Blossom in the Whirlwind: An Intertextual Introduction to African American History
By Julie Goldman Caran
September 28, 2004
When the Furious Flower Conference of African American Poetry came to James Madison University, the students in my freshman composition class attended mandatory poetry readings. Following the conference, we discussed the experience in class. I began by asking my students (all of whom identify as Caucasian) whether the reading was what they expected. Some students were shocked to see such large throngs of people at a poetry reading. Others immediately expressed feelings of alienation or helplessness. "Those poems went straight over my head," one young man said, while another added, "I had no clue what they were talking about." I wondered whether a playbill like the one provided at Blossom in the Whirlwind, the conference's opening performance, would have helped my students comprehend the poetry they heard. With the inclusion of "Literary Credits"--a list of fifty-five specific texts--playwright Eric Quander asserts that this performance is a study in intertextuality.
The list of sources seems to mirror the elements of an African heroic epic: "long narrative recitations and songs [are] interwoven with praise poems, chants, sermons, hymns, prayers and improvisations" (Hill, qtd in Gilyard 205). Quander refers to himself not as a writer, but as a "Co-Conflator"--one who combines texts into a composite whole. In a way, Quander is in the position of critic rather than writer; he examines pre-existing written and oral "texts," arranges them into a script, and creates an on-stage discourse between them. Three main characters--Dark Lady, Voice 1 and Voice 2--engage in the conversation, while members of an on-stage chorus transform themselves into sequential generations of African-Americans.
The play's events move chronologically, beginning with tribal dances in Africa, followed by colonization and the enslavement of the African people, and the transportation of slaves across the middle passage. With broomsticks as their only props, the actors become American slaves, free men and women, people working within and against the establishment, members of the Harlem Renaissance and eventually the Black Arts Movement. Quander then brings his audience into the present-day lives of three emerging African American poets who step on-stage, in front of the chorus: Morgan, Jamal, and Kisha Hughes. This sequence of events seems to enact "the great overarching movement of consciousness for Black people" that literary critic Stephen E. Henderson defined as "the idea of liberation" in 1972. He depicted this movement as one that went "from slavery, from segregation and degradation, from wishful 'integration' into the 'mainstream,' to the passionate denial of white middle-class values of the present and an attendant embrace of Africa . . . " (18).
The audience follows these progressions in time and in consciousness through musical "texts." Quander includes folk songs and contemporary songs in his list of Literary Credits, and thus argues for the inclusion of both oral and written traditions in critical studies of African American literature. The chorus sings an Angolan Chant, a traditional Haitian song, African American spirituals, children's songs and work songs, blues, jazz, rock and hip-hop. While the music and plot follow a chronological sequence, the written texts of the play intermingle between the centuries. One voice speaks the words of contemporary poet Lucille Clifton; another responds with Shakespeare. The poetry of the Harlem Renaissance interacts with that of the Black Arts Movement. All of the texts seem to call on those that preceded them, and those still to come.
Even individually, many of the texts have a polyphonic quality. When a chorus member performs the African American work song entitled "John Henry," he calls on the storytellers who passed the legend down, the "unknown bards" who turned the legend into song, and the folk heroes who make appearances in the poetry of Sterling Brown. By including "John Henry" in the script, Quander allows a new set of voices to emerge; he begins a dialogue between the actors and the audience at Blackfriars. He builds on a familiar text, and creates a new page in that text.
Similarly, the character of the Dark Lady conjures many texts. She speaks the lines of Shakespeare as often as she recites the words of "great and unknown bards" (Hughes, qtd. in Quander). Her character emerges both from Shakespeare's "dark lady" sonnets, and from African cultural traditions; references in the play define her as the mistress whose "breasts are dun" and has "black wires" for hair (from Sonnet 130), and as the creator/goddess who birthed the African people. Her character remains constant while the chorus and Voices 1 and 2 transform in each scene. Quander seems to suggest that the Dark Lady is the muse whose spirit travels with the great and unknown bards of the African American tradition.
