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Performing the Word: African American Poetry as Vernacular Culture.

Fahamisha Patricia Brown. Performing the Word: African American Poetry as Vernacular Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1999. 174 pp. $17.00.

Fahamisha Patricia Brown's Performing the Word: African American Poetry as Vernacular Culture is compact, timely, lucid, and refreshing in concept--a book of literary criticism intended for college undergraduates. Carefully organized and written with elegant clarity, Performing the Word reveals ambitious goals. Her focus, Brown says, is

the expressive culture of people descended from Africans enslaved in that part of North America that became the United States of America. Their culture was an invention, or reinvention, forged out of historical, sociopolitical, and cultural necessities.

By choosing to explore poetry--beginning with Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon Johnson and covering contemporaries as recent as Mona Lisa Saloy and Saul Williams--Brown attempts to demonstrate that our poetic vernacular "is not merely colloquial, slang, or vulgar. It is fluid, adaptable language with its own rhythms and intonation, figures and metaphors, as well as a variety of class and regional variants." Performing the Word succeeds in presenting "a broad sketch of the place of African American poetry in African American vernacular culture." A wonderful chapter shows how the well-known Biblical confrontation of Moses and Pharaoh in the Book of Exodus is transformed into vibrant poetry by Dunbar and Johnson. There is useful discussion of oral tradition and of formulaic elements in songs and literary lyrics, and excellent summaries of academic theories posited by J. L. Dullard, Geneva Smitherman, and others, regarding the linguistic properties of Black English.

In some ways Brown's project resembles Joyce Ann Joyce's call for an "African-centered literary criticism," but, unlike Joyce, Brown does not offer a new critical vocabulary. She relies for the most part on concepts drawn from folklorists and linguists that were usefully applied to recent poetry in Stephen E. Henderson's Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973). A problem with Brown's use of terminology drawn from urban ethnography of the 1960s is that such terms predicate a specificity that runs counter to the permanence and wide distribution that literature usually seeks to achieve. Urban ethnography also has a tendency to highlight "Otherness" by defining authenticity as deviation from supposed white, middle-class normative structures. Further, such approaches survey group behavior more accurately than they are able to assess individual achievement.

One result of the ethnographic perspective is that an entire chapter, intended to examine what Brown calls "the self-affirming voice and the narrative voice," is actually devoted to poems and song lyrics that represent "boast and toast traditions" derived from the "often scatological rhymes" once used by young men (quite exclusively) for their own peer group amusement. Brown asserts that the desire of poets in the 1960s to employ "the language of the people" led to literary exploration of such folk forms. She perceptively notes that many poets "claimed revolutionary purpose and authenticated lumpen credentials in an anti-establishment age." To suggest, however, that, "in his poetry of the Black Arts era, [Amiri] Baraka turned to African American popular culture and the 'language of the streets' to give vitality and racial authenticity to his art" seems a reductive assessment of an important poet's work. Her point, though, is to present Baraka as "the father of rap" rather than as a poet whose writing comprise s mastery of a number of Modernist literary traditions as well as a somewhat cynical appreciation of the products of American mass culture.

Brown is on firmer ground when she traces the strong element of didactism in African American poetry and connects it with the conventions of the sermon, the elegy, and the jeremiad. There are, however, some misleading generalizations; and sometimes Brown's accessible commentary moves much faster than one would like. She mentions, for example, that the enslaved composers of the Spirituals are praised in James Weldon Johnson's "O Black and Unknown Bards" (written in 1908, not as she says in 1953) and in Lance Jeffers's "On Listening to the Spirituals" (1974). But shouldn't she alert readers to the fact that these poems present almost diametrically opposed views of what those songs mean? Should she at least suggest that readers refer to the poems and contemplate each author's reason for loving those songs? Perhaps the most unfortunate lapse is Brown's persistent use of the confusing phrase New Black Arts movement to denote the writings produced between 1965 and 1980 by poets associated with what everyone else re cognizes as simply the Black Arts Movement.

Despite these shortcomings, Brown does a good job of directing attention to poets such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Mari Evans, to several younger writers, and to issues of sexuality and gender that began to assume more importance in the 1990s. "Each generation," she writes, "brings its own vocabulary and its own set of issues to the mix that constitutes African American vernacular culture, including its poetry." This book will certainly help readers of the rising generation to develop an informed vocabulary and make their own intelligent contribution to an ongoing critical discussion.
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Thomas, Lorenzo
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 2001
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