Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Poetry, Slavery & Creativity

Kevin Young's Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels and Thylias Moss's Slave Moth
 Strange as it may seem to some, slavery has served as one of the most important muses for modern and contemporary African American poets. In fact, black poets have regularly returned to the subject for over a century now. There has perhaps never been a time when enslavement, ex-slaves, and struggles for liberation have not appeared in writings by African American poets.

Historically significant poets such as Frances Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, and Margaret Walker have written about the circumstances of slavery. And in the contemporary era, Elizabeth Alexander, Thylias Moss, Evie Shockley, Natasha Trethewey, Frank X. Walker, Kevin Young, and many, many other poets have produced works concentrating on notable enslaved people, insurrectionists, and runaways. Has a focus on seemingly distant historical moment lessened the possibility that audiences might appreciate the creativity of contemporary African American poets? 

150+ Years of Antislavery Poems by Black Poets 

For audiences interested in the real-time and recent features of popular culture, the focus on history among black poets might be less appealing than say rappers, many of whom continually reference up-to-date happenings in the world. For those audiences interested in the now, poems about Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, for example, might seem passe or less relevant. My friends who are in poetry have disdain for such audiences, but perhaps there's some value in understanding the various interests and values of readerships and spectators in general.

Beyond those issues, though, are poets valued more for sticking closely to historical records when they write about slavery or when they stretch the limits of apparent truth? For many years now, the most popular poem -- by far -- about slavery among my students has been Ishmael Reed's "Flight to Canada," which though set during slavery is filled with jokes, including an anachronistic reference to the protagonist flying on a jumbo jet. Students regularly note that they "like" the poem because Reed seems to present the life of a slave "different," which could be a way saying that are amused that Reed offers a creative take on the subject. 

But, it might be less likely in the context of my African American literature courses for students to view the decision of black poets to focus on slavery. In my courses, they have access to large numbers of poets writing about slavery, which might downplay the fact that in the larger scheme of things, it's rare for most poets to do so.

Whatever the case, the spirits of enslaved people apparently speak to black poets in all kinds of ways. How else do we explain their extensive engagements with the subject for so long?

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