Book Review: Posthuman Blackness and the Black Female Imagination

Posted Posted in HBW

[By: Christopher Peace]

Lillvis, Kristen. Posthuman Blackness and the Black Female Imagination. University of Georgia Press, 2017.

Kristen Lillvis’s  Posthuman Blackness and the Black Female Imagination explores posthumanism’s fusion of the body, flesh, gender and race through the works of various neo-slave narratives and contemporary performance artists. This “assemblage of ideas, material, and beings” speculates the future and positionality of the Black female imagination. Lillivis quotes bell hook’s definition of postmodern blackness as “the overall impact of postmodernism is that many other groups now share with black folks a sense of deep alienation, despair, uncertainty, loss of a sense of grounding even if it is not informed by shared circumstances” (2). Lillvis uses this definition as a major inspiration for her concept of posthuman Blackness and its intersections as she focuses on “the empowered subjectivities black women and men develop through their simultaneous existence within past, present, and future temporalities.”Lillvis gathers various works of women who write neo-slave narratives and situates the projection of Black futures as informed and liberated by these historical perspectives. She distinguishes between human and nonhuman, which is complicated by the Black posthuman subject who works to deterriotorialize that distinction through a multiplicity of being and becoming.

In the first chapter, Lillvis reviews liminity and temporality in Toni Morrison’s Beloved and A Mercy. She draws on Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theory of becoming and hints at Jacques Lacan’s mirror stage when conceiving the posthuman subject as an ever-shifting being who is constantly reinterpreting liminal spaces.

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

In reviewing Beloved, the chapter probes the blurred lines between mother and daughter in Sethe’s relationship Beloved. Chapter two discusses posthuman subjectivity in Sherley Anne Williams’ novel Dessa Rose and nomadic subjectivity. Dessa Rose forms posthuman communities through connection to others and through the process of deterritorialization by disrupting hierarchal narratives. In chapter three, Lillvis defines Afrofuturism through the traditions of Mark Dery, Ytasha L. Womack, Kodwo Eshun, and Paul Gilroy, who are important theorists of the genre. While exploring more contemporary artists, like Erykah Badu and Janelle Monae, and their relationship to posthuman blackness, Lillvis argues that linking empowerment solely to history limits present and future conceptions of blackness. Chapter four details the idea of multiple consciousness in Octavia Butler’s science fiction. Centering Franz Fanon’s psychology of triple consciousness, the author questions black ontology, extraterrestriality, and how these concepts relate to posthuman consciousness. In the final chapter, Lillvis outlines the concept of submarine traversality in multiple texts by Sheree Renee Thomas and American film director Julie Dash. Glissant’s theory of submarine identity, Lillvis argues, serves as a precursor to post human subjectivity and liminality. A “prophetic vision of the past” allows the posthuman subject to embody transversal temporality in ways that creates new spaces for blackness to be and to become.

Lillvis is well versed in rhetorical theorist, tracing clear connection with posthumanity and materiality. Her nod to Deleuze and Gilles along with current terms in the field of rhetoric such as “assemblages” and “becoming” works well in exploring posthumaness. She references Lacan’s “l’hommelette” or “the human subject-to-be” that see themselves as a fixed entity, the posthuman subject “vibrates across and among an assemblage of semi-autonomous collectivities it knows it can never either be coextensive with nor altogether separate from.” Lillvis’ successfully positions posthuman identity as a form that is never fixed but is in constant becoming and interacting with multiple identities and communities in the process of transversing various modes of being. These theories apply to more contemporary artists like Erykah Badu, who uses temporal liminality to envision Black futures in her songs. Lillvis points out that Badu’s popular song “Next Lifetime,” set in 3000 A.D., as an example of posthuman becoming and temporal transfer.  

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“If I have seen far, it is because I am perched upon the shoulders of giants” – A Reflection

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[by: Tony Harris]

We are, quite likely, familiar with the statement, “If I have seen far, it is because I am perched upon the shoulders of giants.” Dr. Ward (HBW Board Member Emeritus) pinpoints seven of several pillars whose writing could be thought to undergird the work the Project on the History of Black Writing has accomplished throughout its 35-year existence. He notes also the “culture of professional civility” maintained and advanced within HBW in an effort to create truly collegial space for students and scholars all along the academic continuum, a hallmark of the project, and goes on to enumerate many of the projects HBW has undertaken, from bibliographic work to current efforts to digitize its holdings, making them key-word searchable. Dr. Ward’s assertions present a kind of paradox:  they at once anchor HBW in the rich African American literary tradition while also acknowledging its unique culture, its deft alignments and realignments, and an undaunted spirit of evolving purpose that constitute a fabric of purposeful dynamism.

