Radical Connections/Radical Breaks: African-American Writers and the Haiku Form
Living in exile, Richard Wright only discovered haiku at the end of his life and composed nearly 4,000 poems before his untimely death in France in November 1960. Most recently, Sonia Sanchez published Morning Haiku (2010) in which she honors such iconic figures as Emmett Till and Maya Angelou. Other Black writers such as Amiri Baraka, Lenard Moore, Etheridge Knight, and James Emanuel have also made unique contributions to the diverse tradition of modern haiku in English, expanding the boundaries of both haiku and African-American culture and interrogating the criteria for inclusion in both the Japanese and American canons. In 1982, William Higginson wrote a brief article on African-American haiku for Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America, lamenting the lack of critical attention given to African-American haiku, but regrettably, this lack has continued for the past three decades. With their attention to Africa and the African Diaspora, these poets also negotiate a transnational space, a space created first by the history of slavery and colonialism, but reclaimed as a space of transformation and resistance in their writing. Like Hertha Wong’s analysis of indigenous artists in “Countering Visual Regimes: History, Place, and Subjectivity in the Art of Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds” (Chapter 16, this volume), African-American artists retell African-American history and reclaim place to resist the legacies of colonialism in various places, transnationally and transculturally. For example, James Emanuel’s JAZZ: From the Haiku King contains translations into five languages besides English: French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian. In these translations, he brings Black culture as a transformative agent to colonial languages, laying claim to Europe with the power of the history of jazz, Black culture, and his haiku. Similarly, Sonia Sanchez explores and reclaims multiples African geographies in her haiku, laying claim to the entire African Diaspora to create a transnational network of Black artists concerned with decolonization. This unity of purpose among Black writers to promote Black culture is coupled with a vast array of diverging styles and voices, creating a double logic
inherent to transnational literature in an increasingly globalized world, preserving both unity and fragmentation. While Black writers preserve Black culture globally, they do so in vastly different ways depending on context, creating a fluid unity in the multilingual spaces of Europe or in the PanAfrican spaces linking African-American experience to the African continent. This diversity of Black culture also negates the concept of “nation.” In its diasporic multi-rootedness, Black culture contains the infinite variety of the continent of Africa, the Caribbean, Latin America, Afro-Europe, and the ever-changing fluid styles of regional American cultures. One Black identity simply cannot exist given the ever-changing influence of multiple places and cultures. As Bill Ashcroft states in “Beyond the Nation: Post-Colonial Hope,” “The closest thing we have to this transnational citizen/subject is a member of the second-generation diaspora, who offers the most interesting possibilities of transnation, of the actual liberating ambivalence of diasporic subjectivity” (17). Within the African Diaspora and the diasporic consciousness nurtured by Black writers, many more generations than two have laid claim to this ambivalence and ability to envision and re-vision culture in new and transformative ways.