Teaching African American Poetry in the Age of Trump
Poetry can’t change the world. The world where we witness horrors from the dismissal of every child’s right to receive a quality education and live in a safe environment, to white racists toting semi-automatic weapons and the Nazi flag through the streets. The world where we wait to see what will become of any of us with a “pre-existing condition,” and pray that a pissing match between two men does not escalate into nuclear warfare. Poetry can’t change that. How can poetry even enter into the conversation?
My commitment to poetry has evolved over my teaching and writing life. I first “officially” taught poetry in 1994 at San Francisco State University, where I received my MFA. Before that I taught poetry to teen moms while I was in college. I’ve taught “adult” (i.e. non-traditional) students at Temple University, and high school students at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia and from a KIPP charter school in Texas. I taught at the University of Pennsylvania, where I completed my PhD, and for the last 11 years, I’ve taught at a large, chronically underfunded public university in Memphis. And despite the fact that the English Department where I work has proven in dollars and cents that it runs in the black—and not in the red (yes, English is a revenue-generating department!) I’m immersed in a culture that tells me that the humanities aren’t worth funding. So why teach poetry? What does the study of poetry actually yield?
In my years of teaching, I have observed that the study of poetry enables students to develop core abilities that are desperately needed in the age of Trump. These skills include: 1) Critical Literacy: the ability not only to read the wide variety of printed information we’re surrounded by, but also to analyze it and form supportable arguments; 2) Knowledge of History: Students must research the historical contexts in which the poems are written and set, as well as the variety of allusions to events, people, texts, songs, etc.; 3) Patience. As my friend, clarinetist Carina Nyberg Washington, pointed out, the beauty of poetry, like the beauty of classical (and other forms of) music is only revealed to those who put in the time and practice to study it; 4) Radical Empathy: especially for those we consider different or “foreign”; and 5) Activation of Imaginative Capabilities: Only if we develop our abilities to imagine positive alternatives to our current destructive policies and behaviors can we begin to create social change. Yes, teaching poetry is crucial in 2017.
My students and I laugh together when I tell them that poetry is one of the reasons I get up in the morning. However, this isn’t the only reason some think me an unusual case. When people learn that one of my major research and teaching areas is African American literature, particularly poetry, some react with surprise or even suspicion: “How did YOU [a white woman] get interested in THAT [insert various judgments here]?” An administrator even asked me, “Are you actually white?” If I focused my efforts on white women’s poetry, what questions would they ask? How about if it were Shakespeare?
Because of the reasons underlying such questions about my vocation, my teaching of African American poetry must also involve teaching something about my own race, gender, class and sexual identities, and how my experience and actions both reflect and resist prevailing assumptions. I have rigorously examined my own privilege and disadvantages in an effort to understand stereotypes and truths about white women, so that I may more deeply engage students with the historical meanings assigned to race, class, gender, and sexuality in America. I want students to think about how we got here—the age of Trump—and how we can chart our way toward a more merciful, peaceful place where we might want to live.
Relatedly, I think these questions about my research areas may also reveal a bit about the importance (or lack thereof) assigned to African American poetry. Is it so obscure that it is impossible to imagine a scholar coming across it, let alone devoting themselves to its study? Should the study of “British masters” be our primary focus instead? Or, are they asking if poetry is even a necessary part of the curriculum at all? Alternately, are they pondering if it impossible to imagine in this country, when it is still necessary to point out that black lives matter, that a white person could care that much about, or ever have insight into, an art form created by black people?
A first-generation college student born in South Dakota and raised in small town Nebraska, I went to Columbia University in New York as a freshman in 1985 where I pursued my interests in Women’s Studies. There I found texts representing what is now commonly referred to as “white, middle class feminism” alienating, even dangerous, in their elision of race and class differences among women. As a student from a rural, low-income family at an Ivy League school (that’s the more shocking detail of the story, believe me) texts that examined the lives of bourgeois housewives were strange fictions to me, and the suggestion that work outside the home was a route to liberation, laughable. My mother worked at least two jobs for most of her life. That wasn’t liberation; it was survival.
However, the courses my professors prepared never proclaimed that version of feminism as the only one. I was lucky to have wonderful teachers, and when I first encountered writings by African American women including Angela Davis, Toni Cade Bambara, and Audre Lorde, they lit up the world with nuance and beauty and fierce truths. I remember the hard feel of the chair under me and the light shining on the pages of the books. They challenged me to rethink how I thought the world was made and invent better ways to remake it—and myself. But this is a story about me. The more important answer to the question of how I got interested in African American poetry is that to understand the history of the United States, one must know the literature and history of African Americans.
White people have their entire lives to experience themselves at the center of every story. Studying literature by people of color spins our assumptions out of their resting places and gives us practice in understanding our country as a multi-form story with sometimes competing narratives. We begin to have nuance, and approach discussions of race, or democracy, or the possibilities of empathy with a new complexity. We put aside defensiveness or guilt and begin to listen.
