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A Post-Racial Anthology?

Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry

Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, ed. by Charles Henry Rowell.

W.W. Norton. $24.95.

This is a bizarre collection. It seems that it has been pulled together as a relentless “anti” to one thing: the Black Arts Movement. Charles Henry Rowell’s introduction and many of the quotes he gleans are aimed at rendering the Black Arts Movement as old school, backward, fundamentally artless. He calls his poets “literary,” i.e., Black Literary poets.

The blurb from the publisher W.W. Norton says that the book

is not just another poetry anthology. It is a gathering of poems that demonstrate what happens when writers in a marginalized community collectively turn from dedicating their writing to political, social, and economic struggles, and instead devote themselves, as artists, to the art of their poems and to the ideas they embody. These poets bear witness to the interior landscape of their own individual selves or examine the private or personal worlds of  invented personae and, therefore, of  human beings living in our modern and postmodern worlds.

My God, what imbecilic garbage! You mean, forget the actual world, have nothing to do with the real world and real people    ...    invent it all! You can see how that would be some far-right instruction for “a marginalized community,” especially one with the history of the Afro-American people: We don’t want to hear all that stuff    ...    make up a pleasanter group of beings with pleasanter, more literary lives than yourselves and then we will perhaps consider it art!

This embarrassing gobbledygook was probably a paraphrase of the editor’s personal gobble. But the copywriters might be given a temporary pass because they know nothing about Afro-American literature; 
it is the Norton “suits” that could be looked at askance because of their ignorant hiring practices.

To get a closer view of where Rowell comes in, look at the quote that he gives from the poet he constantly cites as poetic mentor and as an example of what great poetry should be. The quote is where Rowell got the title of the book, Angles of Ascent:

He strains, an awk-
ward patsy, sweating strains
        leaping falling. Then — 

        silken rustling in the air,
the angle of ascent
        achieved.
                         — From For a Young Artist, by Robert Hayden

Rowell says this is an image for the poet’s struggle and transcendence. But Lord, I never did see myself or the poets I admired and learned from as awkward patsies! In 1985, Rowell had Larry Neal on the cover of his literary magazine Callaloo, after Larry’s death from a heart attack at forty-three. You can look in the magazine and see that Larry Neal was no “awkward patsy.” Or that after leaping / falling we would not be glorified by some unidentified “silken rustling in the air, / the angle of ascent / achieved.” Actually it sounds like some kind of social climbing. Ascent to where, a tenured faculty position?

Rowell’s attempt to analyze and even compartmentalize Afro-American poetry is flawed from the jump. He has long lived as the continuing would-be yelp of a Robert Hayden canonization. Back in 1966 I was invited to Fisk University, where Hayden and Rowell taught. I had been invited by Nikki Giovanni, who was still a student at Fisk. Gwen Brooks was there. Hayden and I got into it when he said he was first an artist and then he was Black. I challenged that with the newly-emerging ideas that we had raised at the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School in Harlem in 1965, just after Malcolm X’s assassination. We said the art we wanted to create should be identifiably, culturally Black — like Duke Ellington’s or Billie Holiday’s. We wanted it to be a mass art, not hidden away on university campuses. We wanted an art that could function in the ghettos where we lived. And we wanted an art that would help liberate Black people. 
I remember that was really a hot debate, and probably helped put an ideological chip on Rowell’s shoulder.

I find the list of what Rowell calls “Precursors” quite flawed, but it predicts and even prefaces his explanations and choices. He lists Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Melvin B. Tolson. But how can one exclude Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, and Margaret Walker, who are the major poets of the period after the Harlem Renaissance? This kind of cherry-picking reveals all too clearly what Rowell means by “literary” poets.

Brooks’s most penetrating works illuminate Black life and the “hood.” Langston, most people know, is the major voice of that period and what we mean when we talk about Afro-American poetry. What is distinctive about Rowell’s introduction is that just about every page mentions the “Black Arts Movement,” “the Black Aesthetic poets,” “the Black Power Movement” — all like some menacing 
political institutions. But that poetry was created in a different time, place, and condition from the verse that Rowell presents here as new 
revelation.

