African American Sonnets: Voicing Justice and Personal Dignity

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There is no monolithic blackness nor a single tradition of sonnet writing among black writers. Elizabeth Alexander sums up this idea in the second stanza of her 24-line poem "Today's News": "I didn't want to write a poem that said 'blackness / is,' because we know better than anyone / that we are not one or ten or ten thousand things" (I. 14 - 16). To keep Alexander's point in mind, in what follows I focus primarily on political protest and personal dignity in sonnets by twentieth-century African American poets. While my approach turns from the tradition of the love sonnet to the subsidiary tradition of the political sonnet, one could just as easily address the way black poets since the Harlem Renaissance have adapted the sonnet to write about love. My choice is simply a pragmatic one, based on the central fact of racism and the historic response of black writers to it.