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Diasporas, Cultures of Mobilities, ‘Race’ 3

Corinne Duboin
Claudine Raynaud

Ex-Patriations, Diasporic Motions

Brenda Marie Osbey’s Black Internationalism

Malin Pereira


The poetry and prose of two African American female poets, Rita Dove and Brenda Marie Osbey, maps two contemporary versions of black diasporic experience of home and identity in movement across literal and figurative, national and transnational, and racialized spaces/places. These poets’ work repeatedly returns to representations of home and identity as displaced, in motion, temporary, in-between and contested. As Susan Koshy argues in her 2011 essay, ‘Minority Cosmopolitanism’ in PMLA, ‘ [t] he feeling of not being at home is a marker of diasporic citizenship, an effect of attachments that position such minority subjects inside the nation formally but between nations culturally. The persistence of unhomeliness also emphasizes the inhospitality of a liberal, universalist model of citizenship that requires a transcendence of ethnic identity’ (601). Koshy’s project, which conjoins the ‘historically divergent projects of ethnic studies and studies of cosmopolitanism’ (592), employs the term ‘minority cosmopolitanism’ to refer to: ‘Translocal affiliations that are grounded in the experience of minority subjects and are marked by a critical awareness of the constraints of primary attachments such as family, religion, race, and nation and by an ethical or imaginative receptivity, orientation, or aspiration to an interconnected or shared world. Crucially, [she argues], minority cosmopolitanism is constituted through a paradoxical relation to cross-cultural contact, registering the disruptions and asymmetries of intercultural encounter while sustaining an openness to its transformative possibilities’. (594) Minority cosmopolitanism allows multiple diasporic articulations of home and identity, as minority subjects navigate translocal affiliations and cross-cultural contact in widely various ways. Contrasting Dove’s and Osbey’s intercultural encounters—one, ongoing and global, the other short-term and diasporically-focused—maps a wide range of African American ‘unhomely’ diasporic citizenship. The paper focuses on Dove’s poem ‘Ars Poetica’ (and reference Sonata Mulattica), Osbey’s poems ‘Geography’ and ‘History’ (and reference her essays about France during her 2004 Carmago fellowship).

Texte intégral

1Brenda Marie Osbey has positioned herself—and has been positioned by scholars—as a poet of New Orleans and Louisiana. While John Lowe notes in his entry on Osbey in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature that ‘one finds influences from her travels and sojourns elsewhere’ (Lowe 1997: 555–556), the predominant depiction of Osbey throughout the limited amount of scholarship on her work to date is that of a deeply regional, place-focused writer immersed in the culture of the New Orleans women she brings to life. This procrustean critical viewpoint was laid down in the period roughly corresponding to the publication of her four books of poetry, between 1983 and 1997, and, despite its apparent aptness at the time, may explain in part the lack of a developing body of criticism on her work after the publication of her new and selected poems volume, All Saints, in 1997. In Osbey’s case, the critical attention one assumes would accompany publication of new and selected poems did not come. Now, almost a generation later, it is time to revise this framing of Osbey and her work, a task which is enabled both by a turn of our critical lens toward black internationalism and the diaspora as well as by recent publication of new essays and poetry by Osbey. Osbey’s new work forces us to ask how her regionalism relates to her internationalism throughout her œuvre, an understanding of which may lay the groundwork for future critical study.

2 Biographical blurbs on Osbey invariably reference her status as a native of New Orleans, a fact she foregrounds in her self-representation. Osbey’s earliest interviews express her deep commitment to New Orleans and its importance as the setting and cultural basis for her poetry. She describes her work in a 1986 interview with Violet Harrington Bryan as a kind of ‘cultural geography’ of Louisiana (Bryan 1986-87: 34). Ten years later, speaking with John Lowe, Osbey affirms and extends this claim: ‘I’m always writing about New Orleans; it’s the true spiritual core of everything I do’ (Lowe 1996: 101). Discussing the specificity of some of the words and expressions she employs in her poems, Osbey remarks that her ideal audience is ‘probably black, New Orleans, and working- class [...] to those people I don’t have to explain that language’ (Lowe 1996: 96).

3Such an emphasis on the culture, people, and history of New Orleans and Osbey’s place among them is mirrored in the literary criticism on Osbey’s poetry. Bryan’s essay, ‘Evocations of Place and Culture in the Works of Four Contemporary Black Louisiana Writers’, emphasizes the specificity of the characters’ place, stating, for example, that the characters in Ceremony for Minneconjoux ‘are definitely Louisiana women’ (Bryan 1987: 50). Thomas Bonner, in his keynote address, ‘New Orleans and Its Writers: Burdens of Place’, puts forward a critical frame for reading the work of New Orleans’ writers that follows one principle: ‘In New Orleans it is the local that mattered and the local that matters.’ Surveying the criticism to date, he finds that scholars ‘support local realism as a basis for literature and culture’ of New Orleans (Bonner 2010: 197). Looking at Osbey’s work, Bonner observes that she, ‘ [l]ike other writers who have worked in New Orleans, [...] reveals in her poems and accompanying texts a responsibility to the particulars and obligations, the burdens if you will, of this place’ (Bonner 2010: 205).

4Osbey writes and speaks of New Orleans as a ‘distinctly black space’ in which whites are marginal (Lowe 1996: 117). In her reply to Ben Downing’s dismissive review of Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman in Parnassus, Osbey notes that the city of New Orleans is ‘more than 70 percent African American’ (Osbey 1993: 481). Downing, who in his review compared Osbey’s treatment of New Orleans to that of some other writers (all ‘white, male, non-native’, she explains), receives a lesson in African American literary criticism from Osbey in her corrective response to his review:

There is a longstanding tradition of the narrative and historical poem among African American writers dating back at least as far as 1746 and Lucy Terry Prince’s ‘Bars Fight’. Gayl Jones, Sherley Anne Williams, Colleen McElroy, Jay Wright, and Robert Hayden are but a few who have written about different African and African American communities and different eras in the last forty years or so. Among African writers, of course, the tradition is ancient. It is disheartening that Downing felt compelled to review a work belonging to a culture, a people, and a literary tradition about which he is altogether unaware, or, worse, one for which he has neither respect nor curiosity.
(Osbey 1993: 481)

5In this paragraph, Osbey sets clear parameters on the tradition within which she prefers her work be read and interpreted. Her predecessor authors are African American; extending beyond them is the context of the African tradition. She echoes this genealogical framing in her interview with John Lowe when she overviews her influence by poets who write long narrative poems, especially Hayden, Wright, early Brooks, Jones and Williams and, to a lesser degree, Tolson (Lowe 1996: 95). Again, her lineage (literary and cultural) is exclusively African American.

6Osbey expresses concern about stepping across the racial/cultural lines she draws around her work, commenting near the end of the interview that writing for a white audience compromises black writers’ authenticity and leads to masking behavior on the part of the black writer (Lowe 1996: 111). She sees an authenticity in racial and cultural specificity and a security of correct interpretation when the author and perceived audience are both African American. Her remarks about Los Angeles (where she lived early in her career) at the beginning of the interview suggest what her concern stems from: ‘LA is probably the most assimilationist place I’ve ever seen in this country. Everyone in LA is a white person’ (Lowe 1996: 97). Perhaps, then, for Osbey, writing in a tradition dominated by white writers, or writing to a white audience, is an assimilationist stance that makes one, like the people in LA, white.

