Earlier in the week, I was mentioning how bell hooks was a poet early on, but she ended up devoting her career to prose. For hooks and her generation of writers such as Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and the late Manning Marable, it seems that prose and especially scholarly prose about race became a highly recognized and rewarded mode of writing. Folks often mention that black women novelists displaced black arts poets, but what if it was scholarly work that displaced poetry and fiction?
It's notable that such a large number of black cultural figures born during the 1930s became leading poets and novelists. Maya Angelou (b. 1928), Toni Morrison (b. 1931), Sonia Sanchez (b. 1934), Amiri Baraka (b. 1934), Jayne Cortez (b. 1936), Eugene B. Redmond (b. 1937), and Ishmael Reed (b. 1938), to name just a few, established themselves as creative writers. Some of them wrote prose as well, and there were scholars and other prose writers born during that time period. However, the prevalence of poetry and fiction by that generation of writers is really pronounced.
By contrast, consider the black cultural figures born during the 1950s who distinguished themselves as scholars. Trudier Harris (b. 1948), Lani Guinier (b. 1950), Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (b. 1950), bell hooks (b. 1952), Cornel West (b. 1953), and Michael Eric Dyson (b. 1958) represent a generation of African American scholars who have collectively shaped conversations about the meaning of highly visible "black public intellectuals." Of course, writers of this generation are poets as well, including Yusef Komunyakaa (b. 1947) and Rita Dove (b. 1952), but as a group, the scholarly writers of that time period are more widely known than the creative writers.
What happened in American and African American creative life and history that facilitated the dramatic rise of poets born during the 1930s and black scholars born during the 1950s? Actually we know what happened for poets: those born during the 1930s were in their 30s during the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and more importantly during the Black Arts Movement. Those movements were crucial boosts for African American writers and creative life.
During the late 60s and early 70s, figures such as hooks, Guinier, West, and Gates were attending prestigious universities and then preparing themselves to go on and produce works that would assist in defining their careers and their fields. In addition, Black Studies was becoming more formally institutional and formalized, which meant opportunities and spaces for leadership and visibility. At the same time, English departments were becoming more open for scholars with interests in the then developing field of African American literary study.
In retrospect, Gates and hooks had quite a bit to gain from the developing audiences and interest in African American literature, which had a special and extensive focus on black women writers and black feminism. There was also a prevalent interest in theory, areas that Gates and hooks were quite capable of excelling in.
Clearly, birth years were not the only factors that determined who would become major poets and who would become major public intellectuals. However, certainly the circumstances and major shifts that occurred and which created important boosts and opportunities when cultural figures were in their 30s did matter in notable ways.