Mary Unger: On "Fragment"

While it may read as an empowering affirmation of black womanhood, Angelina Weld Grimké’s poem “Fragment” instead illustrates a failure of self-representation. The poem creates a tension between the anonymous speaker’s ability to articulate her subject position, and the dispossessed state of her condition. As she moves through the poem, the speaker devolves into a state of paranoia and disillusionment, undercutting the opening declarative statements of the poem. The speaker thus can never wholly articulate or inhabit an empowered subject position; rather, she embodies an incompleteness that is emphasized by the “unfinished” nature of Grimké’s “fragment.”

Grimké’s speaker opens the poem with an assertive declaration of her identity as a black woman, yet also aware of the discrimination it burdens her with. In her perception, she might, as some have argued, reclaim the deprivation of her social position. Indeed, the “I-persona” of “Fragment,” Romero-Munoz argues,

claims herself by using a first person singular pronoun together with the verb to be in its active form. She thereby ceases to exist as a ‘third person consciousness’ (Fanon 110) stuck in a secondary, objectified position. By re-appropriating herself, she also leaves very little room for males, both black and white, to objectify her as female-other. She re-appropriates her gender and colour and thereby becomes a speaking subject in the racial as well as gender conflict. (MAPS)

Romero-Munoz is right to focus on the poem’s opening series of declarations as a possible source for subjective agency. The repetition of “I am,” which anchors the first four lines of the poem, reads as a triumphant affirmation of the woman’s subjectivity:


                        I am the woman with the black black skin

                        I am the laughing woman with the black black face

                        I am living in the cellars and in every crowded place

                        I am toiling just to eat

                        In the old and in the heat


The repetition of “black” twice, two times in lines 1 and 2 remind us of the double discrimination the black woman of the poem must bear—a gendered and racialized distress that the insistence of “I am” appears to challenge and override. And yet however assertive the beginning of her declarative sentences appear, they are ultimately tempered by the clauses that follow them.

If we examine the speaker’s language after the “I am” of each line, we see that her autonomy, quality of life, and her self-portrayal devolve with each line. The speaker begins by asserting, “I am the woman,” a line that declares her as an authoritative speaking subject. However, she then qualifies this state in the next line as she elaborates, “I am the laughing woman.” Here, her laugh appears to mock a society that relegates her to its margins. The following line reveals the material effects of this marginality as she reveals, “I am living in the cellars.” Finally the most dejected and dehumanized line, “I am toiling just to eat,” has completely abandoned the promise of self-sufficiency in line one. Despite our investment to read her as an autonomous subject, we cannot overlook the fact that the subject’s own language—her realization of her social position as black woman—disrupts the initial indemnity of the declarative “I am” syntactical structures. In fact, each “I am” construction is already made tenable by the clauses that separate them. Thus it is the speaker’s “black black” skin and face, she suggests via parallel syntactical structures, that lead to her “living in cellars and in every crowded place” as well as “toiling just to eat.” In the process of articulating her subject position, she becomes cognizant of its effect on her emotional and physical wellbeing.

It is precisely her realization of these material effects that cause the speaker’s devolution of subjectivity and language. Rather than overcome her gendered and racialized “Otherness,” Grimké’s speaker comes to embody a disillusioned state in the final lines of the “fragment.” Indeed, Romero-Munoz acknowledges that the speaker’s “self-confidence . . . eventually proves to be a mere façade.” While we do justice to the speaker by interpreting Grimké’s poem as a call to arms against an unjust American society, we must also acknowledge that it is an incomplete call. The poem represents a grammatical fragment—it has no punctuation marks to cordon it off as a cohesive syntactical unit. It remains open, fluid, to be determined. Or perhaps, unable to be determined at the present moment—much like the subjectivity of the poem’s speaker which is undermined further by the recurrence of laughter. Although her laughter may appear mocking early on, by the end of the poem it has come to denote her tenuous mental state. The last two “I am”s in the poem (lines 7 and 8) are violated by the speaker’s inarticulateness; they disintegrate just as the woman’s mental state does:


                        I am the laughing woman who’s forgotten how to weep

                        I am the laughing woman who’s afraid to go to sleep


Rather than ridicule, the laughing of the last two lines symbolizes the unintelligible mutterings of an individual being driven mad by her physical and mental-emotional distress. While she is still able to use language by the end of the “fragment” to articulate her dismal state, Grimké’s speaker cannot use it to overcome the violence done to her subjectivity. Thus, her inability to articulate herself successfully—to allow “I am” to be unqualified—suggests that she, like the poem, is and always will be (upon further and future readings) a fragment.


Copyright © 2006 Mary Unger


Title Mary Unger: On "Fragment" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Mary Unger Criticism Target Angelina Weld Grimké
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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