Between the World and Nommo: Hoyt W. Fuller and Chicago's Black Arts Magazines.
Fuller addressed a version of that very question in his manifesto of the previous year, Toward a Black Aesthetic." Originally published in spring 1968, Toward a Black Aesthetic" would have been circulating around the time of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4. That coincidence likely made the essay's opening line sound prophetic: "The black revolt is as palpable in letters as it is in the streets, and if it has not yet made its impact upon the Literary Establishment, then the nature of the revolt itself is the reason. " By representing black writers' struggle for cultural autonomy as analogous to civil unrest in cities across the country, Fuller identifies broad, meaningful stakes for what he calls "the journey toward a black aesthetic." This is not a struggle for the lone, disaffected writer, just as the urban uprisings of 1967 were not about Detroit or Newark in isolation. Rather, posits Fuller, insofar as "[c]onscious and unconscious white racism is everywhere, infecting all the vital areas of national life," it is up to BAM and its various regional manifestations--"Spirit House in Newark, the Black House in San Francisco, the New School of Afro-American Thought in Washington, D.C., the Institute for Black Studies in Los Angeles, Forum '66 in Detroit, and the Organization of Black American Culture in Chicago"--to rise up against whatever form white racism takes, in book reviews or on the streets. (2)
One can understand how "Toward a Black Aesthetic became a rallying cry for the movement. Fuller's soaring rhetoric confirms the general presumption that BAM promoted a nationalist aesthetic on the national stage. The essay, however, does not end on that note. Instead, the final quarter of it expounds on one of the aforementioned BAM groups: Chicago's Organization of Black American Culture, or OBAC. An arts collective that Fuller had co-founded the year before, in 1967, OBAC is held up as a model of how locals should define the black aesthetic on their own terms:
Within the past few years ... Chicago's white critics have given the backs of their hands to worthy works by black playwrights, part of their criticism directly attributable to their ignorance of the intricacies of black style and black life. Oscar Brown, Jr.'s rocking soulful Kicks and Company was panned for many of the wrong reasons; and Douglas Turner Ward's two plays, Day of Absence and Happy Ending, were tolerated as labored and a bit tasteless. Both Brown and Ward had dealt satirically with race relations, and there were not many black people in the audiences who found themselves in agreement with the critics. It is the way things are--but not the way things will continue to be if the OBAC writers and those similarly concerned elsewhere in America have anything to say about it. (3)
Because the devil is in the details in this closing section, the prose is somewhat flat--more descriptive of things that happened and less evocative of the movement's general aims. Here, though, what Fuller sacrifices in rhetorical effect is made up for by intimate and intricate knowledge of the local scene--knowledge not only of Brown's and Ward's theatrical productions but of black audiences' reactions to them and the critics. Fuller suggests that he has seen for himself how white people have little to no sense of what blacks want or enjoy. If BAM is to move toward the black aesthetic, then, it will require groups like OBAC to respond to on-the-ground conditions of black cultural expression.
Fuller did not figure Chicago as a metonym for Black America: there were many hotbeds of unrest, not just one. But neither did he believe that Chicago was incidental to how he conceived the black aesthetic: OBAC, for one, offered proof of its necessity. If "Toward a Black Aesthetic" left this geographic tension unresolved, Fuller's editorial practice required that he revisit it on a daily basis. By managing two distinct Chicago Black Arts magazines, Fuller tested out BAM's local and national viability in the small act of deciding which works to publish where. I retrace Fuller's editorial practice here in order to suggest that the question of scale--shifting one's perspective from nation to city, the pan-African world to a specific black community--not only was meaningful for the editor-critic but is essential to our understanding of the production of Black Arts poetry. The shift we see at the end of "Toward a Black Aesthetic" is indicative, I think, of how Fuller edited poetry with different audiences always in mind. While scholars like Howard Rambsy II and James Edward Smethurst have stressed the importance to BAM of independent, black-owned publishing channels, no one has examined the scalar differences between those channels--how broad or limited a reach they had, and how those scales informed the kind of poetry they featured. Fuller, I hope to demonstrate, understood those differences well. The poems he selected for national distribution often were very different from the poems he cultivated closer to home. Yet rather than see these groups of poetry as mutually exclusive, Fuller labored to bring them out simultaneously. It was in their unity, he believed, that BAM found its clearest expression.
After a stint as the West Africa correspondent for a Dutch newspaper in the late 1950s, Fuller returned to Chicago to work for his former boss, the communications magnate John H. Johnson. Johnson rehired Fuller to be the managing editor of Negro Digest, a current events periodical he had discontinued in 1951 to focus on his glossier holdings, the lifestyle magazines Ebony and Jet. Relaunching a decade later, Negro Digest picked up where it had left off: printing middle-of-the-road, politically restrained fare that no one in the black community or even outside of it would find objectionable. Fuller, however, had other plans for the magazine. Under his direction, Negro Digest shed its moderate reputation and became a major platform not only for debating revolutionary ideas but for showcasing nationalist aesthetics. In addition to publishing BAM poetry, fiction, and criticism, it regularly featured interviews with pan-African political and cultural figures and proceedings from US and world conferences on black arts. By the late 1960s Negro Digest had become a popular yet high-minded meeting ground, or byway, between black nationalism and the politics of decolonization. In recognition of its acquired status, Fuller renamed the magazine Black World in May 1970.
