Monday, November 11, 2013

Poetry, YouTube, and Racial Critique of the University

A couple of days ago, the Huffington Post's Black Voices ran a story "UCLA Has More NCAA Championships Than Black Male Freshmen." The video highlights a YouTube video of a student reading a spoken word piece that critiques the low levels of African American enrollment and support at UCLA. The video has generated considerable attention since it was first posted on November 4.

The video opens with statistics on UCLA's demographics, with special attention on the paucity of black male students. Young black men hold signs emphasizing the stats from 2012, including a number ("48") of first-year black male students out of an entering class of 2,418.    

The poet Sy Stokes reads a piece addressing the discrepancies and raises critiques. His delivery, with its modulating intensity and cadence, corresponds to the now familiar modes of spoken word poetry. Militancy, in spoken word, of course, is fairly common. What is really distinguishing though is the use of a poem to critique an institution like UCLA in such a public medium as YouTube.

We always hear poems about death, love, historical figures, childhood remembrance, celebrations, familial and intimate relationships, but a poet addressing the subject of how an elite university fails to actively recruit and graduate black males is certainly unusual...and admirable. The subject and themes that Stokes cover are familiar to those of us who've been thinking and organizing around the issues for some time, but the topic rarely if ever appears in poetry.

The overall execution of the piece is also notable. Spoken word artists have been doing these elaborate, mixed media pieces on YouTube for a while now. Every now and then, one of the pieces gains some breakthrough in media outlets. That's a good thing because it brings attention to the issue being discussed as well as the viability of poetry as a mode of social critique.

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