Rowell goes on:

In other words, the works of these new poets are the direct results of what such poets as Yusef Komunyakaa, Ai, Cyrus Cassells, Rita Dove, Thylias Moss, Toi Derricotte, Harryette Mullen, Nathaniel Mackey — the first wave — dared write, which is whatever they wanted and in whatever forms and styles they desired, as the influence of the Black Arts Movement was first entering its decline.

But this is simply a list of poets Rowell likes. I cannot see any stylistic tendency that would render them a “movement” or a coherent aesthetic. Perhaps their only commonality is their “resistance” to the Black Arts Movement. Komunyakaa says:

Growing up in the South, having closely observed what hatred does to the human spirit, how it corrupts and diminishes    ...    
I unconsciously disavowed any direct association with the Black Arts Movement.

Are we being faulted for “hating” slavery, white supremacy, and racism? For trying to fight back, just as the Deacons for Defense and Justice did by routing the Klan in Komunyakaa’s own hometown of Bogalusa, Louisiana?

(Ironically, one of Komunyakaa’s early books was sent to me by a university publisher to ask my opinion if should it be published. My colored patriotism bade me recommend it, though in truth I found it dull and academic.)

But Rita Dove does go on to say something that seems true:

By the time I started to write seriously, when I was I was eighteen or nineteen years old, the Black Arts Movement had gained momentum; notice had been taken. The time was ripe; all one had to do was walk up to the door they had been battering at and squeeze through the breech.

Exactly!

Dove spells out her separation from the Black Arts Movement very honestly, in revealing class terms:

As I wrote more and more    ...    I realized that the blighted urban world inhabited by the poems of the Black Arts Movement was not mine. I had grown up in Ohio    ...    I enjoyed the gamut of middle class experience, in a comfy house with picket fences and rose bushes on a tree-lined street in West Akron.

But that is not the actual life of the Black majority, who have felt the direct torture and pain of national oppression, and that is what the Black Arts Movement was focusing on, transforming the lives of the Black majority! We wanted to aid in the liberation of the Afro-American people with our art, with our poetry. But the deeper we got into the reality of this task, the more overtly political we became.

The lynching of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks’s resistance, Dr. King and the Montgomery Bus Boycott (the peoples’ resistance), the bombing of  Dr. King’s home in Montgomery. The sit-ins, sclc, the Civil Rights Movement. The emergence of Robert F. Williams and his direct attack on the Klan. The emergence of Malcolm X. I went to Cuba on the first anniversary of the Cuban revolution. The rise and murder of Patrice Lumumba, the African Liberation Movement. I met poets like Askia M. Touré and Larry Neal in front of the un screaming our condemnation of the us, the un, Belgium, Rockefeller for murdering Lumumba and our support for Maya Angelou, Louise Meriwether, Rosa Guy, Abbey Lincoln (all great artists), running up into the un to defy Ralph Bunche. The March on Washington, the bombing 0f 16th St. Baptist Church and the murder of four little girls. JFK’s assassination, Watts, Malcolm’s assassination, Dr. King’s 
assassination, rebellions across America!

All those major events we lived through. If we responded to them as conscious Black intellectuals, we had to try to become soldiers 
ourselves. That is why we wrote the way we did, because we wanted to. We wanted to get away from the faux English academic straitjackets 
passed down to us by the Anglo-American literary world.

Rowell thinks the majority of Afro-American poets are MFA recipients or professors. Wrong again! Obviously the unity and struggle in the civil rights and Black Liberation movements have resulted in a slight wiggle of “integration” among the narrowest sector of the Afro-American people. Rowell gives us a generous helping of these 
university types, many co-sanctioned by the Cave Canem group, which has energized us poetry by claiming a space for Afro-American poetry, but at the same time presents a group portrait of Afro-American poets as mfa recipients.

