Thursday, July 18, 2013

LeRoi Jones vs. Amiri Baraka vs. Black poetry

The other day, I was taking a look at Google’s Ngram database, which allows you to input words and then view their frequency in use based on more than 5 million books published between 1800 to 2008. The site allows you to input word combinations as well as to consider how various words or phrases compare. At one point, I decided to concentrate on the words "LeRoi Jones" and "Amiri Baraka," the same person but different names.

I first concentrated on "Amiri Baraka" from 1934, when he was born, up to 2008 where the database concludes. Not surprisingly, the name begins to rise in references and popularity during the late 1960s. By 1998, the name reaches a peak. (See image above).

Next, I focused on "LeRoi Jones" from 1934 - 2008. There, the name peaks in the early 1970s. I inserted both names to see how they compared. The results suggest that Jones/Baraka was most frequently mentioned during the early 1970s, and over time, we see the decline in "LeRoi Jones" and the rise in "Amiri Baraka."

Finally, I added "Black poetry" and "Black Arts Movement" to the mix. Notice how much less those terms appear over time in comparison to both "LeRoi Jones" and "Amiri Baraka." One reason, I imagine that Jones/Baraka appears much more frequently is because he is known in fields well beyond poetry. Moreover, scholars focusing on black poetry are more likely to repeatedly mention Baraka's name(s) as opposed to simply poetry. In the many simulations I've run, "major" poets tend to outrank the term "black poetry."  That's not the case for the single word "poetry."

A couple days ago, I was talking on facebook about the Black Arts Movement with scholars Tony Bolden and James Smethurst. They were both noting the increasing number of studies devoted to the subject. The trajectory at the end of the graph seems to confirm their observations.

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