Blogs > Cliopatria > Praising Elizabeth Alexander's “Praise Song”

Feb 9, 2009 6:54 pm

Praising Elizabeth Alexander's “Praise Song”

(I want to thank Ralph again for inviting me to join Cliopatria. And please pardon the excess verbosity of a first-timer; this post ballooned to a greater length than I meant it to, but it's an example of the kind of project I'm trying to figure out how to do: somewhere between"Africa" and"America" -- as well as between history and literary studies -- but hopefully only a little bit lost at sea).

I think it's safe to assume that the title of Elizabeth Alexander's inaugural poem,"Praise Song for the Day," was meant as some kind of reference to some kind of"African" traditionalism. As the OED defines it, a"praise song" is"n. a laudatory song, a song of praise" and it goes on to note, parenthetically,"spec. in some African traditions." But that"spec." stands for"specifically" in a wonderfully unspecific way; after all, what is specific about"some African traditions"? This Encyclopedia Britannica definition has the same problem: it tells us that a praise song is"one of the most widely used poetic forms in Africa," which strikes me as a little like saying that"the novel" is one of the most widely used prose forms in the West. However true the statement might be, what's most interesting about the form is the irreducible heterogeneity within it which such a definition has, of necessity, to finesse.

The examples that the OED cites to illustrate the term's usages are symptomatic of this problem, I think. It's telling, for erxample, that the term would get referenced in a 1928"Sympathetic Study of the Magico-Religious Practices and Beliefs of the Bantu Tribes of Africa": while"Bantu" has often, historically, been a signifier of something like what people mean when they say"black Africa" (ever since liberal South Africans in the twenties transformed a linguistic category into a replacement for the derogatory"Kaffir"), it's fallen out of favor because it's still just a linguistic term being forced to refer to something it doesn't, quite, encompass. Transforming it into an ethnicity is a little like referring to George W. Bush, Hugo Chavez, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as"Indo-Europeans." They are, sort of, but saying so doesn't really accomplish anything.

You could say something similar about the term"praise song," since calling it"African" doesn't so much explain what it means as beg the question that it does. After all, is there really some irreducible commonality between a"praise song" in Botswana and a"praise song" in Senegal? And if there is, can we really call it"African"? Plus, while that first example of the term's usage is from that"Bantu Tribes" book, the other is from an 1886 novel about Norsemen and the sea. At the risk of re-stating the obvious, then, let me just point out that while the term often does get used to reference Africa, there's also nothing exclusively"African" about the practice of singing someone's praises.

To beat this point to within an inch of its life, let's look at the word"griot." While a"praise song" is somewhat disconnected from time or place by the fact that anyone who sings someone else's praises is, in some sense, a"praise singer," the word"griot" references something much more specific, a profession with particular West African connotations, even - possibly - connections to what Paul Stoller has called"deep Sahelian civilization." And singing praise is only one of the laundry list of things that a griot does; as Thomas Hale enumerates it:"They are historians, geneologists, advisors, spokespersons, diplomats, interpreters, musicians, composers, poets, teachers, exhorters, town criers, reporters, and masters of or contributors to a variety of ceremonies." Moreover, while Alex Haley's 1976 Roots established the term in the American consciousness as a sort of catch-all for African bards (and, more generally, the African genealogy that Haley used it to emphasize), Hale also points out that the idea of a"griot" is less tightly connected to any truly local African context than it may initially seem:"Societies that count griots among their various professions, however, have their own words to describe them: iggio (Moor), guewel or géwél (Wolof), mabo or gawlo (Fulbe), jali (Mandinka), jeli (Maninka, Bamana), geseré or jaaré (Soninké), jeseré (Songhay), and marok'i (Hausa), not to mention a variety of other terms." There are even multiple terms within most of these African language, and significant ambiguity within those terms themselves.

My point in all this is that terms like"praise singer" and"griot" seem to mean something that they don't, and can't, actually mean. They signify"Africa," but a generalized Africa that doesn't really resemble the un-generalizable diversity of the actual continent's heterogeneity. I don't want to put too fine a point on this; I'm not trying to blame the OED for the incoherent ways people use a term like"praise song," or pretend that a better definition could be found. But pointing out the impossible task of a dictionary definition -- the necessity of holistically embracing all the different ways a term gets used and adding up all the different ways its usages don't add up -- helps to illustrate the ambiguities within Alexander's reference: while the term"praise song" advertises the fact that there's something"African" about the poem, it's a form without real content, a reference to"Africa" which matches up very imprecisely with the local"Africas" in which Africans actually live. Clifford Geertz once referred to the way Oliver Cromwell could be called the most typical Englishman of his time because he was also the oddest, and this is the best definition I know for the category"African": an African is a person who defines what it means to be"African" differently than most other Africans.

I'm interested by the fact that the"Africa" which Alexander references is, in this sense, neither Luo nor Mandika, nor any other"local" identity, but rather a kind of generalized, imagined version of the continent as a totality. Alex Haley's Roots somewhat regretably gave Americans the impression that a tiny stretch of the Gambia could be a synechdoche for the entirety of the continent, and Alexander's reference to a"praise song" that we presume to be African relies on the same kind of leap. But I don't say this as criticism. What might be bad history or anthropology (neither Geertz nor Hale, I imagine, would have much use for"Praise Song" as a generalizable analytic category) could still be good poetics, and it is, after all, a poem we're talking about. Not to mention that her subject is not neither African culture nor African history; the poem was about the American present. Which is why, in asking what it means to be of African descent in the United States, the open question of the"praise song" is not such a bad way to get at the hopeful openness of the signifer, the extent to which - because it doesn't reference anything in particular - the future might not be foreclosed by who a person is, or is taken to be.

