The Protest Poets

The Protest Poets

Our nation’s language when it comes to race is exhausted. These poets are forging a new one.

Terrance Hayes at a Cave Canem reading at the Lensic Theater, Santa Fe, 2006 (Ben Oswest/Flickr)

Outside of poetry circles, few people have heard of the Dark Room Collective or Cave Canem, but over the last thirty years these two communities have nurtured a profound and ongoing transformation in American letters. Sharan Strange and Thomas Sayers Ellis, two black students who met at Harvard, founded Dark Room in 1987. As young fledgling poets they traveled together to New York to attend the funeral of one of their literary heroes, James Baldwin. They were inspired by the extraordinary sense of fellowship at that event and vowed to try and recreate it in their own lives.

Back in Cambridge they set up a meeting space in a Victorian on Inman Street that had formerly housed a photo lab, which lent the group its name. For almost a decade they constituted a kind of experimental writer’s community. They organized a reading series and pooled money to bring black writers, scholars, and musicians together to share and recognize each other’s work.

The Dark Room revealed a cohort of talented poets who have since gone on to major careers. Among the most prominent are Kevin Young whose 2003 collection Jelly Roll was a finalist for the National Book Award, Natasha Tretheway who won the 2007 Pulitzer for her collection Native Guard, and Tracy K. Smith who won the Pulitzer in 2012 for Life on Mars.

Just as the Dark Room Collective began to come apart in the mid-nineties, the poets Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady were preparing the relay. Derricotte moved to New York City in 1967 at the height of the Black Arts Movement, but her introspective style and concern for gender made her an outsider to a movement that was intensely preoccupied with asserting an often quasi-paramilitary virility. She began publishing collections of poetry in the late 1970s, and Eady, roughly a decade her junior, published his first in 1980. They met at workshops where they traded stories of being treated like “tokens,” and feeling like their work was exoticized. In 1996 they launched Cave Canem, a foundation to bring together black poets across the nation for workshops and retreats and to give them a proper sense of belonging. It quickly acquired the reputation of being the unofficial “black Poetry MFA” program, and in many respects, it still fulfills that function, even if it has become more of an institution and less of a community. Many Dark Room members merged with the new poets seeking fellowship at Cave Canem. The results of all this community building have been an extraordinary flowering of black poetry, and an unprecedented reception by the publishing, academic, and literary magazine worlds.

The idea of creating independent institutional spaces for nurturing black creativity is not new. Magazines and journals like Opportunity, The Crisis and The Messenger were crucial to the development of the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1960s the Black Arts Movement produced an array of organizations and collectives that sustained black artists in its heyday. The little known experimentalists of the Umbra Workshop met on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1960s. Shirley Graham Du Bois, W.E.B. Du Bois’ wife, edited the important journal Freedomways, which ran from 1961 to 1985. Amiri Baraka, the central luminary and whirlwind force behind BAM famously moved uptown to Harlem to found the Black Arts Repertory Theatre School, and when that project foundered, recreated it as Spirit House in Newark. Haki Madbhuti founded Third World Press, which remains the largest black-owned independent press in the country.

But in some cases the separatist politics of these organizations, which had worked to their advantage in the Movement days, increasingly served to isolate them as the political, economic, and cultural winds shifted rightward in the 1980s. By the time Sharan Strange and Thomas Ellis got together to found the Dark Room Collective in the mid-’80s, most of the institutions and journals of earlier eras had disappeared or had become so marginalized that they were of little relevance. One exception was Calalloo, the literary journal founded by Charles Henry Rowell in 1976. Rowell was committed to providing black writers and artists with a haven for expression and creativity free from what he saw as the over-determining need to engage in protest politics, the central tenet of the Black Arts Movement.

This inevitably created a conflict within black poetry circles over how much to engage with the social and political sphere, and with the legacy of the Black Arts Movement itself. In 2013 that conflict erupted into view when Amiri Baraka, just a year before he died, pilloried Rowell over Angle of Ascent, an anthology of contemporary African-American poetry Rowell had edited for Norton. In an essay for Poetry magazine, Baraka charged him with championing a politically reactionary and assimilationist aesthetic in the collection, which includes work by Young, Trethewey, and Smith. For Baraka, Rowell’s selections minimized the achievements of politically engaged writers, and championed poetic mediocrity written by “university types, many co-sanctioned by the Cave Canem group, which has energized [U.S.] poetry by claiming a space for Afro-American poetry, but at the same time presents a group portrait of Afro-American poets as [MFA] recipients.”

