Step into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature.
There is a civil war going on in Black America. The divide between the hip-hop generation (black people born between 1965 and 1984) and the older civil rights/Black Power generation (black baby boomers) is steadily widening. It is a divide that is as vast as the one exhibited inside white America in the 1960s, when radical white youth culture made a major break from the mainstream and swept across the country.
Whenever those on either side of Black America's generational abyss meet, the older generation usually maintains that remaining in leadership for four decades without nurturing a new generation of leadership is not a problem. The younger generation, for its part, is quick to say that the older generation failed us, while benefiting every day from the struggles of the '50s and '60s.
If Black America's divided generations are going to understand each other better, a good place to start is with the recent publications Step into a World: A Global Anthology of the New Black Literature, edited by Kevin Powell, and Tough Notes: Messages to Young Black Men, by Haki Madhubuti. Step into a World gives the older generation a glimpse into issues that have shaped the younger generation. And Madhubuti--unlike too many in his generation--obviously has taken the time to listen to some of these concerns.
Powell, a hip-hop generation poet and author, is heavily influenced by issues of his time, such as globalization, the prison-industrial complex, America's war on drugs, police brutality, and rap music. Powell became famous through two artifacts of his age: reality TV and hip-hop. Powell's appearance in the early episodes of MTV's reality TV program The Real World in the early 1990s made him a household name among twenty-somethings. He solidified his place as an in-the-know writer for Vibe magazine by the mid 1990s. Powell co-edited another anthology of young writers, In the Tradition (Writers & Readers, 1992), with Ras Baraka, son of Amiri. Then he became a TV icon and hip-hop writer, and wrote Keeping It Real in 1997 (One World).
Haki Madhubuti gained notoriety in the late '60s Black Arts Movement as the fiery poet Don L. Lee. Still fiery in the '70s, '80s, and into the present, he made his mark as the nonconformist and noncompromising advocate of independent black institution-building. He founded Third World Press in 1967 and co-founded New Concept Development Center, an independent black primary school in 1971. His involvement in the formation of countless literary and political organizations has long given Madhubuti currency in grassroots black activist circles.
Powell was influenced by a handful of New York City writers--Greg Tate, Lisa Jones, and others who wrote for the Village Voice in the 1980s and whom he sees as pioneers of a new literary movement he calls "the Word Movement." Powell dubs all young black writers in their twenties and thirties and even some in their forties part of this new literary renaissance of black writers.
"I wanted this anthology to be regarded as a definitive text of this era, as the mouthpiece for the Word Movement, much in the same way that The New Negro and Black Fire represented their times," writes Powell in the book's introduction. "If I was going to do this, I thought, I would have to cast a wide net in search of some of the best and brightest writers of the Word Movement."
His catch includes mostly previously published poems, essays, fiction, and criticism of very talented young black writers from the obscure to the more well known like Angela Ards, Ras Baraka, Paul Beatty, Edwidge Danticat, Tony Medina, Joan Morgan, and Ben Okri.
Powell calls this a global anthology since it includes 100 writers "based in nine countries and on three continents, with origins in Africa." However, most of these writers not only live in, work in, and write about the American and African American experiences, they have not lived in the land of their origin at least since childhood, which makes the global-reach claim a bit of a stretch.
The works anthologized here reflect Powell's own taste--previously published writing he has read and liked--rather than any strict criteria for inclusion. So while one will find interesting writing here that covers an adequate range of issues that speak to this generation, it is hardly comprehensive.
Still, Step into a World fills a void, presenting some of the voices of this generation and their major concerns. He also senses the need to bridge Black America's generation gap. Powell attempts to link the current generation of black writers to the previous one. The Black Arts Movement and the Black Panthers are important points of reference for him, as are Spike Lee and hip-hop. Contributors like Eisa Nefertari Ulen ("What Happened to Your Generation's Promise of Love and Revolution---A Letter to Angela Davis") question some of the failings of the older generation that the younger generation has inherited.
"As I take full advantage of my generation's opportunity to enjoy a delayed adolescence--single but yearning for marriage and parenthood--I look back on my own family," she writes. "I feel the lost potential--at times feel imprisoned by it. The Black Nation's hip-hop generation has been looking back at itself.... Your generation's ex-husbands are replicated in my generations babies' fathers. This is not an empowering new configuration of family that is somehow uplifting and free.... Where are those revolutionary, revolution-era families?"
