Staff Writer Ava Slocum’s Lit Hum professor recommended that her class attend Wednesday evening’s talk, “Classical Allusions in Contemporary African-American Poetry.” And it was so interesting! Dr. Chiyuma Elliott gave her presentation over Zoom, in a guest lecture coordinated by the Morningside Institute.

“African American literature has a rich tradition of both exploring and rejecting the classics,” says Chiyuma Elliott, Assistant Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Indeed, the three poems that Dr. Elliott described in-depth in her lecture this past Wednesday all carry references to the Greek and Roman poets, while also subverting the work of the ancients for a nuanced modern narrative.

Dr. Elliott is the author of four books of poems and is currently at work on a poem cycle about African-American migration within the United States. No newcomer to the challenges of condensing various references and backstory into a thoughtful piece of poetry, Elliott started off her lecture by reading her own poem, “Dear Ilium.” In the poem, written at the height of the Black Lives Matter protests in summer 2020, Elliott imagines a fictionalized version of herself in a similar protest. However, she explained in her talk how she left the place and time purposefully unspecified, so that the vagueness, combined with her poem’s title, makes her words equally at home in Homeric Greece as it is in our modern-day.

Like Homer in the Iliad, Elliott employs the idea of a bird augury throughout “Dear Ilium.” Early in the poem come the lines, “The bird learned to copy so many sounds; / its entrails were clogged with bright bits of plastic.” It’s a disturbing image, but one that emphasizes the devastating seriousness behind the ongoing quest for racial justice that Elliott hints at all through her poem. In her lecture, Elliott explained how her use of the bird metaphor was influenced not only by Homer, but by her own experiences as well. She recalled a photo exhibit she had once seen of bird skeletons revealing bits of undigested plastic, proof that environmental concerns and our pollution problem have immense implications for all different kinds of life. Elliott also once heard the Dalai Lama speak at Stanford, where he described how he prayed by thinking about “the suffering of birds.”

After reading “Dear Ilium,” Elliott turned her attention to two other poems written in just the last few years: “Latitudes” by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa and “Even Homer Nods” by Rowan Ricardo Phillips. Like “Dear Ilium,” both of these poems take on themes and images from classical literature, adapting them to challenge the oft-racialized American narrative. 

In “Latitudes,” Komunyakaa uses Homeric references to talk about the Vietnam War, which he himself fought in in the 1960s. Allusions to Ulysses are rife within the poem, which, in Elliott’s interpretation, “focus on the mental horrors of war” while exploring the hero of the Odyssey’s relationship with his wife Penelope, to whom Komunyakaa refers in the final lines of his battle-centered poem.

Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s “Even Homer Nods” starts off with a reference to “a mother who knows a god,” a line that takes us back to the 18th book of the Iliad where Achilles’s mother Thetis goes to the god Hephaistos to procure a magical set of armor for her son fighting in the Trojan War. According to Elliott, the war from which the speaker’s mother in “Even Homer Nods” is trying to protect her son is not the Trojan War but the war of anti-Black racism. She reminded the lecture audience that in Homer’s epic, the armor is only Thetis’s latest attempt to protect her child; when he was a baby, she dipped him in the River Styx. Thetis’s (ill-fated) attempts to protect her son at all costs must resonate with parents both ancient and modern, especially under the threats of systemic racism and prolonged injustice.

Toward the end of her lecture, Dr. Elliott brought up the apparent contradiction in referencing ancient, historically-Europeanized literature in works promoting racial equity and an end to structures of inequality. She referred to some of the movements of Black poets in the ’60s to purposefully stay away from any kind of traditional European structure and allusions in their work: “In order to do an ethical job of being an artist, they needed to decolonize, un-Europeanize their art.”

However, Elliott noted that as a Black poet herself, “I do know that there is a very beautiful continuous use of classics in African-American poetry, starting with Phillis Wheatley in the 1700s.” She quoted Bob Marley, saying “In this great future, you can’t forget the past,” and ended with the idea that reading and interpreting classical literature, “knowing about the gods,” is a way to know something “about ourselves and our collective struggles and the pathos and dignity and potential that human suffering might contain.”

Chiyuma Elliott’s Collection Blue and Green, containing her poem “Dear Ilium” was published by the University of Chicago press in 2021. The Morningside Institute’s calendar for upcoming guest lectures can be found on their website.

presentation snapshot via Zoom event screenshot