[INSTRUMENTAL MUSIC PLAYING] TAMAR EVANGELESTIA-DOUGHERTY: Good afternoon. I'm Tamar Evangelestia-Doughtery, Associate University Librarian for Rare and Distinctive Collections at Cornell University Library, and it is my pleasure to welcome you to today's symposium in celebration of the "Visions of Dante," a collaboration of Cornell University Library and the Herbert F. Johnson Museum, which illuminates the impact of Dante in the 700 years since his death. This special session is entitled "A Dante Afterlife: LeRoi Jones' System of Dante's Hell and Derek Walcott's Omeros," and explores responses and interpretations of Dante's work through the lens of Black literature, and will be presented by Maryemma Graham.
Maryemma is University Distinguished Professor in the Department of English at the University of Kansas and the 2021 recipient of an American Book Award for Lifetime Achievement. In her 40-year career, which includes 12 books on teaching, Black literature, and literary history, most notably The Cambridge History of African American Literature with Jerry W. Ward Jr. In 1983, she founded and transformed a project on the history of Black writing into a leading center for literary recovery and engaged scholarship known for its early use of interactive technologies.
Maryemma has raised millions of dollars, including 20 funded grants from the National Endowment for Humanities to support research, professional development programs, and interinstitutional networks that are national and global in scope. Among them are the Langston Hughes National Poetry Project, Language Matters, and the International Teaching Initiative for the Toni Morrison Society, and The Black Book Interactive Project, home to the world's largest and fastest-growing digital archive for Black fiction research. Fellowships from the Ford Foundation, ACLS, and the National Humanities Center complement a career that has been far-reaching in its impact on generations of students, younger scholars, and higher education professionals. The House Where My Soul Lives: The Life of Margaret Walker, the first complete biography of the poet and novelist, will be published in the spring of 2022 by Oxford University Press. I present to you the amazing Maryemma Graham.
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: Thank you, Tamar. Good afternoon, everyone. I'm delighted to be here. It is indeed odd that I would be participating in a panel on Dante, since I'm not a scholar of medieval literature generally, nor of Dante Alighieri in particular, nor do I have occasion to teach Dante very often. My presence here, I believe, however, is an indication of the need for more conversations about literary and cultural intersections in a period with increasing Balkanization in our society overall. We know that the humanities can be a protected space, but only if we actively make it so.
As a literary her/historian, what I hope to do today is add to one of those conversations regarding the literary reception of Dante and the Divine Comedy within a Black literary tradition. I hope that it is not too surprising to most of you that this can be a huge topic, depending upon the approach. What follows is thus an exploration of a Dante afterlife, using and depending on selected Black texts, in particular LeRoi Jones' The System of Dante's Hell and Derek Walcott's Omeros. How does the Black writer or artist reengage Dante? I suggest the term "vernacular counterpoint" as a focus in order to consider various forms of engagement.
Despite my distance from the field of study that is our focus today, I am a literary historian by training and practice. That means I do not teach the origins of Black literature without a deep dive into the Enlightenment, for example, where the tension between the spiritual and secular views of the world come into sharp focus. Likewise, I don't teach the slave narrative, which I consider the only original American literary genre, without teaching Aphra Behn's Oroonoko, published in 1688, and the first literary narrative in English that considers slavery in an American colony. I do so because it provides a larger context for understanding the phenomenon known as the Atlantic slave trade.
Similarly, Dante's Divine Comedy is one of several foundational texts that writers have turned to in teasing out their ideas about the relationship between history, the imagination, and the material world. Not surprisingly, over the long history of literary production, we began to see convergence and divergence, shared histories and stories deriving from the combined effect of human understanding and the imagination.
Alongside the Black writer's literary reception of Dante, there's also the critical reception of Black writers themselves. The latter is connected to canon formation and systems of validation, Black literature, with its history of marginalization and exclusion, and individual authors have often engaged in strategies for gaining the desired recognition. In his study of 18th and 19th-century Black literature, for example, Robert Stepto points to the "authentication device" of the slave narrative, those letters and commentary by notable white individuals that preceded the actual narrative. Despite the existence of slavery as fact, such documents were deemed necessary for a slave narrative to enter into public discourse as credible testimony of a slave's experience.
The tradition of authentication actually extended itself when Paul Laurence Dunbar was introduced by leading writer of the day William Dean Howells, or when Margaret Walker, who was the first Black writer to win a National Poetry Award, continued to include Stephen Vincent Benét's foreword to "For My People" in all subsequent published editions, despite its condescending tone. We also note Frederick Douglass' linguistic resistance to the tradition of white validation and authentication by titling his widely read autobiography The Narrative of Frederick Douglass, a Slave, written by himself. This kind of reclamation of agency of authorship set Douglass apart from many slave narratives, as much as did his masterful language that provided his ability and intelligence was certain.
None of these efforts, of course, could stem the rise of scientific racism, the attempt to use data to prove Black intelligence and ability, or a lack thereof, in the 19th century. To press the point further with one more current example, Jesmyn Ward, one of the leading Black writers today, is most often compared to Southern writer William Faulkner, despite the long tradition of Black writing that comes out of the South. Ward herself has been criticized for encouraging this thinking, as she does famously in Time magazine in the August 2017 issue. The article, entitled "Jesmyn Ward: Heir to William Faulkner, Probes the Specter of Race In the South," penned by Sarah Begley. It is a kind of reverse authentication, that is, Ward herself provides quotes that affirm the view that is she is the heir to William Faulkner, and discounts, in this way, a longer tradition of Black literature and Black writing.
To conclude, then, we might ask that for Black or other marginalized writers, one, literary value is often dependent upon the imposition of dominant cultural authority and critical reception from outside the culture, and, two, that a writer we believe is original is always already in a conversation with ideas shared with other writers read at some level, even when one is writing one's own historical moment. The need to claim authority through recognizable structures is perhaps a driving force for any writer who seeks an audience and wants to be heard, for while writing is a solitary enterprise, for sure, the production, distribution, and circulation of any work as a material object is far from it.
