Saturday, May 26, 2012

Poets as Black Urbanists

I was reading a thoughtful piece by Peter Saunders about the lack of black urbanists in all the conversations about cities. Saunders's blong entry had me thinking about representations of cities in African American poetry. There was a time---perhaps many times--when leading black poets wrote frequently about urban spaces.   

Think about Langston Hughes writing about Harlem or Gwendolyn Brooks representing Chicago. Consider that Margaret Walker's well-known poem "For My People" charts black urban spaces across the country. Amiri Baraka made urban spaces, especially New York City and Newark, central to his work. Claude McKay, Helene Johnson, Sterling Plumpp, Eugene B. Redmond, Jayne Cortez, Calvin Forbes, Elizabeth Alexander, Tyehimba Jess, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Patricia Smith, Gary Copeland Lilley, and several others have written about cities in their works.

 Beyond or in addition to the composition of select poems, the experiences of African American poets in urban areas might deserve more attention if we are to understand how literary artists have contributed to perceptions of cities and how they have been involved with projects in various locales across the country. Ishmael Reed in Oakland. Mari Evans in Indianapolis. C. Liegh McInnis in Jackson, Mississippi. Natasha Trethewey and Kevin Young in Atlanta.  Sonia Sanchez in Philadelphia.

Saunders noted that one group of urbanists "often have rather abstract views of cities," and "they are big proponents of things like walkability, transit use, denser development, and the like." Saunders explained that another group of urbanists has "a laser focus on a special interest" such as "bike advocates, transit supporters, urban agriculture activists, and other urban special interests." I'll have to take some time to figure out how those issues associated with urbanists align with concerns expressed by past and contemporary African American poets.

I'm certainly interested in thinking more about what it would mean to envision poets as black urbanists.

8 Poems Situated in Urban Spaces
C. Liegh McInnis as a Black Urbanist 
Why Poets might not write much about where they currently live

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