12.03.03, Looney, Freedom Readers

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Patrice D. Rankine

The Medieval Review 12.03.03

Looney, Dennis. Freedom Readers: The African American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy. The William and Katherine Devers Series in Dante and Medieval Italian Literature. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2011. Pp. 296. ISBN: 978-0-268-03386-6.

Reviewed by:
Patrice D. Rankine
Purdue University

Dante Alighieri's Commedia, completed within the first quarter of the fourteenth century, has the resilience that is the sine qua non of a classical work. In the composition (which has come to be known as "The Divine Comedy"), consisting of Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso, the narrator journeys from Good Friday through Easter, through concentric circles, into depths of punishment and redemption. The great Latin poet Virgil, an emblem from the past, is Dante's guide, with Beatrice, Dante's companion in paradise, holding the hope of the future. The triumph of the poem is in its balance between the real and the allegorical, the presence of historical figures known to all, and the symbolism that encapsulates the ever-present fears and profound emotional longings of its readers. Dante's deft management of these extremes makes The Divine Comedy a timeless classic. Also critical to its staying power is its author's popularization of the Italian vernacular. Dante's break from the Latin language and epic form defies the continuity and artistic deference that Virgil--and Ulysses, another figure the narrator encounters--embodies. This constant pressing forward while looking back is The Divine Comedy's gait. Dante chastises historical Popes, but he celebrates Saint John and Thomas Aquinas, writers whose contributions to the human sciences guarantee them an eternal, even divine, status. Given Dante's treatment of Popes (from Anastasius II to John XXII), vanguards of the Protestant Reformation, as well as Anglicans, deployed Dante to their cause, as Looney recounts, and it is in this milieu that Dante becomes the Liberationist, The Divine Comedy a poem evocative of freedom in the context of African American poetics.

In many places, the literary trope of the katabasis, the journey Underground into Hades, the belly of the whale, or the hero's own unconscious world, is the broader symbolism with which a given modern author is concerned. The unnamed protagonist of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man "descended, like Dante, into the depths," and in addition to this he delves into the Cyclops' cave, which sounds more like Homer's Odyssey; is led through a Harlem riot by Sybil, perhaps a composite figure (Sybil from Virgil's Aeneid, and the lover Beatrice from The Divine Comedy); and finally drops down into a sewer, where he evokes both Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Richard Wright. The polyphony of texts haunts the readers with whom Looney is concerned. Looney is wise not to linger on the particularities of classical texts, by which I mean that even with Dante's poem, we learn of its textual tradition and its translations as we go. There is ample scholarship on these, and Freedom Readers is well-annotated and points the way. For his part, Looney is at times much more interested in the idea of Dante vis-à-vis the black subject and, more broadly, American society. Dante, and the beckon that his poem provided, guided Frances Trollope (1779-1863) from England to a colony of freed slaves in Memphis, Tennessee (named Nashoba), and when she lost hope there, she was in part responsible for a bazaar in Cincinnati, where life-sized figures from the Inferno could be found. In other words, Looney makes a strong case for the neglected, popular place Dante seems to have held in American life, broadly speaking.

As it pertains to black authors per se, Looney takes his readers through general periods of American life, each section of the book subtitled according to the accepted appellation of the time: Colored Dante, Negro Dante, Black Dante, and African American Dante. Henrietta Cordelia Ray, who flourished at the end of the 19th century, has already been singled out by Classics scholars for her Ovidian reworkings (see, for example, Tracey L. Walters, African American Literature and the Classicist Tradition). Ray is the main example of colored Dante, and Looney presents her 1885 poem "Dante" as evidence that Ray saw Dante as "an engaged citizen actively trying to use the rule of law to better his people's situation" (57). Here again, Dante stands in for what he evokes, as a "freedom fighter" interested in a language evocative of "legal and juridical activism" (59). For Negro Dante, Looney first offers the filmmaker Spencer Williams' "Go Down, Death!" and argues not only for his explicit references to Dante's Inferno, but Looney also makes an argument for the intertextual significance of Williams' splicing in of clips from Adolfo Padovan and Francesco Bertolini's L'inferno. Looney guides his reader down into a firsthand view of a similar process of editing and redaction with Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. He reproduces the process whereby "I not only heard the muse" becomes the now infamous line, "I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths."

Inferno comes into focus in Looney's last two sections concerned with authors: Black Dante and African American Dante, about LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka and Gloria Naylor, respectively. Here Looney wrings his best textual work. He takes his reader through LeRoi Jones' The System of Dante's Hell, the semi-autobiographical, 1965 novel that perhaps marks Jones' transition to Amiri Baraka. The "richness" and "complexity" of Dante's poem lies in the fact that Jones, who rejects Western cultural imperialism, still requires Inferno for the structural integrity of his own work. Baraka figures European penetration into black (male) bodies and minds in terms of sexual violation, but he does so in Dantesque terms, notwithstanding his exclusion of specific allusions to sodomites in Inferno. And what of the black male's desire for such intercourse? "Lust is now being conflated with literary affiliations" (118). Baraka's acceptance of his own desires is much more conflicted than Ellison's narrative resolution in Invisible Man, and his struggle is no less labored; here too, as was the case with Invisible Man, textual breaks, in terms of the writer's revisions, leave traces of the personal trauma inevitable in lived experience. In Naylor's case, Looney is able to show that in the absence of in-depth study of her deployment of Dante's poetic meter, the terza rima, critics have neglected for The Women of Brewster Place what is perhaps the author's best work: Linden Hills. Looney establishes Linden Hills, an African American real estate development that "slopes down and away from the city" (157), as a site for reimagining of Dante's Inferno. The characters, Willie Mason and Lester Tilson, are young poets, and the rapper Willie (Dante) feels it would take an "epic" to deal with what he sees in the Hills. Looney takes Naylor's own observations about Linden Hills, that critics did not understand her use of the terza rima or of color, as an opportunity to do just that. Here again, his reading is intricate and astute.

Although Looney uses the aforementioned authors to structure his own journey, he hints in other directions as well, thereby suggesting that an interested reader might view Freedom Readers as a book that begins where it ends (or ends where it begins). Put otherwise, there are many paths to pursue here. Looney juxtaposes Ray to William Wells Brown, the black abolitionist and author who was her forerunner; Ellison to Richard Wright; and Naylor to Toni Morrison; each in highly suggestive ways. He includes a coda on rap, with Askia M. Touré's "Infernos: A Groit-Song," N. J. Loftis' Black Anima, and Dudley Randall's "My Muse," and in each case the sense is that of beginning again, as he opens onto another vista, other possible subjects to read in terms of Dante's influence. Outside of the margins of Freedom Readers is the dramatist Owen Dodson (1914-1983), one of the most important African American poets after the Harlem Renaissance, whose play Divine Comedy is worth a look. Poems like Dodson's "Prisoners" suggest that for him Dante was a pervasive influence. To come full circle, it would also be worth considering American authors who were not necessarily African American but for whom the black subject was an interest. After all, Looney starts with Dante and the American Protestants and Abolitionists, white and black alike, and his project is suggestive of the integrity of the American experience. These are, of course, trails for others; Looney has successfully guided readers along an illuminating path.

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Patrice D. Rankine

Purdue University