African American Poetry Analysis

Double Consciousness

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

ph_0111203067-Wheatley.jpg Philis Wheatley Published by Salem Press, Inc.

The struggle for freedom—social, psychological, and aesthetic—is the distinguishing attribute of African American poetry from its origins during slavery through its pluralistic flowering in the twentieth century. Although the impact of the struggle has only intermittently been simple or direct, it has remained a constant presence, both for writers concentrating directly on the continuing oppression of the black community and for those forging highly individualistic poetic voices not primarily concerned with racial issues.

Generally, two basic “voices” characterize the African American poetic sensibility. First, black poets attempting to survive in a literary market dominated by white publishers and audiences have felt the need to demonstrate their ability to match the accomplishments of white poets in traditional forms. From the couplets of Phillis Wheatley through the sonnets of Claude McKay to the modernist montages of Robert Hayden to the rap and hip-hop stylings of Queen Latifah, Public Enemy, Ice-T, Mos Def, Tupac Shakur, and KRS-One, African American poets have mastered the full range of voices associated with the evolving poetic mainstream. Second, black poets have been equally concerned with forging distinctive voices reflecting both their individual sensibilities and the specifically African American cultural tradition.

This dual focus within the African American sensibility reflects the presence of what W. E. B. Du Bois identified as a “double-consciousness” that forces the black writer to perceive himself or herself as both an “American” and a “Negro.” The greatest African American poets—Langston Hughes, Sterling A. Brown, Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Rita Dove, Yusef Komunyakaa, and Kevin Powell—draw on this tension as a source of both formal and thematic power, helping them to construct a poetry that is at once unmistakably black and universally resonant.

Caged eagles

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

From the beginning, African American poets have continually adjusted to and rebelled against the fact of double consciousness. To be sure, the rebellion and adjustment have varied in form with changing social circumstances. Nevertheless, Baraka’s statement in his poetic drama Bloodrites (pr. 1970) that the aware black artist has always been concerned with helping his or her community attain “Identity, Purpose, Direction” seems accurate. Over a period of time, the precise emphasis has shifted among the terms, but the specific direction and purpose inevitably reflect the individual’s or the era’s conception of identity. To some extent, this raises the issue of whether the emphasis in “African American” belongs on “African” or on “American.” Some poets, such as Baraka during his nationalist period, emphasize the African heritage and tend toward assertive and frequently separatist visions of purpose and direction. Others, such as Jean Toomer in his late period, emphasize some version of the “American” ideal and embrace a variety of strategies for the purpose of reaching a truly integrated society.

Wheatley, the first important African American poet, was forced to confront this tension between African and American identities. As an “American” poet of the eighteenth century—before the political entity known as the United States was formed—her writing imitated the styles and themes of British masters such as John Milton, John Dryden, and Alexander Pope. Brought to America at age six, she experienced only a mild form of slavery in Philadelphia, because her owners, Thomas and Susannah Wheatley, felt deep affection for her and respected her gifts as a writer. Unlike other Wheatley...

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A voice of their own

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Spearheading the first open poetic rebellion against imposed stereotypes, James Weldon Johnson, a close friend of Dunbar, mildly rejected Dunbar’s dialect poetry in his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), which issued a call for “a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without.” He explained: The newer Negro poets discard dialect; much of the subject matter which went into the making of traditional dialect poetry, ’possums, watermelons, etc., they have discarded altogether, at least, as poetical material. This tendency will, no doubt, be regretted by the majority of white readers; and indeed, it would be a distinct loss if the American Negro poets threw away this quaint and musical folk-speech as a medium of expression. And yet, after all, these poets are working through a problem not realized by the reader, and perhaps, by many of these poets themselves not realized consciously. They are trying to break away, not from the Negro dialect itself, but the limitations on the Negro dialect imposed by the fixing effects of long convention. The Negro in the United States has achieved or been placed in a certain artistic niche. When he is thought of artistically, it is as a happy-go-lucky, singing, shuffling, banjo-picking being or as a more or less pathetic figure. The African American poet realizes that there are phases of Negro life in the United States which cannot be treated in the dialect either adequately or artistically. Take, for example, the phases rising out of life in Harlem, that most wonderful Negro city in the world. I do not deny that a Negro in a log cabin is more picturesque than a Negro in a Harlem flat, but the Negro is here, and he is part of a group growing everywhere in the country, a group whose ideals are becoming increasingly more vital than those of the traditionally artistic group, even if its members are less picturesque.

