muslim” for his action, everything that led up to the moment is lost. She also discusses how the race riot in London over a black man’s death was dealt with so much differently than the Rodney King riots, and people in London focused on the looting and rioting so much that it seemed the cause of the rioting was nearly forgotten. When she asks her journalist friend if he will write about the issue, he tells her no, and she realizes that these are issues that white people can just set aside, while black people must live with the reality every day.

The book is filled with illustrations and photographs: from the video clip reels showing the Algerian head butting the other player to a white opposing player of Serena’s stuffing towels in her shirt chest and pants butt to imitate Serena Williams, ultimately performing the blackness that white people want from her. There are also paintings and archival photos that go along with the various topics that Rankine explores in her poetry.

Brief Note on Poetic Structure
The poem itself feels like a very free form verse. It reads more like prose than like poetry, with the poem itself being broken into paragraphs and seven sections. There are points throughout the work with a lot of white space, sometimes pages of it. The images are often placed under paragraphs or given their own page entirely, sometimes spanning two pages.

Brief Note on Themes
The whole of this work looks at what it is like to be black in America. Largely, it explores how racism takes many forms and has many affects on black people, both visible and invisible. Rankine tries to tell people what it is like to be embodied as a black person, and that their blackness is most often felt when in a room or space full of white people, where white people become aware of their racist language as they are using it in front of people of color. The power of language to determine embodiment is a large theme throughout the book; what are we saying that determines how we see people or expect them to behave? Language as an apparatus of power to uphold white superstructures of racism plays a large part, but so do the images. How do the images of blackness, some of which are provided in the book itself, shape what it means to be a black person in America? And how do those race relations and images extend out from America to other countries? Racism has perhaps one of the largest effects in the justice system, where countless innocent black people are stopped, frisked, arrested, and murdered by white police officers because of fear and images of racism that govern their understanding of black people.

Racism as it pertains to interracial relationships also plays a part in this work. From the times that Rankine forgives or stays quiet about racist trespasses her partner or friends make regularly against her to the casual encounters in a bar or on the street, Rankine reveals that people of color are genuinely working harder than white people to mold to the systems that exist and to not make white people feel too uncomfortable when there is a person of color in their presence. This was highlighted perfectly in the scene where she is listening to someone discuss how comedy comes from context, and how things are funny until a black person can hear what you’re saying about them.

The weight of the work that is being asked of black people, socially, personally, publicly, privately, is so much that it is crushing them to some extent, and yet they have no way out of the situation. They must still be careful to not end up dead like those in the news, and to not lose their jobs or offend their majority-white coworkers, and to maintain proper decorum no matter how terrible the words white people sling at them in racist hatred. Rankine shares her memories of what it means to be a black person in the US as a lesson for all who read about what people of color in the US and elsewhere face, and how it is handled, and she leaves us with that knowledge, almost as a call that we do something with it.

Natasha Tretheway, Thrall

Tretheway, Natasha. Thrall. Mariner Books, 2015.

Summary of Work
Natasha Tretheway’s Thrall is a collection of poems that explores what it means to be mixed race, both through her own personal experience of growing up as a half-black woman and the documented experiences of others through various mediums. She largely looks at paintings: the pictorial representations of the Miracle of the Black Leg, the myth that white men could be saved from their amputated limbs or illness by taking the left leg of an Ethiopian or black man and grafting it onto the white man’s body; the paintings representing the Book of Castas, the documentation of the different blood permutations of blackness in Spaniard blood in Mexico: mulatto, mestizo, casto, etc, believing that once the blood had mixed, there was no way to stop what they saw as a regression to black primitive natures; the paintings of great artists like Velasquez, who kept a mixed blood slave and finally manumitted him in 1650, training him to be a painter, the man who gave us the Calling of St. Matthew, Pareja. All of the examples she brings forward cause us to question why not only the painters painted people of mixed race that way, but how they could participate in the creation of life and yet be so disdainful of it or clinical in the way they looked at it.

