Monday, May 20, 2013

African American Poetry and Kanye West's "New Slaves"

Kanye West performs new music "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" on SNL

Given the extensive treatments of slavery and struggles for freedom in African American poetry, I'm intrigued by Kanye West's recent release "New Slaves." Sure, there are numerous things and millions of dollars that separate West from most poets. Nonetheless, the lyrical content of his rap does correspond to the contents of some poems.

Notably,at one point, West goes:
I know that we the new slaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I am aware that some observers have linked that line to lynching based on lyrics from "Strange Fruit." However, the insurrectionist Nat Turner had discovered blood on the leaves and read it as a sign to revolt. "While laboring in the field," reportedly said in his confessions to Thomas Gray, "I discovered drops of blood on the corn as though it were dew from heaven."

In her poem "Nat Turner Dreams of Insurrection," Elizabeth Alexander, writing in the voice of the rebellious slave, mentions  "drops of blood on the corn, as dew from heaven. / Forms of men in different attitudes, portrayed in blood. Numbers, glyphs, on woodland leaves, also in blood." Whereas West's lines probably connect to "Strange Fruit" in more immedidate ways, West, Alexander, and Turner do share a common interest in as they view blood as signs of something else.

What is especially important concerning the link between West and a large number of poets is that they all find f slavery and black folks struggling against bondage as an important space and creative ground to base their language and art. Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, Vievee Francis, Evie Shockley, Opal Palmer Adisa, Frank X. Walker and many more have concentrated on enslaved people, ex-slaves, and battles with captors in their poems and books. For years, rappers have alluded to slavery in their music, but given how popular West is, not to mention the force and fury of the song, his "New Slaves" might generate above average attention.

Poets, a least the ones most likely to write vigorously about enslavement and revolt, are less likely to have the kinds of platforms and visibility of a West. Their treatments on slavery will largely remain, as it were, somewhat underground.

50 Poems about Slavery, Struggles for Freedom
Poetry, Slavery & Creativity
150+ Years of Antislavery Poems by Black Poets 
Ishmael Reed's Funny Ex-slave Poem
Evie Shockley and This Douglass Poetry Discourse 

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