Ars Poetica #17: First Afro-American Esperantist

Elizabeth Alexander

Gumbo ya-ya, lingua franca,
truffle or frango. Epic,

                  Oh language,
my trinket, my dialect bucket,
my bracelet of flesh.

Certificate: Esperantist.
Heirloom trunk, then Beinecke.
X-ray. Communicado. Acid-free.

SOURCE: Alexander, Elizabeth. American Sublime (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), p. 39.

An Interview Conducted by telephone and then by email
by Professor Meta DuEwa Jones



In First Afro-American Esperantist, you invoke both the literal and metaphoric possibilities of “lingua franca” as well as the interplay between identity, audience commodity and language. I love your phrase “dialect bucket” for the history, music, politics, poets it conjures. Could you comment on this poem?


Isn’t that a quirky little poem? There actually is a first Afro-American Esperantist—William Pickens—and there is a certificate that says so amongst his papers. He went to Yale in the early 20th century. There is such beautiful hope in the idea of Esperanto, the wish to communicate across place and boundary, and I think I am also interested in what we might call Negro esoterica—I love our quirks and oddnesses, our particularities, and my poems are sometimes a way to make an archive, to preserve them.

SOURCE: Elizabeth Alexander | Interviews. See also PDF file.

William Pickens: Who’s Who in Colored America

Esperanto, Vaŝingtono, & la Mondo / Esperanto, Washington, & the World — 1910
Centjara Jubileo / Centennial — 2010

Esperanto Study Guide / Esperanto-Gvidilo

Black Studies Guide: Writings in & about Esperanto / Retgvidilo pri Negrologio: Verkoj en & pri Esperanto


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