Media Skips Inaugural Poet's Racy (and Racial) Poems of Pickled Genitalia, 'Naked Buttocks'

On Dec. 18, all three network evening news programs reported president-elect Barack Obama’s announcement that Rev. Rick Warren had agreed to give the Inaugural Invocation. Each noted as well the divisive nature of the pick, at least in the eyes of the gay community.

NBC’s Brian Williams asked during the Nightly News broadcast "Is it disrespectful to some Obama supporters?" CBS’ Katie Couric reported that "Obama is drawing anger from gay rights’ advocates upset that he’s chosen evangelical minister Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration." ABC devoted a "Close Up" segment during World News with Charles Gibson to the controversy, complete with quotes from Joe Solmonese, president of the gay-activist group, Human Rights Campaign.

Amidst all the furor from gays and the left, it’s easy to see how the networks failed to give the same attention to Obama’s selection of his friend, poet Elizabeth Alexander, to write and recite a poem at his inauguration ceremony. But as a Dec. 18 Investors Business Daily editorial "An X-Rated Inauguration?" pointed out, Alexander could be more divisive than Warren.

First, there’s Alexander’s use of language. Her poem "The Venus Hottentot" is about black female exploitation and contains the line, "her genitalia will float inside a labeled pickling jar." And: "Since my own genitals are public I have made other parts private." And: "I am a black cutout against a captive blue sky, pivoting nude so the paying audience can view my naked buttocks." And, most notably, this:  

In this newspaper lithograph, my buttocks are shown swollen and luminous as a planet.

Monsieur Cuvier investigates between my legs, poking, prodding, sure of his hypothesis.

I half expect him to pull silk scarves from inside me, paper poppies, then a rabbit.

Let's hope she refrains from such imagery during a televised ceremony. (See the poem read on YouTube.) 

More importantly, there’s Alexander's view of race. Her Venus poem ends with a murderous desire from the exploited woman:

If he were let me rise up from this table, I’d spirit his knives and cut out his black heart, seal it with science fluid inside a bell jar, place it on a low shelf in a white man’s museum so the whole world could see it was shriveled and hard, geometric, deformed, unnatural.

The IBD editorial noted:

In an essay on the Rodney King beating that made a big splash in radical circles, Alexander contended that "a language of black male bestiality and hypervirility, along with myths of drug abuse and ‘superhuman strength,’ was deployed" by lawyers for the police officers in King’s first trial. But as brutal and inexcusable as King’s videotaped pummeling was, attorneys for both sides agreed that King’s intoxication was no myth.

The Associated Press and Washington Post coverage of Alexander’s role in Obama’s inaugural ceremonies focused on the story of Alexander’s attendance at Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech as a toddler.

Tree Swenson, executive director of the Academy of American Poets, told the AP that Alexander "is a superb choice for the Obama inauguration: She is from Washington, she represents Obama’s generation, and she has written about the civil rights conflict and other historical events that have shaped the character of this country."

But AP and Washington Post ignored her writings on race, the graphic imagery of her poetry, and critiques of her work.

Other links:

Daily Kos approves.

The New York Times gets no more specific than "Ms. Alexander said she believes her poetry 'attends to history,' including 'sometimes thorny and difficult American history,' even as it speaks in contemporary moments and landscapes."

The Hartford Courant hails the "fresh" poet's voice and provides historical background for the "Venus Hottentot" poem.

Alexander in May on Rodney King:

The 1991 beating created “a space for group self-definition and self-knowledge,” read Alexander. But it was also a signpost along a dark historical road.

“Black bodies in pain for public consumption have been an American national spectacle for centuries,” she read — from the public lynchings of yesterday to the basketball and boxing of today.

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