More concretely, because"Africa" is such an open signifier and because it's impossible to emulate a form without content, the poem's direct predecessors lie somewhere other than the Sahel. In the NY Times, Maya Angelou observed that Alexander"sings the American song...much like Walt Whitman," and this seems right to me: in both substance and form,"Praise Song for the Day" is a voyage into the kind of problem-space that Walt Whitman spent his career trying to think about (and Whitman himself, after all, was no stranger to the presidential praisesong). As did Whitman, Alexander asks how you sing a pluribus without losing the Unum, evoking the singularity of nation with a multiplicity of"types." Like Whitman, she writes the historic poetry of occasion through prose about the prosaic. And like Whitman, most of all, she seeks to imagine a national community linked by bonds of love and affection, transcending the diversity of heterogeneous particularities by the singularity of prosaic, lived citzenship.

For Whitman, these problems were the essence of America, but as unsolved contradictions they prompted the breezy assurance of"Do I contradict myself? Very well then....I contradict myself; I am large...I contain multitudes." It's a noble sentiment in a way; Whitman at his best was America at its best, a United States large enough to not only contain but also celebrate and sing its multiplicity. But Alexander's poem also feels to me like an argument with Whitman: for all the idealism of his poetry, he was better thinking about these ideals than in dealing with their actual practical manifestations. To be quite blunt, he liked the idea of black people being emancipated bettter than her liked the existence of black citizens: in the aftermath of the civil war, he also showed us America at its worst, writing things like this on the subject of race mixing (in 1888):"I don't believe in it - it is not possible. The n--, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of history, races, what-not: always so far inexorable - always to be. Someone proves that a superior grade of rats comes and then all the minor rats are cleared out." He could idealize certain kinds of difference, but some particularities of difference disturbed him more than even he was comfortable acknowledging (since he removed most of these references from his deathbed editions and published prose, for example).

Alexander's"praise song" is part of this traditions, too, I think. But whereas a variety of Whitman-esque poets have paid a lip service to a diversity which they didn't care to actually look too closely at, I wonder whether some of the thorniness of Alexander's poem isn't an attempt to think a little more carefully about how difficult is to actually contain multitudes, to take the problem of diversity more seriously that Whitman did, to talk not merely about music, but about noise. After all, the poem's rhetorical occasion was the kind of problem Whitman never had to face: how does one speak to the substance of a historical occasion from the historic position of exclusion which both the poet and its subject have shared? The election of a black president, after all, is a"historic" occasion because, until now, there's been something intrinsically hard to imagine about an executive swearing to"protect and defend" a constitution which still refers -- the fourteenth amendment notwithstanding -- to counting"three fifths of all other Persons." It's"historic" because it breaks with history; if"President Obama" is a game changer, it's because (quite literally) the rules of the game were originally written to exclude the possibility of him.

In this sense, I wonder if"praise song" isn't so much a stable description of the poem, as it is an ambiguous reference whose very ambiguity helps articulate the problem that Alexander faced in writing it: how does one speak, officially and historically, both about and from a position which has historically been officially defined by its fractional existence? Can one be both Whitman and African? Can one address the exclusion of the past without forgetting to sing the inclusion of the present? Can one praise the transcendence of history without forgetting that the past is never really past? I'm not going to try to judge how well Alexander's poem actually succeeds at doing this - though I think many of her critics have not tried very hard to actually read the poem - but I wonder if foregrounding the limitations of a term like"praise song" helps illustrate both the impossible problem of the occasion and the way the poem tropes on this very impossibility. After all, the task of"repairing the things in need of repair," or even of imagining how it might be done is not yet done; the poem's most memorable lines hinge on the problem of speaking, both of finding a place of safety from which we can encounter each other through words and of making music out of this noise, reminding us that the inauguration of a black president is a break with history not a revision of it, and a hopeful sign of things that might come, not their completion. There's a real bitterness in lines like"Say it plain, that many have died for this day," a bitterness that Whitman never felt or wrote about, but one which conditions the way it's possible to remember the forgottenness of the multitudes who"built brick by brick the glittering edifices they would then keep clean and work inside of." Yet just as the edifice's glittering doesn't make it any less built by the sweat and blood of people who couldn't benefit from their toil, neither does the bitterness of that toil make the edifice any less worth occupying. Alexander doesn't downplay this bitterness, nor does she let it overshadow the possibility of a American future voiced in the first person plural. It's both.

Pre-inauguration construction

At the risk of reading too much into the poem, then, I wonder if the ambiguity of the title -- the unanswerable question of what"praise song" really means -- might be what helps it point toward the open possibility of a future not yet written. In its very lack of specificity, it might reference both a timeless African tradition and a Whitmanian optimism unhinged from history. It's Africa as that origin gets imagined in America - an inheritance which African-Americans work to re-invent - and Walt Whitman as he should have been, as even he knew he should have been. In other words, I wonder if the very lack of specificity which makes"praise song" a useless empirical term might be what allows it to reference a day when the complex diversity of Barack Obama's heritage would be what makes him most typical, where an American is a person who defines what it means to be"American" differently than most other Americans, and when race itself would be an open question that we get to ask and answer for ourselves.

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