Spic'ing into Existence: Epitaph, Epithet, and the Ethnopoetic Imagination

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Lubiano, Wahneema

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Quién Es, Quién Somos? Spic’ing into Existence claims a four-fold close-reading: first, analysis of texts: from theoretical meditations to (prison) memoir and film. Second, a half dozen central figures appear, largely Latinx and black American. They cut across a score of registers, socio-economics, ideological reservations, but all are, as Carl Carlton sang, poetry in motion. Writers, poets, theologians, pathologists, artists, comedians, actors, students whose vocation is invocation, the inner surge of their calling. Third, the manuscript draws from a series of historical moments—from radical liberation of the late 60s, to contemporary student activism. Finally, this body of work is movement, in all its social, gestural, and kinesthetic viscera. From this last heading, we peel away layers of what I call the ethnopoet, the fascia undoing that reveals its bio-political anatomy, dressing its bare life with kinship speech. First, the social revolutions of the Civil Rights, Black Power, abolitionism, the Black Panthers and Young Lords, boycotts and jarring artistic performances. These events are superficial not in vain sense, but key epicenters of underground murmurings, the workings of a cunning assailant. She robs not lavish estates, but another day to breathe. Gesturally, as perhaps the interlocutor, lies this author, interspersing his own diatribes to conjure her presence. The final branch is admittedly the most intangible. Kinesthetically, we map the nimbleness, footwork lígera of what I call the ethnopoet. Ethnopoet is no mere aggregate of ethnicity and poetry, but like chemical reaction, the descriptor for its behavior under certain pressures, temperatures, and elements. Elusive and resisting confinement, and therefore definition, the ethnopoet is a shapeshifting figure of how racialized bodies [people of color] respond to hegemonic powers. She is, at bottom, however, a native translator, the plural-lensed subject whose loyalty is only to the imagination of a different world, one whose survival is not contingent upon her exploitation. The native translator’s constant re-calibrations of oppressive power apparatuses seem taxing at best, and near-impossible, at worst. To effectively navigate through these polarized loci, she must identify ideologies that in turn seek “affective liberatory sances” in relation to the dominant social order (43). In a kind of performative contradiction, she must marshall the knowledge necessary to “break with ideology” while speaking within it. Chicana Studies scholar, Chela Sandoval, describes this dual movement as “meta-ideologizing”: the appropriation of hegemonic ideological forms in order to transform them (82). Nuestros padres se subieron encima de La Bestia, y por eso somos pasageros a ese tren. Y ya, dentro su pansa, tenemos que ser vigilantes cuando plantamos las bombas. In Methodology of the Oppressed, Sandoval schematizes this oppositional consciousness around five principle categories: “equal rights,” “revolutionary,” “supremacist,” “separatist,” and “differential.” Taken by themselves, the first four modes appear mutually exclusive, incapable of occupying the same plane, until a fifth pillar emerges. Cinematographic in nature, differential consciousness, as Sandoval defines it, is “a kinetic motion that maneuvers, poetically transfigures, and orchestrates while demanding alienation, perversion, and reformation in both spectators and practitioners” (44). For Sandoval, then, differential consciousness is a methodology that privileges an incredible sense mobility, one reaching artistic sensibilities. Our fourth and final analytic of movement serves an apt example of this dual meaning. Lexically speaking, ‘movement’ may be regarded as a political mobilization of aggrieved populations (through sustained efforts), or the process of moving objects (people or otherwise) from one location to another. Praxis-wise, it is both action and ideal, content and form. Thus, an ethnic poetics must be regarded less as a series of stanzas, shortened lyric, or even arrangement of language, but as a lens through which peripheralized peoples kaleidecope ideological positions in an “original, eccentric, and queer sight” (43).
Taking note of the advantages of postponing identifications, the thesis stands its ground on the term ethnopoet. Its abstraction is not dewey-eyed philosophy, but an anticipation of poetic justice, of what’s to come from callused hands. This thesis is divided into 7.5 chapters. The first maps out the ethnopoet’s cartographies of struggle. By revisiting that alleged Tío Tomas, Richard Rodriguez, we unearth the tensions that negatively, deny citizenship to one silo, but on the flipside, engender manifold ways of seeing, hearing, and moving . The second, through George Jackson’s prison memoirs, pans out from this ethnography of power, groping for an apparatus that feigns an impervious prestige: ‘the aesthetic regime of coercion.’ In half-way cut, the thesis sidesteps to spic into existence, formally announcing, through Aime Cesaire, myself, and Pedro Pietri, the poeticization of trauma. Such uplift denies New Age transcendence of self, but a rehearsal of our entrapment in these mortal envelopes. Thirdly, conscious of the bleeding ethnic body, we cut open the incipient corpse to observe her pathologist. Her native autopsies offer the ethnic body’s posthumous recognition, the ethnopoetics ability to speak for and through the dead. Chapter five examines prolific black artists—Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar—to elide the circumvention of their consumption via invoking radical black hi/her-stories, ones fragmenting the black body. Sixth, the paper compares the Black Power Salute of the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to Duke’s Mi Gente Boycott of their Latino Student Recruitment Weekend. Both wielded “silent gestures,” that shrewdly interfered with white noise of numbed negligence. Finally, ‘taking the mask off’ that are her functionalities, the CODA expounds on ethnopoet’s interiority, particularly after the rapid re-calibration of her politics. Through a rerun of El Chavo del Ocho, one of Mexican television’s most cherished shows, we tune into the heart-breaking indigence of barrio residents, only to marvel at the power of humor to, as Friday’s John Witherspoon put it, “fight another day.” This thesis is the tip of my tongue. Y por una vez, déjala que cante.





Lopez, Baligh ibn Antonio (2016). Spic'ing into Existence: Epitaph, Epithet, and the Ethnopoetic Imagination. Honors thesis, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/12367.

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