Friday, March 17, 2017

What NEA has meant to African American poets

Yesterday on Facebook, poet Tyehimba Jess mentioned that he received a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) grant in 2005, during a time in his career when he was “barely afloat in a sea of aspirations.” Jess offered a succinct, powerful note about why NEA funding was so crucial to him and other artists. I decided to take a closer look and consider how African American poets benefited from the agency. The NEA has been a crucial source of support for a large number of black poets over the decades.

The recent, troubling news that President Donald Trump plans to cut the NEA and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEH) threatens the possibility that African American artists, scholars, and students will receive the funding that has sustained so many invaluable individual and collective projects for half a century now. Scholars in our field typically concentrate on individual authors and artistic products, not the networks of support responsible for advancing the careers of writers and facilitating the production of their works. Why not shift or expand our focus?

The number of African American NEA recipients pale in comparison to the more than 3,000 mostly white recipients. The funding for African American writers is nonetheless significant. In particular, those recipients have gone on to have an outsized influence on the production of African American poetry.

In 1966, the NEA began providing financial support to creative writers, and in 1968, Julia Fields and Jay Wright were among the first poets to receive support. By 1977, Ishmael Reed, Al Young, Marvin X (then known as Marvin Jackmon), Nikki Giovanni, Carolyn Rodgers, and Sonia Sanchez were just some of the poets who received NEA funding.

Lucille Clifton received support from the agency in 1970 and 1973. She was not the only poet to receive support in multiple years. Etheridge Knight was a 1972 and 1981 recipient. Alice Walker was a 1970 and 1978 recipient. Alvin Aubert received funding in 1973 and 1981. Dudley Randall received support in 1982 and 1986. Ai received funding in 1979 and 1985, and Toi Derricotte received support in 1985 and 1990.

There were more. Rita Dove was a recipient in 1977 and 1989. Yusef Komunyakaa received support in 1981 and 1988. Marilyn Nelson was a recipient in 1982 and 1990. Cyrus Cassells received funding in 1986 and 2005.

Gwendolyn Brooks, Audre Lorde, Wanda Coleman, Bob Kaufman, June Jordan, Essex Hemphill, Cornelius Eady, and Calvin Forbes were some of the poets who received NEA funding during the 1980s. Margaret Walker Alexander, Patricia Spears Jones, Michael Warr, Elizabeth Alexander, Thylias Moss, and Natasha Trethewey were among the recipients during the 1990s.

Poets have continued receiving NEA support during the 21st century. Jess noted that he was a 2005 recipient, so were Cassells, Terrance Hayes, and Kevin Young. Later, Aracelis Girmay, Reginald Flood, Major Jackson, and francine harris were among the recipients. In 2017, Joshua Bennett, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Morgan Parker, Camille Rankine, Danez Smith , and Patricia Smith were announced as recipients.

Ok, so here’s the thing: if you remove NEA support from the lives and careers of black poets over the last 49 years, then you significantly change the field of African American poetry.

African American literary studies, public programming & the Age of Trump

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