7Critics have followed Osbey’s lead since her rebuttal to the Downing review, reading Osbey’s work as participating in the African American literary tradition. Brian Conniff delineates Osbey’s debt to Robert Hayden in the contemporary African American poetic sequence; Lynn Keller links and differentiates Osbey and Rita Dove in their ‘testifying’ contemporary long poems. Both critics, writing in 1999 and 1997, respectively, do the difficult but necessary work of both recognizing cultural and historical specificities while at the same time acknowledging the heterogeneous voices and hybridity in Osbey’s poetry (Conniff) and integrating Osbey’s and Dove’s work into critical considerations of the long poem (Keller). More recently, in 2011, Thadious Davis’s incorporation of brief readings of Osbey’s first four volumes focuses on Osbey’s forging ‘identifications with a heterotopic Louisiana’ (Davis 2011: 238).

8Keller’s pairing of Osbey and Dove is perhaps the most extensive critical interpretation of Osbey’s Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman, or of any of her work to date. As such, it has significantly shaped Osbey’s critical reception. Keller argues that both Dove and Osbey’s long poems are testifying to the ‘underside of history’, in large part due to the invisibility and discrediting of African American people and knowledge based on culturally-specific experiences. Keller contrasts Dove and Osbey rather dramatically, discussing Dove’s mixing of cultural traditions and refusal to be ‘pigeon-holed’ as a poet who writes exclusively on black subjects as a contrast to Osbey, who ‘belongs in the camp of African American writers and critics who want to deemphasize the ‘mulatto’ character of black writing’ (Keller 1997: 139). While Keller views Osbey’s response to the negative Downing review— in which she ‘situates her work exclusively in a black tradition as if to deny any white ancestry for her work’—as overstating the case for political reasons (Keller 1997: 139), Keller’s reading of Osbey’s long poem nonetheless hews to the side of connecting the work to black history and cultural traditions. Pointing out how Downing’s failure to acknowledge non-Anglo-European traditions distorts his interpretation of Osbey’s poem, Keller then sketches out her interpretive method:

Understanding the traditions shaping the poem’s language promises to open up more appreciative perspectives. In the reading of Osbey’s sequence to follow, I attend to the relevant history and note the effect temporal and geographical setting as well as ethnic traditions may have on language, form, and technique so that future readers will have broadly informed bases for their evaluation.
(Keller 1997: 143)

9Keller’s reading goes on to do just this, specifying the setting and period of the poem as New Orleans in the first half of the 20th century. She situates the structure and theme of the text in the tradition of the slave narrative, describing the role of voodoo, New Orleans creole language, the history of the maroons, and the dominance of an African American culture of self-determination and rebellion against oppression in New Orleans. Ultimately, she shows how these function as cultural memory in the text, part of the testifying poet’s project.

10Keller’s useful and strong work on Osbey reflects the dominant critical perspective in African American literary analysis in the 1980s and 1990s, much of which emphasized the importance of specifically African American cultural and historical elements in reading the literature appropriately. This tracing of the ‘roots’ of the tradition was necessary as a correction to the near-erasure of black history and culture in the dominant culture, and much of it is still necessary today. What it obscures, as Paul Gilroy has pointed out, is the transnational elements, or ‘routes’, as he calls them. Since Gilroy’s ground-breaking work, The Black Atlantic (1993), African American literary criticism, responding to both Gilroy’s work and that of other theorists such as Édouard Glissant, Brent Hayes Edwards, Timothy Brennan, Stuart Hall, Caren Kaplan and Inderpal Grewal (to name but a few), has developed an expanded interest in transnationalism. Always aware of the African diaspora and informed by connections to Pan-Africanism and the Négritude movements, the field in the 21st century now is more inclusive of a range of work in black internationalism, cosmopolitanism, and an ever-changing and global sense of the diaspora. What Grewal calls ‘transnational connectivities’, within which ‘subjects, technologies, and ethical practices were created through transnational networks and connections’ (Grewal 2005: 3), form the basis for more and more of the scholarship in the field. The dissemination of African American literature across the world has aided this trend, as more scholars outside of the U.S. are researching and publishing on African American literature; likewise, the growing African diaspora in Europe, especially France and Germany, as well as the global migrations of Afro-francophones and Afro-anglophones, has fueled interest in the parallels between African Americans and Europeans of African lineage. As Susan Koshy describes it,

The topography of literary production and consumption has been transformed as writers and texts travel, ethnic literature is taught and translated in multiple national venues, and writers’ locations, audiences, and subject matter resist ready alignment. The growing internationalization of ethnic literary production has produced a heterogeneous range of texts, which challenge[s] the established boundaries of ethnic and world literature.
(Koshy 2011: 593)

11Osbey’s initial self-positioning and early reception by the critics are due, therefore, for a second look, one interested in the transnational, diasporic, and global dimensions of her work. Davis’s eight-page treatment of Osbey in her southern studies monograph, Southscapes, makes an important start on this new stage of criticism of Osbey’s first four volumes of poetry. In the chapter, titled ‘Politics & Paysans: Multicultural Louisiana and the Space of the Créolité’, Davis extensively surveys historical, social, and cultural studies of Louisiana and New Orleans, moving beyond the limits of a ‘regional studies’ approach to instead highlight a ‘multiracial, multicultural, and multilingual society much more in keeping with what we envision today as transnational and global’ (Davis 2011: 189). Osbey, in the chapter, emerges as a contemporary descendent and exemplar of Louisiana’s ‘racial history and social geography, especially as configured by New Orleans’ (Davis 2011: 240). Davis outlines what she terms the ‘architectonic platform’ employed by Osbey in her 1980s and 1990s poetry to perform ‘racial, regional and gendered identity’ through real and imagined spaces of living and dead bodies, homes, and the city (Davis 2011: 240–242). This treatment, however brief, is crucially important in opening up more expansive treatment of Osbey’s first phase of productivity, represented in her four volumes of poetry from 1983 to 1997.

12What remains to be asked is how this transnationally aware critical viewpoint can be brought to bear on Osbey’s œuvre, for both her early work of the 1980s and 90s as well as her new work from 2004 on. This paper focuses mostly on Osbey’s second period of productivity, 2004-2012, comprised predominantly of essays and only one collection of poetry, and seeks to provide a framework for reading this twenty-first century work in relation both to her earlier poetry as well as to our changing understanding of black writers’ participation in transnational discourses. In the following pages, I will compare an early Osbey poem, ‘Geography’ (1986) to a contemporaneous poem by Rita Dove and then to Osbey’s more recent long poem, ‘History’ (2008), and consider related aesthetic changes in Osbey’s verse, before turning to ananlyze Osbey’s recent essays written in France. In these pages, I am guided by Grewal’s explanation of cosmopolitanism in Transnational America, which offers a clear articulation of the factors producing Osbey’s black internationalism:

Instead of suggesting that only mobile subjects could be cosmopolitan, I want to suggest that cosmopolitanism depended on participation within various discourses of the global, national, and international that moved across transnational connectivities and enabled subjects to cross borders or to claim to transcend them. Thus cosmopolitanism depended on the particular connectivities possible at a given time and place and the transmission of these discourses. Furthermore, while some subjects may have been constituted by these connectivities, others participated in them intermittently or in unstable ways.
(Grewal 2005: 38)

13 For Osbey, as Davis so thoroughly demonstrates, New Orleans has always been an international space constituted in and through transnational connections to the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa and France. As Osbey remarks in her 1986 interview with Violet Bryan, ‘I myself tend to see New Orleans as not being in America. I see it as more related to the Caribbean and Latin America. But there are some experiences that are common between black people everywhere’ (Bryan 1986-87: 34). In her interview with John Lowe, Osbey notes that while remembrance ties New Orleans to the South, other elements tie it to the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa (Lowe 1996: 104). In fact, she feels that everything in New Orleans is creolized, because ‘this place is [...] predominantly African in terms of its spirit’ (102). As a New Orleans native, Osbey thus has been immersed in the intersecting transnational discourses of culture, race, language and the diaspora. Her undergraduate education at Dillard University (where she majored in both English and French and studied in France for a year) and her graduate studies at the University of Kentucky (where she extensively studied Négritude writers) furthered her participation in these discourses. What has changed in the thirty years since Osbey began publishing is the growing internationalization of black literary production and Osbey’s mobility as a writer, both of which have effected a profound shift toward explicit internationalism in her work. Choosing to live for a year in France in 2004 (thanks to a Camargo Foundation Fellowship), to write at times in French, and to write about race in France (to a New Orleans audience) all have deepened Osbey’s sense of transnational connections and foregrounded a markedly global perspective in her 21st century poetry and essays.

