Saturday, October 30, 2010

Rita Dove's American Smooth

Rita Dove. American Smooth: Poems. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.

In Rita Dove’s collection American Smooth, she infuses her poems with the rhythm of dance, sometimes meditating on the dances themselves or those who are found dancing, and other times addressing American history and culture, such as the treatment of black people who fought for their country despite its malicious treatment of them and the acceptance or praise of a certain kind of black person who entertains but does not threaten the status quo. Thus, Dove is able to waltz the reader into great depths, exposing the complexities and hypocrisies of America.

In the poem “Hattie McDaniel Arrives at the Coconut Grove,” Dove meditates on the actress who was the first African American to win an Oscar for her role as Mammy in Gone with the Wind. The speaker wonders “…what can she be / thinking of, striding into the ballroom / where no black face has ever showed itself / except above a serving tray?”

The poem contains biographical information about McDaniel, such as her many husbands and her famous parties, transforming the recognizable and one-dimensional Mammy of our memories into a living, breathing human being who uses the honor of the Oscar to reveal her own power by being late: “…It’s a long beautiful walk / into that flower-smothered standing ovation, / so go on / and make them wait.”

In “the Return of Lieutenant James Reese Europe,” Dove explores the complexities of black soldiers who fought in World War I. In the poem, the speaker has returned with his unit and is marching in a victory parade, looking at the faces of those who “didn’t want us when we left but we went / You didn’t want us coming back but here we are, / stepping right up white-faced Fifth Avenue in a phalanx / (no prancing, no showing of teeth, no swank).”

By looking at American history from the viewpoint of black soldiers, Dove reminds us of the hypocrisies of our past in which Blacks where disrespected and considered worthless even while they fought for the country that would just as soon abuse or disown them. These soldiers, having found victory abroad, refuse to perform for the whites upon their return, refuse to be the Sambo or Mammy that nurtures their racism, saving their joy and jubilation until they see their own friends and family who shout “Baby, Here Comes Your Daddy Now!”

[By Emily Phillips]

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