“Yes, it does feel like a moment,” artist Amy Sherald said recently of the rising prominence of black women in visual art. “I think it’ll be easier to understand it when looking back than it is when you’re in the midst of it.”
This may be true, too, of this moment in contemporary poetry, which has been defined by a dazzling influx of black feminist blockbusters. Claudia Rankine’s Citizen (2014), Morgan Parker’s There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé (2017), and Evie Shockley’s The New Black (2011) flew off bookshelves (and onto syllabi) with unprecedented success. These works reached well beyond the too-often-closed circuits of the poetry scene, as Rankine’s book of mixed media and experimental poetry became a New York Times best seller, as Parker’s collection made Time magazine’s best paperbacks list, and as Shockley was published in The Nation for the entirety of the progressive left to see.
Or, as poet laureate Tracy K. Smith declared in the New York Times last year, “Political poetry is hot again.”
Though we may still be in the midst of this exhilarating moment, the choices that Evie Shockley, Claudia Rankine, and Morgan Parker have made in in the aftermath of their landmark books have largely been aimed at understanding that moment, which has been marked by a cultural hunger for such work. How, they ask, do black feminist artists negotiate their own work in the wake of the type of commercial success that is usually beyond the contemporary poet’s wildest dreams? What happens when blackness becomes so spectacular in the public eye that black art grappling directly with white racism is increasingly in demand, and not just from black audiences?
“Visibility is really complicated,” as cultural critic Jenna Wortham has put it, “because it’s not just black people who are hungering for these works and shows and images.” There has always been a deep desire for those outside African American experience to consume black culture, and to rely on it for a larger understanding of the American narrative.” Hinting at white carnal desires for black art and black poetry in other moments of the American past—Abolition, the Harlem Renaissance, the Black Arts movement—Wortham fixes the eye of the black-celebrity-artist storm on the conditions of black art’s production.
Similarly, Evie Shockley, in her 2017 collection, semiautomatic, leans into her position as the poet of the black present, all the while disrupting the notion of a singular moment of black visibility. Shockley dedicates her collection to the founding activists of the Black Lives Matters movement, and she pens poems that reflect on the stories of Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Jordan Davis, Michael Brown, Renisha McBride, and others who have become, in their spectacularized deaths by white supremacist violence, the celebrities of the current political moment. Writing with her signature wit—like Harryette Mullen, there’s nothing Shockley can’t do with a pun—she reworks some of these famous names into experimental forms. For instance, in “buried truths,” a poem whose typography is organized into grave-like columns, Shockley asks, “Are you not the handfuls of rice / thrown up in cleveland’s tame air, / a cloud raining sharply down / that will not be swept away?”
Each crypt is a question for Shockley’s poem and her audience, and each poem in the collection is unflinching, playing with various forms that can be difficult to digest. One whole poem is written in flat “a” sounds, making it literally hard to hear:
sad mammas bawl, what wan dawn
shall mark war’s last gasp? what art,
pray, shall patch tracts war ransacks,
mass and spark lads’ and gals’ war-
raw shards, and call glad days back?
Even as Shockley writes beautifully, the poems suggest that this moment calls for reading her to be hard.
Shockley challenges our reading through form, with difficult list poems and one that looks like a nutrition label. Within these forms, Shockley documents violence, protest, exploitation, and conversations with her comrades in black artistic creation, both past and present. “Sex Trafficking Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl in the USA (or, The Nation’s Plague in Plain Sight)” is interlaced with contemporary accounts of sex trafficking, while Topsy, the racist caricature of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is reanimated in gorgeous artwork by Alison Saar. Rihanna joins Nina Simone and Romare Bearden in Shockley’s expansive frame of reference in this often-elegiac collection marked by a nostalgic cultural appetite for “the new black” of the Obama era.
Perhaps my favorite running play on the bleak circumstances yet world-making capacities of black art and its reception recurs in the three poems titled “a one-act play” that pepper the collection. Shockley’s brief artistic manifestos are wryly cynical:
when they come back up, just seconds later, everything has changed. it has something to do with race, but it’s debatable how much. it’s something that somebody said, but it’s not clear who, if anyone, heard. it’s about a million acts, but we’ll all play like it was just one. each person has lines to give. anyone who knows it can write the script.
But there are also rallying cries—“Black and blue: re-do. Re-do.”—and practical reflections on the labor of producing art in this historical moment: “When you’re done, you undo it. Be creative. Go wild! It should be a hard act to follow.” These poems wrestle with political leadership and poetic readership, as well as point to recent movements in black theater that confront the white gaze, or white audiences, in deeply uncomfortable ways, from Fairview to Slave Play. If Shockley looks back to communities of black art-making, these plays look decidedly outward, to confront the presumed white audiences of their work.
So, too, does Claudia Rankine in her surprising follow-up to Citizen and first published drama, The White Card. Citizen wasn’t the first Rankine book to track American disaster—Don’t Let Me Be Lonely is a gorgeous mediation on the aftermath of 9/11, in the media and in the national imagination. But it was Rankine’s public engagement with Katrina, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the racist misogyny of media receptions of tennis superstar Serena Williams that catapulted Citizen into the moment of a largely white audience, eager to be informed and reformed in regard to racism.
