The Poetry Project

Kindred: Origins of the Black Avant-Garde

Lorenzo Thomas

A paper presented at the “Expanding the Repertoire” conference, New college, San Francisco 8 April 2000.

I was apprehensive enough about this panel, about this conference. What was I supposed to say about this topic? And then last night’s reading really scared me.

Wow! What a reading!

The incendiary Wanda Coleman, Cecil Giscombe reconfiguring the empty heart of America, giovanni singleton’s smart perceptiveness, Erica Hunt x-raying commodity fetishism to show us the decline and fall of the New World Order under atiack by surly appliances . . . . Will Alexander’s poetic exploration of the eastward African migrations of antiquity is very suggestive—if we look deeper into that we will confront the great war between Africans and Aryans that is recorded in the Vedic poems; and present as well in shadowy misrepresentation in Richard Wagner and in the 1930s mythology of white supremacy. How will we grasp all of that?

I like Will Alexander’s line:

xxxxxThe world now fallen into a cryptic bay of moons

But I was a bit disturbed. It just might be that contemplating the turmoil of the last 5 centuries (the epic of capitalism and the westward movements that created what we call ‘the African diaspora”) is more than enough for us to handle right now. I mean what do we do, add several more centuries of desperate marronage?

By we, of course, I mean “society”—or our collective consciousness of such things. There is no reason, however, why the poet shouldn’t concern himself with this. And if that is what he wants to do, maybe that is what makes Will Alexander an avant-garde poet, our point man in a new direction.

Avant-garde: Some definitions

There is a question of how one defines avant-garde. Does it mean that you are an alienated artist? An artist with a political as well as an aesthetic agenda? An experimenter interested in demolishing conventional genres? A performer without an audience? A writer that no one can read?

There is, of course, the recognition of innovation (in content or style) as a critical category. For example: James Weldon Johnson’s God’s Trombones (1927) is worth examining as a Modernist text; especialiy compared to the popular Broadway “coon songs” that he wrote with Bob Cole and J. Rosamond Johnson, songs that made Johnson-Cole-Johnson the hottest songwriters of 1905. Similarly, we might consider Sonia Sanchez’s A Blues Book for Blue Black Magical Women (1930) as an innovative Modernist long poem comparable to Hart Crane’s The Bridge (1930), even though Sanchez’s references and Afrocentric allusions are drawn from ancient Egypt and the doctrines of the Nation of Islam.

Secondly, I thought it might be important to ask if it makes sense to apply the term avant-garde to African American poets working in what will eventually be understood as the period that established the aesthetic agenda of the 21st Century—whether that means setting patterns to follow or being responsible for structures that may soon enough need to be demolished.

In a brilliant book titled The Mask of Art: Breaking the Aesthetic Contract (1998), Clyde R. Taylor demonstrates how a flawed Humanism has come to dominate our ideological, aesthetic, and social concepts. “The American dream,” writes Taylor

xxxxxis another of the extended products of Euro-enlightenment where the transcendent condition is premised on xxxxxits co-definition with non-White invalidity. The “dream” does not exist to the exclusion of people of color; its xxxxxexistence depends on their degradation to a lower, ineligible status (146; emphasis added).

It should be easy to see how some contemporary African American artistic expressions function, not as effective protest, but as reinforcement of this condition. Or maybe Lexus jeeps and Lincoln jeeps and platinum credit cards is really what’s real. Taylor’s insistence that we grasp what he calls “the ironies of discourse” reminds me of a conversation I had once with Sun Ra concerning the Statue of Liberty.

xxxxx“What is that in her hand,” he asked.
xxxxx“She’s carrying a torch,” I said—I’d decided to be clever.
xxxxx“well,” said Sunny, “you’re pretty smart. what does that make her in Latin?”
xxxxx“Er. . . uh. . .Lucifer?”
xxxxx“Now,” he said, “with something like that in the harbor, do you understand why y’all be catching hell in this xxxxxcountry?”

