- Between the Lines: Transnationalism and African American Poetics by Monique-Adelle Callahan
In the fast-growing new field known as inter-American literary studies, few issues have been as assiduously scrutinized as race. And yet still more work needs to be done before we can claim to understand this most fundamental of all inter-American topics as thoroughly as we should. By focusing on selected poems by three female poets of African heritage, Frances Harper (from the United States), Cristina Ayala (Cuba), and Auta de Souza (Brazil), Monique-Adelle Callahan’s Between the Lines: Literary Transnationalism and African American Poetics makes a valuable contribution to our better, more complete understanding of this complex subject as it has manifested itself in the literary cultures of the Americas.
Callahan’s study divides itself into seven sections, plus a bibliography that scholars will find very useful. After a concise introduction, in which the author states her purpose in writing the book and the methodology she employs in achieving it, she moves on to offer four chapters built around close, comparative readings of specific poems by the trio of American authors she has chosen to discuss, a conclusion, and a short epilogue. The chapters, “Translations of Transnational Black Icons in the Poetics of Frances Harper,” “Signs of Blood: Redemption Songs and ‘American’ Poetry beyond Borders,” “Write the Vision: Gender and Nation beyond Emancipation,” and “Prison Breaks: Modes of Escape in Auta de Souza’s Poetics of Freedom,” thus have the virtue of standing on their own, as insightful commentaries on specific poems, and of speaking to each other in a revealing form of New World intertextuality.
Between the Lines makes clear the importance of the comparative method to the entire inter-American project, which itself is inherently comparative in nature. In reading Callahan’s “Introduction,” for example, we are reminded that, properly used, the comparative method rests on the interplay of two very different forces, similarity and difference, especially as these involve the crossing of cultural and, even more important, linguistic barriers. The languages involved here are English, Spanish, and Portuguese. More specifically, the comparative method depends on our ability to identify the specific similarity that diverse texts have in common (in this case, the African American experience in the Americas) and on our ability to then recognize and discuss—without homogenizing them—the very real aesthetic, cultural, and historical differences that distinguish them and that allow them to live and breathe as individual works of art. Crucially, Callahan moves from a purely historical and thematic consideration of slavery in the New World to a commentary that focuses more on the “ideas, tropes, and symbols” (44) of the poems themselves. For the comparatist, difference must be recognized and embraced, though it must also be celebrated through the critical lens of the particular similarity (here thematic) that binds together the texts to be compared and contrasted. Callahan’s study stands as a model of how successful and productive the comparative method can be—and it shows why this method is so essential to the inter-American paradigm.
Callahan’s lucid, jargon-free commentary opens with an examination of selected poems by Frances Harper, whose poetics involve what can fairly be described as encompassing a productive and enlightening inter-American perspective. Keying on two texts in particular, “Death of Zombi, the Chief of a Negro Kingdom in Latin America” (1857) and “Maceo” (1896), Harper makes explicit her commitment to a transnational and hemispheric vision of the struggle for freedom in the Americas. This, Callahan argues, makes her work unique among these three American, or New World, poets (43). While in the 1857 poem the focus is on the famed leader of legendary Republic of Palmares (made up of fugitive slaves) in northern Brazil, the second poem, written “during the nadir of Reconstruction” and the aftermath of [End Page 672] the Spanish-American War, casts the Cuban general and patriot, Antonio Maceo, as bridging “the gap between Cuban, Brazilian, and U. S. legacies of slavery and struggle for an ideal of national freedom...