📚Black To School: Issue #23
Black Is Poetry 📜: From Inventing Written Language & Poetic Genius to Afrofuturism
For anyone new to Black To School, we explore the history and contributions of Africans and the African diaspora to global society. Our goal is to learn from these stories, draw inspiration, and make a positive change in our own lives, homes, and communities. The “Why?” that powers our mission is simple. “Our ancestors invented the table that the world now sits at. It’s time to not just claim our seat, but to set the agenda.”
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📜 Welcome to Issue #23!
Spring has arrived! Let’s welcome a new season of growth, renewal, and fresh perspectives. This time of year has always been inspiring to people, and this month, we’re diving into the topics of poetry, language, and human connection.
Last month, we had the honor of being a featured newsletter on Substack! You can read our interview here. Thank you to all readers for your continued support!
Black Is Poetry:
Our ability to share complex concepts and learn as a group is what distinguishes humans from other primates. This evolution of human expression is what ultimately gave rise to over 7,000 languages spoken around the world. In this issue, we’ll follow the trail from the earliest forms of writing to the origins of modern poetry and literature.
What’s The Story? These Are The Facts.
The First Writing Can Be Traced Back to Africa.
The first writing systems in the world were developed by Black Africans. Our ancestors (long before the rest of the world) used written language to communicate information about everything from community names, property ownership, warfare, and personal debt to family structure, love, and gender relations. The languages that are generally accepted as the oldest discernible writing systems in the world are Old Nubian (often referred to as Proto-Saharan) and Nsibidi. These languages originate from Black Africans, South of Ancient Egypt (now the Republic of South Sudan and the Republic of Sudan) and Southeastern Nigeria, respectively. There is no conclusive evidence that links early African writing systems to all of the world’s languages. And yet, (1) the timing of when other languages first appeared; (2) the trade-related interactions between these geographies; and (3) the lower levels of linguistic diversity in other parts of the world suggest a natural diffusion of language as populations migrated out of Africa.
Black Poets Elevated the Influence of Literature in Society
The canon, considered the highest form of classic literature, is derived from the Greek word (kanôn). The most widely studied and celebrated collection of classics is called the Western canon, comprising a core of twenty-six 19th and 20th-century writers, protected by institutions ranging from the Pulitzer, Hugo, and Nobel Prizes for Literature to school curricula, public library collections, and publisher anthologies. In the United States, as the concentration of Black creative and intellectual talent came together in New York, with more than 300,000 African Americans moving north, a cultural phenomenon known as the Harlem Renaissance (aka the Jazz Age or the New Negro Renaissance) was born.
The African American poets that captivated the hearts and minds of Harlem and the world included Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Arna Bontemps, Sterling Brown, Claude McKay, and Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Angelina Weld Grimké, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and many more. Writers, backed by newfound support from patrons, prizes, and publishers, experimented with literary style and content. Poetry, novels, and drama became a canvas upon which to counter stereotypes and express racial pride. The generation of Black poets who followed, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and others, stood on the shoulders of these giants and took the practice of artistic activism to new heights. Over the last 85+ years, Harlem has remained on the cutting edge and at the epicenter of creative experimentation, cultural expression, and political activism. Its spirit lives on in subcultures everywhere and now in the virtual world.
Hip Hop is the Most Popular Form of Poetry in the World
Whether we are talking about lines and verses, rhyme and meter, or cadence and rhythm, Africans, African Americans, and other African Diaspora poets have been using literary devices since ancient times. In August 1973, Hip Hop was born at a birthday party in the Bronx hosted by a native Jamaican, Clive Campbell (also known as DJ Kool Herc). Click here to listen to the 2-minute history of Hip Hop. Serendipity played a big role in Hip Hop’s beginnings, but it is not the full story. You can trace the roots of Hip Hop back to griots in Africa’s Mali kingdom. Griots were the keepers of their people’s traditions and history. The poetic devices that are part of Hip Hop songs and a signal of high art commonly include (rhythm) repetition and rhyming; (sound) alliteration and assonance; and (meaning) allusion, metaphor, and analogy. In some ways, Hip Hop is a type of lyric poetry. Hip Hop artists like Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Nas, Lupe Fiasco, Saul Williams, Jay-Z, Tupac Shakur, Missy Elliot, Grandmaster Flash, Wu-Tang Clan and so many more are considered modern-day poets (griots).
