Wednesday, May 4, 2011

From Popular Black Poets to Public Intellectuals

I was pleased to see Elizabeth Alexander’s keynote on ustream for the “Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women” Conference this past weekend. It’s not every day that we get to see a writer primarily known as a poet deliver a keynote at a major academic conference focusing on archival research.

The Alexander keynote reminded me of a shift in African American artistic and intellectual culture that I’ve been thinking about lately.

From the mid-1960s to the mid to late 1970s, black poets were viewed as more central figures in critical discourses related to African American cultural and political contexts. Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti, and a few more poets were frequently called on as speakers and essayists.

Despite the prevalence of poets at the forefront of conversations about politics and race, something changed.

By the mid to late 1980s, academics became more and more prevalent. Over the last 15 years or so, figures such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, bell hooks, and Michael Dyson, to name a few, became widely recognized “black public intellectuals,” holding forth on an expansive range of topics.

Already established poets such as Baraka and Giovanni are still popular and sought-after speakers. But subsequent generations of poets are, generally speaking, viewed in more limited ways, at least by comparison. In particular, poets are less likely to be viewed as essayists, activists, and scholars today than they were, say, 20 years ago.

So generations of poets who developed well after the black arts era have some limits. Those limits, by the way, are not necessarily their fault. 

When contemporary African American poets are invited to a campus to speak, they are typically called on to read and discuss only their poetry. They are less often invited to discuss history, intellectual culture, and politics--unless those issues fall within the context of the poetry that they are presenting.

 Contemporary poets are rarely invited as contributors to essay collection. I think we would benefit by hearing their voices more.  

There are exceptions to the absence of poets in critical contexts such as Alexander's keynote at the “Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women” Conference and Kevin Young's activities as a curator and presenter. But for the most part, contemporary poets are often--too often I think--relegated to rather confined positions as artists.

I would not be as bothered by this relegation, if I were not aware of the wide range of possibilities available to poets as artists, poets as editors, poets and scholars, and poets as activists displayed by so many writers of the black arts era.

But then, my slight frustrations could rest on an over-romantic view of the Black Arts Movement as well as an underestimation of a couple of key factors related to the contemporary culture of poets. For one, it's quite possible that contemporary poets have all kinds of legitimate reasons for choosing to present themselves primarily as poets. Many poets, know far better than me, what identities are best and necessary to assume.

In addition, academic markets and media outlets tend to favor scholarly-type intellectuals as spokespersons about "the race" as opposed to poets. The apparent shift from poets to intellectuals probably has a longer history that involves shifts from church-affiliated Civil Rights activists to black arts poets to academic-based intellectuals.

Not surprisingly, Al Sharpton--the Reverend Al Sharpton--is a more widely known and recognized figure than most poets and public intellectuals. His voice matters quite a bit in discussions of race and politics. It's no small coincidence that Sharpton's public persona is a cross between MLK and Malcolm X.

Still, the move from popular black poets to public intellectuals is worth considering when we think about the transmission of ideas related to black folks in contemporary American society.

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