Rowell organizes his view of Afro-American poetry like this:precursors, Modernists, 1940s–1960s; the black arts movement, The 1960s and Beyond. There’s me, Mari Evans, Nikki Giovanni, Bobb Hamilton, David Henderson, Calvin C. Hernton, Haki Madhubuti, Larry Neal, Carolyn Rodgers, Sonia Sanchez, A.B. Spellman, and Edward S. Spriggs. Where is the great Henry Dumas or Amus Mor, who inspired a whole generation of us? Where are the Last Poets, whether the originals Gylan Kain, David Nelson, Felipe Luciano or the later incarnation Abiodun Oyewole, or Umar Bin Hassan? Most of the poets in the ground-shaking anthology that tried to sum up the Black Arts breakthrough, Black Fire, are nixed.

Of the group “Outside the Black Arts Movement,” Bob Kaufman and LeRoi Jones (Rowell omits Ted Joans) were called “the Black Beats” and had already formed, under the influence of William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, and the surrealists, a united front against academic poetry with Allen Ginsberg and the Beats, the San Francisco school, O’Hara and the New York School, Charles Olson and the Black Mountain poets. It was the murder of Malcolm X that sent me and other Black artists screaming out of the various Greenwich Villages to a variety of Harlems!

We saw poets like June Jordan as allies. Check her statement in this anthology: “Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth.” Lucille Clifton and I were classmates at Howard, taught by the great Sterling Brown, as were Toni Morrison and A.B. Spellman. Brown’s fundamental insight on America flows through our works.

That Rowell can disconnect Etheridge Knight from the deep spirit of the Black Arts Movement is fraudulent. Sherley Anne Williams says in her blurb, “I remain, more firmly now than then, a proponent of Black consciousness, of ‘The Black Aesthetic’ and so I am a political writer.” You ever read Alice Walker’s marvelous poem “Each One Pull One”?

Because when we show what we see,
they will discern the inevitable:
We do not worship them

We do not worship them.
We do not worship what they have made.
We do not trust them
we do not believe what they say.

It is this spirit that aligns both of  them with the Black Arts Movement. And certainly it is this same spirit of self-conscious resistance to American racial or gender craziness that puts Ntozake Shange in that number. The Black Arts spirit is old, it is historical, psychological, 
intellectual, cultural. It is the same as Black Abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet’s call in 1843 in his “Address to the Slaves of the United States”: “resistance, resistance, resistance.”

Jayne Cortez is obviously close to the spirit of the Black Arts Movement, in the content and force of her poetry, although Rowell stays away from her best known works. Lorenzo Thomas, who 
actually identified with the Black Arts Movement, is likewise dissed. It is the spirit of resistance, of unity and struggle that connects us. And where is the mighty Sekou Sundiata, whom I first met when he was sixteen at a meeting for those getting ready to go to the 6th Pan African Congress in Dar es Salaam? One of the finest poets of his generation, and not even a mention. Plus no mention of Marvin X, who founded Black Arts West in 1966 with Ed Bullins.

Gaston Neal, criminally underknown, was also director of the New School for Afro-American Thought in dc. His work has yet to be published in its collected version. If you don’t know Sun Ra’s music, it’s doubtful you know his own powerful verse. Other missing significant: Arthur Pfister. Tom Mitchelson, Kalamu ya Salaam, Amina Baraka, Brian Gilmore, Mervyn Taylor, Lamont Steptoe, John Watusi Branch, Everett Hoagland, Devorah Major, Kenneth Carroll, DJ Renegade, Safiya Henderson-Holmes, Charlie Braxton. Where is Nikki Finney? Or the bard of  Trenton, Doc Long?

Outside the Black Arts Movement” (italics mine)? What the Black Arts Movement did was to set a paradigm for the Black artist to be an artist and a soldier. This is what I said at Louis Reyes Rivera’s funeral:

We must urge our artists and scholars    ...    our most advanced folks fighting for equal rights and self-determination    ...    to create 
an art and scholarship that is historically and culturally authentic, 
that is public and for the people, that is revolutionary.

A sharp class distinction has arisen, producing a mini-class of Blacks who benefited most by the civil rights and Black Liberation movements, thinking and acting as if our historic struggle has been won so that they can become as arrogant and ignorant as the worst examples of white America.

