Thursday, February 23, 2017

Cross gender play in black persona poetry

Langston Hughes and Margaret Walker

There's a long history of black poetry taking on the persona of others in their poems. Of course, one of the leading writers in this regard was our guy Langston Hughes. Back in the 1940s, Hughes took on the persona of this fictive character Madam Alberta K. Johnson.

Here's a link to a sampling of those poems:
Madam’s Past History
Madam and the Phone Bill 
Madam and Her Madam
Madam and the Census Man
Madam And The Rent Man
Madam's Calling Cards
Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad has noted  "an assertive, brassy Harlem heroine."

So Hughes pretends to be or plays with the persona of a black woman type. In 1975, Smithsonian Folkways produced a recording of poet Margaret Walker giving readings of Hughes's Alberta K. Johnson poems. In essence, Walker was performing Hughes's black woman character. Or put another way, Walker was taking on Hughes who had taken on the persona of a black woman.  That sent me to wondering about film: what if Viola Davis took on Tyler Perry's persona of Madea? I know it's unlikely to happen.

Black women rarely play black men on screen.  Black men, however, often play the roles of women. Eddie Murphy as Mama Anna Klump, Martin Lawrence as Sheneneh Jenkins and Edna Payne, Jamie Foxx as Wanda,  and most profitably, Perry as Madea.

In poetry, however, women frequently take up the personas of men. Evie Shockley has written in the persona of Frederick Douglass. Opal Palmer Adisa has written as Nat Turner. Elizabeth Alexander has taken on the persona of Muhammad Ali. Patricia Smith has taken on the persona of a skinhead. At the same time, men poets have taken on the roles of women. Robert Hayden took on the persona of Phillis Wheatley. Kevin Young takes up the character of Delilah Redbone in his volume Black Maria. Tyehimba Jess takes on the personas of women in the life of Leadbelly, and Adrian Matejka takes on the personas of women in the life of Jack Johnson.

The late poet Ai crossed racial and gender lines in her poetry more than anyone. Nearly her entire body of work was written in personas of various people.

The tones of Hughes's Madam Alberta K. Johnson poems are more playful than many contemporary cross gender persona poems. Hughes's character was such an outspoken, snarky character that the poems evoke amusement. The representation of Madam Alberta K. Johnson, though, is not as outrageous (and problematic) as some of the antics portrayed by Perry, Foxx, and Lawrence.

Persona poems

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