Academic journal article Hecate

The Uses of Anger: Wanda Coleman and the Poetry of Black Rage

Academic journal article Hecate

The Uses of Anger: Wanda Coleman and the Poetry of Black Rage

Article excerpt

In late 2014, black people in the United States took to the streets in protest. Spurred on by the failure of grand juries to indict neither Officer Darren Wilson for shooting and killing Michael Brown, nor Officer Daniel Pantaleo for choking Eric Gardner to death, black people gathered en masse-marching, chanting, and hoisting placards-to declare that ifblacklivesmatter.1 Public responses to the grand jury decisions, and then to the resulting protests, say much about how respectability politics, a term coined by Harvard historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, circumscribe expressions of black rage. Following the grand jury decision in Ferguson, Missouri, Michael Brown's parents asked protestors to "channel [their] frustration in ways that will make a positive change" ("Profoundly Disappointed"). President Obama concurred: "We are a nation built on the rule of law," he said. "We need to accept that this decision was the grand jury's to make. There are Americans who agree with it, and there are Americans who are disappointed, even angry.... I join Michael's parents in asking that anyone who protests this decision, do so peacefully" ("Obama Calls"). The call for black people to engage in peaceful responses to state-sanctioned violence against black bodies is part of a broader narrative that requires black people to respond respectably to their degradation, to rise above the fray and assuage the fears of white people intimidated by, or fearful of, congregating black bodies with the collective potential for mass vengeance. The life and work of Wanda Coleman, a black writer who expressed her anger about white supremacy and black elitism in equal measure, reflect the social risks and creative possibilities bound up in being a black woman poet who breaches African American social etiquette around anger.

"Since Black Sparrow Press released [Coleman's] first chapbook, Art in the Court of the Blue Fag (1977)," Jennifer Ryan-Bryant explains, "Coleman has published thirteen books of poetry, two collections of short stories, two collections of essays, a novel, a memoir, and many uncollected pieces" (Ryan, "Interview" 196). The dearth of Coleman scholarship is stark considering just how productive Coleman was before her passing on 22 November 2013. There are, at present, approximately six published interviews, seven book chapters or journal articles, and five bio-bibliographic book entries about Coleman. In 1989, Tony Magistrale opened the door for Coleman scholars with "Doing Battle with the Wolf: A Critical Introduction to Wanda Coleman's Poetry," an essay that provided precisely what scholars needed at the time: an exciting context for understanding Coleman's work that encouraged scholars to take up Coleman as the subject of their scholarship. Followed by a paltry trickle of interviews and bio-bibliographic entries, it wasn't until a decade later, in 1999, that Krista Comer published the first peer-reviewed essay on Coleman. Comer's "Revising Western Criticism through Wanda Coleman" presents Coleman as a western "regionalist" who challenges narrow conceptions of "spatial perspective [s] circulating in contemporary western spaces" (Comer, "Revising" 358). By the turn of the century, Tyler T. Schmidt's essay "'Womanish and Wily': The Poetry of Wanda Coleman" (2005), Malin Pereira's essay "Sister Seer and Scribe: Teaching Wanda Coleman's and Elizabeth Alexander's Conversations with Sylvia Plath," Ryan-Bryant's book chapter "Shape-Shifting: The Urban Geographies of Wanda Coleman's Jazz Poetry" (2010) discusses how Coleman troubles "essentialist rhetoric" of what it means to be black (131), what it means to be a black woman, or what it means to be a sexual being; how Coleman's work interacts with a broad range of literary "ancestors" (280); and how Coleman's "jazz and blues references" contextualize Coleman's "multivolume American Sonnets and her other poetry" (Ryan, Post-Jazz 113). Unfortunately, even as a prolific sonneteer with a 100-sonnet sequence to her name, Coleman lacks the critical attention afforded to other openly angry black poets, notably Amiri Baraka, who boasts scores of peer-reviewed essays, book chapters, and interviews dedicated to the study of his life and work. …

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