Noting the remarkable absence of major figures like Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown, (presumably too political) but also the neglect of contemporary contributions like rap and spoken word (presumably not literary enough), Baraka argued that the chronologically oriented anthology, rather than reflecting a historical progression, was “simply a list of poets Rowell likes,” who had nothing in common apart from their disavowal of the Black Arts Movement. Much of that criticism sticks. Rowell for his part was quite explicit about his biases. The publisher’s promotional copy explains:

It is a gathering of poems that demonstrate what happens when writers in a marginalized community collectively turn from dedicating their writing to political, social, and economic struggles, and instead devote themselves, as artists, to the art of their poems and to the ideas they embody.

The mainstream success of the Dark Room and Cave Canem poets may make it appear as though Rowell ultimately came out on top in this debate. But some of these old divisions may be losing their sway. For the young writers coming up now, the Black Lives Matter movement is creating a new context in which opportunities have emerged for transcending both Baraka and Rowell’s partitioning of the political and the lyrical. On the one hand, Rowell’s insistence on the poet’s disengagement from social life is looking ever less feasible and less appealing. On the other hand, Baraka’s belief that any integration into the MFA system would necessarily be assimilationist appears to have underestimated the ways in which black poets might actually change the terms upon which the system depends. Sadly, he also passed away just as the Black Lives Matter movement was born, and he never lived to see its energy harnessed by a generation that continues to build bridges between university students and the communities they come from, a model pioneered by the Dark Room Collective and Cave Canem.

Some of these divisions are collapsing thanks to social media, which has empowered more self-directed and socially vibrant projects. When a grand jury declined to indict officer Wilson in the killing of Michael Brown, a group of Cave Canem poets came together to come up with a collective response. They decided to create a virtual space where poets could post videos of their own poetry readings in response to the events. Poets Amanda Johnston, Jonterri Gadson, Mahogany Browne, Jericho Brown, and Sherina Rodriguez-Sharpe, created the hashtag #BlackPoetsSpeakOut and set up an accompanying Tumblr where other poets could add their own submissions.

Other poets are revisiting and reconfiguring old forms of their craft and challenging conventional boundaries of both race and poetry. Roger Reeves, one of the most promising new voices, melds a Keatsian pitch to a Southern Gothic aesthetic in his work. His meditation on Emmett Till, “The Mare of Money,” from his debut collection King Me (Copper Canyon, 2013) harkens back to the anti-lynching poems of the 1920s and ’30s, drawing on that tradition of literary protest while casting an acutely ironic gaze on contemporary America. Fred Moten is both a highly regarded vanguard poet and activist, and one of the country’s most influential theoreticians of black literature and radical politics. Poets like Zora Howard and Joshua Bennett, who come out of the spoken word tradition, are closely engaged in today’s protest movements and have massive followings online and on college campuses across the nation.

Two of the most prominent poets who are challenging assumptions about how black poets wear their politics are Terrance Hayes and Claudia Rankine. Hayes, a native of South Carolina, is one of the longstanding members of the Cave Canem collective. He recently won the National Book Award in 2010 for his fourth book, Lighthead, and in 2014 was named a MacArthur Genius Fellow.


Claudia Rankine is the author of last year’s best-seller Citizen: An American Lyric, the first book ever nominated simultaneously by the National Book Critics Circle Awards in two categories, for poetry and criticism. The book is rapidly finding a place on  required reading lists of college students around the country, an entire generation who have come of age at a time when online videos of black death circulate as easily as postcards of lynchings once did in the days of Jim Crow. Rankine is a graduate of Columbia’s MFA program, and her remarkable breakthrough serves as a direct challenge to Baraka’s notion that nothing radical can come from “university types.”

At the emotional center of Citizen is Zora Neale Hurston’s observation, “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background.” It’s a famous line from Hurston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me,” in which she explores the relativity of color while passionately denying it the power to disrupt her life. The sentence appears in Citizen courtesy of Glenn Ligon’s eponymous artwork, in which the line is repeated in black oil stencil blocks that cascade into an illegible mass blotting out the white page. Incidentally, in her essay Hurston goes on to say exactly where she feels her isolation most sharply: “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background. For instance at Barnard.” “Beside the waters of the Hudson, I feel my race.”

In 1925 when she arrived at Barnard, Hurston was, in fact, the only black student on campus. That setting—the elite college campus—is also one of the key backgrounds to Rankine’s book, which sifts through moments of racial dissonance that are particularly acute not only because of color but because of class.

Rankine explores the way racism ripples through the spheres of everyday life, how it shifts between foreground and background, what is said and what isn’t. She uses the second person pronoun “you,” a technique that provokes self-examination while positioning a reader of any possible background as a raced subject who will share (for a time) in this stifling and maddening experience.

