Thursday, January 19, 2017

The shifting places of (black student) audiences for poetry

Nikki Giovanni reads at SIUE in 2012. Photograph courtesy of SIUE.

In discussions about the histories and developments in black poetry, we might also take into account the shifting places of black student audiences. College and university campuses have always been central to the rise and preservation of African American poetry over the last 5 or so decades.  And quiet as it's kept, black students as active audiences helped energize the work and sustain the visibility of many poets.

During the mid to late 1960s, colleges and universities experienced unprecedented growth in enrollment overall and among black students in particular. Not coincidentally, that growth coincided with the development of Black Studies programs and the emergence of the Black Arts Movement. When culturally active and militant-minded black students sought speakers on campus, black poets like Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Haki Madhubuti were among the top picks. (Even white students interested in Black Power messages would include black poets in the line-up of potential guest speakers).

Take Nikki Giovanni. As Virginia Fowler has noted in Nikki Giovanni: A Literary Biography, Giovanni "made her living as an independent artist until 1987, when she accepted a position at Virginia Tech." Before then, she most consistently supported herself by giving lectures and readings. Colleges and universities were vital audiences, where she appeared before large groups of black students, many aligned with Black Studies and African American cultural affirmations, not just creative writing programs. Giving readings wasn't just something that Giovanni occasionally did; it was how she earned her living.

University cultural centers and Black Studies programs hosted Madhubuti. They hosted Sanchez. They hosted Baraka. They hosted large numbers of other poets. Those "new" black poets of the 1960s remained in high demand for decades (Giovanni is still one of our most frequently called upon poets). Nonetheless, things with black student audiences began to shift.

Spoken word artists -- a different kind or at least new generation of black poets -- were increasingly called on to read/perform in the context of Black Studies Program and for conscious cultural gatherings. When MFA programs invited African American poets, they were more likely to host poets with MFA degrees and books from literary presses. Sizable numbers of black student audiences attend spoken word sets, and those "sets" often include rap music and various kinds of performances. By comparison, the MFA gatherings have far less participation among black students.

Faculty members run MFA programs. By contrast, students typically run the Spoken Word groups. I was the faculty advisor for One Mic, the spoken word group on my campus for several years. The tensions within the group were never about performance poetry vs. print-based; more often, the students debated about how much attention and resources they should devote to rap vs. spoken word. In retrospect, their debates reflected important shifts among black student audiences.   

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