'How I got ovah'
Humor and discontent in women's poetry of the Black Arts Movement
Against the dynamic backdrop of the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the black liberation struggle was moving from Civil Rights to the Black Power era, a sense of responsibility propelled artists, writers, intellectuals, and politicians to use “their public voices to address the nature, aims, ends, and arts of the black world.” The Black Arts Movement (BAM) was a movement in letters in which ethics and aesthetics converged to confront and tear down what Larry Neal called “the Euro-American cultural sensibility.” Poetry, especially when publicly performed, served as a driving mechanism in this cultural, political, and aesthetic confrontation. In fact, Neal called poetry “a concrete function, an action […] transformed from physical objects into personal forces.” With the goal of cultivating a new, “authentic” blackness, poetry was an embodied imagery and linguistic repertoire that promoted critical thinking and heightened political consciousness, and attempted to incite the black urban masses to revolutionary action via aesthetic practices that lauded the unapologetic use of black vernacular styles “that challenged hegemonic and racist White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture.”
Poetry was a cultural weapon for BAM aestheticians. Literary scholar Darryl Dance remarked on black militant humor of the 1970s: “Writers […] express their bitterness and deep disillusionment with a vengeful, demonic, mad comedy that is bizarre, grotesque, perverse, terrible, sardonic, absurd.” Some of the humor, however, was subtle and understated in a way that made BAM poetry nuanced and sophisticated. More specifically, humor was a resource that enabled BAM women poets to express the negative emotions they felt as a result of the racial conditions in America, the political silence they endured on account of their race and gender, and the weariness generated from this combination — and to have these emotions taken seriously. The primary issues at stake in BAM women’s poetry I want to explore in this essay are the discourse of black women’s subordination regarding their participation in social/political movements, and black women’s problematic public image versus how she saw it.
This paper is less concerned with the ways in which the black woman was subordinated or represented in BAM poetry, and more with how she publicly articulated this image and carved out her role within a field marked by gender rhetoric that rendered her always already in a subordinate position. More specifically, I argue that BAM women poets used poetry infused with humor as a platform to respond to prevailing racist and sexist attitudes. Poetry was a space where imagination and “truth” collided; practitioners wrote life as they saw it, and as they envisioned its possibilities. Framing this study is black women’s use of humor to reach beyond subordination. I will look at two poems, one by Nikki Giovanni and one by Carolyn Rodgers, that highlight the social efficacy of humor in BAM women’s poetry.
Humor and discontent
The poets of this study enact what Patricia Yaeger calls “redemptive language games,” using humor to construct “an emancipatory relation” to traditions they were often excluded from or maligned in, or to simply represent themselves unrestrainedly. Humor was a resource that facilitated the uptake of women poets’ expressions of discontent. Feminist scholars have noted the political consequences of dismissing the significance of women’s negative emotional expressions, especially anger, bitterness, and more recently, contempt. Sue Campbell, for example, brings attention to a group of negative emotions associated with women that she calls “diseases of the affections.” Diagnoses of bitterness, sentimentality, and emotionality, Campbell argues, silence women who, once diagnosed, are no longer taken seriously, “limiting their effects on the world.”
Campbell proposes a “theory of affect,” in which women secure uptake through direct engagement with their expressions of negative emotions and publicly convey significance using a range of socially acquired and interpretable resources, securing responses frequently enough that meaning can be formed. By its very nature, BAM women’s humorous poetry — most of which was written to be publicly performed using vernacular styles — can be understood in terms of a theory of affect that facilitates uptake of black women’s discontent. As Macalester Bell points out, women’s negative emotions are given uptake in limited circumstances. As opposed to actual interactions that would prompt women to express and have negative emotions engaged — for example, a woman who brings her car in to a male mechanic who performs an unnecessary repair — Bell argues that greeting cards and joke books are spaces where “women’s contempt is perfectly intelligible.” She warns, though, that the man-bashing jokes in greeting cards and joke books are “objects of low-brow amusement,” and their uptake is seized by only a narrow range of women consumers, to whom the books and cards are marketed.