14It is important, however, to avoid reducing Osbey’s literary production to two phases in which she is first local (regional African American) and then global. Koshy’s essay in PMLA, ‘Minority Cosmopolitanism’, offers a theoretical frame and vocabulary that help us avoid the traps of such narrow categorizations. First, Koshy critiques conceptions of cosmopolitanism in relation to minorities:

The frequent conflation of the minority with the subnational and the cosmopolitan with the global misconceives the complexity of both. It denies worldliness to the former and particularity to the latter. It misses their imbrications, past and present. It is inattentive to their production in networks and circuits that are irreducible to scale.
(Koshy 2011: 592)

15 Koshy’s project, which conjoins the ‘historically divergent projects of ethnic studies and studies of cosmopolitanism’ (Koshy 2011: 592), coins the term ‘minority cosmopolitanism’ to refer to:

Translocal affiliations that are grounded in the experience of minority subjects and are marked by a critical awareness of the constraints of primary attachments such as family, religion, race, and nation and by an ethical or imaginative receptivity, orientation, or aspiration to an interconnected or shared world. Crucially, [she argues], minority cosmopolitanism is constituted through a paradoxical relation to cross-cultural contact, registering the disruptions and asymmetries of intercultural encounter while sustaining an openness to its transformative possibilities.
(Koshy 2011: 594)

16Minority cosmopolitanism breaks down traditional oppositions such as local/ethnic versus global/transnational by highlighting, according to Koshy: ‘alternative visions of cross-cultural exchange and transnational affiliation’; a ‘comparative cultural perspective’; and the fact that ‘a vertical hierarchy of scales that relegates the minority to the subnational misses the dynamic, “scale-jumping” properties of the minority in globality’ (Koshy 2011: 594). The last of these, importantly, brings to our attention to the following:

what is often obscured in customary invocations of the minority: its centripetal and centrifugal energies—its centripetal capacity to intensify affiliations of race, ethnicity, and culture and its centrifugal capacity to extend these affiliations outward into inventive affiliations.
(Koshy 2011: 594)

17Thus, the concepts undergirding Koshy’s idea of a minority cosmopolitan allow us to see Osbey’s ongoing literary production not in two phases, local then global, but instead as two mutually imbricated articulations of her version of minority cosmopolitanism: the first, in which she centripetally explores affiliations of race and gender in New Orleans culture; and the second, in which she centrifugally extends these affiliations outward, exploring the African diaspora and France. Furthermore, it allows us to perceive centripetal and centrifugal expressions wherever they occur in her literary production, as both are sides of the same coin. Additionally, Koshy’s framing foregrounds how Osbey imagines cross-cultural exchange and transnational affiliation in a comparative cultural perspective.

18Osbey’s poem ‘Geography’, originally published in American Poetry Review in 1986 and republished in In these Houses in 1988, maps the terrain of Osbey’s 1980s and 1990s work, which she terms ‘a cultural geography’ (34) in her 1986 interview with Bryan. The poetic persona of these lines serves as a vehicle for depicting black women of New Orleans. The poem opens:

the geography I am learning
has me place myself
at simultaneous points
of celebration
and all you see and hear in me
is these women
walking in the middle of the road
with their hoodoo in the hands.

19The literal ‘place’ of the poet-speaker’s poems is culturally and geographically specific, as suggested by the reference to hoodoo, which is identified with New Orleans and, more broadly, Louisiana. It constitutes her identity by having her ‘place [her] self’. It also is an unusual choice of location: ‘this place no one chooses/is the land I tarry in’ (504).

20The poem allows that this place is not only culturally specific, but also is a gendered emotional space of pain and defiance:

this map leads you to a desert place
and flowers daring brilliance
in the most cruel and merciless sun
and all you see for miles around
these women
tender past hurting
visibly bruised
only on the very edges.

21The imagery of these lines as a desert, and descriptive language such as ‘cruel’, ‘merciless’, ‘hurting’, and ‘visibly bruised’, builds an emotional representation of the damages inflicted upon these women. Such vivid imagery and metaphor is characteristic of Osbey’s evocative, and best, poetry. These women are survivors, with bruising ‘only on the very edges’, and are linked to the flowers that, like them, can still dare ‘brilliance’ (504). In her interview with Bryan, Osbey speaks to the issues affecting the women of her poems, specifically in Ceremony for Minneconjoux, but also more generally in her early work, explaining the thread of madness running throughout her female personae:

They’re all mad. [...] The madness is made up of fragmented lives. And I only call it ‘madness’ because that’s the language we have available to us. I see these women as very beautiful. But they live in a world that just can not accept their vision, their reality.
(Bryan 1986: 40)

22They bear a remarkable resemblance to the women in Jean Toomer’s Cane.

23The women of Osbey’s early poems have been fragmented but survive and continue to live their lives, to move forward on their journeys. The poem ‘Geography’ maps this ‘ritual’: ‘first you place one foot/and then the other’ (505). The road and the journey, by being mapped, have been passed down through generations, as ‘this map has been used before’ and ‘this journey has been made before’ (505). Again, the cultural specificity of the place is linked to New Orleans, as the travelers have ‘all their hoodoo/walking behind them/in the dust’ (505).

24The end of the poem circles back to the poet-speaker, presented as an experienced authority on the map, the place, and the journey:

i said
first you place one foot.

this body has done
its share of the journey.

25While the journey is expressed as a physical one on a road that is mapped, the journey has an internal, emotional component as well. As Osbey notes in her interview, female identity ‘tends to look inward’ (Bryan 1986-87: 36). In speaking of a specific persona in her early work, Ramona Vaegis, Osbey explains that the ‘journey she is making is a psychological one’ (Bryan 1986-87: 38).

26The poem makes a strong connection between the poet-speaker and the New Orleans women of the poem. In the 1986 interview, Osbey cautions against reading this connection too literally, however, instead emphasizing the cultural geography they share:

I don’t identify with any of my characters in a personal, autobiographical way. Still I know there are strong connections between us because I’m so enmeshed in the experience of Louisiana culture. I know, for instance, that you couldn’t take my characters outside Louisiana and sit them down in Arizona and have them thrive there. They’re Louisiana women. Outside Louisiana they wouldn’t have any of these experiences, and they would not have this language. And I would not be able to sit here and tell about it in any language.
(Bryan 1986-87: 37–8)

27 In ‘Geography’, then, Osbey maps the cultural and experiential terrain of her early work and poetic identity, situated in a specifically New Orleans/Louisiana context. This centripetal articulation emphasizes her experiential affiliation with the women and culture of this place.

