A “Post Racial” Anthology of Afro American Poetry
A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry
This is a bizarre collection. One , it seems, that has been pulled together, not to proclaim itself and what it is, but rather as a ticking “anti” to one thing The Black Arts Movement. In fact Rowell’s introduction and many of the quotes he gleans from “his” poets, are aimed at rendering the Black Arts Movement as old school backward fundamentally artless and reactionary, and even unliterary . He calls his poets “literary”, i.e., Black Literary poets. One wonders are these poets he fastens with this password the first Black Literary Poets.
The blurb from the publisher, WW Norton, brings that characterization even in its publicity releases. What is “literary poetry” The book “…is not just another poetry anthology. It is a gathering of poems that demonstrate what happens when writers in a marginalized community collectively turn from dedicating their writing to political, social, and economic struggles to the art of the poems and to the ideas they embody. These poets bear witness to the interior landscape of their own individual selves and examine the private or personal worlds of invented personae and, therefore, of human beings living in our modern and postmodern worlds.”
My God, what imbecilic garbage! You mean, forget the actual world, have nothing to do with the real world and real people…invent it all! You can see how that would be some far right instruction for “a marginalized community” especially one with the history and continuously referenced biography of the Afro American people. ‘We don’t want to hear all that stuff…make up a pleasanter group of beings with pleasanter, more literary lives, than yourselves and then we will perhaps consider it art!’
This embarrassing gobbledygook was probably a paraphrase of the editor, Rowell’s, personal gobble. But the copy writers might be given a temporary pass because they know nothing about Afro American literature; it is the bigger timed Norton “suits” that could possibly be looked at askance because of their ignorant hiring practices.
To get a closer view of where Rowell comes in, the quote that he has, from the poet he constantly cites as poetic mentor and as an example of what great poetry should be, Robert Hayden,
The quote is where he got the title of the book, Angles of Ascent. “He strains, an awk/ward patsy, sweating strains/ leaping falling. Then- silken rustling in the air, /the angle of ascent/ achieved.” (For a Young Artist). Rowell says this is the image he identifies as the poet’s struggle and transcendence.
But, Lord, I did never see myself or the poets I admired and learned from as “awkward patsies”! In 1985, Rowell had Larry Neal on the cover of his literary magazine Callaloo, after Larry’s death, from a heart attack at 43. You can look in the magazine and see that Larry Neal was no “awkward patsy”. Or that after “leaping/ falling” we would be glorified) (?) by something unidentified “silken rustling in the air, / the angle of ascent/achieved”. Actually it sounds like some kind of social climbing. Ascent to where, a tenured faculty position?
But Rowell’s whole attempt to analyze and even compartmentalize Afro
American poetry is flawed from jump. He has long lived as the continuing would be yelp of a Robert Hayden canonization. If I remember correctly back in 1966 I was invited to Fisk where Hayden and Rowell taught. I had been invited by Nikki Giovanni, who was still a student at Fisk .Gwen Brooks was there. Gwendolyn Brooks. Hayden and I got into it when he said he was First an artist and then he was Black. I challenged that with the newly emerging ideas that we had raised at the Black Arts Repertory School, in Harlem , in 1965 just after Malcolm X’ assassination. We said the art we wanted to create should be identifiably, culturally, Black like Duke Ellington or Billie Holiday. We wanted it to be a mass art, not hidden away from Black people on university campuses. We wanted an art that could function in the ghettoes where we lived. And we wanted an art that would help liberate Black people. I remember that was really a hot debate, and probably that helped put an ideological chip on Rowell’s shoulder.