However, we should seriously consider black women’s humorous poetry as a space where their expressions of discontent are directly engaged, precisely because of the reach of their literary work at the height of the BAM; 199 books of poetry were published between 1968–1976, more than any period before it. In addition, as Bell points out, negative emotions are “intelligible and given a certain amount of uptake” in humor. As a creative resource, humor permitted BAM women poets to wield more power than would be possible in other modes of expression.
The sexual mountain
Calvin Hernton notes the 1960s and ’70s as one of the most prolific periods of black women’s literary achievement, but ironically, it was also the time in which they were publicly maligned in the most bigoted ways. Hernton cites as an example Stokely Carmichael’s infamous pronouncement in 1965 that, “The only position in the revolution for women is prone!,” along with a host of vignettes that demonstrate black men’s general masculinist and phallocentric philosophies in the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. Hernton describes them as “the mortar and bricks out of which the mountain of sexism is constructed both before and on top of black women.” Amiri Baraka, the most visible figure in the BAM, encouraged black men and women to behave in traditional “African” gender roles arguing, “We do not believe in the ‘equality’ of men and women […] we could never be equals […] nature has not provided thus.” It is against, and on top of, this sexual mountain that Nikki Giovanni and Carolyn Rodgers produced the works to be discussed.
Popularly and politically demonized as castrating matriarchs and/or irresponsible mothers usurping public funds, by the beginning of the 1970s, black women had borne the brunt of problematic stereotypes that were at the center of representations of the broken-down black family. That year, however, Nikki Giovanni brazenly glorified black women as the mothers of the great world civilizations in her poem “Ego Tripping (there may be a reason why).” Originally written for little girls as a counter-narrative to traditional gender roles instilled through children’s games, the poem, which was an unmistakable commentary on Langston Hughes’s 1921 “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” became a captivating celebration of black womanhood that invested them “with the power to (re)make history.”
When Giovanni performed the poem publicly on her first recorded album Truth Is On Its Way (1971), it was with a subtle, rich, comic voice backed by the driving beat of drums and handclaps, with calls from the audience of “Yeah, Right On!” The poem reads:
I sowed diamonds in my back yard
My bowels deliver uranium
the filings from my fingernails are
On a trip north
I caught a cold and blew
My nose giving oil to the arab world
The speaker transforms the waste products of everyday life — bowel movements, fingernail clippings, and mucus — into assets, an inversion of the racialized and gendered abjection historically projected onto black women’s bodies. The black woman becomes more than merely a disposable laborer who builds up the wealth of the nation and the world with her body. Instead, the world’s riches are located directly within her. The abject — those parts of the body and its functions that seem alienable — reappears, transformed into objects that can be manipulated and controlled. The speaker playfully, sarcastically, and audaciously invents and locates the wealth of the world within her body, unmasking an alternative vision that brings forth smiles to black women listening to the new narrative of the origin of wealth. Even though the poem has a celebratory tone, part of the positive feelings it evokes emanates from an underlying humor steeped in contempt, a robbery of the status quo that briefly frees black women from its constraints.
Contempt is distinguished as an expressive emotion, according to Macalester Bell, by a particularly unpleasant affective regard for and psychological withdrawal from the object of contempt, based on a judgment that the contemptible person has failed to meet an interpersonal standard, and marked by a positive self-feeling that holds the “contemptor” as superior to the object of contempt. Giovanni’s speaker boasts, “For a birthday present when he was three / I gave my son hannibal an elephant / He gave me rome for mother’s day / My strength flows ever on.” The objects of contempt here are white men who are traditionally cast in the roles of great historical figures. Later her target is black men, who during the BAM attempted to constrain the gender roles and voices of black women. Here, black women are cast as Gods: “I turned myself into myself and was / jesus / men intone my loving name /All praises All praises / I am the one who would save.” The speaker laughs in the face of the hegemony of Western and black nationalist religious rhetoric. As Giovanni retells historical narratives with black women as the central figures, her inversion humor is not only a crucial expressive resource that obliquely cloaks her contempt, but also an enactment of emotional insubordination in which Giovanni claims moral superiority, “indicat[ing] [her] refusal to obey sexist norms and constraints.”