I suspect that is the same reason why Clyde Taylor recommends as radical practice an effort

xxxxxto analyze the ironies sedimented in unequally weighted discourses to better understand the semiotic xxxxxmanipulations of power, and the rhetorical strategies available to improve the odds (159).

Obviously there are many ways to do this. I think what Clyde Taylor is doing here is pointing out a direction rather than attempting to authorize a specific school or style of doing either art or criticism. In any case, given the real problems facing African American people and the symbolic constructions of the media that effectively disguise those problems, The Mask of Art is required reading.

If, however, we still believe that the avant-garde artistic gesture is one way of “improving the odds,” we still need to define what avant-garde means. In many contexts it seems to be a phrase that designates not much more than a willfully obfuscated style. Others see it as a more substantive philosophical position. As Matei Calinescu puts it in Five Faces of Modernity (1987), subscribing to the avant-garde means

xxxxxconfidence in the final victory of time and immanence over traditions that try to appear as eternal, xxxxximmutable, and transcendentally determined (95).

Such confidence, of course, can only be generated among those who are profoundly alienated from the status quo.

Donald Drew Egbert has suggested that, as far as artists are concerned, alienation can become a habit. Egbert notes that

xxxxxThe avant-garde is by definition a minority, and as such has to deny and combat the culture of a majority, xxxxxwhether that majority is aristocratic, bourgeois, or working-class. But the avant-garde is also by definition an xxxxxelite minority, and thus is in its own way aristocratic, and so turns with particular force against the xxxxxdominance of the bourgeoisie and then that of the proletariat, reacting on a double front against bourgeois xxxxxculture and mass culture (714).

What may be particularly noteworthy about African American artistic movements in the 20th Century, however, is that they were interested (and highly successful) in creating models that quickly became mass culture.

But that brings us right back to the Benz jeeps.

Avante-garde Goals: What Happens to a Dream Come True?

There was a desperate period in the l980s when—frustrated by our inability to grasp society’s real prizes (however defined)—we thought that simply being Black was avant-garde. Evidence was pointing out how the children of white suburban privilege copied the clothing styles, lingo, and gestural mannerisms of inner city youth.

This was not an entirely bogus position. One concept of the avant-garde is that it reprcsents a new way of doing things that will succeed sooner or later in overwhelming the status quo. Those who are avant-gardists naturally wish that success will come very soon indeed. In fact, 20th Century Art History suggests that the process takes 15 to 20 years. On the other hand, the history of Fashion and commerce indicate that such changes are neither permanent nor significant.

A more defeatist concept presents the avant-garde as a durable alternative that does not even condescend to the contemplation of success. This is the kind of Marxism based on Groucho’s assertion that he would never want to belong to a club that would accept him as a member.

Two examples of successful avant-garde movements are Abstract Expressionist painting and the politicized aesthetic popularized by Harlem Renaissance poetry. In the case of Abstract Expressionism, a small group of painters, art critics, and the designers responsible for corporate office and public spaces, managed to makethat style the dominant public art of the third quarter of the 20th Century. During the 1920s, Harlem Renaisance poets Claude McKay and Countee Cullen used traditional English-language forms such as the sonnet to craft poems of racial introspection and minority group political protest, while Sterling A. Brown and Langston Hughes employed vers libre and Black English vernacular for the same purposes. The result was a full-court press against conventional American ideas (particularly those of the last quarter of the 19th Century) regarding the purpose of poetry.