Harlem Renaissance

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

This call was heeded by the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, who took advantage of the development of large black population centers in the North during the Great Northern Migration of blacks from the rural South to the urban North during the 1910’s and 1920’s. Where earlier poets lived either among largely illiterate slave populations or in white communities, the New Negroes—as Alain Locke, one of the first major black critics, labeled the writers of the movement—seized the opportunity to establish a sense of identity for a sizable black audience. Locke viewed the work of poets such as Claude McKay, Countée Cullen, and Jean Toomer as a clear indication that blacks were preparing for a full entry into the American cultural mainstream.

The support given Harlem Renaissance writers by such white artists and patrons as Carl Van Vechten and Nancy Cunard, however, considerably complicated the era’s achievement. On one hand, it appeared to herald the merging predicted by Locke. On the other, it pressured individual black writers to validate the exoticism frequently associated with black life by the white onlookers. Cullen’s “Heritage,” with its well-known refrain “What is Africa to me?,” reflects the sometimes arbitrarily enforced consciousness of Africa that pervades the decade. African American artists confronted with white statements such as Eugene O’Neill’s “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” could not help remaining acutely aware that they, like Wheatley 150 years earlier, were cast more as primitive curiosities than as sophisticated artists. However, an expansion in the American literary canon and evolution in African American literature could not be denied. It was celebrated in the March, 1925, issue of Van Vechten’s literary journal, Survey Graphic, guest-edited by Locke, who was then a Howard University philosophy professor.

The first flowering of Harlem as an artistic center came to an end with the Great Depression of the 1930’s, which redirected African American creative energies toward political concerns. The end of prosperity brought a return of hard times to the African American community and put an end to the relatively easy access to print for aspiring black writers.

The 1930’s

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

If the Harlem Renaissance was largely concerned with questions of identity, the writing in Hughes’s A New Song (1938) and Brown’s Southern Road (1932) reflects a new concern with the purpose and direction of both black artists and black masses. Hughes had earlier addressed the caution in an essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” published in the June 23, 1926, issue of The Nation: The Negro artist works against an undertow of sharp criticism from his own group and unintentional bribes from the whites. But in spite of the Nordicized Negro intelligentsia and the desires of some white editors we have an honest American Negro literature already with us.I am ashamed for the black poet who says, “I want to be a poet, not a Negro poet,” as though his own racial world were not as interesting as any other world. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he might choose.

Whereas many of the Harlem Renaissance writers had accepted Du Bois’s vision of a “talented tenth” who would lead the community out of cultural bondage, the 1930’s writers revitalized the African American tradition that perceived the source of power—poetic and political—in traditions of the “folk” community. Margaret Walker’s “For My People” expresses the ideal community “pulsing in our spirits and our blood.” This emphasis sometimes coincided or overlapped with the proletarian and leftist orientation that dominated African American fiction of the period. Again external events, this time World War II and the “sell-out” of blacks by the American Communist Party, brought an end to an artistic era.

The postwar era

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The post-World War II period of African American poetry is more difficult to define in clear-cut terms. Many new poets became active, especially during the 1960’s and 1970’s, while poets such as Hughes and Brown, who had begun their careers earlier, continued as active forces. Nevertheless, it is generally accurate to refer to the period from the late 1940’s through the early 1960’s as one of universalism and integration, and that of the mid-1960’s through the mid-1970’s as one of self-assertion and separatism.

