Friday, May 24, 2013

Poems about slavery or "liberation" poems: Framing Black Poetry

Nat Turner plots revolt

This coming fall semester, what if I teach some of the same poems I have in the past that focus on slavery, but instead of referring to the pieces as poems about slavery, I tell the students that we'll be reading "liberation poems"? What difference will it make in how the students experience the poems and view the poets?

Defining the pieces as liberation poems will not be too tough of a sell since we have so many instances of modern and contemporary poets looking back on moments when black people were enslaved and writing pieces about how those people took steps to either free themselves or at least talk back in rebellious or liberating ways to their captives.  In addition, poets tend to write most often about insubordinate or unruly formerly enslaved people such as Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, and Nat Turner. Saying that poets produced "liberation poems" will of course give a sense of agency to those enslaved as well as the writers.

Referring to the poetry as "liberation poems" or even referring to slave narratives as "liberation narratives" assists in raising the issue of framing and how such practices influence interpretations. Of course, the implications of framing go even further or are already with us when we decide to refer to the works we're reading as "poetry," "black poetry," or "African American poetry." As I was noting early last week, over the decades, editors have gone from framing collections of poems as "black" to "African American," a shift that likely has subtle yet far-ranging implications for how audiences view groups of poems and individual poets.

In a literature course that highlights concepts such as "Black Power," "the Black Freedom Struggle," "the Black Arts Movement," "black rage," "black resistance," black aesthetics, and other terms associated with the word "black" and concepts related to agency, the move to frame or label certain kinds of poetry as "liberation poems" might serve as an important connecting point for students.

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