For students of color, studying African American poetry with me may be one of their first encounters with black literature. The University of Memphis is unusual among historically white institutions in the South because of the high population of African American students currently attending. According to institutional data tracking the fall semester of 2016, the percentage of black students among those students enrolled full-time at all levels (from undergraduate to doctoral) at the University of Memphis was 32.4%. (In contrast, the percentage of black students at the University of Mississippi, “Ole Miss,” is around 13%, even though the black population of the state of Mississippi is around 37%. At the University of Texas, Austin, the percentage of black students in fall 2015 was 4.6% according to an accountability report issued in January 2016.) The percentage of full-time students in fall 2016 at the University of Memphis who were students of color (including those identifying as Alaskan, American Indian, Asian, Black, Hispanic, Pacific Islander, and multi-racial) was 44.8%.
Black students in my classes who went to high school in Memphis typically have not studied any works by black authors in high school. I know this because I have asked students at the beginning of every semester for the past 11 years to name the African American writers that they read before college. When I first started teaching in Memphis in 2006, 95% of the students in my African American literature courses were African American. Contrast this to my American literature courses, in which 95% of the students were white. Over time, however, all of my classes have become more multi-racial, though white students continue to be in the minority in courses focusing on African American literature. African American students are eager, hungry, to study African American literature, no matter their fields of study. In fact, most of my students are not English majors.
In our current moment, when a president who had never heard of Frederick Douglass governs us, the need for the knowledge that black poets can impart is even more urgent. Knowledge of how racism and a country grew up together and begat a long, bitter list of black and brown people who have died at the hands of the police is a crucial tool to help us eradicate the violence we have learned to stomach. We must take ourselves into the deep (though relatively recent) history of what made us a country. Indeed, before there was a United States of America in the “New World,” there was black poetry and if we take the time to study it, we will learn some important lessons about ourselves.
Before the American colonies declared their independence from England, a remarkable event in American history occurred. An enslaved African woman, Phillis Wheatley, who lived in Boston, wrote poems demonstrating knowledge of texts including the Bible, the poetry of Alexander Pope, and Homer (through Pope’s translations), as well as poetic forms including the Puritan funeral elegy. Her book of poems, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was first published in London in 1773, when publishers in the colonies balked at publishing a book by a black woman.
Given that American slave owners listed enslaved Africans in the property roles—alongside their chicken and pigs—and that many whites did not believe that Africans had souls, the “authenticity” of Wheatley’s writings had to be “attested” to by prominent white men who signed a document confirming that she had actually written them herself. This attestation appears as one frontispiece in the book. Because poetry was considered one of the highest forms of art, Wheatley’s accomplishments were seen as extraordinary. In fact, Wheatley was able to prove to her master that she was a human being, a human being capable of the highest form of reasoning.
Note that Wheatley’s experience was the exception to the deadly, dehumanizing conditions of slavery that proved the rule. While states passed law after law prohibiting enslaved people from learning to read, Wheatley was allowed to study alongside her master’s daughter Mary. The education Wheatley received was not only usually impossible for the enslaved; it was extremely rare for any woman. And if a woman were to receive such an education (of course, there were no public schools) she must have been a member of the upper classes.
Given the initial strangeness of any 18th century text to the average college student, teachers must provide students with a set of tools to explicate forms, diction, spellings, and allusions that initially can appear obscure and difficult. Students in “Brit Lit” will undergo similar trials when they first encounter the works of Pope or Milton, for example, although those authors are often considered more canonically essential in some English departments. Moreover, students who want to find in Wheatley’s poems a condemnation of slavery cognizant with their 21st-century understanding may be frustrated. Thus, we need to enliven history for them. There was no “African American identity” then. America would have to wait for the Negro, the New Negro, the Afro-American, and Black Power to emerge. Her letters, however—in particular one to Reverend Sansom Occum that is included in many anthologies—clearly decry the hypocrisy of slave-owning Christians, as well as that of the colonists who demanded their freedom from England while holding other human beings in bondage. In 1774, she writes of colonial slave holders: “How well the Cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the Exercise of oppressive Power over others agree — I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher to determine.” In other words, kids, it’s ain’t rocket science.
In the United States, we continue to have a basic, critical problem with recognizing the equal humanity of all people. Wheatley’s words, and the attestation attached to her poems, are not far away when we remember that black men carried signs during the Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968 in Memphis that spelled out in large capital letters: “I AM A MAN.” It was necessary for them to publicly assert their humanity. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis for the strike, where he delivered his famous “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. King states that black people: “are determined to gain our rightful place in God’s world.” With words that echo from Wheatley, through the Black Arts Movement period, to Black Lives Matter, King declares: “We are saying that we are determined to be men. We are determined to be people.” King, who proposed the radical notion that African Americans are people, that they are in fact “God’s children,” was murdered the very next day.