Our early work in the Project at KU resonates with these elements. Soon after its arrival to KU, the Project was tasked with contributing to the massive Encarta Africana digital encyclopedia. At the 2018 College Language Association Convention, Dr. Graham highlighted the pivotal role partnerships have played in the evolution of HBW. Encarta Africana was among the first of those multi-layered partnerships. Every bit and byte of material we provided to the partnership was either mined from the already substantial HBW archive or was thoroughly sleuthed, searched, and sought-for.  My experience was precedent-setting.  Even after I left Lawrence, that spirit of collegiality and the drive to enculture a community of learners took root in my new high school environs and HBW fanned the embers through its support of a Langston Hughes Literary Circle at the high school.  Never before, nor since have elements across the spectrum of our school community come together outside of class, at the end of the school day to read and to discuss Black writing.  Our circle, comprised of faculty members from across departments, students, alumni, parents, and staff members stands alone in its representation of multiple stakeholders in our community.

The most recent effort to revive the Lit Circle is a collection of faculty members across the curriculum who meet weekly for discussions related to their reading of Ellison’s Invisible Man.  African-American writing and the modes of inquiry that attend to it are so inextricably woven into the HBW fabric that it takes little to replicate its culture of collegiality and inquiry. 

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The College Language Association @ Chicago: A Place to Dream

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[by: Morgan McComb]

This year was my inaugural experience at the 78th Annual College Language Association convention. I was in constant awe—every panel I went to struck me as something new, expanding my horizons. But perhaps no panel stood at the center of the crossroads between scholarship and dynamic engagement with black literature and black history than the panel entitled “Chicago Dreamers: Literary and Life Legacies of a Migratory Magnet,” chaired by Dr. Daryl Cumber Dance with panelists Dr. Trudier Harris, Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin, Dr. Sandra Y. Govan, and poet Opal Moore.

I wanted to go to this panel because I have cited every single one of these undeniably powerful women in my own scholarship. Daryl Dance’s introduction outlined their incomparable achievements as she introduced the panel and invited anyone who wanted “to challenge or question” her claims to “meet [her] fellow panelists and [her] at the hotel bar tonight.” The women on this panel—founders and first participants of the Wintergreen Collective and the Furious Flower Poetry Conference among numerous other achievements—met in a crowded room on Friday, April 5th, to explore the full spectrum of what it means to be a Chicago dreamer.

Dr. Trudier Harris’s presentation centered on Lorraine Hansberry’s character Walter Lee younger from A Raisin in the Sun. Harris elucidated the importance of dreaming, arguing for Walter as a more engaging character than Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas because Bigger “does nothing to make his dream of flying come true.” For Southern migrant Walter, dreaming is everything, and his dream of opening a business, Harris argued, touches the reader and/or audience on a deeper level because we understand Walter’s desires, his dreams of flying and his earnest sincerity in wanting to do so. Walter’s inability to hone his entrepreneurial skills leaves us with a question, one that Harris cited from Langston Hughes’s poem, “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred?”

Activists in Chicago

Dr. Joanne V. Gabbin’s presentation was part-memoir, part educational coming-of-age story, as she described her education at the University of Chicago and the community of black scholars in Hyde Park that had a profound impact on her including George Kent, Val Gray Ward, and Don L. Lee who later became Haki Madhubuti. Like Dr. Trudier Harris, Dr. Gabbin’s presentation was about potential, a potential that she saw in herself and one that lead her along with others to fundamentally change Black studies at the University of Chicago and beyond.  Gabbin emphasized the community that she found, a community that has changed over time but one that she has always felt she can return to.