Historical exclusion and protocols of race bear down harder on some writers than others. The reality is that works exist, but often lack sufficient cultural capital to enjoy any extensive circulation. Radcliffe-educated Marita Bonner, for example, introduced the concept in Black fiction in her Frye Street stories, set in an area in Chicago, where she lived, but without a network and her limited association with the Harlem Renaissance, which is when she was writing, at the same time, not being radical enough to gain affiliation with Chicago's leftist culture, her work didn't see its full publication until 1987, when her was recovered and published in full. We realized that she was working in a genre commonly used by a host of writers, especially Black women writers of color, like Maxine Hong Kingston and Gloria Naylor, the short story cycle that serves as a composite narrative, which is, in effect, a novel.
Part of the difficulty is that we now only know certain authors, fewer Black authors, of course, certainly, and it makes it hard to identify these kinds of formal characteristics, their points of origin, and the like. The result is that we most often make those connections with canonical writers, who are the ones we do know. Without the ability to make better assessment of original works within Black literature and their impact on subsequent writers, we're looking mainly at the critical reception to well-known canonical white texts.
For Black writers, one of the major legacies is Dante. Dennis Looney, his book Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy, published in 2011, has done the best job so far in outlining this legacy, and I rely on him here to provide a brief background. While the Dante effect derived from the period of the Dante explosion in English studies in the American academy in the late 19th century, Looney suggests that Dante's influence on Black writers might have predated that and followed a different path, that is, Dante's connection to Black writing reflects an important convergence with the conditions of resistance to slavery and other forms of oppression, the idea of exile or a forced migration, and Dante's desire to speak through an accessible language, i.e. the question of the vernacular. Turning to Dante's work helped those writers make sense of a perceived injustice and the persecution of the writer.
Admittedly, I am painting broad strokes here in summarizing Looney's assessment that Dante's effect is linked to the romantic rehabilitation of the author, the glorification of a radical writer reform, and the adaptation of his epic poem to prose, among the most commonly cited. There is also the more radical suggestion that Dante prefigures the role of an abolitionist that makes the Divine Comedy something of a slave narrative, all this by way of background for looking at a Dante afterlife in a more contemporary literary landscape, which reflects on the question of language.
How do we view Dante in a period when literature, and print culture more generally, is participating in boundary crossings that force us to rethink the meaning of genre, historical periods, and authorship, new ways of writing and reading, and the expanded modes of literary and cultural production in a digital age after our understanding of what literature is and does. Dante was a foremost public intellectual, and his literary projects show a deep concern with bridging the divide between a mainly literate and literary culture and a popular one, each with distinctly different systems of communication, Latin, on the one hand, an emergent new Italian vernacular language on the other.
In many ways, we are at those same crossroads, with a continual crossover between academic and popular culture, not only in language, but also in social practice. This is complicated more by other more intersectional factors, race, gender, social, and economic class, of course. While it is tempting to discuss the impact of Dante's ideas on radical reform and his role in prefiguring modernist literary techniques, especially for African American writers, I will refer you back to Dennis Looney's work. He discusses a critical core of texts, including William Wells Brown's 1861 novel Miralda; or, The Beautiful Octoroon, H. Cordelia Ray's 1885 poem "Dante," and William Wells Browns, who talked specifically about his fetish for Dante in his autobiography, written in 1855, The American Fugitive in Europe. Brown had left the US following the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law, and bonded with Dante in their shared status as exiles, whether self or state-imposed.
There are several other noteworthy points in Looney's study. Along with discussions of Du Bois' allusions to Dante, Looney points to Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison's use of Dante and their descriptions of Southern hell, out of which they both escape, Black Boy for Wright and Invisible Man, of course, by Ellison. For Ellison, of course, Dante does become the vernacular muse, with more direct and indirect references in ways that prefigure something similar in Jones, which I will turn to shortly.
Looney concludes his study by looking at Gloria Naylor's Linden Hills, 1985, where he finds a creative adaptation of Dante's poetic meter, the terza rima, which serves as the work's narrative device, which would be adapted more fully by Walcott later. Much less visible, perhaps, is the mention of Toni Morrison's inaugural novel The Bluest Eye, where the intervention of the spiritual character, Soaphead Church, a rather elusive, minor figure, claims Dante to signify his exposure to a Western classical tradition. His mystical presence in the text is a bridge between the spiritual and secular belief system that comprise vernacular culture.
Looney correctly points out that Black writers from the 1970s on, and poets in particular, continued their sampling of Dante, the term that has come to denote a new kind of vernacular tradition in its own right, one that allows a more innovative and fluid revisioning and reinscribing of Dante. I borrow the idea of a vernacular counterpoint from Looney here as a point of departure for the discussion of the two writers in question, LeRoi Jones, known for most of his professional life as Amiri Baraka, and Derek Walcott. It seems to me that these writers are substantially different enough to understand the various ways in which Black writers respond to Dante in different historical moments. This discussion also ties together my earlier points about the critical reception and race and the need for validation. Rather than create a strictly linear division, Black writers on the one hand, and Dante on the other, I hope to show a more complex rendering of intertextuality that is operating in this literary timeline.
Jones' The System of Dante's Hell, first published in 1963, and Walcott's Omeros, 1990, classics in their own right, are certainly part of the Dante afterlife, since both expose us to new ways and sensibilities associated with an experimental vernacular counterpoint. The idea of the vernacular is not exclusively or necessarily a direct result of the intertextual relationship with Dante, of course, especially since Black print culture continues to reflect the influence of both written and oral traditions that are African in origin.
As I have quoted elsewhere, orality is the primary basis of all natural language, as graphic representation is yet another, one might say, even secondary mode of language. In this sense, we would do well to remember that the meaning we attribute to vernacular today, that is, defined as a dialect or language spoken by ordinary people, remarks on the contrast between the fixed spatiality of writing, as opposed to the natural unfolding of oral speech in time. Seen from this perspective, Dante's concern with crafting a new language in his own work, that is, in the Divine Comedy, is, in fact, a concern with language specifically.
