For nearly two decades now, I have been tracking poems about bad men. Sometimes those bad men are folk heroes, and other times they are historical figures. They are unruly and defiant. And they are important muses for African American poets.
Cornelius Eady offered an important intervention in the domain of poems about bad men with his book Brutal Imagination (2001). The central figure is the fictive black man who allegedly kidnapped two children. The book is haunting and offers a critique of racist views and narratives.
Kevin Young made an original contribution to the production of bad man poetic treatments with To Repel Ghosts (2001), about the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. There's also Tyehimba Jess with leadbelly (2005) and Adrian Matejka with The Big Smoke (2013), about Jack Johnson.
For more than 100 years, artists have produced poems or song lyrics about bad men. What's new is how many books of poems have been dedicated to the characters in recent years. Here's a short list of works on bad men or black man historical figures:
2001 - Cornelius Eady's Brutal Imagination
2001 - Kevin Young's To Repel Ghosts: Five Sides in B Minor
2001 - Marilyn Nelson's Carver
2004 - Gary Copeland Lilley's The Subsequent Blues
2004 - Frank X Walker's Buffalo Dance
2005 -Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly
2008 - Gary Copeland Lilley's Alpha Zulu
2008 - Frank X. Walker's When Winter Come
2009 - Rita Dove's Sonata Mulattica
2010 - Frank X. Walker's Isaac Murphy: I Dedicate This Ride
2011 - Kevin Young's Ardency
2013 - Adrian Matejka's The Big Smoke
• Black Book History, February 2019