The African American SonnetA Literary History

The African American SonnetA Literary History

Timo Müller

Print publication date: 2019

ISBN: 9781496817839

Publisher: University Press of Mississippi


Some of the most famous African American poems are sonnets: Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” Countee Cullen’s “Yet Do I Marvel,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “First fight. Then fiddle.” Few readers realize that these poems come from a rich tradition of more than a thousand sonnets written by African American poets over a century and a half. The African American Sonnet: A Literary History traces this forgotten tradition from the nineteenth century to the present. Based on extensive archival research, the study demonstrates that closer attention to the sonnet modifies our understanding of key developments in African American literary history. Each chapter addresses such a development: the struggle over the legacy of the Civil War, the trajectories of Harlem Renaissance protest, the tensions between folk art and transnational perspectives in the thirties, the vernacular modernism of the post-war period, the cultural nationalism of the Black Arts movement, and the disruptive strategies of recent experimental poetry. Throughout this rich history, the study argues, sonnets have been “troubling spaces” in more ways than one. The sonnet became a contested space when black poets appropriated the “scanty plot of ground” (Wordsworth) from which they had long been excluded. The sonnets written by these poets troubled the material and discursive boundaries African Americans have been facing in a society organized around racial inequality. The confrontation and subversion of boundaries is inscribed into the very structure of the sonnet, which made it a preferred testing ground for such strategies in the literary realm.