During Black History Month, when and if we celebrate African American poetry, we've been inclined to highlight notable movements, recipients of prestigious awards, and historic "firsts." We celebrate the Harlem Renaissance, or we acknowledge the importance of Gwendolyn Brooks becoming the first black poet to win a Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1950. But what would it mean to recognize the actual creativity or innovative breakthroughs of black poetry as part of cultural programming in February?
For some time now, there has been a prominent imperative on history in black communities. The phrase or directive "know your history!" has been popular for decades and decades. And although the audience of the charge are apparently not nearly as versed on a particular view of the past as we should be, the persistence of the phrase suggests the value placed on some notion of "history."
There's also the phrase "keep it real," which speaks to the idea of adhering to accepted paradigms. In the realms of fashion, popular culture, and rap music of course, creativity is at the same time integral to the conversation. Copying or "biting" are considered deeply problematic; originality is praised.
Nonetheless, in my experiences reading poetry with students over the years, I've noticed that the issue of whether poems are "relatable" or whether they adhere to some specific aspects of cultural history often determine how well they are received among large numbers of students. Poets are often engaged in notably creative work when addressing the past or touching on topics that "relate" to readers. Still, without prodding, students almost always highlight historical, not creative, features of the works.
The trouble with creativity, at least when it comes to poetry, is that we have not found enough ways to assist readers in identifying and assessing the novel or original practices of poets, and recognizing why there's value in "knowing your creativity" in the first place.
Creative communities of poet-scholars & essayist-poets
Why Few Contemporary Poets Focus on Contemporary Subjects