Friday, September 9, 2011

Africa & Black Arts Poetry

Cover of Haki Madhubuti's volume think black!

"'I ain't left nothing in Africa,' that's what you say. Why, you left your mind in Africa." Malcolm X "Message to the Grassroots" (1963).

A focus on Africa -- as ancestral homeland, revolutionary model, and alternative source of knowledge -- was prominent feature of African American poetry during the late 1960s and 1970s. These days, Africa is a far less frequently mentioned topic among poets for some reason. During the 1960s, however, large numbers of poets followed Malcolm X's vision to pay close attention to Africa.

Leading black arts era poet Haki Madbubuti regularly discussed African countries and concepts associated with the continent in his writings, and like several other poets, including Amiri Baraka, Askia Toure, Kalamu ya Salaam, and Johari Amini, he abandoned his Americanized name (in this case Don L. Lee) in favor of a name derived from African origins. The cover of Madhubuti's popular volume think black! features an image of the continent of Africa.

Several African nations, including Ghana, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Kenya, gained independence from European colonial powers in the late 1950s and early 1960s and so poets who began publishing widely during the black arts era would have certainly been aware of the revolutions taking place on "the" continent, as Africa was referred to then as well as now by folks in conscious circles.

Beyond poets, Hoyt Fuller, one of the most influential editors of the era, was quite interested in and favorable to representing the people and culture of Africa. As editor of Negro Digest / Black World, the most powerful African American periodical of the time period, Fuller could advance interest in Africa and determine that poems and images focusing on African-related subjects appear frequently in his publication.

Since a major objective of black arts poetry was for writers to disinvest in typical Eurocentric and (white) American models, a focus on Africa was also increasingly important as an alternative. As writers worked to define and shape interest in "black aesthetics," the idea of Africa was quite popular.

Nikki Giovanni's popular poem "Ego-Tripping" drew on references to and images of Africa. Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka adapted chants in their performances that were rooted to African-style expressions. Eugene B. Redmond's monumental scholarly work on African American poetry Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry was, as the main title implied, linked to the continent.

The interest in Africa, cultivated and popularized in important ways by black arts discourse, went well beyond poets and one specific era. For one, Alex Haley's Roots (1976) was certainly indebted to interest in Africa sustained by poets, among others. In addition, Henry Louis Gates, Jr's The Signifying Monkey (1988) - the most well-known and frequently cited work on African American theory and criticism - gains much of its sense of direction by showing the African origins of African American literature.

Looking back, African American poets were important connectors for raising awareness and sustaining interest in Africa.

This entry is part of a series--30 Days of Black Arts Poetry

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