Fuller was committed to making BAM a "big" magazine phenomenon; this was its best opportunity to be seen as a genuinely national movement. Yet for all the time and energy running Negro Digest required, Fuller was equally committed to grassroots artistic programming and development in his adopted city. (4) OBAC grew out of Fuller's regular meetings with literary critic Conrad Kent Rivers and social activist Gerald McWorter (Abdul Alkalimat) in his apartment. The trio invited others to join their effort to revitalize local black politics through increased participation in the arts. Soon meetings grew large enough that they had to be moved to the South Side Community Art Center. Now calling itself OBAC, (5) the group wrote its name into city legend when, in the summer of 1967, members painted a mural on a nondescript building at 43rd Street and Langley Avenue. The Wall of Respect, as the mural came to be known, featured the likenesses of culture heroes from Nat Turner and Marcus Garvey to Nina Simone and local poet Gwendolyn Brooks. Two years later, in 1969, OBAC debuted its own "little" magazine, Nommo, a review of poetry and other pieces produced under the auspices of its Writers' Workshop. As the advisor to the workshop, Fuller was tasked with editing Nommo. A few OBAC poets--Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti) and Carolyn M. Rodgers, for example--became nationally famous, but most of them were and remain unknown outside of the Chicago scene. (6)
Fuller edited Negro Digest from 1961 to 1976 and Nommo from 1969 to 1973. Johnson's magazine had a national circulation of 180,000 readers. By contrast, Nommo's audience was small, if not limited to the collective and its network of contacts. This reflected the fact that, in David Lionel Smith's characterization, OBAC "was a community-based organization" whose members "eschew[ed] formal affiliations with any other institution" except when it came to renting meeting space. (7) Managing these two magazines required that Fuller develop an editorial practice attuned to scale. On one hand, Black Arts poetry had to be expansive enough so that formal and thematic patterns could be seen between works that came from different parts of the United States and indeed across the black diaspora. Yet Black Arts poetry also had to be specific enough so that it spoke to people's everyday experience of a city or neighborhood, in a language that could have been written by someone you knew. As an editor, Fuller became adroit at distinguishing between these uses for poetry while emphasizing that each had an important role to play in the journey toward the black aesthetic. Comparing the poems Fuller selected for a big magazine with those he curated for a little one will, I hope, give us a deeper understanding of Black Arts poetry's scalar imagination.
First let us consider two poems that tackle a favorite BAM theme: how the people come into political consciousness. Lee's "Blackman/an unfinished history" is from the first issue (May 1970) of Black World. Midway through the poem the speaker expresses regret over the way black men (note the plural) have treated "our woman": "we wished her something else, / & she became that wish.... she not only reflected her, but reflected us, / was a mirror of our death-desires." By italicizing the word "her," Lee indicates the alienating effects of idealizing white womanhood as the standard of beauty in American culture. He then claims that black men are implicated in the woman's devaluation insofar as she merely reflects their own self-alienation ("death-desires"). This is the turning point in the poem. Confronted with that mirror image, the speaker declares, "the sixties brought us black." From here to the end of the poem, he describes learning to embrace blackness on its own terms. For example, in contrast to the previous italicization, Lee now has black men "telling yr daughter she's beautiful / & meaning it." This conscious affirmation is immediately preceded by a new strategy of accounting for blackness: "greatness becomes our new values--000000000000." Starting from zero means no longer presuming that whiteness is the standard bearer of beauty or self-worth. As the "blackman" begins to move toward this "New World picture," we hear his psychic engine roar with repeating onomatopoetic "zooms." (8)
A sly reference to Chicago's downtown--"build yr own loop"--is uttered amid these propulsive sounds, but the poem is otherwise shorn of local specificity. The city plays a more noticeable role in Lee's poem from the first issue (Winter 1969) of Nommo. "Don't Cry, Scream" is a jarring elegy for jazz saxophonist John Coltrane, who had died in July 1967. The musician's saxophone "scream," which doubles as the sound made by a train "riding the rails / of novation," stands in for black people's revolt against psychic colonization by white supremacy. A caricature of the latter appears in the form of "negro cow-sissies / who dig tchaikovsky & / the beatles & live in / split-level homes & had / split-level minds & babies." Emasculation, "white" music, embourgeoisement: these are the qualities the speaker would reject with a long blow of Trane's horn. What makes this caricature a product of Chicago is the speaker's aside: "(who hid in the bathroom to read / jet mag., who didn't read the Chicago / defender because of the misspelled / words)." (9) Jet and the Defender circulated nationally, yes, but their mention here indexes a peculiar kind of local embarrassment--as if being seen with hometown media opened oneself up to unwanted racial judgment. Angelenos and Atlantans, for example, might not subscribe to the Defender for any number of reasons; there would be no local expectation that they do. Chicagoans, however, would be expected to read the paper, which is why shame is so acute in these lines. Lee's figuration of Jet is more complicated because the magazine is a guilty pleasure: something one wants but is embarrassed to admit to wanting. In the end, the magazine's unabashed race pride may be that which the fusty assimilationist feels he has to repress in order to succeed in the white world. In 1969 the likeliest reference point for his split-level home would have been something in Chicago's segregated residential neighborhoods.
