Sunday, March 29, 2015

Black poetry and socioeconomic divides

In a 2013 review in Poetry magazine, Amiri Baraka offered serious critiques of Charles Rowell's anthology Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry. Among other observations, Baraka noted that Rita Dove "spells out her separation from the Black Arts Movement very honestly, in revealing class terms."

Baraka presents a quotation from Dove to  illuminate his point. Dove had written, " I realized that the blighted urban world inhabited by the poems of the Black Arts Movement was not mine. I had grown up in Ohio    ...    I enjoyed the gamut of middle class experience, in a comfy house with picket fences and rose bushes on a tree-lined street in West Akron."

Offering a response to Dove's point, Baraka  responded, "But that is not the actual life of the Black majority, who have felt the direct torture and pain of national oppression, and that is what the Black Arts Movement was focusing on, transforming the lives of the Black majority!"

Dove was born and raised in Akron, Ohio, and for the last 26 years, she has been a professor at the University of Virginia. Baraka was born and raised in Newark, New Jersey; for the last five decades or so of his life, he lived in Newark. Not surprisingly, we might detect some contrasting "class" values in the writings of Dove and Baraka.
This is not to say that Baraka was always distant from the middle class. Among others, Henry Lacey notes that Baraka's "solidly middle-class upbringing figures prominently in his creative work and must be considered one of the major distinguishing features in any comparative treatment of Baraka and other seminal African American literary artists." Yet, Baraka, as were many of his generational and ideological peers associated with Black Arts, was often inclined to present stern critiques of presumable middle class values.  

Baraka continued to offer such critiques throughout his life. However, the rise of a new generation of poets, with Dove as a prominent figure, who were gaining  widespread attention and awards, presented alternatives. In addition, during the late 1970s and on to the 1980s, rap music, not poetry, was increasingly becoming the go-to art form for representing "the blighted urban world" and aspects of "the Black majority."    

Sometimes our labels, like "African American poetry" and "black poetry," obscure notable differences between poetry and poetry, between writings by African Americans and African Americans. Oh, and it is literature, which perhaps leads people to privilege artistic concerns over socioeconomic divides. 

1 comment:

jward said...

Baraka's critique of Rowell's positions is worthy of study for what it reveals about "socioeconomic divides" among critics as readers of poetry. Consider whether a critic who identifies with Elizabeth Alexander's class tends to protect her or his class interests against those of a critic (Baraka in this case) who identifies with Charlie Braxton.