Tuesday, May 8, 2018

The Editorial & Institutional Power of African American Poets

Mellon Foundation president, Elizabeth Alexander, Schomburg director Kevin Young, and U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith 
"Is this what we've wanted
& waited for?" --Kevin Young

We're witnessing an important moment in the history of select African American poets taking on powerful, influential positions. Kevin Young is the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and he's the poetry editor for The New Yorker. Terrance Hayes is the poetry editor for The New York Times Magazine, and last week, it was announced that Rita Dove would take on that editor's position in June.

A recent announcement signaled the considerable cultural capital of another African American poet: "Princeton University has named Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and current U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, Director of Princeton’s Program in Creative Writing, as the new chair of the University’s Lewis Center for the Arts."

In March, Elizabeth Alexander assumed the presidency of the Mellon Foundation, and, since 2016, she served on the Pulitzer Prize Board.

It's a remarkable time for African American literary poets, and we might have predicted some of their growing institutional power. After all, their academic appointments at a variety of colleges and universities and the increased numbers of African American poets earning prestigious prizes and awards over the last two decades indicated crucial developments and shifts.

Nonetheless, there's still work to do. So far, the most high-profile appointments go to African American poets from fairly privileged backgrounds. Alexander, for instance, went to Yale for undergrad, and Smith and Young graduated from Harvard. If we assess the state of African American poets based on only the many who earn prestigious awards and attain leadership positions at prominent institutions, we might miss the ways that large numbers of poets struggle.     

Black poets and other literary artists, however, primarily make the news when they have achieved some notable successes. Last month, The New York Times, for instance, produced repeated coverage on Smith and Young. We'll find hardly any coverage, however, on the many African American poets who are represented by small presses, or those poets who were continually unsuccessful in their efforts to earn  academic appointments, fellowships, and other accolades.

These are the varied things you might encounter as you study the journeys of contemporary African American poets. You'll witness poets achieving a level of success and notice that seemed unimaginable just a few decades ago, and, if you look closely, you'll realize many barriers confronting a fairly large number of poets of lesser means.

Elizabeth Alexander
Kevin Young

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