Friday, August 17, 2012
Bad Men as Muses for Black Poets
Read through old volumes of poetry and anthologies, and you'll find all kinds of bad men out there. You'll encounter pieces about Stagolee and Shine. You'll come across a whole host of hard-luck characters in Langston Hughes's poetry. You'll discover pieces about the necessary bad done by a good man like Frederick Douglass.
During the black arts era, no ex-bad man was more favored and actually revered than Malcolm X. His background as a street hustler and ex-con is crucial to his narrative and lore. He's also celebrated based on his willingness to bad talk those who mistreated and oppressed black folks.
Over the last decades, poets have continually found bad men inspiring. Kevin Young, assuming the voice of Jack Johnson, defiantly notes that "I'm black all right & I'll never let them forget it." Poet Adrian Matejka has a full volume of poetry focusing on Jack Johnson due out next year. Elizabeth Alexander writes in the voice of Muhammad Ali. In Brutal Imagination, Cornelius Eady writes in the persona of the fabricated bad black man whom Susan Smith claimed kidnapped her children.
Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly offers an extensive treatment of a prominent bad man, Huddie "Leadbelly" Ledbetter, who had served prison time for attempted murder before going on to become widely known as a an ex-con folk singer. Jess charts Leadbelly's life and displays the conflicts he had with his one-time manager John Lomax.
When and if we view rap as poetry, we'll be inclined to note that the entire field rests on the idea of bad man narratives. TuPac, Biggie, Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, Big Boi, take your pick. So many rappers tell tales about hustlers, drug dealers, ex-cons, rule-breakers, and all manner of thugs.
Finally, one reason Amiri Baraka remains one of the most intriguing figures in the worlds of black poetry is because of his willingness and ability to be a bad black man. Beginning in the late 1960s, he embraced and projected black militancy in his works and persona, and even now in contemporary times, he is often described as a "controversial poet," all of which add to his reputation as one of our baddest poets.