28A useful contrast to Osbey’s poem is Rita Dove’s poem ‘Ars Poetica’, originally published in Poetry magazine and re-published in Dove’s volume Grace Notes in 1989. Such a comparison reveals both how astute Keller was to place these writers in comparison in 1997 and also helps us see how Osbey’s work has moved centrifugally since the 1980s, as illustrated in her epic poem ‘History’.

29Dove’s poem, like Osbey’s, insists that place matters, but also, unlike Osbey’s, that the creative mind—at least Dove’s poetic mind—must be mobile across a wide, global map. Structured in three stanzas that compare three writers’ desires in relation to how they constitute their creative identities and their art, the poem’s title, ‘Ars Poetica’ helps us understand that Osbey’s poem ‘Geography’, too, is an ars poetica, or poem on the art or nature of poetry. Whereas Osbey’s poem details the self-positioning and art of one poet, presumably herself, Dove’s poem articulates her poetics by means of counterpoint to that of two other writers: first, an ‘unknown but terribly/important essayist’ and, second, ‘an Australian novelist’ (48). In both of those depictions, place matters. The essayist visiting Wyoming has an existential crisis in response to the ‘long dull stare’ of the landscape when ‘the sky bore down’; the novelist is specified by his place of origin, Australia. By way of contrast to these two writers, the poem positions the poet-speaker as creating mere traces of place in her art. The final stanza reads:

What I want is this poem to be small,
a ghost town
on the larger map of wills.
Then you can pencil me in as a hawk:
A traveling x-marks-the-spot.

30One can quickly see this poem as a useful comparison to Osbey’s ‘Geography’ in the shared ars poetica theme, the troping on place and maps, and the motif of the journey or travel. The very different ends to which these devices are put, however, demonstrate the poems’ and the poets’ distinctive and varying conclusions about poetic identity and place, circa 1986-1989. Whereas Osbey’s poem privileges a specific place and a culturally specific identity and art, Dove’s poem preferences an art that transcends place, an art that emphasizes traveling among places. The poetic identity produced is one that can create ‘ghost town [s]’ or simulacra of place in poems; the poet gains the experiences necessary to create this art via travel, swooping down at times like a ‘hawk’ to specific points on the map or in time. Furthermore, this poetry is imagined to be ‘small’, part of a ‘larger map of wills’, presumably global (so as to include the aforementioned Australian novelist). As such, it is aware of—and foregrounds—its connections to larger maps, broader possibilities of journeys (hence the first two stanzas, comparing the poet-speaker’s art to that of two other writers).

31The diction of ‘Ars Poetica’—‘small’, ‘larger’—perpetuates a ‘gestalt of scale’ which Koshy finds deeply problematic in our understanding of the minority and the cosmopolitan, in which any minority is conceptualized as small and local, a fraction of a larger, non-ethnically particular world (592). Furthermore, in terms of the idea of minority cosmopolitanism, this particular Dove poem, while centrifugal in its scope, does not appear to extend any racial or cultural affiliations transnationally. The poet-speaker articulates no racial, cultural or gendered specificity (in contrast to those of the male authors in the first two stanzas). Dove’s poem therefore could be said to align with the Western universalist and dominant version of cosmopolitanism Koshy discusses elsewhere in her essay, in which the individual must transcend a particular ethnic identity in order to be a citizen of the world. Thus, in this particular comparison, Dove’s poem apparently articulates a ‘default mode’ [Western] cosmopolitanism (Koshy 2011: 594) whereas Osbey’s poem articulates a centripetal affiliation typical of minority cosmopolitanism.

32However, because much of Dove’s other work evidences both centripetal and centrifugal expressions of racial, cultural and gender affiliations found in minority cosmopolitanism, one might need to look further before contrasting Dove as a ‘default-mode cosmopolitan’ and Osbey as a ‘minority cosmopolitan’. Koshy’s essay anticipates this issue in her reading of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies (1999). In a discussion of one story in the collection, ‘This Blessed House’, Koshy writes that this story,

like all the other stories in the collection, is haunted by the consciousness of characters who are not home even at home. The feeling of not being at home is a marker of diasporic citizenship, an effect of attachments that position such minority subjects inside the nation formally but between nations culturally. The persistence of unhomeliness also emphasizes the inhospitality of a liberal, universalist model of citizenship that requires a transcendence of ethnic identity.
(Koshy 2011: 601)

33 Seen through the lens of diasporic citizenship, in which one never feels at home, Dove’s articulation of poetic identity in ‘Ars Poetica’ substantiates reading her work in the frame of minority cosmopolitanism. A ‘haunting’ awareness of displacement is imaged in the poetic ‘ghost town’ of the poem, in which the poet-speaker’s subjectivity never is at home but, rather, ranges from one poetic opportunity to another. The poet-speaker, like an endless guest but never the homeowner and host, is only ‘pencil[led] [...] in’, never permanent. Although the poem evades cultural, racial or gender particularity for its speaker, in contrast to that of the two male authors depicted, its lines still capture the ‘psychic terrain of the unhomely’ (Koshy 2011: 601) that is the mindset of a minority cosmopolitan.

34This comparison of Dove and Osbey demonstrates the heterogeneity of texts produced through minority cosmopolitanism and also prepares us to see how Osbey’s work after 2004 extends her racial and cultural affiliations translocally and centrifugally. Osbey’s epic long poem ‘History’, first published in Atlantic Studies in 2008 and re-published in 2012 in her collection History and Other Poems, articulates a highly mobile, global perspective more akin to that of the poet-speaker of Dove’s ‘Ars Poetica’ than that of Osbey’s early poem, ‘Geography’. Yet at the same time, the two Osbey poems, together, illustrate the ‘scale-jumping’ properties Koshy notes of the minority in globality (Koshy 2011: 594): Osbey’s racial and cultural affiliations never shift but, rather, extend and thus jump scale.

35The scale shift between ‘Geography’ and ‘History’ is apparent in their titles: Geography, as the study of the topographical features of a region, is a science dealing specifically with differentiation and particulars of the earth’s surface. Distinctive elements and areas are mapped in the study of a region. History, on the other hand, offers a record of past events, ‘especially in connection with the human race’, formed into a ‘continuous, systematic narrative’ (‘history’ in Osbey’s shift from a regional place to a global story is, nonetheless, tied to a particular people and is racially/culturally specific: she writes in ‘History’ that ‘there is no history in this world that is not written in black’ (n.p.). The black transnational routes emanating to and from New Orleans that she traces in ‘History’ were there all along; Osbey makes that global scale the foregrounded subject of her recent work. We can see this shift as well in the original publication venues of the two poems. ‘Geography’ was originally published in an American journal, The American Poetry Review, whereas ‘History’ first appeared in Atlantic Studies, a Routledge quarterly that:

provides an international forum for research and debate on historical, cultural and literary issues within the Atlantic world. Published on behalf of MESEA (The Society for Multi-Ethnic Studies: Europe and the Americas), the journal challenges nationalist historiographies and literatures by focusing on the Atlantic as an area of cultural change and exchange, translation and interference, communication and passages.
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36In ‘History’, Osbey shifts her energies from the centripetal mode of racial and cultural affiliation to the centrifugal, extending her vision translocally along the African Diaspora. This extension also moves the conversation she is participating in—represented in the publication venue—from poetry-centric to globally political, enabling greater possibility of exchange and transformation.

