A Southern African-American poet has just published a work of radical literary integration. It storms the last bastion of dead-white-guy literature, the “whites only” lunch counter of Shakespeare studies. Shakespeare’s progenitorial place in literature makes him patriarchal, a hegemonic figure for some. Where postcolonial poets meet him, they curse him in his own language, as Aimé Cesaire does through Caliban. This new work, however, wins a postcolonial victory by making love, not war, with the Bard. Caroline Randall Williams, in her brilliant first collection entitled Lucy Negro, Redux (Ampersand Books, 2014), uncovers the tantalizing possibility that Shakespeare’s “dark lady” may have been, according to Elizabethan prison records, “Black Luce…a vilde bawde,” an African prostitute in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Through Lucy, she writes back to the Bard and thereby emancipates her own experience as an African-American Southern writer aware of her own mixed-race ancestry. Williams, rather than curse hegemony, appropriates its goods as reparation. She claims Shakespeare’s legacy as any white writer might.
The radical integration of her verse with Shakespeare’s legacy does not reject pan-Africanist ideas of writers like Hughes and Senghor; it draws upon their faith in the universality of African experience to build what Williams calls “a welcome bridge” to make the elision between Lucy and modern women with slave ancestors, a bridge as politically charged for Southern poets as the bridge at Selma. If Shakespeare is not just Lucy’s trick but her Romeo, then both Shakespeare’s verse and Williams’ declare “that beauty herself is black after all.”
Williams’ Lucy is both muse and critic to the king of English. She imagines Lucy attending opening nights of Othello and Henry V, where she becomes mildly indignant and turned on, respectively, not in awe, but pondering the “nothing of nothing…in the strange and cankered hearts of men.” This figure has portentous implications for bondwomen of the Old South, who may have navigated their captivity with complex strategies, accruing bitter privileges from rapists. Williams evokes their voices in Blues Lyrics reminiscent of Young’s work in Jelly Roll. She writes this pain in “Comfort Girl Blues”:
No he cant see me at peace; ain’t got none of his own.
Now we’re two hurting bodies haunting his daddy’s home.
As radical as the integration of Sally Hemmings’ descendants into Jefferson family reunions is Black Luce’s integration into the poetic ideals of the sonnet. There is more than cursing in Black Luce’s power. She manages to bless all her pan-African daughters. If “Lucy own her body/She run many other” as Williams reports, through Lucy, all young women of color embody the platonic ideal of Western Civilization’s finest love elegies. Through Williams’ reclamation of Shakespeare, African diasporic literature grows redolent with the possibility of being simply good literature without identity subdivisions, as worthy as Shakespeare, not other but Cleopatra to his Anthony, beloved for its narrative skill as Othello was to Desdemona, not separated, just elbow-to-elbow with the greats at the lunch counter, individual but never parenthetical. Buy this radical collection of poetry. Steal it if you must. Read it at all costs.
Published in Cider Press Review, Volume 18, Issue 2.
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