Editor’s Note: When I initially read this essay as included in an anthology entitled “Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago”, I came away from that reading feeling its thesis was slightly contrived to suit the argument the author wanted to advance (I literally said to myself while reading “They making shit up.”) It was only as I reached the culmination of Nommo that I came to realize this intellectual fabrication has the necessary effect of breaking with traditional linguistic standards in order to explore new modes of thinking. As young jazz musicians of the hard bop and free jazz eras came to discover the existing vocabulary of music lacking expressive measure to contain their musical compositions, they became deeply experimental and created a new language to distance themselves from what was was being done elsewhere in music.
This is the core message of the essay as it encapsulates the author’s observations of different forms of Black poetry which had developed across the landscape of the Black Arts Movement. Where creativity becomes constrained by the weight of an established criterion, this form of fierce rebellion has appeared frequently in music, writing and politics. It begins by establishing the language of its position and while drawing the opposition into debate upon its own terms. This essay was but one in a series of defiant milestones within the Black Arts Movements which served to declare there would be no more writing in the tradition and memory of poets long dead whose experience bore no reflection upon their own.
They would craft a new dialogue and use it as a vehicle to address their present artistic, social and political needs. If you can’t dig it, you must not be hip to the scene. This essay is brought to a head at its conclusion with Rodgers’ rebuke of “subhumans” for lacking objectivity in artistic criticism. The argument mirrors those which have arisen throughout the decades in Black artistic and literary circles who sought to create distinctions between expressions of folk life and those more scholarly pursuits. We discover this earlier in the Harlem Renaissance and see it later in the ongoing war over Ebonics as structured language. In either instance, we seek the validation of Black language by employing it as a weapon against those by whom we have been culturally misinterpreted and misunderstood. This no mere colloquial or quaint manipulation of language, but entirely new manners of thinking and approaching life as expressed in linguistic terms.
In the last few years, we have seen a significant increase in the amount of Black Poetry being published. We have also seen a change in style and subject matter. At this point, it is possible to see distinctions in the various types of poetry being written. That is to say, all Black poets don’t write the same KIND of poetry, or all Black poems ain’t the same kind. They differ. Just as white poems differ and just as white poems come in sonnets, ballads or whatever.
I have attempted to place all Black poetry in several broad categories, all of which have variations on the main form. Very few poems are all one type or another. It is possible and probable that a poem will be three or four different types of poetry at one time. That is, a signifying poem will be a teachin, spaced, pyramid poem. Here are the main headings:
c. with or about
- teachin / rappin
- spaced (spiritual)
a. mindblower (fantasy)
- bein (self / reflective)
c. dealin / swingin
b. space (spiritual)
c. cosmic (ancestral)
- shoutin (angry / cathartic)
b. facetoface (warning / confrontation)
c. two faced (irony)
b. cosmic (‘Trane)
c. grounded (Lewis)
- pyramid (getting us together / building / nationhood)
Some of these categories are self-explanatory and familiar. Most poems, as previously stated, fall into more than one category which, to my way of thinking, attests to the flexibility of Black writers. Unconsciously, I think, poets fall into their bag–or bags–and it is no discredit to a writer if he chooses to deal with only one form–or two, or three….However, a Black writer will be classifiable in at least ONE of these categories, although it is conceivable to me that Black writers are creative enough to uncover forms which are yet to be acknowledged. We will know if the writing it Black. Briefly, I am going to give examples of several of the headings and then devote a large amount of discussion to signifying poetry since it has reached an exciting unprecedented level of sophistication in the written word. The teachin poem is a poem which seeks to define and give direction to Black people. The two examples chosen and quoted in part here are Ronda Davis’s “Towards A Black Aesthetic” and Barbara Mahone’s “What Color Is Black.”