Those writers who sought to capture the unique qualities and resonances of Black oral expression have been among our best. One thinks here of Morrison, for example, who often opens her novels with sound words taken from a Black cultural repertoire, just as some of her most memorable passages have to be read aloud to be fully appreciated for their richness. Dante's push against the traditional Latin, the choice to write in Italian, then a local language, i.e. a vernacular one, helped to mark his heretical tendencies. But he was also accused of corruption and other acts associated with his political involvements, for which he was exiled. A discussion of the two writers brings the idea of the vernacular into full view, especially in relation to Dante.
For those less familiar, The System of Dante's Hell is the first of two novels and four works of fiction by LeRoi Jones, or Amiri Baraka. It is decidedly modernist, in that it continues the autobiographical tradition in African American writing using the journey motif that includes experiences in the South and North and his confrontations with racism. When we think about the storyline, the plot is fairly linear, but the narrative experimentation in form is much more visible. The information is revealed through the first, second, and third person, and frequently fragmented. Its claims for modernism have to do with a mix of genres, the infusing of themes of disconnection, uncertainty, and the foregrounding of interior thought alongside the narrator's observations about others and about the experiences of living in a racialized culture. By mix of genres, I refer to those portions of an off-Broadway play Jones had written earlier, entitled Dante. The novel is openly Dante-esque, with its structure based on the nine circles that Dante outlines in the Inferno.
Digging a bit deeper, however, we have to describe the relationship to Dante's literary legacy as one of juxtaposition, that is, any adaptation we see is reflected in terms of comparison and contrast between the two texts. Black texts, up to this point, I'd like to remind you, had been mainly identified, at least those that we were reading and discussing at the time, as, one, a revision of the slave narrative, often with a theme of migration, and, two, a novel in the social realist tradition that often crossed over into modernism. Sometimes we refer to this as "crossroads modernism."
Most readers, and especially critics, did not know where to place Jones' novel at the time. This is not unusual, for, if you will recall what happened to the now famous novel by Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the book was not rediscovered and reprinted until the 1970s, 40 years after it was originally published. And while Black writing since the publication of Ellison's Invisible Man in 1952 established a pattern of difference, Ellison's classic novel is characterized by its consistent narrative sequencing, the South-North plot progression, which links it to Black storytelling generally. But as most critics quickly point out, Ellison was the most self-consciously modernist writer because of the contradictory impulses in the text, its jazz-inflected prose, and the elaborate underground-above ground imagery and symbolism.
I would argue, however, that Jones' The System of Dante's Hell is equally self-conscious in the modernist practice, but the book has not been part of that conversation. The novel systematically plots its characters and experiences through major vices that Dante identified. The narrator, Jones, replaces Dante, but he shows a lack of understanding and awareness of the world in which he is placed. With Dante as an exile model, Jones lives the life in exile, that is, a Black man in America's primary condition.
Jones' departure from the established model for Black writing at the time, using a form and structure that bore more kinship with a medieval text, may have distanced him from Black critics. As a result, the critical reception of the text was primarily shaped by a conversation among white critics, whose barometers were limited, and who had already pigeonholed Black writing into the protest novel tradition, which made for reductionist interpretations of Black literature, especially from the 1930s on.
One of the few, if not the only article that does more than judge Jones for stepping outside of the critical establishment's comfort zone for Black writers at the time was written by Paulette Pennington-Jones, who does a close reading of the two texts. The obvious structural similarities are there. Jones' hell is indeed organized around the nine circles and the three capital vices that Dante identifies. Dante does indeed describe the descent into hell as an after-death consequence of one's moral choices during life.
However, the image of hell that Jones provides is a living hell, an internalized one, the condition of the soul that is imposed by conditions of Black existence. The contrast between Jones' hell in life and Dante's hell in an afterlife are significant not only in terms of a different time, place, and condition, but also in terms of ongoing efforts to translate Dante in new ways. The medieval worldview that Dante represents contrasts with the deep psychological and material reality of being Black in America, as Jones would describe it in his 1963 novel. There is much to comment on as Jones reframes the work, but it is difficult not to see his intent in relationship to Dante, a need to take the most classic work in the Western canon as a point of departure, allowing it to serve as a metaphor through which he can explain a growing awareness of self in relationship to others, as well as a commitment to change.
Jones was about to enter his most explosive period as a writer, denouncing what he considered his slave name, that is, LeRoi Jones, to become Imamu Amiri Baraka, leaving Greenwich Village for Harlem. Dante, in this sense, became his pathway for the transition. Rather than the invective that had characterized much of his poetry, Jones turned to allegory and metaphor to communicate and experience. Since the idea of Black poetry or Black literature was still being debated during this period, Jones finds a way to connect to readers across a cultural divide.
As writers have continued to translate Dante, or other ideas that are considered universal, they often must find ways to inscribe the original meanings. Even though the structural alignment with Dante is apparent, we cannot overlook the opening words of Jones' book. He immediately sets up a juxtaposition with his words, "Dante's hell is heaven." His reliance upon Dante's structure, we are told, must be seen in reverse order. The truth is revealed over time, as the different entries and episodes are reported. Had Jones used a more familiar phrase, "One man's heaven is another man's hell," it probably would not have been as meaningful. Thus, seeing this as a vernacular counterpoint becomes the practice of replacing one form of vernacular with another, in this case, because it gives a unifying theme and guides the reading.
Following his opening pronouncement, Jones begins his extended allegory that interprets the ideas from Dante by way of revision. While evil deeds and actions do send one to hell, so too is the vestibule, a waiting space where one makes no choice. Those who make no choice provide an interesting opportunity for Jones to analyze his own movements and encounters. There are those whose inaction become a form of action, just as there are those who know too much, or think they do, and privilege individualism over a sense of collective responsibility, or one might call "inaction action."
