The Trouble with Black Poetry and Anthologies

An essay inspired by National Poetry Month by Malik Pitchford, Special Collections and Archives Student Assistant, Political Science and African and Black Diaspora Studies (LAS ‘22).

Anthologies are widely used as textbooks and as a central resource for students and teachers alike to gain access to a wide range of authors. The compilation of materials and their arrangement within an anthology is restricted by page counts, copyright limitations, biases of editors and compilers, and by capital, which is needed to produce and distribute the text. When defining the canon of any subject for an anthology, those tasked with creating the parameters have immense power in shaping the understanding of time periods, writers and their works, and the significance of the items included.

The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, first published in 1997, is considered by many to be the premier collection of African American writing. The Norton is “most certainly not the first anthology seeking to define the canon of African American literature. But it is the most comprehensive (Gates and McKay, xxxvi),” according to general editors, Henry Louis Gates Jr., and Nellie Y. McKay. A stated goal of the selection process was to choose “works that merit preservation and sustain classroom interest (Gates and McKay, xxxvii).”

In The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry, Howard Ramsby notes that many of the original texts of the Black Arts era are now hard to find, or out of print, which means that students are unlikely to discover these works (Ramsby, 158). For poetry produced by African Americans during the Black Arts movement, there was a concern with “expressions of militant nationalist sensibilities, direct appeals to African American audiences, critiques of antiblack racism, and affirmations of cultural heritage (Ramsby, 11).” There was an ecosystem made up of “magazine editors, anthologists, and publishers” that put poetry on a pedestal for its ability to poignantly express the previously mentioned sentiments.

“Magazines such as Liberator, Negro Digest / Black World, and the Journal of Black Poetry, publishers such as Broadside Press and Third World Press, and the sixty or so anthologies published during the era brought an eclectic and intergenerational mix of poets together in common sites of publication (Rambsy, 160).” Many publishers felt the market following the 1960s-1970s, was oversaturated with material dealing with African American life, which before that time had never been so numerous and popular. It is harder for publishers to make a profit from African American poetry than novels and essays. These writings are more represented in courses on African American literature, limiting our understanding of the scope of the literature.

In 1997, Keith Gilyard, poet and editor of Spirit & Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, felt Black poetry was at a crossroads. Gilyard wanted to contribute to a radical tradition of Black literature he too felt was in limbo following the explosion of the Black Power/Black Arts era. “Wishing to maintain an aesthetic fervor to help propel progressive political struggle, some of us founded journals and magazines; others began small presses and/or published our own manuscripts (Gilyard, xix).”

Spirit & Flame is keenly aware of its most famous [anthology] predecessors,” says Gilyard. The Book of American Negro Poetry, edited by James Weldon Johnson (1922), American Negro Poetry, edited by Arna Bontemps (1963), and Black Voices (only partly verse), edited by Abraham Chapman (1968), are a few Gilyard mentions (Gilyard, xix). These anthologies were “familiar,” the poems and authors used were often previously compiled in earlier anthologies, “–which is why Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing was the big poetry news when it was published in 1968 (Gilyard, xx).”

4 anthologies on a table
Anthologies of African American Writing, Left to Right The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Spirit and Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Harlem Renaissance Reader, and Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing

What separates Black Fire from some of the other, more familiar anthologies of Black literature and poetry in particular? Is it an oversimplification to assume that older anthologies lacked the promotion of rigorous attacks on an oppressive society through its published poetry and writing?

Sandra Govan in her discussion and comparison of Black “aesthetic” versus the Black “experience” provides helpful insight when considering why Gilyard views Black Fire with such distinction. The “Black Aesthetic is more ‘structured’ or ‘directed’ to the responsibilities of the artist, both artistically and politically; he must reflect a Black experience and he/she must do it in such a fashion that the art ‘teaches and instructs’ the Black community (Govan, 530).” In this case, the artist contributing to the Black Aesthetic is not solely concerned with individual artistic acclaim. For some artists, having their work considered responsible to the Black community is too lofty a burden. “Poetry of the Black Experience simply reflects a Black experience or any other experience that has in some fashion touched the artist and that he considers worthy of artistic treatment/comment, without imposing any particular responsibilities (Govan, 530).”

First published in 1994, the Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader, edited by David Levering Lewis, provides writings representing opposing sides within the Black political spectrum in the 1920s and 1930s. In George S. Schuyler’s 1926 essay, “The Negro-Art Hokum,” he writes that “the Aframerican is subject to the same economic and social forces that mold the actions and thoughts of the white Americans. He is not living in a different world as some whites and a few Negroes would have me believe (Lewis, 97-98).” He considers both African and European Americans as Americans, with little separating the experiences of the two groups beyond skin color. In the same anthology, Claude McKay’s (1890-1948) poem, “The Negro’s Friend,” offers a counter position to Schuyler’s understanding of African Americans as ultimately assimilated into American-ness (Lewis, 291):

 

There is no radical the Negro’s friend

Who points to some other than the classic road

For him to follow, fighting to the end,

Thinking to ease him of one half his load.

What waste of time to cry: “No Segregation!”

When it exists in stark reality,

Both North and South, throughout this total nation,

The state decreed by white authority

 

Must fifteen million blacks be gratified,

That one of them can enter as a guest,

A fine white house—the rest of them denied

A place of decent sojourn and a rest?

Oh, Segregation is not the whole sin,

The Negroes need salvation from within.

 

Larry Neal, poet, and co-editor of Black Fire selected African American authors who are also concerned with this aesthetic. “Most of the book can be read as if it were a critical reexamination of Western political, social and artistic values. It can be read also as a rejection of anything we feel is detrimental to our people. And it is almost axiomatic that what the West considers important endangers the more humane world we feel ours should be (Jones and Neal, 638).” At the time of its 1968 publication, the editors felt they could not afford to have material distracting from the mood of revolutionary artistic productions present among a wide range of creators, presenting their work for an eager Black audience. It would then make sense that, as Gilyard puts it, Black Fire would be an exciting addition to an otherwise tame and familiar canon of African American literature mostly consumed within the academy.

Currently, the publishing world is being further consolidated between four or five mega-publishers and their hundreds of imprints. This, along with the decline of Black periodicals once-prominent during the Black Arts Movement, suggests that it will only become more difficult to find less-prominent art and literature not carried by those large publishing houses, with outlooks less familiar, and specifically Black poetry.

Editors, anthologists, curators, and librarians need to be intentional when considering the literary history of Black Arts, and the multiple political and artistic trends that separate anthologies like Black Fire from the more familiar anthologies of Black literature. There is a chance that today’s poet-as-community-worker will be left behind in history, as the political and cultural world influences the publishing and collecting markets much like it did in the 1970s.

Sources (All available through DePaul’s library system)

*Gates, H. L., & McKay, N. Y. (Eds.). (1997). The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. New York, NY: Norton.

Gilyard, K. (1997). (Ed.). Spirit & Flame: An Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Govan, S. (2017). The Poetry of Black Experience as Counterpoint to the Poetry of the Black Aesthetic. African American Review, 50(4), 530-534. 

Jones, L. R., & Neal, L. (1968) (Eds.). Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing. New York, NY: Morrow.

*Lewis, D. L. (2006). (Ed.). The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Rambsy, H. (2018). The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry. University of Michigan Press.

*Available at  Depaul Special Collections and Archives’ Arnold and Jane Grisham Collection in the John T. Richardson Library

 

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