By Cindy Lyles
In bold-type, capital letters, “TRAGIC MATRIARCH AT YOUR SERVICE” jumps off the page in Evie Shockley’s “mesostics from the american grammar book” from her volume the new black. These vertical words splice the horizontal names in their particular stanzas, thus producing an overall message that conveys the ways in which black women are viewed in this country.
The spacing typography lends itself to such an interpretation. Consider, for instance, that the “TRAGIC” stanza is left justified on the page. The “MATRIARCH” verse stands alone in the center while the last three stanzas that each spell out “AT,” “YOUR,” and “SERVICE,” appear one after the other on the far right of page. Just as Shockley’s selection and grouping of names for the particular stanzas is intentional, so too is her placement of each verse on the page.
These distinctions form three, separate categories of representations of black women in America whether in fiction or reality. For one, black women have played the roles of tragic, unfortunate females, which the first stanza highlights with its identification of women such as Dorothy Dandridge and Halle Berry. Strong-willed, vocal, creative, and courageous black women have functioned as matriarchs as conveyed through the selection of women in that particular verse, including Lani Guinier, Zora Neale Hurston, Anita Hill, and Alice Walker. They have also been servants ranging from slaves and objects of human degradation and possession to cultural, familial, and community servants such as Sally Hemmings and Harriet Jacobs. Regardless of how the services manifested themselves, the women in the final three stanzas have been used to serve particular audiences.
This three part decoding venture has journeyed from a catalog of women, to stanza construction, and now to the possible overall message behind “mesostics from the american grammar book.” Through the poem, Evie Shockley reflects on the roles black women have played in American society along with the proud and problematic representations those roles convey.
Evie Shockley Week