"My Language, My Imagination: The Politics of Poetry"

by E. Ethelbert Miller

This essay is based on a speech delivered on the campus of Western Oregon University May 4, 1998. The program was part of the 1997-98 Arne S. Jensen, Jr., lecture series.

Sometime during the early days of September 1968, I packed a few bags and a foot locker and headed off to college. Earlier in the year I had been accepted into Howard University in Washington, D.C. Not only was I now leaving the South Bronx and New York but I was going off to school to become a lawyer and perhaps eventually a politician. My parents secretly shared this hope for my success. Little did I know that a number of events had already taken place which would change my life. I was unaware of the writings of LeRoi Jones, poet and playwright, who had left Greenwich Village for the black comfort of Harlem. Although I was saddened by the April assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr, I did not mourn his death as something which had affected my immediate family. Politics and social issues were seldom discussed in my home. My parents were working class and spent much of their time trying to put food on the table. The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War were not things my family discussed at the dinner table. My aunts and uncles who lived in Brooklyn usually talked about what was going on back in Barbados and the rest of the Caribbean. They did not talk about Selma or Birmingham. Even Harlem was a long subway ride away.

I traveled by train to Washington in 1968, with a copy of Black Power written by Stokely Carmichael and Charles Hamilton. Since I was going to a very important historically black college I felt I had to at least look good … I was unaware of what had taken place at Howard prior to my arrival. In 1967, Howard — like many American schools — was caught in the middle of demonstrations which were the beginning of the new black consciousness movement, and later, the growing militancy that had leaped out of the Civil Rights Movement and exploded into the new doctrine of Black Power.

On Howard's campus in my freshman year I was introduced to African American literature. Names like W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes and Jean Toomer would slowly change my way of thinking about the world as well as myself. The issue or concept of blackness became very important to me. Even before I took my writing seriously and pursued a career as an artist, I was struggling to grow an afro, master the complexity of the soul handshake and remember a few expressions of Swahili. By my sophomore year I was introduced to the poetry of a number of writers associated with the Black Arts Movement: Don L. Lee, Norman Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Carolyn Rodgers and Amiri Baraka. It was the poetry and language of these writers which began to shape my political awareness and imagination. I entered the Black Arts Movement through my enjoyment of literature and an interest in writing. It is important to acknowledge that I was not a political activist who began to write but instead a writer who was slowly becoming an activist.

Today a number of scholars have begun to examine the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s: When it started, what were some of the ideas and beliefs associated with this movement, and how did this thinking influence American society.

It is important for me that I go back and examine this period, because my beginnings as a poet can be found there. The development of my political imagination has its roots in what was defined as Black Art. We find this term being used around 1965 and made popular by Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal. These two men along with Ron Karenga are the key theoreticians behind the Black Arts Movement. Many of their ideas would be borrowed from intellectuals associated with third world revolutions in China, Cuba and Algeria. For example one can trace the change in the political consciousness of LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) by reading his essay "Cuba Libre" in his book Home. At the end of this essay he writes about the idea of "revolution" being foreign to him. Jones returns to New York a changed artist.

My own transformation would take place as I read about Cuba, Nicaragua, Chile and El Salvador. Personal trips in the 1970s to Cuba and Central America would influence me similar to the way that LeRoi Jones had been influenced. However, many of my political writings would draw from my own imagination and from my desire to understand oppression and social struggle within this hemisphere.

Still, to achieve political maturity, I also had to mature as a poet. My early work consisted primarily of love poems and poems of black awareness. I often wrote about the physical beauty of black women, I made references to Africa, and attacked what could best be described as black middle-class hypocrisy. Many of the African American writers who emerged in the 1960s were influenced by Black Nationalism. Either they embraced it or rejected it. Black Art, as defined by Larry Neal in his important essay "Black Art and Black Liberation," was art created to help insure the cultural and spiritual liberation of Black America.

I place a special emphasis on the word "spiritual" because many Black writers at that time (myself included) were influenced by Islam and Eastern beliefs usually associated with Buddhism. Two individuals whose careers stimulated a spiritual searching among African American artists were Malcolm X and jazz great John Coltrane. Malcolm's political philosophy was one of Black nationalism, but his submission to orthodox Islam at the end of his life was very attractive to members of the African American community. Even as a Muslim leader with the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X introduced many people to a new way of life and a different value system.

With the recording of "A Love Supreme" in the late sixties, John Coltrane also provided a spiritual example for artists interested in pursuing the higher purposes of art. One would view artistic creation as a way of acknowledging and giving thanks to a higher being or force. Art served as a path or key toward higher consciousness and awareness. Art opened the door to becoming a better person. Politically, art was responsible for revealing certain truths.

