"Who's Gonna Take the Words Black Is Beautiful and Make More of It?" Poetry and the Dissemination of Black Radicalism

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 4:10 PM
Stevens C-6 (Hilton Chicago)
Jeanelle Hope, University of California, Davis
In an early episode of HBO’s hit series, Insecure, the lead character Issa, herself a lyricist, expressed her disdain for spoken word, hilariously arguing that the form of performance art is the bastard child of poetry and hip-hop. This punchline spoke to a period during the mid-1990s to early 2000s, when spoken word was ubiquitous, catapulting into the mainstream with shows, like Def Poetry Jam, and movies, such as Love Jones. Despite being mocked for the exaggerated vocal intonations of performers and what were then taboo topics, the genre quickly developed a reputation for being charged with Black radical politics similar to poetry and early hip hop before it. This paper considers the role of poetry in the circulation of Black radical thought and politics from the Black Power era to the Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) as well as its evolution in mass culture into contemporary forms, such as hip hop and spoken word. Examining poetry featured in publications by grassroots organizations, such as the League of Revolutionary Struggle and the Black Panther Party, as well as the works of poet-activists, like Audre Lorde, Ntozake Shange, and their contemporaries including M4BL poet Danez Smith, I will explore how poetry is leveraged to call attention to organizations’ politics, to articulate theoretical underpinnings, and mobilize the masses through an arguably accessible art form. While much of the Black radical poetry emerging out of liberation movements primarily circulated among underground audiences via pamphlets and the Black press, some were able to cross-over into more mainstream audiences, subsequently providing political education to people who might not have otherwise been reached and radicalized through traditional organizing. Overall, this work seeks to demonstrate why cultural production, like poetry, must be anchored within Black liberation movements.