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 Christian lost his mother when three. In Lacan, it is the mother’s gaze, her image

that will shape the child’s ego ideal. In that he barely got to know her,

Christian’s need  for her remained at an Imaginary level.



Books by Marcus Bruce Christian

Song of the Black Valiants: Marching Tempo / High Ground: A Collection of Poems  / Negro soldiers in the Battle of New Orleans

I am New Orleans: A Poem / Negro Iron Workers of Louisiana: 1718-1900 /  The Liberty Monument

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Magpies, Goddesses & Black Male Identity

 in the Romantic Writings of Marcus Bruce Christian (1900-1976)

 By Rudolph Lewis


Desire and the struggle for recognition permeate the published works of Marcus Bruce Christian. His published poetry and essays express a desire for social liberation and full recognition as a man in American society. Christian’s more private writings such as letters, diary notes, and his unpublished (or under published) love poems deal with these themes on a personal or spiritual level. Containing an unusual openness of his intimate relationships with women and their destructive aspects on his identity, these more personal writings lend themselves to a Lacanian analysis.

Jacques Lacan, sometimes called the French Freud, attempted by his theory to explain the production of subjectivity and identity. In Christian’s private discourses, there are numerous and continual revisions of his subjectivity. Unable to grasp consciously the significance of his steady withdrawal from intimacy, clearly, Christian sensed a lack, a gap, an absence in his personal life. These personal writings came forth in times of crisis and longing. Lacan becomes useful then in linking the subtext of these writings and providing a coherent view of Christian’s private identity.   

Though he lived over a half century in New Orleans, Christian’s psychic beginnings were in rural Mechanicsville, now Houma. He was born into an aristocratic, Victorian household, as much as that can be applicable to former slaves and their descendants. It was a world in which men were powerful and bourgeois and women were the centers of culture and propriety. His grandfather Ebel headed the public schools of LaFourche Parish; his father was a teacher at Houma Academy, but also a fighting union man at the local sugar factory. From this near pristine place, Christian gathered his first images and words in his creation of a fantasized self.

Christian lost his mother when three. In Lacan, it is the mother’s gaze, her image that will shape the child’s ego ideal. In that he barely got to know her, Christian’s need for her remained at an Imaginary level. Emmanuel, Christian’s father, attempted to fill the gap of this loss. Christian recalled vividly those moments when his father gathered him and his twin sister on his lap and read them verses of Tennsyson and Longfellow. Not only in the Lacanian sense, but literally, Christian’s father provided his son with a voice, a literary voice, a means of structuring his world, and, also, material and example for dealing with anguish and loss. In one of his attempts at autobiography, Christian recalled his father’s escape from the hired gunmen of local sugar planters by disguising himself as a woman.

Further tragedies visited the young Christian. His twin sister died at seven, his father when he was thirteen. From out of this landscape of desire and loss, Christian boldly attempted to create for himself a coherent identity. In a number of poems, Christian reconstructs symbolically this lost Eden. Orphaned at thirteen, circumstance required Christian to be a man; thus, he ended his formal schooling to earn money while he and his sisters and brothers lived with family and friends of family. At 19 years old, and the head of a family, Christian led his siblings out of Houma for a better life in New Orleans. Though he remained most of his life on the verge of poverty, his duty to his Houma family remained constant and bordered on the sacrificial.

Death is the most traumatic of cuts, the most radical break of ties, which can be viewed in the child’s Imaginary world as abandonment and rejection, invoking a sense of unworthiness, a sense of inadequacy, a sense of distrust of intimacy. In his more public poems or his public personality, however, Christian radiated an assured certainty, stability, or unity in the sense of who he was; a poet fighting the good fight in the political and social arena, one involved in the uplift of the race, the production of the New Negro.

In his privacy, however, Christian constructed a number of lyrics of meter and rhyme in which he sought to return to that unconscious self which spoke the language of the Other. In “Brown Lorrelli,” the woman is “café au lait,” She is more than she seems. The poet sees beneath her commonplace disguise. She is the combined power of the natural world, “something from earth and sun and rain,/Vibrant and strong.” She is both intelligent and erotic, a manifestation of both Truth and Beauty: “With her black hair filled with the lights of day/And her walk a man’s delight.” She, however, can be admired only from afar; she is a woman, like Lacan’s Other, that can never be possessed, only momentarily in  the symbolic.