It is obvious, as well, looking through this book, that it has been little touched by the last twenty years of Afro-American life, since it shows little evidence of the appearance of spoken word and rap. 
E.G. Bailey, Jessica Care Moore, Ras Baraka, Ewuare X. Osayande, Zayid Muhammad, Taalam Acey, Rasim Allah, Black Thought, Daniel Beatty, Saul Williams, and Staceyann Chin are all missing. This “new American poetry” is mostly dull as a stick.

Rowell’s icy epilogue is too comic to be tragic, though it is both. It is a cold class dismissal by would-be mainstream Negroes on the path to mediocrity:

Without the fetters of narrow political and social demands that have nothing to do with the production of artistic texts, black American poets, since the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power Movement, have created an extraordinary number of 
aesthetically deft poems that both challenge the concept of “the American poem” and extend the dimensions of American poetry.

This is poppycock at its poppiest and cockiest. You mean the struggle for our humanity is a fetter (to whom? Negroes seeking tenure in these white schools who dare not mumble a cross word?). Why is the struggle for equal rights and self-determination narrow? To whom? Racists? You think Fred Douglass was not one of the greatest artists of the nineteenth century because he kept demanding an end to slavery? Bah, Humbug!

As for the Black Power movement’s “death,” last I heard we have an Afro-American president who has taught the Republicans the value of community organizing twice. But what Rowell proves is that the old Black-White dichotomy is in the past, at least on the surface. The struggle, as my wife Amina always says, is about whose side you’re on. Romney and them lost because they don’t even know what country they’re in. Neither does Charles Rowell.

Originally Published: May 1st, 2013

Poet, writer, teacher, and political activist Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones in 1934 in Newark, New Jersey. He attended Rutgers University and Howard University, spent three years in the U.S. Air Force, and returned to New York City to attend Columbia University and the New School for Social...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In
  1. May 1, 2013
     Darrell Stover

    I not too recently excitedly pulled this book from the book shelf of my local bookstore, read the intro, examined the poets and poems, and disappointed, placed it back on the shelf. Amiri's review proved more informative and inspiring.

  2. May 2, 2013
     Hoke Glover

    Thanks for Amiri. I am thankful that this was published and published
    here. I would love to see a long thread here that addresses some of
    the concerns so comely thrown around in reference to black arts.
    African American poetry is extremely diverse. There are portions of it
    that receive a very privileged place in academia.

  3. May 2, 2013
     Rasasah P.

    Janelle Moane and Erykah Badu - Q.U.E.E.N video just dropped -
    the editors of the anthology critiqued should take a listen/look

    "Yeah, Let's flip it
    I don't think they understand what I'm trying to say

    I asked a question like this
    "Are we the last generation of our people?
    Add us to equations but they'll never make us equal.
    She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.
    So why ain't the stealing of my rights made illegal?
    They keep us underground working hard for the greedy,
    But when it's time pay they turn around and call us needy.
    My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
    Gimme back my pyramid, I'm trying to free Kansas City.

    Mixing masterminds like your name Bernie Grundman.
    Well I'm gonna keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman
    You can take my wings but I'm still goin' fly
    And even when you edit me the booty don't lie
    Yeah, keep singing and I'mma keep writing songs
    I'm tired of Marvin asking me, "What's Going On?
    March to the streets 'cuz I'm willing and I'm able
    Categorize me, I defy every label
    And while you're selling dope, we're gonna keep selling hope
    We rising up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope
    Will you be electric sheep?
    Electric ladies, will you sleep?
    Or will you preach?" "

  4. May 2, 2013
     Allison Hedge Coke

    Thank you, Amiri!

  5. May 2, 2013
     Michael Boughn

    Thank god for Amiri Baraka -- he is one of the few remaining poets out
    there who is unafraid to tell it like it is -- everyone else is intent on
    protecting their "careers."

