Alysia Nicole Harris Reviews Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry

1 September 2013

In Rowell’s words quivers a hesitancy towards expressing markers of racial identity, one which does not exist when confronting gender or orientation. Why should the artist exclude mention of the very filters which produce her unique image of the world? I default to the eloquence of Lorde for the final say, ‘What does my blood, or my heart, or my eyes have to do with my writing? They are all inseparable … My poetry comes from the intersection of my worlds. There is nothing obscene about my work’ (118).

I wonder if the ‘distaste’ for the Black Arts Movement mentioned by Diann Blakely in her review of Rowell’s compilation does not burgeon from the fearful discomfort felt when forced to encounter black emotions less docile than ponderous sorrow or willful resilience. I echo Ed Roberson’s concern, ‘I can also reasonably assume that many readers think a black writer writes only from that black perspective which has nothing in it for them/nothing of them in it’ (138). But there is something fruitful in this movement. Perhaps a kind of artistic and historical reckoning was (and still is) necessary in order to move forward. Many of the contemporary poets certainly think so, at least according to the included excerpts on their personal poetics.

It is clear that anger does make many of the works in the Black Arts Movement section polemic. The contemporary African-American poetic traditions of hip-hop and spoken-word that preserve much of this tone are ignored all together. The absence of spoken word artists like Saul Williams, Staceyann Chin, Last Poets, Queen Godis, Black Thought, Black Ice and Talaam Acey ignores the importance of oral-literacy culture in the history of African-American poetry. These genres are in some ways evolutions of the Black Arts Movement, so it is clear why Rowell decides to leave them out. The confrontational tone and political aims of the Black Arts poets are replaced in the work of Rowell’s ‘Heirs’ with meditative grief, nuance, compassion and quiet survival. However both sets of emotions offer valuable insight into the individual and collective processing of racial trauma. June Jordan in her short summary of process says, ‘Poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth’ (100). Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni understand this. Their attempts to engender an alternative phonology through which an anthem of black self-love might be pronounced is embodied in Sanchez’s ‘blk/ rhetoric’ (68). To label their works as anything less is reductive. And to deny the reality of rage and the dutifulness of righteous anger in addition to grief, pathos, love, and contemplation is to do other than tell the truth.

who’s gonna make all
that beautiful blk/ rhetoric
mean something ...
            who’s gonna give our young
            blk/ people new heroes
            (instead of catch / phrases)
            (instead of cad / ill/ acs)
            (instead of pimps)
            (instead of wite / whores)
            (instead of new dances)
            (instead of chit/ ter/ lings)
            (instead of 35¢ bottle of ripple)
            (instead of quick/ fucks in the hall/ way
            of wite / america’s mind)

The unfortunate truth is that a poem that deals with race will never be a purely lyric daydream. Race is constructed external to the individual; it is our social commentary on the body. Black bodies are inherently raced, so to ignore the social implications of race is regrettably impossible. This fact leads to a troublesome question, is a chronicle of black literary work on some level counterproductive? In the title we see the goals of the book: celebrate the rise of black American poetry. However, Angles of Ascent is reminiscent of a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps mentality, which is parasitic on the fallacy of the American Dream for people of color. The title suggests that African-American poets have to a certain extent arrived, but the long-overdue publication of such a collection of poems suggests otherwise. The need for such a compilation at all undermines its work of inclusion.

Certainly, the anthology is important for young readers who have been told or have arrived at the conclusion, due to lack of representation, that African-Americans never wrote anything of note. For this reason alone the work is invaluable. But instead of publishing such a volume, should more effort be made by publishers like Norton to represent a larger number of writers of color within broader compilations of American literature? In 1936, Langston Hughes decried being referred to as a Negro poet. He wanted to be known simply as a poet, without any qualifiers. The creation of an anthology of African-American poetry goes against this sentiment. Such a volume threatens to ghettoize (in the original sense) black voices within the larger American tradition. It makes it impossible to talk about how white writers and writers of color reciprocally influenced each other. It allows for acknowledgment without inclusion. The integration of a common literary history for America is necessary and has been necessary for quite some time. But I fear that Angles of Ascent may find its way next to the latest publication by Zane in the ‘African-American Interest’ or the equally comically titled ‘Urban Fiction’ section of Barnes & Noble.

Until now, only a sketch of the illustrious past had been curated for black poets. This anthology offers up a fuller history, doing justice to these writers and their talents. Angles of Ascent is a bizarre of encounters. The texture of the works side by side with the poet’s thoughts about process, purpose and aesthetics provides insight into the individual. Suddenly they become alive as more than poets. They become scholars, thinkers, theorists, philosophers, activists, and connoisseurs, situated in a deep literary tradition.

Despite his problematic introduction to the text, Rowell’s representation of new and strident voices is the collection’s greatest virtue. It is impossible to read these lyrical, venomous, wistful, grievous and tender accounts and maintain the unimaginative position that there is a single monolithic experience called ‘blackness in America’. Putting aside the organisation, the apparent biases and omissions, the craftsmanship of the poets speaks most strongly. For this reason, the work sings.

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Alysia Nicole Harris

About Alysia Nicole Harris

Alysia Nicole Harris is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at Yale University. She is also pursuing her MFA in poetry at New York University. Harris is a member of the internationally known performance poetry collective The Strivers Row. She hails from Alexandria, Virginia and likes all things slow and southern. Harris currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and New Haven, CT.

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