Tradition in Black Poetics

Black Poets do more than magic: How Baraka, Hughes, Woods, Glover, and NoName establish traditions which unite African/Carribean diaspora without libraries, galleries, canons or history books.


I am gifting you lucky website visitors a two page excerpt from a 10 page critical essay I wrote this year on the subject of tradition in poetry. The research for this essay consisted of a lot of early Black Arts Movement Poetry, Essays and listening to music  -which is probarbly why it was notably more fun to write than othe critical writing I have done. I also got to finally finish a book from a woman I am lucky to consider a family friend; Eithne Quinn- Nutin’ but a g’ thang and I also got to read Kehinde Andrews new book too - lucky me!  let me know your thoughts after reading


To explore the significance of tradition in the poetry of Amiri Baraka and Langston Hughes it is necessary to consider a new reading of the notion of ‘tradition’. The definition of which implies an ‘inherited past which is available for the writer to study and learn from’1. In the case of African-American poets within the Harlem Renaissance and Black Aesthetic Movement, whose collective histories were most often unavailable for the usual forms of access - scattered in the remnants of America’s colonisation of the African continents - an alternative reading of of ‘tradition’ is appropriate. I will suggest that the notion of tradition for these poets, is the beginning of the process of creating new legacies of identity within the geographical space of America, in which they are not yet welcome. The new definition of tradition is seemingly paradoxical. Instead of returning to the culture and specific styles of a previous generation, ‘tradition’ in this sense seems to envisage the possibility of Black futures within an American space which has disconnected the Black diaspora from their ancestral roots. This process was the beginning of a new legacy of the Black Aesthetic Movement, the Harlem Renaissance and the culture that underpins the earliest examples of Jazz music, Hip-hop, and Spoken-word in modern America. 

These new traditions transcend the definition of being rooted in geographical histories. They designate a new space to form what it means to be African/Caribbean-American in America. This form of art reverberates into present-day Black music, poetry, and popular culture.

Considering current music, the video for ‘This is America’ by artist Donald Glover (Childish Gambino) echoes many of the same sentiments as the 1920s Hughes poem in its musical and visual forms. In the opening, we hear choral voices, the reminiscent sound of African-American gospel music. Halfway through the music video, an African-American gospel choir is seen joyously singing the lyrics ‘Get your money / black man / Get your money’.2  Nathaniel Mackey suggests that ‘The practice among black musician […] of interjecting shrieks, slurs, growls, groans, moans and other illegitimate “notes” into their playing [is used] as a rejection of the Western worship of reason’.3 Glover’s adlibs throughout the song indicate this intersecting of flurried voices, which interrupt the choral voices; rejecting the Christianisation of African spirituality. In the video, Glover is thrown a machine gun and proceeds to open fire at the choir, killing them instantly. Like Hughes, Glover uses the juxtaposition of light form and musicality paired with violent, dark themes to create a sense of unsettling for the viewer. What seems to be a positive message, turns eerily loaded with political and ethical ramifications. At the end of the sequence, Glover declares ‘This is America’.4 The clear desire to deviate from the expected forms of Black performance are symbolic of a metaphorical death to the notion of Black art as purely entertainment, a view upheld by the American culture which exploits it. There is also a clear rejection of White Christianity, which reinforced White hegemonic binaries, constraint ideals of gender and violent White supremacy. The added historical legacy of Christianity in its usefulness in providing White colonisers with the convenient guise of innocently bringing civilised life to the ‘savage’ peoples in Africa makes for an interesting reading of why Glover chooses to murder the Gospel choir who represent Black Christianity in America. Perhaps suggesting an end to the dominance of white Christianity within Black American communities - as even within Christianity, the gospel singers are still subject to violence and White Christianity is unable to provide salvation. 

Hughes’s use of AAVE and Glover’s complex visual imagery is used in similar ways as expressions of an exclusive language and inferred meaning available only to the Black audience that African-American art seeks to addresses. The creation of a unified experience across African-America is a clear aim for This is America. 

Glover merges poetry, music, dance and film to war with the violence of exploitative American artistic traditions.