  6. May 2, 2013
     Henry Gould

    Reads like sour grapes to me. Here's this massive, spectacular assemblage of 20th-cent. Af-Am poetry - in which Baraka is of course included, among dozens of other poets - but it's all about him. "Every page" of Rowell's intro shouts out the malignity of the B.A.M. But Baraka doesn't fail to take historical credit for Rowell's wrong approach - Rowell's path was set after a heated political argument with - who? none other than Baraka, of course, back in the 60s. The issues Baraka raises here are undoubtedly central : what's the role & purpose of poetry? Is it art for art's sake, or is it fundamentally entwined with history and social change? I would say it has to be both. As a white old Anglo-Saxon Yankee, of course, I can't speak in the same way to the experience of exile, struggle, bigotry and discrimination that most African-Americans know so well. But Baraka's particular notions of political and social liberation are not shared by everybody. There is a freedom and an enterprise in artistic making too - a calling and an inspiration which is not to be managed filtered, and paraphrased by activists and politicians. Activism and politics are also "arts" - but let's give the distinct art of poetry its due, and its intellectual freedom. Which is what this anthology seems to be about.

  7. May 2, 2013
     Chuck Taylor

    I am not qualified to enter this interesting and
    important debate. What I have to post is off topic. If
    Mr. Baraka should happen to see this, I'd wanted to let
    him know that his old friend, Leroy Lucas, lives and
    works in Austin, Texas. Leroy first told Mr. Baraka,
    according to what Mr. Baraka wrote, that Malcom X had
    been tragically killed. Leroy was connected to the Black
    Arts Movement. New Mexico Press will republish the book
    Mr. Lucas did with the poet Ed Dorn on the Shoshone
    Indians. I'd be glad to put Mr. Baraka in touch with
    Leroy Lucas if he is interested.

  8. May 4, 2013
     daniel gray-kontar

    I completely disagree with you Henry. I don't think you have done a
    careful enough reading of the text to make the assertion that Baraka's
    critique it is all about him. Clearly, Baraka has a history with Rowell,
    but that history does not equal the sum total of Baraka's critique. The
    fact is that there is a racialized class divide within African American
    letters. This divide is the basis of divergent literary ideologies that
    must, at some point, meet in the best interest of displaying the best
    work of all African American writers, and the Democratic viewpoints
    they represent. That is his overarching point that Baraka is aiming to
    make here. This distinction is clear when one considers the writers
    who are blatantly missing from this anthology; and the missing
    writers, as Baraka notes are NOT just from the Black Arts movement. I
    don't think you read this review closely, nor do I think you read it all
    the way through before you made this comment. Or, if you did, it
    sounds as though you are engaging in the same type of "cherry-
    picking" of ideas as Rowell.

  9. May 4, 2013
     Thomas Weatherly

    Tired of contrived controversies about the duties, especially cultural duties of a poet. Each poet decides, better decide, the allegiance. I once felt irritation about what folk called me and my work. I can't control it, so dont try. I have been associated with the Black Arts movement, though arrived late, too late to have joined them. I have been associated with New York School simple because some are friends. None of this matters to me. I dont often dialogue about poems; I write them, I like to write them, read ones written by others.
    I suggest you all read more poems, talk less about their semantic content, more about the prosody, the craft that produces them. I am guilty of collaboration in producing an ideological anthology. I wish I hadn't. No matter now. I really wanted to edit an anthology of poets and poems I liked. Anyone knows me, know it would have crossed many ideological, cultural, racial, and other boundaries. A good poet is a good poet, political or not, racial, even racist, or not. Cultural and sub cultural wars are for folk with too much time without a meaningful activity. Read poems aloud; write poems aloud; listen to music, dance, love, live life as if it were finite.

  10. May 5, 2013
     Jason McDaniel

    You know, sometimes I like reading rich peoples poetry; it's an escapist pleasure to read about people who have grown up with a home and food and safety. I'm glad such poems exists. The problem is when a privileged class of writers think only their experience is "art".

  11. May 6, 2013
     Henry Gould

    @ Daniel Gray-Kontar : I find it funny when people say to those they disagree with, "you haven't read it carefully enough because you don't agree with me." Maybe you didn't read my comment carefully enough. I said that some of the ideas Baraka raises are "central". There may be a class divide within the African-American literary community, there may not. But if Baraka actually wants to have a dialogue about that (rather than simply vent), he ought to tone down the sanctimonious outrage and contemptuous personal attacks. My 2 cents. Over & out.