On January 30, 1969, Fuller wrote Lee to fill him in on plans for the first issue of Nommo. He relayed news that OBAC had postponed the magazine's launch party from February 15 to March 9. They had to do so to account for a possible delay in production and to give the issue's dedicatee, Chicago jazz musician Terry Callier, time to recover from "voice problems." Callier's attendance was important, he said, because the issue aimed to commemorate his contributions to OBAC. But if Callier would be the guest of honor, so would Lee--or at least that was how Fuller tried to make him feel. Lee was a rising star in Chicago BAM and had founded his own publishing company, Third World Press, in 1967. Fuller gently reminded him of his obligation to the group: "Write to the kids as soon as you can and let us know here at OBAC whether you can--or will--make arrangements to go up to Wisconsin." (10) It is unknown what that trip would have entailed. Regardless, Fuller seemed to be trying to draw Lee back into the OBAC family, with the letter serving as an indirect invitation to the launch. But Fuller had good reason to reach out. At the party, Lee would have received his own copy of Nommo. Flipping through it, he would have found, on page thirty-five, a photograph in which Gwendolyn Brooks, seated in the background, beams at his lecturing figure in the foreground--the teacher in action.
Fuller's small gesture to Lee was of a piece with his editorial practice for Nommo: ensure that whomever he published had an organic connection to OBAC. This practice was distinct from what he did or deemed useful for Negro Digest and later Black World. As early as 1963 Fuller could boast to a friend about Negro Digest being so "widely respected" that "writers and intellectuals and historians from all over the world [were] seeking it out, discussing it, reprinting articles from it. " (11) Of course sustaining that kind of reception required a clear understanding of what tens of thousands of readers wanted on a monthly basis. By contrast, Nommo delayed its own launch so that everyone could make the party; its audience was small. OBAC's little magazine thus had nested, face-to-face relationships to negotiate, whereas Johnson's big magazine had an interpersonally abstract readership to appeal to. This contrast in readership echoes my broader point that variance in the forms of Black Arts poetry may be attributed to the different periodicals through which that poetry was distributed.
The most notable point of contrast between Fuller's magazines had to do with geography. Under his editorship, Negro Digest was transformed into a leading English-language forum about diaspora politics and culture. Accordingly, it featured writing from all over the world, with Fuller drawing on his own travels to expand his editorial vision. Any given issue from this period was likely to lend insight into the global dimensions of black struggle. The Stephen Henderson correspondence I introduced earlier, for example, identified a run of issues that were especially attuned to pan-Africanism: "You know, I was sitting down the other day thinking about the last few issues of the DIGEST and how fine they all were and how the young kids like Carolyn Rodgers and Nikki Giovanni were really maturing as critics as well as poets. And I picked up the October issue with your 'Algiers Journal' in it and was very moved." (12) Fuller's piece was a postcolonial account of his attendance at the first Pan-African Cultural Festival in July 1969. He compared this affirming trip to one he had taken a decade earlier when Algeria was still under French colonial rule. Rodgers and Giovanni, meanwhile, were just two of the nearly seventy poets published in the remarkable September 1969 poetry issue, which also included two major BAM statements on art: Ameer (Amiri) Baraka's "The Black Aesthetic" and Rodgers's own "Black Poetry--Where It's At." Giovanni's "Two Untitled Poems from Barbados" was featured alongside expatriate poems by Ted Joans, several contributions on or about African cultural traditions, and even an anti-imperial reimagining of the July 20 Apollo 11 landing by Jon Eckels.
Rodgers was an OBAC poet, as I noted above, but her "Knowing the Difference" was not Chicago-specific. Rather, it aimed to manifest what she laid out as a nationalist aesthetic program. In her essay from the issue, she writes, "I have attempted to place all Black poetry in several broad categories, all of which have variations on the main form." Using her own cultural nationalist typology, Rodgers defines a "signifying poem" as "a teachin, spaced, pyramid poem," one that incorporates instruction (teaching), spirituality (spaced), and the process of "getting us together/building /nationhood" (pyramid) into its form. (13) "Knowing the Difference" is Rodgers's effort to compose a poem in that vein: "Leave the sister and brother / with the yellow / gold / red / orange streak in their hair / yeah, leave them alone." Here the speaker touches on the reader's experience of seeing people like this in his or her own environs. The tone is cautionary, instructive. From there Rodgers marries sardonic humor with cultural consciousness-raising. Aligning "honkies" with "ostriches / cheetahs / lions / leopards," the speaker says, "We have always imitated animals." (14) The poem's signifying joke legitimates the value of African cultural practice while subverting the conventional association of whiteness with civilization. As a result of being featured so prominently in the issue, Rodgers was propelled to the forefront of BAM's national conversation. That success might have come at the expense of her face-to-face dealings with Fuller. In January 1971, Rodgers's literary agent sent two poems to John H. Johnson, not Fuller, for publication in Negro Digest, not Black World (which the magazine had become by then). (15) Fuller did not take kindly to the slight, especially given the fact that Rodgers still lived in the city. (16) After making up, he continued to publish her in Black World through 1975.
