Literary scholar and poet Carmen Gillespie asks us to consider the significance of the United States capital in African-American literature at a time when America is still learning how to read its first African-American lead political protagonist. Dr. Gillespie also discusses the role that poetry can play in reshaping the perception of national traumas such as the 1978 Jonestown massacre (which is also the thematic focus of her forthcoming poetry collection).

The following interview was conducted via e-mail between June 5th and June 13th, 2010.

KYLE DARGAN: You are currently working on a new critical volume entitled “Washington, D.C. and the African American Literary Imagination.” Can you explain what your current goals for the project are and where your research for the book has taken you?

CARMEN GILLESPIE: The starting point for “Washington, DC and the African American Literary Imagination”is Clotel, one of the first African-American novels, written in 1854 by former slave William Wells Brown. Clotel tells a fictionalized story of the daughter of Thomas Jefferson and his slave mistress Sally Hemings. The female protagonist commits suicide by jumping into the Potomac River rather than returning to slavery. My book examines the proposal that Washington, D.C. functions in African-American literature as a metaphorical location where the ideals of the country confront the realities of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. The goal of my project is to investigate and explicate the presence and significance of the capital of the United States in African-American autobiography, short fiction, novels, poetry, and film. The book examines the persistent, pervasive, and meaningful references to Washington, D.C. in African American texts as both a setting and a symbol from the mid-nineteenth century to the present and investigate the use of D.C. as a metaphor in literature for the fracturing of African-American identity along the fault line created by the grating of race and nationality.

Washington, D.C. is the nation’s symbolic and ideological center. Inscribed in the very architecture of the District of Columbia are the declarations that constitute the central ideological tenets of the United States. Inclusion of the city in literature enables African-American authors to reveal the complexities of exclusion, racism, sexism, and classism as well as to demonstrate the double-consciousness of African-American characters that inherit the rights and privileges of citizenship and yet are excluded from full exercise of these American fundamentals. The study ends with an examination of the contemporary implications for reading Washington, D.C., a city that has now become home to a mixed-race president whose election may represent the potential for new understandings of race and race relations.

KD: If you had to sketch the African-American literary imagination at this moment in time, what would it look like from your perspective? What do you see as the significant changes from the beginning of the twentieth century to the end of the twenty-first century’s first decade?

CG: The pronouncement that W.E.B. DuBois made at the beginning of the twentieth century about double-consciousness and the color line was, in many ways, defining. Most African-American writers were constrained by the limitations of racism even as they struggled and managed gracefully and profoundly to produce their art in all of its myriad forms. The twenty-first century has begun, it seems to me, with a questioning about race and racial categorizations that may have been unimaginable for most African-American writers at the turn of the last century. Perhaps the work of Jean Toomer comes closest to articulating, indeed foreshadowing, the current ambivalence towards, yet persistent centrality of race at the beginning of the twenty-first century. African-American artists, like African-American communities, face profound polarities-we have an African-American president, yet the achievement of true equality seems elusive. Race remains a floating and indivisible signifier, although the meanings traditionally associated with those correlations seem more fluid and less fixed.

In particular, young African-American writers seem to me less concerned about the impact of racial and racist constructions and more invested in particularizing and making specific their subjective perspectives about identity. It will be interesting to see where African American literature moves in this century. I hope that writers will be able to express in their works the elements of their experience that emerge from the unique vantage point of the myriad of African-American experiences and that those efforts result in a body of literature and an environment for creative artists open enough to contain the endless possibilities of their imaginings.

KD: What is interesting about Cane (and I believe Toomer’s writing of that text has a connection to “black” D.C.), when talking about ambivalence towards identity, is that the text itself resists the idea of a novel or a collection of poems or stories. Do you see the text’s attitude towards literary forms in any way anticipating what you’ve identified as emerging contemporary African-American writers’ attempts to destabilize racial “forms” or identities?

CG: I find Toomer’s work—particularly Cane but also his poetry—endlessly fascinating. He seems to me to embody a particularly post-modern sensibility in his formal fluidity. He refuses the limitations of structural boundaries, yet he utilizes conventional and traditional techniques and generic expectations when they serve his purpose. Toomer’s refusal to comply with the strictures of form is congruent with resistance to racial categorization. Toomer seemed to desire access to and acknowledgement of all of the parts of his selfhood and, as such, refused to comply with either personal or artistic narrative expectations. I do think that there is a comparable desire within the body of contemporary African American literature. When you look at the poetry of artists like Nikki Giovanni, Tyehimba Jess, and Tim Seibles or the novels of Colson Whitehead, to name a few, there is a consistent refusal to comply with expectations for constancy, an acknowledgement, similar to that of Toomer’s, that identity can never and should never be fixed and that experience is dynamic-a reality they mirror in their artistic vision and formal and aesthetic choices.

KD: It seems as though your continuum for the project begins with Clotel, which could be considered the archetypal tragic mulatto story, and ends with President Obama. Have you been contemplating president Obama’s personal narrative during your research and, if so, how do you see his narrative to date as corroborating or complicating the fictional tragic mulatto narratives of these early African-American writers?

