Sunday, June 9, 2019

From Jubilee to The Water Dancer: 25 novels about slavery



For decades now, modern and contemporary African American writers have produced works about slavery. I've written about and identified several poems about slavery as well as "slavery references" in rap music. And we also have several novels about slavery, sometimes referred to as neo-slave narratives.

This fall, Ta-Nehisi Coates will release his debut novel, The Water Dancer, which focuses on slavery and the Underground Railroad. An excerpt, "Conduction," was published by The New Yorker last week.

What follows is a list of 25 novels about  slavery -- from Jubilee to The Water Dancer.

1966: Jubilee by Margaret Walker
1971: The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines
1975: Corregidora by Gayl Jones
1976: Flight to Canada by Ishmael Reed
1976: Roots by Alex Haley

1979: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler
1980: Wild Seed by Octavia E. Butler
1981: The Chaneysville Incident by David Bradley
1982: Oxherding Tale by Charles Johnson
1986: Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams

1987: Beloved by Toni Morrison
1990: Middle Passage by Charles Johnson
1991: Family by J. California Cooper
1998: The Wake of the Wind by J. California Cooper
2001: Cane River by Lalita Tademy

2001: The Wind Done Gone by Alice Randall
2003: The Known World by Edward P. Jones
2008: Song Yet Sung by James McBride
2008: A Mercy by Toni Morrison
2009: The Book of Night Women by Marlon James

2012: Freeman by Leonard Pitts, Jr.
2013: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
2016: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
2016: Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
2019: The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates


Related:
Poems about slavery and struggles for liberation
Slavery, Black Writers, and creativity
A checklist of poems featuring ex-slaves

Friday, June 7, 2019

Poetry collections giving voice to J. Marion Sims’s enslaved experimental subjects



By Laura Vrana

As they have always done, African American poets today often write about under-discussed issues that later emerge in mainstream conversations. Whether this indicates that black thinkers continue to serve as canaries in the coal mine of American culture, or that these poets directly generate that attention, is up for debate (likely some of both).

One topic that is at last a subject of some major conversation, but that black poets had already been addressing, is the racist history of gynecology. Public discourse about the field’s so-called father J. Marion Sims was furthered by discussions about memorials post-Charlottesville. A statue of Sims was removed in April 2018, after protestors highlighted the context for Sims’s medical developments. For his groundbreaking research relied on experiments performed on enslaved women without anesthetic or consent from 1845 to 1849 and on his forcible employment of other enslaved women as medical assistants.

Scholars have thoroughly explored the history of medical experimentation on black women and Americans. Invaluable texts include: Harriet Washington’s overall study Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans From Colonial Times to the Present; works generally illustrating that slaveholders’ investment in the gynecological health of the enslaved was purely economic, like Sasha Turner’s Contested Bodies: Pregnancy, Childrearing, and Slavery in Jamaica; and Deirdre Cooper Owens’s Medical Bondage: Race, Gender, and the Origins of Modern Gynecology.

Alongside and drawing on that research, black poets too are essentially revising this history. Bettina Judd’s patient.:poems (2014), Dominique Christina’s Anarcha Speaks (2018), and Kwoya Fagin Maples’s Mend: Poems (2018) each give voice to those women exploited by Sims. I here look briefly at three parallels between them.

All three gesture—like most historically-focused black poetry—toward connections between this history and the present relationship of black women to the medical establishment, generally and with gynecology/pregnancy. Kwoya Fagin Maples makes this connection between past and present explicit: “Dear reader, here is my wish: that you would consider how this story relates to now. Presently in 2018, black women are three times more likely to die after childbirth than white women, regardless of ability to pay and regardless of prenatal care” (xi-xii). These collections were published against a backdrop of (some) attention to the black maternal mortality crisis and healthcare’s maltreatment of black women, thanks in part to celebrities like Serena Williams and BeyoncĂ©.

All three deploy formal experimentation to affect their ethical mission of attempting to grant these women agency. Conventional historical and poetic representation have silenced disempowered figures or stripped them of agency. By contrast, Judd, Christina, and Maples strive to respect the unknowability of these pasts, while rendering imaginative versions of those experiences. This results in poems that violate syntax, lineation, layout, capitalization, and other visual indicators associated with mainstream American poetry. These disruptive aesthetics help explain why these texts are not (yet) accruing the attention I argue they deserve.

