Monday, May 13, 2013

From "Black" to "African American" Poetry Anthologies

When Gwendolyn Brooks's "We Real Cool," Robert Hayden's "Frederick Douglass," and Amiri Baraka's "Black Art" appeared in anthologies during the late 1960s and early 1970s, those collections often had the word "Black" in the title. When the poems by those poets appeared together in anthologies published over the last 20 years, the word "African American" was more likely to appear in the titles of the collections.That shift -- from "Black" to "African American" poetry anthologies -- deserves more attention, especially if we are to understand the ways that familiar and new poems by black or African American poets circulate and generate meaning.

Consider the following titles of anthologies published between 1968 and 1973:

1968: Black Voices: An Anthology of Afro-American Literature
1968: Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing 
1969: The New Black Poetry
1970: We Speak as Liberators: Young Black Poets
1971: The Black Poets
1972: Black Spirits: A Festival of New Black Poets in America
1972: Early Black American Poets
1973: The Poetry of Black America: An Anthology of the 20th Century
1973: Understanding the New Black Poetry.
1973: A Rock Against the Wind: Black Love Poems

And now collections published between 2000 and 2013:
2000: The Vintage Book of African American Poetry
2003: The Norton Anthology of African American Literature
2004: Furious Flower: African-American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present
2005: Rainbow Darkness: An Anthology of African American Poetry
2006: Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade 
2006: The Oxford Anthology of African-American Poetry
2007: The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South
2009: Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry
2010: The 100 Best African American Poems 
2013: Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry

"What is black poetry?" or "what is a black poem?" folks sometimes used to ask and still ask. Well, at one point, it was, among other things, a primary label under which diverse kinds of poems by black people were categorized. In more recent years, though the term "black" is sometimes used, "African American" tends to be more frequently used as a framing title and label, especially when major publishers such as Norton and Oxford are involved. 

Although "African American" appears more these days on anthologies than "black," I get the sense that black folks are more likely to refer to themselves as "black people" and "black folks" as opposed to "African American," at least in casual (spoken) conversations. (For some reason, I use the word "black" more frequently in my all-black classes, and I use "African American" more in my mixed classes.).

What I'm trying to suggest here is that the shifts over the years in the uses of "black" and "African American" in our society and in the production of anthologies featuring poetry have likely shaped or influenced how we interpret poets and their works, and how we talk about the writers and poetry. Figuring out why we are drawn to some poets and poems more than others might mean thinking about the sites where we first encountered various writers and works and the language we used to discuss the pieces. 

The Rise of Rita Dove and Elizabeth Alexander during the late 1980s 
49 years ago, Amiri Baraka reviewed a grab bag of works for Poetry magazine 
A Notebook on the Black Arts Era  
Anthologies featuring African American Poetry, 2000 - 2012 

No comments: