The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry offers a close examination of the literary culture in which the Black Arts Movement’s poets (including Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, Larry Neal, Haki Madhubuti, Carolyn Rodgers, and others) operated and of the small presses and literary anthologies that first published the movement’s authors. The book also describes the role of the Black Arts Movement in reintroducing readers to poets such as Langston Hughes, Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, and Phillis Wheatley.
Focusing on the material production of Black Arts poetry, the book combines genetic criticism with cultural history to shed new light on the period, its publishing culture, and the writing and editing practices of its participants. Howard Rambsy II demonstrates how significant circulation and format of black poetic texts—not simply their content—were to the formation of an artistic movement. The book goes on to examine other significant influences on the formation of Black Arts discourse, including such factors as an emerging nationalist ideology and figures such as John Coltrane and Malcolm X.
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The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry
By Howard Rambsy II
The University of Michigan PressCopyright © 2011 the University of Michigan
All rights reserved.
Getting Poets on the Same Page
The Roles of Periodicals
The efforts of prolific poets did not dictate the extraordinary proliferation of black poetry during the 1960s and 1970s. That is to say, the presentation of hundreds of poems in centralized sites of publication was hardly achieved because of poets' prolificacy and desire to reach large numbers of readers. Writing regularly and having a strong desire to get published does not always translate into publication results. In fact, the belief that writing hard and writing well will necessarily lead to publication is as flawed as the dream that states that hard work will automatically lead to wealth. Writers, as we know, need more than a strong work ethic to develop distinguished publication records. Literary artists of the black arts era, consequently, relied heavily on a network of supportive publishing institutions and editors to ensure the broad circulation of their works.
"Nowhere is the new Black Renaissance more evident than in the number of talented poets who are emerging upon the scene," announced an introductory note to the 1968 annual special section on poetry in Negro Digest. Most of the poets "are confronting their experiences and giving vent to their imaginations without apology," explained the editors, "thanks — in large measure — to the growing number of literary outlets for their works." The editors of the magazine were reminding its readers that the emergence of new black poets was being facilitated by black publishing venues. According to literary critic Carolyn Gerald, "The direction and developing quality of black literature can be but imperfectly seen if these journals are ignored." She goes on to write that African American literary magazines and journals "are an important index of the measure and meaning of the sixties."
The selection and presentation of poems, the promotion of poets, and the assessment of volumes of poetry constitute central activities performed by periodicals in the material production of verse. In addition, literary magazines and journals serve as those indispensable outlets that mediate poets' initial exposure to large readerships. Nonetheless, relatively little scholarship has examined the essential roles of periodicals in the publication of African American poetry. Taken together, writings produced by James Hall, Abby Arthur Johnson and Ronald Maberry Johnson, Eugene B. Redmond, and Julius Thompson do offer a useful set of historical surveys of literary magazines in general. More detailed analyses will be necessary, though, in order to account for the role of periodicals in the representation of poets and the broad circulation of poetry during the era.
Literary magazines such as Liberator, the Journal of Black Poetry, Negro Digest/Black World, Black Dialogue, Soulbook, and Freedomways were collectively and largely responsible for providing widespread exposure to both the writings and the activities of black poets during the 1960s and 1970s. The tendency of these publications to publish a common group of writers who wrote on overlapping, culturally distinct topics actually advanced the pervasive sense of "nationality," as Redmond observes, that characterized black arts discourse. The literary magazines and journals published poems, articles on poetics, reviews of poetry, and news regarding African American literary activities and thus operated as invaluable venues for the presentation and appreciation of black poetry and poets. In many instances, these periodicals served as the preliminary site of publication for poems that would later appear in anthologies and volumes of poetry. Moreover, periodicals regularly participated in augmenting the messages of poems, as editors of publications made key decisions concerning presentation.
For instance, Mari Evans's poem "The Black Woman" appears on the cover of the September 1969 annual poetry issue of Negro Digest, joined by a photograph of the author, thus showcasing the poet and her poem for readers in ways that Evans could not have done alone. The appearance of the poet and her poem on the front cover of the magazine in 1969 also provided Evans with major publicity for her then upcoming volume of poetry The Black Woman (1970). Negro Digest's method of presentation also prompted reader-viewers to link the words of the proud and strong black woman in the poem with the accompanying image. Similarly, Black Dialogue's presentation of Sonia Sanchez's "a ballad for stirling street" juxtaposes poem and image and thus complements the poet's words with a concrete vision. "Someone shud write" a book about "stirling street," proposes Sanchez, to showcase the street's "beauty of blk / culture" and to celebrate "brothers / TCBing on stirling street." Sanchez's poem is accompanied by a photo of two black men, one playing a guitar and another one dancing. The image prompts readers to conclude that the street in the background is the "stirling street" that Sanchez refers to in her poem and that the men pictured are taking care of business. As the presentations of Sanchez's and Evans's poems suggest, magazine editorial decisions such as the fusion of poems and photographs in the presentation of literary art can influence how audiences perceive poets' works.
