Prelude To A Wig Snatch: The Black Scholarly Edition


A few weeks ago, President and Mrs. Obama decided to have a Poetry Night at the White House. I was all excited, until I found out that Common and Jill Scott were going to be on the program with former US Poet Laureates Billy Collins and Rita Dove.

I love Jill Scott the musician, but I’ve never thought she was a great poet and when she walked on stage at the White House, bringing a laptop to the podium and reading from it, I knew I’d been right. Then, I noticed she was “biting” legendary Sonia Sanchez’s style, without giving credit. This is a no-no in the poetry world. You can “bite” but you have to put something at the top of your poem like, “after Sonia Sanchez.”

And Jill committed the sin of going over her allotted time, again, another no-no, although poets do that frequently and you can feel the room getting cold as each minute stretches longer. But, as my nephew can say, I guess Jill was “a’ight.”

But Common was much worse than Jill could ever be. I could barely made it through watching his poem. There was a lot of uproar and to-do about Common’s invite from conservatives who claimed he hated cops. (Oh wow, like the rest of the African American community just absolutely adores the American criminal justice system and all its paid officers.)

But frankly I didn’t care about Common and the cops at all. My beef was and still is that Common is a horrible poet. Yes, I said it. It had to be said.

Listen, Common looks great without his shirt on, and I know this because I went to see his movie with Queen Latifah and Common’s acting was almost as horrible as his poetry. But since he did not take his shirt off at the White House, I was really, really cranky that the space for someone who was a good poet (and who didn’t regularly use the b-word when referring to women in his/her records) was taken by the admittedly cute but poetry-tone deaf rapper Common.

What made me even crankier was that there were African American literary and cultural scholars online praising Common’s “artistry” evidenced in those sad, pedestrian heroic couplets of his.

And then, what made me downright enraged was the tone that some—not all, but some—of those critics were using, a tone of condescension.  How was it that I was a published, award-winning Black poet, yet my opinion did not count at all about Black poetry, unless of course, I agreed that Common was a great poet?

I couldn’t understand what was happening. Why were all these siddity,  upper-middle class scholarly Black folks pretending that Common a fabulous poet? Didn’t they know that what he was reciting wasn’t good poetry, unless of course, he was a child in grade school?

The overall gist of the online scholarly comments went something like this:

Number One, poetry is in the eye of the beholder. It’s a matter of “perspective.” And even if the beholder is someone who doesn’t read not only poetry books but, like, any books at all, that functionally illiterate someone gets to say what is and what is not poetry.

Number two, if you don’t think Common is a good poet, you’re prejudiced against hip hop as a folk art form, and if you’re prejudiced against hip hop as a folk art form, that means you’re prejudiced against working class Black folks. And shame on your classist self and stop pouring your haterade.

Then I realized something: creative writing (and poetry in particular) seems to be the only other field that people think they can just come into with no knowledge of tradition, no training, and with no apprenticeship at the feet of other experts. (The other field is stripping.)

Let me break this down further.

I love me some Jill Scott the singer. I saw her concert DVD “Live in Paris” and she was signifying on other singers who had “dancers in the background” and no “live instrumentation;” the implication was that real singers didn’t need all of that.

Now, I sang the blues back in graduate school, fronting for a band of White guys. (I loved them boys, too. They could really play). And I could carry a pretty good tune and belt like nobody’s business, but I still only have about a one and a half octave range, certainly I couldn’t stand next to Jill Scott on the stage without completely embarrassing myself.

So how does Jill Scott get to be serious about her art but want to keep me and my (probably) lip-synching one and a half octave self –and my background dancers and pre-recorded music track–off her stage, but I don’t get to be serious about my art on my page? How is she going to dog out somebody’s dancers and then bring her laptop to the White House and read off it? I’m just saying.

You know why I haven’t mentioned Common here in this “musician metaphor” ? Because if I’m not a musician and I can sing, Common’s talking over a prerecorded track definitely eliminates him from that field.