To be sure, Chicago was as important a site of nationalist organizing as Newark, Harlem, and Oakland were. Fuller at no point ignored Black Arts poetry about Chicago. But when he did publish such poetry in Johnson's magazine, it tended to treat the city as a metaphor, or figure, for the black struggle as such. Western Washington State creative writing professor ECurmie (E. Curmie) Prices "Chicago 1968" appeared in the poetry issue I mentioned above. The title recalls a turbulent time when the city was rocked first by riots that followed Dr. King's assassination and then by bloody conflict in the streets outside the Democratic National Convention. Yet even with these evocative reference points, Price's poem keeps anything specific about Chicago in '68 at arm's length:
In no other town, no Other city Have they taken such possession; Yet Chicago is the blackest town I know. Albeit a cracker town of European Puritans, who have taken to drinking black blood.
And at the end:
Chicago is the blackest town I know, Although its surface is largely white And sweats wasps in the belfry. (17)
Price's rendering of white supremacy as bloodsucking is meant to contrast Chicago's African American population with those who would exploit it. Here the city serves as a figure for the contrast between "black blood" and "white surface." Price is writing about Chicago, yes, but his primary interest lies in teasing out the vampiric conceit. The poem's final line demonstrates as much: we expect to read "bats in the belfry" but are surprised when Price substitutes "wasps" for "bats." WASPs thus emerge as the real vampires--in Chicago or (the wordplay recommends) elsewhere.
Nommo's Chicago was a different thing altogether. There the city emerged as the concrete materiality of urban life with which OBAC poets had to tarry on a daily basis. In the poem "God Is Black," for example, Jacqueline Robbins writes of a woman who cries out in anguish, "God--You surely / Couldn't be Black ..." But the speaker corrects her:
God is Black I know I saw him 16th and Homan 47th under the "el" He spoke to me "Hey Baby, How you doing." (18)
The speaker names two intersections that situate the reader in local geography--namely, African American neighborhoods in the West and South Sides. This cognitive mapping makes Robbins's racial symbolization of God concrete: when the speaker says she knows "God is Black," she actually taps into collective knowledge of the streets and people of these spaces. It is the intersections that make Him real. In this account, God is a grounded deity--proximate, familiar--not the lofty, intangible figure to whom the troubled woman appeals. Robbins's staged contrast is most meaningful to those who can imagine exactly where she is writing about.
Fuller rewrote "Toward the Black Aesthetic" for the debut issue of Nommo, changing only the "a" to "the" in the title. In this second version of the manifesto, he argued the importance of regional Black Arts organizations not in relation to the national movement but in their own right. Whereas the earlier version tacked on the OBAC sketch as if it were an afterthought, in this later piece the group took center stage. Fuller stated, "What the writers of the OBAC Writers' Workshop are attempting, simply, is to write naturally and honestly out of their own experiences, rejecting the counsel of the critics and the university professors that they concern themselves with 'universals.' And, in doing this, they are--wittingly or unwittingly, it does not matter--moving toward a black aesthetic." (19) Questioning the value of universality (or any claim thereto), Fuller tasked OBAC with opening up space for ground-level poetic perspectives. The point was not to write about Chicago in a self-consciously "artistic" way, treating the city as a symbol or metaphor for something else. Rather, the point was to recognize one's lived urban reality as the proper subject of poetry. That OBAC poets "wittingly or unwittingly" (emphases mine) involved themselves in a movement "toward a black aesthetic" is telling, I think. By saying this Fuller suggested that being a poet did not require conscious participation in a movement, national or otherwise. For him, simply participating in the workshop--a weekly event over which he presided "except in grave personal emergencies"--was its own legitimation and reward. (20)
Nommo is thus a key document in understanding the relationship between region, nationalism, and the nation in BAM. While many Chicago-born poems never enjoyed a national reception, all of them, according to Fuller's advising of OBAC, were pivotal in doing the work of imagining nationalism on the ground. This is why so many poems in Nommo may be read as observational or occasional pieces: the workshop cultivated an aesthetic that addressed not an abstract implied reader but actual known readers--those who shared the poet's perspective on a familiar, even intimate, level. Walter Bradford's work is representative in this regard. "A Westside Story," from the second issue, is a short poem that offers a slice of life from Chicago's West Side neighborhood. The subject is a "white boy, / acne skin and all, / looking / to sensitize his senses," which in this mapping of the city means getting down with black people. The speaker is content to observe this curious sight, relying on the reader's knowledge of the city to fill in the affect that would issue from seeing the kid, on the West Side, "in a red dashiki." (21) Another Bradford poem, "On First Digging Salaam," is less about making a local observation than about marking a local occasion. The speaker relates a visit to the Nation of Islam's Salaam Restaurant to the belief system that subtends the Nation's version of Muslim brotherhood. He remarks, "Egypt flows there but with different / Pharaohs now, Roosevelt and little junior / Sunny boy and 'nem and newly ordained L. C. Ali, / All in the manner of the honorable one." (22) The respect accorded to these new proprietors echoes the respect the speaker has for the Nation. The occasion as such drives home that point rather than any specific (observed) detail at the restaurant.
