Reflecting on the Semester with Lucille Clifton

surely i am able to write poems
celebrating grass and how the blue
in the sky can flow green or red
and the waters lean against the
chesapeake shore like a familiar
poems about nature and landscape
surely     but whenever i begin
“the trees wave their knotted branches
and…”     why
is there under that poem always
an other poem?

— Lucille Clifton

I will be honest. My relationship with the Toni Morrison quote given to Bonnie Angelo, though complex and enriching, has been a tough one. And I am moving away from it for this reflective essay. I do not want it to seem as if I am evading this difficulty, but I have decided to work through Lucille Clifton’s poem at this time as a way of understanding this course. I will return to Morrison in my reflection later on, even as I use a new epigraph as my main focus. It was interesting to me that, as Dr. McCoy pointed out, this particular epigraph received no mention in the first round of blog posts at the beginning of the semester. However, as I write this now in May, it seems to me that this poem is much more meaningful after having worked through the “amazingly varied literature we’ve engaged this semester” (McCoy 2019). Indeed, making sense of things, ideas, concepts, and stories in retrospect seems to be fundamental to recursive learning and a classroom dedicated to looking back while moving forward. Therefore, this epigraph works well with the GLOBE mission of reflection because of its recursive nature. Additionally, it connects both the texts we have engaged with and the practices we have developed throughout the semester from the fugitive slave narrative to contemporary drama to Big Machine to jazz music, quilting, and beyond. Continue reading “Reflecting on the Semester with Lucille Clifton”

Big Machine, Intertext and Allegory

In class on Friday, 4/26, our group put Big Machine in conversation with a few other texts that we had encountered earlier this semester, as well as a few others from outside the class. In addition to The Last Angel of History and  “Bloodchild,” our group drew connections between the concluding chapters and Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo.” There is a quatrain in the poem that cannot be read any longer without thinking of Ricky Rice:

Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host.
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell. (Lindsay)


This came about from an exploration into Murder’s character and the significance of his Belgian heritage. While this poem replicates the horrors the Belgian Congo and traffics in stereotypes, LaValle’s reworking of it offers a creative way to acknowledge its historical import without recycling its racist tone. There were two other examples of Belgian murder cases, one that appeared to be cult activity and one that involved victim’s in basements, that seemed to serve as intertextual material for LaValle. However, these reports are rather upsetting to read and I will not go into detail here. It is important, still, to note that LaValle is handling these troubling stories in a way that gets readers to think responsibly about their histories. His storytelling is a mode of Parks’s “Rep&Rev.” Continue reading “Big Machine, Intertext and Allegory”

Sydney Smith and “Who Reads an American Book”: Some Remaining Questions

“The Americans are a brave, industrious, and acute people; but they have hitherto given no indications of genius, and made no approaches to the heroic, either in their morality or character….Where are their Foxes, their Burkes, their Sheridans, their Windhams, their Horners, their Wilberforces?—where their Arkwrights, their Watts, their Davys?—their Robertsons, Blairs, Smiths, Stewarts, Paleys and Malthuses?—their Porsons, Parts, Burneys, or Blomfields?—their Scotts, Campbells, Byrons, Moores, or Crabbes?—their Siddonses, Kembles, Keans, or ONeils—their Wilkies, Laurences, Chantrys?—or their parallels to the hundred other names that have spread themselves over the world from our little island in the course of’ the last thirty years, and blest or delighted mankind by their works, inventions, or examples?” – Sydney Smith

As we approach the end of the semester, I feel like it’s necessary that I grapple with one thing that has been perplexing me for the past few months. It is something that I think I should make sense of before the class is over. I’m not saying that a class that leaves questions unanswered constitutes a failed attempt; rather, I want to explore one item that has been floating around my head with no real explanation for most of the semester. I am referring to one of our course epigraphs, the one from Sydney Smith’s “Who Reads an American Book?”. Continue reading “Sydney Smith and “Who Reads an American Book”: Some Remaining Questions”

Some Additional Thoughts on Sustainability and Interdisciplinary Study

Upon registering for classes last fall, I made the decision to venture outside of my major, English, and take a few classes in the sciences. I wanted to try out a different way of thinking, one that I hadn’t tested out since high school. I registered for Environmental Issues and Environmental Geology because I believed both would prove to be topical and refreshing. I hoped to apply my new coursework to what I did in my literature classes. As one might guess, sustainability is the fulcrum of environmental science in this day and age, but as I have come to learn, it applies to literary study as much as it does to my science classes. It would make sense that more and more courses are addressing sustainability as it is now encoded in Geneseo’s values. However, the more we read and talk and think in ENGL 337, the more clear it has become just how important the theme of sustainability is to African-American art.