Let’s return to the Black literary critics. I don’t want to give the impression here that if someone doesn’t agree with me, that makes him or her The Devil. I like a good debate and I like it vigorous. As Tina sang, I like my debate “nice and rough.” Maybe it’s because I hung with boys back in the day. I never learned to fight well with my fists, but I can sell some woof tickets with the best of them, and I always bring Blady Jane to a debate.

My issue is not disagreement with my views on poetry. My issue is that I’ve worked hard as a poet and I keep waiting (and waiting and waiting) for the scholarly respect that should be accorded to me and to others who have worked hard in this field and who are actual practitioners in the field of poetry.

We poets don’t talk about it, we be about it.

Most literary and cultural critics I know are brilliant writers and thinkers. But most that I know couldn’t write a successful poem if you were holding their mama hostage somewhere, either. Yet, these folks—literary and cultural critics—who have never written a successful poem let alone published a book of award-winning poetry now claim the right to tell professional poets, the actual practitioners of the craft, what is and is not poetry. And they claim the right to chuckle condescendingly at us when we try to disagree with them.

And why? It’s simple: the critics went to graduate school and earned Ph.D.’s in Literary and/or Cultural Studies.  And most of us poets don’t have those Ph.D’s.

These are the folks who can suddenly decide that someone is a poet based upon whatever nonsense comes out of his mouth, as long as he can “rhyme”—which rhymes with “time,” “dime,” “lime,” in his stank heroic couplets—and as long as he is a Black man who looks good in or out of a suit and no matter what he calls us Sisters.

But if I, a trained and award-winning poet, an expert in the field with eighteen years of work under my belt, says “No, that’s not good poetry,” I will be called a classist. I will be told to go set my jealous self down and start writing a poem that “reaches the people” the way that “Genius-Brother Common” did with his simplistic rhymes.  And again, before I pick up the pen, put down the haterade.

Now, what I just wrote (above) is called “literary analysis.” I looked at what several Black literary and cultural scholars wrote online a few weeks back about Common’s poetry performance at the White House, thought about what they wrote, and then I took a position based upon my thoughts on what they wrote.

But what I just did doesn’t count as “literary analysis” to literary and cultural scholars because I don’t have a Ph.D. in literary or cultural studies. I certainly couldn’t publish my analysis in a peer-reviewed critical journal; if I mailed it to them, they would send my work back to me in twenty-four hours, if I was lucky. If not, they’d throw it in the trash can.

So now, who’s the classist?

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P.S. Thanks to my Brother-poet Rich Villar for “wig snatch”!:-)

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7 thoughts on “Prelude To A Wig Snatch: The Black Scholarly Edition

  1. Well said! People don’t honor practitioners anymore. As an educator I can say the same thing: “everyone” believes they “can always teach,” trained or not. But if I retorted that “anyone” can prepare a criminal case or diagnose a skin disease, I’d be looked at as if I have nine heads.

    Another danger is having a low view of Black ability. We as a collective have shown our resilience and outright genius since 1619, yet it seems only lately that standards are so low that as long as the person is Black they can get away with mediocrity and lack of training. Yet this goes against all that we’ve ever been about. Even I, as a person born during the middle of Generation X, remember being told “you have to be twice as good to get half as far.” What the heck happened?

  2. A really interesting post. I am sure that the level of debate in the poetry world about what is/isn’t poetry is much higher than I’m aware of, both among poets themselves and between literary critics and poets. And I know that writing about contemporary poetry is a very different thing from that which I and most people in my little Antiquarian backwater do, writing about writers who’ve been dead for a long time. And I’m not trying to stir things up.

    But: “Most literary and cultural critics I know are brilliant writers and thinkers. But most that I know couldn’t write a successful poem if you were holding their mama hostage somewhere, either.”

    I am always wary of any argument that seems to stipulate that the requirement to write about a thing is that one also is able to do that thing at a high level. Because that’s going to put an awful lot of sportswriters, film and theater critics, and restaurant reviewers out of work. And everyone knows that unemployed sportswriters will soon turn to crime. So Lord only knows what unemployed literary critics would do.