  12. May 7, 2013
     Michael Collins

    Baraka makes some good points. Rowell does bash the Black Arts movement a bit too much (though he also gives it a lot of credit). However, Baraka needs to read his own LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka Reader, where we learn that he himself distanced himself from the most excessive of his Black Arts positions. As William J. Harris points out in the introduction to the Jones/Baraka Reader, "In 1974 ... Baraka rejected black nationalism as racist and became a Third World Socialist. He declared in the New York Times: 'It is a narrow nationalist that says the white man is the enemy....Nationalism, so-called, when it says 'all non-blacks are our enemies,' is a sickness...in fact, a form of fascism." Does the fact that I agree with what Baraka says here, and think Baraka's "AM/TRAK"--which I once raved about in print--is not only a great poem, but is vastly superior to his "Black Art" (just as tons of poems by Yusef Komunyakaa are vastly superior to "Black Art") make me a sellout? Or does it make me what I think I am--somebody who wants poetry to be great, no matter who, under what name, or under what "race," is writing it?

  13. May 7, 2013
     J. E. Robinson

    as a student of theodore hudson, and a friend of eugene redmond, i admire amiri baraka for his art of poetry, but his definitions of "what is black" and of "what is black art" alienates me because it excludes my background and experiences from the definition "authentically black." as a midwestern, small town, middle-class, college educated african methodist, i am seen and have been seen--by the pan-africanists and white racists alike--as an artificial nigger. seemingly, i am not their version of an "acceptable negro." irony of ironies! amiri baraka or leroi jones: as sterling brown and arthur davis taught him at howard, there are many roads to mecca.

  14. May 12, 2013
     Aram Saroyan

    How refreshing to hear Baraka's loving clarity, still firing after all these years.

  15. May 15, 2013
     PAR

    “More than any other black poet . . . he taught younger black poets of the generation past how to respond poetically to their lived experience, rather than to depend as artists on embalmed reputations and outmoded rhetorical strategies derived from a culture often substantially different from their own.”

  16. May 20, 2013
     K. Burns

    "My God, what imbecilic garbage!" My God, what a sad, hate-filled old
    man is Mr. Jones. Disagree with him or with any of his comrades in
    the ebony tower of black revolutionary art and you do so at your peril.
    There's evidently only one proper way to be a black poet and that is to
    be a BLACK poet. Well, something seems to be happening and you
    don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?

  17. May 21, 2013
     Dahnje Marceo

    I think poets can write whatever they want as long as it
    has some kind of style to it. The BAM writers should not
    be criticized simply for content.

  18. May 23, 2013
     Baltimore Poet

    Of course this thread has lots of comments because this review was
    interesting and provocative, including the point that art, including
    poetry, should include bridges to the general reader and actual world
    in which we live. This is not a either-or proposition, as Baraka
    implies, but it also is true that the academic literary system and
    journals edited by grad students are producing a huge mirror effect
    that tends to forget much of what is intrinsic to poetry, especially
    poetry's rawness and what Rilke called necessity, or in other words
    urgency. Take Walt Whitman, or early Nikki Giovanni. Poetry
    magazine would have done better to run a more objective, balanced
    review alongside this one. However that being said, Baraka is a truth
    teller of his view.

  19. May 30, 2013
     Rucker

    Why should I care what a racist homophobic has-been with a tin ear thinks?

  20. May 31, 2013
     Gene Pozniak

    Talk about cognitive dissonance, that is, filtering out whatever facts don't jibe with one's preconceived notions. Here's the editor's blurb:
    "These poets bear witness to the interior landscape of their own individual selves or examine the private or personal worlds of  invented personae...."
    And here's Baraka' response:
    "You mean, forget the actual world, have nothing to do with the real world and real people    ...    invent it all!"
    Sometimes "or" can be an important word.
    Also, whenever I accidentally say "Afro-American" black people tell me, "Afro is a hairstyle, not a people. It's "African-American!"