Essay II: Trauma in American Black Poetry
“Wherever the Negro face appears a tension is created, the tension is a silence filled with things unutterable. It is a sentimental error, therefore, to believe that the past is dead; it means nothing to say that it is all forgotten, that the Negro himself has forgotten it. It is not a question of memory. Oedipus did not remember the thongs that bound his feet; nevertheless the marks they left testified to that doom toward which his feet were leading him. The man does not remember the hand that struck him, the darkness that frightened him as a child; nevertheless the hand and the darkness remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, part of the passion that drives him wherever he thinks to take flight.”
— James Baldwin, from “Many Thousands Gone” (1951)
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Baldwin suggests that the effects of trauma remain within a Black person even after the details of specific traumas no longer consciously come to mind. Yet the traces of that trauma “remain with him, indivisible from himself forever, . . .”
Much of the literature by American Black poets deals with the traumas their people have experienced in America, beginning with the first slaves’ arrival in 1619. The poems we have read so far this semester reflect this.
James Whitfield writes of Black brothers and sisters “chained on [America’s] blood-remoistened sod,/Cringing beneath a tyrant’s rod, . . .” Phillis Wheatley wrote in the 18th century about the “sorrows . . . in my parents’ breast” because she was taken from them to be enslaved. And Frances Harper writes of the “anguish and distress” of young Black girls sold on the auction block into lives of labor and abuse. There is, of course, so much more, and it all speaks to trauma — physical and psychological wounds that violence inflicts on individuals and is passed through the generations that follow.
For this essay, choose five of the poems we have thus far read, through Langston Hughes. Locate in each at least two moments in which the poet takes up and deals with the traces of the trauma that Black people in America have experienced.
In your writing about traces of traumatic memory in these poems, respond to these questions:
— To what kind of trauma does the poet direct a reader’s attention? Be specific. “Slavery” is rarely suitable if you can be more specific.
— What is the poet’s actual language? Refer to the actual text of the poem, but don’t include long quotations.
— How does the poet’s language evoke the trauma?
— How does the poet’s context allow her to introduce each trace of trauma she writes about? IOW, how does the poem proceed so the fact of trauma arises naturally?
— Analyze and comment on the poet’s effectiveness in using language to represent trauma. Be specific and refer to the actual language of each poem. Avoid constructions such as, “Whitfield does a wonderful job of . . . “ Don’t generalize or write superficially. Actually take apart the poet’s language to show how it functions to represent trauma. This is one of the most important things you will write about in this paper because language is rarely up to the task of adequately or fully representing serious trauma.
—How does each poet’s language about trauma affect you? Do you sense that the poet gets you closer to imagining a certain kind of trauma? How does the poet do that — description, narration, examples, metaphor . . . ?
Do NOT answer these questions one after another in your paper as if this were a test. Just use these questions as ways to begin thinking about each poem.
As you proceed, be sure to —
— carefully read each poem over several times — aloud, and always keeping the questions, above, in mind;
— take careful notes about the way the poet identifies trauma and then proceeds to do something with it — document, condemn, criticize, understand, explore, or cultivate solidarity in resistance;
— be sure to do your prewriting work; don’t try to start writing too soon; you’ll know you’ve done your pre-writing preparations when you have plenty of notes, outlining, and rough fragments of your writing about different poems. Do not start writing your paper until you have fully undertaken your pre-writing work.
Your paper should include an introduction that makes clear what you plan to do in the paper. Proceed, then to your various analyses of the five poems, then write a conclusion that summarizes your paper’s content.
Do NOT submit work on which you haven’t used a grammar/spelling checker.
Length: as long as is necessary to get the job done; general benchmark: four to seven pages