Often when we talk about divisions and black poetry, we concentrate on the distances, if not tensions, between spoken word poetry and so-called literary poetry. We speak of African American poets with MFA degrees and those without those degrees. We debate about rap as poetry and rap vs. poetry.
But what about a more pervasive division; what about the separation of black poets from white poets, and hence black poetry from white poetry?
On the one hand, it's true that black poets in the 21st century have gained more access to mainstream poetry awards and recognition than at any other time in history. Tracy K. Smith and Natasha Trethewey both earned Pulitzer Prizes for poetry, and Trethewey is just winding down a two-year stint as U.S. Poet Laureate. Several other poets have earned awards and tenured positions in Creative Writing programs at various universities. Progress? Absolutely.
Yet, on the other hand, we encounter large communities of black poets who seem much more distant from communities of white poets. By and large, the majority of black poets publish and present their works in presumable black spaces; white poets present their works in white spaces, though given the politics of language and identification in our country, "white spaces" are rarely referred to as "white spaces." But anthologies and journals that routinely publish more than 85% white writers are, pretty much, white spaces. (And based on some definitions at least including less that 15% "minorities" in those white spaces constitutes tokenism.)
The racial/ethnic segregation among black poets and white poets is an outgrowth of the racial segregation in our society in general. As sociologists have long observed, large numbers of black people are not simply segregated, they are often in fact hypersegregated, a process or more accurately a series of processes that emerged over time as white governmental and city officials created "ghettos" as a way of isolating African Americans in urban areas.
The increasing difficulty of a young black poet emerging from a hypersegregated background and going on to become a "success" in the field of poetry is becoming even harder to imagine. After all, a clear majority of the most well-known contemporary African American poets who emerged over the last 15 years or so come from fairly privileged backgrounds. That's hardly a coincidence.
Indeed, becoming a prominent black poet is a matter of literary talent, yet it is also a matter of privilege.
I acknowledge, of course, that despite the many disadvantages associated with the histories of hypersegregation, distinct black spaces have facilitated the production and preservation of a tremendous body of inspiring artistic forms and practices. Well-to-do white and black poets appropriate those forms and practices all the time. The creativity and perspective that emerges from African Americans in troubled areas is also linked to modes of resistance to rather dehumanizing circumstances, extensive histories of anti-black policies.
So what? What does all this have to do with contemporary black poetry? Honestly, I'm still trying to figure out the multiple implications of segregation and poetry.
For now though, as a teacher who encounters large numbers of black students from hypersegregated backgrounds, I'm inclined to be more understanding when they are sometimes turned off or indifferent to poetry, even by contemporary black poets, that we cover in classroom settings. The topics and literary aesthetics that African American poets must display in order to gain access to white spaces may be precisely the topics and aesthetics that the population of students I work with find unappealing.
Doing more to make the different groups aware of each others' preferences, dislikes, and circumstances might be one of our charges moving forward.
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