Fuller may have rejected "universals" in the Writers' Workshop, but he was more accommodating to the idea when editing Negro Digest for thousands of readers. Fuller understood that, in order for BAM to be recognized at the national level, some measure of legitimation had to be secured. To do that, he published and garnered the support of the very critics and professors whose authority he had downplayed in the second version of "Toward a Black Aesthetic." This was perhaps inevitable, given the growth of Black Studies programs throughout the country, to say nothing of the institutionalization of BAM itself. In the early 1970s Fuller looked on as OBAC's earliest supporters took up positions at various schools. In the summer of 1971 he wrote to Eugenia Collier, then teaching at the Community College of Baltimore, about Gwendolyn Brooks starting a post at the City College of New York in the fall, while Lee was set to join Howard University in Washington, DC. (23) Fuller did not begrudge such success; on the contrary, it manifested his desire, which became the big magazine's directive, to accord BAM the national and international standing he thought it deserved. The point was not to concede universality (or beauty or humanity) to whiteness but to redefine the idea from a black perspective, backed by the support of institutions.
When Fuller published professors' work, he helped make Negro Digest a forum for middlebrow seriousness in black poetry. The implied reader of such work was almost always a book-smart but "conscious" individual in the black community. Samuel Allen (Paul Vesey), for example, was Avalon Professor of Humanities at the Tuskegee Institute when Fuller published him for the first time in the October 1969 issue of Negro Digest. A native of Columbus, Ohio, Allen graduated from Fisk University, where he had studied under James Weldon Johnson, in 1938 and earned a law degree from Harvard in 1941. He then attended the Sorbonne, and while in Paris he fell in with the black expatriate crowd. Its figurehead, Richard Wright, helped him publish his first poems in Presence Africaine. So when Allen's "Springtime: Ghetto, USA" came out twenty years after that, it reflected a highly refined literary imagination. The poem is a genre-bending antipastoral that, at first glance, describes lovers in a moonlight tryst: "Two pairs of eyes peered face to face / in the moon's soft light. / The Ides has passed; again the Spring had come." By the third stanza, however, that tranquil scene has turned into a nightmare: "Inside the shadowed tenement / one pair of eyes looked up, / The rodent's down / into the ragged crib / In the moon's soft light." (24)
The peace implied by the phrase "the moon's soft light" is belied by the fact that what the reader now sees is the terror of inner-city poverty, of a rat looking menacingly at a helpless baby. That such calm coexists with such horror is the crux of the poem's meaning: the loss of innocence can practically go unnoticed in "Ghetto, USA." The reader's familiarity with pastoral conventions allows the poem to drive home this devastating point. Allen leaves us with Richard Wright's famous opening to Native Son (1940) echoing in our ears.
As OBAC grew in numbers, its output was oriented not toward literary genres or conventions but toward specific community programs and initiatives. In the third issue of Nommo (Summer 1972), for example, Sterling D. Plumpp introduced a dossier of poems by the OBAC Young Writers' Workshop, of which he was in charge. Plumpp praised the boys and girls' work as exemplary of "the Black Aesthetics, the Black Life, though in its unmined, unexpurgated, yet real rich form." (25) Whatever their poems may have lacked in formal complexity, the students made up for with a refreshing plain-spokenness, or as one girl called it, "telling it like it is." (26) Consider twelve-year-old John Simmons's "Willie":
I know a dude by the name of Will, He smokes reefers and drops pills. He shoots dope two times a day, He shot it 70 times in the month of May. He's a dope fiend and that I know, He's so hooked, he shoots dope in his toe. He shot the needle so hard and sharp, When you touch his muscle it twanged like a harp. (27)
The poem does not make an overt appeal to literariness. In fact it has the feel of an oral performance--a street-level poem, from vernacular culture, that points back to the long tradition of toasts and forward to the popularization of rap. Even so, it would be a mistake to deny the complexity of Simmons's language as it is printed on the page. There are, of course, the end rhymes, which could seem overly simplistic. Yet I find that the irregular meter discourages the reader from slipping into a sing-song pattern. As a result, each rhyme sequence comes across as less obvious than might be expected. Then, of course, there is the content of the poem. The ravages of drug addiction are surreally estranged by Simmons's rhymes, and there is one instance--the final line, not coincidentally--where literary analogy is marshaled to shocking effect. Simmons's description of a "muscle" that "twanged like a harp" does not need literariness to achieve the discomfiting feeling he is after. He leaves us with that pluck ringing in our ears.