What the Harlem Renaissance poets collectively accomplished was to establish the importance of African American experience as a suitable subject for poetic expression—even though that idea still was not fully accepted by critics such as Louis Simpson in the 1950s (writing about Pulitzer Prize-winner Gwendolyn Brooks) and Helen Vendler in the 1990s (noting with apparent surprise that former Poet Laureate Rita Dove writes well “about other things” besides being Black). The message of Harlem Renaissance poetry informs Richard Wright’s “Blueprint for Negro Literature” (1937) and his contention in White Man, Listen! (1957) that the future of African American Literature and other art forms would be found in the thoughtful but fearless development of authentic folk materials that he called “the Forms of Things Unknown.” The roots of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and 1970s can be found in those Richard Wright essays, a fact that makes the Black Arts Movement itself—Larry Neal’s protestation to the contrary notwithstanding—an important continuation of the Harlem Renaissance.

Interestingly, what the Harlem Renaissance did not do is to create or establish a standard style or form for African American poetry. That fact was part of the unfinished business that became an important focus for the writers of the Black Arts Movement.

An Avante-Garde Apprenticeship

I began to write poetry before there was a Black Arts Movement. I had been reading poetry using a relentlessly catholic method: I simply read the entire 811 section of the Queensborough Public Library, starting with Leonie Adams and continuing book by book through the alphabet. Of course, these were skinny books; mostly the works of living American poets. Naturally, I had favorites: Edgar Bowers, John Ciardi, Isabella Gardner, Thomas Merton, Ned O’Gorman, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Wallace Stevens, May Swenson, William Carlos Williams. And there were many others who left me cold, turned me off, or that I just didn’t get. Then came Donald Allen’s anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960 and a new alphabet of favorites: Brother Antoninus, John Ashbery, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Barbara Guest, Lelroi Jones, Kenneth Koch, David Meltzer, Frank O’Hara.

Yet, as fascinating as Don Allen’s poets were, the library kept my interest and also allowed me to go back to earlier decades (long before my lifetime here) that held equally vibrant excitements and enchantments. In other words, I also found myself deeply involved in the poems of Longfellow and D. H. Lawrence, the lmagists, and the Harlem Renaissance.

Nevertheless, I was also sometimes overwhelmed with a sense of isolation.

I sometimes felt… Well, there’s a great line in a poem by Joe Ceravolo: “l am lonesome in my crib.” It did not make me uncomfortable to be the only black person in a room, at a party, or at a poetry reading; nevertheless, I needed to know that my experience was not solitary or unique. It was important, then, for me to encounter the work of pioneer Modernist writers such as Sadakichi Hartman and Cesar Vallejo, Fenton Johnson and Melvin Tolson.

In the March/April 2000 issue of American Poetry Review, Gary Lenhart has an excellent article on Melvin B. Tolson that emphasizes Tolson’s isolation in Texas and Oklahoma from the 1930s to the early 1960s. Should we think of Tolson as avant-garde? Can his work function—despite the isolation in which it was written—as an influence upon a subsequent avant-garde movement? Isn’t there a peculiar similarity between some passages of Tolson’s Harlem Gallery (1965) and the syncopated, free-rhymed allusive verse that one can recognize as almost stereotypical “Black poetry” of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s—so much so that it turns up on radio commercials for scotch whiskey? Is that similarity due to literary influence (doubtful) or racial ethos? Before you dismiss that suggestion, by the way, you need to read Sterling Stuckey’s essay on the Blues.

My own sense of isolation was relieved in the early 1960s when I had the good fortune to become part of a group called the Umbra Workshop. This group was established in New York’s lower East Side by Tom Dent with Calvin C. Hernton and David Henderson. Other members included Raymond Patterson, Askia M. Toure, Norman Pritchard, Ishmael Reed, Art Berger, Jane Poindexter, Joe Johnson, Brenda Walcott, Steve Cannon, Al Haynes, Lennox Raphael, and several more. Asamon Byron, Herbert Woodward Martin, Leroy McLucas, Nora Hicks, and Civil Rights activist Bob Gore also attended meetings (Oren 180-182).

