"To Make a Poet Black"
Rican Poets in the
Black Arts Movement
Michelle Joan Wilkinson
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
—COUNTEE CULLEN, "YET DO I MARVEL," 1925
The reflective tone with which Countee Cullen ends his 1925 poem "Yet Do I Marvel" stands in relief to the urgent pleas in poems from the height of the Black Arts Movement. Cullen's speaker, a Harlem Renaissance era double for the author, marvels, almost from a distance, at the conundrum God has made of him: a black man and a poet in early twentieth-century America.1 In his efforts to share his verses, the black bard fares no better than Sisyphus, the mythological figure who, Cullen reminds us, was doomed to "struggle up a never-ending stair."2 During the 1920s, the obstacle that doomed Negro artists assumed form as the "racial mountain"—to borrow Langston Hughes' terminology.3 Particularly for those who preferred to be called poet, instead of "Negro poet" or "black poet"—characterizations they imagined as limited and limiting—the "racial mountain" could prove insurmountable.
Unlike the poet in Cullen's verse who is made "black" by God, the 1960s generation of Black Arts poets imagined themselves as black magicians making black poems in and for a black world. As Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) expressed in his 1965 "State/meant": "We are black magicians, black art / s we make in black labs of the heart."4 Baraka's poetic "State/meant" stages a reversal in which blackness is a license, not a limit. With its definitive title and declarative sentences, "State/meant" signaled an aesthetic turn and epitomized the direction that other writers would move toward as the decade progressed.
While a full range of voices informed both the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, much of the later poetry, composed in an era of Civil