37‘History’ retraces the Atlantic routes of colonialism, enslavement, and the forced African diaspora across five centuries, reaching at one point even further back, to the sixth century Justinian Code, origin of the law that children must follow the condition of the mother. The poem’s scale is vast. Employing Whitmanesque lists, the poem details the many countries, cultures, slave ports, cities, peoples, languages, and products associated with the slave trade and colonialism. These lists cross the Atlantic and other oceans, which are ‘forever red’ with the blood of many. The poem opens by identifying a ‘we’ and an ‘us’ that the poem speaks to, for and with: ‘we begin again’, ‘we have not learned’, and ‘for us/all oceans are forever red’. This, then, is an epic tale of the tribe, one spanning centuries and peoples, seeking to instruct, ‘for we are tired of lessons./and yet it is to lessons we must go’ (51).

38The ocean, and the transnational connectivities it enables and creates, is featured:

the looming sea is all about the wide wide world.
and it is wide
oh yes it is
the world is wide and wide and full of evil ides.
and the history of the world if we would tell it
would strike us all down dead upon the spot marked
its greenish stain like money in the poker-man’s upturned pot.

39 The sea functions here as a means of connection across nations, places, and historical time periods, linking disparate places and peoples in a worldwide pattern of oppression, enslavement, exploitation, death, and profit-making by others. This is the tale of those persistently un-homed in their very homes, on ‘continents of exclusion’ (8).

40The epigraph, a line from Hayden’s ‘The Islands’, nods to Osbey’s strong and continuing sense of Hayden’s influence. ‘History’ can be seen as an updated, extended and global version of his historical narrative poem ‘Middle Passage’, relying upon, as his poem does, juxtaposition of quotes, songs, cultural snippets and voices from a wide cast of characters in the story of the black slave trade, although, unlike ‘Middle Passage’, the main voice is that of the poet. Her aim is didactic, closing with the statement, ‘our lesson for the day is done’, followed by four pages of notes, references, and citations reflecting the extensive research behind the poem.

41Osbey’s centrifugal extension in ‘History’ is enacted aesthetically as well: her lines extend, become longer; the specific, succinct imagery and metaphors in her earlier verse are replaced by accretive facts from the slave trade; individuals are subsumed under the overarching voice of the poet. This differs markedly from Osbey’s earlier work, especially the first three volumes of poetry (in which her verse is most evocative), which share an aesthetic based on rhythmic short lines and intense metaphors, with first-person female personae delivering inconclusive and painful dramatic monologues. The voices of the women reveal abuse, madness, desire, entrapment and a wish for freedom and beauty. They bear witness in rich, yet simple, incantatory lines. One could argue the roots of this aesthetic shift can be seen in Osbey’s fourth collection, All Saints (1997), which begins to extend the topics of her verse in wider circles, writing as if to instruct on elements of New Orleans such as hoodoo, black music, and slavery. The lines begin to lengthen, the focus on first-person female personae diffuses, and her verse becomes looser and more dedicated to telling us about New Orleans.

42Osbey’s 2012 collection, History and Other Poems, in which ‘History’ is re-published, continues this aesthetic change to its logical extreme: as it takes on the global slave trade, the poem’s lines become didactic and enumerative, listing facts. The inconclusive pain of the early first-person female personae gives way to the poet’s first-person direct expression of conclusive emotions such as disgust, contempt, and exhaustion. In a declamatory fashion, the poem announces ‘all oceans are forever red’ and ‘there is no history of this world that is not written in black’. The long poem refuses metaphor, emphasizing facts and telling truths. It opens with a straightforward statement that we must begin our ‘lessons’ again, ‘because we have not learned them well enough’ (51). The musicality of Osbey’s early, short lines is replaced by unshaped lines such as: ‘the history of this world which if we tell it straight/will kill us all before we even taste the smell of even the most rudimentary hate’.

43These attributes are typical of the poems throughout the collection. For example, ‘DOM-TOM Primer’, also evidences an educatory objective, through the word ‘primer’. The poem presents the perspective of a colonizer of one of the islands and territories held by the French (ten are listed in the Glossary and notes). The diction of the poem is direct and at times deliberately crude—the word ‘fuck’ is repeated five times in the three-page poem. We learn, quite directly, through this poem’s flat persona, that the colonial mindset is base: island women and the islands’ bounty are there to be taken.

44It is apparent that the centrifugal extension of Osbey’s themes has greatly changed her verse. However, during the 2004-2012 period in which the poetry in History and Other Poems is written and published, Osbey also penned more than a dozen essays, a shift in genre preference that perhaps reveals her recognition of the need for another vehicle of expression, one better suited to her vision of extending racial affiliations globally. Our critical lens must shift, then, too, toward the essays, in order to fully understand the interplay of centripetal and centrifugal energies in the second period of her œuvre.

45The chasm of scale between ‘Geography’ in 1986 and History and Other Poems in 2012 emblematizes the shift in Osbey’s poetic energies from centripetal racial and cultural affiliations to centrifugal extension of those affiliations globally. The heightened transnational connectivities producing that shift can be traced in Osbey’s essays composed between 2004 and 2008, written in France while on a Camargo fellowship working on ‘a bilingual literary project addressing the history of slavery and rebellion in Louisiana under French colonial domination’ (‘Notes from France 1’ n.p.). These essays can be categorized in three modes: a series of short essays mostly about France, written in English, and directed to a New Orleans audience; two short essays about the US (one on Obama and one on New Orleans and Katrina), written in French, and directed to a French audience; and one extended reflective essay, ‘Writing Home’, written in English to an audience of scholars in Southern literature, which she began writing while in France and finished after her return to Louisiana, publishing it four years after the 2004 Camargo fellowship year. I will treat each in turn, demonstrating how Osbey orients herself in relation to an interconnected world by repeatedly scale-jumping between the particulars of her New Orleans affiliation and the global discourses in which they are imbricated. Throughout the essays, Osbey as an author is constituted, as Koshy’s framing would explain, ‘through a paradoxical relation to cross-cultural contact, registering the disruptions and asymmetries of intercultural encounter while sustaining an openness to its transformative possibilities’ (Koshy 2011: 594).

46The essay-series, published across three months in 2004 in gambit, an online news and entertainment website for New Orleans (, shows Osbey’s various intercultural encounters with others both at home and in France as suffering from a host of misguided or racist assumptions, historical ignorance, and disappointing revelations, while at the same time presenting intellectual and creative opportunities for Osbey and her audience. In her first dispatch, ‘Notes from France: On Nations and PR’, for example, Osbey is at pains to immediately put to rest assumptions on the part of her audience back home that she is living in a cosmopolitan setting or feeling more ‘tolerance’ in France than at home. She writes: ‘For the record, I am not in Paris but Cassis, a small village on the southern coast. There is no cosmopolitan atmosphere’. In further explaining how the ‘conservative’ village is seen as a suburb of Marseilles, Osbey shares the unsettling truth that the people of Cassis complain that Marseilles is ‘populated by far too many “blacks”’. In a centripetal move, Osbey immediately links this to:

the way too many Metairiens and others in our outlying parishes view New Orleans. And yes, the English word ‘blacks’ is used here that way. It applies to blacks from everywhere, but most in Marseilles are from Senegal, North Africa, and Réunion.
(‘Notes from France’)