Interestingly, the Umbra Workshop was an avant-garde group that did not produce a collective style—not even in the sense that the Beats, the New York School, or the Black Arts Movement did. Perhaps this was because Umbra emerged in the early 1960s at precisely the moment when everyday fashion—and the Music (jazz)—was beginning to break down into what would previously have been understood as an astonishingly chaotic diversity, a whirlwind of eclecticism.

I’m thinking, for example, of the Charles Mingus band and of Archie Shepp and Bill Dixon’s debut album on Savoy (which was really a Gospel music label). I’m thinking that in the late 1950s, men wore fedoras, women wore hats and gloves. Suddenly in the early 1960s the styles of all eras and social classes became simultaneously acceptable; an earlier concept of currency and uniformity suddenly collapsed. In the visual arts, Abstract Expressionism was challenged by Claes Oldenburg and Roy Lichtenstein, Paul Waters and Joe Overstreet, Jeff Donaldson and Bettye Saar, and Allen Kaprow’s “happenings” (a kind of performance art of simultaneity that had affinities to Jackson Mac Low’s poetics).The Umbra Workshop, if it was of its moment—as Tolson would insist all art must be of its moment (Lenhart 36)—shared some of these dynamics.

What everyone in the workshop did agree on was that poetry is an exercise that must have social and political efficacy. The group’s resistance to a dictated or official style is best reflected in Ishmael Reed’s “Catechism of d Neoamerican HooDoo Church” (1970) which declares


That statement not only reflects what was the actual—and, at the time, unstated—aesthetic of the Umbra Workshop; it is also the template for what would become known as Multiculturalism (before the manufacturers of educational products got a hold of the term and started using it to move refrigerators, satellite dishes, and various “people of color”-coded commodities).

There are a number of other things I could mention, but it might be good here for the moment and let the conversation open up other issues.

An Innovative Tradition

If asked to make a closing comment here, however, I’d say that we do need to nurture the idea, or concept, of an African American avant-garde—just as we need when we speak of heritage or tradition.

It is a matter of fact that it is up to us to define tradition.

We do that by simply naming the predecessors that we admire. For example, I know that I learned a great deal from and was excited by the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud—but what I later learned about their politics (or political myopia) was enough to exclude them from veneration. I learned from them, but I do not think I follow in their tradition. Someone does, but it is not me. Similarly, I admired and Iearned a great deal from the scholarship and writings of J. A. Rogers and will insist today that his Afrocentric position—what Dr. Robert Powell calls the foundations of the Correctionist school of world history—is indispensable to a proper understanding of what goes on in this world; but I am not constrained to emulate Rogers’s often staid, almost 19th Century style. People who think they will find the key to deciphering what is going on by tuning in CNN or listening to Public Enemy, need to be reading J. A. Rogers.

If I say that we need poetry that re-veils and deciphers the symbols that hide our daily reality, I will not be saying anything that everyone doesn’t already know. What I am saying is that the need is not new and there have been, in our African American literary and intellectual traditions, successful attempts to achieve that goal. Studying those is what both critics and poets should do—and doing so will give us the strength to create work that may do the same for others.

Works Cited

Calinescu, Matei. Five Faces of Modernity. Durham: Duke University Press, 1987.

Egbert, Donald Drew. Social Radicalism and the Arts: Western Europe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1970.

Lenhart, Gary. “Caviar and Cabbage: The Voracious Appetite of Melvin Tolson.” American Poetry Review 29 (March/April 2000): 35-40.

Oren, Michel. “The Umbra Poets’Workshop, 1962-1965: Some Socio-Literary Puzzles.” Studies in Black American Literature, vol. 2: Belief vs. Theory in Black American Literary Criticism. Ed. Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot. Greenwood, Florida: Penkevill Publishing, 1986. 177-223.

Taylor, Clyde R. The Mask of Art: Breaking the Aesthetic Contract—Film and Literature. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998

Originally published in Tripwire 5, “Expanding the Repertoire: Innovation and Change in African-American Writing” (Fall 2001)

Issue 12