Let me say first that I've been pleased by and frequently blogged about the award-winning accomplishments of African American poets over the years. No question, the wins have been important and often hard-earned. Full stop.
Having said that, I sometimes wonder: do the successes of a relatively small number of black poets obscure the plight of the larger body of black poets out there? And what difference does it make that relatively few award-granting, and perhaps more importantly, credential-granting institutions are African American?
As it turns out, several poets I admire and whose works I enjoy have won awards over the last several years. So my questions are not merely about any feelings of sour grapes I have. In fact, the concerns I have are hardly about individual poets but instead are about the nature of structures within and beyond poetry that assign value to artists, works, and ideas.
There's a long and continuing history of segregation along racial lines when it comes to the contributors of poetry anthologies, and interestingly, one result of African American poets winning major awards is that they have increased chances of appearing in general (primarily white) collections. The visibility of their wins helps to bring them to the attention of mainstream (primarily white) editors. The majority of black poets, especially those who have not won major awards, appear primarily in black anthologies.
In some respects, the onset of the age of colorblindness in the national discourse over the last 30 years along with conservative backlashes against black nationalist discourse has diminished the likelihood that we will hear much talk about segregation in poetry, the plight of non-award winning black poets, or the racial implications of literary credentials outside of black contexts. And even in those black contexts, conversations about race might be rarer and harder to have given the decreased centralized spaces for the discussion of African American artistic culture.