Black Literature: Hughes, Cullen, Baraka, and Madhubuti
The term “Jazzoetry” was coined by the Last Poets, who used it as the name of one of their albums. The term was applied to the revolutionary style of poetry with a jazz background that they had popularized during their 70s heyday. While the term may not have applied so much to the written word, particularly that before it, there were black poets who wrote with an afrocentric flow and fervor that was inspiration and insightful.
Amiri Baraka is one such poet and is considered the founding father of the Black Arts Movement. He was born Everett LeRoi Jones, in Newark, New Jersey, October 7, 1934.
Baraka (still writing under his given name of LeRoi Jones) found success early, winning the Obie In 1964 for his racially-charged play, “The Dutchman,” which focused on the brief, but volatile rapport between a young black man and a blonde temptress. He later opened a school that emphasized blackness in an artistic, musical, poetic and dramatic context.
He later divorced his (white) wife and adopted a more nationalist perspective and changed his name to Imamu Amiri Baraka. He remarried, to Sylvia Robinson, who adopted the name Amina Baraka.
In 1961 Baraka had his work, “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note” published. Two years later came, “Blues People.” But his real notoriety came when his poetry took on a stance similar to that of the Black Muslim Movement and took on what many labeled an “Anti-Semitic” tenor. Since then he has published 17 other books, including “Four Black Revolutionary Plays” (1969), “Raise Race Rays Raize: Essays Since 1965, 1971,” “The Autobiography of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka” (1984), and “Somebody Blew Up America” (2001).
In 2002 Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey. One of his detractors is negro lickspittle and anti-affirmative Action crusader,. Ward Connerly. He described Baraka as, “One of America’s premier haters and anti-Semites,” in reference to the poem, “Somebody Blew Up America.” That particular work accused Israel of having prior knowledge of the 911 attacks and did nothing to alert Americans. Because of the ensuing controversy, Baraka resigned his post in 2003.
Connerly elaborated: “the New Jersey Council for the Humanities and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts formed a panel that appointed this “artist” as poet laureate. That’s right. They appointed him to this prestigious paid position ($10,000 for a two-year term, no less) in spite of the fact that he had published dozens of anti-Jewish, anti-white, pro-Black Panther screeds during the last 25 years…Did they really think his hate-infused, Jew-bashing, hip-hop-like lyrics were truly poetic?…Now I’m starting to wonder if there aren’t more Amiri Barakas out there, dishing out filth and hate under the guise of a poet laureate of another state. It wouldn’t hurt any of us to check this out.”
Technically different, Countee Cullen was born in Louisville, Kentucky, March 30, 1903, (though for most of his life he claimed New York City as his birthplace. Along with Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Among others, Cullen was one of the stars of the Harlem Renaissance. During this time He published several books of poetry, “Color” (1925), “Copper Sun” (1927) and “The Ballad of the Brown Girl” (1927)..
While his themes were black, many believed he “wrote white.” Cullen experimented with sonnets, quatrains, and other poetic forms and was influenced by John Keats. However, his work often dealt with racial issues.”
One such poem is “Simon the Cyrenian Speaks”:
He never spoke a word to me / And yet He called my name /
He never gave a sign to me / And yet I knew and came.
At first I said, “I will not bear / His cross upon my back /
He only seeks to place it there / Because my skin is black.
But He was dying for a dream / And He was very meek,
And in His eyes there shone a gleam / Men journey far to seek.
It was Himself my pity bought / I did for Christ alone
What all of Rome could not have wrought / With bruise of lash or stone.
There is a symmetry and flow to his words. It is simple yet powerful in its expression of suffering. Cullen died in 1946, falling victim to high blood pressure.
Haki R. Madhubuti is a poet who has risen to literary prominence in the Black Arts Movement. He gained his first successes writing poetry during the 60’s and early 70’s writing under his given name, Don L. Lee (He changed his name in 1973). He is also an essayist and is founder of and editor at Third World Press, the oldest Black publishing company in the Unites States. He is also a noted lecturer and educator, serving as the director of the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program at Chicago State University.
Madhubuti was born in Little Rock, Arkansas February 23, 1942, but was raised in Detroit. He started his literary career in 1967 with the publication of a collection of essays titled, “Think Black.” Some of his other poetic offerings include the collections, “We Walk the Way of the World,” and “Don’t Cry, Scream.” He has published 18 other books including, “Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous,” “The African American Family in Transition,” and “Claiming Earth: Race, Rage, Rape, Redemption.”
His perspective is decidedly pro-black, seeking to raise issues for discussion and dissemination. One of his conscious-raising works is “Change Up,” which says:
let’s go for ourselves/
both cheeks are broken now./
move past the corner bar,/
let yr/split lift u above that quick high./
He again takes a point-blank approach in “My Brothers, My Brothers”:
my brothers i will not tell you/
who to love or not love/
i will only say to you/
Black women have not been/
i will say to you/
we are at war & that/
Black men in america are/
being removed from the/
Madhubuti states, “We are only equipped to survive, but survival is not enough. We go to malls and stores to buy products from people who don’t even like us…We are buying stuff and we worship ownership. But first we must take ownership of ourselves–when you don’t know yourself, you have no ownership of yourself. If all Black children were made aware of their culture and history beyond the context of slavery, they would rise above the limited frustrations of others and themselves.”
James Mercer Langston Hughes was born February 1, 1902 in Joplin, Missouri. He died May 22, 1967 of cancer. During that 65-year span he created a vast body of work that includes more than 25 books (16 were poetry books), twenty plays, several autobiographical works and radio and television scripts. Some of his most notable works are “The Big Sea,” “I Wonder As I Wander,” “Shakespeare In Harlem” and “The Best of Simple.”
At age 17 he went to Mexico for a year, and despite being with his father found it not to his liking. He also served a hitch in the army and traveled the world, including several trips to Russia and to Africa. The latter influenced his writing, especially in the poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.”
Langston began writing poetry in the eighth grade. Years later and against his father’s wishes, he dropped out of Columbia University. Shortly thereafter his first poem (“The Negro Speaks of Rivers”) was published. Known primarily as a poet, Hughes earned distinction by penning plays, essays and novels as well. He created a series of books on a dim-witted character he called, Jess B. Simple.
But his most well-known work is the poem, “A Dream Deferred”:
What happens to a dream deferred?/
Does it dry up / like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore– / And then run? /
Does it stink like rotten meat? / Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet? /
Maybe it just sags / like a heavy load./
Or does it explode?
Hughes asserted, “We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they aren’t, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too… If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, as strong as we know how and we stand on the top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”
Hughes heyday was in the 20’s. After a trip to Africa in 1923, he returned and flourished during the Harlem Renaissance. He took a job working under Carter G. Woodson, editor of the Journal of, but returned to Harlem in 1926. He also returned to school (University of Pennsylvania), earning his B.A. degree three years later.
The influence of these four men is alive and well, their works srving as an impetus for today’s new cadre of black poets.
Paul P. Reuben, “Amiri Baraka / LeRoi Jones,” Perspectives in American Literature, chapter 10
Ward Connerly, “Amiri Baraka Hits a New Low,” The Washington Times, October 11, 2002
Amiri Baraka profile, Wikipedia
Biography of Langston Hughes, Wikipedia
Andrew P. Jackson (Sekou Molefi Baako), “Langston Hughes” No additional information available