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"If The House Is Not Yet Finished": Urban Renewal and Postwar African American Poetry

  • Author(s): Gardezi, Nilofar
  • Advisor(s): Hejinian, Lyn
  • et al.

In my dissertation, I investigate the epic writings of Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Robert Hayden to tell the stories of black working class life and culture in postwar New York City, Chicago, and Detroit. I suggest that these writers' modernist epics offer a counter-poetics to the "clean" modernism of urban renewal and, implicitly, lay bare the racial exclusionism foundational to not only urban renewal's specific policies of segregation and displacement but also to its aesthetic claims to architectural avant-gardism and newness. This was a time of urban renewal-slum clearance programs that displaced and disrupted black communities--more specifically, a time when race, modernism, and geography all collided in urban renewal--and I argue that we can see both urban renewal and the poetic responses to it in terms of aesthetic modernism.

In my first chapter, "Alternative Geographies of Community in Langston Hughes's Montage of a Dream Deferred," I claim that Hughes's poem about the struggle for home and belonging in postwar Harlem invokes the importance of black self-determination and action through the democratic movements of bebop jazz and montage. In my second chapter, "Building `Social Width' in Gwendolyn Brooks's `In the Mecca,'" I read Brooks's epic as a poetic formalization of the negotiation of private and public space and, in particular, of the voices which speak for and shape a community. In my third chapter, "Racial Grief and Racial Mourning in Robert Hayden's `Middle Passage' and `Elegies for Paradise Valley,'" I argue that the epic becomes impossible for Hayden because of the way blacks are displaced from their history, beginning with the rending racial grief of the Middle Passage; "Elegies for Paradise Valley" revisits the experience of racial grief and racial melancholia is one affective avenue his poem offers.

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