Here's something. Over the last 4 or 5 years, I've been running informal surveys with students about what they gain reading poetry...black poetry. The majority of responses from African American students often points to history. The answers tend to include statements where they express wanting to learn more about "my history" or "our history."
The presence of "my," "our," and "history" are intriguing and so are the absences of statements that highlight learning about creativity, literary art, aesthetics, style, word choice, line breaks, phrasings, and other terms related to arts and literature. And I'm not necessarily being judgmental at the moment. I'm just noting a pattern that has caught my attention.
You don't have to travel far in black communities to hear people discussing history and a lack of understanding history as the reason we're in "the condition we're in." For years, or really decades, since the rise of the black consciousness movement of the 1960s when an unprecedented high number of African Americans began enrolling in colleges, an interest in history, combined with increased access to the resources and educational training to learn about that history -- really histories -- became possible on a larger scale.
Older folks will say that today's young (black) people do not know enough about "our" history. Perhaps they don't. At the same time though, my own experiences over the years teaching literature have made me increasingly aware of how often black students identify "my history" or "our history" as a key subject of concern. That interest, I suspect, shapes how they approach the poetry.
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