Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Race for History Among Contemporary Black Poets, Pt. 1

Poet Tyehimba Jess discusses his research activities for an upcoming volume of poetry on July 23, 2015.

African American poets have always been interested in history, but the increased production of book-length volumes on historical figures and events that have been published over the last 15 years or so have really highlighted and perhaps intensified that interest. I was inclined to think a little more about this idea -- the interest in history -- this past week at the NEH-funded Black Poetry after the Black Arts Movement Institute, where poets Tyehimba Jess, and Frank X. Walker all frequently mentioned some version of their devotion to "getting the facts exactly right."

[Related: The Race for History Among Contemporary Black Poets, Pt. 2]

The participating NEH summer scholars valued those engagements with history, but we were also inclined to consider the poets' "near-obsession with facts," as someone put it. There's this long tradition among poets, including Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, Amiri Baraka, and Rita Dove charting history and historical narratives in their poetry. We see continuations and extensions of that attention to history in 21st century works. (See Black Poetry and the History Section: a partial list).

In To Repel Ghosts (2001) a volume about the painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kevin Young includes a section at the end of the book with over 100 footnotes, a signal that he had pursued research in the course of producing the poems. Various other poets such as Tyehimba Jess, Marilyn Nelson, and Adrian Matejka indicate their attentiveness to history by including "paratexts" such as chronologies, timelines, footnotes, glossaries, and "works cited" at the end of their books signifying their devotion to "facts."

All of that is legit to me. In some ways. Still, my thinking aligns with those summer scholars who were curious about and questioned the deep emphasis on facts among literary artists. During our conversations, I recalled Barbara Christian's well-known essay "The Race for Theory" from the late 1980s where she gives pause to the then intense preoccupation with theory and Western ideas among academics. The point here, of course, is not to dismiss the focus among poets on history and "facts," which kept coming up, but instead just to highlight and examine the nature of that interest. 

And speaking of paratexts such as bibliographies and timelines at the end of volumes of poetry, it's worth noting that many novelists include statements at the beginnings of their books that read: "Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental." Unlike poets, countless novelists seek to distance themselves from facts.

A Notebook on Black Poetry After the Black Arts Movement


Anonymous said...

Hey Brother Dr. Rambsy! I'm just getting a chance to read your posts about the institute. Thanks again for all your guidance during week 1--we're missing you now, but Evie is also great. I was thinking about this topic, and feeling like we could historicize the "race for history" by looking back to the seminal historians like Arthur Schomberg and John Hope Franklin. When I was writing on Hayden's history poems, I tried to make a connection between in his "documentary" style and the ethics of historiography put forth by Schomberg and Franklin. Both of those early/mid twentieth century scholars wanted to combat the (white) distortion of black history by producing really hard facts from the historical record. Schomberg wrote that history ought to be “less a matter of argument, and more a matter of record”; and Franklin similarly believed that the historian should use the "“indispensible tools of his art—dispassion, impartiality and cautious judgment.” He felt historians were obliged to give "the truth, the whole truth." I think Hayden's early use of the historical archive was influenced by these historians who really wanted to hew close to the "record." It seems to me that desire of contemporary poets like Jess and Frank X to get history right is a recent iteration of this foundational impulse in black historiography... D

H. Rambsy said...

Yep, no question. Thanks for the nod back to Hayden. I know there had to be some before him, but at least for my own movements into thinking about poetry, the projects he was doing were really extensive and important.

He seemed to really advance and solidify this idea of the poet as researcher.