Toi Derricotte

(b. 1941)

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(b. 1941), poet and educator.

In Toi Derricotte's poetry, the taboo, the restricted, and the repressed figure prominently; they are often the catalysts that prompt her to write, to confess the painful. Often stylistically compared to so-called confessional poets like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, Derricotte, in opting for candor over decorum, wants her “work to be a wedge into the world, as what is real and not what people want to hear.” This self-dubbed “white-appearing Black person,” reared as a Catholic in a black, working-class Detroit community, complicates the myth of monolithic blackness with poems that speak into consciousness obscure, unconventional black bodies. And in an academy whose poststructuralist theories often either depersonalize bodies with esoteric discourse or overemphasize them with hyperbolic identity politics, Toi Derricotte's poems brave the charged, murky depths of much current poetry, stamping the language with her own complex, quirky vision—a vision both concrete and abstract, both quotidian and phantasmagoric.

Toi Derricotte was born on 12 April 1941, the daughter of Antonia Baquet, a Creole from Louisiana, and Benjamin Sweeney Webster, a Kentucky native, and later half-sister to Benjamin, Jr. At around ten or eleven years old, Derricotte began a secret journal that included, among other things, the disintegration of her parents’ marriage and the death of her grandmother on whom she was very emotionally dependent. During her years at Detroit's Girls Catholic Central, Derricotte recounts a religious education that she felt was steeped in images of death and punishment, a Catholicism that, according to the poet, morbidly paraded “the crucifixion, saints, martyrs in the Old Testament and the prayers of the Mass.” Coupled with these images were Derricotte's surreal reminiscences of childhood visits to her paternal grandparents’ home, the bottom part of which served as a funeral parlor where bodies were prepared for viewing. Often she would stay overnight at her grandparents’, where, unafraid, she would “pray over the bodies … especially … disturbed when young people died, children, babies.”

Her first attempt at sharing her poems with others came when, at fifteen, she visited a cousin, a medical school student who was then taking an embryology class. Encouraged by a trip they took to the Chicago Museum to see fetuses and embryos at various stages of development, Derricotte, who was careful not to show her poems to her parents who never “even alluded to babies before birth … [or] talked to [her] about sex,” anxiously showed them to this cousin who pronounced them “sick, morbid.” Faced with this unexpected rebuff, Derricotte remembers being faced with several choices: “I could have said something is wrong with me and stopped writing, or I could have continued to write, but written about the things I knew would be acceptable, or I could go back underground.” For Derricotte, the choice was obvious: rather than risk ostracism for openly writing about the forbidden, she opted “to go back underground.”

In 1959 Derricotte graduated from Girls Catholic Central and enrolled that autumn in Wayne State University as a special education major. In 1962, her junior year at Wayne State, she gave birth to a son in a home for unwed mothers. This act of rebellion was but a presage of things to come, as Derricotte, after graduating in 1965, left Detroit for the East Coast. Her move to New York City in 1967 was a momentous one, for it was here among white, mostly female intellectuals that Derricotte's poetic voice resurfaced. Unlike the African American poets of the Black Arts movement, many of whom heeded Amiri Baraka's call for an artistic expression that was decidedly black nationalist, proletarian, and accessible, Derricotte wrote, instead, deeply personal, troubling, often difficult poems that talked more of black families haunted by gender oppression and familial strife than of Black Power and racial solidarity.


Subjects: Literature.

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