Elizabeth Alexander / Author Graywolf Press $15 (208p) ISBN 97
What does""black life and creativity"" look like""behind the public face of stereotype and limited imagination?"" What can be learned about race-authenticity when black creativity bumps heads with black politics? These are the broad questions Yale professor Alexander attempts to answer in her first volume of literary and arts criticism. Known for her work as a poet (The Venus Hottentot; Body of Life), Alexander presents her critical ideas primarily in essays that examine the work of black artists and writers who, she says, reveal the private moments of black people through their art. Alexander begins her discussion of the""black interior"" quite literally--by describing the appearance of her mother's living room--before proceeding on a more metaphorical, and intricate and well-researched, journey through Langston Hughes's efforts to assemble a black literary canon, Gwendolyn Brooks's portrait-like poems, Romare Bearden's revelations of black city life and Jean-Michel Basquiat's misunderstood genius. She takes her quest further in other essays, which analyze the self-suppression of black people who have become""trapped in fantasies of 'Negro authenticity'"" and tackle the age-old question of whether black artists have the responsibility of portraying admirable characters. In her essay on Jet magazine, Alexander illuminates the culture of race-pride, which the magazine has fostered since its inception, but questions the notion of a monolithic black audience, which the publication claims as its demographic. In fact, many of her essays are studded with questions that provide excellent fodder for debate and discussion, questions for which her analysis provides possibilities, but never really answers. Though Alexander succeeds in accomplishing what she set out to do, she at times gets carried away with line-by-line poetry analysis, which can dilute the personal tone of her prose and causes some of the pieces to drone on in college term-paper fashion.
Reviewed on: 01/01/2004