Finally, all three thematically advance efforts to highlight both white complicity with these issues, and the inadequacy of conceptions of agency in studying the enslaved. Maples for instance writes poems in the voice of Sims’s wife to illustrate the former and of one of his assistants to illustrate the latter. In parallel, the ambiguous titles of patient.poems and Mend demonstrate the inescapable contradictions of this kind of work. Judd’s titular traumatic experiences as a black female “patient” prompted her to begin these poems—yet this word simultaneously evokes common efforts to thwart social change via urging the disfranchised to wait “patient[ly].” Maples’s title (and collection) urges “mend[ing]”—yet shows such repair to be impossible.

These works merit further discussion as contributions to conversations around black women’s health, and to the tradition of historically-informed African American poetics. Judd, for instance, maintains an online archive of resources related to patient.poems designed to highlight its pedagogical utility. As such, these short ruminations will, I hope, be a mere precursor to a larger project on these works as critical interventions into the past and present of black poetry grappling with history. So I welcome all feedback.

Related:
African American Poets & the Black Female Body
Lucille Clifton's "wishes for sons" & the trouble male students have saying "gynecologists"
Reading the absence of references in Harmony Holiday's Hollywood Forever by Laura Vrana

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Laura Vrana is assistant professor of English at the University of South Alabama whose research and book in-progress center on contemporary black women’s poetics.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Extended notes on the comic book work of Bryan Hill



Bryan Hill has been producing comics for a while, but his productivity since 2017, has been especially pronounced. He's written several different titles that have gained substantial attention. He's been receiving notice on the individual level, but there has not been enough done on his total output and what he's doing in the context of several others.

When you think about it, we're at a key moment with black creators in comics. Ta-Nehisi Coates on Black Panther and Captain America. Eve L. Ewing on Ironheart and Marvel Team-Up. Brandon Thomas and Khary Randolph on Black Excellence. Chuck Brown, David F. Walker, and Sanford Greene on Bitter Root. Rob Guillory on Farmhand. Nnedi Okorafor on Shuri and Laguardia. Vita Ayala on Livewire, Age of X-Man, : Prisoner X, and Xena: Warrior Princess. Christopher Priest on Deathstroke. And more.

I enjoy the works by all those aforementioned folks. And Hill distinguishes himself based on the diversity of his treatments. He does popular heroes such as Batman, but also individual figures such as Michael Cray. Hill does teams, for instance, with "the outsiders," consisting of Black Lightning, Orphan, Signal, and Katana. He's explored dark, menacing tones with American Carnage and Killmonger. 

Coates is arguably the bestselling African American comic book writer. Christopher Priest might be the most well-known African American with an extensive record within the industry of comic books. So, where and how do we locate Bryan Hill?

Perhaps, it's too early to say, as it takes a while to define an artist's career. But then again, Hill has been writing comics for at least 10 years at this point. A couple of factors, though, prevented him from gaining more notice before now.

For one, he was not writing really prominent characters nor was he writing for the Big Two (Marvel or DC). Early on, he was writing for Top Cow Productions, a partner of Image Comics. It's difficult to break through, which is to say, it's difficult to gain media exposure when outside a larger comic book company. It can be done, but it's less common.

In 2017, Hill received an important break as the writer on The Wild Storm: Michael Cray. Warren Ellis's main title The Wild Storm was doing reasonably well, and so this spin-off was a welcome addition. The work was published by DC Comics, which ensured that it would gain more attention than if it was published by a smaller company.

I was already following Ellis's book, so I took notice when I heard about the Michael Cray title. Before then, I hadn't really heard of Hill. So I started following this new series when #1 was released in October 2017.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Blogging about poetry in May 2019

[Related content: Blogging about Poetry]

• May 28: Preface to even more Amiri Baraka Studies
• May 26: 10 years after Adrian Matejka's Mixology
• May 15: What kind of poetry is most popular?
• May 1: Blogging about poetry in April 2019

Financial debt and black poets



I've written quite a bit about prizes and awards earned by black poets on my site over the years. But I haven't written nearly enough about the many loses and financial debts that black poets must contend with in the field.

