Reading Poets of Color: Privilege, Access

One of my students is asking who has access to the poets and poems we are privileged to be reading and discussing in our Poets of Color class. This question, and many other excellent questions she asks are an extension of the questions Meta DuEwa Jones asks in her “Descent and Transcendence…” essay.

So, first, back to my question in yesterday’s blog post about how we as educators perpetuate the racial profiling of “WWB,” “writing while black,” “writing while brown.” I remember being asked by a student at USF during last semester’s Asian American Women Authors event, how to cope, how to handle ourselves when we are the minority in an English Lit classroom, being presented the one or two token writings by someone of color. When, in this situation, we students of color are called upon to be the authority on writers of color and their “ethnic” content. I told this student that the very premise of a class like that is faulty. When studying “American Literature,” why only one or two writers of color? Why only Li-Young Lee or whoever is the go to Asian American author? American Literature is truly much more diverse than a solitary token writer or two, and a curriculum should represent this diversity — ethnic, aesthetic, formalistic, etc.

So then I see how in any  college or university, a Writers of Color course in an English Department is meant to correct the imbalance and under-representation, but then again, let’s think about how this is a flawed premise. This tells me that decision makers don’t think there is anything necessitating change with the individual classes within the existing department curriculum.

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Poets of Color Class: thinking about Bob Kaufman, “WWB,” and “Descent and Transcendence”

Whew. After the last week of being distracted and downright exhausted with family stuff, I’m pleased that all is OK, and it’s nice to no longer be out of it, and to be getting back into the readings I’ve assigned for the Poets of Color class. This coming week, we are discussing (among other things) an essay and a poem by Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and “Coal,” respectively; “West Coast Sounds – 1956,” and “To My Son Parker, Asleep in the Next Room,” by Bob Kaufman (you can read his West Coast Sounds chapbook PDF here); “I Know I’m Not Sufficiently Obscure” by Ray Durem; “right on: white america” by Sonia Sanchez (I’m interested in what she’s doing on the page; right now apart from a more obvious fractured text, I’m not sure I know). Also (as I’ve previously mentioned here), Meta DuEwa Jones’s essay “Descent and Transcendence in African American Poetry: Identity, Experience, Form,” from Rattle.

Jones says so many good things in this essay; one thing she discusses is “WWB,” writing while black, as a form of racial profiling by readers, editors, and publishers, who compartmentalize the black poet as writing only poetry about the black experience, more frequently being discussed in the context of race and ethnicity, the black experience, history, politics, culture, and rarely if ever as an example of a poet who’s successfully executed poetic form. She asks which educators ever use a poem by a black poet as an example of a successful crown of sonnets, and I think, “Oh! Pick me! Pick me!” We’ll be reading John Murillo’s “Renegades of Funk” later on this semester. Seriously though, that is one thing I always try my best to do, find contemporary poets of color writing in form, in order to teach the form (and sneak in a discussion of social commentary and poetry).

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Poets of Color Syllabus Status: Done!

Whew! It’s taken me about two weeks to create a syllabus for my Poets of Color course at Mills College. Classes start this week, and as some of you may know, I very suddenly found myself being offered this Fall semester teaching position. So it’s been a scramble.

I’ve been thinking about not just poetry by writers of color, but poetics essays, and essays about writing life as well. Two that will join Carlos Bulosan’s “The Writer as Worker,” to kick off the semester:

  • Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” (1926). What strikes me about this essay is its relevance in 2010. I don’t know that a classroom full of emerging poets needs to be immersed so much in “po-biz,” but I believe writers of color experience this on a consistent basis — can we ever be regarded and read simply as writers, or will ethnic identifiers always take precedence. And if ethnicity will always take precedence, then how is it handled, by editors, by fellow writers, by educators teaching the work of writers of color?
  • Meta DuEwa Jones, “Descent and Transcendence in African American Poetry: Identity, Experience, Form” (2009). I feel like this essay is an elaboration of Hughes’s essay; Hughes envisioned generations of African American writers into the next century, and in Jones’s essay, we see similar issues still being discussed among these generations subsequent to Hughes.

Later on in the semester, we’ll read Hayan Charara’s “Animals: On the Role of the Poet in a Country at War.” I haven’t yet read it in its entirety, but am glad to have found it. I hope it’s clear that I do want to talk about political poets and political poetry, about social responsibility, about the reach and effect of a poem upon an individual and upon a populace.

OK. I am still scanning and uploading PDF’s, and I’ve found some good multimedia. So as much as done can be done, the syllabus is done. My first class is this Wednesday evening. What a rush.

Addendum: Um. How could I forget to mention that we will also be reading Audre Lorde’s “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” from her collection of essays, Sister Outsider. Also, an excerpt of Allison Hedge Coke’s Seeds. Saul Williams’s “The Future of Language,” from DJ Spooky’s anthology, Sound Unbound. Finally, Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “The New Perform-A-Form.”