It's a long story, which I'll have to tell sometime, about how I view Elizabeth Alexander's poem "The Venus Hottentot" as central to the birth of contemporary African American poetry. Maybe that's a stretch? Ok, an adjustment: I view Alexander's poem "The Venus Hottentot" as central to the birth of contemporary African American persona poems. But like I said, it's a long story, so I'll speak on it at some time later when folks have time.
This week, I've been discussing the militancy and radicalism in the works of black women poets, Evie Shockley, Sonia Sanchez, Carolyn Rodgers, and Nikki Giovanni. Rather than discuss Alexander's "The Venus Hottentot," which certainly connects to a distinct militant tradition in black poetry, her poem "Nat Turner Dreams of Insurrection" also comes to mind. The poem appears in Alexander Antebellum Dream Book and in her collection Crave Radiance: New and Selection Poems 1990-2010.
In the poem, Alexander describes, from the first-person perspective of Turner, how the noted insurrectionist began to have visions of liberation as he observed his surroundings. He sees "drops of blood on the corn," where others might simply see "dew." He sees "numbers" and other signs "on woodland leaves." He sees freedom in "a dipperful of cold well water" and "the wide white sky."
In many respects, Alexander radicalizes the typical view of the nature poem, or she at least gives us a more militant view. She highlights, for instance, corn, morning dew, leaves, and water, but not in the ways that many of us are accustomed to in poetry. Alexander proposes that when an enslaved black man who dreams of insurrection looks out on elements in his physical environment, he sees blood and signs of an impending violent struggle for freedom.
Ultimately, in the process of taking on the persona of Nat Turner, Alexander gives us a militant nature poem.