    I don’t think it’s so much a question of honoring practitioners or not. Rather, I would argue that criticism itself is a literary practice–that is, literary critics should be treated as practitioners in their own right–at which some people are better and some are worse. And I would also argue that a lot of people who are capable of writing great poems or novels would not be capable of writing insightful literary criticism, whether of their own work or of that by other writers. But that should in no way diminish their stature as poets or novelists.

    And reading off a laptop? At the White House? Please.

    I also think that a lot of literary criticism (I’ll refrain from saying “good” literary criticism) is much less criticism of the process of writing than it is an analysis of the experience of reading. That is, the critics that I find interesting to read don’t say, “This is how Poet Y put this poem together,” and that’s why the poem is either Good or Bad. Rather, they say, “This is how this poem by Poet Y works, these are some of the sources the poem seems to be drawing on, and this is what my experience of reading it is like.”

  3. Well, I’ll say that people are more likely to get through this than any “literary analysis” and they’ll understand what you’re saying. I happen to agree. (Not with Common being fine). I’m always a little nervous when people call me brother or sister without knowing any of my flaws. What you have to do now is listen to Ghostface and take a stand on his lyrics. (Well his use of rhyme, which I think is clever in the best way – too bad he is homophobic, misogynistic and violent)

  4. This almost did me in. I love you so much for this post. Some folks love misemploying terms that they obviously haven’t been taught anything about…”classist”? Really?!

    That’s a weak excuse for laziness on not wanting to learn a craft. In the case of the commenters, the difference between good and bad poetry. Yes, there’s a subjectiveness to it but there are also fundamentals of writing even creatively.

    No, you did right by calling this out. *WIG SNATCHED!*

  5. Phillis

    It’s interesting that many seem to forget the real history of scholars in literature and poetry. Instead of identifying those that have studied and understand the art, there is a tendency to gravitate towards the ‘mainstream’ artist.

    I too, enjoy Jill and even Common at times – but they need to stay in their musical genre and leave the art of poetry alone.

  6. I so wanted to disagree with you as I started this piece, but you make an almost airtight case that has thoroughly persuaded me. Your reasoning is so sound, and while I may agree with you in principle on most of it, there are still times – that as the title suggests, which are ignoble. Like watching a losing beauty queen, snatch the wig off of the winner. Most of this is in the beginning – and places the blame unduly on the people chosen to perform, gravitates it to the literary critics, whom I think are more deserving of your scorn.

    Someone in the white house decided to elevate these people to this position, to include them. Even if they were fish out of water. Our society has become based on a paradigm of the tabloids, and poetry being the lowliest of professions – doesn’t carry much clout. In order to pay attention we have to splash a celebrity face to it – famine/war in Africa – Angelina Jolie to the rescue, thank you UN. It is just good math – celebrity=interest.

    It is remarkable that poets of any kind were invited onto the world stage – as embodied by the home of our President & rockin’ first lady. Either they or someone on their staff – rightly created an event that the world watched, mostly because of the tabloid worthy flame burning over Common & Pig Hatin’. Whatever that means – at the time, I saw the ‘debacle’ and faux-rage as indicative of a societal ill, and even though you found it wanting – I didn’t even bother to tune in. I love Jill Scott, and really haven’t thought about Common – except as eye candy. Mostly because I don’t have a TV or someone to point me to the online video of such treasures.

    However, I was glad you tuned in. I’m glad you had an opinion – for now I’ll seek it out, biased at some point by your comments, I’ll look extra hard for my opinion – against such prevailing head winds, that will be a test. The literary criticisms all sound like tired tropes which I can skip, and I think your savaging of them – is really the greatest statement here. Especially reading this week about how a woman has to have a higher degree to be paid the same as her male counterpart. It is a sad world, indeed. Yet I’m buoyed by such works as yours, that touch my soul – let me laugh, make me cry, and say thank you.

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