Word Roots: The Black Poet Tree

A Personal Poetic Statement

by Mwatabu Okantah

Poetics. Poetry. Word Sounds. Energy. In the beginning was the Word. Utterance. Blackness. The Creator spoke the sacred Power of Word giving first light birth out of original darkness. For the poet, words exist as energy vibration. Words are living things. The word-roots of the black poet-tree run down deeply deep into our African soul-soil. Tradition. When I looked inside my Greater Self I discovered poetry. Forced into listening with my inner ear, I heard black poem sound s calling me in a new name. When I opened my inner eye, I saw that poetry is how I see. I found oneness with the musicians and the singer-poets who have always been there to remind us that "word sounds have power," and who sing the praises of those who gave poetry its first name.

I will always remember my first encounter hearing Gwendolyn Brooks "read" her poetry. At the time, I was a 23-year-old student "wannabe" poet. Miss Brooks was the featured poet at the Tenth Anniversary Celebration of Dudley Randall's Broadside Press. Her artistry mesmerized me. She leaped beyond the confining boundaries of a mere reading. I can now say she played her "axe" the same way Thelonius Monk played his piano--all herky jerky motion and syncopating, unusual rhymes and rhythms. After hearing Sonia Sanchez, Haki Madhubuti and Etheridge Knight, I literally became drunk on black poets song-chanting their own words. I had been thrown into new space; somewhere in between ordinary speech and talking in tongues. For the first real time, I was experienced the natural music inside black words.

I learned to listen for word sounds. They were always in the air. I did not know it then, but my own personal poetics were being formed; were being driven by the challenge of capturing my own inner word music on the blank, white page. During her workshop at that 1975 Broadside gathering, Brooks stressed the need for young writers to develop a healthy respect for the writing process. She directed us to study, and find our own place in relation to the full range of the great black tradition in poetry. She echoed sentiments she expressed in Broadside's, A CAPSULE COURSE IN BLACK POETRY WRITING (Brooks, Kgositsile, Madhubuti, Randall):

The new black ideal italicizes black identity, black solidarity, black self-possession and self-address … the essential black ideal vitally acknowledges African roots … ESSENTIAL black literature is the distillation of black life. Black life is different from white life. Different in nuance, different in nitty gritty. Different from birth. Different at death.

Stephen Henderson, in the introduction to his now seminal book, UNDERSTANDING THE NEW BLACK POETRY, places the poetic challenge of the black poetry tradition within a clearly defined, African centered frame of reference. His essay, "The Forms of Things Unknown," had a major impact on my approach to writing, as well as performing, my poetry.

Given the present impact of Hip Hop, not to mention the use of new technologies, I think his essay may be more important now than when it first appeared in 1973. He writes, "Structurally speaking … whenever Black poetry is most distinctly and effectively Black, it derives its form from two basic sources, Black speech and Black music…"

The very title of the essay suggested a necessary focus. It articulated what had been only a painful, nagging need that kept me awake through long nights, and also woke me from agitated sleep each new day. Henderson provided aesthetic direction. He articulated what had been, at best, vague notions:

By black speech I mean the speech of the majority of Black people in this country, and I do not exclude the speech of so-called educated people…. This includes the techniques and timbres of the sermon and and other forms of oratory, the dozens, the rap, the signifying, and the oral folktale.

By Black music I mean essentially the vast fluid body of Black song-- spirituals, shouts, jubilees, gospel songs, field cries, blues, pop songs by Blacks, and, in addition, jazz … and non-jazz music by Black composers who consciously or unconsciously draw upon the Black music tradition.

In this regard, I am not a jazz poet per se; although the jazz idiom has heavily influenced the way I perform my poetry. Jazz is in my poetic conception, yet my poetry is not limited to just one black music form. For me, and, as a form of black cultural expression, jazz music is important because it lends itself to our need to articulate thoughts and feelings which cannot be expressed easily or adequately in English words.

When I first read Henderson's essay, the initial impact was revelatory. It provided me with a culturally relevant definition of poetry that made sense to my ears. I did not hear in the alien sounds of English sonnets. I did hear in the cacophony of black life sounds that surrounded me. Put another way, Henderson's ground breaking work allowed me to place contemporary black poetry within the context of traditional African modes of expression: drum, dance and song--see Eugene Redmond's, DRUM VOICES: THE MISSION OF AFRO-AMERICAN POETRY. In African terms, the poet is both musician and storyteller. The poet is master of eloquence and keeper of the sacred lore of the folk. The poet is both healer and historian. The poets exist among the guardians of the soul of the nation. From this perspective, we can consider the black tradition in poetry here in the United States as part of an emerging, New World African tradition--a Pan-African tradition.

