Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Lorenzo Thomas RIP + Memín Pingüín Update

Last night I learned that poet, scholar and superriffer Lorenzo Thomas, who was a member of the seminal Black experimental group Umbra and a teacher and mentor to several generations of younger poets, had died in Houston after a long battle with emphysema.

I first learned of Lorenzo Thomas during my Dark Room years when one of my fellow poets mentioned his name and then, not long thereafter, as if by conjuration, I found his book Chances Are Few in at the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookstore. I read and reread it several times, finding his particular aesthetic approach, which combined formal and syntactic experimentation, a broad allusive range (from popular culture to the Négritude poets), multiple languages (Thomas was a native of Panama and grew up in New York), with vernacular elements, provocative and inspiring. Here is one example, from "Broadway-Lafayette Espadrille":


The Broadway number jumbled up my brain
My mind's dream of Walt Frazier
And/or Black Revolution. And rifa
All down to my feet moving swift

In my sneakers. Is this the wrong Broadway?

Swoop back downtown. The same burthen
Too much reefer
On my head back and forward
Through the City all day

So many linguistic registers combine in these three brief stanzas, with their deft use of phrasing, rime, diction, and repetition: they're vertiginously alive. Lorenzo's work is rife (con y sin rifa!) with this sort of lively music that also, as the quote makes clear, cuts with a socially critical blade.

Over the years I'd come across Thomas's poems and criticism, but I only had the opportunity to meet him twice, the first time in the fall of 1994 (I can't even recall where; perhaps it was a National Black Writers Conference?), and then again two years ago, at the 2003 Associated Writing Programs Conference in Baltimore. Both times he was modest and gracious and funny and commanding in presence in that way that people who carry something profound inside are, and in our brief conversation in the Queen City, in which I gushed as I often do when I'm in the presence of someone whose work I greatly admire, he directed me to one of his online pieces, which I checked out as soon as I could. I also have returned again and again to his book of criticism, Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and 20th-Century American Poetry. As a poet and critic, he was the real deal.

Here is a link to the Houston Chronicle's thorough obituary. And here is a link to Cave Canem's poetry site, where you soon should be able to purchase a copy of Thomas's public discussion last fall at the New School University, as part of Cave Canem's Legacy Conversations, with one of his former students, the equally amazing poet, Harryette Mullen.

Here's another Lorenzo Thomas poem, which riffs off one of the most famous poems in American literature and history, Robert Frost's "The Gift Outright," which the aging poet delivered from memory at John F. Kennedy's inauguration in 1960.


The land was there before us
Was the land. Then things
Began happening fast. Because
The bombs us have always work
Sometimes it makes me think
God must be one of us. Because
Us has saved the world. Us gave it
A particular set of regulations
Based on 1) undisputable acumen
2) carnivorous fortunes, delicately
Referred to here as "bull market"
And (of course) other irrational factors
Deadly smoke thick over the icecaps,
Our man in Saigon Lima Tokyo etc etc

Copyright © Lorenzo Thomas, 1979.


According to a report yesterday on, Black Mexicans are officially demanding an apology from the government for its issuance of the racist, briskly-selling Memin Pinguin stamps. The Reuters wire article, "Mexican Blacks demand stamp apology," says

The Asociación México Negro, which represents some 50,000 blacks living on the Pacific coast, said in a letter to Fox that Memin Pinguin, a 1940s comic book character drawn with thick lips and a flat nose, was stereotypical and racist.

"Memin Pinguin rewards, celebrates, typifies and cements the distorted, mocking, stereotypical and limited vision of black people in general," said the letter signed by leaders of the association.

The letter marks the first official complaint from a Mexican group over the stamps, which went on sale last week and provoked a storm of controversy in the United States. U.S. civil rights groups said they should be withdrawn.

Meanwhile, Mexican President Vicente Fox has refused to apologize and denies the depictions are racist. His foreign minister Luis Ernesto Derbez is blaming "specific groups in the United States who make a living from this kind of scandal" for the brouhaha. Such defiance, especially in the face of public criticism from the W administration, isn't surprising. Mexico and the US have been at political loggerheads for the last three years, with some of the lowest points occurring during the run-up to the Iraq War, when Washington tried to bully Mexico into supporting the invasion, and in the last 12 months, when Congressional Republicans have returned to their traditional focus on illegal immigration.