And I find the list of what Rowell calls “Precursors” of what he finally will present as the “literary poetry” quite flawed, but it predicts and even prefaces his continuing explanations and choices. He lists these as Gwendolyn Brooks 1917-2000, Robert Hayden 1913-1980, and Melvin Tolson, 1898-1966. But how can one exclude Langston Hughes 1902-1967, Sterling Brown 1901-1989 and Margaret Walker 1915-1998? Who are the major poets of the period after The Harlem Renaissance! But this kind of cherry picking obviously puts a pale cast on what Rowell means by “Literary” poets. But even here Tolson for all his linguistic fireworks still talks about Africa, African origins and Afro ‘American life and was the poet laureate of Liberia, even with an introduction to his work by the Allen Tate , who was part of the reactionary “ Southern Agrarian” group of poets, who thought Tolson a freak of nature because apparently he understood “white modernism” , The poet Lorenzo Thomas in his essay “Too Close to Turn Around” from his work on modern Afro American Poetry, Extraordinary Measures thought Tolson understood Euro-American modernism better than Tate.
Gwen Brooks’ most penetrating works illuminate Black Life and the “hood”. Langston, most people must know, is the major voice of that period and what we mean talking about Afro American poetry. What is distinctive about Rowell’s introduction is that on just about every page he has mention of the “Black Arts Movement, the Black aesthetic poets, the Black power movement” all like some menacing political institutions. But that poetry he abstracts in such fashion was created in a different time, place and condition from the verse Rowell presents here as new revelation. Unfortunately it is neither.
It seems that Rowell has some strictly ideological qualification for his “literary poetry”. When he quotes one of the “literary poets”, Vievee Francis (whom I confess to not knowing),”it is the Interior that I and so many poets of this age are mapping”. It sounds very ignorant and affected. Does Rowell believe (and we might limit criticism of Ms. Francis because apparently, at 50, she has not had much experience in the world) that there is some psychological interior, in sane individuals that is independent of the total or real world? There is, and that is the definition of insanity, to be completely oblivious to the “outside” world. Of course people in the ivory towers of academia might make such a case.
Finally, we can see with his repeated negative references to the Black Arts Movement as a group of ideas, assumptions and acts that must be transcended, so that this “new discourse on African American poetry” can begin and so “invent a new American Poetry”. Like Jack Palance as Simon the Magician, who said that he could fly and then leaped off a high tower killing himself. So it is that Mr. Rowell ‘s describing what he has put together as a “new American poetry” is idle gesturing as he prepares to leap to his philosophical death measured by what we know in the real world.
Rowell plunges on with his doubtful analogies , quoting one of his poets talking about how poetry differs from “the loathed body, markers of race…” does this mean it is loathing of the body that drives the poet to poetry and literary poetry hides, or at least obscures, that “loathed body”.. I guess, especially if the race it marks is unliterary? A literary body would be invisible, interior, out of the way of mundane phenomena like actual life.
Rowell frequently sounds like a circus carney trying to convince readers that’s he’s stumbled on what his choices reveal he does not even understand. The poets he cites who “dared to walk the way of a world much different from that constructed and proclaimed by the architects of the Black Arts Movement”. Does this mean Rowell thinks that the poets of the Black Arts Movement constructed the world in which they were born into and tried, using one agency, their art, to change? That might explain why he thinks the “interior world” of his poets is as real as the actual material world.
He seems not to understand that it was the actual material, brutal, world that we were born into that we had first to perceive, then define and lastly to use our understanding in as concrete a way as we could, whether it was poetry or boycotts or building institutions or committing ourselves to revolutionary politics. The interiorization of that real world was in perceiving, defining and using those actions to create a method of changing that world to whatever extent we could.
On one hand we can see that what that grasp of reality and our efforts to change that reality did minimally, was create a group of people, some Black, who felt that since we had dug that world and described it and tried to change it that those efforts were now, simply history, or more vulgarly, passé.
Rowell goes on (embarrassing Wittgenstein) “In other words, the works of these new poets are the direct results of what such poets as Yusef Komunyakaa, Ai, Cyrus Cassells, Rita Dove, Thylias Moss, Toi Derricotte, Harryette Mullen, Nathaniel Mackey- the first wave- dared write, which is whatever they wanted and in whatever form and styles they desired, as the influence of the Black Arts Movement was first entering its decline.”
