Friday, August 18, 2017

Evie Shockley, Amiri Baraka, and consequential questions in African American artistic thought

"is it natural to test pharmaceuticals on people who are citizens of less powerful nations?"
–Evie Shockley

“If Elvis Presley is King, who is James Brown? God?!?” –Amiri Baraka
This summer, as part of an annual reading and writing project that I do with a group of incoming African American students, I shared "philosophically immune" by Evie Shockley with students. The poem is comprised of a a series of questions, including, "are american and multinational pharmaceutical corporations human? ~ are american corporations human? ~ are americans human? ~ are american corporations citizens? ~ are africans american? ~ are african americans multinational?"

This semester, we'll use Shockley's poem and some queries raised by Amiri Baraka as starting points for exploring the topic of consequential questions in African American artistic and cultural thought. Creativity researchers point out that there's an important link between questions and breakthroughs. Or more precisely, coming up with and refining good questions are central to new developments. Shockley's "philosophically immune" and Baraka's "Somebody Blew up America" and "Why is We Americans" are my touchstones because the poems include so many questions.

Of course, we find powerful questions throughout writings by African Americans. There's Countee Cullen's asking "what is Africa to me?" There's Langston Hughes going "What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?" That last part, of course, became the title of Lorraine Hansberry famous play. There's Margaret Walker pointing out "My grandmothers were strong" and then wondering "Why am I not as they?"

Toward the beginning of his essay "Of Our Spiritual Striving," which became the first chapter of The Souls of Black Folk W. E. B. Du Bois pointed out that he was frequently confronted with the question, "How does it feel to be a problem?" Zora Neale Hurston was amusing confused that white people would separate themselves from her: "How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company?” Then, there's Ralph Ellison's closing to Invisible Man: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” And there's Lucille Clifton requesting, "won't you celebrate with me what i have shaped into a kind of life?"

The queries go on and on. We'll take time to give a close look at a few dozen this semester and figure out how formulating good and then better questions advance our own thinking and what questions have meant in the larger contexts of African American artistic thought.

Evie Shockley
Amiri Baraka

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