The next panelist, Dr. Sandra Y. Govan, also told a story about personal development and fulfillment, but it was not her story; instead, she channeled her father, a Southern migrant who was forced to leave the South in fear of his life. Hopping a train to escape, he found a bastion of opportunity that was Chicago in the early 20th century, joining other family members who had arrived before him. Like Dr. Harris’s arguments for the importance of dreams and hope in the character of Walter Lee Younger, Dr. Govan’s story of her father’s perseverance in the face of danger demonstrates the importance of self-preservation and self-determination.

The final presentation by Opal Moore shifted the panel’s focus to a native daughter of Chicago—or, rather, the native daughter of Chicago. Moore’s lyrical presentation explored themes of hope, expectations, and dreams deferred in Gwendolyn Brooks’s work. In particular, Moore was inspired by pictures of the Mecca Building in Chicago, a building that Brooks herself wrote about. Like the Mecca Building itself, Moore argued, Brooks’s poetry contrasts light and dark while also exploring the emotional and psychological impact of housing disenfranchisement among Chicago’s black residents.

Rear, L to R: Daryl Dance, Opal Moore, Trudier Harris.  Front: Sandra Govan, Joanne Gabbin

The presentations on the “Chicago Dreamers” panel were diverse in topic, theme, tone, and intent, but they had one commonality: the need for community. Harris’s discussion of Walter Lee Younger’s story in A Raisin in the Sun demonstrates the need for a loving community instead of focusing on self-serving motivations; Gabbin outlined a literary and scholastic legacy, a legacy that included scholars, professors, and classmates whose recognition of the need for deep and genuine mentorship propelled her forward as a student and Black studies as a discipline; Govan’s story took us beyond the academic, as her father’s unique story of migration and perseverance resonates for others in his time and today; Moore’s closing thoughts on the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks highlights the complexities and shadowed hope that have and still do mark Chicago’s black communities. While some of the conversation focused on dreams deferred, in some cases loss, much of it was about achievement.  Not surprisingly, once the panel ended the room erupted in applause. As I left the room, I, too, somehow felt that I had achieved something—that I had been in the right place, at the right time, a new though short-term migrant to Chicago, who could create my own dreams about dynamic and engaged scholarship as part of a community, and perhaps like these women, experience through it effusive and genuine joy.



Morgan McComb is a master’s student at the University of Kansas who studies African American Poetry with a particular concentration on Detroit poets since the Black Arts Movement. She serves as co-coordinator for HBW’s Black Literary Suite.

An Act of Faith

Posted Posted in HBW

[by Vincent Omni]

I last delivered a paper 20 years ago: an academic talk as an undergraduate fellow with the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM). I discussed the contributions of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston to the Harlem Renaissance. Since then, I’ve raised a family and worked in public education. The thought, then, of presenting at the College Language Association’s annual conference caused a bit of trepidation. I doubted my abilities, unaided by requisite practice, had improved with time. In fact, I suspected they were rusty, more than anything, and might cause me embarrassment. Still, I submitted an abstract about my humble (this adjective cannot be overstated) examination of Showtime’s infatuation with the south side of Chicago, and much to my surprise, was invited to present during the 78th annual CLA convention’s as part of the New Scholars Panel. The presentation went well, as did the talks I attended by several of my peers that week.

Langston Hughes

Poet Nikky Finney, though, proved the highlight of my CLA experience. The National Book Award winner spoke during a luncheon for the Langston Hughes Society (LHS), which meets in conjunction with CLA. I hadn’t purchased a ticket for the event, but LHS members let me listen to her speak. She read “Yella Gal,” a poem from a yet-to-be-released book, then moved on to her thesis for the afternoon, “The Herocity of Langston Hughes.” She spoke of heroes and mountains, of growing up “in a house where Black History Month was every day of the week,” and of becoming a poet. “Writing was an act of faith to Langston Hughes,” she said. “Writing was becoming an act of faith to me.”

Nikky Finney

Her words, this last quote in particular, reminded me of the summer I spent immersing myself in Hughes and Hurston. I poured over their autobiographies, novels, plays, and volumes of poetry. I scoured page after page of Simple stories and reread Their Eyes Were Watching God in search of just the right quotes for my essay. Like Finney, writing was becoming an act of faith for me then. Bittersweet emotion swelled up inside me as I sat there listening to her that afternoon: sadness for somehow having lost faith in the act of writing and gratitude for having found it once more. Later, after buying a book, Head Off & Split, and waiting in line for Finney to sign it, I thanked her for reminding me of my faith. “Come on home,” she said.