Jones' confessional, self-critical mode as a self-serving artist matches the spiritual confessions one sees in Dante. Because Jones systematically goes through each of the nine circles, he can claim heightened awareness of his actions, with Dante as a spiritual guide. Dante's structure, in essence, gives form and substance to Jones' internal transformation from one state of his life as a beat poet to another as a Black revolutionary poet. Thus, Jones' translation of Dante is driven by a need for greater self understanding and self-transformation, leading to a higher level of social commitment. The process is both inner and outer, the latter directed toward readers, who will see and empathize with someone else's living hell, as opposed to Dante's hell in afterlife.
Jones is intentional, too, about his use of a more vernacular continuum. The confessional mode contrasts sharply with the spiritual, meditational mode that Dante uses. In sum, Jones appropriates Dante for the purpose of his own transformation. If LeRoi Jones, his given name, is dead, the circle is complete, because the rebirth as a different kind of artist, Imamu Amiri Baraka, gives him new life. Jones need not move through purgatory or paradise, since the more modern meaning of spirituality has liberated him.
Despite this connection to Dante, The System of Dante's Hell continued to invite little criticism for at least 15 years, which is usually the amount of time it takes for a book to fall off the critical radar. What is interesting about those critical responses that did appear is how completely white critics missed Jones' meaning, while Black critics, though there were few of them, got it. Beside Pennington-Jones, that I mentioned earlier, Lloyd W. Brown paid close attention to the theme and structure of the novel, and commented extensively on the ways in which white critics lacked an understanding of the Black literary tradition.
To make his point, Brown placed The System of Dante's Hell alongside Jean Toomer's Cane, published in 1922, suggesting that the innovative use and imaginative adaptation of Euro-American literary genres is not uncommon, which raises a curious question about why Jones' earlier reputation as a poet did not endear him to critics with his first novel. The most cynical side of me would suggest that those white critics who were dismissive in their critical droppings justified their lack of engagement with Jones' work. They were not willing to allow Jones to do the kind of crossover, since literary boundaries, like social ones, must be maintained.
The two critics most frequently cited in regard to system The System of Dante's Hell, Edward Margolies and David Littlejohn, present an interesting contradiction. On the one hand, both built their reputations on Black literature. At the same time, they helped to limit the growth of a constructive, thoroughgoing criticism. Both Margolies and Littlejohn gave credence to Jones as a poet, but they contributed significantly to the gatekeeping that squeezed the life out of the texts and writers who were being especially innovative at the time.
Since this was Jones' first novel, Margolies dismissed the text entirely with his comments, "The text is explosive and directionless, as some of Jones' poems," while Littlejohn kept stacking up the heap of dismissals by referring to the book as "a semi-autobiographical, semi-pornographic prose thing." The view of these early gatekeepers by many is that both could not put aside their own uniform judgmental reactions to the book and see it as a work of literature. Terms such as "pornographic," "sordid," "hopeless," "painful" are often used to reduce Jones' work, and that of other writers, to a single uncomplicated idea. One hears for example, the phrase "a search for identity" applied to much of this literature, which would become the thematic equivalent to the protest novel of an earlier period.
In contrast to the lack of attention that The System of Dante's Hell has received, Omeros, by Saint Lucian writer Derek Walcott, was published almost three decades later to rave reviews. Walcott would win a Nobel Prize for Literature two years later that confirmed the importance of Omeros as his crowning achievement. In comparison to Dante, however, which we shall see shortly, it was not part of those conversations.
Omeros is an epic poem, told through seven books and 64 chapters, using the same three-line terza rima as Dante uses. As an epic, it is the Caribbean equivalent of a national narrative, which likens it more often to the Iliad and the Odyssey, thus making Homer Walcott's true literary ancestor. Omeros does not disguise or resist its relationship to this classical epic tradition in its effort to structure the chapters through a transatlantic journey. Walcott's reputation at the time he published Omeros allowed him to escape from the critical detections that would associate him with Dante.
Part pastoral, part travel narrative, the movement in Omeros allows for history and myth to coalesce with a fluid boundary. Good old-fashioned storytelling, key characters who represent the cultural diversity of the colonial legacy of Saint Lucia, once introduced, connect with one another in a plot that crosses time and space. History and myth coexist in the book, just as past and present do, along with the world of the dead, complete with ghosts with the world of the living, and a mystical return to Africa.
We might consider these overlapping systems where language is crucial. It allows Walcott to be free to imagine, for example, that moment in chapter 28, a reference to the Middle Passage, characterized by separation, and I quote, "So there went the Ashanti on one way, the Mandingo another, the Ibo another, the Guinea. Now each man was a nation in himself, without mother, father, brother." At other times, memorable characters weave in and out of each other's lives, who have experiences like the love triangle between Achille, Hector, and Helen, the struggle that Major Plunkett and his wife have adjusting to a decolonized order, all under the watchful eye of Walcott himself as unnamed narrator.
In general, the vernacular is persistent and present in the power that an author gives to a character and the character's language. Not unlike the opening of Jones' The System of Dante's Hell, Omeros allows the first character we meet in the opening of chapter one to speak in Patois, as he explains the process for the tourists. The first voice, therefore, is that of the people, prioritizing the vernacular. As we continue to meet characters, we do so through their voices and the dialogues in which they are engaged.
Another striking resemblance to Dante becomes visible if we consider the underpinnings of the book a reenactment of Dante's spiritual journey. Maria Cristina Fumagalli, in her 2000 essay "Epics of the Self and Journeys into Language," agrees with this view. While the global sensibility of the book is especially powerful, with Europe, England, Africa, and the US as part of that transatlantic connection, Omeros begins as a journey, recalling that the Divine Comedy is Dante's journey through life as well.
