Nathaniel Mackey was born to a Georgian mother, Sadie Jane Wilcox, and Bahamian father, Alexander Obadiah Mackey, in Miami. When Mackey was four, his parents separated, and his mother moved Mackey and his two brothers and a sister to Northern California. When Mackey was ten, the family resettled in Southern California. Mackey had already become interested in the gospel music heard at Baptist services and was fascinated when congregation members fell into “trances” and spoke in tongues. While in high school, he became interested in the “cool” jazz of Miles Davis and the spiritual jazz of John Coltrane, and somewhat later, he was drawn to the avant-garde jazz of artists such as Ornette Coleman. At the same time, Mackey had an intense interest in mathematics and the physical sciences, and initially he was considering a career as a mathematician or scientist. A third, and perhaps most important, sphere of interest Mackey developed in high school was literature, especially poetry.
Coming of age in the early 1960’s, Mackey was drawn to the avant-garde poetics of William Carlos Williams and the revolutionary poetics of Amiri Baraka in the early years of the Black Arts movement. When he enrolled at Princeton University in 1965—the year Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School in Harlem in the aftermath of the assassination of Malcolm X—Mackey was introduced to the Black Mountain poets (Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Paul Blackburn, and others) by way of Donald Allen’s influential 1960 anthology, The New American Poetry, 1945-1960. Thus, much like Baraka when he was still known as LeRoi Jones, Mackey found himself drawn to two disparate trajectories in American literary culture, one largely white and one exclusively black. Though Mackey would not make the choice that Baraka made, which was to divest himself as much as possible of all things associated with European culture, he would continue to follow and note the importance of Baraka and eventually would begin to meld both European American and African American cultural and aesthetic values in his own work. Thus, in his dissertation on Baraka (a revised portion of which was published in Discrepant Engagement ), Mackey tried to show how the...
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