Friday, May 25, 2012

Black Poetry & White Money

In her book White Money/Black Power: The Surprising History of African American Studies and the Crisis of Race and Higher Education,  Noliwe Rooks, associate director of the African American studies program at Princeton University, charts, among other things, the significant financial contributions that the Ford Foundation provided for funding and thus shaping aspects of black studies programs across the country during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Beyond Rooks's book, there has been relatively little conversation about the extents to which "white money" was involved in the production of "black power."

Rooks's book came to mind as I thought about the financial backing of some contemporary African American poets. Part of my thinking in a recent piece concerning underfunding and spoken word poetry was drawn from my observations about the relatively high levels of institutional support received by some (printed-based) black poets. That institutional support often translates into financial and cultural capital.

By the way, I recognize that the vast majority of poets--spoken word, print-based, you name it--of all ethnic and racial groups receive little recognition and financial returns on their works. Perhaps the rarity of achieving literary acclaim is another reason why winning poets gain so much attention.

There are few, if any, literary awards and fellowships organized by African Americans that come close to the financial prizes and prestige associated with awards and fellowships offered by institutions run by white people. Perhaps no HBCU can afford (or is willing to pay) the kind of salaries that elite college and universities can provide accomplished African American poets.  And although many of us hold Third World Press and Lotus Press, to name two, in high regard, those African American-owned publishers do not have near the resources and marketplace resonance of Knopf, Graywolf, Penguin, and Norton.

Re-reading Rooks's "surprising" history of African American Studies has helped make what I've discovered concerning black poetry less surprising. It is interesting, however, that so many of us routinely criticize rappers whose financial success, we say, is based on record sales with "white boys from the suburbs." But we are less talkative about the "white" institutional support that has shaped the work and careers of black professors and poets.      

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