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Black Poetry Day and Why It Matters

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When I was a senior in High School, My A.P English literature teacher, Mr.  O’Leary dropped me off at the National Museum of Women in the Arts one morning after his 7:30AM class to attend a Morning with Nikki Giovanni. The event was a small gathering of high school students from around the city sitting in a circle in awe of Ms. Giovanni as she talked about writing and life, and history.

When I was a senior in High School, My A.P English literature teacher, Mr.  O’Leary dropped me off at the National Museum of Women in the Arts one morning after his 7:30AM class to attend a Morning with Nikki Giovanni. The event was a small gathering of high school students from around the city sitting in a circle in awe of Ms. Giovanni as she talked about writing and life, and history.

At the time of that event I was 17 years old, and had been reading and writing poetry since I was nine. The word poetry to me meant black poetry. Sure I knew that poetry spanned time and place, and culture and yes I had read and enjoyed Shakespeare’s Sonnets even memorizing some of them and often sleeping with the book of sonnets on my nightstand.  I was also enjoying Chaucer and liked the challenge of reading him in the original Middle English even if I had to look up every other word. Similarly I had started trying to paw through The Iliad and the Odyssey. There was a lot of poetry from a great many different influences in my life but still the word poetry in my mind almost always defaulted to black poetry.

Black poetry was and is home. It is a different place, and rhythm almost a different language. This separation in poetry and black poetry became apparent to me when I was accepted into a MFA program.  Talking to professional poets and those “serious” about their craft the conversation would inevitably come up about influences and favorites. People would wax poetic about Plath and Frost, Dickinson and Williams, Keats and Yeats.  Often when I bring up Gwendolyn Brooks, Nikki Giovanni, Lucille Clifton, and Amiri Baraka other writers and professional poets have never heard of them. Often the excuse for having never heard of even the most popular black poets is that they have read and enjoyed Maya Angelou.

The Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who is most well known for her TED talk “We should all be feminists” that was later sampled in the Beyonce song “Flawless” also did a lesser known but equally brilliant TED talk in 2009 about “The Danger of a Single Story“;In poetry circles when it comes to the topic of black poetry we collectively suffer from telling a single story. Dr. Angelou is indeed one of the most prolific and genius poets of our time but it is unfair to her legacy to use it as a reason to not extend ourselves to read and learn black poetry.

Often when discussing American poetry, black poets either do not come up at all or they are an afterthought although black poets have been a staple in American culture and writing since Jupiter Hammon, who was the first published black poet. Hammon was born into slavery in Lloyd Neck, Long Island, New York in 1711. Black Poetry Day is celebrated annually on October 17th which was Hammon’s birthday. This year marks 304 years since Hammons birth and yet black poetry does not have a respected place in American poetry and even less so in Academic and professional poetry circles.

Three hundred and four years after Jupiter Hammon’s birth The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) has been awash in controversy this year including a petition started on change.org that forced the association’s hand in replacing Vanessa Place, a white woman who was tweeting the text of “Gone with the Wind” with juxtuposition and emphasis on black character “mammy” voices. Place at the time of the tweets was on the AWP committee to determine which panels for the 2016 conference would be accepted.

I highlight the incident with The Association of Writers and Writing Programs because AWP is such a cornerstone and important piece in professional creative writing poetry and otherwise and very much is “Sun” in the solar system of publishing and writing programs. We desperately need more black writers and poets to ensure that the larger poetry and writing community is not treating black poetry like a single story. For this to happen successfully we need to change how we view black poetry as a whole first with a willingness to learn about it. As a black poet I am required to have an understanding of the classics, I am required to have a working knowledge of Frost, Dickinson, Plath etc to be taken seriously in my craft regardless of if I consider them inspirations to my work. Black voices in poetry however are not amplified and not taught in secondary,or undergraduate courses. Poetry by white writers is the requirement and too often poetry by black writers is reserved for black history month and elective courses. When we make black poetry optional, we make vital understandings of our country, culture and history optional and that does a disservice to us both as writers, readers and  global citizens.

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