Saturday, July 28, 2012

Toward a Sociology of African American Readers & Their Relationships to Poetry

Student at SIUE/East St. Louis Charter School reading Kevin Young's jelly roll.
On February 18, 1983, literary scholar Jerry W. Ward, Jr., delivered an essay "Retreat into Possibility: A Literary View of the Eighties" at a program at Tougaloo College in Mississippi. At one point, Ward mentions "the transformation of literature of the Black Aesthetic into literature concerned with black aesthetics" and then informs his audience that
We do need a sociology of African-American literature to account for changes in mode of production (writing and publishing) and in reading patterns (why do Black readers read what they read when they read?) Unless we begin to ask and seek answers to so-called extraliterary questions, we shall fail to see that Black literature is an integral part of our culture not a superstructure of the culture.
In a future post, I'll return to Ward's keen observation about Black Aesthetic to black aesthetics, but for now, I want to concentrate on the issue of a sociology of African American readers and reading habits. Among other things, addressing issues concerning why African American readers what they read when they read would assist us in understanding the connections and disconnections between some readers and contemporary poetry.

I was recently highlighting the point that potential and inexperienced African American poetry readers need more advocates. They need knowledgeable guides and positive gateway experiences. They need support systems similar to the ones that have greatly expanded for leading and award-winning writers over the last 20 years.

In January 1988, 48 black writers and critics performed a powerful and highly visible display of African American advocacy when they made a passionate and militant collective assertion that Toni Morrison should receive more accolades. Morrison, no doubt, benefited greatly from their support. How might potential African American poetry readers and readers of various genres and modes of writing benefit from more advocacy on their behalf?

As a better way of addressing that question, we might take up Ward's call for greater attention to African American reading patterns. Note that such a position differs from the deficit model of considering black illiteracy. Instead, a productive focus on strengths and active habits (why folks read what they read when they do) might get us moving.

Why potential poetry readers need advocates 
How 48 Black Writers and Critics Greatly Assisted Toni Morrison
Toward a sociology of conversations about creativity & intellectualism among black men

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