Why Study African American Poetry?

In the July 2013 issue of Harper’s magazine, a University of Virginia Professor of English and poetry scholar chastised American poets for being cowardly. They weren’t good, he contended, because they focused too much on individual experience and weren’t doing what poets once did, taking on and giving meaning to the larger world. The article came out just as the Project on the History of Black Writing (HBW) at the University of Kansas (KU) was convening an NEH-funded Summer Institute to focus on the highly visible but under discussed world of African American poetry. We created Don't Deny My Voice: Reading and Teaching African American Poetry (DDMV) to allow a place for discussions of African American poetry and practice, to push those discussions in new directions and to address the contradiction between black poetry’s high visibility and it’s under discussed status. The success of DDMV was both good and bad. Good, because it made clear that the recovery and production of African American poetry had reached a major threshold that cannot be ignored, that it needed a more focused critical apparatus that enabled us to better study, teach and write (about) it if we expected to understand it as the game changer we believed that it was. Three weeks to cover twentieth century poetry were sorely inadequate to accomplish our goals.

To our great delight, NEH agreed to fund a second opportunity in 2015 not only to continue but also to expand the dialog. We will focus, therefore on “African American Poetry after the Black Arts Movement,” take a close look at what it is and the ways in which it engages tradition, change, and innovation. This Institute is especially timely given the recent deaths of major figures, including Jayne Cortez (1934-2012), Wanda Coleman (1946-2013), Alvin Aubert (1930-2014) and especially Amiri Baraka (1938-2014). Each played a critical role in shaping the content and form of contemporary black poetry, pushing beyond conventional modernism. Coleman and Cortez were influential west coast poets with major volumes, and Aubert was both a poet and maker of poets through Obsidian, the journal he founded in 1975. 2015 marks the centennial of the birth of southern-based writer Margaret Walker (1915-1998), a major poet from the pre-BAM era who, like Chicago-based Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), gained increasing popularity after the 1960s and gave support and access that enabled a new generation of poets to emerge. We will convene again in July to address not only the performance, publication, persistence and exponential growth of African American poetry since the 1960s, but to also work collaboratively to counter the critical invisibility that it continues to face.

The persistence of binary thinking has had lasting effects: whether a poem is black or white, modernist or not, avant-garde or not, political or not. Baraka was among those who challenged the belief that art and social engagement are mutually exclusive, a view that has been responsible for significant exclusions of some poets from widely circulating anthologies. NEH Summer Scholars will view examples from different traditions to overcome ideological barriers and create shared knowledge.

Perhaps the greatest need in poetry studies today is to illuminate the tensions between movements that seek to define black poetry since the 1960s. Resisting easy categories and dichotomies, we want to demonstrate flows and cross fertilizations to establish the continuity of black poetry even as writers become more attuned to new ways of comprehending and expressing the human experience. NEH Summer Scholars, we hope, will become equally attuned to these realities.