Black Language & Music

Spirituals (c. 1935–43), lithograph by Lillian Richter (1915–2000). (Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/NYPL Digital Collections)
For centuries, Western poetry has been shaped by a struggle over the status of the vernacular. The overt formalism and refinement of verse—a poem’s quality as a self-conscious construction—begs the question of the relationship between poetic language and everyday speech. From Chaucer, Dante, and Wordsworth to Dickinson’s common meter and Whitman’s “barbaric yawp,” from the jittery Jazz Age argot of T. S. Eliot to the plainspokenness of Frost and the downtown colloquialisms of Allen Ginsberg and Frank O’Hara, there has been a drive to find the aesthetic qualities—the everyday music—of the demotic: the popular language of ordinary people. These issues, while prevalent elsewhere, have been formative for African American poetry. It is worth recalling that the word vernacular is derived from the Latin for a native-born slave: African American poetry is a tradition built by a group of people who were initially, for some, defined by the condition of enslavement and who were forcibly denied access to literacy. If the poetic achievement of a Phillis Wheatley could be taken as evidence of the very humanity of the enslaved, then the turn to vernacular forms among later generations of Black writers eventually came to demolish the pretense that poetry was an art reserved for the privileged few. — From the essay by Brent Hayes Edwards
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