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Black American Poetry

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Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D.
All Ancient Africans, almost all African American Slaves, and most of today’s Black people operate inside a common frame of God-centered spirituality. Hence, the Afrocentric focuses on the people or on the human heart within the context of Ancient African type Love and its principles of Ma’at (Love in action). Thus, throughout history, Black people have created and continue to create Poetry in a manner that manifests a spiritual meaning inside a material world setting.

While remaining natural, many elements of the Cosmos located on different planes of existence are synthesized into higher orders so as to create artistic unities. African American Slaves created and culturally transmitted poetic expressions of religious, historical, and cultural significance (e.g. Negro Spirituals and hymns, incantations, and narrative poems). Most served as uplifting symbols for aspirations directed toward Truth, Wisdom, and Love in a harmonious manner. The Spirituals reflected intrinsic folk feelings—feelings related to the Slaves’ concern for freedom; the anticipation of a better life after death; the conviction of a literal heaven; and despair over injustice. The first two formal Negro poets on record in the USA were Jupiter Hammon (an imitative rhymester) and Phyllis Wheatley (?1753-1784), a Slave versed in mythology, ancient history, and English poets. Her works often gently rebuked Whites for promoting slavery and provided proof that Blacks were equal to Whites intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually.

George Horton (1797-1883) wrote milder anti-slavery poetry than Charles Reason or Elymas Rogers (1856). Much post-Civil War poetry was dialect oriented but without wide recognition until the appearance of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906).  His connection with slavery was by way of his mother, an ex-Slave. He is best remembered for poems about Negro folk life—its children, its holidays, its domestic idylls, and its cheerful, optimistic, simple routine.  There were increasing numbers of Black poets around the turn of the 20th century. Typically, their poetry is truth colored by those high emotions which retain the majesty of what is universally shared. The most popular wrote and continue to write according to the emotions of identification so that the people are deeply moved after recognizing something similar to what they too have experienced.

James Weldon Johnson’s (1871-1938) poetry represents a combination of folk consciousness and intellectualism (Butcher, The Negro In American Culture p99). The “Negro Renaissance” (1912-1930s) saw a triumph of realism or naturalism and the cessation of a focus on Blacks who tried to influence majority opinion. An unwritten rule was that nothing conceivably offensive or disconcerting to White Southerners would be published. Yet, there were a few Black poets who exercised their right to be free from racial consciousness and to write what was in their hearts.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) spoke for the “New Negro Poets” by making literary declarations of independence in the sense of “Black Power.” Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was a lyricist, an epigrammatist, and a narrative poet. My Dad—Joseph A.  Bailey Sr. (7/12/07 to 2/28/93)—was a prolific poet and I use many of his poems to introduce each chapter of certain of my books (e.g. Rising Above Poverty). Maya Angelou is a poet laureate, meaning she is the best of the USA. My friend Bennie Walthall infuses many of his poems with the vernacular and traditions of east Texas Black culture and his reflections on what he learned there.

In listening to the excellent Riverside Renaissance Writers, I get the impression that poetry is to Black Americans as proverbs have been to Africans. They point out what the audience or the readers already know to be right; know but in an unclear or un-verbalized way; know as a loose aggregation (a mass of separate things sort of joined together); or know in the hazy sense of potentially. Poetry is natural to Black Americans.

website: www.jablifeskills.com

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