The world of poetry is like many of those integrated worlds that exist in America. There a careful balance is kept between the minority percentages and the hidden rules that govern the overall image of the enterprise. It is a neighborhood of sorts. If the amount of Blacks involved reaches 40 percent, there is a tipping point of sorts and some whites leave as they feel uncomfortable, and suddenly it becomes a Black neighborhood.
I am not sure the above scenario has ever occurred in the world of poetry.
There, it seems, we have only recently been integrated into the prestigious world of literary tradition. God knows, we rarely get to be anywhere near 50 percent in those rooms. There is little white flight in places where our presence is known and designated as “intergrated” but numerically small enough to spark the fears of the great darkness. In those small numbers we can be “discovered,” engaged, and promoted as anomolies of our race–characterizations that, when combined with a endorsement of discpline, craft, and nuance, seem to root themselves in a need to distance ourselves from the negative connotations associated with Blackness in regards to work ethic.
I am always fond of the “discovery” story of our great poet Langston Hughes, who was ushered into the world of American poetry when he slid some of his poems across the table to Vachel Lindsay at the Wardman Park Hotel in Washington, D.C. Oddly enough, the scene of this “discovery” is used as the narrative to brand the popular D.C. activist restaurant Busboys and Poets. It could even be that the placement of this narrative on the commercial operation is an idea spawned from the mind of someone who lives in a Black skin themselves. I’ll let the common narrative speak for itself and simply say “discovery” is centered in myths of Columbus and white supremacy and, no matter how ludicrous, is tactically advantageous for the one “discovered.” Those outside the discovery zone are regulated to an anonymity that is normal for those confronted by the empire of ideas that often forms the literary landscape.
Black Institutions are essential in an environment where we are represented as minorities or in places where we are majority without the infrastructure and apparatus to promote our own ideas. A Black enterprise attempting to legitimately reconcile our dynamic use of language with the forms and standards mandated by the larger society can easily be viewed as alternative or simply not dedicated to the true spirit of the literature. I assume this is why folks created hip-hop and other African American art forms. Our goal has been not to avoid standards, but instead to create, manage, and maintain our own in communication with a Black audience who knows those nuances.
Though many poets themselves do not aspire to power, they are smart enough to read a room, industry, or institution and know where power is. The statement that words are power or that poetry constitutes some type of power works only in conjunction with the power of awards, the power of prestige, and the power to publish. It is there the writer submits with hopes of being accepted.
For African Americans, it could be that the idea of a Black Institution is the true measure of the post-racial world. In a world of immigrants, we contemplate our forced integration. Whether or not we have the glue that has held communities together and fostered their remembering and economic growth is a question up for debate. We can say this: rarely do we seek to build institutions which manage the prestige, power, and awards.
The Hurston/Wright Foundation‘s Legacy Awards are notable in this respect. These awards are given by an organization run and founded by Marita Golden. The power of the awards is to lend prestige to writers from the African Diaspora. The prestige is a different and uncommon one among the realm of literary awards. Cave Canem is also notable in this regard. Of course, there are others. We operate in a relatively small industry with little financial rewards. Sustainability by way of capital is the true difficulty.
In contrast with what others may think, it is not to difficult to publish a book, journal or the work of other poets. The true challenge is to manage that institution over many years. In this regard, no one even stands close to Dr. Charles Rowell, who has managed the Callaloo institution for over 40 years.
I would argue it is as important to study these literary institutions as it is to support them. African American poets and writers are producing a wide variety of work in a technological society that gives us easy access to tools which can be used to distribute literary works to significant audiences.
The world of the binary is difficult to navigate. I would suggest hidden in the deep recesses of one’s mind is the shadow of the white audience. One knows the difference between being published by a white institution and a Black one. One clearly knows the difference between being employed by a white institution and a Black one. The tension is usually reconciled by proscribing the white institutions as above and beyond the categories of race, though without race their power and prestige in the industry would not be so rooted. This American world is a spinning world of thoughts, ideas, and yes, economics. Even in the non-profit world, the funding sources are often managed by individuals who are not well versed in the ways and ideas of African American culture. There can be unity in those places, but too often, their job may be different from ours.
It is a strange time in America, with African American poetry gaining a fair amount of recognition and publicity on the national stage. The President is Black, and the race is confronted with the same and constant difficulties of imprisonment, drug abuse, poverty, and access to education.
Our poets, those worshippers of craft, have bitten the apple of discipline, hard work, and devotion to poetry better than most. We wore it like a badge. As advertisement, these attributes work in concert with the negative connotations attached to Blacks. There are hints of spoken word, hip-hop, and the journaling coffee shop poets as examples of the opposite of those who seek out the “true” literary expression. We write in forms. We are well versed in form. We don’t go ebonics. We investigate the bi-racial and the mulatto. We are Black not Black. Our terrain is the terrain of race, and within that terrain we seek to distinguish ourselves as significantly different by pointing to our devotion and discipline.
Yet, I imagine this. The spirituals themselves reflect something which defies these ideas–the blues, too. Definitely hip-hop and jazz. One must remember these art forms were created by African Americans without the guidance of whites. To suggest that they in any way lacked discipline, craft, or form is ridiculous.
The complexities of an education in America can be debilitating. In many environments, it involves code-switching and the capacity to ignore the blatant lies and worship of ideals and stories that simply don’t include us. Best to stay focused. Keep your eyes on the prize.
African American literary artists are challenged with a destiny that demands more Black Institutions. It may be that the more successful, the less likely are folks to do this. The literary landscape by virtue of its name alone shows how integral it is to the ship that enslaved us. The English language is somehow branded and copy-written by the British and the Americans. Within those walls one will find difficulty employing it as our own.
Yet the best examples of this ability do not come from the skilled world of Academics. The reservoir of techniques comes from the world of everyday Black folks who work the language constantly into some form that tones, tints, and colors the expression to the particulars of our reality. If one wants to study power, language, and engineering within the confines of the English language, it is probably best to begin with Black people–I might add, most likely with those who are uneducated. With those who speak, but may have not been taught by the masters of the language how to speak.
This post originally appeared on Free Black Space. It is re-printed here by permission of the author.