LITR 4332: American Minority Literature

Sample Student Poetry Presentation 2002

Reader: Andrea Perkins 

Respondent: Kristy Cox

Recorder: Susie Gibson  

"Failure of an Invention" 

By Safiya Henderson-Holmes

Unsettling America, page 60

Biographical Information:

Safiya Henderson-Holmes was born December 30, 1950 and grew up in the Bronx. She worked for a number of years at Harlem Hospital as a physical therapist, and was also an independent natural birthing coach. It was her interest in literature and performance that led her to MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York in the 1980's. It was during this time that her career as a professional poet, writer and performer blossomed. In 1990 she won the Poetry Society of America's William Carlos Williams Award with her first collection of poems. Some of her other famous collections of poetry and fiction are Breaking Ice, Streetlights, In Search of Color Everywhere, and Spirit and Flame. She died on April 8, 2001 from complications following a long battle with cancer at the age of 50. At that time she was on medical leave from Syracuse University where she was an associate professor of Creative Writing.

Literary Objectives:

Obj.1a. Involuntary or forced participation

Obj.3c. African American alternative: "The Dream"

            -setbacks, the need to rise, and a quest for group identity

Obj.4 To register the minority dilemma of assimilation or resistance

Obj.5a To discover the power of poetry and fiction to help "others" hear the minority voice and vicariously share the minority experience.


Safiya's plain and straight-forward style of writing clearly depicts the resistance felt by African Americans as they attempt to assimilate to the dominant culture. Even the title reveals failure of this great attempt to invent something that cannot be invented or changed. She even expresses the extensive pain that is felt from trying time after time to fit into a society that has such a narrow view of acceptance. In the last three stanzas you can see a movement to acceptance of her individual identity.


What is Safiya conveying through the use of the lower case letters throughout the poem?

Do you think that Safiya's reference to an invention is really her own or is the burden placed on her by society's attempt to make her into something other than herself?


Geri – lower case not conventional, shows they do not have to follow the rules. 

Andrea – the lower case could possibly mean hush tones. In the 9th stanza she uses a capital I, could that be an attempt to come out of the mold. 

Amy – maybe she feels that people might think she is too bold 

Barbara – this could show that she has a constant thought pattern throughout her life 

Adelaide – with the I capitalized I can see her performing and emphasizing it 

Jerri – the capital I could be that she is coming to term with herself and her identity, meaning who I am is okay 

Jerry – the one i and America is not capitalized, that could represent her cultural group voice while the capital I is personal, representative of her cultural voice 

Dr. White – this could connect to the dream, request of group identity making The Dream cultural 


Question 2 

Diane – so she can be what everyone expects her to be 

Geri – white America invented a standard for black people, to whiteify black people and she is not going to take the burden 

Barbara – combining the two, America has assigned these identities to her, but in the end she isn’t able to bear being a model of a successful black 

Jerry – stereotype, regardless everyone is put into a stereotype, but that doesn’t mean they actually fit there, the sharp needle effect 

Diane – it cold be a narrow minded view 

Kristy – I can see the cancer, almost like she places the cancer on the invention 

Andrea – she can smell the disease taking effect of their live

Kristy – you don’t think it could be her own cancer 

Andrea – possibly if she knew about her cancer, maybe it was subconscious