Quare Poetics: Black Maternity and the Arc of Protest in the African American Elegiac Tradition Public Deposited

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  • March 19, 2019
  • Wilson, Leroy
    • Affiliation: College of Arts and Sciences, Department of English and Comparative Literature
  • Quare Poetics argues that the African American elegiac tradition, often read through the surface valence of mourning, in fact, springs from writers’ resistance against their blackness serving as the prototypical marker of outsiderness, which a cadre of scholars have named queerness. This study draws upon the self-affirming exceptionality of the quare—a nominalism coined in the landmark text, Black Queer Studies (2005)—to propose a different natal lens for African American protest: the black maternal voice synonymous with the advent of African American literature and the American songbook. New epistemes eschewing the sexual identity politics and white and black male phallocentrism that shape most queer scholarship emerge as Quare Poetics focalizes on black women’s voices in canonical and forgotten African American elegiac texts from the mid-eighteenth century to the dawn of the Black Arts Movement. Historicizing the etymological importance of quare in African American poetics makes room for this dissertation to examine, one by one, the lyrics and lyricism of the protest tradition’s mothers and some of their literary daughters and sons. Covering more than 260 years of African American literature, Quare Poetics maps the ways that black women personae’s sexual and gender transgressions serve as insightful catalysts of dissent in the aftermath of chattel slavery and its cruel descendant, Jim Crow, throughout the global South. African American elegists make palpable the experiences that mark black women as forebears of a multiethnic American consciousness, complicating the relationship that their progeny, conceived under duress at best and by force at worst, have with their sexualities and what Hortense Spillers calls “the power of ‘yes’ to the female within” (Diacritics 17:2, 80). Two centuries before African American men such as Richard Wright and his scions foregrounded the black male psyche and its rage, Lucy Terry Prince and Phillis Wheatley Peters at once affirmed Puritanism and challenged its racist fictions about blackness. Like them, the nameless harbingers of the Negro Spirituals torqued Judeo-Christian narratives of slavery and oppression in poems of traditional meter and rhyme to create the African American blues aesthetic. Alice Moore Dunbar Nelson and Jean Toomer blended that aesthetic with a modernist, surrealist free verse that gave an unblinking view of the misogynoir that undergirded the sexual exploitation of the poorest women in the Reconstruction era in urban centers and the Deep South. Bob Kaufman and Nina Simone took that surrealist lens on black maternity to its multigeneric zenith and reframed the African American migration narrative, setting the stage for the gender-blending, racial hybridity, and sexual fluidity that countered a contemporaneous project to make “Black Art,” rooted in a charge to make “poems that kill … the nigger.” Quare Poetics culminates with a dissection of the homophobia and misogynoir that led Amiri Baraka to distance himself in that poem from the feminized, homosexual personae he fashioned as LeRoi Jones by parsing his troubled relationship to the black maternal, and it takes a glimpse into the oeuvre of recent U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, who exposes the fault lines in the “Black Art” project and heralds a quare futurity that is transforming the landscape of American poetics in this century. From the moment Terry Prince and Wheatley Peters exposed the mendacity of Christendom’s racist abjections onto indigenous Americans and Africans bearing the alleged “mark of Cain,” they posed the question Quare Poetics tackles: How does one love the “nigger,” the motherless child, the diasporic/multiracial Other, within?
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  • In Copyright
  • Salvaggio, Ruth
  • Avilez, GerShun
  • Coleman, James
  • Ahuja, Neel
  • Moten, Fred
  • Doctor of Philosophy
Degree granting institution
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Graduate School
Graduation year
  • 2018

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