47Osbey is not simply translating here; in describing the conservatism of Cassis through the repeated comment about ‘too many blacks’, Osbey identifies the interconnected racist discourse that both New Orleans and Cassis participate in and her displaced relation to it. Osbey extends this disruption of her audience’s hope for a supposedly universal, cosmopolitan setting by scale jumping in the next paragraph to a series of historical examples illustrating France’s failure to live up to the principles of the French revolution, in sentences such as, ‘As if Haiti’s revolution to achieve independence from France had not been absolutely necessary’. These examples span both time and place, including French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean, and also present-day France’s refusal to make ‘a formal apology for the slave trade’. Yet, despite the brutal truths of colonialism and racism which she identifies as constitutive of her temporary home, Osbey insists she remain open to the transformative possibilities of her intercultural experience:

I had an idea for a book in French about that very blackness [which for her is embodied in New Orleans]. I needed both time and a certain creative distance to work out the germ. So I applied to a foundation that funds French language projects. Had black Louisiana not come into being under France, I would not have been able to conceive a proposal for a book project in French addressing that very topic—slavery and rebellion in Louisiana under the French colonial regime.
(‘Notes from France’)

48Osbey is keenly aware of her paradoxical relation to her cross cultural experience: only because her home was founded as part of French colonialism and participation in the slave trade is she eligible to have applied for and been awarded this fellowship and be in a position to do the necessary work of telling that story.

49Each of the essays in the gambit series continues to enunciate the paradoxes inherent in intercultural contact and shows Osbey navigating translocal affiliations via scale jumping and openness to creative possibilities. In the second essay, ‘Lost in Translation’, Osbey begins on the global scale, correcting the French and French colonies historical record that portrays Victor Schoelcher as the heroic liberator of the French colonies in 1848 to show how this ‘notion belies and virtually erases from history the long armed struggle of black people to achieve freedom, national sovereignty, economic self-determination and self-representation’. Osbey moves to connect this historical mis-recognition writ large with two small scale interactions Osbey had while in France, in both of which slavery and racism is seen as an American problem and the ‘myth of the innocent European’ is perpetuated—at least until Osbey corrects the record. She then relays two anecdotes in which Osbey’s own cultural affiliations are mis-recognized, in which assumptions are made by others about her home (US, Louisiana) and what that allows or enables. The most striking one involves two French tourists in New Orleans who could not believe Osbey was speaking to them in French, so narrow was their knowledge of black Americans. The essay pivots, then, when Osbey re-situates herself as a writer in her home and her work:

As a New Orleanian, much of whose work is bound up in the history of slavery and freedom in New Orleans, I find all of this especially interesting at this particular juncture. One of the things New Orleanians have long been in the habit of saying is that we are culturally and socially not so much a part of the fabric of the southern United States as we are the ‘northernmost capitol of the Caribbean’. While I am among those who hold this to be true, I am also aware of a certain oddity in this claim. Among the things linking us to the Caribbean, and which we have abandoned, are the French and Spanish languages of our former slave and colonial masters and the Creole language of our enslaved forbears.

50Osbey proceeds to argue that, unless more of us become conversant in the languages of our Caribbean cousins, we risk having ‘our experiences and our histories read back to us in unrecognizable forms’. Structurally, the essay thus moves from registering Osbey’s asymmetrical relationship to French versions of history and ideas about the US, evidenced both in large scale textual encounters and small scale interpersonal interactions, to pointing out New Orleanians’ own asymmetrical relationship with the ‘Caribbean cousins’ with whom they feel interconnected but, paradoxically, with whom they cannot speak in their primary languages. Pointing out ongoing trade and cultural exchanges from New Orleans to Haiti and Cuba, Osbey imagines ‘how much more productive those exchanges, and more long-lasting the mutual benefits might be’ if the New Orleanians spoke Spanish and French. Grounded in her own experiences of intercultural mis-recognition or racist assumptions, Osbey’s vision of transformation conceives of the possibilities of a more accurate historical record by registering the disruptions of intercultural encounters in which language is assumed to be place-bound.

51The third essay in this series extends Osbey’s argument beyond language to turn the mirror back onto New Orleanians’ identity as a culturally distinct community of people. Looking at the opportunities for this community to deepen connections to Haiti, she calls on New Orleanians to:

look deeply and critically at the nature of the history of our relations with and reactions to that island nation to which much of our understanding of ourselves as a people—both in the larger historical sense and in terms of family history—is undeniably linked.
(‘A Different Purchase’)

52 Osbey’s minority cosmopolitan stance of aspiring to an interconnected world—both in essay two on languages and essay three on identity—is infused with a critical awareness of the constraints of primary attachments, in this case, to Africa. Essay three, ‘A Different Purchase’, recognizes Africa and the African slave trade as the bedrock of any New Orleanian identity, whether connected to Haiti, the Caribbean, Latin America, or France. Moving centrifugally, then centripetally, essays two and three thus join together to refract and also distill an African origin with multiple points of cultural connection both past and present. Osbey writes,

we pretend to a French-ness that we perhaps in all honesty believe to be a distinguishing cultural and social characteristic. It is, however, our blackness, our specific origins as Kongo, Senegambian and Guinea peoples, and the inescapable history of slavery and its resultant economic and political oppression that define us as a people. These facts, without which we would have no historical reason for being here, are the source of our creole-ness and our link to the peoples of the Caribbean.
(‘A Different Purchase’)

53For Osbey, then, New Orleanians should learn French and Spanish to speak with their Caribbean cousins, not in celebration of the French or Spanish elements of their cultures but to connect across their cultural and historical lineages from Africa and their shared heritages of slavery and oppression. That constraint of attachment yields, she would argue, to a transformative and deeper self-awareness. Osbey claims that New Orleans is not only a majority black city, but a blackening city that transforms everyone who makes it their home: ‘There is no escaping the fabled tar brush’ (‘A Different Purchase’). Before fully pursuing the links to the Caribbean and Latin America, Osbey suggests, New Orleanians need to ‘recognize and present [themselves] as a people’ (‘A Different Purchase’).

54Osbey extends this affiliative framing—understanding oneself as a people—in her fourth essay, ‘Marseilles’, which is the city she told us previously (in the first essay in gambit) is often described by the French as having too many blacks. She writes about the city, ‘What I most loved was seeing people of color in nicely sized clumps’ (‘Marseilles’). Compared to elsewhere in France, this approximately twelve percent black populace makes the city seem ‘très black’. Osbey places the city specifically as ‘the doorway to and from the African continent.’ As such, she expects to find books by black authors at local bookstores but instead, ‘ [...] was stunned that there in the heart of très black Marseilles, where bookstores lined the downtown streets, [she] was unable to find a single volume by a contemporary Afro-francophone poet and only one by a novelist’ (‘Marseilles’). The result is that, ‘One would think that no Afro-francophone poet had published anything in all of France since the end of colonialism. Now I was on a quest. Where are the poets publishing since the 1970s? The poets of my generation?’ (‘Marseilles’). This disappointing revelation, once again, presents intellectual and creative opportunities for Osbey and her audience, opportunities that extend racial affiliations globally.

In the large context, what all of this tells me is that there are worlds and worlds of black authors who are not entering into dialog. Who hope, as I do, that works will be translated, knowing the while that they likely will not. In the meantime, I’ve taken on a portion of that responsibility and undertaken a new project—a French-English/English-French translation of Afro-francophone and African American poetry since the 1970s.

55Osbey’s project—borne out of an abrupt realization of Afro-francophones’ asymmetrical relationship to French culture and lack of connection to non-French speaking peoples of the African diaspora—is conceived to inventively enable extending racial affiliations across the ocean in an effort to help constitute an identity as a people in dialog. The project is a transformative one.