How to move forward in the face of tragedy? In the wake of World War II, Muriel Rukeyser writes: “In this moment when we face horizons and conflicts wider than ever before, we want our resources, the ways of strength. We look again to the human wish, its faiths, the means by which the imagination leads us to surpass ourselves.” Rukeyser’s observations could not be more current. I believe in the power of the imagination, the power of the knowledge from where poetry derives. In the words of Rukeyser: “there is one kind of knowledge—ultimately precious, time resistant more than monuments . . . And that is poetry.” Rukeyser asserts that we impoverish ourselves when we dismiss the “truth of feeling” that poetry imparts, and we cannot afford to waste any of our resources in times of crisis.
In “The Revolutionary Theatre” (1965), Amiri Baraka argues that art should be used to engage feeling, as well as spirit and truth:
This should be a theatre of World Spirit. Where the spirit can be shown to be
the most competent force in the world. Force. Spirit. Feeling. The language
will be anybody’s, but tightened by the poet’s backbone. And even the
language must show what the facts are in this consciousness epic, what’s
happening. We will talk about the world, and the preciseness with which we
are able to summon the world, will be our art. Art is method.
Writers such as Baraka who present the truths of history, and show how history repeats in continuing cycles, challenge us to understand our place within it, and what actions we will take.
“The Revolutionary Theatre must take dreams and give them a reality,” Baraka writes, “It must isolate the ritual and historical cycles of reality. But it must be food for all those who need food, and daring propaganda for the beauty of the Human Mind.” Despite the pervasive violence of the 1960s, Baraka still believes in the beauty of the human mind, and crucially, reveals to us the nature of human imagination. It ignites our souls, reveals possibilities, and releases the power of that energy into the world.
What is called the imagination (from image, magi, magic, magician, etc.) is a
practical vector from the soul. It stores all data, and can be called on to solve
all our “problems.” The imagination is the projection of ourselves past our
sense of ourselves as “things.” Imagination (image) is all possibility, because
from the image, the initial circumscribed energy, any use (idea) is possible.
And so begins that image’s use in the world. Possibility is what moves us.
The imagination engages stored information to develop new images that may be used to create solutions to the world’s problems that we never believed possible. The imagination projects us past the focus on ourselves, so that we can become better thinkers, better humans.
In her essay “Poetry Is Not A Luxury” (1977), Audre Lorde explores similar themes: “Poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeleton architecture of our lives. It lays the foundation for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.” Learning to “cherish our feelings” through the act of writing poetry, Lorde explains, puts us in touch with “those hidden sources of our power from where true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action comes.” Feelings, like the feminine, have been degraded in our world. We prize masculine rationality. But poetry moves beyond stultifying binaries, laying the foundation for change. Lorde comes closest to expressing my own point of view. No, staring out the window and writing a poem isn’t going to increase the peace. Neither is reading the poem as yet another beautiful object to be admired, consumed, and forgotten. However, when we access the deep knowledge of our feeling selves, hidden in dark places behind fear, we can create paths to the lasting action Lorde writes about.
Here’s a true story: Lorde spoke to me this morning, the day Trump held a horrifying press conference, as we continue to shudder from the racist violence in Charlottesville centering around removal of a statue of Confederate Robert E. Lee. I picked up her Collected Poems, flipped open a page at random, and incredibly the following stanza from “Sacrifice” leapt out:
Pulling down statues of rock from their high places
we must level the expectation
upon which they stand
waiting for us
to fulfill their image
for our feet to replace them
Imagination, a practical vector from the soul. Imagination (from image, magi, magic, magician, etc.) Lorde, a magician, reaches out to me, calling us to move our feet past these monuments.
The poem continues:
for our children have grown
in the shadow of what was
the shape of marble
between their eyes and the sun
but we do not wish to stand
like great marble statues
between our children’s eyes
and their sun.
I think I’ll open this semester’s classes with this poem. Move out the statues. Let some light in. Let the magic begin.
Poet-Scholar Kathy Lou Schultz is the author of The Afro-Modernist Epic and Literary History: Tolson, Hughes, Baraka (Palgrave), as well as four collections of poems, most recently Biting Midge: Works in Prose (Belladona) and Some Vague Wife (Atelos). Her poems are published in literary journals including New American Writing, Cleaver Magazine, OnandOnScreen, Fence Magazine, Hambone, Aspasiology, Electronic Poetry Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Mirage #4/Period(ical), Fourteen Hills, and others. She is currently completing a scholarly study on uses of Dada and Surrealism in the Black Diaspora, and a poetry manuscript on post-partum depression and motherhood in the U.S. Her Web site is www.kathylous.com.