Date of Award

Spring 2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

English Language and Literature

First Advisor

Hammer, Langdon

Abstract

This dissertation examines certain book-length poetic works released between 2014 to 2016, corresponding to the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement formed in the wake of the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013. I argue that these works emerge from the same political and poetic urgency that demanded a movement like BLM. Using Beyoncé’s Lemonade (2016) as an entrance, I focus on a genre/strategy that Farah Jasmine Griffin calls Epic Black, a poetics that uses the hypervisibility of Black bodies, the inescapable place that Black expression has in popular American culture, and the scale and scope of the Western epic as a liberatory artistic strategy. Epic Black uses the cultural weight of institutions against those institutions, subverting or re-appropriating the dominant systems that would seek to appropriate Blackness.Popular culture is a political battleground like any other, and the most contested zones are the places where Whiteness encounters the limits of its power in the encounter with the Black body. This place, where the dominant language encounters its limit, I call noirporia. It marks the borderland or frontiers of Whiteness, where it is most open to the possibilities of fugitivity or marronage. Each of the Epic Black works I discuss claim territory out of this contested ground, taking up space in the cultural imaginary through the medium of the poetry book as cultural object, which has dimensions both physical and discursive. After discussing Lemonade as one of the most visible examples of Epic Blackness, I turn to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and nominee in both poetry and criticism; Tyehimba Jess’s Olio, winner of the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry; and Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, winner of the 2015 National Book Award. Each of these book-length works is a performance of Epic Black: hypervisible as a cultural object, capacious in breadth and scope, and self-conscious in formal difficulty. I conclude with a brief look at Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive: After the End of the World as a new phase of Epic Black, suggesting that epic strategies must change with the centers of cultural power.

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