Friday, May 22, 2015

Black Poetry Debates: tracking the histories vs., tension, and questions

African American poets usually gain attention in mainstream news outlets when they have won awards and prizes. And that's important because of how many poets have been winning awards over the last 10 years in particular and also because of how many black poets have been overlooked. But what is often lost in conversations about the "good news" is that there are many long-running debates and arguments in the world, or better, the worlds of African American poetry.

What follows is a list of some of the debates. By the way, this list is not comprehensive (see # 12, #13, #14). Mostly, I have identified topics and debates that have caught my attention studying histories of African American poetry over the last 18 years or so.   

Some of the debates are quite public. Some remain under the radar, whispered among various groups. Some of the debates are interracial (see #1, #7, #12); while others are intra-racial (see #3, #6, #9, #13) and cross-cultural. It's quite possible to participate in discussions of black poetry and never hear mention of these differences, in part because efforts to track the debates have been less extensive than the processes of celebrating poets and poetry.       

I should note that I'm indebted to black arts discourse because that realm more than any other that I am aware of actively initiated, highlighted, and in some cases exposed various debates, tensions, and questions during the late 1960s and early 1970s.   

Everything listed below obviously requires further elaboration, which we should pursue at some point in the future.     

1. Jefferson's vs. Phillis Wheatley -- There were longstanding beliefs that black folks lacked creativity, including the ability to produce poetry. Here's Thomas Jefferson:
Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. -- Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar ;oestrum of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.
Jefferson's remarks were often presented as evidence of the racist views of African American creativity and black poets as well as reasoning why African American poetry receives relatively little substantial criticism.  

2. Dialect Dunbar vs. Standard Dunbar -- Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote verse in so-called standard English, and he wrote utilizing versions of black vernacular, or what folks commonly call 'dialect.' The popularity of Dunbar's "dialect" poems was sometimes vexing for him and others because of what it might suggest about the questionable interest of white audiences in representations of supposed "low-class" black people.         

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series

By Jeremiah Carter 

Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series, which he originally entitled The Migration of the Negro in 1940 – 1941, features an artistic documentation of African American movement form the South to North. I call the series a “documentation” because Lawrence created the project in the middle of this major movement of African Americans. A timeline on the wall at the entrance of the exhibit helps visitors to locate Lawrence’s working in the middle of the actual migration.

It is evident that he had his finger on the pulse of the movement as it happened. Lawrence’s unique combination of painting and prose (captions) narrates this moment in history as hundreds of thousands of southern black people migrated North. It also reveals a number of the realities and complexities of black experiences in the Great Migration.

The sixty panel series moves visitors from the troubled South to a North that was less than welcoming. “One-Way Ticket Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series” encloses all sixty panels with the timeline at the entrance and other artistic representations of the migration. The multimedia exhibit includes showcases of novels, poetry, and articles of the time period, and contemporary, that speak to the historic movement.

This structure broadens the context and expands our appreciation for Lawrence’s work. When we typically think of artistic representations of the Great Migration, a number of writers come to mind such as Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin. The exhibition of the Migration Series at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) situates Lawrence’s painting as an essential piece of the larger artistic narrative that complemented the Great Migration.

Jeremiah Carter is a graduate student in the English Department at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

NYC 2015

Malcolm X & Poetic Possibilities

We'd have a hard time envisioning some of our major developments in black poetry over the last 40 or so years without the influence and inspiration of Malcolm X. Most notably, his ideas and styles of delivery permeate Black Arts Poetry. He was an essential muse.

And well beyond poetry of the 1960s, we can still witness the spirit of Malcolm haunting rap music. The images of serious, conscious, black men dropping knowledge in public indeed link back to the slain minister. Malcolm's strong sense of style, memorably captured in photographs, gave generations of guys the notion that they could be cool and conscious.

Poets and others have written frequently about MLK. And in recent years,  Obama is referenced fairly often among rappers. For some reason though, Black Arts poets and rappers have not chosen to inhabit the personas of those figures to the degrees to which they channel Malcolm. Maybe it's the whole bad boy thing that makes Malcolm so inspiring?

Today, the fiery militant would have been 90 years old. For black verbal artists, Malcolm was and continues to be a wellspring of poetic possibilities.

Selection of Malcolm X poems 
• "Saint Malcolm" By Johari Amini
• "A Poem for Black Hearts" By Amiri Baraka
• "Malcolm X" By Gwendolyn Brooks
"For Malcolm, U.S.A." By James Emanuel
• "El-hajj Malik El-shabazz" By Robert Hayden
• "It Was a Funky Deal" By Etheridge Knight
• "For Malcolm, A Year After" By Etheridge Knight
• "Malcolm Spoke/Who Listened?" By Haki Madhubuti
• "Malcolm X--An Autobiography" By Larry Neal
• "The Summer After Malcolm" By Larry Neal
• “Poems for Malcolm” By Carolyn Rodgers
• "Malcolm" By Sonia Sanchez
• "malcolm" By Welton Smith
• "For Brother Malcolm" By Edward S. Spriggs
• "For Malcolm X" By Margaret Walker

Notebook on Malcolm X

Saturday, May 16, 2015

NYC 2015

Each May from 2009 - 2013, I led groups of SIUE students to New York City. I took a break in 2014, but early last Fall, a group of students approached me and asked would I organize another trip. With contributions on the part of the travelers and assistance from several kind donors, we made it happen.