 Mackey suggests that ‘Black music, owing to liminality which situates it somewhere between the reality away from which it recoils and the ideal towards which it aspires’.5 This suggests that the song seeks to find space between multiple realities. Between the promise of freedom of the future and the turmoil of Black history; it simultaneously rejoices and rejects notions of tradition.

       The title of Amiri Baraka’s ‘Kenyatta Listening To Mozart’ makes reference to the revolutionary Jomo Kenyatta. The positioning of Jomo in the title, consuming the European culture of Mozart exposes a reversal of the structures of the African subjects and European subject. Baraka is signifying that Eurocentric art forms are ‘for’ African subjects too, even the most revolutionary, anti-colonialist subjects can participate in the conditioning. Baraka could also be suggesting this reversal as a symptom of African history in flux. The first stanza of the poem describes the hip spaces of arty San Francisco - the lines of roughly equal lengths on-page, reflect the poised and controlled face of White American poetic tradition; unaffected by the colonial histories of America. The next stanza exposes a fictional African setting depicting the exotic jungle floor in the line ending ‘undergrowths of fiction’.6 The references to the natural world (birds, water, animals) signify the globalised image of a mis-imagined Africa. The significant then, of the line ‘Spats brush through’,7 is the presence of traditional Western shoe coverings which seem oddly placed within this setting of bushland suggestive of the invasion of colonisers haunting African narratives. Baraka is attempting ‘to navigate the contradictions between the formal Western aesthetic he knows and the distinctly black, African aesthetic he seeks’.8 In the third section of the poem the form breaks dramatically, symbolically representing a shift from the fetishized representations of Africa told in traditional American literature, to the imagined, fragmented histories passed between African diasporas. The space between the poetic lines shows the dispersed voice of African tradition and histories. Baraka’s closing lines ‘Choice, and / style, / avail’ 9 speak a Pan-African sentiment suggesting that establishing connection between those who chose to accept their traditions and those that style themselves accordingly to their ancestral roots, have a history available to them that although is suppressed in the Westerns traditions of the first stanza and wildly interpreted in the second stanza, it is available if they wish to access it.

Through subtle imagery, Baraka is able to connect with the origins of tradition and challenge them to reveal the colonial roots that underpin them.

Baraka establishes a voice that can be reinterpreted on streets and spoken aloud, where traditional forms of poetry fail to connect.

         Highlighting the plight of iconic Black revolutionaries is a tradition reflected in Jamila Wood’s song Blk Girl Solider released in 2016. The song features a bridge that itemises some of the prevalent women in Black history. The references to symbolic leaders is a clear way in which both poets and musicians throughout Africa-American culture make use of to establish and maintain a collective identity.

  •  Rosa was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight / Ella was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight / Audre was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight / Angela was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight / Sojourner was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight /Assata was a freedom fighter and she taught us how to fight (Woods, 2016, 10)

By referencing Rosa Parks, Ella Fitzgerald, Audre Lorde, Angela Davies, Sojourner Truth and Assata Shakur, Woods establishes a sung library of important figures in a repetitive, regular pattern. This bridge reiterates the need for Black arts and poetry to not only establish a lineage for African-Americans but to create ways for this history to be carried forward. 

It is an alternative cannon which counteracts the lack of representation in institutionalised cannons, which consistently underrepresents African-American narratives. 

Wood’s verse, like Baraka’s poetry, serves as a way to diversify audiences, reaching to the urban and working-class black population through a cultural form they are farmiliar with. Both examples show that musicality within poetry is ‘expanding possibilities of African-American poetry.’11 To reach the masses, the anapaestic pentameter is used to create memorable and urgent melodic lines easily captured by young black listeners.