Accordingly, Omeros goes beyond The System of Dante's Hell by Jones. It allows for transcendence from purgatory to paradise, while Jones' transformation was complete with his understanding of the hell in life. In contrast, Walcott completes the circle, an important factor. As a native from the Caribbean, a region characterized by regular comings and goings, Walcott must acknowledge that spatial reality, just as he affects a spiritual one. His homecoming, reconnecting with family, and friends, and culture, is the completion of that circle. This is the fulfillment of the spiritual homecoming akin to Dante's. Healing from the pains of the past are important, and the only way to achieve self-acceptance and transformation. A similar experience occurs for other characters, like Major Plunkett, who must reconcile his role as a former colonial administrator with a new existence in a different present. He must face the past, as he remains in the country with a new status.
Walcott's critical placement at the time of Omeros as among the most revered of Black writers, the most awarded and rewarded, gained him much more critical attention. Because Omeros is wedded to a tradition with a relational identity to national origins, its epic model takes the lead in critical discussions. Homer is present in the text, with the Greek name "Omeros" giving the book its title. It guarantees that this is a story of a nation, of conquest, of conflict, and community.
At the same time, Walcott has been accused of being too attached to his European colonial roots as a resident of the English Caribbean, the reason often given for his tremendous success he has achieved. Nevertheless, Walcott introduces a new model, not only as a modernist text, but more specifically, a post-colonial one. His ability to Dante's form for the creation of a new storytelling practice is marked by reinvention.
Rather than the juxtaposition that we see with Jones, Walcott has reclaimed and redirected the canonical narrative for a specifically New World narrative. Such a narrative, to quote Stuart Hall, "rejects the traditional distinction between literature and politics, together with a refusal to see Black people as extinguished, incorporated, and assimilated, or otherwise excluded from their desire to hold on to some traditions, transform others, and invent new ones in the process." The practice is an embrace of the past, identifying its usability and demonstrating a heightened awareness of what must be retained for the future. The New World sensibility is not a protest tradition, nor does it privilege a tragic sensibility. Thus, these narratives of injury depict suffering as inevitable as it is instructive, even necessary to affect change.
Now, I've looked primarily at literary texts here, as you will see three slides with a list of authors for further exploration. The list is the result of our search through the Project on the History of Black Writing digital corpus, and provides the most extensive list of lesser-known novels. We used the search terms "Dante," "Inferno," with good results, with an incomplete search for the "Divine Comedy." Since the list is pulled from only about 1,000 novels from our database published between 1900 and 1980, only with very few sampled from the '70s, one can imagine a much greater potential project, one that should require more time and engagement.
I'd like to end with what I think is perhaps the most important development in the way Dante has impacted Black culture. The final relationship that I propose Black writers have to Dante is even much more thoroughgoing because of its innovation. I leave you with this one example. In 2015, Simon Njami curated an exhibit called Translating Dante's Hell and Heaven through the Eyes of American Artists. The exhibit allows us to move from literary translation to visual translations, suggesting considerations of enormous proportions. All this to say that I've only scratched the surface here. Thank you for listening. Now take a look, as I look forward to your questions after.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, tonight, a look at one of the canons in world literature through the eyes of African artists. Here's Jeffrey Brown with the story.
JEFFREY BROWN: The assignment was to take one of the great artistic achievements of Western culture, Dante's epic poem the Divine Comedy, and play with it, translate it, reimagine it through the work of 13 contemporary artists from Africa.
SIMON NJAMI: When you say "Dante, the Divine Comedy," everybody think they know it, even if few people have really read it.
JEFFREY BROWN: Curator Simon Njami has read and loved Dante, but at a certain point, he came to a realization.
SIMON NJAMI: It was supposed to be a universal book, dealing with hell, purgatory, and paradise, and I was not in the book.
JEFFREY BROWN: You were not in the book in Dante's book?
SIMON NJAMI: I decided that I would update Dante and make it more universal.
JEFFREY BROWN: The results are now on display at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington, works that reflect ideas of heaven, purgatory, and hell. This set of arresting images was created by photographer Aida Muluneh, who spent part of her youth in Canada and the US, before returning to her native Ethiopia. Here, she reworked a very old tradition of body painting to make some very new statements about contemporary life.
AIDA MULUNEH: It was really looking at how people wear masks in order to get ahead in life, and everything is concealed, you know, and a lot of the messages that I put in here, it's really a conversation about spite, and how I feel that that is hell, you know? So it seems like everyone is running around, you know, to make money, to have power, you know, to go to different places, but the real person is not what you see. There is a new generation where we're expressing ourselves that, you know, yes, we're Africans, but it doesn't mean that we have to do always the cliche definition of what is considered African art.
DIMITRI FAGBOHOUN: I happen to be an artist from Africa, but what is Africa?
JEFFREY BROWN: Dimitri Fagbohoun is another global citizen artist.
DIMITRI FAGBOHOUN: I could have specified and said that I'm from Benin. I didn't grow up in Benin. I grew up in Cameroon. So am I the fruit of that story? I've been in France for 20 years now, and I feel French. Am I French, therefore? You know, so I'm all that stuff.
JEFFREY BROWN: Set in purgatory, Fagbohoun created a kind of confessional, with a video inspired by a very universal experience, the loss of a parent, in his case, his father.
DIMITRI FAGBOHOUN: What happens, when you lose someone, what remains, the pain is what remained unspoken. So I had that feeling of things that I wish I'd have told my father and I wish that I heard from him, and the best way to do it was in a confessional.
JEFFREY BROWN: Hell, in this exhibition, is dark indeed. A menacing video by Kenyan artist Mwangi Hutter plays on a loop. Headless duelers, by the British Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare, are poised to do the unnecessary. A ship of heads by Jems Robert Koko Bi, of Ivory Coast, sits motionless, recalling the one used by Dante and his guide Virgil to cross the river Styx. And light barely escapes a dome of darkness created by Egyptian artist Moataz Nasr.