Waiting outside a conference room the poet overhears one man say to another, “being around black people is like watching a foreign film without translation.” How should she react? Are they talking about her? The problem of “overhearing” recurs in Citizen, as seemingly casual anecdotes build towards moments of moral panic. The most banal situations are filled with tripwires that force her to question what she’s heard, to scrutinize and doubt her own reactions. Waiting in line for coffee, a stranger

has just referred to the boisterous teenagers in Starbucks as niggers. Hey, I am standing right here you responded, not necessarily expecting him to turn to you.

How can she not respond? And yet the last clause suggests hope that a confrontation might be avoided. “They are just being kids. Come on, no need to get all KKK on them, you say.” This appeal to reason, coupled with a reciprocal hyperbole meant to point out the man’s excessive language is an overly generous off-ramp, an attempt to defuse an awkward social situation rather than to do the right thing. But what is the right thing to do? “Now there you go, he responds. . . . There I go? you ask, feeling irritation begin to rain down.” The stranger knows this script all too well; race is your (her) problem, you are playing the race card and now everyone in the coffee shop is staring at you.

Rankine is not naïve about the likely audience for her work. The paperback retails for $20 in book stores, and the aesthetic of the book’s packaging, right down to the Helvetica font and the epigraph from Chris Marker’s cult art film Sans Soleil, signal the objet d’art, the experimental installation.

The class implications of black politics continue to be a sensitive and mostly taboo topic within the black community, but Rankine treats class frankly. One of Rankine’s sustained symbols in the book is that of the black tennis player—the sport nicely expressing the power of conservative space, with its crisp white lines of demarcation policed by higher ups, and Serena Williams as its heroic black avatar. The symbol is resonant for a class of black folks that Rankine (and I too) belong to—not just some essential black subjectivity. It’s a metaphor about controlling yourself under surveillance in a social space identified as upper-class and white, in which you are readily admitted (perhaps even prized), as long as you consent to wear the correct uniform and to never step out of line. Rankine doesn’t hide her class affiliation. Instead she uses material and cultural markers from her world to effect a sardonic realism: a bottle of Pellegrino, or a casual reference to cultural theorist Homi Bhabha or filmmaker Claire Denis come off as a bitter tonic to black life on the right side of the tracks.

Rankine makes class conspicuous, so she can confront the conflicted emotional guilt that accompanies being a bourgeois subject caught in a largely privileged relationship to racist violence. This is why so much of Citizen is involved in spectatorship. If the threat to one’s body is not nearly as severe as that of a poor person caught in the deadly violence of the streets—though by no means immune to it either—the threat to one’s sanity is omnipresent. The specter of racism haunts every corner of culture high and low: a white tennis player playing the Venus Hottentot at the U.S. Open, Zinedine Zidane snapping under a racial slur at the World Cup, Hennessy Youngman’s satirical YouTube guide to being a successful black artist, historical photographs of smiling lynch mobs, Turner’s great painting The Slave Ship.

This positioning is the source of the book’s agonizing undertow. It is precisely this angst about passivity, the poet’s feeling for the jagged oscillations between sudden outrage and near-clinical detachment, that allows the book to connect with a surprisingly broad spectrum of middle-class readers, for whom it renders plausible and even familiar the experience of racial anxiety. This is what’s so striking and radical about Rankine’s poetry. It makes people uncomfortable not by attacking them, but by unsettling and reframing what is most familiar to them. They’ve been in that Starbucks. They have stood outside offices and heard those comments. Her poetry is prismatic: they, you, we—no one’s class, good intentions, friendly demeanor, or sound education can free them from being implicated in a society that deploys force and assigns value based on the color of one’s skin.

If Rankine represents a poet stepping out of the comfortable groves of academe to embrace a more radical, protest-oriented aesthetic, Terrance Hayes offers a different kind of crossover—he uses vernacular poetics to interrupt and overturn the assumptions and expectations of the poetry establishment.

The title of Hayes’s latest volume, How to Be Drawn (Penguin, 2015), alludes to his work in the visual arts, a medium he has increasingly taken up in recent years, which includes portrait painting, drawings, and what he calls “visual essays,” where he diagrams lines of imagination, creativity and influence. Many of the poems are formally experimental in their layout on the page, like “Some Maps to Indicate Pittsburgh,” and “How to Draw a Perfect Circle.” Others engage directly with the theme of representation, like “Self Portrait as the Mind of a Camera,” which pays homage to Charles “Teenie” Harris’s photographic portraits of black Pittsburgh. You could say that this volume is Hayes’s version of a “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” his poetry maneuvering the way John Ashbery painted Parmigianino’s hand in his opening lines, “thrust at the viewer / And swerving easily away, as though to protect / What it advertises.”