In the beginning, I did not call anything I wrote poetry. High school English teachers had dulled my sensibilities. Forced readings of Shakespeare and SILAS MARNER had left considerable scars. My first quarter freshmen English instructor, however, gave me a new approach to writing process by requiring each student in class to keep daily journals. To my surprise, the act of writing literally opened me up. Writing became, and, remains, therapeutic. Subsequent professors--Hulda Smith-Graham, Wylie Smith, III, Althea Romeo and Lloyd Mills-- would actually see the poet in me before I was able, not to mention, willing, to acknowledge it in myself. The late Hulda Smith-Graham became my cultural midwife. Among my early mentors, she worked hardest to get me to expand my ability to see. Circumstances, and her tireless insistence, convinced me I had been "called to poet" during a time in my development when I needed both convincing and encouragement.

It was Hulda who had taken me to the Broadside anniversary celebration. It was a graduate student, Sister Odara, who introduced me to serious black music. Before Odara, it was the Motown Sound and the music I grew up with in church. Integration had white washed me in Rock and Roll. Odara got my attention with the Crusaders' "First Crusade." She opened me up with Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue." She gave me wings with Sarah Vaughan and Betty Carter. She blew me away with Coltrane's "A Love Supreme. She gave me copies of Wright's, NATIVE SON, and THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF MALCOLM X to read, and I have not been the same since. Ultimately, I cannot separate my poetry from my personal struggle to develop and maintain a healthy, black identity. I had no way of knowing it at the time, but, the act of writing had become my primary means of self-expression and self-discovery.

Over the years, I have come to understand that I do not write poetry so much as I strive to be poetry. Life is poetry. We are the poetry. It is an attitude. It is a state of being. I tell my students that I do not believe in "writer's block." As long as there is a local bus for me to ride, or a Greyhound bus terminal to "hang out" in, I can see and experience a real poem in the act of revealing itself. Poetry is a way of seeing. It is a means of claiming one's own space in the world. It is a method to make sense out of this reality that would overwhelm and baffle us every day. Poetry. I began writing poetry before I became a reader of it. Even now, I prefer hearing live poets. I read novels more than I read poetry. Black poetry comes out of me. It erupts. It rages. It laughs. It cries. It sings. It is.

It now occurs to me that the creative writing process, especially keeping journals, also endowed me with the aesthetic tools to explore, nurture and direct my inner voice. Writing in those early journals empowered me to satisfy this urge I did not even know existed inside of me. I learned through experience that word vibrations possess the awesome power to heal or derange. My response to that first reading of NATIVE SON forced me to connect with my own ability to wield this power. I discovered a new world of unlimited black possibility waiting for me in the challenge of blank, white pages. Today, I am one of a rousing chorus of black poet voices thanks to a college writing instructor whose name and face I can no longer recall.

Black poets give life to all those unfolding stories our people need to tell. For a long time, I did not know how to describe this thing I sensed growing inside of my being. It was unsettling. I could either give in, and become one with it, or, I could divide against myself, fight it, and experience deeper personal turmoil. Although I tried mightily, it was not in me to fight against this power. I moved toward the word sounds I heard whispering inside my inner ear. Ancestral voices. Afreekan voices. For the poets, it is not in us to fight against the power. For the poets, the mission is to sing a new black oneness. Tradition. My teachers helped me to understand there is no single poet who speaks for all black people. Our strong voices together comprise an ensemble, a chorus of one collective voice. For the black poets, the task is to give voice to those stories our people need to have told.

Instinctively, I have always felt that our poets have a place and a significant role to play in black struggle. If we are to become a psychologically and spiritually whole people once again, all of our artists must be joined in the battle. We are the black poets. Afreekan poets. Healer poets. The roll call is long with names both unknown and known. We are the wordsmiths, those singer-keepers of the story of a scattered people who are slowly, but steadily, growing back black into one.

Word Roots: The Black Poet Tree by Mwatabu Okantah

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