September 2015

Vanessa Willoughby


Lucy Negro, Redux by Caroline Randall Williams

Shakespeare scholars have long debated the elusive identity of the Bard's beautiful Dark Lady, the black-haired and raven-eyed mistress in sonnets 127-154. In 2013, a fellow of the Society of the Antiquaries named Dr. Aubrey Burl believed that he'd cracked the mystery. He claimed that the Dark Lady was Aline Florio, the wife of an Italian translator. Dr. Burl dedicated years to examining and analyzing the scribe's works, eventually narrowing down candidates to eight hopefuls. In her first collection of poetry, Lucy Negro, Redux, Caroline Randall Williams creates an argument for a literal, race-based interpretation that is equal parts lyrically lush and scholastically sound. Williams mixes the musings of a logic-guided archaeologist, Blues singer trained in the school of Bessie Smith, modern-day hip-hop scribe, and Womanist advocate. The poems explore the various facets of Lucy's role not only as tempting muse, but swift heartbreaker, autonomous lover, and victim of the chains conjured by the myth of the Strong Black Woman. Randall Williams, who previously partnered with her mother, Alice Randall, to publish a young adult novel and a soul food cookbook, navigates language with musical dexterity. Lucy does not just have a singular voice, but a rich, multi-layered chorus, a melding of the fight for womanhood in a patriarchal society and the social politics of Blackness.

The collection's dedication emphasizes the central theme of the poems, which in a way, is to shake off the negative connotations of Lucy's historical identity as merely a prostitute:

For all my ladies,
-- real, or imagined --
whose darkness
real, or imagined --
ever wanted for a voice.

The introductory poem, "BlackLucyNegro I," demands that the reader humanize a shadowy figure that has long been relegated to the status of a mere object with a price tag, a mute bit player in the grand existence of this male creative thrust upon the throne of literary greatness. It is a move to strip the "Otherness" from Lucy, otherwise known as Black Luce, in order to reinstate her rightful and overlooked humanity. The voices of minorities, especially Black women, have been consciously and unconsciously erased from literature, turning them into ideas molded by the persistence of white supremacy. Randall Williams does not necessarily want to turn darkness into light, but show that "beauty herself is black" without the baggage of racist demonization. Beauty and blackness are not mutually exclusive. This first poem uses a few of the questions or proposed narratives that Randall Williams revisits and re-imagines throughout the collection. Near the end of the poem, she demands, "Say she is the loose light./ Say she is the root. /Say she ate at his table." Lucy is elevated to holiness, no daughter of a damned Ham, cursed by God, but Mother of Nature, Mother Earth, loved and blessed by God.

Functioning as an interlude, the methodology of the poem is revealed. Randall Williams was struck by the idea of Shakespeare's Dark Lady as a Black woman during the summer of 2012. Dr. Duncan Salkeld, an English professor at the University of Chichester, told UK publication The Independent that he'd uncovered evidence that the Dark Lady was actually a woman who ran a brothel house, referred to as "Lucy Negro" or "Black Luce." Randall Williams saw news of the discovery online and contacted Dr. Salkeld, eager to solidify the possibility that Shakespeare kept a black lover. In the second poem, "BlackLucyNegro II," Randall Williams flexes language like light, adding to the process of humanizing Lucy for the audience. She writes:

Lucy the bend behind the word
The scent behind the sound
The skin rubbed raw
Behind the cry in the night

The third poem, "Transubstantiate, Redux Or, Sublimating Lucy Whilst at Church," settles into the intersection of the opposing forces of sex and religion, destroying the lines between sacrilege and purity. The result is a highly charged sensual desire for sex without love that leads to internal peace. The metaphorical body of Christ becomes the actual body of a naked lover waiting in bed. This voice connects Lucy as a historical subject to a snapshot of present-day Black womanhood, an existence that lives on contradicting and conflicting truths, rather than unshakeable absolutes. This is confirmed in the following interlude, where Randall Williams reflects on the "assumption that there could hardly be more than one man of this model coming to the train station in search of a black American girl with wild hair." She is aligning herself with Lucy, identifying and embracing Lucy's Otherness as a recognizable commonality.

The poem, "Aemilia Lanyer Was a White Girl," is in reference to an Italian poet of the same name who lived during Shakespeare's time. Lanyer is credited as the first woman writing in English to produce a large volume of original poetry for mass sale and consumption. Some suggested that she is the Dark Lady in the sonnets because, as an Italian, she may have had a "dark complexion." Randall Williams challenges this notion, calling it silly, a denial of the literal text. She calls for a Lucy that is "blackamoor black," not a white woman with tan skin. The declaration is a direct indictment of the whitewashing of Lucy.

The topic of lust is framed by scholarly research provided by Dr. Salkeld, which mainly rests on paleography, the study of extinct styles of handwriting. He used records from Bridewell Prison that charted Lucy's life as a madam. In turn, Randall Williams points out that if Black Luce, as cited in the prison records, is Luce Baynam, then the name can be traced back to Shakespeare's Dark Lady. The personal and the historical are gracefully intertwined, as the poem's narrator and its subject are never alien to one another. This is apparent in "Nude Study Or, Shortly Before Meeting Lucy. A White Boy," where an interracial relationship is viewed through the power imbalance of racism. The last two lines are cutting, as she admits, "Let's play masters and slaves, you thought/Role play. I thought black girl."

Later on, Randall Williams brings up Josephine Baker, a manifestation of a Black Venus, the spirit of Aphrodite. This sets the stage for Lucy as a profitable businesswoman, an iridescent wonderment able to capture the hearts of multiple men. Evoking Zora Neale Hurtson, Randall Williams uses vernacular dialect in "The Biddies Speak," stretching the style into a blues-inspired lament in "Comfort Girl Blues." Colorism is discussed in "Vitiligo Blues," borrowing lines from Kanye West's "Slow Jamz," where he says, "Got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson." The idea of Whiteness as a malevolent trigger for self-hatred within a Black person is explored through Michael Jackson. The public's fascination with his ever-lightening skin and thinning nose are thought of as evidence of all-consuming self-hatred; pain not as darkness but whiteness.

Lucy Negro, Redux is a proud rallying cry of freedom and delight in the sublime magic of Blackness. Randall Williams is keen on dismantling the trope of the Black woman as the Mule of the World, a voiceless pleasure thing. Combining history with honesty and the sting of personal memories, Lucy is no man's "exotic" land to claim. She rises above, radical mortal instrument of God's beauty.

Lucy Negro, Redux by Caroline Randall Williams
Ampersand Books
ISBN: 978-0986137013
88 pages