Again, this was all quite different from what Fuller promoted at his day job. As BAM became institutionalized cultural practice over the course of the 1970s, Fuller more explicitly embraced literariness as a marker of aesthetic legitimacy. We see this at work in "Br'er Sterling and the Rocker," a poem by Michael S. Harper commemorating poet-critic Sterling A. Brown's receipt of an honorary degree from Northwestern University in 1973. At the time of his writing, Harper was a professor of English at Brown University; his first collection of poems, Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970), had been nominated for the National Book Award. By 1973 Brown was very much the elder statesman of black poetry--a forerunner to rather than a participant in BAM. Yet insofar as Brown's elegant criticism paved the way for African American literature's securing aesthetic legitimacy, the poem seeks to celebrate Brown as BAM in spirit. The first stanza reads: "Any fool knows a Br'er in a rocker / is a boomerang incarnate; look at the blade / of the rocker, that wondrous crescent / rocking in harness as poem." (28) To signify Brown's importance to the movement, Harper takes an object of apparent comfort-in-old-age--the rocking chair-- and transforms it into a distinctive weapon--a boomerang or curved blade--of art. Here the boomerang, whose elliptical flight returns it to the point of origin, serves as a recursive metaphor for poetry and even poetic lineage. Harper reveals that his verse is the subject of the poem insofar as it evidences Brown's effect on his thinking and art. "Br'er Sterling and the Rocker" is an occasional poem; it may even be a Chicago poem depending on one's view of Evanston. But Harper flattens out these details in order to stage a reflexive understanding of the black aesthetic.
Nommo, again, by comparison, had a more direct use for poetry. OBAC stressed that the figural was a function of the literal, and that poetic vision emerged out of a clear-eyed understanding of racial and class inequality as it was lived or experienced. A dossier of poetry and short fiction by incarcerated black men--whom Don L. Lee introduced as "political prisoners"--underlined the significance of this direct, concrete use for poetry. (29) James Clay's "On Writing Poems in America" reads:
Writing poems is hard in America. For the sound of guns and hungry Black babies defy the power of metaphor. And often the only images that come to mind are those of nightsticks raining on dark heads or of boxes filled with murdered Black bodies. Writing poems is hard in America. (30)
The poem understands the suffering of black people to exceed what metaphors are able to represent or stand in for. It relies, instead, on metonymy to link "nightsticks" to a police state apparatus and "dark heads" to black bodies. But even this gesture leads the reader to query: Why is blackness non-substitutable? What makes it irreducible to something else? The violence visited upon these black bodies is at once the figuration of and the answer to such questions. Metonymy stages the problem at the heart of the poem's writing.
In comparing Harper's and Clay's poems, the distance between poet and reader feels shorter in Nommo. That is because Clay's invitation to "get it" is delivered plainly, as if it were a direct appeal for understanding, not the controlled performance that it is. Both poems are about writing Black Arts poetry, and both ultimately reflect on their own conditions of composition. Yet Clay's voice seems better positioned to carry on what was so powerful about BAM's emergent impulse: namely, its commitment to the social life of poetry and indeed of all art. That does not mean Clay's poem is any better or worse than Harper's--only that its social function, or connection between life and art, is clearer and more consequential for having helped a prisoner become a published poet. The general point I am trying to make here is encapsulated by this summary: "OBAC members seek to be a part of--not apart from--their community. They absorb, reflect, recall, evaluate, interpret, illuminate, divine vis-a-vis that community.... Their craft serves not to escape or distort reality, but to communicate it in ways it can be brought home and handled." (31) If poetry is supposed to be used, and a poem's usefulness is determined by ordinary people, then OBAC's autonomous reaching out to others carries the torch of BAM in ways that Black World's appeals to the implied reader cannot.
Fuller's editorial career reflected and gave shape to that divergence: as he labored to support OBAC's grassroots mission, he simultaneously helped make Black World the institutionalizing mechanism for BAM that it became. When an exhausted Fuller finally stepped back from editing Nommo, the people he had mentored were the first to praise the work he did in both tracks. In the fourth issue (Winter 1975), edited by Fuller's protegee Angela Jackson, no fewer than three works by three different poets were in some fashion dedicated to the advisor of the workshop. Melvin Eugene Lewis's stood out, not because he named Fuller (his was the only poem that did not) but because he associated him with "77 East 35th," the physical address of OBAC's modest headquarters after a period of renting out meeting spaces. The address is also the title of the poem:
8 years of Wednesday nights and every 4th Sunday evening he's sat quietly listening tired eyes speak soft gentle (too many manuscripts read ... too short of time) faint New York/proper sounds court his wisdom of the Black World
And at the end:
faint New York/proper sounds court his wisdom of the Pan-Afrikan World he's always editing 8 years of Wednesdays and every 4th Sunday he's sat quietly listening cutting sense while others have come n gone (32)
Lewis returns us to the question of scale as I formulated it at the beginning of this essay. The speaker no doubt respects Fuller's editorial work on behalf of the "Black World" and the "Pan-Afrikan World." However, he is also wary of those "faint New York/proper sounds" that would "court his wisdom"; they seem to want to draw Fuller away from his Chicago base. Thus, from the perspective of scale, New York stands in for an audience that can only appreciate Fuller in the abstract: the man who brought them the world.
