Martin Luther King, Jr., on “The hottest places in hell…” (April 15, 1967)

“I come to participate in this significant demonstration today because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this mobilization because I cannot be a silent onlooker while evil rages. I am here because I agree with Dante, that: ‘The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in a period of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.‘ In these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, there is no greater need than for sober thinking, mature judgment, and creative dissent.” [. . .]  –Martin Luther King, Jr., Mobilization to End the War in Vietnam (April 15, 1967)

Read the full address here.

Images from the day of the address, including the image pictured at right, can be viewed here.

The frequently misattributed quotation was also cited multiple times in John F. Kennedy’s speeches (see here).

Langston Hughes, “Harlem’s Bitter Laughter” (October 2, 1948)

“Harlem, the world’s largest urban Negro community, can sometimes laugh at the dog-gonest things. But its laughter is often a bitter laughter — the kind of laughter that, I imagine, reverberates through Dante’s hell when the devil suddenly slips on his own hot pavements and burns his sitter-downer.”   –Langston Hughes, “Harlem’s Bitter Laughter” (October 2, 1948), cited in Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture (1942-62), ed. Christopher C. De Santis (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1995), pp. 113-114

Ocean Vuong, “Seventh Circle of Earth” (2016)

“I wrote ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ [from Vuong’s 2016 collection Night Sky with Exit Wounds] shortly after hearing the news of two gay men being murdered by immolation in Dallas, TX. I originally wrote the poem in tercets, echoing Dante’s terza rima format. In the Inferno, the stanzas work as a network of rooms the speaker moves through as he descends through the circles of hell. In ‘Seventh Circle of Earth,’ however, this grouping felt off, even fraudulent, to me. A persona poem at its core, it takes on the voice of one of the men speaking to his partner. And in the midst of that fraught position, a poem in tercets, or, in other words, a ‘traditional’ poem, felt like a diluted, forced recasting of a horrific event. I ultimately abandoned the poem.

“It was not until three years later, while reading a critical work on violence and scholarship, did I see, more clearly, the footnotes on the bottom of the page. I found myself slipping right to the notes as I progressed, reading them first. They possessed, in that reading, an urgency that began to stitch itself into a fabric of broken utterances fused together by parataxis. It was, in a way, found poetry. That gave me the idea to re-work ‘Seventh Circle of Earth’ into a piece written entirely in the footnote. This time, the vast and utter emptiness one confronts on the page felt more faithful to the violent erasure of the two murdered men. It felt right to begin the poem with its own vanishing.” [. . .]  — Ocean Vuong on “Seventh Circle of Earth” for Poetry School

Read the rest of Vuong’s comments and the poem at poetryschool.com.

Contributed by Su Ertekin-Taner (The Bolles School ’22)

Alison Cornish and Stefano Albertini on Dantedì 2020

In recognition of the first annual Dantedì (March 25, 2020), the director of NYU’s Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, Stefano Albertini, interviewed Alison Cornish, Chair of the Department of Italian Studies at NYU and Acting President of the Dante Society of America. They conducted the interview virtually, during shelter-at-home orders resulting from the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic.

Reflecting on her experience teaching Purgatorio during the pandemic, Cornish comments that Purgatorio is “about community after traumatic separation” (7:34), a community that is recreated through shared cultural rites like liturgy and song, forms of virtual embrace, and collective suffering.

The interview is available to view on YouTube (last accessed April 10, 2020). The comments on Purgatorio can be heard at 6:00-15:34.

“I Have Wasted My Life,” Justin Phillip Reed (2020)

The poem “I Have Wasted My Life” by American poet and essayist Justin Phillip Reed invents the neologism “alighieried”: “No, / I alighieried down this sunken navel / to also cape for waste.” Read the full poem on Poetry Daily here (featured on January 23, 2020).

Contributed by Silvia Valisa (Florida State University)

“Dante, Trump and the moral cowardice of the G.O.P.”