The return of prosperity, landmark court decisions, and the decline of legal segregation in the face of nonviolent protest movements created the feeling during the early postwar period that African American culture might finally be admitted into the American mainstream on an equal footing. Poets such as Brooks, who became the first black person to win the Pulitzer Prize in poetry—for Annie Allen (1949)—and Hayden, who later became the first black Library of Congress poet, wrote poetry that was designed to communicate to all readers, regardless of their racial backgrounds and experiences. Neither poet abandoned black materials or traditions, but neither presented a surface texture that would present difficulties for an attentive white reader. Brooks’s poem “Mentors” typifies the dominant style of the “universalist” period. It can be read with equal validity as a meditation on death, a comment on the influence of artistic predecessors, a commitment to remember the suffering of the slave community, and a character study of a soldier returning home from war.

The universalist period also marked the first major assertion of modernism in black poetry. Although both Hughes and Toomer had earlier used modernist devices, neither was perceived as part of the mainstream of experimental writing, another manifestation of the critical ignorance that has haunted black poets since Wheatley. Hayden and Melvin B. Tolson adopted the radical prosody of T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, while Baraka, Bob Kaufman, and Ted Joans joined white poets in New York and San Francisco in forging a multiplicity of postmodernist styles, many of them rooted in African American culture, especially jazz.

The Black Arts movement

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

As in the 1920’s, however, the association of black poets with their white counterparts during the 1950’s and 1960’s generated mixed results. Again, numerous black writers believed that they were accepted primarily as exotics and that the reception of their work was racially biased. With the development of a strong Black Nationalist political movement, exemplified by Malcolm X (who was to become the subject of more poems by African American writers than any other individual), many of the universalist poets turned their attention to a poetry that would directly address the African American community’s concerns in a specifically black voice. LeRoi Jones changed his name to Amiri Baraka and placed the term “Black Arts” in...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

As in the 1930’s, after the Harlem Renaissance subsided most of the independent publications, public forums, and other outlets for African American cultural expression had evaporated. Lotus Press and Broadside Press in Detroit and Third World Press in Chicago would continue to create outlets for excellent literature. White-owned book companies and magazines shifted focus to the movements for women’s equality and against the Vietnam War. That set the stage for the emergence of Audre Lorde, Lucille Clifton, and Yusef Komunyakaa.

Lorde’s The Black Unicorn (1978) used African symbols and myths to explore the dimensions within her existence. Adrienne Rich acknowledged the volume as a kind of declaration of...

(The entire section is 799 words.)

Just plain folks

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Against this complex of values and pressures, folk traditions have assumed a central importance in the development of the African American sensibility. Embodying the “tribal” wisdom concerning survival tactics and the meaning of freedom, they provide both formal and thematic inspiration for many black poets. African American poets have become extremely adept at manipulating various masks. Originating with the trickster figures of African folklore and African American heroes such as Brer Rabbit, these masks provide survival strategies based on intellectual, rather than physical, strength.

Existing in a situation during slavery in which open rebellion could easily result in death, the slave community capitalized on...

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Music and message

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Poets seeking to assert a specifically black voice within the context of the Euro-American mainstream repeatedly turn to the rhythms and imagery of folk forms such as spirituals and sermons. During the twentieth century, the blues and jazz assumed equal importance. As Stephen Henderson observes in Understanding the New Black Poetry (1973), these folk traditions provide both thematic and formal inspiration. Hayden’s “Homage to the Empress of the Blues,” Brown’s “Ma Rainey,” Brooks’s “Queen of the Blues,” and poems addressed to John Coltrane by Harper (“Dear John, Dear Coltrane,” “A Love Supreme”), Madhubuti (“Don’t Cry, Scream”), and Sanchez (“A Coltrane Poem”) are only a few of countless...

(The entire section is 1217 words.)


(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Brown, Sterling. Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. A study of the influence of the blues tradition on African American speech, poetry, and thought, noting the three distinct types of blues poetics, as explained in chapters on Sterling A. Brown, Langston Hughes, and Jayne Cortez. Notes and index.

Chapman, Abraham, and Gwendolyn Brooks, eds. Black Voices: Anthology of African-American Literature. New York: Signet Classics, 2001. A reissue of a classic anthology. The book, first produced in two volumes in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, was the first...

(The entire section is 517 words.)