Sunday, November 1, 2015

From Africa to America: For Flora

POEMS ON VARIOUS SUBJECTS, RELIGIOUS AND MORAL (1773) was only the second book of poetry published by an American woman. The 20-year-old author was a slave, taken (according to scholarly consensus) to North America at seven years of age.  In fact, of course, nobody knows for sure when she was born (perhaps 1753) or where (maybe Senegal or Gambia) or even what she was called in her youth. She arrived in Boston aboard the Phillis and was purchased by merchant John Wheatley; and so her "name" became Phillis Wheatley. 

When she was14 or so she began writing poetry, and by 16 her work began to attract public notice. Because of her gender and caste, she was forced to defend her authorship before the colonial governor, lieutenant governor, and other luminaries. Even after they attested that she had indeed written the verses ascribed to her, she could not get her collected material published in Massachusetts, though well-connected members of the nobility acted as her patrons and secured its publication in England. The book became an international sensation, prompting Voltaire himself to comment that it proved that black people could write poetry. Nevertheless, due to her own situation and the tumult surrounding the American Revolution, she was unable to publish another book before her death in 1784, though her work did continue to appear occasionally in pamphlets and newspapers.

One of her best-known  poems is "On Being Brought from Africa to America":

   'Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
   Taught my benighted soul to understand
   That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:
   Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
   Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
   "Their colour is a diabolic die."
   Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
   May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

Nikki Giovanni, on the other hand, trod a very different literary path, publishing numerous volumes of poetry and essays, teaching at several prestigious universities, and winning major awards including 20 honorary doctorates. Named for her mother, Yolande Cornelia Giovanni, Sr., she was born 190 years after Wheatley, in Knoxville, Tennessee, but raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, until she was 10, at which time she returned to Knoxville to live with her grandparents. 

In 1967, the year she graduated with honors with a bachelor's degree in History from her grandfather's alma mater, Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee, she published her first volume of poetry, BLACK FEELING, BLACK TALK, which sold over 10,00 copies its first year; BLACK JUDGMENT (1968) sold 6,000 in just three months. Together, they established her as one of the most successful representatives of the Black Arts Movement that dominated African-American culture in the 1960s and beyond. 

Her fifth book, THE WOMEN AND THE MEN (1975), featured "Poem for Flora":

when she was little
and colored and ugly with short
straightened hair
and a very pretty smile
she went to Sunday school to hear
'bout nebuchadnezzar the king
of the jews

and she would listen

shadrach, meshach and abednego in the fire

and she would learn
how god was neither north
nor south east or west
with no color but all
she remembered was that
Sheba was Black and comely

and she would think

i want to be
like that

It is almost as though Giovanni wanted to engage with her literary ancestor Wheatley in a poetical dialectic on the changes in racial attitudes over a pair of centuries of American development.

Both poets opened with a reflection on their youthful introduction to Christian worship. Wheatley claimed it was a "mercy" to be taken from her own "Pagan land" in order to learn that "there's a God, that there's a Saviour too." Giovanni seemed to project her psychic self  onto a family friend, Flora Fletcher Alexander, who often babysat for young Nikki. -- "she loved clothes. Flora was the sharpest dresser," she later recalled. Nikki/Flora "went to Sunday school to hear / 'bout Nebuchadnezzar the king / of the jews" and about "shadrach, meshach and Abednego in the fire." But in the style of the times, before the Romantics began to relax the formalist standards of prosody and semantics,Wheatley mostly confined her remarks to a generality, while Giovanni reflected the Post-Modernist penchant for grammatical laxity and politically charged specificity. The Chaldean ruler Nabu-kudurri-usur II was indeed king of the Jews but only because of his conquest of Judea in 597 BCE; he was portrayed as a foreign oppressor in several books of the Old Testament, including the portion of the Book of Daniel where he cast Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a fiery furnace for refusing to worship a golden idol. (Ironically, as we shall see, the Alphabet of Ben Sidra posited Nebuchadnezzar as the son of Solomon and the queen of Sheba, a chronological impossibility.)