The primal power of Christian’s Other evoked in him a sense of awe and wonder. In his poem “Traveler’s Return,” Christian wrote: “I dreamed that I would stand before you thus,/My tongue unloosed by O, ten thousand things,/Or we would walk together in the dusk:/Although my heart within me loudly sings,/I can not whisper what I dreamed of telling,/For love has spilled its magic through my blood/And lo! emotions, deep within me, swelling,/Nigh drown my being in one frantic flood/of tenderness.” The ideal and the erotic side by side, Christian experienced fusion with the Other, a moment of unity, of recaptured wholeness.

His goddess, this Other, knows his heart and his acts; speech is superfluous. Christian wrote: “Why tell you how I sped/Across the sands, or through the forest strayed,?/Or walked the storm with bare, uncovered head,/Or laughed at danger, reckless, unafraid:/Why tell you that I went so far to find/You, Love, whom I had left so far behind?” From Lacan’s perspective, the urgency of the poet persona signifies the depth of the experienced loss. The fragmented “I” can only find rest in a return to a wholeness vaguely recalled.

In Lacan’s estimation, we produce a plurality of identities, never quite getting it right, for the loss is ever present and persistent, a fact that reveals our fragmentation, incompleteness, and dependency. For these pronounced discourses are signs of the ego’s uncertainty of itself. Christian’s Other evoked not only tenderness but also demanded physical sacrifice. In a diary note, Christian constructed his ideal self: the poet, he insisted, “lifts his head under the inspiration of the Muse, his mind soars into the stars and for the moment it matters not that there are holes in his shoes or that his clothes are threadbare. His is the supreme indifference to things that be, even though they rack his body with pain, discomfiture, or hunger.” Like the poet persona in Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask,” Christian disguises himself as a holy martyr (See Houston Baker’s “Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance,” 1987).

In the poem “To One Who Is Silent,” Christian’s image of his Muse is less primal, less demanding, her identity charming as a bourgeois madam: “Silent today as the Sphinx of old/Eve of the laughing eyes--/Eve with your eyes of weathered gold.” Though ancient, her speech refreshes, “like the gush of a summer rain.” She is both mother, lover, and wife. Her poised, silent mystery appeals to him. The poem closes with the lines: “Then – because I like you that way – once more/Grow quiet and calm again.” In this poem, the Other is idealized and de-eroticized.

In another diary note, his head then out of the clouds, Christian wrote, “the deeper more primitive [read primal, sexual] things of life remain.” In the 1930s and 1940s, Christian’s appetite for women was great and many women found him charming and attractive, as evidenced in his poem “Bachelor’s Apartment.” The poet catalogs items left by former lovers: “The curtains from Daphne,/the draperies from Chloe” and so on. Christian ended the poem with these lines: “Those women left things/In my heart and my home!”  In this poem, love and sex exist on the plane of play and innocence.

As in Lacan’s theory, in other poems by Christian, sex occurred at the expense of the idealized self. His libidinal drives divided him from that mirrored self and that ideal self drove women from his life. In a diary note dated November 28, 1940, Christian wrote: “If you are a real man, one must have a woman—even those who lacerate the flesh of your soul. . . . One must go into tow to get the necessities.”

Christian’s de-centered self tended to be bipolar, occupied not merely by goddesses, the idealized Other, but also by magpies, false imitators of his Muse. They possess a measure of beauty, but are lacking in Truth, his ego ideal; they threaten his devotion to the Muse. In the beautiful lyric “Charmaine,” in defense of self, Christian resorted to medieval imagery. The poet persona will “lock,” “bar,” “guard the castle-tower by day/And the drawbridge through the night.” He will keep her from that place where his “dreams and ideals lay.”

In the poem “Inconvenient Love,” Christian elaborated on what he considered the destructive aspect of sexual longing, the libidinal need to experience oceanic bliss.  Such enjoyment comes at a heavy price. Desire, he wrote, comes “out of nowhere,” “binds or grips/And it sets a seal upon one’s lips.” The poet is rendered silent, thus miserable. Though this lover wears the mask of Beauty, oneness with her is a brief moment, the soul rather than refreshed becomes heavy: “When it [this inconvenient love] does depart,” it stamps “in frantic and frenzied pain/A signet upon the heart.” The violence of libidinal desire continues in memory; its “blind art,” is authoritarian and arbitrary, a near all consuming power.  The poet envisioned himself as victim of biology,  however, rather than of his own fantasy of loss and emptiness. 

