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Nature in African-American Poetry

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The Liberal Arts Speaker Series continued on February 18 with Katherine Lynes, assistant professor of English at Union College, discussing “New Directions in Black Nature Poetry.” While Lynes holds degrees in biology and African-American literature, her analysis was anthropological, cultural, and historical. 

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Lynes chose works by poets including Phillis Wheatley (late 18th-century), George Moses Horton (19th-century), and such 20th-century poets as Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Helene Johnson, and Langston Hughes. She performed each poem, gave a short analysis, and then used the diverse and rich historical backgrounds of her selections to trace how nature has been used to depict oppression and other topics in African-American poetry. 

One memorable selection was “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” by Hughes. The rivers in this poem (the Euphrates, the Congo, the Nile, and the Mississippi) are “the unwilling participant in the oppression of black persons,” Lynes said, but they also provide nutrients that enable the survival of its ecosystem and its people. While acknowledging that the poem is not usually characterized as a nature poem, Lynes argued that “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is “as much about human interactions with nature as it is about global history of enslavement” because of the connection rivers have with slave trafficking. The explicit link between nature and social justice is also present in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Haunted Oak,” which explores an oak tree’s role in the lynching of an innocent man: “I feel the rope against my bark, And the weight of him in my grain ... I am burned with dread, I am dried and dead, From the curse of a guiltless man.”

With the passing of time, nature in African-American poetry has evolved from being primarily associated with oppression to having a more prominent and literal role. The first published African-American writer and poet, Wheatley used nature in her poem “On Imagination” to prove that African Americans are as capable as anyone else of imaginative thinking and expression, indirectly expressing her discontent with slavery. Nearly 200 years later, in a prose work called “Generations,” Lucille Clifton painted a contrasting image with nature by urging readers to pay closer attention to their surroundings and preserve what they find. While the usage of nature in African-American poetry has changed over time, it continues to be integral to how poets perceive their culture and surroundings.

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