“Why I’m No Longer A Black Poet”
………by Reginald Dwayne Betts, ………PR Guest Blogger
Forgetting is the gift to folks who don’t mind circling the same wagon, year after year, decade after decade. It seems that is the case for black poetry in America, this circling of the wagon, a perpetual seeking of place and definition. How one manages racial identity in these fifty states has become something that can always be mined for content and controversy.
I’m thinking about Robert Hayden and about his position on the infamous question, “Am I a poet, or am I a black poet?”—that “to be or not to be” used to bludgeon African-American men and women who write in America. It’s what prompted the 1966 Black Writers Conference at Fisk University, in Nashville, Tennessee; it was an historic gathering of writers, civil rights workers, and others to discuss the image of the Negro in literature.
At the Conference, the poet Robert Hayden remarked, “Let’s quit saying we’re black writers writing to black folks—it has been given importance it should not have.” His remarks preceded those of Melvin Tolson, who famously went on to proclaim, “I’m a black poet, an African American poet, a Negro poet. I’m no accident – and I don’t give a tinker’s damn what you think.”
This contentious encounter is all recorded in the June 1966 issue of Black Digest, and if you aren’t careful, after reading the account of this encounter, you might walk away thinking that Hayden’s and Tolson’s poetics were a world apart. But read a bit of Tolson’s “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia“ and you will find Tolson doing what Hayden did time and again: write about black folks with a serious sense of wordplay, with panache. Tolson’s poetry makes this public spat over the question all the more interesting, and all the more redundant.
The backstory to this is everything Robert Hayden’s writing has taught me: Nat Turner, the Amistad Mutiny, all those figures from the (Detroit) Paradise Valley series, Bessie Smith, the meticulous emotional turmoil that was the Middle Passage, Paul Robeson – all names and historical moments that are but a sample of what I found early on in his verse. I think that I benefited from having read Hayden before I had any real idea that I wanted to be a poet, because at that time I read him alongside Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Langston Hughes, Lucy Terry and countless others, including the anonymous authors of the Spirituals and Work Songs, without yet having a social or historical context.
There is no one that could walk away from the Hayden’s Collected Poems not knowing these poems were soaked in what it meant to be black in America from slavery to beyond the 1960s. Hayden was the guy with narratives, history, myth. He dropped science in a way that the other poets I read just weren’t.
At this point, it’s almost a waste to go into comparisons between Hayden and poets of the Black Arts Movement. Any such comparison would be more about personality, less about poem. And at the end of the day, Hayden maintained an exquisite balance in his poetry, work that didn’t seek to demonize or make heroic the figures that found their way into those poems. Hayden sought less to grant historic black figures anything (be it humanity or heroism) and more to carve a truth out of words that didn’t exist, exactly that way, before they were written. When I first learned of the Fisk Conference controversy, of Hayden’s not wanting to be referred to as a “black” poet, I hadn’t thought about how naming can be akin to handcuffing. And frankly, I left that issue alone. I wanted to be black because I already had been black as a failure and so I wanted to be black as a success.
For me, being black, wanting to be a writer, wanting to engage in the world larger than my block and my fears, have been about using color as the first filter. I was the kid who wanted to know why we read Shakespeare in high school and not Chinua Achebe, the kid who read the Stolen Legacy and waxed poetic about how Aristotelian thought was stolen from a library in Egypt. My mind was the constant playing of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back—and I had yet to hear the album.
The thing is, you get older. And when I did, I recognized how racial solidarity addled my brain. My obsession with race became more important than the history I didn’t know.
In “The Negro and the Racial Mountain,” (1926) published in The Nation, Langston Hughes did not argue for a singular blackness, but I read it that way, missing the part where he wrote, “If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either.” No, I was stuck on his chastising Countée Cullen for his desire not to be known as a “Negro poet,” his wanting to be brave where Cullen seemed so awkwardly afraid of his blackness.
