Poetry and personal blog – Spilling my guts to strangers

Am I a Black Poet?

As I reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr’s’ birthday today, I think about the notion of a postracial America, which I believe is the same thing Dr. King talked about in his “I have a dream” speech–a world where race doesn’t matter as much as individualism does. Unfortunately, racism is still alive and well. But despite that fact, the world is still evolving.

What I mean is, black people used to be thought of as a group, not as individuals, lumped together due to the circumstance of slavery. Once slavery was abolished and we were able to move about freely, we still maintained a close-knit group identity even amongst ourselves, generally speaking, as we were still bound by hardships.

Over time, through the struggles of Dr. King and countless others, known and unknown, we became more diverse through education, travel, and the like. We began to pursue our individual dreams. Eventually, the once unthinkable happened with the election of a black president, voted in now for an astonishing second term.

3c7786aa5cf6d12e4584b65d0e2bdc77When I was a kid, to my mind, black poets were almost always writing about politics or about the black experience. Or perhaps, that’s only what the media chose to highlight. At the time, activism was the order of the day and the acceptance of free expression was unprecedented. There was much to talk about that hadn’t been said before in quite so forceful a manner.

Let me say right here, unabashedly, that I love the work of that era. It was in-your-face, real, and empowering. But, for some, black, white, or otherwise, that style and subject matter became the benchmark for what “black poetry” is. From there, I believe, spoken word became increasingly more popular in the black community and to some extent gave way to rap. (Also, let me say, I think spoken word is poetry and rap is not. More on that some other time.)

So today, well into the 21st century, on Dr. King’s birthday, and as a poet trying to make her mark, I think about how I fit into the spectrum as it relates to race. My perception is that we are in a transition phase between racial and postracial. I get the sense that some people, black and white, are not quite sure how to react to poetry that is not overtly racial or political–or styled in the manner of a spoken word piece–written by a black author.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of exposure. When I was growing up, writers and poets were featured prominently in news media, and some became known personalities in popular culture. Back in the day, you didn’t have to be “into” poetry to have been familiar with Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. Nowadays, many poetry lovers have not read even one poem written by Rita Dove or Natasha Trethewey, our past and present national poet laureates. Many have never heard of them at all. In the general black community, these names are foreign. In addition to the lack of exposure, is part of the problem that the poetry of Dove and Trethewey do not fit the traditional “black poetry” mold?

My poetry is what it is. I’m a poet. I’m black. The way the world is, race can’t help but be a huge influence on my life and sensibility. Although my blackness informs me, I write about a lot of topics that affect me as a person, not just as a black person. I express myself as an individual, which may or may not resemble a particular poetic tradition. In any event, am I not a “black poet” and do I write “black poetry?” Do such entities exist?

© Sweepy Jean and Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World, 2013

Comments on: "Am I a Black Poet?" (37)

  1. Labeling is what is going to take the world down. You are more than just the color of your skin! You are beautiful and wonderful and just the best.

  2. Just as MLK, Jr. said we should judge not by skin color but by the content of our character, I see you as a gifted, inspirational writer and poet. I long for the day when everyone can move away from the “us” versus “them” when it comes to racial identities.
    Blessings to you, dear Adriene!

  3. Rhetorical questions, I think. Yet let’s add to them: woman, politic, and class? We can position ourselves strategically along a spectrum, but it is difficult to deny it altogether. I have found little reason to designate myself white, but often speak as a woman, a feminist, a lower class by birth who by education and opportunity (no accident) is now probably middle class. Sometimes I say “white” anyway to overturn the right to assumptions. (If someone reads my resume, sometimes the assumption is black, which, I confess, I like.)

    • Thanks for your comments, Susan. I wonder why someone would assume you were black from your resume? As for middle class, I think it is a state of mind rather than an income bracket. I don’t for a minute deny that I am black, but the question is more about how others perceive my blackness and whether that perception affects how my poetry is received. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that black people would love not to be overly concerned with race but on a regular basis we are reminded of it by others’ actions. I wrote a blog post about this some time ago, but we accept this last bit as a part of everyday life.

  4. Oh, this was so well said. I am often referred to as a “woman” poet, a “feminist” poet. I think I write from my perspective, which includes these things but does not exclude others. I love your voice. How you choose to let it fly is entirely up to you. I only hope you continue to use it!

