Friday, September 14, 2012

Does the Skin Color of Black Poets Matter?

The developing conversation about the casting, or what some are calling a (mis)casting, of Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone in a biopic had me wondering about skin color and African American poetry.  Of the most widely known poems, relatively few deal with issues concerning intra-racial struggles related to skin color. Yet, if you spend even a small amount of time among actual black people, discussions of racial hues invariably come up.

Why have there been so few canonical African American poems about skin color, especially given how important that issue is among black folks?

Perhaps, it's partly a matter of how black poems become known. Often, many of the most prominent early poems and poets gained distinction based on their difference from white poems and poets, not primarily other black poets. So the key difference was black and white as opposed to light skin, brown skin, and dark skin. (Of course, novelists have had a long tradition of writing about passing, but that tradition is not as pronounced among poets.)    

Another issue might be gender. Black men have not, in general, faced the same levels of scrutiny and limitations related to skin color and standards of beauty as black women. Thus, prominent black men poets, who tended to out-number prominent black women poets in the past, were less inclined to highlight skin color as a major feature in their works.
Still, another issue concerning the lack of discussion of skin color in black poetry might be related to socioeconomic status. In recent decades, increasing numbers of highly accomplished African American poets, including a number of black women poets, come from middle class backgrounds. It's possible that, again in general, middle class African Americans face fewer skin-color barriers and thus feel less obligated and knowledgeable to write poems about that particular struggle.   

The young black women in my courses and those affiliated with our program have regular and lengthy conversations about issues related to skin color. Few of them, however, plan to pursue careers as poets. And the couple of them that are interested in poets will quickly inform you that there seems like little interest in literary history regarding poems about skin color.   

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