What makes a poet Black
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing! Countee Cullen
Does it matter that I am a Black woman, an African-American woman, to be a bit more nuanced about the Black, does it matter when I write a poem inspired by misogyny as culture, and as extremist Taliban policy such as -
she could see too much
i veiled her eyes
but she still saw
i locked her indoors
but she still saw
i blackened all windows
but she still saw
i cut out her eyes
but she still saw
i cut our her heart
but she still sees
me. i tremble.
Does it matter that I write it as a Black woman, a Black woman who turned nineteen in Kabul, Afghanistan? If the poem does not in anyway speak to that experience or to my experience as a Black American, does it matter? Does it qualify as a "Black" poem? that is black blacker than black black
ebon polished jet
the night’s sheen?
So much of what is considered to be “Black poetry” derives from familiar tropes of survivors or victims of slavery, the Southern rural or Northern urban experience, and a narrow spectrum of cultural assumptions- the role of blues, the idea of hair straightening, watermelons and some forms of the (Baptist) church. But culture springs from much deeper and more interesting wells. Blackness in America cuts a wide cultural, class and caste swath and in doing so, can and does touch and include others far beyond the traditional Black cultural norms. It is not so much a question of transcending blackness or being post-black, whatever that is, but in showing the diversity of black and the way that black poetry can include and reflect all colors while still remaining itself. There is no one Black Experience. Of course there are commonalities, one cannot escape racism as one element of one’s experience. (Those Blacks to claim to have not suffered it simply are having a case of acute denial or ignorance to the meaning of the word. Racism is ubiquitous.) But the Black experience does not exist only as a reaction to the negativity or indifference or bigotry of others.
For example. As a Black child raised without the (what my father considered brainwashing) of any organized church I had good (Black) friends who were Black Catholic, Black Bahai, and Black Baptist. There were no Holly Roller Baptists as a child, but I did have a much loved Bahamian grandfather who was Methodist and took me to his church to show me off. I attended each and all of their churches more than once. And then of course their were people like my father’s friend Bob Kaufman who was the closest thing to a Black Buddhist I ever met in my child life. I had no idea that there was only one idea of "the Black church. " The roles that history, music, faith, color, as a multi-colored pallette and not just a racial construct, play are the same overlapping and contrasting to create the whole. Some black poets use familiar tropes to show themselves as Black, the “ghetto,” the (Black) church, prisons, jazz, blues, the cuisine, cornbread and greens, a bowl of gumbo. These may be placed in a form that is Eurocentric, either in a defined form, e.g. sonnet, or in the ways metaphors are constructed and line breaks are created in an unspoken homage to the poets who are accepted (European and Euro-American “masters” in the canon, [ side note: Lucille Clifton’s Study the Masters
for a good take on the canon ]
and/or in the rhythms in which their words fill the air. Others, in contrast, create a poetic that in it’s rhythms and form intimate black music and/or jazz and blues riffs. Others use the vernacular in ways that do more than simply subvert grammar, they stretch words’ meaning beyond metaphor, as they inhabit a world that springs from “Blackness.”
When Camille Dungy produced the poetry anthology Black Nature http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780820334318 part of what she was doing was forwarding the discussion of the breadth of Black as a poetic construct. Look at how we address nature, at how we have addressed nature for hundreds of years of poetics, with our many threads and ideas of what makes black and nature intertwine. Black has been green for a long time. When Giovanni Singleton http://www.woodlandpattern.org/poems/giovanni_singleton01.shtml Created Nocturne (re) view of the literary arts she created a venue where, not only but certainly importantly black poets could come with respect for the fullness of our voices, and the many keys in which we sing. Each of the issues is wonderful but one can get no more direct picture than (re)viewing her Blues volume.
When Doug Kearny http://douglaskearney.com/poetry through his own literary explorations turns inside out the ideas of experimental and black poetry insisting on experiment as process resulting in a poetic that reveals itself in myriad ways they each call the question and provide answer to what a Black poet is and why it matters
Does being a Black writer have an implied responsibility? For me that responsibility is no different than for any other artist- to look, to see, to reach for truth, to seek it out, and to present it through the center of our (Black) selves. So, to return to my original question: Does it matter that when I write a poem be it on misogyny or on the sky or the streets upon which I live that I am woman and black? I would say yes, resoundingly yes. We write as who we are and we write from what we have experienced. It is the synthesis of those elements combined with craft that creates the work.