“Remember, Christians, Negros Black as Cain”: The (Ongoing) Need to Defend Black Poetry
In 1773, when Phillis Wheatley, an unfree Black woman, published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, she became the first African American to publish a book of poetry and shook the foundations of philosophical, scientific, and literary notions about people of African descent. For example, in Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, the philosopher Immanuel Kant ranks different races, and going further, argues, “Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the trifling.”
There were plenty of readers who, while fascinated with Wheatley’s racial (and presumably to them, exotic) background, still spoke and thought highly of her. On October 26, 1775, Wheatley sent a poem and letter to George Washington, then leader of the colonial Revolutionary forces. Washington responded to her on February 28, 1776, and he referred to her as “Miss Phillis” in his heading. These two written acts were revolutionary their own right; given the social status of Black folks in the colonies at that time, it was bold of Wheatley to write Washington, and it was a transformative act on the part of Washington to consider—and record—a Black woman as a lady.
Yet when Thomas Jefferson, a key intellectual architect of the Revolution, chose to write about Phillis Wheatley’s poetry in Notes on the State of Virginia, he dismissed her: “Religion, indeed, has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic]; but it could not produce a poet.” It is interesting that Jefferson’s contemptuous assessment of Wheatley’s poetry occurs in the same section in which he implies that Black women engage in bestiality:
Are not the fine mixtures of red and white.. preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favor of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the oranootan for the black women over those of his own species.
During Wheatley’s time, her work was not just proof of Africans’ intellectual capability, but their full humanity when placed alongside that of their White counterparts. By placing Africans in the monkey’s embrace, Jefferson attempts to take away the gains that Wheatley’s poetry accorded an entire race of people. This may seem to be an unrealistic claim—until we take Kant’s assessment of Africans into account.
Since Jefferson’s dismissal of Phillis Wheatley’s Poems on Various Subjects, there have been too many attacks to count over the years on Black poetry, but two more stand out, because the attacks focus not just on critical analysis of African American poetry, but also, on “canonical” Black poets, in particular those who are revered in the Black community.
In 1963, the poet Louis Simpson wrote a review of Gwendolyn Brooks Selected Poems in New York Herald Tribune Book Week. Thirteen years before, Brooks had won the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen; she was the first African American to do so, and instantly, Brooks became one of the “Great Black Firsts,” one of the numbers recorded by the African American community in its battle against the continual onslaught of racism. As a “First,” Brooks came to represent Black achievement—and, like Wheatley, an example of Black humanity. It would seem that Simpson was aware of Brooks’ importance to Black cultural production and the connection of that cultural production to Black America in general , for he begins his review with a dismissive assessment of the entire Black Poetic Body:
Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems contains some lively pictures of Negro life. I am not sure it is possible for a Negro to write well without making us aware he is a Negro; on the other hand, if being a Negro is the only subject, the writing is not important.
He then goes on to say, “Miss Brooks must have had a devil of a time trying to write poetry in the United States, where there has been practically no Negro poetry worth talking about.” And in those few short sentences, Simpson attempts to make quick work of a tradition of Black poetry that (in 1963) went back over two centuries.
Simpson went on to publish several books of criticism, and apparently, his attempt to dismember of African American poetry did not affect his career in the least. When Simpson’s review was reprinted in On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (2001), it included a statement by Simpson:
I am glad to see my review of Gwendolyn Brooks’s Selected Poems reprinted because this gives me an opportunity to set the record straight…I had said in my review that black writing that concentrated on being black was of limited interest. I did not mean to suggest that black writers should not speak of their blackness—only that they could write about other things as well.
Here, Simpson acknowledges that he might have hurt some folks’ feelings—presumably Black folks’ feelings—but will not acknowledge that, in the same way that he assumes that the inferiority of Black poetry speech acts should be taken prima facie, his contemptuous speech act detailing what he views as the inferiority of Brooks’s poetry and the entirety of African American poetry should be taken in the same way.
A few days ago, Helen Vendler published a review in The New York Review of Books on Rita Dove’s anthology, The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. After Brooks, Dove was only the second African American poet to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry (in 1987, thirty-seven years after Brooks), and thus, holds honored status in Black literary circles.
We are now in the twenty-first century, and so, in the past, a review might have taken months to make the rounds among poetry circles; now, it takes a matter of days. There have been poets on internet social media (such as Facebook) discussing Vendler’s revew and Rita Dove’s subsequent letter in defense of it. Many, if not most, of the White poets that have discussed Vendler’s review have been outraged, but they have missed the context in which most Black poets take Vendler’s review—as part of a ceturies-long, ongoing attack on the Black Poetic Body.
All critics view themselves as experts. In order to argue something, the arguer must view him- or herself as an expert on the subject. But there’s a difference between arguing about a subject and arguing based upon one’s place in the world. Helen Vendler’s arguments against Dove’s editorial choices are based upon what could be called White Privilege Literary Largesse. She doesn’t mind that Rita Dove includes a few poets of color —what she calls “minority” poets– in the anthology; what Vendler minds is that Dove has the audacity to place those poets on the same level as the White poets.
