Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Given the history of chattel slavery in the Western Hemisphere, it is not surprising that many of the poems in The Venus Hottentot, and certainly the ones that follow in Alexander’s next books of poetry—Body of Life (1996), Antebellum Dream Book (2001), and American Sublime (2005)—circle around the status and locus of the black (not just African American) body. Alexander celebrates sensuality—food, sex, and fun in general course through these poems and later ones as an affirmation of life—as well as celebrating a mode of intellectual and artistic achievement. As an African American woman, Alexander is acutely sensitive to the stereotypes and assumptions about black female sexuality, but she refuses to give in to a puritanical prudence that would entail denying the pleasures of the flesh. Thus, despite the implications of the poem “The Venus Hottentot” that African American women’s bodies have historically served as fodder for all kinds of scientific, cultural, social, and political manipulations, Alexander clearly sees that history as just that—history. However, a poem like “Boston Year” is a stark reminder that the past can always explode into the present without notice. At the same time Alexander’s work suggests that one cannot stop living simply because the past may flare up at any minute. Moreover, while she proudly asserts the beauty of the African American female body, she acknowledges that pleasure is only part of what it means to be fully human. Hence her tributes to artists Frida Kahlo, Romare Bearden, and others reinforce her faith in the ability of all people—but especially African American women—to succeed at the highest levels of their fields without sacrificing their humanity.