Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

When the thirty-four-year-old Elizabeth Alexander’s interview appeared in the journal Callaloo as part of its focus on emerging women writers, it was clear that a whole new generation of relatively young African American women had been writing for years before they were noticed. Since then, a new group of African American women poets—including Erica Hunt, Natasha Tretheway, Harryette Mullen, Duriel Harris, Tracy K. Smith, Patricia Smith, Nikky Finney, and Crystal Wilkinson—have emerged to varying degrees of acclaim. While Alexander and Tretheway have received the most sustained critical notice, all are significant writers in various communities and to their quite different constituencies.

Inspired by older writers like Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Rita Dove, these African American women poets continue what appears to be a century-long project of recovering the black female body from its historical function as spectacle and stereotyped site of unrestrained sexuality. Having been influenced by the Black Arts movement, particularly its insistence on the adoption of cultural idioms—language, dialect, metaphors, and so forth—as the organizing principle for all black creative forms, these poets attempt to articulate the experiences of black women from all walks of life. Thus, despite the differences and influences that permeate their work—from the Language Writing of Hunt and Mullen to the folk dialect of Finney and Wilkinson—these poets constitute a significant part of the ongoing tradition of African American culture in general and African American poetry in particular.

The Venus Hottentot would have been valuable for its title and opening poem alone. After Stephen Jay Gould published his archaeological study of the Hottentot Venus in the latter part of the twentieth century, this South African woman displayed as an attraction in Europe became a lightning rod for feminists in general and in particular for black women, who saw in her travails a symbol of the suffering of all women. At least one play about the Hottentot Venus, Venus, by Suzan-Lori Parks, has been written and performed. Barbara Riboud-Chase’s novel, Hottentot Venus, is probably the most sustained and intricate re-creation of the life of Saartjie Baartman, who would be named the Hottentot by her detractors. Finally, the science fiction author Paul di Filippo incorporates her story in The Steampunk Trilogy (1995).