In the poem “Bleeding Heart,” the lover portrayed as a rose, Christian’s poet persona complains he loved her passionately, buried his lips to her “red heart’s core/But the blood from the rose’s/heart has stained my soul/Forevermore.” His relationship with the lover generates a lack, an absence, in himself and threatens his sense of coherency and wholeness. The poet persona must free himself from this false love. Using a housekeeping metaphor Christian wrote: “I shall take your image/From out of my heart/And sweep your tracks/From its floor,/Forgetting/Dead yesterdays/And you.”

Though he hoped for financial success, Christian never established a comfortable bourgeois home. He was a scholar and a poet and those activities only provided minimal security. In 1943, Christian received a Rosenwald fellowship to continue his editing of the manuscript “The History of the Negro in Louisiana.” That spring, he also married Ruth Morand, a young Dillard coed. In a diary note Christian recounted an argument with his wife; he wrote: “It was very cold today . . . I am under my igloo, typing away. Ruth just came in and made me mad as hell because of the envious way in which she told of a woman who she had seen in the drugstore, who pulled out a big roll of money. . . . I blew up, when she said that’s the kind of husband to have” (10 December 1943).

In 1944, Ruth left Christian and New Orleans for Chicago. She and Christian corresponded. In one of several letters Ruth informed Christian of her salary of over $200 a month, more than two times what Christian received from Rosenwald. They each complained of infidelity. In turn she also reminded him of his alliance with Irene Douglas, a New York sketch artist, who was white or passing as white. According to Ruth, Christian in anger said: “Just to think if I hadn’t married you, when Irene came she would have had a place to stay.” “This and other things,” Ruth continued in her letter, “I shall be a lifetime forgetting” (30 July 1945). Christian’s Irene signified the inaccessible, separated by distance, race, and status; her absence made him sing: “my soul serene -- /Its flag to the breeze unfurled./To you Irene/The only one in the world.” After several attempts to reconcile, Christian and Ruth cut their legal ties and divorced.

Christian brought his poetic discourse in well-constructed lyrics of love and beauty to an end. Their production no longer provided a sense of unity and wholeness. His poems became freer, more prosaic as if his former artifice could not contain all that had to be said, the anxiety he felt compelled to structure in language. In many of his later poems Christian became preoccupied with his own death. But even those were devices of distancing, and shoring up his sense of loss. In “Singing for Supper,” Christian’s poet persona generates a coherent autobiographical narrative. He has written poems of race pride and protest and found no meaningful audience. He “switched to what readers of a certain type called ‘Pure Poetry’,/But he had no inspiration to write of faithfulness, beauty, or virtue,/His wife being not too much in love with him,/and not pretty, and not uninclined to play/a good game of ball on the side.” The poet then switched to “humorous (?) poems,” which included mock blues poems and animal tales.

In “Baltimoh Blues,” “Man Done Left Me Blues,” and “Creole Mammah Turn Your Damper Down,” Christian wore the mask of the blues singer. In these poems Christian used the devices of mockery, sarcasm, and dialect to expose what he considered the emotional excesses of the blues sentiment. These mock blues allowed Christian to distance himself from his libidinal desires and his feelings of sexual guilt. He attempted to demystify, structure the blues feelings as a kind of joke. His fears of infidelity resurfaced in “Creole Mammah” and “Man Done Left Me Blues.” Again, as in his other writings, sex fragments the poet’s sense of wholeness. In “Man Done Left Me Blues,” Christian masked as a woman threatens to kill “that gal who stole my man.”  That is, Christian wanted to destroy that aspect of his own “I,” namely his libidinous drives, which threatened his sense of completeness and called into question the formulation of his ego ideal.

The last group of poems to consider is the animal tales. These include “Cat Weather,” “The Big Dog’s Daughter,” “An Old Dog’s Advice,” and “An Old Half-Sick Dog Speaks Out.” Again Christian distanced himself, altered his subjectivity by masking as household pets (cats and dogs) in his consideration of gender relationships. Of these the most poignant is “An Old Half-Sick Dog Speaks Out,” in which the debilitating effects of sexuality on identity is emphasized.  In “Bachelor Thoughts,” Christian identified marriage as “killing domesticity”; in “An Old Half-Sick Dog,” he described its effects on his sense of self.. The poet “slept in a soft, warm bed last night”; and now he is depressed, “it’s gotten me down somehow,” Christian wrote.  A man ever in a woman’s bed, “the strength of his soul will go from him/And life will not matter much.” A “good fighting man,” Christian convinced himself, needs “a good, hard bed” so that he can “live to fight once more.” One sacrifices, sublimates, the private man for the public one. In bravura style, Christian concluded, “Ain’t no other life worthwhile.”