But is this simply a registration of poets Rowell likes; I cannot see any stylistic tendency which would render them a “movement” or a not-black aesthetic crowd. Perhaps their only commonality is their “resistance” to the Black Arts crowd. For Komunyakaa. “…growing up in the south, having closely observed what hatred does to the human spirit , how it corrupts and diminishes…I unconsciously disavowed any direct association with the Black Arts Movement”. Are we being faulted for hating slavery , white supremacy and racism? For trying to fight back, just as the Deacons for Self Defense did, by routing the Klan, in Komunyakaa’s own hometown, Bogalusa, La.
But he does go on to say something that seems true. “…By the time I started to write I was 18 or 19 years old, the Black Arts Movement had gained momentum: notice had been taken. The time was ripe; all one had to do was walk up to the door they had been battering at and squeeze through the breech”. Exactly!
Ironically, one of Komnyakaa’s early books was sent to me by a university publisher to ask my opinion, should it be published. My colored patriotism bade me recommend it, though in truth I found it dull and academic.
Dove spells out her separation from the BAM in revealing class terms, very honestly,”as I wrote more and more…I realized that the blighted urban world inhabited by the poems of the Black Arts Movement was not mine. I had grown up in Ohio-- I enjoyed the gamut of middle class experience, in a comfy house with picket fences and rose bushes on a tree lined street in West Akron.”
But that is not the actual lives of the Black majority, who have felt the direct torture and pain of Black national oppression and that is what the Black Arts Movement was focusing on , transforming the lives of the Black majority ! As we said, we wanted to aid in the liberation of the Afro-American people with our art, with our poetry. But the deeper we got into the reality of this task the more overtly political we became. And those major events we lived through, if we responded to them as conscious Black intellectuals, we had to try to become Soldiers, ourselves
The Lynching of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks’ resistance, Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (The Peoples’ resistance), The bombing of Dr. Kings’ Home in Montgomery. The Sit-ins, SCLC, the Civil Rights Movement. The emergence of Robert Williams and his direct attack on the Klan. The emergence of Malcolm X. I went to Cuba on the first anniversary of the Cuban revolution. The rise and murder of Patrice Lumumba, The African Liberation Movement. I met poets like Askia Toure and Larry Neal in front of the UN screaming our condemnation of the US, the UN, Belgium, Rockefeller for murdering Lumumba and our support for Maya Angelou, Louise Merriweather, Rosa Guy, Abby Lincoln (all great artists) running up into the UN to defy Ralph Bunch. The March on Washington, The Bombing 0f 16th St. Baptist Church and the murder of four little girls. JFK’s Assassination, Watts, Malcolm’s Assassination, Dr. King’s Assassination, Rebellions across America!
We were poets who wanted to be among those fighters for Black Liberation. That is why we wrote like that, because we wanted to. We still want to. So for Rowell to celebrate these poets whom he says write what they want to write. That is what we “wanted to in whatever form and style” we wanted. Exactly, that’s why we wanted to get away from the faux English academic strait jackets passed down to us by the Anglo American literary world.
Rowell thinks the majority of Afro American poets are MFA recipients or Professors. Wrong again! Though, obviously, the unity and struggle in the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements have resulted in a slight wiggle of ”integration” among the narrowest sector of the Afro American people. Actually what Rowell wants to give us is a generous helping of these university types, many co –sanctioned by the Cave Canem group, which energized US poetry by claiming a space for Afro American poetry, but at the same time presenting a group portrait of the Afro American poet as MFA recipients.
Rowell organizes his view of Afro American poetry like this: PRECURSORS, Modernists, 1940’s-1960’s (Lopsided and incomplete); THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT The 1960’s and Beyond. Amiri Baraka, Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni, Bobb Hamilton, David Henderson, Calvin Hernton, Haki Madhubuti, Larry Neal, Carolyn Rodgers, Sonia Sanchez, A.B. Spellman, Edward Spriggs. (The main thing wrong with this group is that he has left some of the most important poets out! Where is the great Henry Dumas or Amos Mor, (Poem to the Hip Generation) who inspired a whole generation of us? The Last Poets, whether the originals Gylan Kain, David Nelson, Felipe Luciano or the later incarnation (even in his next category) Abiodun Oyewole, Umar bin Hassan. Most of the poets in the ground shaking anthology that tried to sum up the Black Arts breakthrough, Black Fire, edited (1968 by Baraka and Larry Neal are nixed.
