Friday, July 1, 2011

Evie Shockley's "ode to my blackness"

Statue of John Henry in Virginia
A couple of weeks ago, scholar Erica R. Edwards cited lines from Evie Shockley's poem "ode to my blackness" at the beginning and closing of a review of Kenneth Warren's book What Was African American Literature?. Erica's incorporation of lines from Evie's poem into the review caught my attention for a few reasons.

For one, it's rare to see mentions of contemporary African American poetry in "critical" discussions these days. Typically, even in discussions of literature, scholars cite novelists and other scholars, but not poets.

Second, seeing the lines from the poem in the review led me to consider connections between a scholar and poet whose works I admire. Finally, the reference to that particular poem reminded me that I really needed to write about it.

In some respects, Evie's "ode to my blackness" provides an interesting alteration or innovation to the notion of double consciousness. Rather than highlighting the apparent struggle of being "American" and "Negro," the poem points out blackness as opportunity and problem.

In the opening, she writes "you are my shelter from the storm / and the storm." Then, "my anchor / and the troubled sea." Her blackness keeps her safe and sturdy and simultaneously serves as a reason that she needs to seek protection. Her blackness seems to be this peculiar thing.

Later, Evie references the story of one of our most well-known folk heroes when she writes that her blackness is "the tunnel john henry died / to carve." Imagine that: the great steel-driving man John Henry accomplished amazing feats in order to receive an opportunity to dig this most wonderful of all tunnels. Despite the famous John Henry legend, Evie suggests that it was not the man vs. machine that motivated the powerful steel driver; instead, that epic battle was just another warm-up for John Henry to confront the challenge of blackness.

Over the course of the poem, Evie refers to her blackness as a storm, then anchor, the troubled sea, a sensation that is "warm and glittering," and as a great tunnel. She continues by identifying blackness "at the root of my blues," and at the same time, it is there surrounding "the root of my blues." With those repeated words and lines, Evie transforms her "ode" into "a blues."

Evie's suggestion that her blackness is surrounded by and an embodiment of the the musical form reminded me of Amiri Baraka's poem "Funklore" with its recurring line "We are the blues / our selves." Evie's blackness-as-blues suggestion also sent my mind to a line from Tyehimba Jess's poem “leadbelly: runagate,” where the speaker fuses self and song by noting that “the black in me breaks down into blues.”

In the past, African American poets have often celebrated the positive attributes associated with blackness. Some of that celebration was as a necessary and vital response to the pervasive presence of anti-black racism in literature and the larger society.  Evie's poem extends that tradition by celebrating blackness, but then, she goes a little further, highlighting blackness as something else as well.

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