Black oral poetry in America
An open letter
Note: The following open letter was originally published in Jerome Rothenberg and Dennis Tedlock’s journal of ethnopoetics, Alcheringa, no. 3 (Winter 1971): 94–95 (a facsimile is available online at Independent Voices). The immediate occasion was a statement made by Ted Wilentz, Weatherly’s coeditor for the Natural Process anthology, in his introduction to that volume. Wilentz had written:
Hopefully, an anthology like the present one will help reduce this lack of communication [of “black achievements” in poetry]. It should also show the variety, energy, and talent burgeoning among blacks. The work songs, gospels, and blues that have contributed so much to American poetry show the great potential that exists among people with a strong verbal tradition. The potential was not realized because a forcibly enslaved and uneducated group could not produce much in an art form as complex and as demanding of education and a written tradition as poetry.
Weatherly’s letter in response remains a vital statement of black oral poetry, and its republication here might hopefully (re-)establish it as a foundational text still of great relevance, to be set alongside such classics from the same period as Stephen Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry.
— David Grundy
BLACK ORAL POETRY IN AMERICA: An Open Letter
There is a statement that you made in your introduction which I know is inaccurate. And the only difficulty now is to get you to acknowledge it, then we may get on with the business of searching for, discovering, and promulgating the truth. We discussed some points in the rough draft of your introduction, but I can’t remember if I called you on this: “The potential was not realized because a forcibly enslaved and uneducated group could not produce much in an art form as complex and as demanding of education and a written tradition as poetry.” This statement would be quite true if you could make the substantive claim that Europeans invented poetry, and therefore had the historical privilege (not right, mind you) of defining that body of artifacts and process, and its subsequent development. Surely you do not suggest (and yessiree bob you do) that
“The work songs, gospels, and blues that have contributed so much to American poetry”
are just potential? The first weakness lies in your implication that black poets have not produced a considerable bulk of good ‘original’ poetry, which is true if you cannot recognise where the (fo’real) Afro-American poetic tradition is, and it is not where white critics have habitually looked for it. Racism is so deep in this society that it even affects the judgement of good men. Ask a young white radical if he is a racist, and he’ll feel insulted, assuring you that he also calls his father and mother HONKIES. ASK HIM THE COLOR OF A FLESH-COLOURED BANDAID. Enuf moralising. It may be difficult for you, suckled on the Euro-American tradition which begins with the Beowulf saga and extends through Pound/Eliot/Yeats to many of my contemporaries (and partially includes me), to see that the Afro-American poetic tradition is not the mimicry practised by Phyllis Wheatley, nor the pseudo-darkie thrush singing on the American shores of alienation wif hope in its black heart, as wif Paul Lawrence Dunbar, nor the self-conscious Euro-genital verse of Countee Cullen and other NEGRO poets (they should rename that library uptown the Ameer Baraka library). Our tradition is composed of those work songs, field hollers, gospels, and blues, which you have condescendingly refered [sic] to as potential. That’s our poetry, our tradition, my main man, and if you put it down, you put down most of what is good in American song lyric and poetry, and you put down most of the base I build on. I thought that this kind of ethnocentrism had disappeared this far from the time when a British barbarian was burned at the stake for publishing the bible in the language of the Angles, instead of Latin which the Church deemed fit. The nobility used French as the literary language, and the literary models were French too.
The Afro-American poets who would correspond to the major Euro-American in this country were to be found on race records’ [sic], and put into that special category of blues. A poet is considered a major poet if he contributes a new process to the tradition he is working in, or if he is a master of a process, or if he develops a process in that tradition. Most of the black poets that the American white critic accepts are imitations of white writers, and the poets in the Afro-American tradition are simply ignored or put into a special ‘race’ category. While the house-niggers have been getting all of the attention, or most of it, there are the poets like Willie Dixon, Peachtree Payne, Chuck Berry, Bessie Smith, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, who have gotten the shaft. What you really meant to say, rather, what you actually said was that
The potential was not realized because a forcibly enslaved and uneducated group could not produce much in an art form as complex (*) and as demanding of an Euro-American education and a written tradition (not necessary as the oral traditions in many countries have produced magnificent poets) as poetry.
(*) Let us get back to those complexities. A child by the time he is 12 has all the techniques learned that he needs, and all he studies from then on is how to use these techniques efficiently. “Poetry is a compressed expression of beliefs, feelings and forms (ooh my aching Pound William Olson Jones) that comes out of a (English, Euro- or Anglo-American, Afro-American, Irish, Chinese, Venusian) tradition and culture and out of a personal experience and nature.” Black Americans do not share all the same culture and tradition of white americans, and if they do, then why did major recording studios have a department for race records? Why is black literature a specialty? The porpoise and the shark live in the same medium, but the porpoise does not breathe the oxygen dissolved in that medium. Black Americans live in this American lake, and are adapted to live in this lake, but do not breathe the American tradition. Even the bourgeois niggers go home and listen to jass, or belong to funky baptist churches, and the exceptions are dead men.
I hope that you rethink this statement you made in your introduction, and maybe someday in another printing, or some other publication, clear this inaccuracy — that will really be the working out of natural process.
Give my love to the family.