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The Controversy Series: discussing literary aspects of contemporary black poetics

Associate English Professor Carla Billitterri delivered her presentation, “Satire, Negation, and Conditional Futurity in Black Poetics” on Thursday, Oct. 24. The talk was part of the Fall 2019 Socialist and Marxist Studies Lecture Controversy Series that is taking place Thursday afternoons in the Bangor Room of the Memorial Union. 

Billitterri was born in Italy, where she received her first degree in Modern Languages and Literature at the University of Catania in Italy. She went on to receive a M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Buffalo. She has been an assistant professor at the University of Maine since 2002.

Some contextual information is required to understand what Billitterri referred to when she discussed satire, negation and conditional futurity in the realm of black poetics. Encyclopedia Britannica defines Satire as “human or individual vices, follies, abuses, or shortcomings are held up to censure by means of ridicule, derision, burlesque, irony, parody… or other methods, sometimes with an intent to inspire social reform.” Negation is a linguistic tool used to reinforce an idea that is not overtly apparent, leaving the reader or audience member to infer meaning. According to Lisa Nahajec’s article in “Language and Literature,” “Negation acts as an instruction that a proposition should be understood as an unrealized state, event or existence.” Futurity refers to a future state or condition, and the concept of one’s own future that exists permanently in the back of one’s mind. 

Billitteri began the talk with two aspects of our culture that she believes to be vital to the African American Complex: the “ability to write and know one’s own history and the ability to plan one’s future.” 

It is no secret that much of American history as seen in textbooks and taught in classrooms largely ignores the history of African Americans. Billitteri suggests that satire, negation and conditional futurity have been valuable tools used in black poetics to shine a light on what continues to stay in the dark. 

To describe how these linguistic aspects all contribute to black poetics, Billitteri provided excerpts from the work of poet Claudia Rankine. In her 2014 volume, “Citizen: An American Lyric,” Rankine dives into the reality of being an African American today, using narrative accounts from her own personal life and those of her friends. 

“The book explores the kinds of injustice that thrive when the illusion of justice is perfected,” stated Dan Chiasson in his article in The New Yorker. 

Rankine utilizes satire in the form of dark situational irony. She includes examples such as a waitress returning a credit card to the white woman at the table even though it was the black woman who paid, because of her racist assumptions. Or the time when her neighbors called the police because her black friend was outside her house. 

Negation ties in with the concept of futurity in the following excerpt from “Citizen:” “As usual you drive straight through the moment with the expected backing off of what was previously said. It is not only that confrontation is headache-producing; it is also that you have a destination that doesn’t include acting like this moment isn’t inhabitable, hasn’t happened before, and before isn’t part of the now as the night darkens and the time shortens between where we are and where we are going.” 

The use of repetitive negative language emphasizes the reality that lies in the exact opposite of what she describes. The concept of futurity paints a depressingly vivid picture of a species that never succeeds in overcoming the culturally ingrained inequality that exists between people with white skin and people with black skin. 

Billitteri’s presentation brings awareness to the present-day reality of racism in America through her analysis of pivotal literary elements used in black poetics. 

The Controversy Series has been conducted every fall semester since 1987. Billiterri’s talk is the third one to take place this semester. The next one will be held Oct. 31, where three political scientists will be presenting “2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates on the Issues of Climate Change, Immigration and Health Care.” 


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