if tomorrow’s black poetry will not EXPLAIN what is but BE it then pens will be electric with feeling igniting and the paper shall become the poet and the poets shall be earth-clouds… –Ronda Davis
Black is the color of my little brother’s mind, the grey streaks in my mother’s hair. Black is the color of my yellow cousin’s smile, the scards upon my neighbor’s wrinkled face…
The coversoff, rundown, hipto, digup or coatpull are basically the same type of poem, so the terms can be used interchangeably. There are many, many examples of this kind of poem today. For example, Cleveland Webber’s poem, from his recently released book of poetry, Africa Africa Africa, “In America”–
the people are in all the areas we occupy little parts of air, telling little lies, taking little trips, at least 5 days a week… …ghetto streets get empty while the pig is internalized in a suffering too old to be.
or Don L. Lee’s poem on “Nigerian Unity” –
little niggers killing little niggers the weak against the weak the ugly against the ugly…
These poets hip you to something, pull the covers off of something, or run it down to you, or ask you to just dig it–your coat is being pulled.
The spaced poem is very beautiful and many Black poets, after writing a lot of signifying, coversoff or shoutin poems, find that an inner calm, becomes, and inherent in that, a mystical and positive way of looking at the Black man’s relationship to the universe. Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones) has a poem called “Black People: This Is Our Destiny,” and I quote from it here:
…we go to meet the realization of makers knowing who we are …knowing how to live, and what life is… …we must spin through our seventh adventures in the endlessness of all existing feeling, all existing forms of life, the gasses, the plants, the ghosts minerals the spirits the souls the light in the stillness where the store the glow the nothing in God is complete except there is nothing to be incomplete the pulse and change of rhythm, blown flight to be anything at all… vibration holy nuance beating against itself, a rhythm a playing reunderstood now by one of the 1st race the primitives the first men who evolve again to civilize the world…
The spaced poem returns to the spiritual wisdom of our Egyptian / African forefathers. Returns to the natural laws, the natural state of man before subhuman massacres. Spaced poems say that our ancestors are in the air and will communicate with us. As is the case in Jones’ “No Matter, No Matter, The World Is The World”–
A broke dead genius moved on to dust will touch you one night… …and the stacked dust of a gone brother will hunch you some father you needed who left you…
We speak of the vibrations, positive and negative, and we believe again in what we have never truly denied: the power of NOMMO, JU-JU and the collective force of the positive spirits, moving in time with the universe. In our poetry, we sing of Sun-Ra and Coltrane, and their life-motion which is sound. The new Black poets believe that we are the seventh dimension (as the seventh sun / son). They further believe in the over-all importance of the astrological signs of people (the writer is Sagittarius–No. 5). The dream is to utilize our beginning to conceptualize and direct a Black end that is as beautiful as our beginning.
The mindblower poem may seem similar to the spaced poem, but the two are not to be confused. There are basic differences. Mindblower poems seek to expand our minds, to break the chains that strangle them, so that we can begin to imagine alternatives for Black people. They seek to ridicule and mutilate that which my have formerly been esteemed. Often these poems predict an awful or glorious future and are gorier than the spaced poem. Sometimes the awful predictions are for Black people, oftener, for subhumans.
Larry Neal in his book Black Boogaloo, in an untitled poem says:
We gathered in the open place Piled their symbols one on top of the other, Their flags and their death books; took their holidays rolled their platitudes into nice burnable heaps, Gathered and piled this stuff from the stink pots of the earth which they have made so. In the distance their cities burn… We piled their histories skyward with destruction acknowledgement to our ancestors and gods, then we light it, Singing.
By contrast is Jewel Lattimore’s “Folk Fable”–
…but the niggas wadn’t hip and wadn’t hipped until they was copped. too. to work in the minds on the moon …& the ships had promises had names that all the niggas knew names like JESUS & HEAVEN & FREEDOM to take the niggas to a new world… …& when they was shipped to the moon mainland sold to companies who was bidden while the chasemanhattan bank supervised the auctions…
Or Ebon’s poem, “The Statute of Liberty Has Her Back to Harlem (two other alternate titles excluded)–
I saw them bayonet her spine and pin her 16th birthday to a cross where it hung. dank and slimey it hung, like stagnant death in shallow pools, vomiting blood on poets and mothers and flower children…
Surely, he was talking about “them,” and he is a master of the gory.