The group he entitles OUTSIDE THE BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT, how does he do it, by what qualities Form, Content, Age, and again the omissions weaken whatever measure, those whom apparently Mr. Rowell either does not know or does not “like”. What Rowell also misoverstands is that while The Black Arts Repertory Theater School (BARTS) was a specific institution, Short lived- 1 year –though very important and influential, given the turbulence and explosiveness of the time, formed the month of Malcolm’s murder, opened in Harlem the next month, because of its iconic placement and operation ( 4 performances from 4 flatbed trucks music, drama , poetry, graphic arts in the streets, parks, parking lots, playgrounds of Harlem throughout the summer of 1965), mobilized Black artists, poets across the nation, Detroit, Oakland-San Francisco, DC, New Orleans, Chicago, and created a kind of bonding of Black Artists to bring the most advanced black arts directly to the people. Its fighting quality was its most important aspect. Rowell thinks art and indeed intelligence itself must eschew or at least hide it’s resistance to ignorance and oppression.
Of this group, Kaufman, LeRoi Jones, (Rowell omits Ted Joans)_, these three were called “the Black Beats” had already formed, with the influence of William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, the Surrealists, a united front against academic poetry with Allen Ginsberg & The Beats, The San Francisco school, O’Hara & the New York School , Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets. It was the murder of Malcolm X that sent me and other Black artists screaming out of the various Greenwich Villages to a variety of Harlems!
We saw poets like June Jordan as allies; check her statement in this anthology, “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth”. Lucille Clifton and I were classmates at Howard taught by the great Sterling Brown, as were Toni Morrison and AB Spellman. Sterling’s fundamental insight on America flows through our works.
How Rowell can disconnect Etheridge Knight from the deep spirit of the BAM is fraudulent. Sherley Anne Williams says in her blurb “I remain , more firmly now that then, a proponent of Black consciousness of ‘The Black Aesthetic’ and so I am a political writer.” You ever read Alice Walker’s marvelous poem Each One Reach One? “Because when we show what we see,/they will discern the inevitable,/We do not worship them/We do not worship them./We do not worship what they have made./We do not trust them/we do not believe what they say” . It is this spirit that aligns both of them with the Black Arts Movement. And certainly it is this same spirit of self conscious resistance to American racial or gender craziness that puts Ntozake Shange in that number. The Black Arts spirit is old, it is historical, psychological, intellectual , cultural. The same as Black Abolitionist, Henry Highland Garnett’s call in 1843 in his “Address to the Slaves in the United States,”…resistance, resistance, RESISTANCE”
Jayne Cortez is obviously close to the spirit of BAM, in the content and force of her poetry although Rowell stays away from her best known works. Lorenzo Thomas. who actually identified with the BAM, Is likewise dissed. It is the spirit of Resistance, of Unity and Struggle that connects us. And where is the mighty Sekou Sundiata?, whom I first met when he was 16 at a meeting for those getting ready to go to the 6th Pan African Congress in Dar es Salaam. One of the finest poets of his generation, not even a mention. Plus no mention of Marvin X, who founded Black Arts West in 1966 with Ed Bullins.
Gaston Neal, criminally underknown, was also director of The New School of Afro-American Thought in D.C. His work has yet to be published in its Collected version. You don’t know Sun Ra’s music, doubtful you know his powerful verse. Active in this same period we must mention more of the missing significant, Arthur Pfister (My Name is New Orleans), Tom Mitchelson, Kalamu Al Salaam, Amina Baraka, Brian Gilmore, Mervyn Taylor, Lamont Steptoe, John Watusi Branch, Everett Hoagland, Devorah Major, Kenneth Carroll, DJ Renegade, Safiya Henderson Holmes, Charlie Braxton. Where is Nikki Finney or the bard of Trenton, Doc Long?