Vendler hasn’t always had a problem with Rita Dove. In times past, she has been a champion of Dove’s work, as when she included positive assessments of Rita Dove’s poetry alongside Robert Lowell, John Berryman, and Jorie Graham in The Given and The Made: Strategies of Poetic Refinition (1995). However, once Dove started making her own canonical gestures by editing her own anthology Vendler moveed from being Dove’s champion to her attempted vanquisher.
First, there’s an attack on Dove’s choices, as when states, “Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” and then Vendler proceeds to tally up pages given White—all male—poets versus Black poets. This already shows that Vendler isn’t engaged in the usual pedestrian criticism of the table of contents, and it becomes even clearer when Vendler moves from page counts to an attack on Rita Dove’s person, as evidenced by the following:
How is it that Dove, a Presidential Scholar in high school, a summa graduate from college, holder of a Fulbright, and herself long rewarded by recognition of all sorts, can write of American society in such rudimentary terms?
This passage is telling because it shines a light on the issues Vendler has with Dove-the-Black-Woman and not just Dove-the-Editor. Vendler wants to know how Dove could be so ungrateful, because she was “rewarded” so much. “Awarded” would imply that Dove deserved her many accolades, simply because she’s a brilliant poet and hard worker. However, “rewarded” implies that Dove was given advantages in exchange for something. And what exactly does Vendler think that something should be? Ignoring the fraught history of this country? Pretending that Black poets besides “Carl Phillips and Yusef Komunyakaa”—the two Black poets who don’t need “special defense”—don’t exist?
But what remains unspoken speaks volumes: Vendler really means, how is it that an Uppity Black Female Poet dared to get out of her place? How dare she make her own editorial—intellectual—choices without checking with anyone first? And that anyone would be Helen Vendler.
And finally, there is this passage, the ultimate attack on the Black Poetry Body:
Dove feels obliged to defend the black poets with hyperbole. It is legitimate to recognize the pioneering role of Gwendolyn Brooks, just as it is moving to observe her self-questioning as she reacted to the new aggressiveness in black poetry. But doesn’t it weaken Dove’s case when she says that in her first book Brooks “confirmed that black women can express themselves in poems as richly innovative as the best male poets of any race”? As richly innovative as Shakespeare? Dante? Wordsworth? A just estimate is always more convincing than an exaggerated one.
In other words, the best Black poets can’t ever tangle with the best White ones. And it’s ridiculous for anyone to assert that–especially another Black poet.
There’s been a lot talk this year among poets about “race” in poetry—“race” meaning “black people” or “people of color.” I’ve talked about this issue on my blog, that “race” is a concept, going back to the eighteenth century. Thus, when I write about black people, I’m not writing about race. I’m writing about full participants in humanity—and I’m writing about this humanity as a given, which is something Phillis Wheatley couldn’t take for granted.
And the obvious question is why does no one say that White folks are writing about “race” when they write about themselves? (No one except Toni Morrison in Playing in the Dark, of course.) No, when White folks write about themselves, they are writing about America. They are writing about unraced universal experience. They are writing about the ultimate human existence.
This condescending critical assessment of Black poetry has been in place since Jefferson first took up his pen, and informs the sort of contemporary scholarly/intellectual condescension of Simpson and Vendler, because when one attacks African American cultural production, that attack goes to the heart of an issue that is both moral and intellectual, and which goes back to Enlightenment philosophy. Now, it’s not that Black folks aren’t human; only the meanest White person would say something like that. But what’s implied is that cultural production assumes humanity from the start. It also assumes something else: privilege.
In Rita Dove’s introduction to her anthology, she assumes her own kind of privilege, intellectual privilege, and her right to claim that privilege galls Helen Vendler, for if Blacks and other poets of color are not included in Dove’s anthology because of multiculturalism, but rather, on their literary merit alone, then the whole American literary landscape not only changes in the present, it also reconfigures the past. And Helen Vendler and others like her are terrified of that prospect.
* The title of this essay is a line taken from Phillis Wheatley’s poem, “On Being Brought From Africa to America” in Wheatley, Phillis. Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A. Bell, 1773.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Annie Allen. New York, Harper and Row, 1949.
—. Selected Poems. New York, Harper and Row, 1963.
Dove, Rita. “Defending an Anthology: Rita Dove in Reply to Helen Vendler.” New York Review of Books 22 December 2011.
—. The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century Poetry. New York, Penguin, 2011.
Jefferson, Thomas. “Query XIV: Laws.” Notes on the State of Virginia.
Kant, Immanuel. Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime. Trans. John
T. Goldthwait. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Morrison, Toni. Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. New York: Vintage, 1993.
Simpson, Louis. “Taking the Poem by the Horns.” New York Herald Tribune Book Week, 27 October 1963, 27. Rpt in Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Contemplation (Under Discussion) Edited by Stephen Caldwell Wright. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.
Vendler, Helen. “Are These the Poems to Remember?” New York Review of Books 24 November 2011.
—. The Given and The Made: Strategies of Poetic Redefinition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995.
Washington, George. Letter to Phillis Wheatley on February 28, 1776. Writings Vol. 4 Edited by John Kilpatrick. (1931).
Wheatley, Phillis. Letter to George Washington on October 26, 1775. Phillis Wheatley: The Complete Writings. Edited by Vincent Carretta. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.