Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Race for History Among Contemporary Black Poets, Pt. 2

Given the longstanding erasure and silencing of black people in historical narratives and accounts, we all understand why so many poets are passionate about pursuing recovery work, giving attention to archives, and getting the story right. There's also the well-worn dictum in black communities to "know your history," which is consequently taken as a mandate for some writers to uncover aspects of the past that have remained largely hidden or under-studied.

[Related The Race for History Among Contemporary Black Poets, Pt.1

Nonetheless, it was fascinating to me that at the NEH Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement Institute some of the formal scholars -- those typically engaged with exhaustive research in archives and official documents -- were questioning what we might call a "race for history" among poets. There are logics, of course, to the prominence and pervasiveness of contemporary volumes of poetry concentrating on history. The many poems and books of poetry that have gained considerable attention for treatments of the past over the last 20 years suggest that it is professionally advantageous for poets to actively and thoroughly engage history. Or to at least give the perception that one is taking history seriously.     

And to the extent that poetry, as a genre, can sometimes float -- too freely? -- in spaces between fiction and non-fiction, perhaps attention to specific historical documents and displays of "the facts" allow for the sense of grounding desired by some. Is it harder to dismiss historical poems than simply poems? If so, then that helps us understand why many poets are so actively engaging in this race for history in the field.     

At the same time, I understand why some scholars would question anyone's intrigue with most available presentations of history and historical documents. After all, many of us turn to poetry because of the ways that so much verse serve as an alternative conventional scholarly portrayals of the past. There's that, and it's also that some of us absorbed the warnings and lessons that Barbara Christian's raised in "The Race for Theory."

In her landmark essay, Christian asked "For whom are we doing what we are doing when we do literary criticism?" Accordingly, who are all the exact facts for in the presentation of historical accounts by contemporary poets? And how does a privileging of facts and history affect the practice of artistry and fiction?  

A Notebook on Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement

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