Identity Poetics

English 685 ~ Fall 2001 ~ Susan Tichy 


As a concept, identity can be defined as the search for self and its relationship
to social contexts and realities.  --Sandra Carlton Alexander

Who I am is a political question, but who I can be is a question that literature 
can help me to answer. -- Harryette Mullen

"Because African Americans widely accepted early on that they were sociohistoric products, not bound to each other exclusively by racial and biological commonalities, but molded instead by the consequences of slavery, emancipation, and betrayal, it is not surprising that writers of all races have long recognized the inexhaustible literary potential of African American self-examination and self-exploration." So begins Sandra Carlton Alexander's article on Identity in the Oxford Companion to African American Literature. And so begins our study of identity poetics -- with the root perception that identity is socially and historically created, not a biological condition, not a "natural" condition, not a transcendant, transhistorical essence. Alexander deals first with the issue of place, a motif established in African-American literature by slave narratives in which "relocation comes to represent the initial step on the road to selfhood." (380) She goes on to discuss the relationship of color to identity and the "dual consciousness" so well described by W.E.B. DuBois in his 1903 classic, The Souls of Black Folk.

It is this peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One even feels his twoness,--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings... (qtd 380)
All these issues, with different inflections, different specific historical origins, and different outward manifestations, arise as well in the consciousness of other "minority," "marginalized," "oppressed,"  "subaltern," and "postcolonial" writers. I use those modifiers advisedly because one of the functions of at least some identity writing is to question, redefine, or reject those designations. 

In these and future weeks, keep in mind WHEN each poem was written, as well as other fundamental questions--like these:

Is racial and/or ethnic and/or gender identity presented as determined and essential, or as contingent on culture and history? To what degree can those abstractions be separated? 

Where is identity located in the poem? in narrative? in cultural or personal symbol? in the relation of the speaker to audience? in diction? syntax? rhythm? stanza form? rhyme & sound?

Who is the audience for the poem? people inside the identified group or outside it?

Are speakers and characters in the poems fully contingent and individual, or are they generic? stereotyped? What criteria do you use to make that distinction? 

Are "the people" romanticized? Is the past romanticized? 

What are the relative balances among anger, bitterness, humor, beauty, and play? How does tone define identity?


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