Of the several periodicals that contained verse, Negro Digest/Black World was arguably the most influential venue for the publication and discussion of African American poetry and poets. The magazine's wide circulation, its inclusion of so many leading poets, and its prominent role initiating and showcasing particular concerns related to black writers made it a defining outlet in the transmission of black literary art and an important social force for getting poets on the same page. This magazine was actually one among a number of publications, including Liberator, the Journal of Black Poetry, Soulbook, Freedomways, and Black Dialogue. These and other publications were certainly important to the presentation of black verse as well. However, Negro Digest/Black World requires special attention for understanding the production of black poetry during the 1960s and 1970s.
Setting the Stage for Black Arts Literature
According to Larry Neal, Negro Digest/Black World "had the most consistent effect on contemporary black letters." Neal goes on to observe that the magazine's "strong influence on the new literary movement derives from the fact that it is the most stable and widely read of the magazines concerned with the full range of issues confronting the black artistic community." The editorial staff of the magazine included Hoyt Fuller, David Llorens, Carole Parks, Herbert Temple, Ariel Strong, and Robert Fentress. Fuller, Llorens, and Parks, in particular, assisted in increasing the visibility of black poets and poetry by providing coverage of literary conferences and events during the era. The collective efforts of these writers and editors served as a foundation for the reports and editorials focusing on black artistic production presented in the magazine. The editorial staff, or more specifically the design and layout artists, created dynamic displays of poetry and images appealing to a black nationalist ethos.
Among other African American literary magazines of the era, Negro Digest/Black World "had more tangible marks of outward success: a longer history and a larger circulation and readership," observe Abby Johnson and Ronald Johnson. John H. Johnson's financial backing gave the publication unparalleled resources, especially for a magazine that regularly featured writings and news on African American literary art. For example, the periodical had a circulation of thirty thousand, by far the largest circulation among magazines that regularly published black poetry. The relationships between Negro Digest/Black World and other African American literary magazines of the era were often interactive. The smaller publications influenced and were influenced by the Johnson-financed magazine.
Although Abby Johnson and Ronald Johnson's assessment that Negro Digest/Black World had more outward markers of success than other magazines has some validity, it is worth noting that Liberator, the Journal of Black Poetry, Freedomways, and Black Dialogue served different purposes and should perhaps be evaluated in slightly different categories. Liberator, for instance, concerned itself with concentrated regional interests. In particular, the editors oriented their material to the arts and political scenes of New York and especially Harlem. In the process, the magazine appealed to its local readership and offered publishing opportunities more frequently to those in the area. The Journal of Black Poetry also tended to have a regional focus, this one on the West Coast, though the periodical did have a news and announcements section that provided national news on literary events. As the title of the publication suggests, though, the Journal of Black Poetry concentrated primarily on African American verse. The magazine effectively published a range of materials by established and emergent poets; the publication's attention to verse meant that it would present a large number of writers in each issue. To the extent that the material from so many of the African American periodicals of the era influenced a common group of poets and readerships, viewing their overall achievements as interrelated is necessary.
Published monthly, Negro Digest/Black World could be found on newsstands and in bookstores across the country in major black-populated areas. First published in 1942, Negro Digest thrived in securing a large African American middle-class readership, as its owner Johnson capitalized on "an almost insatiable thirst by African Americans to hear about themselves." Indeed, Johnson, who later founded Ebony, Jet, and Tan, proved to have keen insight and much success in black capitalist enterprises. As James Hall notes, "Johnson perceived potentially lucrative opportunities in packaging a product sensitively aimed at the social, cultural, and psychological particularities of the black consumer." Johnson's major accomplishment was therefore "his significant insight into the psychology of American capitalism."
Modeled on Reader's Digest, Negro Digest initially reprinted news articles focusing on African Americans from a variety of sources. The publication became profitable early on but was surpassed by Johnson's "picture-focused periodical" Ebony, which began in 1945. With the rising interest in Ebony, Johnson discontinued publication of Negro Digest in 1951 because of a decrease in profits. The magazine reappeared in 1961, however, with Hoyt Fuller as its new managing editor. "Fuller transformed Negro Digest from a publication that merely reprinted articles to one that showcased all forms of original scholarly and creative expression," writes literary historian Clovis Semmes (xi). As managing editor of a widely distributed magazine that gave substantial coverage to African American literary culture, Fuller, according to Semmes, "became a major architect of the Black Arts and Black Consciousness movement of the mid-1960s and 1970s" (xii).