These days, to have a competitive chance of landing a coveted faculty position in a creative writing program, a poet must hold an MFA degree, usually from a well-known program. Schools also require applicants to have at least one volume of poetry by a "nationally recognized press," to use language that appears in many of the job ads. And of course, publishing a volume of poetry with a recognized press is how folks earn major awards and prizes.

For these reasons, poets are inclined to seek admittance into MFA programs, which can be costly. MFA students can end up owing as much as $100,000.00, and on many occasions more.

I'm not saying anything new with respect to the huge financial debt that poets incur when enrolling in MFA programs. There's been considerable coverage on the subject in various places -- here, here, here, here, and here -- over the years. However, commentators rarely speak directly or extensively about what's happening with black poets and financial debt.

There's also discussion of how a wide range of graduate programs cause folks to go into debt. But consider that debt across different graduate programs or professional schools are not the same. In their important article, "The Program Era and the Mainly White Room," Juliana Spahr and Stephanie Young point out that "The PhD crisis does not look anywhere like the employment crisis for MFAs. Since 2004, the [Job Information List (JIL)] has listed around 9,000 tenure line jobs in English; during this same period 12,000 PhDs were awarded." By contrast, during the same period, "over 24,000 MFAs were awarded for around 900 possible jobs."

So much of the research, writing, and teaching about African American poetry concerns success and winners. We rightly celebrate Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Amiri Baraka, and others. We acknowledge a variety of contemporary, award-winning poets. Even people who don't favor prominent award-winning poets, tend to suggest their own group of favorite poets who should receive greater recognition.

But we give almost no attention to the reality of financial debt for so many black poets. Maybe we could and should begin providing at least some consideration to the challenges they face. Of course loss and debt are more difficult to discuss than winning.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Preface to even more Amiri Baraka Studies



During the question and answer portion of a round table discussion at the American Literature Association (ALA) conference, a member of the audience mentioned "Baraka Studies" in passing. Some of us were amused at the ease of the phrase. "Baraka Studies" is now so natural it seems, though who knew we'd get to this point?

At ALA, Jean-philippe Marcoux organized two panels on behalf of the Amiri Baraka Society. There was:
Some Other Blues I: New Perspectives on Amiri Baraka (May 24)
Organized by The Amiri Baraka Society
Chair: Jean-Philippe Marcoux, Universite Laval
1.“LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and the Curious Case of Mason Jordan Mason.” Benjamin Lee, University of
Tennessee
2. "Incidents: Cullen, Baraka, Trethewey." Tyrone Williams, Xavier University
3. "Black and Blues: Amiri Baraka and Gil Scott-Heron's Political Poetry." Michael New, Saint Anselm College
And
Some Other Blues II: A Roundtable on Amiri Baraka (May 25)
Organized by The Amiri Baraka Society
Chair: Jean-Philippe Marcoux, Universite Laval
Participants:
William J. Harris, University of Kansas
Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Penn State University
Kathy Lou Schultz, University of Memphis
Howard Rambsy, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville
Jean-Philippe Marcoux, Universite Laval

The panels were comprised of scholars who are contributing to a collection of essays on Baraka edited by Marcoux. Those essays are extending, not beginning, the study of Baraka's work. Such studies began decades ago. Nonetheless, not until recently have we heard a phrase like "Baraka Studies."

One of my professors, William J. Harris, has now been actively studying Baraka's work for over 50 years. That's serious possibility. Add to that all the other scholars who've contributed to what we've now easily referred to as Baraka Studies. 

One of the cool things about the round table was the number of poetry scholars in the room. Anthony Reed, Emily Rutter, Micky New, Aldon Nielsen, Kathy Lou Schultz, Harris, Ben Lee, Tyrone Williams, Marcoux, and more. Amazing how Baraka brings together so many people who do work on poetry.

Of course, research and writing on him also includes examinations of his plays, essays, short stories, live performances, and on and on and on. If all goes well, then the body of scholarship that we've seen so far might comprise a preface to even more Baraka Studies.

