Black Poetry Writing Month: Traveling through Time…Contemporary Black Poetry

Welcome to Week 4 of BlaPoWriMo!

For the uninitiated, Black Poetry Writing Month (BlaPoWriMo) is a month-long writing challenge that combines the ambition of National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) with the history, education, and self-reflection of Black History Month.
This year, we are going on a journey through the eras of black history and poetry.

How did you enjoy writing poems inspired by the Black Arts Movement? Were your poems angry? Defiant? Did your poems protest racism and the oppression of your people? Did you write your poems for and to your people? Did you “stick it to the man”? Did you put your fist in the air and shout, “Black Power”?

This past week of BlaPoWriMo was quite interesting because it coincided with the release of Black Panther, which was revolutionary itself! I swear, I didn’t plan that, but it’s wonderful how those things work out sometimes. 😉

By the way, if you missed last week’s Black Arts theme, don’t fret. Remember, these weekly themes are only optional, so if you want to continue writing poetry inspired by the Black Arts Movement, or last week’s era of the Harlem Renaissance, or even our first era of slavery, feel free to do so! Just remember to tag your posts BlaPoWriMo, so I can find them and give you a shoutout!
Now, let’s journey on to the next era: TODAY!

How can we best describe contemporary black poetry? That is, black poetry of today. While we’ve seen the cultural artistry continue from many poets since the Black Arts Movement, including from some of my favorites—Gwendolyn Brooks, Toi Dererricotte, Yusef Komunyakaa, Rita Dove, Lucille Clifton—in recent years, some have begun to question whether black literature, as we’ve come to study it, still exists today.

African-American literature was the literature of a distinct historical period, namely, the era of constitutionally sanctioned segregation known as Jim Crow. . . . Like it or not, African-American literature was a Jim Crow phenomenon, which is to say, speaking from the standpoint of a post-Jim Crow world, African-American literature is history. While one can (and students of American literature certainly should) write about African-American literature as an object of study, one can no longer write African-American literature, any more than one can currently write Elizabethan literature.

Kenneth W. Warren, “Does African-American Literature Exist?” The Chronicle of Higher Education (2011)

Did it die with the Black Arts Movement? With the fall of Jim Crow? Does it deserve to still have its own section in the bookstores? Is it even its own genre today? Are we still “fighting the good fight”? Does our art still provide a voice to the disenfranchised African American? Do the characteristics of today’s contemporary black literature make it stand out specifically as black literature, or is it just American literature written by black people? Should I even continue with Black Poetry Writing Month next year? Is it a waste of time? A redundancy?
For our final week of BlaPoWriMo, let’s prove that there’s still a need for black poetry/literature in today’s generation.

There is still so much to talk about. Whether it’s politically—i.e. Black Lives Matter, this generation’s Civil Rights Movement against police brutality and the justice system’s unfair targeting of people of color. Or socially—the success of movies like Black Panther shows how essential it is for blacks to see themselves represented on the big screen in roles other than the subservient or criminal ones we’re used to seeing. Or financially—despite America being one of the richest countries in the world, many blacks still live in poverty, struggling to survive paycheck-to-paycheck, resorting to drug abuse and criminal behavior, etc. And what’s wrong with going back to the past every once in a while? The neo slave narrative, a genre all its own did just that, allowing us to revisit and deal with our past traumas in a fictional/poetic way.

Black poetry/literature may not be what it used to, but there’s still a purpose for it. So continue the discussion. This week and moving forward. And to get you started, here’s a poem that’s sure to find a spot in every black person’s heart, for those who do and who [embarrassingly] don’t know how to play Spades…

We Should Make a Documentary About Spades

And here is all we’ll need: a card deck, quartets of sun people
Of the sort found in black college dormitories, some vintage
Music, indiscriminate spirits, fried chicken, some paper,

A writing utensil, and a bottomless Saturday. We should explore
The origins of a derogatory word like spade as well as the word
For feeling alone in polite company. And also the implications
Of calling someone who is not your brother or sister,

Brother or Sister. So little is known of our past, we can imagine
Damn near anything. When I say maybe slaves held Spades
Tournaments on the anti-cruise ships bound for the Colonies,
You say when our ancestors were cooped on those ships

They were not yet slaves. Our groundbreaking film should begin
With a low-lit den in the Deep South and the deep fried voice
Of somebody’s grandmother holding smoke in her mouth
As she says, “The two of Diamonds trumps the two of Spades

In my house.” And at some point someone should tell the story
Where Jesus and the devil are Spades partners traveling
The juke joints of the 1930s. We could interview my uncle Junior
And definitely your skinny cousin Mary and any black man

Sitting at a card table wearing shades. Who do you suppose
Would win if Booker T and MLK were matched against Du Bois
And Malcolm X in a game of Spades? You say don’t talk
Across the table. Pay attention to the suits being played.

The object of the game is to communicate invisibly
With your teammate. I should concentrate. Do you suppose
We are here because we are lonely in some acute diasporafied
Way? This should be explored in our film about Spades.

Because it is one of the ways I am still learning what it is
To be black, tonight I am ready to master Spades. Four players
Bid a number of books. Each team adds the bids
Of the two partners, and the total is the number of books

That team must try to win. Is that not right? This is a game
That tests the boundary between mathematics and magic,
If you ask me. A bid must be intuitive like the itchiness
Of the your upper lip before you sip strange whiskey.

My mother did not drink, which is how I knew something
Was wrong with her, but she held a dry spot at the table
When couples came to play. It’s a scene from my history,
But this probably should not be mentioned in our documentary

About Spades. Renege is akin to the word for the shame
You feel watching someone else’s humiliation. Slapping
A card down must be as dramatic as hitting the face of a drum
With your palm, not hitting the face of a drum with a drumstick.

You say there may be the sort of outrage induced
By liquor, trash talk, and poor strategy, but it will fade
The way a watermark left on a table by a cold glass fades.
I suspect winning this sort of game makes you feel godly.

I’m good and ready for who ever we’re playing
Against tonight. I am trying to imagine our enemy.
I know you are not my enemy. You say there are no enemies
In Spades. Spades is a game our enemies do not play.

Terrance Hayes

So, are you ready for BlaPoWriMo?

You don’t have to be black to participate. This is not a space for discrimination but education. As long as you write a poem every day this month and your poem aligns with the theme for the week or focuses on blackness/race in general, there’s no reason not to join!

Be sure to add your links to the prompt posts for the week (ex. link your “Black Art” poems to this post) so others can read your poem. You can also tag your posts BlaPoWriMo so we can find you in the WordPress Reader.

By the way, I’m on Twitter! I previously created a separate account for BlaPoWriMo, but that became too much of a hassle, so follow me @Nortina_Mariela and tweet the hashtag #BlaPoWriMo. I’ll be retweeting your tweets all month long!

Will you join the challenge this month? I’m excited to see the poems you create!

Happy Black Poetry Writing Month!

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