Goldsby on African American Abstraction

PROVO, Utah (March 7, 2014)—Jacqueline Goldsby, an English professor at Yale and a scholar of African American Studies, spoke at a Humanities Center lecture on how even though black writers in the 1940s and 1950s are often overlooked in a general study of African American history and culture, the writers and artists of that time period were doing things that were unmatched.

“The aesthetic confidence and complexity of their time period are unparalleled,” Goldsby said.

Because the 1940s and 1950s, “are so vital, and yet so overlooked,” Goldsby decided to focus her current academic pursuits on black artists and writers for that time period.

A large part of her interest was in how Chicago became “the place to be in the United States if you’re a writer.

“If you’re a black artist of any note, you’re thinking about Chicago. The number of poets, novelists, dramatists who emerge from Chicago is extraordinary,” Goldsby said.

One such writer was the poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks, after some experience publishing, released “Annie Allen” to mixed reviews. One response complained that “‘Annie Allen’ was too intellectual.” Another added that the book was considered “distinctly original.”

Goldsby explained that “Annie Allen” makes reading poetry a visual event. It’s not just about reading, but seeing poetry – how the pages and words are in relation to one another.” She explained Brooks’ use of apostrophe and play on homonyms. That play on homonyms requires visual scrutiny of the readers. “We can’t hear the difference. We have to read Brooks’ language on the page,” Goldsby said.

These poetic forms and elements require readers to think. From that, Goldsby said, “We are not indigenous to her world. We must project ourselves into it, and think about identity, and relate it to oneself.

“A book invites different kinds of thought. Annie’s life – working class, black woman’s life – could relate to anyone, Goldsby said. That’s the role of any writer or artist. “The precise role of the artist is to illuminate, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize for this work in 1950.

As Goldsby argued, Brooks and various other African American artists attained such influence during these years, because they introduced “new ideas and new forms to American literary culture.

“During the late 1940s and 50s, African American literature turns away from realism toward abstraction.”

Abstractionism confirmed that African Americans could make a case against racial prejudice. “Abstraction allowed black artists and painters to contest segregation,” Goldsby said.

For instance, in those years, it was assumed that black people were still intellectually inferior to white people. Jim Crow laws restricted their physical movement in public space. African American writers’ push toward abstraction proved otherwise.

As Goldsby asserted, abstraction is not “to make sense of the world, but to scramble it into more perfect confusion.” She cited art historians also interested in abstraction’s social history and explained, “What does an abstract art do to its viewer? An image can be titled ‘square,’ but look nothing like one. Same with a bird. In abstraction, images are off kilter. That’s where you, the viewer, start to think. And once you do, alternative definitions of the social world become possible to imagine. That idea was enormously liberating for black writers and painters during the 1940s and 1950s, because it allowed black artists to make the argument that black struggles are universal.”

That’s the power of poetry, literature, and art. The black writers and artists of the 1940s and 1950s were exceptional in the way they challenged the norms of their times with their turn to abstractionism.

Matthew Wickman, director of BYU’s Humanities Center, said, “I was especially moved by her account of how African American poets and artists employed abstraction not to divorce themselves from ‘real world’ issues but to intervene in them more powerfully, and to compel readers and viewers to take them seriously as writers, as artists — as people. Professor Goldsby proves that modern literature lends itself to multiple interpretations, and sometimes these interpretations bear powerful consequences for how we understand ourselves and other people.”

For Wickman, these lectures are significant because “they generate vital conversations around important subjects, they introduce our faculty and students to people whose work and thinking model ways of approaching complex intellectual problems, and they help make friends for the university.”

For more information on lectures, colloquium and research within the Humanities, visit the BYU Humanities Center website.

—Stephanie Bahr Bentley BA’ English ’14