MOATAZ NASR: It's up to you. You could be up in heaven, or you can be down in hell. So it can work both ways.
JEFFREY BROWN: It's not a literal response to Dante, Nasr says, but a response to what he sees happening in Egypt today.
MOATAZ NASR: Instead of searching for love, there is now a lot of hate, violence, killing, all these things that we hear about all the time, which is really very strange. But I don't give solutions. I just make them see. Look. Like, I magnify things. I make them bigger than usual, so they can see it. So that's how I see that the role of the artist should be.
JEFFREY BROWN: For curator Simon Njami there's another goal here, beyond shaking up given notions of heaven, purgatory, and hell, that goes to the idea of Africa itself.
SIMON NJAMI: People think they know Africa. And I've been to all the countries in Africa. I don't know Africa, because there's no such thing as Africa.
JEFFREY BROWN: Wait a minute. There's no such thing as Africa, you say?
SIMON NJAMI: Africa is a construction. The only thing that is real is the shape of the continent.
JEFFREY BROWN: So what do you want people to take from this exhibition?
SIMON NJAMI: Well, I want them to forget about the notion of hell, purgatory, and heaven, and I want them, for those who had some, to forget about any preconception they had on contemporary African art. I mean, definitions are terrible, because there's always a counter-definition. An experience is much more open. So I want them to experience it, and to be surprised, and maybe to reframe a couple of ideas they had before they entered the show.
JEFFREY BROWN: Many will have a chance to do just that, as the exhibition travels to museums around the world after wrapping here in November. At the Smithsonian Museum of African Art in Washington, I'm Jeffrey Brown for the PBS NewsHour.
TAMAR EVANGELESTIA-DOUGHERTY: Thank you very much for your talk, Maryemma. That was wonderful. I'm going to open the floor for any questions. Well, I have one for you, Maryemma. In looking at this, when you look at Dante and medieval Italian literature, as juxtaposed with Black storytelling, how do you think we can create more inclusive opportunities for scholars of medieval and early modern literature to work with scholars of African American literature to come together and have discussions such as this? I think, you know, at the end, I'm wondering if medieval scholars are citing scholars of color in their work as they're doing this.
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: It's a really good question. I think it there is, more often than not, a one-way street, so that, because of the desire for validation and recognition, that, often, Black writers will embrace canonical texts, because they feel they must. The closer they are to them, the more they will be recognized. So I think the reverse, however, is not the case, and so I think that we need to encourage those opportunities, that is, people coming together to work-- to use this word, you know, the "crossroads," being able to work across the boundaries and talking across the table to one another. And those are pedagogical discussions. Those are not just literary critical discussions. Those are about practice, often, what it is you need to do in order to have those kinds of conversations that lead then to something that's more critical in nature. But that's a good question, and I think you've put your finger on a problem, and I think that we have to approach it head on. So somebody's got to take the initiative here.
MODERATOR: OK. There's a question.
DENNIS LOONEY: Thank you very much. I got cited in the talk, and so I want to thank you for this careful, generous commentary on work that I've done in Freedom Readers. And I actually was in Pittsburgh when I wrote that. I live in New York City, but I'm on Cayuga Lake some of the time, and so here I am at Ithaca, and I am honored to be of use to you, Professor Graham, in your good work, and I really appreciate how you've pointed me and anybody who's interested in what I've done to how it can be complemented and gone further and better by looking at Walcott and Caribbean uses of Dante. You actually made me think, you know, what would Walcott say to Soaphead Church, you know, who, if I remember correctly, in Morrison's The Bluest Eye, he's Jamaican, and so these kinds of counterpoints become interesting to think about.
But I have a more personal question for you, and so I apologize, or I don't know if that's the right way to say it, but just a personal question. And now you've had your own encounter with Dante through LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka, and through Walcott, and through some of those other authors that your database is pointing you to. And do you come away thinking that Dante is-- Is there something unique in Dante? And I've heard people say, you know, hey, Dante is an American poet. He's not an Italian poet. He's an American poet. Do you come away from your engagement with these things thinking about Dante in a way that is useful for all of us who read Dante and those of us who teach Dante and talk about Dante with our students? That is, does your reading of Baraka, and Walcott, and whoever else make you see Dante in a new way that can be useful for the rest of us?
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: First of all, thank you for being with us today, and I had no idea, but I'm honored that you would hear me, because your book, of course, was very valuable to the deep dive I was doing. It's a really good question, because when this invitation came, I was not as close to some of this work as I knew I needed to be. So I spent time going back over Walcott, of course, Jones, and took a bit of time to decide who I would focus on. Your book had pointed me in the right direction, but I did want to do my own kind of crossover. If you're not just looking at African American authors, what about Black authors more generally?
So, now that I've done that, I think the literary historian in me is very, very energized, that is, how do we see these connections more broadly? We need to do more of it. We need a whole series, I think, of this kind of work that shows legacies, ancestries, relatives that go across space and time. So, yes, you know, as I said, and very quickly, the last thing I decided to do was to give the titles that we had pulled from our database. That gives me a lot of ideas for teaching. I can see that being a new course that one would develop and offer. So it does encourage me to step back in and find new ways to engage texts that I hadn't considered.
Now, mind you that most of our work has been to recover texts that people don't know. I mean, Morrison and Ellison, of course, are in the database, but these are lesser-known writers. So this gives me a chance to sort of kill two birds with one stone, bringing more writers into the canon, that is, an African American literary canon, but force people to see what these interconnections are. So thank you for asking that question, but it definitely does get me thinking about what I can do, both in the classroom as well as in creating new writing that addresses some of these questions.
MODERATOR: Thank you very much, and, in general, for sharing your immense knowledge and insights with us. I may have two quick questions, and then I have some coming from people who attended remotely. So, in our exhibition, we have a video loop, and it includes excerpts from a movie by Spencer Williams, who is one of the pioneering African American filmmakers, Go Down, Death!, 1944, and there's a reference to Dante, a visual reference to Dante, as you know, and it's a very religious movie, so I was wondering if there is, to the best of your knowledge, a tradition of including Dante in the art of preaching in Black churches, and if you would consider some of the sermons that would include Dante as proto-literary, or having a literary value, to include them in your list and your database as part of the Black Writing Project? So that would be my first question.
