Saturday, February 11, 2012

Black Women, Militancy, and Spoken Word Poetry

A key feature of spoken word poetry is the prevalence of militant tones--attitudes associated with anger, frustration, determination, righteous rage, defiance, and indignation. There are other lighthearted tones expressed in the broad spectrum of spoken word poetry, but that militancy is definitely a defining feature of the art-form.

One of the most important debts that contemporary spoken word poetry owes to black arts poetry is the presentation and preservation of militant tones. No doubt, black arts poets are indebted to Malcolm X for stylized and public presentation of black rage and anger. Still, figures such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Haki Madhubuti, and others provided key models for what expressions of militancy in poetry might look like.

In the spoken word sets over the decades, young black women on college campuses across the country have been central to preserving the life and traditions of militancy. They have written and performed fiery poems about their individual experiences and the collective experiences of black women. Their focus on the concerns of black women means that they often addressed issues related to women that black men poets typically did not highlight and issues associated with black people that white women did not cover.

For the most part, the young sister-poet performers have not pursued professional careers in poetry, certainly not in comparison to the numbers of sisters presenting their works in college. Thus, we are less likely to witness the full range of militant rhetoric since so many sisters eventually decide to channel their energies in other ways after college. 

Another reason that we are less likely to encounter a certain brand of militancy is because of the extended process it takes for an undergraduate interested in writing poetry to become an established and widely recognized published poet. There is certainly militancy in the works of major poets such as Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Elizabeth Alexander to name a few. However, that militancy is necessarily different from what is expressed by 18 to 25-year-old black women university students.

Militancy in the works of Black Women Poets

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