56‘Beyond Invisibility’, the fifth essay in the series, begins on the broad plane of race discourse in France, looking at how race is perceived by the French and their government. Osbey opens the essay with a summation:

The French have an interesting concept of what constitutes racism. It consists basically in the notion that mention of race is, well, racist. One result is a color-blind public policy that does not recognize racial groups, focusing instead on inequities associated with geography and class. Another is that French civil law does not address discrimination in employment, housing, education, and provision of goods and services.

57Such a perspective would seem quite odd to her New Orleans audience, which Osbey recognizes in the next paragraph in a centripetal move, writing that:

we in New Orleans still live in the shadow of the old Black Codes [the 1689 Code Noir governing blacks in the French Caribbean and Louisiana]. Blacks in France seem to me to live in a different kind of limbo. Nominal citizens who were once slaves and, more recently, colonial subjects, they are guaranteed no special protections under the law.

58The essay continues this play between the centrifugal (her understanding of French-specific policies) and the centripetal (New Orleans attitudes and U.S. policies), running at all times along the same axis of race discourse. Osbey provides her audience with extensive historical information charting the French perspective of Afro-francophone citizens and African immigrants. The essay then turns back to its title and an African American frame: ‘The problem has to do not only with the kind of invisibility about which African-American novelist Ralph Ellison wrote, but with active and aggressive erasure’ (‘Beyond’). Quoting Césaire, Osbey makes the point that French integration aims to turn the African ’into a Frenchman with black skin’:

In the United States, sustained political agitation by African Americans brought about a grudging integration and, more importantly, a body of laws against discrimination in employment, voting rights, housing and education. The only form of integration practiced in France is assimilation, which requires the sublimation and denial of ethnic, racial and language identity other than French.

59Such a model of assimilation resembles greatly the de facto universalist model of cosmopolitanism Koshy delineates, in which minorities find they must abandon racial specificities to enter global citizenry. This creates, in turn, a de facto homelessness, because the ‘guest’ country does not truly accept them as hosts but as unwelcome guests. Osbey notes that ‘Francophone blacks, no matter their citizenship status, are generally perceived and referred to as immigrants’ (‘Beyond’). Osbey’s repeated moves between French and US/African American perspectives on race enables a cross-cultural comparison that yields a cosmopolitan insight about France: ‘Thus, race relations in France today are about what they were in the United States in the 1940s and ‘50s’ (‘Beyond’). The one with the ‘broader’ perspective here, working against the assumption (discussed in essay one) that France is the cosmopolitan culture, is Osbey, not the French. The essay ends with an encounter between Osbey and an Afro-francophone doctoral student who wants to write about a lynching story in his dissertation on Ellison, but fears his white committee will brand him a racist. Osbey explains to him that ‘writing about race in and of itself [is] not a racist act’; she reports that ‘he finds my definition of racism as the power to control and subjugate on the basis of race both “enlightened” and, sadly, “original”’ (‘Beyond’). This story, and the frame Osbey creates to tell it, illustrates Koshy’s description of how ‘minority narratives often carry non-Western modes of cosmopolitanism that offer alternative visions of cross-cultural exchange and transnational affiliation’ (Koshy 2011: 594). Osbey here constructs herself in a non-Western mode of cosmopolitanism that is grounded in the experience of the ongoing African American struggle for civil rights and which offers this young man an alternative vision of transnational affiliation.

60Osbey’s two essays written in French and directed to a French and French-speaking audience, ‘Les indigènes sont agités: La Nouvelle-Orléans à la suite de l’orage’ and ‘Obama, enfin’, represent cross cultural encounters in which Osbey intends to educate and thereby transform French attitudes about race. Applying analyses of U.S. and French racism she has made elsewhere in English language texts and venues, Osbey in these essays takes her opportunity as a recent guest in France to teach her host country some of the asymmetries of her experiences with their culture as well as her own. In the essay on New Orleans and Katrina, ‘The Natives are Restless: New Orleans in the Wake of the Storm, ’ published in 2007, Osbey’s intent to educate her French and francophone audience is established in the first paragraph, where she corrects the misperception that the floods accompanying the hurricanes Katrina and Rita (which followed a month after Katrina) were a natural disaster. Osbey argues ‘cela est faux’ (‘The Natives’): there was nothing natural about any of it. Osbey details the widespread human error, negligence, and greed costing people their lives, livelihoods, homes and furniture, and community feeling. Working steadily across the essay to rebut French ideals of a raceless society, Osbey painstakingly details the history of New Orleans from its origins as part of the French colonial empire in 1718 to its eventual role in the early 19th century as the largest community of free blacks on the continent. She shows how several supposed black ‘firsts’ in the 20th century were actually achieved a century earlier in New Orleans. At all times, ‘la population afro-américaine’ is at the center, both in terms of facts and most especially in terms of culture. The greatest loss of Katrina, Osbey suggests, may be New Orleans’ original culture, which is thoroughly and unmistakably black.

61Having established the racial core of culture in New Orleans, Osbey’s subsequent detailing in the essay of racial tensions post-Katrina offers an audience presumably immersed in a French model of the raceless society a new way of understanding the asymmetries of black experience both at home and abroad. Economic issues, health problems, a young man shot by the police, injustices and abuses of power in the rebuilding process—all these are tinged with race in the essay, as they follow upon Osbey’s representation of New Orleans as a thoroughly racialized society. Despite the outrage Osbey feels, her essay stages a strategic attempt to extend her local affiliation (both to New Orleans and to the construction of blackness at its core) transnationally to a people who think very differently about race. She thus remains open to the transformative possibilities of the encounter.

62In the Obama essay, ‘Obama, enfin’, published in 2009, Osbey strategically takes the position of an American insider who can provide an overview of the Obama campaign, in terms of issues that arose in the campaign and the main elements of his platform. About halfway through the essay, she turns explicitly to the role race played or did not play in his election. Arguing that he did not win because of nor in spite of his race, but instead, simply, that he is both black and also president of the U.S., Osbey is quick to help the reader understand that his election does not mean that racism is dead in the U.S.: ‘Absolument pas’ (‘Obama’). Osbey then traces negative white reactions to early events in his presidency such as health care reform, immigration reform and Obama’s winning the Nobel Peace Prize, as evidence that white racism persists. She concludes that there is still much work to be done in the U.S., as there is in the rest of the postcolonial world. This set of arguments fits well into French perceptions of American as a place with racial problems, as she detailed in her gambit series of encounters with the French.

63But the essay then takes an abrupt turn in its last three paragraphs— abrupt, that is, for the French reader (the ‘innocent European’) who might have been reading Osbey as an American detailing America’s racist society rather than as a minority cosmopolitan who extends racial affiliations transnationally. Osbey points out that, unlike France, the U.S. has never denied its slave past. Despite the high populations of blacks in France and of Afro-francophones around the world, France has suppressed the history of the slave trade, forwarding a view of a culture without race or ethnicity, unifying its nation solely through French language and culture. She concludes that, in spite of its insistence on creating a society without consideration of race, ethnicity and color, one searches France in vain for black people of power and influence; furthermore, she asserts it is certain that in France, any man of African heritage would never rise to a high political position, as did Barack Obama. The essay thus educates a French audience on not only US but also their own racial issues. The question that remains from both of these essays is: Has Osbey been heard? What response has there been in France (or among French-speaking Africans or French) to her essays? Will these be transformative?