What Fox and his officials ignore in such comments and defiance is any recognition of the obviously and visibly racist cast of the depictions in 2005 (we're not talking about the socially accepted views of Black people either in the US or Mexico in the 1940s, when the comic strip originated) or of Mexico's specific racial situations and problems, not only with regard to Black people, but to the country's large Native American population. Racial degradation and racism aren't just issues in and for the US, as some non-Americans like to suggest, but racism, white supremacy and marginalization are societal problems that Black communities across the Americas face.

I would venture that such imagery would not receive governmental support in any of the countries in this hemisphere that either have a predominantly African-descended populations or in countries with substantial or even tiny but publicly identified Black populations; in fact, I wonder if nations like Argentina, Paraguay or Chile, the first of which is said to have no remaining indigenous Black population whatsoever (this is actually untrue) would go so far. So what is Mexico's problem? I should add that blatantly racist, coon-inspired depictions are not unheard of, however, on Spanish-language TV programs, some of which are broadcast in the US (and one can find racist stereotypes on US TV just by flipping through the channels--BET broadcasts them on a daily basis).

The CNN article continues,

"The stamps are 101 percent offensive, there is no doubt about it," said Rev. Glyn Jemmott, a Catholic priest in the 98 percent black village of El Ciruelo in Guerrero state, and one of the signatories of the letter.

"What is evident is the level of tolerance of racism that exists in the country. We are accustomed to racism to the point where anyone who dares question it runs the risk of being considered unpatriotic," he told Reuters by telephone.
Mexicans are often accused of discrimination against Indians, who often live hand to mouth in poor communities.
Meanwhile, the stamps are selling like cut-rate iPods, with some sheets commanding up to $200 on the Internet. It'll be interesting to see if Fox and Cia. respond directly to the Asociación México Negro or if he continues to cast this as a foreign-generated kerfuffle. In the case of the latter, I doubt it'll give him any real political boost. He certainly doesn't need any help in boosting his ignominy.

Update: Bernie forwarded me the link to this piece, "Mexican comic character--lovable or loathsome; different past, different perceptions," via Negrophile, by historian Myrna Santiago, which appeared today in the San Francisco Chronicle.

My thoughts: a very interesting piece. But I wished she had focused on the the basic point that racial stereotyping of the sort that Memin Pinguin represents doesn't just appear in a vacuum. I'd be far more interested in learning about its local and national sources, and whether there were other similar representations in Mexican popular culture and media, both in the 1940s and today (I would suppose that there are). Which is to say, I wish Professor Santiago had historicized the issue more--not just personally, but in terms of Mexican cultural and social history. Was it imported from the US or elsewhere? (One correspondent to this site, Lex, said that it mimicked a "Cuban" character, which immediately made me think of the commentary surrounding Lázaro Cárdenas's Black Cuban wife; Santiago mentions Pinguin's mother's "Afro-Caribbean" accent, which sparks a number of other questions, particular surrounding the depiction and performance of her alienness and Blackness, which would dovetail with some of the mythology about there being no Blacks in Mexico, etc.) Certainly by the 1940s such harshly stereotypical imagery, particularly from the US, had been exported all over the world, as part of the ongoing ideological war against Black people here. How did it and does it connect with Mexico's own racial and racist histories? Were there similar depictions in Mexican popular culture before Pinguin? Coon shows, minstrelsy, Jemima figures? What was occurring in Mexican history (the revolutionary period of 1920-1940, the Second World War, the Depression, etc.) at the particular moment when Memin Pinguin appeared? Was the minstrelsy of Pinguin meant to deflect critical focus on the elites, as a means of solidarity among the various diverse groups during a period of crisis, as a comical and lovable little (Black) buffoon that even the brown-skinned but not Black marginal members of society could laugh at? Were there any popular positive, less stereotypical representations of Black (or Indian, etc.) figures, especially given that one of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, and one of the country's most visionary figures, Emiliano Zapata, was allegedly part Black? Maybe that's the groundwork for internal conversations that could occur first on the other side of the border, and then we can dialogue across the larger border/frontera. I definitely appreciate her offer and I hope there can be one--or many.


  1. This is what we came up with, about the Memin Pinguin. It was kind of hard, becasue we had to unify the views from our american, mexican, and european team members. Check it out, I hope you like it..

  2. Roger, a great report on MoBuzz TV! Thanks for clueing me in to your site.

  3. john,

    thanks for the comments in memory of lorenzo thomas. i find consolation in your reflections and recollections.