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.)