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.
When 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