Christian’s writings I have reviewed here from a Lacanian perspective construct a subjectivity that is at once Victorian in how they structure sexuality in closeted guilt and modern in Christian’s preoccupation with his own sexuality and his need to sublimate his desires through written discourse.  On January 1, 1960, Christian awoke from a wet dream and in part wrote in a long diary note the following in what he called “biblical fashion”: “The man’s strong face came down to hers like something floating, swimming out of dreams, and he kissed her soft full mouth bruisingly and hurtfully, but she did not flinch and their bodies became light and giddy. Then the earth fell away from them, and they solaced themselves one with the other.” Alone at sixty, his libidinal drives still strong, Christian needed still to structure in discourse the oceanic fusion with the Other.

In the bright world, Christian distanced himself from physical female intimacy. In the poem “Bachelor Thoughts,” meditating on how the image of woman is used in advertising, Christian asked jokingly, “Why don’t the manufacture of toys / Make dolls for men / Same as they make beautiful dolls for little girls?” Though Christian may have never resolved his sublimation of intimacy, the last seven years (1969-1976) of his pubic life as a college professor at the University of New Orleans provided him a measure of public success and security that he failed to achieve the first seventy years of his life.

© RudolphLewis Baltimore 2000

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Marcus Bruce Christian

Selected Diary Notes / Selected Poems  / Selected Letters

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Profiles on Marcus Bruce Christian and the Federal Writers Project

Bryan, Violet Harrington. The Myth of New Orleans in Literature. Knoxville: University of Tennessee, 1993.

Clayton, Ronnie W. “The Federal Writers Project for Blacks in Louisiana.” Louisiana History 19(1978): 327-335.

Dent, Tom. “Marcus B. Christian: A Reminiscence and an Appreciation. Black American Literature Forum, 1984, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp. 22-26.

Hessler, Marilyn S. “Marcus Christian: The Man and His Collection.” Louisiana History 1 (1987):37-55.

Johnson, Jerah. “Marcus B. Christian and the WPA History of Black People in Louisiana.” Louisiana History 20.1 (1979): 113-115.

Larson, Susan. “Poems in the Key of Life.” Times-Picayune (Book Section), July 4, 1999.

Lewis, Rudolph. “Introduction.” I Am New Orleans and Other Poems by Marcus Bruce Christian. Edited by Rudolph Lewis and Amin Sharif. New Orleans: Xavier Review Press, 1999. Reprinted in revised form in Dillard Today 2.3 (2000): 21-24.

Lewis, Rudolph. “Magpies, Goddesses, & Black Male Identity in the Romantic Poetry of Marcus Bruce Christian.” Paper presented at College Language Association, April 2000, Baltimore, MD.

Lewis, Rudolph. “Marcus Bruce Christian and a Theory of a Black Aesthetic.” Paper presented at the Zora Neale Hurston Society Conference held June 1999 at University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Published in ZNHS FORUM (Spring 2000).

Peterson, Betsy. “Marcus Christian: Portrait of a Poet.” Dixie 18 (January 1970).

Redding, Joan. “The Dillard Project: The Black Unit of the Louisiana Writers’ Project.” Louisiana History 32.1 (1991): 47-62

Source: Wikipedia

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The Great Divergence

America's Growing Inequality Crisis and What We Can Do about It

By Timothy Noah

For the past three decades, America has steadily become a nation of haves and have-nots. Our incomes are increasingly drastically unequal: the top 1% of Americans collect almost 20% of the nation’s income—more than double their share in 1973. We have less equality of income than Venezuela, Kenya, or Yemen. What economics Nobelist Paul Krugman terms "the Great Divergence" has until now been treated as little more than a talking point, a club to be wielded in ideological battles. But it may be the most important change in this country during our lifetimes—a sharp, fundamental shift in the character of American society, and not at all for the better. The income gap has been blamed on everything from computers to immigration, but its causes and consequences call for a patient, non-partisan exploration.

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The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story

of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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update 24 May 2012




Home     Marcus Bruce Christian  Selected Letters  Selected Diary Notes I Am New Orleans Table (Poems)

Related files:  A Black Aesthetic   Magpies & Godesses   Intro to I Am New Orleans   Tom Dent on Marcus B. Christian   Marcus B. Christian and the WPA (Johnson)

 Marcus Christian: Portrait of a Poet   Marcus Christian: The Man and His Collection  The Federal Writers' Project For Blacks in Louisiana