Giovanni is what Tony Bolden calls a “secular priestess,” she who possesses the ability to use her “magical art to promote healing by infusing sensations of freedom into the consciousness of her listeners, stimulating them to convert feelings into new realities.” “Ego Tripping” is a public and politically conscious effort to encourage black women to “revise the terms in which they view themselves, so that they can move, at least psychologically, from the margin to center.”
Besides confronting the sexist and racist practices of black and white men, BAM women poets aimed their critiques at black women, especially to explore generational antagonisms. The 1970s saw a younger generation of black women, militant and anti-white, attempt to break away from the more traditional ideals of black womanhood anchored by the Civil Rights discourse of the politics of respectability. Carolyn Rodgers’s poem “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED, or It Must Be Deep (an epic pome)” is an autobiographical dialogue and reading of black women’s humor that represents the ruptures in the relationship between traditional mother and radical daughter. “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED” incarnates Patricia Yaeger’s notion of the “honey-mad woman,” a strategic discursive position “in which the woman writer appropriates language ‘racked up’ in her body and starts to sing.”
Specifically, Rodgers constructs a liberatory relation to Civil Rights political rhetoric and the constraining politics of respectability emanating from its prevailing social demands. She highlights the conflict between the older generation of black people tied to the Christian, middle-class, respectable Civil Rights Movement and the younger generation of activists who had more radical ideals of what black liberation meant and how it could be achieved. Rodgers employs what Yaeger terms “subversive multivoicedness,” a dialogic structure that has the power to “subvert past silences and refashion the terms of a repressive discourse.”
In the poem, Rodgers’s mother attempts in vain to convince her daughter that the Bible can heal not only her sick body, but her mind too, and that not all white people are evil. She tells her, “in yo heart you know it’s true.” Rodgers shoots back wryly “(and I sd) / it must be d / eeeep,” to which her mother replies, “U gon die and go tuh HELL.” Rodgers’s quips back are filled with a defiance that performs the distance between her generation of self-possessed, radical black women and those who came before — respectful, obedient daughters who would not dream about back-talking their mothers: “and I sd / I hoped it wudn’t be NO HUNKIES there / and she sd / what do you mean, there is some good white people and some / bad ones, just like there is negroes / and I says I had neva seen ONE (wite good that is).”
In this conversation, we see Rodgers’s contempt for “hunkies,” as well as for her mother, couched in the context of playful if uncomfortable banter. Her insult establishes her feelings of superiority over white people, and the act of “sassing,” or talking back to her mother, signals the moral chasm that has grown between herself and her mother. Moving the conversation along, Rodgers continues to narrate a dialogue between her mother’s outdated views on Christianity, insisting on demonstrating that she has grown and transformed, that her version of black womanhood is better and freer than her mother’s, with her unfailing belief in a white, Western Christian doctrine. Rodgers uses “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED” to demonstrate to her black audience (including her mother) that “systems of oppression preclude relationships of mutual respect and engagement between oppressors and oppressed.”
she sd, I got tuh go so I can git up early tomorrow
and go tuh the social security board to clarify my
record cause I need my money.
Work hard for 30 yrs. and they don't want tuh give me
$28.00 once every two weeks.
I sd yeah …
don’t let em nail u wid no technicalities
git yo checks … (then I sd)
catch yuh later on jesus, I mean motha!