    • “… which includes these things but does not exclude others.” That is it in a nutshell, Susan! I’m going to reveal here a little pet peeve of mine, which is the label “poetess.” Some have called me that and some call themselves that and they mean no harm. But I wonder why it should matter that I’m the female version of a poet. Let the poems speak for themselves! 😉

      • YES! I hate the term “poetess.” However, I like the term “priestess,” which to me is so much more esoteric than priest. Why I like the one and not the other is a mystery, to me anyway. There is no harm meant by being called a poet-ess, and I see you know they mean it innocently. It is the need to stress the presence of ovaries and lack of testicles that baffles. So, let’s let our voices assign their own gender.

  5. We may wish for them to not exist anymore but they do, sadly so. These are labels we all unconsciously succumb to. Poetry is poetry is poetry regardless of the poet’s ethnicity. You are individualism personified and this is precisely why I keep coming back to your blog.

    • Indeed, Sukanya. These labels are taught and learned.j Maybe they make it easier for some to keep their world in order. Labeling certainly is less time consuming than actually getting to know somebody. Thanks for your comments.

  6. I guess it all depends on how a given trait (e.g. being black) or situation (e.g. being part of an underprivileged minority) molds the life of a people. If the fight for justice defines the generation of the people with this trait and/or in this situation. then a style of poetry or art in general may emerge that is unique to these people. As the goals of the struggle are achieved, new generations are less loosely bound to the art as it no longer speaks to them about their situation.

    • Personally speaking, it’s not so much that the art no longer speaks to me, because it does. Art is timeless. But because I am black, is my art less relevant if I don’t express myself in a certain style? At the heart of my post, which I probably should have made even more explicit, is that these assumptions about “black” poetry are marginalizing, causing some to say “This poetry is not relevant to me” or “This poetry is not relevant enough.”

  7. great questions raised, Adriene. however, I love this –> “I express myself as an individual” . it’s a mantra I’ve adopted. well said & well done, Sis.

  8. I love the topic, it’s something that isn’t brought up much anymore.

    I am familiar with Rita Dove and Natasha Tretheway who both talk about issues surrounding race but it is certainly not generally well known.

    I’ve personally met Sonia Sanchez but to say her name now brings up “Who?”

    And even though I don’t agree with all of their more “militant” positions from Sonia or Nikki (and others), I do bask in the basic “Blackness” of what they’ve said, how they’ve said it and how that informs their perception and poetry.

    And I am still wondering why, to have this “post racial society” that many seem to be pushing, does it mean setting aside my “Blackness?”

    My sense is, if God wanted us to become “colorless” or to NOT have our race inform who we are as people, then why did He make us different colors?

    Not that anyone color is better than the other, but each should be affirmed and celebrated, not put down, while we get on with the business of this thing called life.

    • It’s such a weird space sometimes to be a poet who is black, as I see it. Race still plays such a huge part in our society that is it impossible not to acknowledge it. And I don’t think we should have to set aside our blackness or whatever ethnicity we are in order to be postracial. Sometimes I fear that as generations pass, we will lose some of our cultural traditions.

      But at the same time, I think that nonconformity is less accepted among blacks than in other races, and that certain poetic expressions may be looked upon with skepticism. Thanks to the struggles of such people as Dr. King, we can talk about the totality of “this thing called life,” as you coined it, not just one aspect of it. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, AJ.

  9. We all have stereotypes and it is killing us. Why do we need to put a label on everything? A poetess? A black poet? What’s next? We are what we are. I think that talent and work are more important than such labels.

  10. Honestly, when I read your poetry they speak so much to the human experience that I don’t even really think of race at all. I just simply enjoy them! 🙂


  11. kalpana01 said:

    Wow! great post and great discussion. all shades of our experiences go to make up our identity – as a writer/poet/activist/person i guess we can choose which identity to identify with – depending on the subject being penned/lived – this may be concsiously done or atavastic. There is a freedom in this self-expression and determination. The problem comes when publishers/readers want to box you into an image that they can control or relate to, such as ‘woman’, ‘age’ ‘ethincity’ etc. A commodification and control by the market. and the reader wants to know the ‘poet’ more than the ‘poem’. I love your writings Sweepy Jean – stay strong and sing your song!