She describes the clinical surgical experimentation on black women as the white doctors determined what the female body’s ideal was and what its makeup was. She describes the way, in an anonymous painter’s work, the painter within the portrait is horribly mischaracterizing the black woman who seems to be his wife. She describes the children of those mixed race unions, having her readers question what those children’s lives would have been, how the white men represented in the paintings can be so possessive and yet so dismissive of the things they love. Similarly, she goes through these same questions and experiences in her own life, as she tells us of her mother’s struggles of having people give her money in grocery stores when they found out a child, who they originally thought she was maid to, was actually her half-white daughter. She tells us of her struggles to love her father, who left and marginalized her mother until her death, who would always insist that Jefferson could not have fathered children by a slave woman, because he was so against slavery. The collected work takes plenty of time to describe the conflict and turmoil within mixed-race individuals who have to deal with not only the derision and questioning from the outside world, but with the conflict within their own families as they learn what it means to be mixed race, and to have a mixed-race family member.

 

Brief Note on Themes
The main theme within the work is what it means to be from two different races. There are also themes, however, of objectification, slavery, and possession along with white colonialism and how words on a page, documenting the official narrative, also obscure the narrative, and those obscured stories are told in the white space of the pages. The book also calls for people to recognize that the past is inextricably tied to the present for those people who are mixed race and are dealing with both the history and the racism in the present day, even from their own parents.

C.D. Wright, One Big Self

Wright, C.D. One Big Self. Copper Canyon P., 2007.

Summary of Work
C.D. Wright’s “One Big Self” explores the lives of people in three different prisons in Louisiana. Wright suggests that when we look at all the prisons in America—and the prison population, which is the largest in the world—we are looking in a mirror at America’s values and legacy. What makes up the prison population outside of the numbers and the listed crime or law broken? Invited by her colleague and friend to go to learn about the inmates while her friend is taking pictures of the prison inmates for a larger project, Wright sets out to learn about the inmates and their lives, both before prison, during their crimes and trials, and life in prison. She also contemplates what prisons do to the environments and communities they inhabit. She shows that these inmates are more than just numbers, they are people who have dealt with many difficult circumstances: poverty, difficult family situations, poor education and no job opportunities available, relationship woes, and more.

One of the main things I noticed highlighted was the difference in experience for men and women in prison. There was a large focus on women in context of their children, children they have before they go to prison, children they have while in prison, and what happens to their relationships with their children; there is even a poem describing the process of getting ready for an Easter party with the children in the main area of the prison. With the men, the focus is much more on their experiences in prison or getting to prison rather than on families. When children are mentioned, it is in context of the ages that they meet and where the children end up, usually in prison like their fathers.

 

Brief Note on Themes
The overarching theme of the work is incarceration; how does the American prison system function? Who are the people in the system? Since the makeup of the majority of the population is black males and black people overall, what does that say about who we incarcerate or crime? How does the prison system affect the communities in which they are built? How does it save or ruin city economies? What are the reasons people invest in such systems, especially private prison systems, and how does having prison on the stock market change the system as people view it, use it, and strive for its expansion and continuation? Wright’s work largely reflects upon what it means to look at people solely for their crimes when they are much more than that, and what that says about the American justice and incarceration system.

 

Brief Note on Poetic Structure
Written in a free form, the work is a mix of what would seem like prose, followed by poetry that utilizes caesura, line breaks, and plenty of white space to cue readers to changes in scene, narrator, situation, and discussion. The structure takes a minimalist attitude, where the situations are given in pieces rather than as one continuous narrative. The breaks in narrative and the mix of prisoners names, only ever briefly mentioned, give a sense of “everyman” for the prisoners, rendering both their invisibility and individuality clear to the reader. Certain phrases or poetic repetitive structures, such as the “Count the . . .” poems which are brought back within other poems, work to remind readers of the controlling situation in which the prisoners live.