This craving worked as gift and detriment for me. And it was silly. At the time, I viewed black poetry—all black literature—as a kind of service literature. The problem, of course, is that the best of black literature is far more than service, even when the writers are completely devoted to a kind of service. Ultimately, when I am moved to shirk racial symbolism, it’s partly because no one wanted my wearing “race” when I ran wild in the streets, and partly because there is a little dishonesty in the ordeal–as the idea of blackness too often replaces the fact of blackness. And so, a group of black writers who scrape with words to create a world gets reduced to: “X confronts his black identity (or decides to abandon it).”
What has been lost as I enter into present, public conversations about black literature is the myriad ways of conveying blackness. Conversations about “blackness” always overshadow the elements, the sounds, the nuance, the slang and vibrancy that reduce regional distinctions in African America to places where words become worlds. In having discussions about what it means to be a black poet, I forget that my moms went to work at four every morning without having to name herself “black” anything. That my folks, all of them, lived fully in their black skins, and, when need be, discussed racism and dealt with it—but they needed no obsession with adjectives. None of my friends who aren’t writers or reading the books about “post black” use these terms, or talk about them. They talk about the cost of daycare, of healthcare, of rent – and I imagine there is a poet singing his songs right now who only will be noticed for writing “black”—or being black while writing.
All of this returns me to Robert Hayden, whose “blackness” was called into question because he, like Cullen, didn’t want to be relegated to a literary ghetto (like today’s black literature section in popular bookstores). I’ve come to realize that black poets’ racial solidarity has become tantamount to another restraint: our thinking about black poetry has been reduced to how and why we represent racial issues—and our commitment to language has been allowed to fall slack. We will not call it service literature, but we do want it to serve.
I have found access within the black literary community and felt at home, but that community sometimes has looked askance at me when I’ve admitted to feeling at home at largely white institutions, too. As the saying goes, I am “the Negro of the moment.”—And yes, there is a trace of truth to this saying, but the idea behind it is corrupt and corrupting. Am I to understand the entire history of literature and black folks in America as merely a succession of chosen Negroes?
What is apparent is that the erasing of history that goes on is layered and complex. If you aren’t careful someone will dress you in a beret and an Afro pick before your first good line is written, or they will have you referring to your complexion as a mere coincidence. It’s all from the same bag, a not-so subtle-way to erase the nuance out of you.
Sometimes the black community that raised me is a far cry from the community represented in the work I read, often the work I write. Sadly, many of the people who are my “black” peers display an overwhelming gap in information. But our poems dance. They dance before a crowd that has no sense of literary tradition. (Or does). They dance before those most concerned (if concerned at all) with what moves them, and little else.
And at a time when we black poets must demand our presence be acknowledged, must scrap and badger with decision makers and power holders of largely white institutions, we have survived, in large part, due to racial solidarity. Yet, this same solidarity has now lead to a climate where to criticize the work of another black writer is tantamount to racial treason.
Maybe it’s just me. Maybe these aren’t real issues issue at all.
I want to say I stopped being a black poet when I discovered that black poets had the audacity to question Robert Hayden’s authenticity—but the truth is that it is deeper than that. The truth is I have found myself longing to be fuller in my own skin, to dismiss the rhetoric that surrounds what it means to be a black poet and find a way to write a poetry that better reflects the sounds I hear in my sleep, the sounds I hear when I walk down the streets that are most familiar with me – and the sounds that I hear when I am in a strange place filled with black faces.
At the Fisk Conference, Robert Hayden ended his speech by saying the blackest thing ever said at an academic conference (at least to me). Speaking to those whom he expected to disagree with him, Hayden remarked, “Baby, that’s your problem, not mine.”
With that statement, he took it back to where the truth always exists: don’t listen to what a person calls him- or herself, just listen to what is said when the guards are down. And the proof is always in the poems, because if your guards aren’t down when you go to that necessary place, then you were lying before you even started.
Reginald Dwayne Betts is a husband and father of two sons. His memoir, A Question of Freedom (Avery/Penguin 2009), won the NAACP Image Award for Nonfiction, and his collection of poetry, Shahid Reads His Own Palm (Alice James Books, 2010), was awarded fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Open Society Institute, Bread Loaf Writers’ Workshop and Warren Wilson College. As a poet, essayist and national spokesperson for the Campaign for Youth Justice, Betts writes and lectures about the impact of mass incarceration on American society.