“One of John F. Kennedy’s favorite quotes was something he thought came from Dante: ‘The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.’

“As it turns out, the quote is apocryphal. But what Dante did write was far better, and it came vividly to mind last week as Republicans failed to take a stand after President Trump’s racist tweets and chants of ‘Send her back,’ directed at Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, who immigrated here from Somalia, at a Trump rally in North Carolina.

“In Dante’s Inferno, the moral cowards are not granted admission to Hell; they are consigned to the vestibule, where they are doomed to follow a rushing banner that is blown about by the wind. When Dante asks his guide, Virgil, who they are, he explains:

‘This miserable way is taken by sorry souls of those who lived without disgrace and without praise.

They now commingle with the coward angels, the company of those who were not rebels nor faithful to their God, but stood apart.’

“They are destined to be forgotten. ‘The world will let no fame of theirs endure,’ Virgil explains. ‘Let us not talk of them, but look and pass.’ Dante describes the vast horde who chase after the elusive banner that ‘raced on so quick that any respite seemed unsuited to it.’ Behind the banner, he writes, ‘trailed so long a file/ of people—I should never have believed/ that death could have unmade so many souls.’

“And to those ranks we can now add all the politicians, pundits and camp followers who refused to take a stand when they were confronted with this stark moral choice posed by Mr. Trump’s racist attacks on four minority freshmen Democratic women.” [. . .]    –Charles Sykes, America, the Jesuit Review, July 21, 2019.

Contributed by Martin Kavka, Florida State University

Gloria Naylor, Linden Hills (1985)

gloria-naylor-linden-hills-1985“Like Amiri Baraka in The Systems of Dante’s Hell (1965), Miss Naylor has adapted Dante’s Inferno to her own fictional purposes – in this instance a tale of lost black souls trapped in the American dream. The setting is Linden Hills, an upper-middle-class black community built on a huge plot of land owned by the mysterious Nedeed family (the locale is not specified). Purchased by Luther Nedeed in 1820 – after he had sold his octoroon wife and six children into slavery and moved from Tupelo, Miss., we are told – the land has remained under the proprietorship of the Nedeeds for more than 150 years. Luther (read Lucifer), as all the males in the Nedeed family are named, opened a funeral parlor, then developed the land and leased sections to black families. His sons and grandsons, all of whom are physical copies of the original landowner, furthered his plan – to establish a showcase black community. That community, as the original Luther says, would not only be an ‘ebony jewel’ representing black achievement, but also ‘a beautiful, black wad of spit right in the white eye of America.'”   –Mel Watkins, “The Circular Driveways of Hell,” New York Times (March 3, 1985)

“Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills follows two young black male poets on their downward journey through a prosperous community built for blacks who aspire to live out a white-patented dream of social advancement. Naylor’s appropriation of Dante’s Inferno as master narrative for this landscape of private torments (a white model for black society) replicates the choice made by Linden Hills itself. The ironies of this are rich and difficult to control: but the attention paid to the sufferings of women in this arrangement adds something quite new to the English-language Dante tradition.”    –David Wallace, “Dante in English,” in Rachel Jacoff’s The Cambridge Companion to Dante, 2007

LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, “The System of Dante’s Hell” (1965)

“[T]he function of writing about Dante and the control over access to the part of the tradition that Dante inhabits can liberate the black writer. At least it liberates LeRoi Jones, turning him into a new man with a new name, Amiri Baraka, whose experimental literary project culminates in The System of Dante’s Hell in 1965. Dante’s poem (specifically in the Sinclair translation) provides a grid for the narrative of Baraka’s autobiographical novel, and at the same time the Italian poet’s description of hell functions for Baraka like a gloss on many of his own experiences. [. . .] Baraka uses Dante first to measure the growing distance between himself and European literature, then, paradoxically, to separate himself totally from it. His Dante is a marker of separation rather than integration.” — Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African-American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2011), pp. 105-106