With the exception of Shakespeare, they are more well known than most of the Western canon. And some credit Hip Hop culture for (re)popularizing and keeping the literary tradition of poetry alive. Times are changing and Hip Hop has taken center stage. Harvard University, Stanford, Princeton, UCLA, and other top schools now have academic courses and research institutes focused on studying Hip Hop. There have been over 17,000 doctoral theses written on the subject of Hip Hop. In 2017, for the first time, Hip Hop surpassed Rock as America’s #1 streamed music category. In 2018, artist, Kendrick Lamar, broke the proverbial barrier by winning the Pulitzer Prize for Music. The glass door that separated Hip Hop and poetry has been forever shattered. It is now open to recognize other Hip Hop artists for their mastery and literary contributions. Black poetry takes many forms and defines mainstream culture.
Let’s All Go Black to the Future!
Writing and art that focuses on the future and alternate realities are typically characterized as science-fiction. There is evidence of Black science fiction writing in America as far back as the early 19th century. African science fiction also has a long, distinguished history. Afrofuturism exalts our ancestral roots, values, and traditions. Scholars have described it as a “way of looking at the future and alternate realities through a Black cultural lens.” What is so powerful about this genre is that it lives entirely outside of Western influence. Black people are the heroes and heroines in the future (or in alternate realities). Afrofuturism existed long before it had a name. The African American authors, artists, and musicians who gave birth to it often speak of being heavily influenced by African mystical traditions (jujuism), philosophy, cosmology, technology, art, architecture, beauty, and culture.
Authors like W. E.B. Dubois, Pauline Hopkins, George Schuyler, and poet-musicians like Sun Ra were among the first Black artists on the scene to infuse science and technology into imaginary worlds in which Black heroes shaped the full narrative. Afrofuturism transitioned from niche to mainstream starting with the dawn of mythical vampiric realms in Blade. Then years later with the blockbuster release of Black Panther. Afrofuturism now has a MacArthur Genius award winner and a Basquiat that sold for $110 Million. There are more prolific writers like N.K. Jemison, Nnedi Okorafor (with her special brand of Africanfuturism), and Tomi Adeyemi have joined the field. Scholars such as Alondra Nelson, a Biden administration appointee, Grammy award winners Janelle Monae (The Memory Librarian, releasing April 19th, 2022) and Pharrell as well as numerous other filmmakers, activists, fashion designers, and architects are evolving the global canon. Our future is in great hands. The Black poets, writers, and artists that are shaping our narrative today are helping to tell the story of who we are, what cultural gifts we carry, and where we are going. They are unapologetically aspirational. They are celebrating anything and anyone that sees that Black creativity is key in the great race to save humanity.
What’s New? We Keep Building the Future.
In the United States and other Western countries, questions around the economies of knowledge production in the arts rage on with the ethics of plagiarism and appropriation (the story of Oroma Elewa). Reflecting on the nature of patronage and the responsibility of those who use misinformed and misattributed work. We find our agency in knowing that black thought is inherently not subject to market forces, meaning there are important ways in which scholarship and literature can work outside of the influences of time and money. The Library of Africa and The African Diaspora (LOATD) explore such topics in their 2022 Symposium - a hybrid event. Long-standing institutions like Jazz Hole Lagos continue to be great places of immersion, study, and creativity, right along with online communities like the Church of Poetry, which holds a Twitter space twice a week with readings authored by African poets - past and present - from across the diaspora.
Black poetics are pushing the boundary of ecology and nature/eco-poetry. Recognizing and raising awareness about the interdependency of our planetary biome are also becoming a staple in knowledge production. These are some names to add to your reading list, in this genre, as well as celebrated artists like the youngest U.S. poet laureate, Amanda Gorman, Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Camille T. Dungy, and Frank X. Walker.
🛠️ The Black To School Toolkit
Still curious? Dig deeper on your own, grow with your family, and learn how you can impact change in your own backyard:
For You: Here’s an amazing collection of audio, video, and narrative poems from the Harlem Renaissance period. And check out this chart that ranks rappers by the size of their vocabulary. Want more? Read this anthology, endorsed by Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, which analyzes an anthology of 300 rap lyrics as poetry.
For Family: Read this children’s book to explore the poetic tradition of Hip Hop. Guess what Othello and Wu-Tang Clan have in common? Watch this TED Talk in which rapper-philosopher Akala draws shocking parallels between Hip Hop and Shakespeare. Then Chill Out! Enjoy listening to this cool montage of Hip Hop lyrics and beats from 1979 to 2017.
For Community: First, get inspired by streaming the international Broadway sensation and Hip Hop musical, Hamilton. Now take a MasterClass with Grammy-winning producer, Timbaland, or multi-platinum, singer-songwriter, Alicia Keys. Want more? Engage in this Afrofuturism Reddit group or tune into this Afrofuturist podcast.