 

 


Vince Omni is a creative writing student in the MFA program and teaches first-year composition at the University of Kansas. He manages HBW’s fiction acquisitions and helps develops content for the Black Literary Suite and blog.

TONIGHT — Hanif Abdurraqib Reading: They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us

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[by: Morgan McComb]

Before you head to Hanif Abdurraqib’s reading tonight, check out this review of They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us and get your tickets here.

Sometimes you read books that make you think, and then sometimes you read books that make you feel; this one does both. Abdurraqib’s essays give you just enough of the personal, but once he draws you in, he sends you back to yourself, forcing you to look inward through subjects we write off as surface-level or, at the very least, irrelevant to the “bigger” issues. Macklemore beating out Kendrick Lamar for the Best Rap Album Grammy, the rise and fall of Fall Out Boy, why we should stop giving Migos so much flack for being from the suburbs, and the cultural implications of Allen Iverson vs. Michael Jordan—and that’s just to start. What Abdurraqib perhaps does best, though, is demonstrate how to use popular culture as a starting point—for change, reflection, therapy, or whatever we need it to be—in order to dig deeper. Abdurraqib’s focus isn’t just on evaluating and demonstrating the value of popular figures like Chance the Rapper. Abdurraqib’s emphasis on music is a gateway to a discussion about our nation’s biggest political and socioeconomic issues, like police brutality and the murder of Black Americans, the rise of white supremacy, and gentrification. This book will be something different to everyone, and it has an entrance point for everyone, too; and I can’t help but feel that that’s what good writing does. In this case, Abdurraqib’s writing is awe-inspiring while being at the same time totally accessible. In a time of deep political tension and disunion, a book like this feels prescient, present, and desperately needed.

Black Futures Month: Freedoms, Poetry, & Resistance

Posted Posted in HBW

[By: Anthony Boynton]

If no other moment during my time in Lawrence has shown me what freedom of expression and freedom of speech means, including how positionalities directly influence their manifestation, Dr. Eve L. Ewing’s recent visit to KU did so. On January. 30th, the Lawrence community gathered together in some amazing ways to share and celebrate poetry at “Mic Supremacy” which featured the award-winning Poet, Sociologist and Educator. Organized by community activist, poet, and KU alum Jameelah Jones, “Mic Supremacy” is a monthly POC-centered open mic night where people of the Lawrence community come to share poetry and prose at The Raven Book Store. On this special occasion (and the same night #45 gave a lie-filled State of the Union address) poetry was shared by members of the KU community, including faculty, staff, and undergraduate and graduate students who offered poems about joy, epistles of extreme emotion, and letters to loved ones. It was certainly an event where poets were given permission to be vulnerable and to create. Ewing gave a fantastic performance, reading several unpublished pieces including “Praise Song for Video Gamers,” a Psalm of adoration for old and new gamers and blerds alike.

The next day Ewing led a writing workshop on campus, followed by a lecture later that evening titled: “Poetry in Context” in which she detailed how her work advances the cultural heritage and historical tradition of African American poetry. This hybrid talk also included a reading of poems from her recently published collection Electric Arches which is a love ballad to Black girlhood, womanhood, dreams, and futures. One poem in particular she shared, “Arrival Day,” pays homage to Assata Shakur, who once said “Black revolutionaries don’t drop from the moon. We are created by our conditions.” Ewing’s poem responds to this quote through an origin story of activists as superhuman moonpeople and served as the perfect entry into Black History Month and Black Futures Month.

On the heels of Ewing’s visit, Lawrence also celebrated Langston Hughes’ 116th birthday with the “Langston Hughes Creative Writing Awards” honoring local writers. Rachel Atakpa, writer and undergraduate English major at KU, won for poetry and shared her piece “Psalm 73,” a revisioning of the biblical verse that left the room completely awe-inspired.

All of these events highlight some of the most filling moments for me as a budding writer in Lawrence. The sharing of poetry with people of color, who are generationally silenced from verse and speech, is a powerful experience especially when the premise is poetry is revolutionary. This type of freedom of expression becomes radical work in an era of alternative facts, “fake news,” government scandals, and shutdowns. It is even more radical when white nationalism shows up.

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