In a distinctly OBAC move, Lewis counterposes New York to Chicago, which is not named because it does not need to be named--the reader is already in the know. The speaker praises Fuller for devoting his off-hours to the exhausting, exacting, and often underappreciated work of advising the Writers' Workshop. (This is the side of him New York does not see.) Even more, the speaker asks the reader to recognize the duration of Fuller's commitment to OBAC, which exceeds the time anyone else has put in. Indeed, as "others have come n gone"--including those who went on to institutionalize BAM on college campuses--it is Fuller who has been the one constant. For this reason, although the location at the title's street address was not OBAC's original meeting space, the poem leaves one with the impression that Fuller has been there all along.
Lewis's praise poem for Fuller outlines in concrete detail my final point about Black Arts poetry's scalar imagination. The interrelationship between duration, or time, and location, or space, in nationalist poetics may be read as a precise function of which periodicals poems appeared in, how many readers they reached, and how frequently they would be published. Unlike Negro Digest and Black World's monthly mass publication, Nommo appeared irregularly, turning out only four issues in six years. That is important because it means Nommo was more of an album than a periodical: it reviewed OBAC's works and days, and in so doing marked, rather than announced, Nation Time. Yet that timelag, or delay, in the little magazine made up for whatever it lacked in the illusion of simultaneity with an abiding commitment to proximity and to face-to-face accountability in producing art for the community.
So as the big magazine expanded beyond the borders of the United States to encompass the entire pan-African world, Nommo doubled-down on the Bantu meaning of its title: the magic of the word made flesh. (33)
As early as the summer of 1972 Hoyt W. Fuller could see the writing on the wall: like Black Power, BAM was losing momentum. He wrote his friend Don L. Lee: "[Y]our power and influence in the Black Community is undergoing a leveling process. (This is merely in keeping with the leveling out of the Black Consciousness Movement itself: the counter forces are entrenched, and their stock will rise until the Black Community arrives at its next major national crisis)." (34) It is perhaps one of the great ironies of BAM that as soon as it announced its arrival on the national scene--Addison Gayle, Jr.'s anthology The Black Aesthetic appeared in 1971--it began a steady process of decline. By "decline" we should take to mean that the energy animating the original movement either dissipated or was rerouted into the institutionalization of Black Arts. Fuller, to be fair, played as significant a role in the latter as anyone else. Black World brought BAM to the masses and made nationalism a household term. It was, as I have been suggesting, an outlet for Black Arts' imagined community. By its own market logic, however, Black World was set to expire when pan-Africanism itself ceased to be de rigueur. Sure enough, John H. Johnson pulled the plug on the big magazine when it, too, felt less nationally relevant. The last issue appeared in April 1976.
What Fuller perhaps could not have foreseen was how all the time he poured into OBAC yielded something money could never buy: real community. He left Chicago for good in 1976, after Black World folded. Fuller moved to his hometown, Atlanta, where he founded a short-lived copycat of Johnson's magazine called First World. Yet back in Chicago, the tight-knit literary workshop he had cultivated for a decade blossomed into a self-sustaining organization that outlasted the demise of Nommo, Black World, and, if we were to go by conventional literary history, BAM itself. (Lee, as Haki Madhubuti, was able to achieve the same through his Third World Press, ultimately proving Fuller's 1972 assessment of his influence wrong.)
The group's focus on developing a concrete, locally accountable poetics paid dividends in the long run. OBAC continued to host the Writers' Workshop, refreshing itself with new and younger members. Nommo the journal did not make a comeback, but its name and function lived on in periodic collections of members' writings. When the first OBAC anthology, which came in at over three hundred pages, appeared in 1987, there was only one person to whom it could have been dedicated: Hoyt W. Fuller, who had died in 1981. Shorter anthologies--Nommo 2 and Nommo 3--were published in 1990 and 1992; the latter commemorated OBAC's twenty-fifth anniversary.
That BAM in Chicago kept going long after BAM faded from the national scene is a testament to OBAC's depth of community involvement. The group's commitment to local participation in the arts ensured that Black Arts poetry lived on through community networks and grassroots programs and initiatives. And even though Fuller was no longer around, the boomerang of history he had set in motion by editing big and little Black Arts magazines at the same time returned to the workshop several years after his death. In the preface to the Nommo 2 anthology, co-chair of the Writers' Workshop Toni McConnell wrote, "Our goal is to continue publishing NOMMO as a book, but, beginning with this volume, it now showcases work from Pan-African, non-OBAC members as well." (35) The seeds Fuller had nurtured while running the workshop himself now, twenty-three years later, yielded fruit that not only continued the mission of OBAC but extended it to include the ideal of a pan-African community that he had forged in the pages of Black World. Far from remaining tied to the local, OBAC's scalar imaginary expanded outward, drawing connections between home and the diaspora. This, then, was the way Nommo renewed itself: by folding the world into its name. It was the perfect synthesis of Hoyt W. Fuller's Black Arts magazines.
(1)/ Stephen E. Henderson to Hoyt W. Fuller, 27 October 1969, Box 8, Folder 34, Hoyt W. Fuller Collection, Archives Resource Center, Clark Atlanta University. All further citations of correspondence in the Hoyt W. Fuller collection refer to this archive.