64Written in English and appearing in Southern Literary Journal, Osbey’s 2008 essay, ‘Writing Home’, offers a culminating reflection on herself as an author, a recast post-Cassis (France) Kunstlerroman. The essay’s title suggests both her ongoing, self-described artistic enterprise— writing home, as in writing to and about New Orleans and New Orleans people—and also Osbey’s more recent project, writing home (to New Orleans) while away in France. These centripetal and centrifugal energies, in the end, are inseparable, thus lending the title an air of an expansive project crossing and combining translocal affiliations and encounters. The self-representation Osbey constructs in this essay is substantially reconceived from the poet-speaker from her poem ‘Geography’, in 1986. Back home from France, she is both the same, but also shifted, extended.

65The essay is framed by a brief tale of another writer’s expressed need to leave his hometown and family and go to New York ‘to find a group of like-minded people with whom he could identify and try to learn to write about things that mattered’ (Osbey 2008: 19). Osbey contrasts this writer with herself, a writer who has never felt the need to go away in order to be a writer. Apparently, Osbey has forgotten her 1986 interview with Violet Bryan, in which was asked, ‘Do you find the New Orleans community to be supportive of your work?’, to which she replied, ‘I really love the city, but I do some of my best work away from it. This city doesn’t support the arts. There are only a few fledgling arts organizations here. New Orleans is not an arts city’ (Bryan 1986: 35). Osbey constructs her childhood, family, Catholic school and aspects of her community (other than public school) as highly supportive of her developing an identity as a writer. She tells of her grandmother’s storytelling, her own early efforts at bookmaking, and the feeling of being treated like a writer. But her older brother Lawrence plays the biggest role in the essay. The representation of Lawrence as a key literacy sponsor, as Deborah Brandt terms it, lays the foundation for Osbey’s reconceptualized sense of writerly identity and home.

66 Lawrence is first introduced as one who had ‘a great love of ancient world history’ and a ‘a deep interest in maps’ (Osbey 2008: 20). These tropes of history and mapping recall Osbey’s poem ‘Geography’, Rita Dove’s poem ‘Ars Poetica’, and Osbey’s poem ‘History’. Through the figure of Lawrence, Osbey connects the maps and poetic identities of both her early and later periods as part of the same whole. In the essay, Lawrence is shown initiating Osbey into a dream-world that encapsulates her racially-centered experiences and the world; he shows her the path of minority cosmopolitanism. Taking her to a favorite antiquarian bookshop, he then leaves her to experience it:

[...] I was hooked. The semi-darkness, the still woody smell of old paper and of cloth, the stacks and rows and alley-ways of nothing but books, books and periodicals, books and record albums, books and maps and documents and such. It was a dream-world. And I was being initiated into it.
I don’t recall what I bought, if anything, or even how long we stayed. What stays with me is the sense of being part of a world that was so much larger, more inclusive and revealing than I had even remotely looked forward to finding. From the outside, this was an ordinary downtown establishment. Within, however, was, very possibly, all of history, all of literature, all of time past, shelved and available for purchase, with a negotiable price marked lightly in pencil.
(Osbey 2008: 23)

67The all-ness of the world, its full global possibilities, past and present, map an unlimited terrain for Osbey, a terrain that is both ‘larger’ and ‘more inclusive’, not either/or. Lawrence shows her how this terrain is not raceless, but rather can accommodate racial affiliations, both centripetal and centrifugal. When her white social studies teacher insists the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights’, he allowed that she was right enough. ‘It had very much to do with the rights of states in the Confederate south to own slaves and amass great quantities of wealth from the “free” labor of those slaves’ (Osbey 2008: 27). She continues,

He then led me to books and journals containing articles by scholars who knew that terrain better than he. He accompanied me to the library and showed me the kind of books and references to consult for social studies, history, and civics classes. It was not only a lesson in research, but in the uses of research. He showed me that I could come to my own conclusions, make my own arguments about history and about the roles and experiences of black people in those histories that could make sense to me.
(Osbey 2008: 27–28)

68This excavated story about Lawrence thus serves Osbey as a device for introducing a literacy sponsor to the story of her artistic identity development, one who understands that a minority cosmopolitan must be able to articulate the asymmetries of their experiences both locally and in the world, the inhospitality of transnational encounters, the wish to extend local affiliations globally, and the aspiration for an interconnected and shared world. He thus maps for her the intellectual routes she can travel both at and away from home.

69Osbey’s essay eventually charts her departure from home, first for a junior year abroad program in France and later to graduate school in Kentucky, where her poetry begins to receive attention and she realizes that, all along, she has been ‘writing about home’ (34). For her, unlike the other writer whose story she uses to open the essay, leaving home isn’t about ‘needing desperately to get away from family or from home in order to be one’s own person’ (Osbey 2008: 36). Such a view wouldn’t make sense to a native New Orleanian because, she says, ‘For us, there is never any real break. Perhaps because we are brought up to think of home not simply as a place. It is that, yes. But more than that, it is a set of connections, associations, memories, and sensibilities’ (Osbey 2008: 36). Here, Osbey articulates a shift in her poetic identity in relation to place that looks more like the moveable poet-speaker of Dove’s ‘Ars Poetica’ than that of her own early poem, ‘Geography’. For a poet who said early on that her characters could not be moved to Arizona, this expression of home as portable, metaphoric and psychic, enables her to extend racial affiliations centrifugally, to embrace transnational connectivities at will. Yet, unlike the speaker in ‘Ars Poetica’, this poetic identity has a strong, enduring sense of a home, not something penciled-in. Osbey continues explaining her extended understanding of home on the next page:

Home, then, is an atlas, a body of maps of constellations of people, and of experiences and relations shared among people, living and dead and yet to be born, with whom one has more in common than can ever adequately be stated. It is an intangible something lodged deep within. It is transmitted through memory, blood, air, and dust of our people. In the religion, faith, practice, language, history, myth, all converge.
(Osbey 2008: 37)

70 In ‘Writing Home’, Osbey thus reconstitutes her writerly identity in the most capacious sense possible, as an atlas or body of maps, with enduring traces of connections among a people and peoples, both those at home and not at home (but still connected to home). Her vision jumps scale easily between local and global, among various places and routes of travel, through the metaphoric language of memory, blood, air and dust. This vision of an interconnected world now moves forward with a hope for transformative possibilities.

  • 1 Thanks to my colleagues Jeffrey Leak, Tony Jackson, Janaka Bowman Lewis, John Lowe, UNC Charlotte f (...)

71The span of Osbey’s production across thirty years cannot be understood without considering Osbey’s reconceptualized identity as expressed in ‘Writing Home’. Without the concept of an atlas or body of maps, her poetic development might appear to be regional and then global, a framing that misses the multiple ways her work refuses those as separate places, moving constantly, instead, both centripetally and centrifugally. As Osbey has demonstrated, in both her essays and her poetry, she can take us anywhere she wants us to go, yet feel at home all the while, even when others might not help her to be. The distance between her early poem ‘Geography’ and her recent work in ‘History’ and multiple essays is thus shown to be the distance between two sides of a doorway, at which she stands, Janus-faced, seeing both ways lead to home and the world.1


Works Cited

Bonner, Tom. ‘New Orleans and Its Writers: Burdens of Place’. Mississippi Quarterly 63: 1-2 (Winter/Spring 2010): 195–209.

Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

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1 Thanks to my colleagues Jeffrey Leak, Tony Jackson, Janaka Bowman Lewis, John Lowe, UNC Charlotte faculty attending the Africana Studies lecture series, and two anonymous readers reviewing this collection for their insightful feedback on this piece.


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