I think it might have been around my sophomore year at Howard that I began to associate with other students who were reading The Holy Quran and making visits to a local community mosque. Around that time I was introduced to the sufi writer Hazrat Inayat Khan. It was Khan in his discussion of Sufi poetry who wrote the following:

The poet when he is developed reads the mind of the universe, although it very often happens that the poet himself does not know the real meaning of what he has said.

Very often one finds that a poet has said something, and after many years there comes a moment when he realizes the true meaning of what he said. And this shows that behind all these different activities the divine Spirit is hidden, and the divine Spirit often manifests through an individual without his realizing that it is divine.

I think that during the late sixties and early seventies I was clear about what I was attempting to say in my poetry. I could look around me at the state of conditions within the African American community and knew that I wanted to create word that addressed these issues. One of the key concerns to emerge out of the Black Arts Movement was the role of the artist in his community. Since this period was seen as one in which a Black revolution was taking place, revolutionary art was demanded. In his popular pamphlet The Quotable Karenga, Ron Karenga proclaimed that:

Black Art must be for the people, by the people and from the people. That is to say, it must be functional, collective and committing.

Our creative motif must be revolution; all art that does not discuss or contribute to revolutionary change is invalid. That is why the blues are invalid, they teach resignation, in a word acceptance of reality — and we have come to change reality.

It would take me a number of years to realize that Ron Karenga had made a ludicrous statement regarding the interpretation of the blues, but I was convinced that as an artist I could and should create artwork that would change reality.

Just a few weeks ago, I was sitting in a hotel lobby in Chattanooga, Tennessee thinking about this talk and I came across a familiar quotation by Mahatma Gandhi in an issue of The New Yorker.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world

It is the fusion of art and politics which gives rise to the political imagination. How one sees the world through the prism of art as well as the belief that art is a force by which one can alter reality, must be linked to what the artist holds dear. In other, words, my early poems were written under the rubric that a new world was possible. My work today is a further confirmation that I still believe change is possible. My politics have expanded to include issues and concerns outside the Black experience. This was primarily a result of my maturation as a writer during the 1970s and 1980s. It was during these two decades that my political imagination was influenced by the work of women writers in the U.S. and the changes talking place in countries like El Salvador, Nicaragua and Chile.

As a result of becoming a popular writer within the city of Washington, I was approached by various organizers of political movements to read my work. When cultural programs of solidarity were being planned in Latino communities, for example, I was invited to share some of my poems. This was a wonderful opportunity to reach a new audience. Consequently, the themes that I had examined in my work began to change.

Near the end of the 1970s I began to write a series of poems about Central and South America. Much of this work would serve as the core for my book Where Are The Love Poems for Dictators? in 1986.

In these poems, I use the persona or mask. A voice other than my own. This was risky. I had to imagine myself living in a part of the world that I did not know so intimately. I could not envision the landscape so I decided to envision the people. In writing about older women, I thought first of my own mother. I tried to remember her own hardships. This often served as a way to begin a poem. I also attempted to highlight common conditions of oppression, and to imagine what it would be like to be a political prisoner. My work with local prison programs proved to be helpful.

In some cases I borrowed from stories I had heard on the news. My poem "Roberto" is based on a story I heard about the treatment of members of the Baha'i faith in Iran. I switched the story to South America and imagined a similar situation taking place in perhaps Chile or Argentina. Here is the poem:

in Chile
roberto in her hands
in her hand
a photograph

is the
& the smile
of our friend

I ask
the authorities
about roberto
they shrug
their shoulders
they say
they have
not seen him

they ask
is he

life & death
there are only

Women played a key role in many of the poems I wrote during the 1970s and 1980s. I am certain that my friendship with such writers as June Jordan, Alice Walker, Thulani Davis and Ntozake Shange played a part in making me more sensitive to issues affecting women. Even today I find my important work expressed in the way I have depicted women in my poems. If we were to measure the success of the Women's Movement in our society it must be in how the consciousness of women as well as men has changed. I'd like to believe that I am more sensitive to issues that influence women than perhaps the African American writer Richard Wright was. My work is representative of contemporary African American male authors who are very much concerned about the images of women in their writings. In this group I would consider such writers as August Wilson, Alexs Pate and Clarence Major.

June Jordan's "Poem About My Rights" had a profound impact on my thinking regarding women. The idea of being a woman and not having the freedom of movement was something I had not thought about. "Poem About My Rights" left a permanent impact on my consciousness:

Even tonight and I need to take a walk and clear
my head about this poem about why I can't
go out without changing my clothes my shoes
my body posture my gender identity my age
my status as a woman alone in the evening/
alone on the streets/alone not being the point/
the point being that I can't do what I want
to do with my own body because I am the wrong
sex the wrong age the wrong skin […]

Understanding issues of sexism and racism has been crucial to my generation. I believe a writer's imagination is deeply affected by the historical period he or she is a witness to. James Baldwin often spoke about the writer as witness, which is different from being an observer. The witness is often called upon to give testimony. He or she must speak out against injustice in the community and in the world at large. How can my imagination not be influenced by images of the homeless, refugees crossing borders, children with lost limbs as a result of civil wars? How can my imagination not be influenced by what I witness in our public schools and prisons?