The second question concerns what you said, which was so interesting, about shifting from Latin to embrace the vernacular, and it's a question about Derek Walcott, because, as far as I know, his initial project was to write Omeros in Creole, and then he said that it felt very artificial, and that what matters is not the language, meaning the vocabulary and grammatical structures, the syntax, but the tone, but the voice, the music of language, and that he himself could better render what he wanted to render in the English language. And so I was wondering what you think about this explanation that he has for writing his great Caribbean epic in English, as opposed to a Creole.
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: So I'll do the second question first. That's kind of a long-standing debate about writing in a language that is more familiar to you, whether it's Indigenous or vernacular. You know, it's an old debate. And I think the issue, often, is audience. Writers writing in a very distinct language are going to only have that audience as readers. I referenced Their Eyes Were Watching God in my talk as an example of a book that was lost and then found, but that book still gives people trouble, because it does have Black English vernacular, or what we call "dialect," of the period of time that Hurston was writing.
So I think audience does figure into the discussions and to the thinking about a work. It would not have been as accessible. It would have privileged the community about whom it was focused, but it would not have been as accessible, and I think the issue of the access, having worked now in a digital landscape for about a decade, in terms of actively producing things, I realize that this isn't-- I mean, I would have been more purist, I think, at first, but I can imagine that you want to think about access when you're doing this kind of work, and I think that he was really pushing access.
Your first question, and, of course, Mr. Looney can tell us more about Spencer Williams, because I actually learned much more from him in that section in his book on Spencer Williams, but I think that, if you're asking a question about Black sermons, I think it is the rhetoric and early orators Black ministers and a sort of Black sermonic tradition is very much fond of using. So maybe Dante, but I would say, you know, Cicero. I think that the sermonic tradition is one that really prides itself on rhetoric.
And so, interestingly enough, it does go back to a tradition much older than ours. But any great speeches or any great speakers have people practicing those traditions. So I don't know, you know, how to answer that question, except that the training, actually, in religious institutions often is to use early speeches in the era of oratory that people learn, or debates. The Lincoln-Douglas debates are famous ones you use in forensics. So I do think that probably takes a precedence over. I can't speak specifically to use of Dante, but it's an interesting question. I don't know. Dennis might be able to attack that a little bit better.
DENNIS LOONEY: I don't know-- I think you've given a really good response. I think that's a really good response that Maryemma gave, and I won't add to it, just to say that I did write part of that book on Spencer Williams, and I heard about Spencer Williams in a church. You know, I won't pretend to say anything about the Black church tradition, but I did used to go, when I lived in Pittsburgh, I went to an Episcopal church that was integrated on the North Side of Pittsburgh, and of all things, there I was, and they have these coffee hours, and they're kind of awkward sometimes, you know, I don't know, they just can be kind of strange, and somebody's boyfriend had come from Washington, and I liked this woman a whole, whole lot, and she did a jazz show on the local radio, and we talked about music a lot, and she introduced me to her boyfriend, and I told him what I was doing-- He asked me what I did, and I started talking about Dante and African American stuff, and he said, oh, you know, there's this film you should see.
And so it was a one-time, off, casual thing. And then I went down to the Library of Congress and saw it, and then I called him up, and I said, hey, I want to thank you, and if you ever want to watch these movies with me. And I went back to the Library of Congress five times, and they let you watch them on 35mm in your own little cubicle, and I watched a bunch of Spencer Williams. He seemed, to me, amazing. And at the same time, I had read an essay, a piece in the newspaper, by Spike Lee, who referred to our pioneers, and he didn't even mention Spencer Williams. And so I thought, OK, I have an attitude about this now. This guy seems great to me, and he's doing interesting things with documentary culture, and Dante is a part of it, or another way to say it is, there's one white person in his movie, and it's Dante. I want to talk about that and think about a way to talk about that. So this is not an answer to the question. It is just to say, again, I thank the guy that I met in a church coffee hour, who was African American, who told me about Spencer Williams. So, you know, to everybody out there, sometimes we go forward with positive serendipity, somebody said to me once, and so I've benefited from positive serendipity a lot.
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: Yeah. I can only add to that. It's interesting that you should mention that, because I think you gave me a lot more information on Spencer Williams, but I only came to know him because I'm in Kansas, and Gordon Parks was born in Fort Scott, and so his museum is here, and I got to meet him before he died, and he, of course, is buried in Kansas, and they have an annual event every year. So Spencer Williams came to me through Gordon Parks, because he was a filmmaker, and he made a point of knowing as much about earlier filmmakers as possible. Of course, Gordon Parks was making films in the '60s, as you know, and adapted his own novels to film, or autobiography. So thank you again for adding to that, Dennis, and thank you for your question.
MODERATOR: So I have a question from Ruth Campbell. "Can you describe more about Walcott's finding the peace in paradise?"
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: Well, I think that two things are going on here. There is the idea of the return to home to complete the circle that is this autobiographical moment for Walcott, trained in New England, in school in Boston, teaching in the US, and the roots, of course, are in Saint Lucia and the Caribbean. So I think, for him, it is both an autobiographical reference, but also making peace with his past, his family. The presence of his deceased parents are in the book because, again, it navigates between the real world and this mythical world, the past and the present, so you're not quite sure what terrain you're always on. But I do think that, for him, it was making peace with a past that he had, A, been taught to despise, possibly, two, yet making him what he, of course, became. And so he had to put those two things together, the hatred, or the dislike, or the anger, together with the acceptance.