How to Be Drawn opens with the poem “What It Look Like” addressed to the late Russell Tyrone Jones, a.k.a. Ol’ Dirty Bastard of the hip-hop group Wu-Tang Clan, who died in 2004, two days before his thirty-sixth birthday. These are the opening lines:

Dear Ol’ Dirty Bastard: I too like it raw,
I don’t especially care for Duke Ellington
At a birthday party. I care less and less
About the shapes of shapes because forms
Change and nothing is more durable than feeling.

There’s a confident swagger in these lines that’s embedded deep in the American grain, but it’s also not quite what one would expect. Certainly there’s something in the cunning whiplash of a cultural reference reminiscent of poet and art critic Frank O’Hara. Then there’s that second sentence shifting into abstract argument. Is the generational swipe at Ellington a young poet flexing? Or is it a subtle rejoinder indicating a line of continuity? Feeling’s the thing. “It don’t mean a thing, if it ain’t got that swing.” After all, Cootie Williams was not polite after-hours listening at the Cotton Club. Hayes is concerned with tapping into a frank celebration of the expressive blackness that ODB embodies: sexual, unpretentious, unselfconscious, unscripted, swinging just off-kilter like RZA’s clanging Thelonius Monk piano samples that give Wu-Tang songs their special air of high-brow funk—a description that fits Hayes’ poetic style as well. This is just a taste of the range Hayes displays with such unnerving facility; in a few lines, he casually straddles traditions, defines his own sensibility, and slyly serves up a poet’s code, his ars poetica.

As the poem progresses we learn the speaker is still hungover from a birthday rager. The fragmented recollections of the night before become a reflection on the party’s music and the fate of the artist. These are distilled into a personal motto: “Never mistake what it is for what it looks like,” later reversed: “Never mistake what it looks like / for what it is.” These injunctions announce the major themes of the entire collection: the distance between perception and belief, belief and reality, reality and its representation, everywhere the slanting shadows fall. It’s a prickly pear, and Hayes seems to brace himself and his readers for inevitable failure. The misprisions that ensnared Othello are invoked. And then, in a characteristically brilliant turn, Hayes extends the Shakespearean allusion as he circles back in the poem’s last lines to his addressee:

You are blind to your power, Brother
Bastard, like the king who wanders his kingdom
searching for the king. And that’s okay.
No one will tell you you are the king.
No one really wants a king anyway.

For those who know the music (and their Shakespeare) it’s no stretch of the imagination to envision Ol’ Dirty Bastard playing the Fool to America’s King Lear, when you put it that way. But who ever puts it that way? Well, think of Basquiat’s crowns; or take Kendrick Lamar’s recent vamp on the trope, “King Kunta”: “Now I run the game, got the whole world talkin’, King Kunta, / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him.” Hayes can see where the circles of folk traditions meet; like his subject he keeps planets in orbit, compressing into lyric what Ralph Ellison was fond of calling “shit, grit and mother-wit.” Notice the work that line break between “Brother” and “Bastard” does, opening the former to its colloquial warmth, and the latter to its potent allusions; the challenge, for instance, of being a “bastard of the West,” as James Baldwin described himself in Notes of a Native Son.

This kind of daring intellectual play exercised around subjects well outside the traditional bounds of academic poetry are evidence of a new kind of audience for black poetry that Hayes can lay claim to, an audience whose tastes, interests, and points of reference are transcending older distinctions of high and low, detached and engaged politics. It is telling, for instance, that Hayes is as deeply influenced by the poet Robert Hayden, a touchstone for Rowell, as he is by Etheridge Knight, a key figure of the Black Arts Movement, two individuals who in a previous era were thought to be incompatible and even antagonistic models for a black poet to follow. In fact, in some ways, Hayes’s work feels like a throwback to some of the neglected high peaks of the Black Arts Movement that have too often been overshadowed by its more provocative statements, dazzling works like Gwendolyn Brooks’ In the Mecca (1968), Audre Lorde’s Cables to Rage (1970), and indeed the early poems of Amiri Baraka when he was still writing as Leroi Jones.

“What It Look Like” is a portrait of the young artist trying to forge a path in the face of an antagonistic society, a culture that seems intensely hostile both to lyric expression and to black life. It is about struggling to find an oppositional voice in the teeth of violent dispossession. It sounds, in other words, like the country we live in today.

Poets like Claudia Rankine and Terrance Hayes see, like everyone else, that the nation’s language when it comes to race—to the famous conversation we are always told we ought to be having—is exhausted. “We have come to the end of a language and are now about the business of forging a new one,” James Baldwin declared at the end of a late essay. These poets are forging that new language.

Jesse McCarthy is a graduate student at Princeton University. His writing has appeared in Kinfolks Quarterly, The Point, and The Nation.

Correction: Due to an editorial oversight, the print version of this essay included several minor inaccuracies. Those errors have been corrected here.