We might even go as far back as 2000 BC to ancient Sumeria, which was a black civilisation according to the Runoko Rashidi. Sumer’s civilisation was as result of black migrants, who moved there from the African Nile Valley. Anthropologists have proven that Sumerians were of African stock. Sumer was a Nilotic cushite colony – one of several implanted in early Asia. This would put the great and earliest known epic poem, Gilgamesh, on our black canon! It predates the Hebrew Bible and the Homeric epics by more than a thousand years, how much more Milton’s Paradise lost! It is the oldest work of literature in the world. And it has an author’s name –  Shin-eqi-unninni.

Of course it must be admitted that African America is the only one huge single modern concentration of people of African descent who were violently dislocated by history. ‘African’ here like the word ‘black’,  being a term we have come to accept as having a historical, political, cultural and sociological undertone that is underwritten by powerlessness hence its need to be emphasised for purposes of empowerment . And powerlessness is precisely why this self-affirmation is important, this celebration of black culture as a form of agency. The same objective was precisely the driving force behind the Harlem Renaissance or even the poetry of Apartheid South Africa. Now those two cultural movements had a lot in common in political, cultural and aesthetic terms.

The whole idea of black consciousness was a backdrop to both movements; there was a shared focus of raising the morale of the downtrodden and of fighting oppression; the language of the poetry of both movements was very close to a cry, to propaganda. Du Bois insists in the 1926 essay, “Criteria of Negro Art”: “all art is propaganda…” One might quickly add,   ‘but not all propaganda is art’. Of the poetry coming out of apartheid South Africa, Dennis Brutus work escaped descending to the level of propaganda. In African American poetry of the Harlem Renaissance there was an overshadowing of craft by the cry. Nevertheless most of the poets of the Harlem Renaissance were working under great existential pressures, and failures of craft due to the urgency in a political situation of segregation and racism can be overlooked. Besides, some of the poets did rise to lyrical heights occasionally. Langston Hughes achieves a blistering lyricism in some of his work like the poem, “Harlem” – sometimes referred to as “Dream Deferred” – from the collection Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951):


“What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?


The lyrical energy of the first four lines cast a magic over the remaining of the poem such that there are repetitive echoes long after we have done reading the poem. He has several poems in such simple urgent diction but with a howling lyrical force that makes the hair stand on one’s head. As in the poem, “The Negro Speak of Rivers”, which he dedicated to W.E.B. Du Bois:

“I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow
of human blood in human veins…




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Sentinel Poetry (Online) #40


ISSN 1479-425X     March 2006