Date of Award
Lyn Di Iorio
strangeness, estrangement, cultural memory, black body, strange-ing, Black poets, Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, elegy
The Elegy for the Black Body examines the mid-twentieth to early-twenty-first-century poetic justice crafted by African American poets to eulogize individual African Americans whose deaths were the result of racial and political violence. In the age of lynching, mass shooting, and police brutality, I argue that an African American poetic tradition persists that, while not entirely beholden to the ancient elegy, is its distant relative, along with the English and American Elegy. I argue further that while the contemporary American elegy has undergone for the last six decades intensive study, from the notable studies done by Peter Sack’s in The English Elegy from Spencer to Yeats’s to Melissa Zeiger’s AIDS and Cancer study, few have canonized the African American elegiac tradition. This study leans on criticism of Jahan Ramazani, whose pioneering exploration of the variations and renovation found in a continuous string of poems by African American elegists provides a case for the elegy, not simply by African Americans, but elegies for the black body. The elegy for the black body micro-analyzes a selection of poems from 1955 to 2017, pulled from various styles and periods, but unified by theme and response to a racially violent narrative. So what constitutes the elegy for the black body? Is it what Jahan Ramazani calls the “lynching elegy” of Langston Hughes’ blues elegy? Is it the persisting protest aesthetic of the post-Hughes blues elegy, the anti-consolatory martyr poem of the Black Arts Movement? Is it entangled in the protest poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde, whose justice elegies embody a maternal literary tradition of mourning that resists racial and sexual hegemonic violence? Is it inclusive of communal bodies and spaces as in Sonia Sanchez’ communal elegy for the Philadelphia Osage Street bombing? Could it survive the 90’s apathy towards slain famous black bodies as seen in the fame elegy for Tupac Shakur, or does it resurface in the microaggressions of a post-racial Obama America as seen in the conceptual elegy of Claudia Rankine? Does it extend into the meta-elegies for Eric Garner and Michael Brown as exemplified by Ross Gay and Danez Smith? These and much more constitute the elegy for the black body. Beginning with the blues oral tradition, this text highlights an extractable period of literary poetic response to the murder of black bodies. A long list of poets, major and minor spanning over six decades of African American poetry, tacitly respond to the horrific and racially violent deaths of black individuals, including children. These poets include, but are not limited to Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Haki R. Madhubuti, Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Claudia Rankine, Ross Gay, and Danez Smith—who together construct a compelling form for what can be termed the elegy for the black body. While adhering to traditional formulations of the elegy as a poem that is occasioned by death, the elegy for the black body distinguishes itself from other species of the elegy by going beyond sentiment and towards dissent. While it embraces grief, it also subverts it. While it approaches consolation, it also converts it, using tools both familiar and ‘strange’ to investigate and interrogate society—ultimately inscribing black bodies into literary meaning.
Jean-Pierre, Naomie, ""Beyond Consolation": Or Strangeness, Estrangement, and Strange-ing in the Elegy for the Black Body, 1955-Present" (2019). CUNY Academic Works.