It must be
Rodgers sarcastically indexes her mother’s struggles and contrasts them with those of Jesus’s redemptive suffering, acknowledging the mettle, yet fruitlessness of her “working hard for 30 yrs.” Inevitably, her mother meets the same sacrificial fate as Jesus — both are “nailed wid […] technicalities.” Rodgers takes her mother’s blind faith in the Bible to its logical end. Her unwavering belief in a government that refuses to make good on its promises, leaves her faithful but broke. “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED” exposes the absurdity of her mother’s complicity in her own oppression; as she jokingly calls her Jesus, Rodgers unmasks Christianity, the Bible, and the American political system as illusory symbols from which black people must extract their blind faith if they are to move to a new social and political order.
Absurdist humor and sarcasm are effective resources to think through how women of different generations might come to understand each other’s experiences within the context of the shifting social and political landscape of the 1970s. Rodgers’s inversion of the authority figure in the mother/daughter relationship is played out through the sassy way in which she addresses her mother. This exchange is the locus of the comic scene in “JESUS WAS CRUCIFIED.” Inversion, or, as John Limon puts it, “the resurrection of your [mother] as your child,” is a functional, pedagogical resource in Rodgers’s poetry.
Black women often occupied liminal positions in the BAM, at once committed to the struggle for black self-determination and working against sexist oppression within the movement. In addition, they grappled with conflicts between their own ideals of radical politics and aesthetics and the outdated standards of womanhood expected of them by the women they most respected, their mothers. The act of poetically naming and renaming themselves forced BAM practitioners and their audiences to rethink the terms of revolution, as both a collective movement and individual occasions for consciousness-building. Humor was an essential component in Giovanni’s poetic masterpiece, which, overall, reclaimed the past via a clever remix of black nationalist feminist aesthetics, blues poetics, and re-presentations of Western narratives. Carolyn Rodgers’s work elaborates on the intra-group humor amongst black women, using familiar rhythms of black speech, inversion, and absurdist techniques as mechanisms for communicating and working through complicated emotions and political agendas. For her it was “a way of saying the truth that hurt with a laugh.” Humor was a creative expressive resource and a performative labor in which black women poets not only survived conditions in which they were systematically marginalized, but thrived as writers and political activists. Humor directly and obliquely confronted racial and sexual oppression, functioning for some black women to “keep from crying and killing … [to] educate … [to] correct the lies told on them, and ultimately to bring about change.”
16. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” was Langston Hughes’s first poem published in The Crisis, in 1921. Its simple, elegant narrative style evoked a sense of proud black heritage, in which the ancient is connected to the present. Like Hughes, Giovanni idealizes Africa as the origin of human civilization. Giovanni, like Hughes, uses markers of a glorious African past — the Congo, the sphinx, pyramids — and links them directly to the richness and depth of contemporary black life. The speakers in both poems are black agents in the creation of civilization; the pyramids stand as a representation of it. Blackness becomes a proxy for humanity in each poem and Africa stands at the center of its manifestations. Each poem’s final line demonstrates the invariable relationship between humanity and nature. Hughes firmly roots humanity in the earth, “My soul has grown deep like the rivers,” while Giovanni’s speaker finds humanity in the ability to move from it and within it, “like a bird in the sky.”
20. Freud called this kind of humor “tendentious” in his important monograph Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious: that which allows the humorist to express negative emotions in a way that allows for catharsis without the threat of violent retribution. The two main types of tendentious jokes described by Freud are hostile and obscene. As he explains, tendentious jokes “make possible the satisfaction of an obstacle that stands in its way. They circumvent this obstacle and in that way draw pleasure from a source which the obstacle had made inaccessible.” Sigmund Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, (New York: W. W. Norton, 1960), 100–101.
32. Kimberly N. Brown conceptualizes black nationalist feminism as a hybrid of nationalist and feminist discourses that “resulted from awareness … of the intersectionality between gender, race, and class.” Brown, Revolutionary Diva: Women’s Subjectivity and the Decolonizing Text (Bloomington, IN : Indiana University Press, 2010), 73.