Last summer, my friend Joycelyn Moody, who had been the editor of African American Review, our field's leading scholarly journal, informed me of two startling submission facts. First, during her time as editor from 2004 - 2008, the journal received, on average, at least one submission on Toni Morrison every single day for those four years. Second, the journal received at least one submission from a prison every single day during that four-year period as well.
For months now, I've been troubled by that strange dichotomy. I was reminded again of those divergences this morning when scholar David Leonard tweeted an article from the New York Times about the large numbers of incarcerated black men at just about the same time that scholar Alondra Nelson tweeted an article about Barack Obama, also from the Times. It's a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, the celebration of highly skilled, exceptional black people (i.e. Morrison and Obama) on the one hand and then an awareness of masses of low-skilled black men (i.e. incarceration) on the other hand.
The idea that so many incarcerated black men write and submit their poetry for publication haunts me. I'm often wondering whether things would have been different for those men if we--those of us in arts communities--had reached those aspiring writers earlier, before they became linked to the criminal justice system. What if the big problem, I muse, wasn't absent fathers and the presence of street gangs, but the lack of reading, writing, and arts programs that targeted young people in low-income environments?
I'm fearful that those of us who study African American literature haven't done enough to consider the circumstances and life experiences of the many different black people who write. We are, I'm afraid to say, far more likely to celebrate, perpetually, select authors who've already been widely celebrated as opposed to having conversations, pursuing research, and organizing conferences to discuss how writing and literary art might relate to mass incarceration of disproportionate numbers of black men. Granted, the achievements of Toni Morrison and Barack Obama do make us feel good about ourselves.
The processes of thinking and writing about black men and the many circumstances responsible for their incarceration creates different and difficult kinds of feelings. Whatever the case, I'm sometimes haunted by a body of poems by black men that I will likely never have the opportunity to read.
Related: A Notebook on Fear of Language