During our trip, we visited Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture,   the Srand Bookstore, the African Burial Ground, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of New York City, and various other locations.

At the Strand Bookstore 
At the MoMA
Philosophical perambulations in NYC
We're a team, but not that kind of team
Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series by Jeremiah Carter

New York City Journeys

At the MoMA

We arrived in New York on Sunday night, and Monday morning we headed to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) mainly to see the exhibition, "One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great Movement North." The exhibit includes the 60 panels from Lawrence's 1940-1941 series depicting aspects of the Great Migration. The exhibit also showcases a wide range of materials related to Lawrence's paintings, including books, newspaper clippings, poems, music, and video clips.

"One-Way Ticket" is really powerful and informative. I was reminded of important aspects of history concerning African American migration and also continually made aware of new facts such as the scale of new migrants traveling to Detroit, St. Louis, Chicago, New York City, and other major cities.

Javier, one of our travelers, checking out digital touchscreens related to the exhibit

Javier, one of our travelers noted that he valued the exhibit because of how Lawrence's paintings "tell a story, a story of African-American migration." And of course, we didn't need to only rely on the paintings to tell stories, given that we were presented with such an array of various narratives in the exhibit.

In the main section of the exhibit with Lawrence's images, for instance, a table was equipped with touch-screen devices showing information on each of the panels from the Migration Series. There was also a viewing and listening station in another room with poems by Tyehimba Jess, Rita Dove, Kevin Young, and other poets. Overall, the exhibit was an engaging mixed media activity that served as an tremendous learning experience for our group. 

NYC 2015

Philosophical perambulations in NYC

Gabriel, one of our travelers, planning our next moves

The genesis of my trips to New York City began in the summer of 2008 when I walked for over 100 city blocks in the city on a couple of days just thinking and wondering as I wandered. I found the experience so intellectually rewarding that I began thinking of ways to bring students along on the journeys. We made our way to the city a number of times over the years.

Months ago when I was telling my colleague Tori Walters about that long walk that gave me the idea for the trips, she mentioned a course, entitled "Philosophical Perambulations" that she took in high school. The course involved walking and thinking. Her descriptions of the course corresponded with my own, long walk as well as some of what I think the students pick up as they collaboratively navigate NYC.

This year, we walked along various blocks; we walked around exhibits at MoMA, the Schomburg, and the Museum of the City of New York; and we walked around the Strand Bookstore. We observed, we thought to ourselves, we talked, took photographs, and thought and talked some more.

As we moved around thinking and walking, I was now equipped with this new phrase "philosophical perambulations" as yet another way to describe our activities. 

NYC 2015

We're a team, but not that kind of team

Early during our trip, as we waited for our flight from St. Louis to New York City, one of our travelers joked that the make-up of our group (8 black men) might lead people to think we were a basketball team. In retrospect, the joke was somewhat prophetic.

At least twice each day, from Sunday, May 10 - Wednesday, May 13, different people approached us and asked one of two questions: "Are you a basketball team?" or "Are you a football team?" The guys were good-natured about the questions, which they heard a couple more times when I was not in their presence.   
To be fair to our questioners, during this time of year, young guys, especially African American men, are often traveling to basketball camps. Maybe that's why we were mistook for basketball team?

At some point, we began wondering about creative ways we might respond. We were some kind of team, after all, right? If so, what  was our activity? How might be label ourselves? What were we competing for? Where were we headed to compete, when was practice? How good were we?

Not all our lines of inquiry were so fun. We wondered about the implications of repeatedly being viewed only as athletes. Was the idea that a group of black men being traveling together simply to visit the MoMA, a venerable bookstore, and the African Burial that strange and unusual? Why was "sports team" everyone's default setting when they saw us? 

NYC 2015

At the Strand Bookstore

Gary, one of our travelers, pursuing books at the Strand

We made our annual pilgrimage to the Strand  Bookstore in Greenwich Village on Monday, May 11.
I've made several trips to the store in the past with SIUE students, and they've always found the space enjoyable and deeply thought-provoking. Since they have relatively little access to bookstores of any comparable size and prominence, the experience of visiting the Strand is also fairly unique.

So much reading takes places on computer screens and digital devices these days; thus, the experience of moving through shelves and stakes of books seems to provide students with a kind of thrilling feeling, as if they were transported to some other alternate place. The guys on this year's trip were constantly discussing their intellectual experiences and development, and moving around a bookstore seemed to complement those conversations.

Greg, one of our travelers, checking out the 'Black Studies' section at the Strand
Here's a reflection from one of the travelers:
The Strand bookstore has the most diverse set of books that I've ever seen. Once I found an aisle that I liked in the nonfiction section, I just spent 20 minutes browsing through novels without even knowing it. I also found a fair amount of interesting books in my major field of study, Chemistry. --Isaiah B.
NYC 2015