So I think that it really requires a lot more than it did, as I said, for Jones. It requires going through that acceptance, that need for fully acknowledging and accepting what it is that the world that he knows and comes from means. There's a much more sort of international perspective in that book than in Jones' book in Omeros, which I think is one of the reasons why it's liked a lot, because it can fit into a wider range of contexts, because it is so global in its reach. So, Ms. Campbell, does that get at some of your concerns?
MODERATOR: Well, I hope it answers the question that Ruth had.
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: OK.
MODERATOR: And there's Lynn, who says, "Can we get the list of books again?" But--
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: OK. Anybody who wants that list can have it. It's public access.
MODERATOR: (LAUGHING) Open access.
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: You can't have the books themselves, because we'd be violating copyright for anything after 1925, but you can get the list.
MODERATOR: OK. Well, then-- Oh, there's one more question from the audience here.
AUDIENCE: Thank you, Professor Graham. I'm fascinated by all the many things that you said. I have a question about the exhibit, the Smithsonian exhibit that you touched upon at the end, and then showed the video. I've been doing some work on that, and it's unfinished, but I have in mind a political reading that is very close to what our colleague Laurent Ferri said while showing us some items in the exhibit about a fascist Dante versus an antifascist Dante. I'm thinking about, you know, the exploitation of Dante as the poet of the empire during fascism. And then what I thought, I was reading in that exhibit, especially, Aida Muluneh, Ethiopian work, as the opposite response of an Ethiopian-- I mean, the celebration of Dante as the point of the empire, of course, was done in coincidence with the conquest of Ethiopia during fascism. And so my attempt is to read these African exhibits as those are the agents, those are the readers who read back Italy from their perspective, the anti-imperialist, anti-colonial, and anti-fascist point of view.
But during this work, I ran into this problem. How did Dante penetrate Africa directly, because I am sure that Simon Njami asked some artists to speak about that, but many of them haven't even read it. So I was wondering if you could give me some help in finding some channels of penetration of Dante in Africa, maybe through the missionaries. I haven't been able to put my hands on any real source.
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: Well, part of the problem is the history of Ethiopia. Missionaries, yes, and people going to school in other places in Europe, including Italy. So you're going to get that transmission through education in any colonial country where there has been a colonial presence. So I think that that's a much more direct link.
AUDIENCE: That's what I suspected, yeah.
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: The person you spoke of who's from Ethiopia would say that. But that really is Ethiopia's history. Its colonial history is past, and the presence of and the role of education. So people embrace that knowledge, you know, from the sort of mother country, so to speak, as they gain access to a public world, a world through education. So I think it's fairly direct, I would say.
AUDIENCE: Yeah, because, also, I mean, it's sort of a pan-African response to Dante, what happened.
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: Yeah, of course, but the access to Dante comes in a more formal way, and then you can shape that reaction, your reaction to it, in any way you choose, and the pan-Africanist impulse is one of the many impulses that exists in Africa, across Africa, as well as in the US, you know, as early as the 19th century for African Americans, in terms of a pan-African consciousness, with Du Bois and others. So that, I think, is one of many kinds of responses, but it is generational, and it's recurring, so it coexists in our own time, though it may have emerged in another time.
AUDIENCE: Very interesting. Thank you very much. Thank you very, very much.
MARYEMMA GRAHAM: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Thank you so much, Professor Graham. I think that, at this point, we will be wrapping up our long and very interesting, and fascinating, and productive day. And so I'd just like to close with a mention of a parallel project that is going on with our Central New York Humanities Corridor colleagues at the University of Rochester, and this is the Dante in Poppi project, which Professor Stocchi-Perucchio is working on with people at U of R, and just want to make you aware of this. I think, if we're still live, you can put this link in the chat, perhaps, UCornell team, and this is a project which, if clearance goes through, this will be happening next summer. And so it's a residential project that allows people to study at the Biblioteca Rilliana in Poppi, and with Dante scholars there, in a rich collection of materials. So if you're at all interested in that, or you know someone who might be, this is open, I believe, to undergraduate and graduate students as well. OK. So this seems like the appropriate time to mention that.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
MODERATOR: Oh, you're most welcome. So this brings us to the end of our program today. I want to thank all of our speakers again for being with us for a fascinating, long day of terrific presentations and wonderful questions from our audiences, both here and online. And thank you for struggling with us to emerge from what the past 18 months have collectively brought us, as we stand at this moment of hope, mixed with uncertainty. Maybe, on behalf of my co-curator, I'll leave you with a paraphrase of the opening to Dante's Purgatorio, canto one, where he writes, "Per correr miglior acque alza le vele omai la navicella del mio ingegno, che lascia dietro a se mar si crudele." We will hope that, as Dante writes here about his own creative spirit, "Your little boats," "navicella," "will now lift their sails and leave behind cruel seas to run across more kindly waters." Thank you.
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Writers who read, interpret, and respond to Dante Alighieri’s works often seek to benefit from their association with his ideas on radical reform as well as his role in setting a precedent for modernist literary techniques and values. Yet not all writers’ voices are heard in such dialogues; in particular, these responses tend to overlook the unique ways in which Black writers reflect on Dante.
Join Maryemma Graham, Distinguished Professor of Black Literature and Literary History, as she explores the influence of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” on Black literature through two different works from writers of the Black diaspora. These classics—“System of Dante’s Hell” (1965) by LeRoi Jones (later known as Amiri Baraka) and “Omeros” (1990) by Derek Walcott—are often seen as examples of a “vernacular counterpoint” to Dante’s use of classical traditions. Dr. Graham suggests a more expansive view by examining the relationship between Dante and these works in terms of continuity or intertextuality then expanding it by considering juxtaposition, reinvention, and innovation. Finally, Dr. Graham will delve into the narrative traditions that define Black writing in the second half of the 20th century, confronting the very idea of “vernacular counterpoint.”
This is the fourth and final talk in Cornell’s “Visions of Dante” symposium held in conjunction with the Johnson Museum of Art’s “Visions of Dante” exhibition, timed to mark the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death.