Friday, July 13, 2012

Black Poetry & the War on Drugs

Touré's "How America and hip-hop failed each other" in The Washington Post is a solid, important article for beginning to think about how hip hop culture initially touched on and then moved away from serious engagements with the War on Drugs. Touré's piece is a useful complement to Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. After reading Alexander's book a little while ago, I had been thinking about  black poetry and the War on Drugs.

During the late 1970s, Amiri Baraka had published and began performing a powerful satirical poem entitled "Dope," which parodied preachers and others as using religion as a drug that encouraged black folks to overlook or misunderstand the extents of their troubled living conditions. What's notable about Baraka and his poem in retrospect is that there was not a rise of "new" major poets and poems highlighting the contemporary struggles of black folks in urban contexts.

The emergence of two prominent kinds of black spokespeople may have determined that "new" black poets of the 1980s and 1990s (notwithstanding spoken word artists) were less likely to become the major voices in the national conversations about black people. For one, young major rappers became far more popular than most young major black poets, especially concerning subjects related to the inner city. Second, black public intellectuals became increasingly more popular as spokespersons about race in America than poets.

The field of poetry and in particular the processes through which African American poets became credentialed shifted. To make a long story short, the field of poetry became more formally professionalized, requiring poets to earn undergraduate degrees, then MFA degrees, and eventually prestigious awards in order to have "successful" and highly visible careers. The toll that the War on Drugs and more broadly the effects impoverished conditions in  many urban communities had on African Americans greatly lessened the chances that an aspiring poet from a struggling background would rise through the ranks to become a professional, credentialed, and thus paid-attention-to poet.

None of this is to say that we have not had notable, talented new poets emerge over the last 25 years. We have. However, for multiple reasons, the subject matter of award-winning African American poets and thus the poetry that receives the most funding and attention have often focused on historical subjects. Some people have reminded me that several notable contemporary poets have written about contemporary subjects and developed contemporary styles. Fair enough. Nonetheless, the extent to which the academy supports people, including poets, who address historical subjects far outpaces what is offered by poets who address contemporary and "political" issues.

All of this is to say, during the 1980s and 1990s as the prison population began to increase in dramatic fashion based in large part on the growing numbers of black men affected by the War on Drugs were getting caught up in the prison system, the field of poetry was headed in a different direction. As was hip hop, as were black public intellectuals, as were, as Michelle Alexander notes, civil rights organizations.

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