As a former high school English teacher (and now adult ed English teacher) of 40 years, I have always considered African-American poets to be the most profound and prophetic of all.
Be it Maya Angelou who taught America “why the caged bird sings,” and Langston Hughes who warned us that inevitably a “dream deferred” could “explode!” or Nikki Giovanni who enlightened us with the understanding that “Black love is Black wealth,” African-American poets for decades upon decades have been shining beacons of light down darkened paths so that the lost and forlorn could find their way.
It’s tragically sad for America and the world that so many of their prophesies have often gone unheeded or have been summarily ignored.
Before we go any further it is vital to point out how daunting a challenge it is for African-American poets to write poems that appeal to Americans of every color, particularly to white Americans. This is one of the reasons why Langston Hughes, the only black student in his English class at Columbia University in the early 1920s, concluded his “Theme for English B” with the lines:
“I like to work, read, learn, and understand life. I like a pipe for a Christmas present, or records—Bessie, bop, or Bach. I guess being colored doesn’t make me not like the same things other folks like who are other races. So will my page be colored that I write? Being me, it will not be white. But it will be a part of you, instructor. You are white—yet a part of me, as I am a part of you. That’s American. Sometimes perhaps you don’t want to be a part of me. Nor do I often want to be a part of you. But we are, that’s true! As I learn from you, I guess you learn from me—although you’re older—and white—and somewhat more free. This is my theme for English B.”
Hughes keenly understood that if his poems came off as “uppity,” then he could easily alienate his white audience. But, if his poems came off as too deferential, then his fellow African-Americans poems might find his poems repulsive.
What a tenuous line this is to tread.
Like the tenuous line that every African-American walks each and every day.
Therefore, one of the most stunning, gutsy and enlightening American poems ever written is Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Boy Breaking Glass.” A black writer of the 1980s named Marc Crawford implored Gwendolyn Brooks to write more passionately about the plight of the black man in America. And here was her response:
Boy Breaking Glass (1987)
(To Marc Crawford, from whom the commission)
Whose broken window is a cry of art
(success, that winks aware
as elegance, as a treasonable faith)
is raw: is sonic: is old-eyed première.
Our beautiful flaw and terrible ornament.
Our barbarous and metal little man.
‘I shall create! If not a note, a hole.
If not an overture, a desecration.’
Full of pepper and light
and Salt and night and cargoes.
‘Don’t go down the plank
if you see there’s no extension.
Each to his grief, each to
his loneliness and fidgety revenge.
Nobody knew where I was and now I am no longer there.’
The only sanity is a cup of tea.
The music is in minors.
Each one other
is having different weather.
‘It was you, it was you who threw away my name!
And this is everything I have for me.’
Who has not Congress, lobster, love, luau,
the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty,
runs. A sloppy amalgamation.
A hymn, a snare, and an exceeding sun.
The brilliant epiphany of this poem, in this reader’s opinion, is in the speaker’s understanding of why black men inevitably resort to aggression—-as in this case——it is manifested in the boy throwing a rock through a window—-as a “cry of art.”
Inevitably, what does a person who feels disenfranchised do when he feels no one sees him for the beautiful, loving person he is? In this case he says, “I shall create! If not a note, a hole. If not an overture, a desecration.”
This reaction is keenly analogous to the monster’s reaction in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. After being shunned so horrifyingly by the society into which he was born and even worse, by his own creator, the monster comes to the realization “if i cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”
Notice how Gwendolyn Brooks employs two poignant oxymorons when describing the African-American’s stigma of skin color as “our beautiful flaw and terrible ornament” before alluding to slave ships with a reference to “cargoes” and going down the “plank” and reminding slave owners “it was you who threw away my name” and with it—-his rightful human dignity.
Brooks concludes the poem by providing a litany of American liberties, customs, institutions and privileges that the boy is deprived of access to: “who has not Congress, lobster, love, luau, the Regency Room, the Statue of Liberty, runs.”
Prophetically, Brooks coins the American melting pot as “a sloppy amalgamation.”
Slavery is the “mistake”—-”the cliff” is a metaphor of the precarious societal footing for African Americans—-”a hymn” is the black man’s prayer for God’s mercy—-the “snare” points directly to the pitfalls of runaway slaves and ambiguously to the on-going drum (heart) beat—-and ultimately points to the scorching throes of oppression with the phrase “an exceeding sun”—-literally during the long, sweltering days in the cotton fields—-and figuratively in the black man’s dealing with the suffocating oppression of racism every single day of his/her life.
Colin Kaepernick’s decision in 2016 to kneel during the national anthem of NFL games in support of the Black Lives Matter movement was in itself a prophetic “cry of art” in an attempt to do what poets do: cast beacons of light down darkened paths—-like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in “A Pslam of Life”:
“Lives of great men all remind us ...We can make our lives sublime, ...And, departing, leave behind us...Footprints on the sands of time; Footprints, that perhaps another, Sailing o’er life’s solemn main, A forlorn and shipwrecked brother, Seeing, shall take heart again.”
Kaepernick was trying to create attention and an added awareness of the litany of liberties in America that African-Americans are often deprived of.
Kaepernick was willing to kneel on the edge of that metaphorical cliff in oder to point out the mistake of injustice at the hands of racial discrimination.
Since taking a knee in peaceful protest, Kaepernick has been ostracized by the NFL.
Recently, Kaepernick has offered to pay for the legal fees for the protesters in Minneapolis who were arrested in the aftermath of the senseless murder of George Floyd.
Most significantly, the symbol of what a knee can do has become a stunning juxtaposition, as illustrated in this ABC news article:
If America as a society can make the effort to heed the “cries of art” that for decades have been offered to us by African-American poets and artists—-then everyone of all colors in America can begin to better and more fully understand and acknowledge the pain and suffering that African-Americans continue to endure on a daily basis in America.
As Simon and Garfunkel wrote in the 1960s in “The Sound of Silence”—-”the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls and tenement halls.”