Thursday, December 17, 2015

African American Poetry Workshop: James Baldwin and Countee Cullen

I'd like to introduce readers to James Baldwin, if they are unfamiliar with him. First, here is a trailer to his biography so you can become briefly acquainted with him:

My first encounter with him was as an undergraduate when I read Go Tell It on the Mountain in a Religion and Literature independent study. His essays, novels, and poetry provide perspective from the intersections of African American identity, masculine, homosexual identity, and secular identity. 

In "James Baldwin Reappeared Just When We Needed Him Most," Saeed Jones describes Baldwin's posthumously released 2014 collection of poems:
Though Baldwin is perhaps best known as an essayist and novelist, he wrote poetry as well. Jimmy's Blues and Other Poems was published last month by Beacon Press. It has an introduction by Nikky Finney. 
"Staggerlee Wonders," the first poem in the book, which is written in the voice of a blunt, African-American character, is especially striking in light of this week's news cycle: "My days are not their days. / My ways are not their ways. / I would not think of them, / one way or the other, / did not they so grotesquely / block the view / between me and my brother."
One might choose to the excerpted lines above from the perspective of the current news cycle and the Black Lives Matter movement. According to their "About" page,
#BlackLivesMatter was created in 2012 after Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted for his crime, and dead 17-year old Trayvon was post-humously placed on trial for his own murder. Rooted in the experiences of Black people in this country who actively resist our de-humanization, #BlackLivesMatter is a call to action and a response to the virulent anti-Black racism that permeates our society.Black Lives Matter is a unique contribution that goes beyond extrajudicial killings of Black people by police and vigilantes.
#BlackLivesMatter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.  We affirm our contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.  We have put our sweat equity and love for Black people into creating a political project–taking the hashtag off of social media and into the streets. The call for Black lives to matter is a rallying cry for ALL Black lives striving for liberation.
Using BLM's description of their organization as a lens, read Baldwin's lines again.

My days are not their days.
My ways are not their ways.
I would not think of them,
one way or the other,
did not they so grotesquely
block the view
between me and my brother.

Consider how the speaker, an individual (my, I, me), contrasts with the other people (their, them, they) who "so grotesquely / block the view / between me and my brother." A third person is present, too: "my brother," or the family member of the speaker. With the Black Lives Matter movement and recent events in mind, brainstorm answers to these questions:

1. What does the speaker mean by "days" and "ways"?

2.. According to, "grotesque" is defined as the following:
1. odd or unnatural in shape, appearance, or character; fantastically ugly or absurd; bizarre.
2. fantastic in the shaping and combination of forms, as in decorative work combining incongruous human and animal figures with scrolls, foliage, etc.
Why does the speaker use this adverb to describe the way that "they" exist between the speaker and his sibling?

3. Examine the diction (choice of words) and syntax (arrangement of words, sentence/phrase structure) of the lines. Is the diction more or less formal? Is the syntax more or less complex? How do they contrast with the sort of diction and syntax used by Baldwin's mentor Countee Cullen in these lines from his poem "Karenge Ya Marenge":

Wherein are words sublime or noble? What
Invests one speech with haloed eminence,
Makes it the sesame for all doors shut,
Yet in its like sees but impertinence?
Is it the hue? Is it the cast of eye,
The curve of lip or Asiatic breath,
Which mark a lesser place for Gandhi’s cry
Than “Give me liberty or give me death!”
Is Indian speech so quaint, so weak, so rude,
So like its land enslaved, denied, and crude,
That men who claim they fight for liberty
Can hear this battle-shout impassively,
Yet to their arms with high resolve have sprung
At those same words cried in the English tongue? 
TIPS: What historical events does this poem refer to? Choose 3-6 of the lines in the poem, translate them into simpler and more concise wording, and then contrast the diction and syntax with Baldwin's lines.  

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