(2)/ Hoyt W. Fuller, "Toward a Black Aesthetic," The Critic (April-May 1968): 70, 72.
(3)/ Ibid., 73.
(4)/ Fuller was born in Atlanta and raised in Detroit.
(5)/ The acronym (pronounced oh-bah-see) was a nod to the Yoruban word "oba," meaning royal or chief.
(6)/ These locally known poets include Collette Armstead, Nora Brooks Blakely, Randson Boykin, Walter Bradford, Eileen C. Cherry, Angela Jackson, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Jamila-Ra (Maxine Hall Ellison), Sterling D. Plumpp, Sandra Royster, Kharlos Wimberli, and Qwusu Yaki Yakubu (James Sayles).
(7)/ Interview with Hoyt W. Fuller, Black Books Bulletin 1, no. 1 (1971): 42; David Lionel Smith, "Chicago Poets, OBAC, and the Black Arts Movement," in The Black Columbiad: Defining Moments in African American Literature and Culture, ed. Werner Sollors and Maria Diedrich (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 258.
(8)/ Don L. Lee, "Blackman/an unfinished history," Black World (May 1970): 22-23.
(9)/ Don L. Lee, "Don't Cry, Scream," Nommo 1, no. 1 (1969): 17-19.
(10)/ Hoyt W. Fuller to Don L. Lee, 30 January 1969, Hoyt W. Fuller Collection, Box 9, Folder 27.
(11)/ Hoyt W. Fuller to Hank Payne, 21 August 1963, Hoyt W. Fuller Collection, Box 2, Folder 17.
(12)/ Henderson to Fuller, 27 October 1969.
(13)/ Carolyn M. Rodgers, "Black Poetry--Where It's At," Negro Digest (September 1969): 7-8.
(14)/ Carolyn M. Rodgers, "Knowing the Difference," Negro Digest (September 1969): 24.
(15)/ Marjorie Peters to John H. Johnson, 21 January 1971, Hoyt W. Fuller Collection, Box 23, Folder 16.
(16)/ Peters's letter to Johnson had been rerouted to Fuller, who then responded directly to Rodgers: "I do not want to see any of your work from Peters and Long. Please be good enough as to instruct them to never send any of your work to this magazine." Hoyt W. Fuller to Carolyn M. Rodgers, 26 January 1971, Hoyt W. Fuller Collection, Box 23, Folder 16.
(17)/ ECurmie Price, "Chicago 1968," Negro Digest (September 1969): 47.
(18)/ Jacqueline Robbins, "God Is Black," Nommo 1, no. 1 (1969): 29.
19/ Hoyt W. Fuller, "Introduction: Toward the Black Aesthetic," Nommo 1, no. 1 (1969): 3.
(20)/ Hoyt W. Fuller to Arthur Malcolm, 28 April 1972, Hoyt W. Fuller Collection, Box 2, Folder 9.
(21)/ Walter Bradford, "A Westside Story," Nommo 1, no. 2 (1969): 33.
(22)/ Walter Bradford, "On First Digging Salaam," Nommo 1, no. 2 (1969): 7.
(23)/ Hoyt W. Fuller to Eugenia Collier, 11 August 1971, Hoyt W. Fuller Collection, Box 1, Folder 16.
(24)/ Samuel Allen, "Springtime: Ghetto, USA," Negro Digest (October 1969): 44.
(25)/ Sterling D. Plumpp, "OBAC and Black Children," Nommo 1, no. 3 (1972): 4.
(26)/ Arlene Love, "Telling It Like It Is," Nommo 1, no. 3 (1972): 8.
(27)/ John Simmons, "Willie," Nommo 1, no. 3 (1972): 7.
(28)/ Michael S. Harper, "Br'er Sterling and the Rocker," Black World (September 1973): 47.
(29)/ Don L. Lee, "A Word," Nommo 1, no. 3 (1972): 32.
(30)/ James Clay, "On Writing Poems in America," Nommo 1, no. 3 (1972): 47.
(31)/ Carole A. Parks, "Introduction," in Nommo: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago (1967-1987), ed. Carole A. Parks (Chicago: OBAhouse, 1987), xvii.
(32)/ Melvin Eugene Lewis, "77 East 35th," Nommo 1, no. 4 (1975): 15.
(33)/ My claims about nationalism, spatial imaginaries, and periodical publication are informed by Amiri Baraka, It's Nation Time (Chicago: Third World Press, 1970); Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994); and Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, rev. ed. (London: Verso, 1991).
(34)/ Hoyt W. Fuller to Don L. Lee, 20 July 1972, Hoyt W. Fuller Collection, Box 21, Folder 15.
(35)/ Toni McConnell, "Preface," in Nommo 2: Remembering Ourselves Whole (Chicago: OBAhouse, 1990), ix.
Author's note: This essay is a revised version of a paper I delivered at the "Radical Poetics" symposium that was held at Northwestern University in April 2015. I am grateful to John Alba Cutler and Harris Feinsod for inviting me to participate in that event. I also wish to thank the Archives Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University and the Special Collections Library at the University of Michigan for giving me access to the materials I cite throughout the essay.
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