Saturday, November 17, 2012

The absent black poetry problem

There's been a consistent discussion among several first-year African American college students in two of my literature courses about how little they learned about black poetry in high school. They routinely express their frustrations concerning their under exposure to poets and aspects of African American history, which many of them often describe as "our history." I imagine that there are many subjects and topics that the average 18-year-old has not been exposed to, but in my two classes they talk extensively about the absent black poetry problem prior to entering college.

All the students in both of those courses are African American, and the majority of them have  acknowledged how little experience they've had with black poetry and history. That so many of them identified themselves as feeling underexposed might explain why they felt comfortable talking so freely about what they perceived as weaknesses of their educational experiences. A couple of students testify about the prior absence of black poetry in their lives, and that leads others to speak about the prior absence of poetry in their lives as well.      

From St. Louis to Chicago, it seems, folks received little information and instruction on African American poetry. The students contribute to and hear the narratives and begin connecting the dots on what could be a widespread problem. There's this unspoken fear that someone or something systematically prevented them from reading black poetry.  

Initially, students blamed their troubled high schools for the absent black poetry problem. Then, a few began saying that "it's out own fault" that we haven't studied poetry more. And another student noted that we have to place more blame on "our parents," who shouldn't depend on the schools to "do everything."

Maybe we're too hard on ourselves, I've started informing the students. Our current focus on African American poetry represents a special and unusual occurrence, not a normative one. Still, I'm pleased and intrigued that our engagements with black poetry this semester have led students to view its absence as a problem. 

Related:  A Notebook on Fear of Language 

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