Senghor (1906-2001), a Senegalese poet, the country's first president, and an absolute Francophile, maintained early on that the best way to support and protect one's indigenous origins, especially for Africans, was by using contemporary (European) methods, or 'the master's tools' as referred to by James Baldwin, to canonize the legacy of your people and NOT by using those methods to dismantle one's culture, rebuilding some Euro-nized facsimile in its place. i've been in serious 'black empowerment' discussions where this point is missed or mistakenly appropriated as an act of oppression... i've had to 'dumb-down' the talking points to this: "if you stole the colt-45 of your oppressor to gain your freedom you wouldnt doubt your own motives by suggesting that an american made gun invalidates that freedom - it's how you use it, what you do with it that matters the most."
- that same theory holds true if your weapon of choice is the inkpen or the paintbrush. the world is moving forward, making advances - with or without us - and our narratives ARE going to be told and preserved, the only question is who will be the curator of such narratives: those who are native to those narratives or those who are only out to catalog stories and art, interpreting the meanings however they see fit? we, as black creatives, must curate our own work; validate what has the most 'authenticity' so that outsiders will fully understand what our value systems are.
love who you are. understand where you come from. let these understandings be the cornerstone of the art, philosophies and sciences that you create, just as other cultures (European, Asian, Carib, etc) have done; just as Africa had always done prior to colonization - tell your tales without flinching, let your own tongue be triumphant in the way it organizes your stories. use what embodies the contemporary in your own times, this is the only way for you to achieve relevance beyond your own era.
Senghor did this successfully, utilizing the written word to canonize his African-ness in France, in Senegal, and on the world stage. such work leaves a lasting impression on me... and as poetry editor for Mythium, it's one of the main things i look for in submissions: finely
nuanced, not annoying or the nuisance of self-indulgent hubris.
i often credit Haki Madhubuti's book earthquakes and sunrise missions as being "my literary bible". my sister Karen gave me a copy for my 21st birthday and his work inspired my creativity and the new way in which i approached writing. before then i was Chuck D Lite, writing angry, black-conscious poetry rants. Haki's book gave me focus and a better understanding of what it means to craft your work. although i was familiar with Gwen Brooks, Gil Scott-Heron, Sonia Sanchez, the Last Poets and tons of other Black Arts Movement writers, it was the tone of Haki's work that influenced me the most and made me want to be a writer instead of merely being a black poetry fan. he was writing black poems FOR black people to heal to, not black poems to strictly poke in the eyes of our oppressors...
from him i fell into the works of Lucille Clifton; her poem "if i stand in my window" is my all time favorite above every other poem ever written on the face of the earth! it's such a short piece and yet it has metaphor, self-love, AND oppressor eye-poke ability all in one... embodies craft and depth and is the epitome of Senghor's philosophy of "assimilate; don't be assimilated."
but Senghor, Madhubuti, and Clifton are not the subject for this 'lit-crush menage-a-trois entry... no.
it's Senghor, Ishmael Reed and Nikky Finney...
i'm late coming to fully appreciate the works of Senghor, having only become familiar with his work in the past couple of years - but his sincerity to his craft and subject matter mirror what i would gratefully love to emulate in my own writing.
i first read Ishmael Reed's poetry back when i was too young to appreciate it and he didnt re-enter my consciousness until after i had read his novel, Mumbo Jumbo, about 15 years ago... that book is now my second bible! in my most creative moments i am channeling the spirits of Papa LaBas, Jes Grew and the Mumbo Jumbo Kathedral... it grounds my space-age sensibilities in the root-works of African culture as seen through the eyes of a black man raised on speed racer, sanford and son, mantronix, and saturday morning cartoons, pre-cable tv era. not just Black America, Ishmael Reed steered me toward the importance of romanticizing one's own heritage in order to canonize your own art. "I Am a Cowboy in the Boat of Ra" is a poetry classic... his work should be taught everywhere!
but only by educators who 'get it', but sadly - it seems - our teachers leap from Langston Hughes to Maya Angelou to fill-in well-advertised contemporary-black poet-of-the-moment here. maybe Audre Lorde. Gwen Brooks. Rita Dove... ...the on-the-surface classics, but seldom those below the radar who had or have been writing exceptional work for a mighty long time. their names might be mentioned, but is their work being thoroughly discussed in a classroom setting? i dont know... i'd be happy to hear about such literary programs.
my first encounter with Nikky Finney's work happened in 2001, when i stumbled across her poem, "Assam", in the Step Into A World anthology - in that piece, she writes about a maternal figure "steeping" in the ocean as if a teabag. i'm HORRIBLE with names, so me being a very visual person that single bit of imagery has haunted me since i first read it! i remember everything by way of imagery... and emotion. (and since my copy of the anthology, misappropriated from a library ((a complete accident i swear!)) is missing, i'm not even sure that the title 'assam' is even correct and its one of my top five poems ever; thank you google, for what sounds like the correct title!)
((to be 100% transparent, i still have to refer to Lucille Clifton's work to correctly remember the title for "if i stand in my window" where she is actually standing in her window in the poem! - memory, BAD!))
(((i've had people quote my own work to me while i waited for them to tell me who the author was!)))
back to the point: A BLACK WOMAN WADES INTO THE SEA, FLAVORS THE ENTIRE OCEAN!
- that's dope.
Finney's poetry has taught me the importance of physically honoring our people, not abstractly or in attempts to recreate the personal mythologies that haunt me, but of immediate flesh and blood bonds - something i have never mastered and more than likely never will. i've had a son die, a nephew survive being in the second world trade tower when the plane hit, the passing of my father who i still have unresolved issues... and nothing i have ever attempted poetically has done justice (to me) in those events. i'm incapable of writing personal narratives that involve my loved ones, with the exception of 'being in love' poems - i can wax poetic about Crystal's effects on me all day! but to write about Crystal as a whole person outside of my affection for her would be a task, because i remain unable to fully encapsulate her womanhood, her country background, her afrocentric tendencies, or her feminist nature adequately. as a writer i know its not a necessity, that its even an impossibility to fully portray someone accurately in all dimensions of their being in a single poem (or even in a group of poems)...
i might incorporate icons famous to me in my work, but for the above reason, i could never be "a persona poet" - not that i lack the skill. i lack the nerve. i can write about me, Sun Ra, and Olodumare in a stolen Jeep driving drunk to a knife fight at the Source Awards, but to take a page from Sonny Blount's actual life to place solely into verse? i could never do it. not without space aliens and a craps game entering the picture...
but when i do attempt to write about something personal, it's Nikky Finney's work that first comes to mind... she has a very humanistic approach in her writing - her characters are tangible, not because they put on shoes and walk - but because her writing makes me feel its subject's toes protruding from their socks within those shoes... her poetry reflects Senghor's approach: not only do i feel her South Carolinian heritage, it also feels authentically 'black' - a rarity in an age where the current philosophy of black writers suggests we aggrandize the dysfunctional in order to be seen as "progressive"...
i'm not opposed to the exaggerated or the cinematic in our poetry, but there's this 'twitter-effect' going on in literature where common, everyday happenings are placed into verse with little poetic device, and yet we are expected to assume that something poetic is riding underneath - the cinematic assumed.
but that's another issue...
Léopold Sédar Senghor
"assimilate... don't be assimilated!"