The African American Poet as Historian
Poets do history -- just not in the way that historians conceive of it
What is history? Not the past, but the creation of “history,” the writing of history, the teaching of history? Is it only something someone formally trained as a historian can do, even though scholars of literature and African American studies, and high school teachers and writers engage with the past, with history, every day? Does history belong to the historians? Many seem to think so, gasping as journalists write histories or tell stories first “discovered” by historians. Many academics assert that historians should be consulted, asked, and empowered. They argue that historians hold the key to the knowledge of the past, of change over time. And, that other people may engage with the past, but this does not mean they are doing history. This idea has only gathered steam since the election of Donald Trump as fear of “fake news” and “alternative facts” has increased. How can we emphasize the need for rigorous engagement with historical knowledge, without the gate keeping that says only so-called “professional historians” can do historical work?
History wasn’t always the sole purview of academic historians. And It isn’t now. Doesn’t history actually belong to the people who made it, the people in papers or books or interviews? I’m thinking of the revisionist work of scholars like C.L.R. James and alternative histories read by the Black Panther Party, people seeking a response to dominant historical narratives that erased colonialism and people of color.
What is the job of a historian? Is it to recreate the past, faithfully, with no errors, no personal bias, no emotion? It seems to be the job, though it’s impossible. Instead of striving for a humanless objectivity, can we leave this definition behind, allowing room for personal stories and nonlinear prose, truth rather than fact? Meaning rather than story. Poetry as history.
Poets do history, though not in the way that historians might conceive of it. But still, poets like Tracey K. Smith, Kevin Young, and the BreakBeat Poets use archives and historical subjects, connecting the past with present politics, activism and an African American poetics. This isn’t new for African American poets, who have been reaching back and engaging with the history of slavery, lynching, incarceration, in the writing of poetry for decades. Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Natasta Tretheway — each interpreting African American history for new, non-academic audiences.
In her most recent collection, Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith engages with the letters of enslaved people and African American civil war soldiers. She uses historical documents like the Declaration of Independence and pension records in creating her historically-informed poems. She visited archives and pulled true stories into her poems, though her volume is not a narrative reconstruction of the past.
For much of the collection, Smith writes from the perspective of African American soldiers. In one poem, she writes from the perspective of an enslaved letter writer asking President Lincoln to let him know if they are free, because his mistress won’t tell him.
Smith’s use of letters home from soldiers as a rhetorical device emphasizes the ways in which African Americans have sacrificed and worked for the United States with little acknowledgment. She embodies the perspective of the soldier. She doesn’t tell the reader about him. She is him, if only for a moment.
Kevin Young’s Brown is a meditation on race, history, and the color “brown.” His poem “Western Meadowlark” narrates an appearance of John Brown “in one hand a bible, in the other a rifle, face more scowl than frown.” In “Money Road” Young describes a trip to the site of Emmett Till’s lynching, exploring both the history and memory of that place. Throughout the volume, Young grapples with Brown v. Board, the death of Prince, the memory of Leadbelly, and other elements of cultural history. Some of his poems are based on books and other, traditional, historical sources. Others are narrations of his own travels or memories of cultural icons and historic spaces.
Neither Young’s, nor Smith’s poems, are narrative. While the poems make cohesive arguments when taken together, there is no beginning, middle or end. Though most historical monographs have these narrative features, history doesn’t. It wasn’t a narrative in its happening.
The BreakBeat Poets Vol. 2: Black Girl Magic (2018) is a lot less explicitly historical than the work of Smith and Young. But the poems in this volume, taking inspiration from hip hop, make direct allusions to the past. In her poem “Sara Baartman and I Negotiate Visibility,” Xandria Phillips alludes to Baartman and the exoticism she faces with her everyday experience as a black woman
In her poem “If 2017 Was a Poem Title,” Mahogany Browne connects police violence, Biggie, gentrification, and confederate memory in a way that connects affective rage with protest and history. Browne writes “whatchu know about the flag the confederate fathers the truck that followed me down a lonely road in George The names that I rolled off my tongue in prayer? Saint Sojourner. Saint Harriet, Saint Rekia. Saint Sandra.” Geographically Browne connects Brooklyn to the Deep South to D.C. and the violence inflicted by and for the president. Other poets in the volume discuss past presidents, lynching, religion, and hip hop.
The BreakBeat Poets isn’t a self-disciplined historical text, but it engages, politically and poetically, with the history of white supremacy, of African Americans, and of black women. These poets are political and don’t feign objectivity, but they are doing history.
It is no coincidence that these poets are African Americans, writing about African American history. African American history has often been erased or forgotten in mainstream historical narratives, even as African American scholars are increasingly filling these gaps. But what do we do when there are no archives, no statistics, no “facts”? The poet fills the gap. We might not know much about the life of an African American soldier or the literal appearance of John Brown. But these poets bring the truth of these experiences, these histories, to light.
Holly Genovese is PhD student in American Studies at UT Austin. Her worked has been published in Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, The LA Review of Books, Electric Lit and many other places.