Every poet has written a bein poem. In fact, most poets start off writing them. Just writing about the way they be, they friends be, they lovers be, the world be…An example presented here is one of my own from my book Songs of A Blackbird–
it’s me bathed and ashy smellin down with (revlons aqumarine) me with my hair black and nappy good and rough as the ground me sitting in my panties …it’s me in the sky where pharoah and coltrane playing …and it’s me screammmmmmmming into the box and the box is screammmmmmmming back …in kulu se & karma…
And all praise is due ALLAH; we are now getting more, more & more love poems from/about Black men and women. Such is this fragile jewel of Barbara Mahone’s. The poem, “With Your Permission,” combines skin & space (spiritual) aspects, as they should be–
smooth surfaces are easy …i would rather deal with what moves you explore the fire and texture of your soul with your permission i would chart a course across your skin and travel all day all night up and down that rocky road
And one Black warrior, William Wandick, writes spears of honey:
my eyes took your slender fingers & dreamed on them, they thinned imagination to a queen called sheba/nefertiti deeming you royalness/making a fetish of your hand…
And there are love poems for all Black people, such as Ronda Davis’s poem about the “Wine Dipped Woman.” And we need more. And more. More…
The shoutin poem is perhaps at this time the most familiar to us all. For awhile, it seemed to be the only kind of poem being written. It usually tells the subhuman off. Or offs him with word bullets. An example of the facetoface poem, which is an aspect of the shoutin type, is one written by Sonia Sanchez in her hard-hitting book of poetry, Homecoming–
git the word out now to the man/boy taking a holiday from murder tell him we hip to his shit and that the next time he kills one of our blk/princes some of his faggots gonna die a stone/cold/death yeah.
The last category with which I will deal briefly is the two-faced poem. As kids, we used to call a person two-faced if they grinned in our faces and talked about us behind our backs. In poetry, this concept takes on similar, but broader, meanings. For example, I will use my poem, “You Name It”–
I will write about things that are universal! So that hundreds, maybe even thousands of years from now, White critics and readers will say of me, Here is a good Black writer, who wrote about truth and universal topics. I will write about people who eat, as it was in the beginning I will write about people who sleep, is now I will write about people who fuck, and ever shall I will write about babies being born, world without end I will write about Black people re-po-sses-sing this earth, ah-men.
I would hope that everyone who reads the poem catches the two facededness (irony), implicit in the them.
Signifying poetry holds a special fascination for me. Probably because I could not/can not signify and have always admired those who can. From a literary point of view, it is significant, exciting aspect of today’s poetry. I know, and you know, that we have always signified. On the corners, in the poolrooms, the playgrounds, anywhere and everywhere we have had the opportunity. ”We sig” with somebody, about somebody, and if we can’t be open about it, we “sig” on the sly! Langston Hughes’ character, Simple, signified: with his landlady, his partners, his girlfriend, everybody…And Richard Wright deals with it in Black Boy. However, to my knowledge, no group of Black writers has ever used it as a poetic technique as much as today’s writers. It is done with polish. And the audiences love it! Too much signifying can be negative, I think; however, most of today’s poets are very conscious of how important positive vibrations are, and few have carried signification to an extreme. In the main, it is being used, for constructive destruction.
A quick, or lengthy, look at the poetry of Don L. Lee, Nikki Giovanni or Sonia Sanchez shows that these three poets signify with their readers and the objects of their poems. Signify–fuh days…
“wallace for president his mamma for vice-president”
–Don L. Lee
Memorial. The supremes–cuz they dead.
or Nikki Giovanni
ever notice how its only the ugly honkies who hate…
and of course the master of it all, Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), on wigs–
…why don’t you take that thing off yo haid you look like Miss Muffet in a runaway ugly machine, I mean, like that.”