CG: There is an interesting connection for me in your questions. For the character Clotel, the tragedy of her racial identity was the inability to reconcile black and white identity in one body. Clotel could not survive in Brown’s narrative because the United States refused to acknowledge in the mid-nineteenth century that it is fundamentally not only a bi-racial but a multi-racial society. The life of Jean Toomer is perhaps a next phase of that question of the relationship between tragedy and race/mixed race in the United States. As a human being and artist who ultimately resisted racial categorization, Toomer was, for the most part, excluded from access to the literary world once he embraced a self-defined racial identity. Barack Obama’s narrative and presidency seem to indicate a kind of progress in the country regarding the reality of our complicated composition. It is interesting, though, that, although he has a white mother and a black father, he is almost exclusively considered to be black. This characterization seems to me to undercut the notion that we have become better able to embrace the idea of multiple identities. On the other hand, as compared with the fictional Clotel, clearly there is a space (now even at the helm!) in our borders for the individual whose physicality presents tangible evidence of the complications of racial identity.

Of course, all of this conversation about racial identity and racial “mixing” is evidence of the fact that race and racial categorizations remain an American and global preoccupation. Although not a meaningful scientific reality, phenotypical characterizations still predominate in our understandings and interactions with each other. It is this conundrum that remains constant in the history of the literary tragic mulatto and that contemporary African American writers, including Barack Obama, continue to confront.

KD: You have also been refining a poetry manuscript, Jonestown: A Vexation, focused the 1978 cult massacre in Guyana. It recently won the Naomi Long Madgett prize and will be in print soon. I am curious to know how you negotiated writing about a historic event laden with such tragedy and avoiding becoming inundated by that tragedy. What angle have you taken in rendering this event and what, if anything, do you see yourself as trying to illuminate with this book which might not be at the forefront of people’s memories about the event?

CG: The Jonestown event in 1978 marked the largest non-natural loss of American civilian life before September 11, 2001, yet the event has largely been neglected (or relegated to the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid”). When I was an adolescent, my family lived in Guyana, so I have some sense of the remoteness and isolation of Jonestown. Its very existence involves complex geo-political, social, moral, racial, and economic issues that are impossible to untangle. More specifically, I have been interested in the question of what motivated so many Americans, many of whom were black, to follow Jim Jones to the spot and, ultimately, to their deaths. The Jonestown story has so many unanswered questions and seeming contradictions that I felt compelled to try to work them out through poetry, an art that, it seems to me, lends itself to the investigation of the unknowable. It is terrible to try to enter into the space of such a loss, but, through the collection, I hope to access some subjectivity and to provide a more complicated version of the Jonestown story than can be found in the photographs of those more than 900 people, more than 250 of whom were children, laying face down, forever voiceless. I tried to approach the writing with humility and respect and to invite exploration of the labyrinth of questions that surround these lives.

Five Poems from Jonestown: A Vexation

***********************************************

Surfing Integration

“You’re not integrated, and that’s why you’re having trouble in your mind.”
~Jim Jones

First white man in Indiana
legally to call a black boy
son, fighting for an end
to separation and segre-
gation, he made a family
small and large out of
difference, understanding
the tender places on black
flesh where bruises marked
dark skin and the worry
lines etching young white
faces with guilt
_______that answered to names:
Malcolm X, King, Medgar
Evers, the Kennedys

Wading through the bloody current, finger
to the wind, he knew he could ride the tide
and appear, as if by magic,
to walk on water

***********************************************

Colonizing Blackness

“We are all niggers!”
~Jim Jones

parroting Che,
he harnessed need,
bridled momentum, and
saddled history’s haunches
to plow a new kingdom:
nigger hands
in nigger lands:
we are all niggers now

***********************************************

One Little, Two Little . . .

The claim of Indian
blood made the swivel
more sure,
rooted the thick black hair
in mystery, remaking
history into a vast expanse
of warrior nobility and loss,
possible pasts
coloring the common truth
of little white boys
with dirty feet
eating peanut butter
and jelly on crooked
back steps

***********************************************

There, There Was Color

Having only seen flat toucans
named Sam on red cereal boxes,
the spectral angles of breathing birds,
cocky with fresh paint,
were an apparition reflected daily
in their American irises, green and blue,
and seventy shades of brown—
color surrounding pupils
vulnerable and open
at the center

***********************************************

One

Under the pile,
as the stacked bodies
came to be called,
they found
one,
not poisoned
not shot,
but suffocated
under the deadweight
of her mother
and father

twenty-five pounds
pressed facedown
into the earth
with the urgent desire
of a farmer
who knows that the village
crop will not thrive
under cloudless skies
but plants his seeds
nonetheless.

___________________________

CARMEN R. GILLESPIE received her Ph.D. from Emory University. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at Bucknell University. She also serves as the director of the Bucknell Griot Institute for Africana Studies. She is a scholar of American, African American, and Caribbean literatures and cultures and a poet. In addition to journal and poem publications, she is the author of the books A Critical Companion to Toni Morrison (2007), A Critical Companion to Alice Walker (2011), and the editor of The Clearing: Forty Years with Toni Morrison, 1970 – 2010 (2011). She also has a published a poetry chapbook, Lining the Rails (2008).  In 2005, Carmen was the recipient of an Ohio Arts Council Individual Artist Fellowship for Excellence in Poetry. She is a Cave Canem Fellow and a Fulbright scholar and has received awards and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Mellon Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. She was named one of Essence magazine’s forty favorite poets in commemoration of the magazine’s fortieth anniversary. She is the 2010 winner of the Naomi Madgett Long Poetry Prize for her collection Jonestown: A Vexation, which will be published in 2011 by Lotus Press.