Some African American Poets
As we know, somebody will always come to your party, eat up as much food as possible, kill all the liquor, and then tell you how you should have made the party better. I won’t do that after working through the 1100-pageAfrican American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song. I sincerely appreciate the effort of the editor, Kevin Young, who underplays his own contributions, by the way. Nonetheless, he does a great job representing a tremendous tradition and including a fair number of younger writers. Any addendum I offer is not meant as any fodder in an exclusion/inclusion debate. These are just some poets---and there are many more---that have helped me to fill out my conception of African American poetry. I can’t think of the tradition without them.
Beah Richards (1920-2000)
“A Black Woman Speaks of White Womanhood, of White Supremacy, of Peace,” is one of the most important poems in American history because it led directly to the formation of an important political organization. When Richards performed her poem at the American People’s Peace Congress in 1951, she was immediately approached about forming a group that would become known as the Sojourners for Truth and Justice, with Richards co-authoring the founding manifesto. I see the poem in the lineage of James Whitfield’s “America,” Claude McKay’s “If We Must Die,” and Margaret Walker’s “For My People.” And Richards’ work foreshadowed the best political poetry of the 1960s, being, in fact, superior in scope to much of it. Once I became aware of this poem, I couldn’t think of the history of progressive African American poetry without the piece coming to mind. Fortunately, online footage exists of Richards reading this work and others.
Naomi Long Madgett (1923-2020)
Because I saw her work in Langston Hughes’ New Negro Poets USA, Hughes and Arna Bontemps’ The Poetry of the Negro, the revised edition of Arna Bontemps’ American Negro Poetry, and Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets, I always thought of Madgett as part of an African American canon. Detroit’s Poet Laureate for nearly twenty years, she wrote with an elegance that was also at times raw and expressly political. Perhaps the best sampling of her work is Connected Islands: New and Selected Poems.
Amus Mor (1937?-)
When I talked poetry with Quincy Troupe in his apartment many years ago, he told me about this Amus Mor out of Chicago. Mor had performed his signature piece, “Poem to the Hip Generation” (under the tile “Hip Men”), on the album Black Spirits: Festival of New Black Poets in America. You can get it on YouTube. Mor never published much, which is why his work is often overlooked. Quincy later included a version of “Hip Generation” in the 1975 anthology Giant Talk: An Anthology of Third World Writings. When I check with my Chicago contacts, folks such as Haki Madhubuti and Sterling Plumpp, they assert that Amus Mor was a major voice on the Chicago Black Arts scene.
Eugene B. Redmond (1937-)
A whirlwind across six decades, this long-time Poet Laureate of East St. Louis is a relentless creator of images and neologisms. He is as innovative a wordsmith as there is in the tradition, and his subject matter is vast. Redmond invented the kwansaba (a coinage based on Kwanzaa and the Nguzo Saba) in 1995 and has used the form extensively, as have others. His numerous volumes include Arkansippi Memwars: Poetry, Prose & Chants, 1962-2012. If you don’t know of him, that is a great introduction. And maybe you can find his CD Blood Links and Sacred Places and get it autographed (like mine).
Askia M. Touré (1938-)
Along with the likes of Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Larry Neal, and Sarah Webster Fabio, Askia M. Touré is someone whose work I return to when I’m tracing the development of African American poetry of the 1960s and 1970s. I can’t imagine telling the story of the “new black poetry” or of Africa-focused aesthetic themes without including his contribution, his renowned lyricism. Amiri Baraka noted, with respect to Black poets he encountered in the mid-1960s, “To me, Larry [Neal] and Askia were the state of the art, where it was, at the moment.” His volumes include Juju, Songhai!, and the award-winning From the Pyramids to the Projects.
Shirley Bradley LeFlore (1940-2019)
A vibrant writer with pages that you both can bounce to and reflect somberly upon, the one-time Poet Laureate of St. Louis is a major component in how I think of African American poetry evolving from the 1970s to the eve of 2020. She bore the tradition well and opened up brilliantly onto the future. Known widely for her performances, of which I witnessed several, her published work is not voluminous; Brassbones & Rainbows is her only book. Amina Baraka called it a “collage of Southern African American metaphors.” It is that and, as suggested, very musical, comparable to Jayne Cortez in that regard. It’s a good look.
Jalal Mansur Nuriddin (1944-2018)
I remember the Saturday when my sister excitedly called me into her room to watch something on television. You gotta see this,” she said. That was my introduction to The Last Poets, as they were performing on Ellis Haizlip’s Soul! For me, this was the height of political consciousness and poetry tied together. Among the members of the group was Alafia Pudim, later known as Jalal. I later tracked down their album and pretty much memorized it, Jalal’s poems being “On the Subway,” “Wake Up, Niggers,” “Jones Coming Down,” and “Surprises.” The group’s influence on Gil Scott-Heron and hip hop artists has been much acknowledged. All of the members deserve attention, but Jalal is the main one I continued to follow on albums, meet, and talk with. Some of his work is published in The Last Poets/Vibes from the Scribes: Selected Poems.
Kalamu ya Salaam (1947-)
Just as the Dirty rose to become a major presence in hip hop, the South, in an earlier generation, became a major part of the Black Arts Movement. I attribute much of this to the influence of BLKARTSOUTH, a workshop co-founded by Kalamu ya Salaam and one in which he was an exemplary voice. I’m not sure when I became aware of Kalamu’s poetry, but certainly by the 1980s I saw this superior craftsman as a central figure in African American poetry. The volume Cosmic Deputy is a wonderful representation of his decades-long artistic journey.
Brenda Marie Osbey (1957-)
I find her work stylish, bluesy, and profound in her treatment of tradition, relationships, death, ritual, work, and community. Her award-winning volume All Saints is a good sample of meditations---with her New Orleans always as a reference point---on honor and perseverance. She is also a powerful reader of her work, a fact I observed at the Furious Flowers gathering of 2014. A poem she read about cane workers still resonates with me. When I think of the scope of African American poetry, this Poet Laureate Emerita of Louisiana always comes to mind.
Jessica Care Moore (1971-)
With popular volumes such as The Words Don’t Fit My Mouth, The Alphabet Verses the Ghetto, God Is Not an American, and We Want Our Bodies Back, not to mention her celebrated performances, Moore has proven to be a preeminent force in poetry over the past twenty-five years. Her voice is expansive, progressive, musical, and attuned to a dizzying array of autobiographical topics, cultural signposts, and political developments. Always bringing the energy on the page and on the stage, she may prove to be the most vital poetic link between the Black Arts Movement and what comes after her career.
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