The close relative of sustainability is renewable energy. In environmental science, sustainability demands a transition from traditional, exhaustible sources of energy such as oil and coal to inexhaustible sources like wind and solar. How does renewal factor into a class on African-American literature? Unfortunately, as we have seen, hate can sustain itself through self-organizing mechanisms that do recycle, but in a destructive way (white supremacy, memetic warfare, and radicalization all function according to a reifying production of hate). However, if we exchange the seed of hate for the seed of good, productions like the fractal, the organic farm, and the community art project emerge. I have found sustainability to be fundamental to the work of Ron Eglash, Leah Penniman, and our friend Steve Prince. Additionally, what each of these individuals have created reminds me of my work in other environmentally focused classes. Continue reading “Some Additional Thoughts on Sustainability and Interdisciplinary Study”

A Semiotic Reading of a Courthouse

Two weeks ago, I traveled to St. Louis with six other English students and Dr. Paku to present a paper at the Sigma Tau Delta International Convention. During the last day of our visit we went to a courthouse that had been preserved as a national landmark and turned into a museum. As it turned out, this particular courthouse held the first hearing in the case of Dred Scott v. Irene Emerson in 1846, when Scott sued Emerson for his freedom. The experience was so intense and interesting that I knew I wanted to bring into our blog, but I hadn’t yet the language necessary to make the connections to our course. However, after returning to Suzan-Lori Parks’s “Elements of Style,” I think I am ready to unpack what I saw. Continue reading “A Semiotic Reading of a Courthouse”

Light and Shadows, Dope and Paint, Sociology and Art

When we speak of a “diamond in the rough,” are we being ironic? For when we say this do we not ignore the dark and organic geologic history of the shiny diamond’s formation? A diamond comes from the rough; it is of the rough. The relationship of the diamond to the darkness from which it emerges is necessarily symbiotic as there would be no diamond without the immense pressure placed on carbon deep beneath the earth’s surface. My coach likes to use this analogy a lot when talking about training, but it is also useful when thinking about the negation of binaries. I believe, after all, that the development of the both/and is, in fact, not so much a destruction of the either/or but the reconstruction of it. It is important not to do away with the tension entirely, but to play with the tension to see how both elements might be more similar, more “in each other,” than previously thought. Continue reading “Light and Shadows, Dope and Paint, Sociology and Art”

On Favorites and Doing What You Love

Upon its first consideration, the task of choosing a favorite poem from Angles of Ascent seemed difficult, if not daunting. Beyond the difficulty of pinning down one poem in anthology of hundreds, this assignment came with the pressure of defending my choice beyond the simple response of “I like it.” Continue reading “On Favorites and Doing What You Love”

“Call and Response”

Call and Response, our massive anthology, sets up texts of African American traditions in such a way that pieces begin to function as questions and answers to each other. This clever formation allows for conversations between and within said traditions. The metaphor is thus rich and literary, but it also carries with it a helpful reminder: that many of the included texts are to be read aloud. To call and, to a lesser extent, to respond are verbal, audible actions that are conducted in human and animal communication. No more has the sonority of Call and Response been obvious than in the work, badman, and prison songs we read for class (3/4). One thing about the spoken word, though. It’s tricky to anthologize. When I got to “Po’ Laz’us,” I logged on to Spotify and began listening to the version from the Coen Brothers’ “O Brother Where Art Thou?” (2000). Here’s where it got tricky: it was one of many versions, all riffing and remixing the words on the page before me. Without saying one version is the right one, I would argue that something is lost when editors take songs of a particularly oral quality and pin their content down to one reading as is done in our own anthology. Accompanying my reading with sung renditions on Spotify and supplementing it with Lawrence Lessig’s thoughts on “remix culture” (another useful source from Dr. Schacht), I began to develop questions of ownership and feelings of uncertainty about interpretive possibilities. Continue reading ““Call and Response””

“Now hear this mixture, where hip-hop meets scripture” Bringing Lauryn Hill to Dunbar, Douglass, and Jacobs

“The songs are a way to get to singing” –Bernice Johnson Reagon

On Monday, Paul Laurence Dunbar allowed us to engage with an homage to his poem, “We Wear the Mask:” the Fugees song, “The Mask.” This interpretive possibility was particularly exciting to my hip-hop loving self. It affirmed my admiration for the unique way hip-hop remixes and revitalizes culture by weaving intertexts and sampling sonic artifacts all while being really enjoyable to listen to. Now, while I love the Fugees’s sound, it is really Lauryn Hill that made the group so dynamic for me. Needless to say, the symposium hosted by the Black Student Union on Tuesday night regarding Lauryn Hill and Joan Morgan’s “hip-hop feminism” was an event I couldn’t miss. Continue reading ““Now hear this mixture, where hip-hop meets scripture” Bringing Lauryn Hill to Dunbar, Douglass, and Jacobs”

Waves, Bits, Memes, and Goals for the Semester

“Black literature is taught is sociology, as tolerance, not a serious, rigorous art form.” – Toni Morrison.

Without presupposing her intentions for this statement, I would like to think of the tone of this epigraph as regretful and ashamed (for now). Perhaps it’s my Geneseo training to believe all things not serious and not rigorous as somehow not valuable and perhaps this is why I would regret this sort of assessment of black literature. One thing I am more sure of is the recursive nature of such an epigraph. It lends itself to multiple interpretations and, thus, multiple iterations and applications and this is why I have chosen it for goal setting this semester.  The goal emergent from this epigraph is this: investigate the ways in which black literature can be taught (and learned) as a serious, rigorous art form. Continue reading “Waves, Bits, Memes, and Goals for the Semester”