My Anglo American students might be unfamiliar with characters such as John Henry or the Dark Lady. However, I suspect they will recognize the sound of Elizabethan language. Similarly, they will have no trouble understanding that "John Henry" is a work song; the combination of the pantomimed hammering of rail-road ties with the simultaneous "hunh" ending each line will make this clear. They might not recognize the intertextual discourse within John Henry, but they will begin to hear his story. Because the choreography and sounds of the performance interplay with the scripted words, the students will be able to follow not only bits of African American stories and legends, but also Quander's overarching presentation of the African American experience from the sixteenth through twenty-first centuries. With his critical conflation of the texts, Quander brings to the forefront the movement of African American consciousness.
When I asked my students to pinpoint the specific knowledge that might have helped them comprehend the Furious Flower poetry readings, one student stated, "The poems were about a lot of people and events I'd never heard of. The other people seemed to know what was going on." Upon further inquiry, I learned that my students were not only unfamiliar with the figures and events in the poetry, but they had never heard of Gwendolyn Brooks, Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni or Rita Dove, to name a few. "What is it," I asked, "about your education in America that prevented you from knowing these poets' works? Why weren't they included in your American Literature courses? Why is there this gap in knowledge?" My students sensed that this gap lay not in the educational curriculum, but rather in a cultural difference. They noticed that Black listeners responded with familiarity to the subjects in the poems. "How do they know about these people and events if you don't?" I asked. "The stories must have been passed down through their culture," a few students guessed. "But it wasn't just Black people," another observed. "Other well-read people knew what was going on." The students sensed that there was an intertextual dialogue occurring as the audience's knowledge of oral and written texts met the poets' words. My students' lack of acquaintance with oral and written African American texts precluded their participation in that discourse.
Quander's experiment in intertextuality continues the tradition with Blossom in the Whirlwind. The actors in the play provide the voice for a "mosaic of quotations," and the texts within the performance absorb and transform one another. In 1972, Stephen Henderson expressed the need for an anthology of literature "in which the continuity and the wholeness of the Black poetic tradition in the United States are suggested" (3). With the inclusion of old Negro spirituals, contemporary rock songs, twentieth-century Black poetry, traditional African chants and songs and the works of emerging young poets, Quander creates the anthology that Stephen Henderson desired. At the same time, he welcomes newcomers to the text. Because he arranges the literature into a new dialogue (the script itself), the unfamiliar words are paired with choreography and music that might help students like mine to understand the sequence of events in African American history. It thus opens the door for students to begin engaging in discourse with the oral and written traditions of African American literature.
Blossom in the Whirlwind. By Eric Quander. Dir. Daniel Bryant. Perf. Rayne Hebert, Wesli Spencer, Natasha Solomon, Kevin Tyrell Branson, Travis Mitchell, HOUSE, Katherine Theobalds, Adriene LaRon Archer, Joy XXX, Morgan, Jamal, Kisha Hughes, and chorus. Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton. 22 Sept. 2004.
Gilyard, Keith. "The Bible and African American Poetry." African Americans and The Bible: Sacred Texts and Social Textures. Ed. Vincent L. Wimbush. New York: Continuum, 2000. 205-220.
Henderson, Stephen E. "The Form of Things Unkown." Understanding the New Black Poetry. New York: Morrow, 1972.
Hill, Patricia Liggins et al, eds. Call and Response: The RiversideAnthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. 35.
Kristeva, Julia. Desire in Language: A Semiotic Aprroach to Literature and Art. Ed. Leon S. Roudiez. Trans. Thomas Gora et al. New York: Columbia UP, 1980.
Nielsen, Aldon Lynn. "'Out there a Minute': The Omniverse of Jazz and Text." Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. Ed. Eric Sundquist. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997.
Orr, Mary. Intertextuality: Debates and Contexts. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003.
 No last names are listed for Morgan or Jamal.
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