After Citizen’s success, Rankine began speaking directly to white audiences in this vein. The White Card is a self-consciously didactic, intentionally difficult play that explores the minefield of producing art as an African American in a world of white money. Refusing to let whiteness, and white reception of black art, remain an abstraction, Rankine transforms it into domestic melodrama: a version of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, in which Charlotte Cummings, a black woman artist, meets a potential white patron and his family.
What happens when blackness becomes so spectacular in the public eye that black art grappling directly with white racism is increasingly in demand, and not just from black audiences?
Rankine turns here from the opacity that characterizes most of her work to radical visibility and transparency—a morality play for producing and consuming black art in the contemporary moment. Sweeping in its references to the prison-industrial complex, the opioid crisis, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and the dizzying racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and violence that characterize the “ordinary” in the Trump era, The White Card’s ethics are both instructional and deeply contested. The play obliges its white characters to confront their emotional and material privileges, along with the racism of their “good works,” and plainly intends to create a similar tension in its white audiences. But Rankine has another tension in mind as well: that of the generation of black artists trying to earn livings and enact political change in a still overwhelmingly white market.
The ends of both acts serve as the punctum to the banality of “ordinary” white racism, on display throughout the play. At the end of the first act, as the white family emotionally disintegrates in the face of internal and external pressure on their political alliances, Charlotte lies down on the floor for several minutes in front of a blown-up photograph of Michael Brown’s autopsy. At the end of the play, the white patriarch and patron comes to Charlotte’s studio, disrobes, and, after Charlotte reveals that she has been documenting him as he looks at art (a reference, surely, to Kara Walker’s 2014 “An Audience”), asks her to shoot him. These surreal moments stage what some scholars of black visual culture have called “practicing refusal,” which imagines art as a way to make meaning out of the pervasive negation of black life. In the first instance, this is achieved through Charlotte’s own refusal to continue looking at the commodification of black death; in the second, the refusal is established by consciously recentering whiteness as an object of scrutiny, surveillance, and critique. The ends of both acts then push the instructional tone of the play out of the realm of the verbal, and jar the audience, both physically and visually, into a reckoning with the relentless process of making black art in a white consumer-based market—like Drury’s Fairview.
If Rankine’s project is to disrupt the repetition and spectacularism of lurking antiblack sentiment among white liberals, Morgan Parker’s follow-up to There Are More Beautiful Things than Beyoncé approaches the question of white audiences encountering the notion of black celebrity from a different angle, to narrate the possibilities within that tense relationship. In Magical Negro, Parker creates a mobile cast of black celebrity characters, including a bleak reflection on Sammy Davis Jr. and a gorgeous, achingly specific Diana Ross poem (“Magical Negro #217: Diana Ross Finishing a Rib in Alabama, 1990s”). The latter opens: “Since I thought I’d be dead / by now everything / I do is fucking perfect walking wreck / reckless and men / I suck their bones until they’re perfect.”
Parker maintains the necessarily elegiac tone of the Trump era while exploring the emotional life of black artists forced to struggle for visibility in a white media landscape, from the opening poem in which Zora Neale Hurston’s ears “leak violet petals,” and “everyone claps” to today’s Brooklynites “reading / DuBois, getting high off the salt eaters.” Here, Parker offers a jaw-dropping reconfiguration of double consciousness:
No one can serve two masters
like we can, be future
and what they threatened to forget,
be Richard Pryor Live on Sunset
and be the sunset.
But even as I list these sharp lines, I resist my own representation of Parker. Her work, like her Twitter feed, can be pithy, but never pat. The poems think on black celebrity and black hypervisibility as a collective enterprise and ecosystem, a specific mode of subject formation that creates its own discourse of bad feeling and feeling bad. Parker excels at laying these feelings bare: disgust (of the self—and of others), uncertainty, and unvirtuous vulnerability become the defining features of a post-Trump black celebrity.
Still, this is a black celebrity that is celebrated, even as it remains less than fully recognizable or resistant, as in the beautiful, morphing, “if you are over staying woke”: “Listen to / cricket songs. / Floss. Take pills. / Keep an / empty mind.” Alongside Shockley’s and Rankine’s aesthetics and strategies for this black poetic moment, Parker writes her own concept album on the “peculiar institution,” as enslavement was once called, of black fame and its relationship to being and to being seen in the modern world. It’s a knockout: it remains exhilarating even as it explores the exhaustion that sets in after poetic fame takes hold.
It’s this texturizing of the contemporary moment that Parker draws out, alongside Shockley’s remade relations of black art-making and Rankine’s surreal morality play that takes a microscopic view of whiteness. In the midst of a time that painfully refracts the relationship between the precarity of black life and the market for black art, all three of these poets are already doing the labor of Sherald’s “looking back.”
This article was commissioned by Eleanor Johnson.