Sunday, March 8, 2015

Black Poets, Bad Men, and Creativity

Jack Johnson is the central figure in Adrian Matejka's The Big Smoke.

For Adrian Matejka, it was Jack Johnson. For Tyehimba Jess, it was Leadbelly. For Tony Medina, it was a clever, foul-mouthed, homeless man named "Broke." Paul Laurence Dunbar, Robert Hayden, Evie Shcokley, and others wrote about that fugitive slave, Fred Douglass. Opal Palmer Adisa and Elizabeth Alexander wrote about an insurrectionist -- Nat Turner.

You're likely to encounter writings featuring bad men almost everywhere you look throughout black poetry. Bad men, that is, bad black men have been enduring muses, in African American communities, for hundreds of years.

Sure, bad black women have sometimes been featured in poems. We also sometimes come across pieces about bad white men. But the quantity of poems and the numbers of poets addressing bad black men over the years, decades, and century have been particularly notable.

In the early years of the 1900s, black folks began circulating tales in verse of a figure named Stagolee -- one of the early (20th century) bad man figures. Not long after the Titanic sunk in 1912, poetic tales emerged of a black man named Shine who was aboard the ill-fated ship and managed to swim away. Shine and Stagolee, of course, were descendants of John de Conqueror -- a folk hero whose exploits were passed along among enslaved people who refused to allow their minds to remain in bondage.

Modern and contemporary poets have advanced the practice of sharing poetic tales about bad men, with the notion of "bad" being somewhat relative, but always seeping into the creative processes. 50 years ago, almost immediately following the assassination of Malcolm X, black poets began making the slain leader a central figure in their works and in black arts discourse.

Malcolm was an important inspiration for black arts poets.

Amiri Baraka, Etheridge Knight, Mari Evans, Gwendolyn Brooks, and many others highlighted Malcolm as being bold, militant, and rule-defying. In other words, dozens of tribute poems celebrated Malcolm for being bad. At the same time, Malcolm's rebelliousness and public demeanor provided poets with an artistic model and as creative inspiration.

In a similar way, in recent years, poets have regularly turned to fugitive or rebellious slaves as muses. Kevin Young's book Ardency is about Cinque and the Amistad revolt. Natasha Trethewey, Marilyn Nelson, Frank X. Walker, as well as the late Lucille Clifton and Amiri Baraka often found inspiration in militant-minded enslaved people and fugitive slaves.

When and if we view rap as poetry, then we are recognizing a discourse that is built almost entirely on the notion of the bad man with verbal skills. There's clearly something that draw writers like Medina, Alexander, and Matejka or musicians like Jay Z and Biggie to these common interrelated figures, these bad men. 

A Notebook on bad men in poetry

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