“Outside the Black Arts Movement”? What the Black Arts Movement did was to set a paradigm for the Black Artist to be an artist and a soldier. This is what I said at Louis Reyes Rivera’s funeral” …we must urge our artists and scholars, … cultural workers…. our most advanced folks fighting for equal rights and self-determination…to create an art and scholarship that is historically and culturally authentic, that is public and for the people , that is revolutionary.” It is a sharp class distinction that has arisen and produced a mini-class of blacks who benefited most by the Civil rights and Black Liberation Movements thinking and acting as if our historic struggle has been won so that they can become as arrogant and ignorant as the worst examples of white America.
It is obvious, as well, looking through this book that it has been little touched by the last twenty years of Afro American life, since it shows little evidence of being touched by the appearance of Spoken Word and Rap. So that even this “New American poetry” Rowell wants to introduce to, is mostly dull as a stick. The omission, unawareness? Of spoken word poets, E.G. Bailey, Jessica Care Moore, Ras Baraka, Ewuare Osayande, Zayid Muhammad, Talaam Acey, Rasim Allah, Black Thought, Daniel Beatty, Saul Williams, Stacy Ann Chin, all of whose stirring works appear live and happening.
Rowell’s icy Epilogue is too comic to be tragic, though it is both. It is a cold class dismissal by would be main stream Negroes on the path to mediocrity. “Without the fetters of narrow political and social demands that have nothing to do with the production of artistic texts, black American poets since the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement have created an extraordinary number of aesthetically deft poems that both challenge the concept of the ‘the American poem’ and extend the dimensions of American poetry”. This is poppy cock at its poppiest and cockiest.
You mean the struggle for our humanity is a fetter (to whom, Negroes seeking tenure in these white schools who dare not mumble a cross word?). Why is the struggle for equal rights and self-determination “narrow”? To Whom? Racists? You think Fred Douglass was not one of the greatest artists of the 19th century because he kept demanding an end to slavery? Bah, Humbug!
I must mention something about the sections of Heirs, First Wave, Second Wave; I know some of the work of those mentioned. Elizabeth Alexander, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Terrance Hayes, are smart and thoughtful, Tyehimba Jess, for his connection to the Blues, John Murillo, I don’t know’ but his poemPracticing Fade-always is memorable. Lastly, I must confess to be easily bored with the latest academicians, even the colored ones.
Rowell speaks weirdly enough of the decline of the influence of The Black Arts Movement. (See Komunyakaa and Negroes like Rowell who now got tenure). He also talks about “the Death of the Black Power Movement”. The main flaw with the Black Arts Movement is that it did not create sustainable institutions for itself but created the conditions where even Black Capitalism could emerge as Nixon sought a superficial media balance between killing and locking up Black people,at an enormous rate (some still in prison as we write) and the dubious offer of Black Capitalism (plus a trip to China in the same breath).
So that when the first thrill of intense Black resistance to white supremacy and national oppression exploded again (as it has done continually from the Stono rebellion Bacon’s rebellion, Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, once the “thrill” of this new defiance could eventually be turned into “Hate Whitey”, an essentially comic dismissal of the real aims of Black struggle. Just as the relentless propaganda that Malcolm X was advocating Violence never Self Defense. The oppressors then would make a few token gestures ( e.g., Rowell’s long tenure and the lengthening crop of negro profs at high profiled universities and the swelling number of MFA’s are such…but this is still an advanced tokenism. They will go back to business as usual (hence decline of Black Arts publications ) but with an upgraded cover story. Today it is damn democracy onward to corporate dictatorship.
As for the Black Power movement’s “death”, last I heard we had an Afro American president, who has taught the Republicans the value of Community Organizing TWICE . But what thing Rowell proves is that the old Black-White dichotomy is passed, on the surface, the struggle, as my wife, Amina always says, is about whose side you’re on. Romney and them lost because they don’t even know what country they’re in. Neither does Charles Rowell.
Amiri Baraka, Dec 2012
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