Rethinking The Canon

Lauri Ramey ’73 offers a new history of African American poetry with far-reaching implications for the study of Anglophone literature

alea adigweme ’06 | September 30, 2019

If asked to riff on the origins of African American literature, the average Reedie might be able to conjure up a series of terms learned long-ago from a high-school textbook or Norton anthology. Those key terms might include Wheatley, Hammon, or 18th century, and our Reedie might even think themselves passingly familiar with the foundation of this literary canon. They would be wrong.

In A History of African American Poetry, literary scholar Lauri Ramey ’73 formulates a trenchant historiographical critique of the traditional canon and offers a polyphonic revision with far-reaching implications for the study of African American poetry, and Anglophone literature in general. In a monograph that covers cultural works created everywhen from 1400s West Africa to 2018, she persistently asks, “Why this text and not that text?”— making visible the politics at play in canon-formation as she systematically recuperates literary figures and forms understudied and/or erased for a panoply of logistical and political reasons, from lack of access to sources to systemic predilections for sidelining the avant garde and undervaluing modes of expression deemed non-literary (i.e., “folk” or “vernacular” or “African” or “Black”).

For Ramey, any history of African American poetry that starts with the works of Phillis Wheatley, Lucy Terry, and Jupiter Hammon is “chronologically too late to represent the origins of the tradition” and fundamentally “conservative” for its contemporaneous and pre-18th-century exclusions. Though she concedes that “it is essential to incorporate written texts by enslaved black people in any conception of the origins of the genre,” in her own reimagination of African American poetry’s “bedrock,” she foregrounds the suspicious omission from scholarly histories and anthologies of “printed poems by free black people and oral poems by enslaved black people,” linking that erasure to the authors’ formal independence.

In choosing to place “oral literature” alongside published work in her second chapter, “The Origins of African American Poetry,” she cements the literary import of “slave songs”—“the earliest and largest canon of African American poetry”—highlighting their experimental, intercultural quintessence. Naming the major anthologies that omit slave songs wholesale or only list them separately from “literary” poetry, she dismantles the notion that slave songs are anything but literature, unpacking their inventiveness and tracking their enduring allusory presence in the works of generations of African American poets. Her excavation of free black poets published in the colonial and antebellum eras pushes the reader to think critically about the reasons cultural innovators popular in their lifetimes have fallen out of favor to the point of disappearing from the canon almost completely.

The chapter titles sketch a rough periodization that is simultaneously blurred within each chapter’s text. She uses her more capacious canon to create through lines that convincingly connect West African cultural production observed by Europeans during the so-called Age of Exploration to living African American poets writing in a multitude of forms today, hip hop included. She recontextualizes familiar poets, references a host of semiforgotten ones, and reiterates the ways in which creativity and the critical reflexivity necessary for canon creation occur not in vacuums, but in response to and conversation with each other.

Returning to the hypothetical scenario with which we began, after reading A History, we know to say: “The process of becoming African Americans, and producers of African American products, began at the nightmare moment of irrevocable capture.” We know, through Ramey, that to truly attend to what is African and what is American about African American poetry, we must examine the entanglements and tensions at the genre’s heart: between orality, musicality, performance, and print culture; slavery and freedom; land, home, migration, and diaspora; an individual and their community; self-determination and collective concerns; the past and the present; art and activism; the covert and the overt; and a ceaseless “capacity to navigate change and continuously refresh itself for new times and conditions.”

“Canons,” she says, “are built on access to information, and that which is made visible and available stands the greatest chance of entering awareness and recirculating.” For students, scholars, and fans of cultural products indebted to African American cultural innovation, this lineage-building work is essential. 


Tags: Alumni, Books, Film, Music, Diversity/Equity/Inclusion