Under Fuller's leadership, Negro Digest/Black World was a premier magazine that published a tremendous amount of poems and articles related to poetry. Kalamu ya Salaam observes that Fuller "published a variety of viewpoints but also insisted on editorial excellence and thus made Negro Digest/Black World a first-rate literary publication." To be sure, between 1965 and 1976,Negro Digest/Black World published over three hundred poets and more than 750 poems. Fuller's column "Perspectives (Notes on Books, Writers, Artists, and the Arts)" informed readers about publishing opportunities, upcoming conferences, and the latest book releases. In his column, Fuller presented the names of writers in bold lettering, which highlighted artists and creative intellectuals of the era. He also provided mailing addresses of black-owned presses, making them more available to potential book buyers. As the facilitator of such an expansive site regarding African American literature and the contemporary arts scene, Fuller established the publication as an invaluable resource and venue for black literary art.
Fuller also utilized his column to celebrate and critique trends in the literary marketplace and to warn African American writers and readers in general about what he viewed as the antiblack racist practices of the mainstream publishing industry. In the December 1970 issue of the publication, Fuller placed an inquiry in a small box at the bottom of the first page of his column: "Question: Why would a writer who makes a big production of being 'just a writer, not a Negro writer,' accept a contract from a publisher to collect material for — and serve as editor of — an anthology of Afro-American literature?" The question and critique most likely referred to Robert Hayden, who had edited Kaleidoscope: Poems by American Negro Poets and who had also been criticized for taking a seemingly conservative position regarding his racial identity as a writer. Fuller's question functioned to raise suspicions about writers who avoided being referred to as "black" yet still pursued opportunities to profit from labeling their works under categories related to African American literature. Fuller's critique echoed 1960s debates, as well as prior disagreements regarding how African American writers should define themselves and their relationship to white and black audiences. Langston Hughes addressed the degree to which black writers embraced their cultural and racial identities in his essay "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," initially published in 1926. The appearance of Fuller's critique in such a popular venue gave potential editors and writers a sense of the consequences that might befall them if they misaligned themselves with black militancy.
Negro Digest/Black World increased the visibility of black writers in a number of ways. For one, the magazine published poems, short stories, and essays by leading black writers, including Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, Nikki Giovanni, Dudley Randall, Haki Madhubuti (Don Lee), and Sonia Sanchez. The periodical also published reports on literary conferences, publicized events organized by writers, and announced the publication of recent books and recipients of literary awards. Further, the periodical published articles focusing on African American literature and hundreds of reviews. Finally, the magazine regularly published photographs of black writers and thus familiarized readers with visual images of literary artists. The "Perspectives" section of the July 1968 issue of the magazine, for example, announced that "the first Conrad Kent Rivers Memorial Fund Award was presented to Carolyn Rodgers" and included a photograph of the poet alongside the announcement. The constant presentation of poet photographs greatly increased poets' popularity, making it possible for audiences to establish visual connections with the black literary figures.
Like most magazines, Negro Digest/Black World utilized images to accentuate the writings in the publication and to appeal to both the linguistic and the visual sensibilities of readers. The editors often relied on black-inflected images that project the spirit of nationalism that pervaded the era and thus occasionally complemented poems with photographs and illustrations. Stanley Crouch's "Howling Wolf: A Blues Lesson Book," which memorializes the blues musician, features a photo of Howling Wolf, singing and dancing expressively. In the July 1968 issue of Negro Digest, the title of LeRoi Jones's "Who Will Survive America? Few Americans Very Few Negroes No Crackers at All" appears above the poem on a drawing of a sign stuck into the ground, implying that the poem is a kind of public notice. Finally, Mari Evans's "A good assassination should be quiet," which memorializes Martin Luther King Jr., includes a photo of the slain leader and appeared in the May 1968 issue of the magazine, a month after King's assassination. Complementing poems with these kinds of images allowed the editors to expand the ways that audiences could experience poems. The presentation of a photograph alongside a poem heightened the degree to which the overall piece might be read. In effect, Negro Digest/Black World was transforming select poems into vibrant mixed-media texts — fusions of words and images.
Excerpted from The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry by Howard Rambsy II. Copyright © 2011 the University of Michigan. Excerpted by permission of The University of Michigan Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: "A Group of Groovy Black People" 1
1 Getting Poets on the Same Page: The Roles of Periodicals 17
2 Platforms for Black Verse: The Roles of Anthologies 49
3 Understanding the Production of Black Arts Texts 77
4 All Aboard the Malcolm-Coltrane Express 101
5 The Poets, Critics, and Theorists Are One 125
6 The Revolution Will Not Be Anthologized 149
List of Anthologies Containing African American Poetry, 1967-75 161