Thursday, July 26, 2012

Presidential Politics & African American Poetry

Hughes's Let America Be America with preface by Senator John Kerry and Alexander's Praise Song for the Day

Massachusetts Republican Senator Scott Brown (R) and his campaign recently released a video that "channeled African-American poet Langston Hughes in a two-and-a-half minute long campaign video entitled 'Let America Be America Again.'" It's not the first time that Hughes's poem has been invoked. Interestingly, African American poets have had a few different tie-ins to major political activities over the years.

Several months ago, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum's campaign initially used "Let America be American Again" before abandoning it after they learned more about Hughes. In 2004, Democratic presidential hopeful Senator John Kerry adopted Hughes's poem as a campaign slogan.

Maya Angelou gained unprecedented exposure as a poet when she was selected to read her poem "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's presidential inauguration in 1993. Elizabeth Alexander also received unprecedented worldwide attention when she read "Praise Song for the Day" at Barack Obama's inauguration in 2009. Are there other, less visible connections between presidential politics and African American poetry?

Several  poets have been received major recognition since Obama came to prominence and was elected. In 2008, Adrian Matejka's volume Mixology (2009) was selected by Kevin Young as a National Poetry Series winner. In 2009, Alexander, as noted, read at Obama's inauguration, and Alexander and Nikki Giovanni published the year's two best selling volumes of contemporary poetry. In 2010, Terrance Hayes won the National Book Award for Poetry, and Lucille Clifton was awarded the Robert Frost Medal. In 2011, Nikky Finney won a National Book Award for Poetry, and Sonia Sanchez was appointed Poet Laureate of Philadelphia. In 2012, Marilyn Nelson was awarded the Robert Frost Medal, Tracy K. Smith was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and Natasha Trethewey was appointed Poet Laureate of Mississippi and later appointed Poet Laureate of the United States.

Maybe, there's no direct link between all those poets' accomplishments and the rise of the first black president. I mean, you don't think there's a vast left-wing conspiracy designed to ensure that black poets excel in the age of Obama, do you? And if there is a connection between presidents and poets, could the silence related to black poetry during the 1980s be related to Reagan's reign?

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