  12. […] D. Joyce presents Am I a Black Poet? posted at Sweepy Jean Explores the (Webby) World. This post discusses racial labels and […]

  13. Interesting how Black and Women poets always have the liable attributed to them, but the average white guy is just a poet.

  14. I am Latin – am I am Latin writer or just a writer? As a reader I don’t assign labels to the writer – to a genre, yes, but I don’t stop and think.. oh this is a rainbow colored writer, etc., I just read, but that’s me. I believe we as artists should just express ourselves as we compelled to do in whatever medium we chose. I’m with Stacy above, ‘expressing as individual…” that’s what you do.

  15. I sometimes wonder if the internet helps to blur the labels a little. On places like Twitter, all kinds of writers (and others) interact without labelling. (Or is that my misperception?) People of all ages as well, because we don’t always know the ages of other tweeters until they divulge that information. The result sometimes is that we read others’ work before we can make labels. That said, the labelling will never disappear, because we tend to identify with specific groups, whether that be women, minorities, people of colour, or of a specific religion. Once the label is attached, people seem to expect a specific style or content. Maybe we should all challenge ourselves and each other to try the styles typically associated with the “other”. Of course, one’s experience also lends a viewpoint to one’s writing that someone with a different background will not have. Or maybe I’m just babbling here and should stop. o_O

    • No, you’re not babbling; you make some interesting points. Perhaps by attempting a “style” belonging to another one can still find his or her own voice. But then again, it begs the question, what is a typically white style? What is a black style? What is a woman’s style or a man’s? If I, Adriene, don’t write in a typically black style, does that mean I’m not black?

  16. Adriene,
    I’m reminded of Bob Marley’s classic line in his song titled War:

    The real message is in the caps but in the context of the lower case you see the “result” if that truth is not embraced.

    So who should embrace it? Obviously, the oppressors of one race will ultimately have to do so if peace is to be achieved, but what of the oppressed?

    I believe that the first step is always in one’s self-identification. Am I a white man or am I simply a man?
    Can I (or should I) be proud of something that I had no influence in determining? To the oppressors, the same could be asked whether “shame” should be something laid claim to as well.

    Corporate pride, be it the waving of a flag or the touting of one’s lineage is far more destructive than the miniscule satisfaction gleaned from alienating oneself from the whole of humanity.

    Who am I? I am a MAN that writes eclectic prose, with hopes and dreams of reaching others.

    As to the answers to your questions, only YOU can determine them with certainty.

    I don’t know you well, but all I see is a POET that writes of life, something we all understand!

    Very Best Wishes Adriene

  17. I thought i’d pop over, the day i went to a school assembly to watch a presentation made by a class of 10 years old on equality, and in this they discussed Martin Luther King and I have a dream speech. As you looked at the faces of the children you saw they truly understood everything they were saying, and it was meant from the heart. It showed me what truly mattered, and that’s what is inside of each of us. As always i love your writing and how you touch us all emotionally and intellectually. Thank you.

  18. Thank goodness I HAVE heard of Rita Dove and read Natasha Trethewey!
    (As a matter of fact, I gave Ms. Trethewey’s poetry collection to friends and family in the U.S. and Jamaica as Christmas gifts! My older sister was especially thrilled as she tries to keep up with the poet laureates).
    I think that in my experience (did read Nikki Giovanni and Ruby Dee’s poetry anthology “Glowchild” as a child, and in my preteens, the Harlem Ren men and women), I do love poetry, was spoon-fed it culturally.
    But as years went by, I began to shy away from the genre because it became so incensed, so enraged, so full of anger, and so contrary to my own experiences.
    I’m glad that poetry is becoming diverse in tone again, and not just in one shade, in one emotional dial.
    I am a writer and I am Black, but I too have been asked why I write what I write (furry, spec fic, fables, myth). My prose has been called into question – especially once in high school when a English teacher – who happened to be White – accused me of plagiarism (that was one incident. Other English teachers, to their credit, were aware of my writing).

    • I can relate to so much of what you’ve said here, down to disbelieving teachers. I guess it takes time for everyone to get up to speed and realize we need a different kind of activism for changing times.

  19. […] Like, how many of us won’t objectively listen, ever, to a certain type of music, go to a certain movie, vote outside of a particular political party, or be friends with a particular person because of our race and culture. I’ve written before about people’s assumptions concerning poetry written by a black person. […]

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