Daniel Tiffany’s brilliant provocation and invitation for responses is a welcome gesture to broaden and reanimate ideas about the important and overlooked role of diction in current thinking about poetry and poetics. Ironically, diction has been a central—arguably the central—critical tool in identifying and evaluating African American poetry from the time of its origins some four hundred years ago. In that sense, Daniel’s essay is significant in reconnecting discussion of a mainstream tradition with a struggle that is always already inherent in African American poetry.
Let’s start with the oldest African American poetry, the so-called (regrettably) spirituals. With strong evidence that they date at least to the 17th century, these oral poems were created on plantations by now-anonymous poets, who were famously referred to as “black and unknown bards” by James Weldon Johnson. The diction of these poems, which are the originating point of the African American poetry tradition, was inevitably a rich amalgam of varied African languages and survivals, languages and dialects spoken on slave ships, adopted multiplicities of English, and a complex array of themes, forms, purposes, allusions, and modes.
I also see the spirituals as the unacknowledged origin of the American poetry tradition, which makes this gathering an exciting opportunity to more fully reconnect issues in Anglo-American and African American poetry and poetics. For purposes of this forum, my focus will be to briefly suggest some longstanding issues relating to diction in the African American poetry tradition. But I’m not suggesting that diction is separable from other issues in African American poetry any more than it can be isolated in other bodies of poems—suggesting otherwise would be to compound a problem that has haunted the history of the African American poetry genre.
The texts of the spirituals that have entered the canon were based on transcriptions by white auditors, mainly dating to the 19th century, some two hundred years or more after their creation. It is important to underscore the implications of these poems as translations rather than inscriptions by the population that created them. Although there was some scattered interaction for corroboration and explanation with the enslaved people, and more later with the formerly enslaved after Emancipation, the transcriptions are mainly the original texts of the auditors which serve as the sources of later versions and reprintings.
De sun run down in a purple stream,
An’ de moon hit bled ter death,
An’ my soul awoke from hits wicked dream,
When hit felt my Saviour’s breath.
What, then, did the early auditors make of the spirituals? Transcriptions and commentary, with famous examples from figures such as Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Lucy McKim Garrison, William Francis Allen, and Charles P. Ware, are filled with questions specifically about diction. Later compilers and commenters on spirituals, such as John F. Watson, George Pullen Jackson, Newman I. White, and Edmund S. Lorenz, among many others, continued to characterize the diction of the spirituals in negative terms as ignorant bastardizations of standard English and texts, mainly sermons and the Bible, reflecting the “primitive,” “humorous,” and “childish” understandings and ideas of their African American creators. Even the designation of “spirituals” is based on partial and reductive understandings of the operations of language in these brilliant poems, which certainly did not operate exclusively at the level of Christian spirituality.
The quality of these transcriptions reflects the physical (as well as cultural) distance from which the lyrics were overheard, and the recorders’ bafflement when “interpreting” the “mystifying” and “incomprehensible” words that they repeatedly described as “strange,” “weird,” “senseless,” “peculiar,” “barbaric,” “childlike,” “disjointed,” “primitive,” “unearthly,” “foreign,” and “wild.” Any commentary on what we might think of as the literary properties of these earliest African American poems tends to address semantic meaning as predicated on “weird language” as the “authentic” and othered vehicle. The foundational critical appraisals of African American poetry place overwhelming primacy on diction in judging these works, and in fact, this commentary is almost exclusively relegated to observations on the “weird and meaningless sounds” that they heard used in this poetry.
From the roots of the African American poetry tradition, the main critical question regarding this genre has related to its “authenticity” or “imitativeness,” resulting in a bifurcated dilemma whose presence, I believe, has lingered even into the present. Overwhelmingly, we find stylistic expectations stereotypically and restrictively connected to perceptions of who these poets are and what their poetry should consist of as “African American.” We read again and again proscriptive dictates on how an African American poet “should” or even “must” write and sound in order to be judged as successful. And how is “successful” to be measured? We see the dilemma echoed by countless African American poets torn between serving as a collective cultural force, agent, or exemplar, versus following paths of what they perceived as literary individualism—a forced “choice” that has rarely been applied to white poets, certainly post-Romanticism.
For the earliest commentators, “authentic,” as an evaluative concept in discussing diction, was a pejorative term, or at least one smacking of distancing, dismissal, or pigeonholing. Rather than appreciating the diction of spirituals as reflective of communicative modes of a community that had ingeniously and instrumentally developed a highly effective and sophisticated poetics operating on multiple performative, aesthetic, emotional, psychological, spiritual, and practical planes, comments on African American poetry have tended to measure it against something it was not.
The spirituals were called “authentic” in the same breath that they were found lacking in quality and sophistication. When their authenticity was called into question, they were referred to as “poor copies.” As we see from later examples, questions about diction continued to be perpetuated in the famous cases of African American poets like Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar who did author their own written texts. Wheatley admired Milton and Pope, and when her poetry reflected her perfectly normal absorption, modeling, and repurposing of the examples of poets she admired, the authenticity of her authorship was challenged and questioned. Even after the oddly required “attestation” of proof that she was the creator of her own poems, black and white critics alike continued to judge her use of language as lacking in comparison to canonical figures. Not Wheatley alone, but other early figures including Jupiter Hammon, Lucy Terry, and George Moses Horton were evaluated based on their identity as “slave poets.” Sterling A. Brown, J. Saunders Redding, and Benjamin Brawley focused on their use of language, and called it “crude” and “doggerel.”
The case of Paul Laurence Dunbar signals how this dilemma regarding diction was carried into and beyond the twentieth century. When Dunbar worried that he would be judged for writing “a jingle in a broken tongue,” it can be argued whether his self-doubt was referring to poems in standard English or his masterful constructions of oral African American vernacular. J. Saunders Redding and James Weldon Johnson were among those who confirmed Dunbar’s own fears that his use of dual dictions damaged his literary stature. Again, “authenticity” remains the double-edged sword between authorial intention and critical evaluation. Rita Dove, even at present, warns about the dangers of readers and critics putting all African American poets and poems into “one box.” This “box” is depicted graphically by giovanni singleton in her visual poem “African American Poet,” whose surface is both self-defined, internally and externally interpreted, and permeable. As singleton’s poem conveys, the question of diction is the hinge of an extended dilemma. This issue permeates an entire genre and plays a crucial role in individual and communal identity, aesthetic production, and categories of critical reception in African American poetry.
1 Henry Cleveland Wood, “Negro Camp Meeting Melodies,” New England Magazine, March 1892, 61-64.
Lauri Scheyer is Xiaoxiang Scholars Program Distinguished Professor, co-editor of Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures, and Director of the British and American Poetry Research Center at Hunan Normal University (China). Her books include Slave Songs and the Birth of African American Poetry (Palgrave Macmillan), The Heritage Series of Black Poetry (Routledge), and most recently, A History of African American Poetry (Cambridge University Press). She was the founding curator of the African American Poetry Archive at Hampton University. Her book projects in progress are an essay collection, Theatres of War: Contemporary Perspectives (Methuen Drama/Bloomsbury), and Selected Poems of Calvin C. Hernton (Wesleyan University Press), co-edited with David Grundy.