Both women expressed their approval of the universalism of the Christian doctrine that even "Negroes, black as Cain / May be refin'd, and join the angelic train" and that "god was neither north / nor south east or west" -- though Giovanni insistently added the clarification "with no color but all" to counter Wheatley's demeaning allusion to God's punishment of Cain for the murder of his brother Abel by "marking" him, which was often interpreted as giving him a black skin and therefore providing a Biblical justification for racism.

But even in these religious introductory remarks, race was an essential referent. For Wheatley the matter was a subtext, almost parenthetical, a pun on her "benighted soul." But for Giovanni the blackness took center stage. Flora may have been "colored and ugly with short / straightened hair" (since African-Americans of Flora's generation "conked" their hair by using lye to straighten their naturally kinky locks. Black nationalist leader Malcolm X claimed that the process “makes you wonder if the Negro has completely lost all sense of identity, lost touch with himself.”) But Flora's own takeaway from Sunday school was that "Sheba was Black and comely" and Flora/Nikki decided "I want to be / like that."

The queen of Sheba made only a brief appearance in the Bible, visiting Solomon in order "to prove him with hard questions." But that cameo role led to her starring in one of the world's most widespread and protean cycle of legends. She was probably from Saba (modern Yemen); the Sabaeans also had domains across the Red Sea on the Horn of Africa., and the later kingdom of Aksum (ancestral to Ethiopia) was sometimes referred to as Seba. Nevertheless, though history has recorded several Arabic queens, no African ones are known, even though the queen of Sheba has come to be regarded as such.

The literary confusion seems to have begun with the Books of Matthew and Luke in the New Testament, which referred to her as a "queen of the South" from "the uttermost parts of the earth," At the same time, the historian Titus Flavius Josephus claimed she was a queen of Egypt and Ethiopia. A century later, the Christian theologian Origen conflated the "bride," the female speaker in the Song of Songs, as the "Queen of the South," ("I am very dark, but comely," she proclaimed, or, in the NEW REVISED STANDARD VERSION, "black and beautiful," though this translation would have been too late to directly influence the Giovanni poem).

Matthew preached the Gospel in Colchis (modern Ethiopia), and even earlier than that Philip the Evangelist had converted one of Queen Candace's court officials there, making Ethiopia the site of the oldest Christian church (though "ethiopian" is Greek for "burnt face" and may have referred to Africans in general). The Ethiopians, in turn, seem to have taken particular delight in associating themselves with Biblical traditions. So the wordplay of Origen (conjoined to the comments by Matthew and various Islamic traditions concerning Queen Bilkis, the Arabic version of the queen of Sheba) seems to have been the basis for the Ethiopian national saga, the 14th century KEBRA NAGAST, in which Queen  Makeda visited Solomon, who impressed her with his wealth and wisdom. She converted to Judaism and, on her way home, gave birth to Solomon's son, Menilek, the ancestor claimed by all the kings of Ethiopia. until the last of them, Haile Selassie, was deposed in 1974. That last reigning descendant of Solomon and the queen of Sheba is regarded by the Rastafari as a divine messianic figure who will lead a future Golden Age of eternal peace, righteousness, and prosperity. (And thus the Rastafari bring the entire process full circle: they adapted their Haile Selassie symbolism from some rhetorical statements made by fellow Jamaican Marcus Garvey, who popularized the pan-African notion of "black is beautiful" and organized various separatist entities in the United States; one of Garvey's followers was Earl Little, the martyred father of Malcolm X, whose own 1965 assassination sparked the creation of the Black Arts Movement of which Giovanni became a prominent representative figure.)

So, as a leading exponent of the "Black Is Beautiful" sentiment of the 1960s, Nikki Giovanni proudly focused on the fabled African queen of Sheba -- "all / she remembered was that / Sheba was Black and comely" -- while Phillis Wheatley was meekly apologetic about the way the Christians of Boston viewed her "sable race with scornful eye" because of the "diabolic die" associated with Cain, the world's first murderer. Despite the commonalities in their two poems, this difference in attitude speaks volumes about how African-American views about the nature of their roles changed dramatically over the course of two centuries.

-- Duane Vorhees

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