       Hip hop artist Noname similarly opens her song Forever with ‘ Miss Nina Simone, Jimmy Jones, Missy Elliot, Musically were my relative / Never forget my Andre’.12 Decker suggests that the importance of referencing to the pioneers of Black music, suggesting it is a process of recovering former identities. Decker states ‘Afrocentric rap […] reclaims the ancient Egyptian empire as the African origin in order to generate racial pride and awareness in the struggle over injustice in America’.13 The importance of forming traditions and establishing lineage is a concern for artistic forms across the board.The Baraka poem ‘Legacy’ dedicates its verse to ‘Blues People’. The title ‘legacy’ shows it is already dealing with the notions of tradition and exploring the dispersed and non- existent histories for the African diaspora in America. The subject is represented in various unspecific spaces ‘sleeping against the drugstore /growling under the trucks and stoves’.14 Baraka symbolically draws upon the collective experience of Black treatment in the American South with the unspecific narrative voice implying a universality to its message. The list of verbs with the suffix ‘ing’ that follows these poetic lines seems to incite some sort of action or motion, perhaps representative of the groundwork yet to be done by Black activists. Baraka deals with the metaphorical conditioning of the physical body required to exist within America. The body is ‘dancing kneeling reaching out’ and then ‘squatting’, ‘stretching and ‘pulling’.15 The constant movement an emblem of the condition for African-American’s and highlighting the hidden history of slavery, labour intensive work which continued in the pastoral South. The ending of the poem repeats the world ‘Towards’, emphasising the transformational undertones of the poem’s narrative. The subject is lead to believe the lies of ‘the old songs’ or lies America told about the savagery of Africa to permit their own colonisation of the continent. The ‘pretended sea’ this song has made up, could metaphorically represent the illusion of distance between the African-American people who are westernised and the African peoples who are ‘home’. The tension between the two sets of understanding of history comes to a resolution as the subject seems to decide to leave the setting ignoring the sea and crossing the ocean regardless.

       Amiri Baraka’s recordings of his poetry ‘orients literary audiences to elements of jazz while at the same time exposing jazz listeners to black verse’.16 The powerful beginnings of the multifaceted Black cultural forms of the present day have stemmed from jazz and poetries fascinating pairing and is still evident today with authors, poets and musician’s binaries becoming more and more blurred. In her introduction to BreakBeat Poets Volume 2 Black Girl Magic Woods states that ‘Hip hop became a tool for me in my writing, to represent myself to myself. It gave me the language to articulate myself as a whole’.17


 -Ruby-Ann Patterson, Wednesday 14th August 2019.


1. J. A Cuddon, M.A.R. Habib, Dictionary of Literary Terms & Literary Theory, 5th edn (London: Penguin Group, 2013), p.730.

2. Childish Gambino, This is America, Dir. by Hiro Murai (RCA Records, 2018)

3. Nathaniel Mackey, ‘The Changing Same: Black Music in the Poetry of Amiri Baraka’, Boundary 2, 6.2 (1978) 355-86 (p.376).

4. Childish Gambino, This is America.

5. Jeffrey Louis Decker, ‘The State of Rap: Time and Place in Hip Hop Nationalism’ Social Text, 34(1993), 53–84 <>, pp.76.

6. Amiri Baraka, ‘Kenyatta Listening To Mozart’, in Writing Upenn.

7. Baraka, ‘Kenyatta’.

8. Hayman, Casey ‘People’s Poetics: Amiri Baraka, Hip-Hop, and the Dialectical Struggle for a Popular Revolutionary Poetics’, The Massachusetts Review, 1.2 (2009) 82–97.

9. Baraka, ‘Kenyatta’.

10. Jamila Woods, Blk Girl Solider, dir. By Randall Tockes, (Closed Sessions, 2016)<> (see Woods above).

11. Howard Rambsy, ‘Understanding the Production of Black Arts Texts’, The Black Arts Enterprise and the Production of African American Poetry, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2011) 77–100 (p. 92).
12. Noname, Forever, Telefone, (Noname, 2018) [on VINYL].

13. Decker, The State of Rap, p.54.

14. Amiri Baraka, ‘Legacy’ in Poetry Foundation.

15. Baraka, ‘Legacy’.
16. Rambsy, p.91.

17. Jamila Woods, ‘on blk girl magic, hip-hop & other methods of sight’ in The Breakbeat Poets Volume 2, Black Girl Magic, Browne, Simmonds, Jamila Woods eds., (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018) xxviii.

Additional Reading/Viewing:

- Kehinde Andrews, Back to Black: Retelling Black Radicalism for the 21st Century, (London: Zed Books, 2018)

-  Eithne Quinn Nutin’ but a “g” Thang: The Culture and Commerce of Gangsta Rap New York: Columbia University Press, 2005

- The Language You Cry in, Dir. by. Alvaro Toepke, Angel Serrano, (California Newsreel, 1998) <>

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