We Want a Black Poem: Talk at Fairleigh Dickinson University

The title of this talk is “We Want a Black Poem: Politics and Art of the Black Arts Movement,” and it takes its name from the last lines of Amiri Baraka’s poem “Black Art,” where he puts out the call for explicitly political and revolutionary art.

Start with Kalamu Ya Salaam’s overview of the Black Arts Movement. This was published in the 1997 edition of the Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Ya Salaam was both a participant as a poet and has now emerged as a theorist/historian who documents the era. More of his poetry is available online (you can listen to his performed work on YouTube) and his 2017 book The Magic of JuJu is one of the best broad overviews of Black Arts.

Ya Salaam focuses on the literary aspect of the movement, though the artistic connections were much broader, expanding into nearly all areas of creative production.

As Ya Salaam points out, Black Arts had an explicitly political bent, though there were many discussions (and heated arguments) over exactly what the political orientation should be or how it should intersect with artistic expression. Malcolm X was the biggest political influence on those in the movement. Read poet/theorist Larry Neal’s essay on Malcolm’s influence: PDF here

Also read Larry Neal’s “The Summer After Malcolm” and “Malcolm, An Autobiography”: PDF here.

A major aesthetic influence was the saxophonist John Coltrane, especially accompanied by his classic quartet of pianist McCoy Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones, and bassist Jimmy Garrison. Coltrane’s work seemed to exemplify a level of unbridled artistic freedom that the poets were striving for. Listen to Coltrane’s landmark album A Love Supreme. It’s a 30-minute interconnected suite of epic proportions. (It’s okay to listen while you read the Haki Madhubuti below.)

Read Haki Madhubuti’s “Don’t Cry, Scream” (poem) and interview: PDF here.

Focus on how Madhubuti attempts to approximate Coltrane’s sounds verbally and the connections he makes with Coltrane’s music and sound.

Finally, listen to the following poems: Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” …


 

And poet Sarah Webster Fabio’s “Together to the Tune of Coltrane’s Equinox,” performed with a live band.

You’ll see references to revolution, the influence of Malcolm X, and poets collaborating with musicians and mimicking the improvisational freedom of the jazz musician in their work.

There’s also the influence of rising Black consciousness and the thinking that it’s fine to be Black – along with an affirmation of natural hairstyles and the beauty of Black people as a rejection of European values and beauty standards that were impossible for most Black people to meet.

Think about the following points as you listen/read:

  • What kind of audiences might this work appeal to? Why?
  • What themes of Black Arts and Black Power do you see?
  • What images do they present of Black people?
  • What changes do you see from the poetry you’ve read from earlier periods?
  • How might these appeal to people not traditionally into poetry?
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