Related:
A Notebook on the work of Amiri Baraka

Sunday, May 26, 2019

10 years after Adrian Matejka's Mixology

Matejka reads at a release for Mixology in June 2009

Ten years ago, I covered the first reading on my blog. I attended a book release reading for Adrian Matejka's book Mixology. At one point during the reading, he read a poem while holding his daughter, who wanted to join him at the podium. That 10 years ago seems so far away and so close.

Although I started this blog in 2008, I did not begin blogging about poetry in earnest until 2011. My writing on Matejka's poetry in 2009, was part of my early forays into the mode of writing and coverage. So I began with his work, and he's remained a mainstay on the blog.

Matejka's The Devil's Garden (2003), Mixology (2009), and The Big Smoke (2013)

After Mixology, I began blogging about a series of poems that Matejka was working on about the boxer Jack Johnson. With his permission, I did a few exhibits around campus focused on some of the poems he had completed. Those poems of course became his volume The Big Smoke.

Of the many volumes of poetry that I've covered with students during my 16 years at SIUE, none has been as widely admired by the students as Matejka's Jack Johnson book. The poems and subject really appealed to the students.



In 2017, Matejka published Map to the Stars, further extending his outstanding creative work. The book blended autobiographical reflections with explorations of space travel and black folks who've been interested in or linked to astrology in some way. Also in 2017, Matejka was named poet laureate of Indiana.

He's pushing on to new works as we speak. But I wanted to make sure I noted this 10-year anniversary of Mixology.

Related:
A Notebook on Adrian Matejka

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

20 years of Colson Whitehead and counting



In a couple of weeks, Colson Whitehead will release his ninth book and seventh novel, The Nickel Boys. He's given us two decades of really inventive, powerful, and clever work. It says a lot about his consistency that convincing arguments can be made on both sides about whether his best novels are his early ones, The Intuitionist (1999) and John Henry Days (2001) or his latest ones, The Underground Railroad (2016) and The Nickel Boys.

To acknowledge the 20 years since his debut as a novelist, I assigned The Intuitionist in one of the courses I taught this past semester. I began reading Whitehead's first novel in 2002, a year after it was published. At the time, I was in my first year of graduate school.

I recall being really intrigued by hims as a writer after reading his first novel. And when John Henry Days came out, just a year or so later, I was really hooked. I was pleased by the reception to his work, as I got a chance to check out other takes on his works as well.



At different points, Whitehead published two non-novels. On the one hand, he produced The Colossus of New York (2003), a series of writing where he's offering a multitude of perspectives on the city. Later, he wrote, The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (2014) about his participation in the World Series of Poker.

Whitehead gained a much wider following with the publication of The Underground Railroad. The book was selected by Oprah Winfrey and praised by President Barack Obama, ensuring that it received significant national attention. Oh yeah, the novel also won a National Book Award for Fiction and a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In the autograph line after a reading that Whitehead gave in St. Louis in September 2016, a woman noticed me carrying his various books and asked me the question that my family and friends have learned to avoid: "what's your favorite book by him?" For some strange reason, when people ask that question, what I hear is, "Dear sir, I have nothing better to do with my time right now, so won't you please offer summaries about each and every one of Whitehead's books in the order that they were published?" I painstakingly oblige.

When the woman first posed the question (request), we were at the end of an extended autograph line. Some time later as I was wrapping up my discussion of The Underground Railroad, we were at the signing table.   

As a long-time reader of Whitehead's work, The Underground Railroad surprised me. He had been well-known for composing humorous narratives, filled with all kinds of jokes and funny moments. But, he understandably took on a much more serious tone in his novel about slavery.

Similar to The Underground Railroad, this newest book, The Nickel Boys also has a serious tone. The narrative, set primarily during the 1960s, highlights the abuse inflicted on boys at a reform school in Florida. The Nickel Boys is the result of Whitehead utilizing terrible injustices as a jumping off point for an important story.

For years, as a salute to Whitehead's creativity, observers have noted that he "never writes the same story twice." That sentiment definitely came to mind as I read The Nickel Boys and reflected on all of Whitehead's previous books. I certainly had no idea that the person writing a book about elevator inspectators and junketeers all those years ago would be writing about zombies, a real underground railway system, and now a troubling reform school.

Related:
Colson Whitehead