The other day, I was reading a New York Observer article about Ta-Nehisi Coates, a journalist and blogger whose work I follow closely. Early in the essay, I cringed when the author of the article wrote that "At 37, Mr. Coates is the single best writer on the subject of race in the United States." The comment underscores the notion of a competitive environment pitting black writers against black writers, an environment often reinforced by white commentators and institutions.
I've been pursuing research on Coates, Aaron McGruder, Colson Whitehead, and poet Kevin Young, four writers sometimes considered as "best" in their respective fields or "the best" of their generations. Although I plan to produce more extensive work on those 4 writers, I plan to avoid the pattern of referring to them as the "best" black writers or the "best" writers on race as if they have somehow outdone all the other black or raced writers. Offering that praise overlooks the fact that many factors--not simply good writing--go into placing a writer in position to even be considered "best."
I have repeatedly written about several talented poets, including Elizabeth Alexander, Amiri Baraka, Tyehimba Jess, Allison Joseph, Adrian Matejka, Evie Shockley, Young, and a few more. It would be a mistake for me to single them out as "the best," given the many special opportunities they have received in order to have their work showcased. Also, identifying 3 or 10 or even 25 as "the best" runs the risk of reducing some of the complexity and different kinds of poetry out there and overlooking the fact that often poets are not (always) self-consciously competing to win and thus defeat others the way, say, competitors in professional sports are doing.
I am aware, though, that "best of" discussions can stimulate all kinds of lively debates. Go to my barbershop and ask "who's the best NBA player?" or "who's the best rapper?" and then sit back and watch the fireworks fly. I also understand that with a genre as populous as black poetry, folks are inclined to look for ways of filtering.
Still, the history of highlighting one or two black writers while dismissing so many others is extensive and troubled. We do well to consider the consequences of such judgements, especially when the folks passing the judgement are not willing to state their investments and lack of investments in the black writers that they are assessing. For now, I prefer to write about several poets whose works I enjoy and value, acknowledging that they are talented yet only a few out of many more choices that readers might explore. I'll pass on referring to them as "the best."
The Demographics of African American Poetry
Poets by the numbers