In Tough Notes, Madhubuti answers back. It is a self-help book targeted toward young black men, an audience too often written off as nonreading. Having disproved this theory with his bestselling Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? (Third World Press, 1989), Madhubuti knows he has a captive audience."The most pressing reason for Tough Notes has been my need to personally respond to the hundreds of letters, notes, and telephone calls I received over the years from prisoners--mainly young men seeking guidance and a kind word," he writes.
Madhubuti, in short takes, attempts to give advice to hip-hop generation men on everything from history, identity, and education to sex, marriage, and parenting. The work is also heavily autobiographical, and Madhubuti tries to pass on the wisdom garnered from the civil rights/Black Power movements. He hopes it will help us navigate whatever obstacle we face, be it globalization, imprisonment, or absentee fathers.
The shortcoming of this approach is that the hip-hop generation has been shaped by very specific forces, and Madhubuti's generation can only guess at the impact on our psyches. Hence, despite his good intentions, Madhubuti may find his target audience skeptical. Moreover, his role call of old school artists, writers, and thinkers--many of whom influenced him, most notably Gwendolyn Brooks, Black World editor Hoyt Fuller, Broadside Press publisher Dudley Randall--moves his analysis further away from the experiences and flame of reference of hip-hop generationers.
Still, you feel the enormous weight of his erudition: the books he has read and written, the art he has studied, and the range of his political perspectives. Young progressives, activists, institution-builders, intellectuals, writers, and everyday people will find tons of useful information in this blend of personal narrative and advice.
On education: "Wannabe pimps and good athletes are a penny a pound, and our communities and prisons are full of young men who at thirty-five are old in street knowledge and prison time and now are wondering what happened. Life, like time, waits for no one, and the best way not to end up in the garbage cans of other people's systems is to plan and execute for yourself. The main advantages that a quality education provides one with are options. Yes, one can have a good education and still be a fool, but the odds are against it.... The right education provides possibilities and hope, introduces you to other people, other worlds and cultures, and allows you to intelligently make decisions about your life that can place you among the builders and movers of the world, rather than forever standing on corners talking bad about black people, white people, and wishing for this or that to materialize."
On women: "It is way past time that all men and specifically black men ponder deeply their relationship with girls and women, daughters and wives, and to finally understand that life should be infinitely more than thinking about and selfishly acting to satisfy one's own needs (physical pleasure and others) in relationship to the opposite sex."
On fathers: "Without life-affirming love, art, and actions, without supervised discipline and study, without loud examples of can-do, must-do possibilities and daily diets of father-love vitamins, the Tupacs and Biggies will multiply and the nation's prisons will seem like vacation spots to refresh and regroup."
Even when they aren't directly addressing it, both books speak to the prevailing generation gap. It is an issue that continues to be raised every day, whether in the form of the contradictions of black moral authority raised by Jesse Jackson's baby revelation or the varying responses to the recent police killing of nineteen-year-old Timothy Thomas in Cincinnati. The message the Reverend Jackson sends to youth in asking Black America to continue to accept his moral leadership is that black men can't be moral. In Cincinnati, young demonstrators faced off with civil rights/Black power generationers like NAACP head Kweisi Mfume who were calling for calm. To tell hip-hop generationers subject to such attacks to calm down stands in contradiction to the rioting unleashed by the black boomers themselves a little more than three decades past.
Former Black Panther (of Panther 21 fame) Afeni Shakur put it best. Mother of the slain hip-hop icon Tupac Shakur, Afeni has been forced to make sense of the differences between the two generations. "We ought to be holding [this generation] up and sharing with them what it is that we know instead of standing on top of them telling them what they're not doing right," she said in an interview in the hip-hop magazine The Source in 1997. "They're doing a lot right and some things wrong. And we're not always there to offer them wisdom. We fail and we continue to fail these brilliant, very talented, very creative and courageous young people because they're not saying what our message was."
Her observations, like Powell's Step into a World and Madhubuti's Tough Notes, are reminders of the need for a new generation of black leadership that borrows the best from the older generation while being true to the hard experiences of today.
Bakari Kitwana is the author of the forthcoming "The Hip-Hop Generation" (Basic Books, 2001). He is a former editor at Third World Press.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2001|
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