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Panel discusses the impact of 20th Century black poetry

A panel discussion of black poetry of the 1960s and 1970s took place Thursday, Nov. 19 in the Lincoln Campus Center, sponsored by the University of Massachusetts Afro-American studies department. Panelists for the evening included Everett Hoagland, Sam Cornish, Sonia Sanchez, and Askia Toure, all of which were prominent participants in the black arts movement of the 20th Century.

Everett Hoagland, winner of the Gwendolyn Brooks Fiction Award, poet laureate of New Bedford, and English professor at UMass Dartmouth was the first panelist to speak. Hoagland chose to touch upon the significance of the black arts movement.

“What American poets have been more dedicated, more committed than the late and surviving exemplars of the black arts movement? More dedicated to loving folk in print and in word?” Hoagland asked his audience. “No one,” he answered. “The black arts movement was so influentially powerful that no other American art movement can compare with it … It changed what we wrote and read … It influenced the names we gave our children.”

Hoagland went on to note that, as a writer, this movement helped him move from an “I” perspective to a “we” perspective, as well as teaching him that he must live his poetry through actions.

“You can’t just chant justice, you [have to] struggle,” Hoagland said as he read from his book, “Undoing the Do,” which he said touches upon the need for humans to live “largely” instead of abundantly. He ended with a poem by Assata Shakur called “Current Events,” which talked about lacking the feeling the need to “fit in” in society.

Sam Cornish, winner of a National Endowment for the Arts grant in 1967 and a retired creative writing instructor at the Highland Park Free School in Roxbury, Mass., spoke next. Cornish told the audience that leaving the U.S. Army in 1958 inspired him to write. He went on to say that he felt “privileged” in his life because he is a man, and most of his work is dedicated to reflecting the voice of the strong woman figure.

One of Cornish’s most pivotal poems was “Woman in a Red Dress,” which was written about Harriet Tubman. He said that his work came to light when he realized his place in the world, and realized he had some “dues to pay.” He claimed to be influenced by the works of Richard Wright and Margaret Walker, as well as the death of Malcolm X.

Sonia Sanchez, professor at eight universities, founder of African American studies at San Francisco State and guest on the Bill Cosby Show, read a piece from an anthology in which she was published regarding the language and evolution of black poetry in the 20th century. Part of her reading touched upon the power of derogatory language towards African Americans.

“The act of speaking words has the power to change the world. What we do is show people the possibility of seeing themselves in a freedom mode,” Sanchez said, mentioning the role of a poet in relation to his or her audience. She also talked about how poets always write about their parents and shared a poem that she wrote for her father. She told the audience of the importance of forgiving your parents, before noting that “you can’t make movement and change happen in the world if you can’t forgive your parents.”

Askia Toure, political activist with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee’s
Atlanta Project, and retired professor of African studies at San Francisco State University, was the last speaker of the night. Toure read an excerpt from his poem “Cry Freedom,” which was written to identify a new black artist and activist generation. “Cry Freedom” was originally penned as a response to a demonstration at the United Nations, which protested the assassination of Congo’s Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. The poem is itself dedicated to a young activist who died in prison after the protest.

“True liberation fighters imagine a world,” said Toure, “and then work with their comrades and people to create that world.”

Letisha Harris, a student at the UMass, originally from Jamaica, says that she was inspired by the panel of “powerful, charismatic speakers.” Harris said that she could relate to the speakers, and that they touched upon issues that she and her family deal with in everyday life. Harris was in awe of Sonia Sanchez’s strength as an African American woman, and she said she was surprised that Sanchez came out and openly disagreed with another member of the panel.

Jenny Otero, a worker for Women of Color Leadership, was also inspired by the panelists. “I was really looking forward to Sonia,” she said. As a writer herself, Otero was struck by Sanchez’s comment on how speaking words has the power to change the world. Otero said that she felt she had been called out for action, and that her responsibility as an educated young woman was to speak for those who don’t have a voice.

The night was brought to a close with a brief question and answer session in which the panelists responded to audience members’ questions. The panelists fielded some interesting questions, such as what President Barack Obama’s inauguration meant to them, and how the black arts movement has inspired other minority groups.

Sanchez plans on teaching an African American studies class at UMass Amherst in spring of this year, and believes it is important for the new generation to educate themselves about the past generation’s struggles so that this generation can change the future. According to Sanchez, the generation of the 20th century attempted to answer the question, “What does it mean to be human?” She went on to add that young people must continue to search for the answer to this question, and fight to educate themselves so that they can act as a voice for those in the world that are less fortunate.

Angela MacGray can be reached at amacgray.umass.edu.

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