African American Nationalist Literature of the 1960s: Pens of Fire.
At this time, a major study of African American nationalist literature of the 1960s (the Black Arts Movement) is greatly needed in order that we can come to terms with this complex and problematic decade. In the first full-length study of this period, African American Nationalist Literature of the 1960s: Pens of Fire, Sandra Hollin Flowers attempts to place 1960s "African American literary production" within the context of "the [black nationalist] political ideology which gave rise to" it. Unhappily, one great shortcoming of this study is that the author lets the sociopolitical context overwhelm literary production. To put it bluntly, Flowers is a better social critic than literary critic. Since this is a study of politically and sociologically inflected literature and not of politics and social movements per se, this makes Flowers work of limited value. Furthermore, although I find the idea behind her project quite promising--she wants to "capture the intensity, energy, and exuberance of the times and its es calating political consciousness as well as its errors and emotional climate"--she does not provide subtle readings of the literary works which make the works, and the times, come alive. And in the final analysis, it seems to me that Flowers finds more "errors" in the 1960s than "exuberance."
She investigates three major black nationalist genres: poetry, theater, and fiction. The fiction chapter on Toni Morrison, Sam Greenlee, and Nikki Giovanni is so slight and trumped up (she seems to have great trouble simply finding black nationalist fiction to write about) that it is not worth considering in this limited space. In her chapter on the poetry, Flowers makes the interesting observation that a "significant trend to evolve along with the cadre of poets was the emergence of women's voices in nationalism, a perspective which is virtually nonexistent in the canon of nationalist theory," but she does nothing worthwhile with this insight. In fact, poetry was the primary genre that this generation of black women began to utilize in the 1960s, and these same women poets--June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, and Lucille Clifton, to name a few--became self-conscious black feminist or womanist poets of the 1970s.
Flowers uses Sonia Sanchez's poetry as her focus for that genre. Although her analysis is crude, it is useful. Here, as elsewhere, Flowers supplies useful schematics--in this case, the three-step process for redefining blackness and rejecting whiteness employed, she argues, in by all black nationalists: "1) rejection of negative images perpetuated by white people; 2) assertion of Afro-centric values, images, and perspectives; and 3) replacing stereotypes and historical inaccuracies with a body of African-American generated folklore, histories, and other artifacts." Even though it is a useful paradigm, in the end it doesn't help us appreciate Sanchez's complex black vernacular diction and rich lyric poetry.
Moreover, Flowers isn't a particularly perceptive reader. For example, in Sanchez's poem "nigger," she misreads the word man as meaning 'black man,' whereas it refers to 'the white man.' This blunder makes her totally miss the point: Blacks must respect themselves and not be reduced to using the epithet nigger about themselves. Furthermore, Flowers's notion of what makes a good nationalist poet is too narrow, arid, and schematic. She argues that the poet must have the "ability to capture the mood and spirit of nationalist philosophy as well as to determine where it is in need of correction and clarity." To me, a much more satisfactory conception would call for the poet to have complex ideas, political commitment, and a gift for language; these are the reasons that we read Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Etheridge Knight, and many other poets of this persuasion. In her discussion of poetry, Flowers brings up the important and prickly question of the function of profanity in black poetry but doesn't d evelop it.
Flowers does not show herself to be a much more skillful reader of drama than poetry when she turns to that form. For example, in Baraka's agitprop "Junkies Are Full of Shhh ... ," instead of trying to find "the energy and exuberance of the times," she tells us that the revolutionary protagonists Damu and Chuma are not heroic enough for the audience to accept their fratricide of another black. This may or may not be true, but it doesn't seem that she is trying to empathize with a time of great black rage, a time when such once integrationist organizations as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee felt compelled to publish documents with titles like "We Must Fill Ourselves with Hate for All White Things." It isn't that Flowerts has to feel the "black righteousness" of the era, but to be a reliable literary historian, she must at least acknowledge its existence. In Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep Michael Harper supplies more insight than Flowers when he says of Baraka's work, "It is a window into the rage of some mid-century blacks, particularly those of urban ghettoes, who have watched several social 'movements' come and go without much substantive change." And if the reader merely compares Flowers's interpretation of "Junkies Are Full of Shhh ..." with Werner Sollors's in Amiri Baraka/LeRoi Jones: The Quest for a "Populist Modernism" and Lloyd Brown's in Amiri Baraka, he/she will graphically see her limitations. These critics do not like the play any more than Flowers does; however, they provide nuanced readings of the text.
Yet Flowers does furnish a solid, if not brilliant, presentation of the sociopolitical context which would be useful to any student of the period. In her first chapters she explores different schools of nationalism, the nature of the political climate, the influence of Malcolm X, the presence of a politicized arts community (quite an absorbing section), the ironic and inadvertent United States government's complicity with the Black Arts Movement, and many other engaging topics.
Even though I do not find Flowers's reading of individual artists very probing, the study is useful for providing background for this important movement and decade and some useful if limited schematics for reading nationalist genres. Furthermore, the book has an excellent, detailed bibliography. But unfortunately the book we need on the Black Arts Movement has not yet been written. Until it is, it is best to turn to the more reliable and complex critics of both the art and the times than Flowers, such as Houston A. Baker, Kalamu ya Salaam, and David L. Smith.
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|Author:||Harris, William J.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 1999|
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