Signifying is a way of saying the truth that hurts with a laugh, a way of capping on (shutting up) someone. Getting even talking bout people’s mammas and such. It’s a love/hate exercise in exorcising one’s hostilities. It’s a funny way of saying something negative that is obviously untrue like “you look like you been whupped wid uh ugly stick” or saying something that is negative as:
…nigger: standing on the corner, thought him was cool. him still standing there. it’s winter time, him cool.
Signifying is very often a bloody knife job, with a vocal touch. It moves in progressions sometimes and it is both general and specific. In Black Boy by Richard Wright, we are taken through a dozens scene or signifying scene (to me they are the same), and each phrase is labeled in terms of its significance.
“You eat yet?” [uneasily trying to make conversation] “Yeah, man I done really fed my face.” [casually] “I had cabbage & potatoes.” [confidently] “I had buttermilk & blackeye peas.” [meekly international] “Hell, I ain’t gonna stand near you, nigger!” [pronouncement] “How come?” [feigned ignorance] “Cause you gonna smell up this air in a minute!” [a shouted accusation] “Nigger your mind’s in a ditch.” [amusingly moralistic] “Ditch, nothing! Nigger, you going to break wind any minute now!” [triumphant pronouncement creating suspense] “Yeah, when them black-eyed peas tell that buttermilk to move over, that buttermilk ain’t gonna wanna move and there’s gonna be a war in your guts and your stomach’s gonna swell up and bust!” [climax]
As you can see, every line leads up to the cap, the final one. And the last statement is based on a reality that all Blacks know. Peas, buttermilk, cabbage and potatoes will cause you to fart! It is a four-to-four balance way of making love to–while poking hurt/fun at–one’s self and one’s lifestyles.
A great deal of what today’s poets do is hit & run signifying–or, another way of saying it: spot-signifying. That is, they do not usually sustain the length of a standard signifying circle. Buy they are traveling too fast. They hit–
and keep on moving to the next point–
your daddy too!
if dracula come to town now
he’d look like daley
booing senator ribicoff
no pretty man himself
but at least out of the beast category
The poets signify with/about a whole lot of people in one poem, hitting one, then another, and usually, though not always, one theme holds the poem together.
When two people signify with each other, one feeds the other for progression, dramatic buildup to impact, but the object of ridicule doesn’t have to be around or vocal. Responses can be imagined or drawn from the poet’s own experiences–
you followed him niggers
all of you–
yes you did,
i saw ya. [implied response--no, I didn't]
–Don L. Lee
Now, because signifying often contains such a broad base of truth, it has been known to cause–in fact, it is famous for causing–a fight or a death. It can get too down, too real, so true and personal it uncovers too much. If the signifyer can REALLY get down (and in grammar school the last word was “yo mama is uh man…”) the second party who cannot move his tongue to balance the scale may use his fists to do so–or his knife, or both. And it is a matter of pride. No Black person wants to be “sigged” about or capped all over…
No Black person can listen to some signifying without responding in some way. It pulls us in and we identify with the bad “signifyer.” Obviously, this style of poetry has the power to involve Black people and to MOVE them. It is a familiar mover, and is probably the most dynamic type of poetry I have mentioned up to now.
I trust that I have initiated here a rather complete incomplete picture of where Black poetry is at. Some may quibble with the actual attempt to label what Black writers are doing. Others may take issue with the labels.
We do not (it cannot be said too often) want subhumans defining what we be doing. There is no human reference point. And objectivity does not REALLY exist in criticism. There is, perhaps, reason, tempered by a good strong sense of what is reasonable, what is fair. Ultimately, one’s lifestyle is his point of view.
Black Poetry is becoming what it has always been but has not quite beed. And we have love and the spirit of our ancestors to guide us.