Captivity Analysis

The Poems (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Toi Derricotte’s third published poetry collection, Captivity, is divided into four sections: “Blackbottom,” “Red Angel,” “The Testimony of Sister Maureen,” and “The Terrible Bright Air.” The first section’s opening poem, “The Minks,” describes the animals her uncle raised for sale in five hundred cages in the backyard of the house she lived in on Norwood Steet as a child. Derricotte describes in painstaking detail the effects of such captivity on essentially wild animals: Sometimes, they paced compulsively; sometimes, the mothers snapped the necks of their kits; often, they hid in their wooden houses. In the fall, the minks were slaughtered for their skins, which returned to the yard pinned by their mouths to metal hangers. In front of company, Derricotte’s uncle would take out the skins and blow on them, parting the hairs to show their bright “underlife.” The poet uses this image to end the poem in a lovely simile comparing the “underlife” to people’s souls, shining and manifesting their inner life. Written in forty lines of uneven length with no stanza separations and no rhymes, the poem reads like a story, yet, because of its brevity, personification of the animals, and striking similes, it retains the condensation and impact of fine poetry.

The second poem, “Blackbottom,” is the poem for which the section is named. Black Bottom is an old African American neighborhood close to Detroit that developed during the 1920’s through the 1940’s. Although Black Bottom is usually described as a crime-and poverty-ridden area, it was also a vibrant center of racial and cultural identity, well known to Derricotte, who grew up in Detroit and graduated from Wayne State University.

The poem describes a middle-class African American family who left the area for a nice suburb, Conant Gardens, in northeast Detroit. They return to Black Bottom’s streets to immerse themselves in the...

(The entire section is 794 words.)

Captivity Bibliography (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Davidson, Phebe. Conversations with the World: American Women Poets and Their Work. Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, England: Trilogy Books, 1998. Treats five American women poets in depth, including Toi Derricotte. Includes wide-ranging interviews with each poet about their life, work, and aspirations.

Derricotte, Toi. The Black Notebooks: An Interior Journey. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999. Starting as journal entries when the author moved into an all-white neighborhood in the late 1970’s, this autobiography turns into an examination of what it means to be a light-skinned black woman in a racially divided society. Also works out coming to terms with her own attitudes toward color.

Gilbert, Derrick, ed. Catch the Fire!!! A Cross-Generational Anthology of African-American Poetry. Knoxville, Tenn.: Riverhead Trade, 1998. A celebration of contemporary African American poetry, this book introduces a whole new generation and places Toi Derricotte in the context of the fellow poets of her own generation.

Hernton, Calvin C. “Black Women Poets: The Oral Tradition.” In The Sexual Mountain and Black Women Writers: Adventures in Sex, Literature, and Real Life. New York: Anchor, 1990. Feminist analysis of the triple burdens of sex, racism, and capitalism used to exploit African American women poets.

Rowell, Charles H. “Beyond Our Lives: An Interview with Toi Derricotte.” Callaloo 14, no. 3 (Summer, 1991): 654-664. Useful interview with the poet discussing Captivity and other works.