I do not write to escape from my surroundings. I write to embrace my neighbor. It is the politics of imagination which provides me with the vision of the type of world I would like to live in.

My idea of hope and vision is best conveyed in a poem I wrote many years ago in solidarity with events taking place in South America. The poem is entitled "The Door":

the day after the national election
the sky cleared and the sun found its guitar.
I ran to the plaza and soon discovered myself
dancing in the middle of a jubilant crowd.
a nation of song, a nation of thousands pushing
like the sea to the cathedral. I felt the sweet
sweat of arms, legs, and chests. I found my place
among the living, the dead, the ghosts, the children
waiting to be born. something more powerful than
victory was in the air. I could breathe again.
my prison door was open. my country was outside.
she had been waiting for me.

I like the the magic which can be found in the poem. The poem overcomes death and celebrates life. It is this freedom, the love for freedom which we must be free to imagine. As Americans we too often take our political rights for granted. As an African American I know that the history of my people in this nation has been one of struggle and achievement against overwhelming odds. A number of my poems have been written about slavery because I refuse to forget what has led me to this moment. To write and read in this country was once against the law if you were black. The importance of learning how to read and write is one legacy of the Narrative of Frederick Douglass. As an African American writer I am part of a tradition that links me to Douglass.

It was important for the slave to see himself as free. It was important that the chains which tied the physical body not restrain the souls of black folk. In fact the early African American poets, those coming after Phillis Wheatley, were often abolitionists. Their creative poems were often religious in tone, but always underscored the liberation of the mind and spirit.

The African American poet today must acknowledge this tradition. He or she must be a witness to what Amiri Baraka once called the "changing same."

At a conference in 1981, my friend and fellow poet Carolyn Forché said the following:

There is no such thing as nonpolitical poetry. The time, however, to determine what those politics will be is not the moment of taking pen to paper, but during the whole of one's life. We are responsible for the quality of of our vision; we have a say in the shaping of our sensibility. In the many thousand daily choices we make, we create ourselves and the voice with which we speak and work.

The artist must not feel restricted by politics. One must be aware of what one believes. One should have dreams for one's family, country and world. The motif of the dream is something one finds throughout the work of Langston Hughes. It Is Langston, like Jimmy Baldwin, who has guided me as a writer. It was Langston who wrote:

I dream a world where man
No other man will scorn
Where love will bless the earth
And peace its path adorn
I dream a world where all
Will know sweet freedom's way

I think it is important to talk about a topic such as one's political imagination.

Just a few weeks ago on April 9th, there were celebrations in honor of the great artist and activist Paul Robeson. 1998 represents the 100th Anniversary of this important American. For many artists like Ossie Davis, Harry Belafonte and Lorraine Hansberry, it was Robeson who best defined what an artist was. It was Robeson who embraced politics, it was he who was a supporter of international movements and labor, and who is best defined as a cultural worker. Robeson's voice was a voice that battled fascism. Robeson's voice lifted up the oppressed. During the period known as the Cold War, many American artists had their imaginations curtailed because of their politics. They were not free to imagine or create without someone asking about the influence of Communism. One's political imagination is linked to the issue of human rights. The relationship between governments, or the state and the individual. Freedom is a fragile gift that all of us cherish.

It was Paul Robeson who in 1937 said, "The artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice. I had no alternative." When I think of these remarks today, I think of how people once described Robeson as the tallest tree in the forest. I like the commitment and passion of Robeson.

This is how I wish to live. Our political imagination is how we see the world. It embraces what we want for ourselves and for each other. Our political imagination is our vision of life, our dreams being made real. One's political imagination should be one's blueprint for living.

The poet Stanley Kunitz once said, "poetry emerges from the passionate life." We cannot create art without working to create a space around it. This space is where the principles and beliefs in democracy must reside. Within this space we ask for appreciation and respect. Within this space we seek to practice brotherhood and love.

What I have learned from the Black Arts Movement is that all things eventually point towards truth and justice. Years ago, the Black Arts Movement gave me the power to see the beauty of my blackness; today I must not be blinded by race, but instead my political imagination must be open to understand the differences I have with others. I must be strong enough to construct cultural bridges.

What is poetry but that which we feel most deeply. What is poetry but that which tells our soul to sing. We are a people in need of song. We need new spirituals to inspire our imaginations … to ask God to bless us once again.

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is Director of the Afro-American Studies Resource Center at Howard University and author of two memoirs and many books of poetry.