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Reviewed by:
Aldon Lynn Neilsen. Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. New York: Cambridge UP, 1997. 288 pp.

One of the dangers of defining the worth of a people’s artistic creations according to their relevancy to political struggles or social movements is the suppression and exclusion of those artists who do not affirm or generate ideologically those movements and struggles. Experimental and innovative African American writers who do not cater to either the mainstream African American literary establishment or the American literary establishment can be marginalized by both. And, sometimes, even if they reproduce the aesthetic values of mainstream American society, they still can be ignored. Since their birth, African American writings have been caught up in the struggle for African Americans to achieve parity in the United States. The African American literary establishment’s tacit argument was/is that the struggle for racial equality is so paramount that it could not pay attention to writers who wanted to be individuals, who wanted to experiment with art or language, or who advocated a different world view. Therefore, [End Page 398] historically, in the name of African American liberation, many innovative African American writers have been simply excluded and repressed.

In his groundbreaking and innovative critical study of African American poetry since World War II, Aldon Lynn Neilsen contests this narrow ideological construction of African American literature, especially African American poetry. In Black Chant, he constructs a portrait of African American poetry before the Black Arts Movement of the Sixties as being diverse and multidimensional. Neilsen contends that, through that movement and its subsequent narrow restrictions of what constituted black poetry, along with their exclusion from mainstream American anthologies, many innovative, experimental, and postmodern African American poets such as Russell Atkins, N. J. Loftis, Gloria C. Oden, Jay Wright, Julia Fields, Tom Postell, Lorenzo Thomas, Norman H. Pritchard, De Leon Harrison, Bob Kaufman, Harold Carrington, Stephen Jonas, Jayne Cortez, and Elouise Loftin were almost completely forced from the pages of American and African American literary histories.

First, Neilsen points out that, until the post-1960s, the mainstream American critical establishment simply ignored African American poetry: “Early in the century, mainstream anthologies often simply elided black poetry entirely.” Second, Neilsen examines pre- and early sixties black anthologies, such as Eugene Redmond’s Drumvoices, Stephen Henderson’s Understanding the New Black Poetry, Langston Hughes’s The New Negro Poets U.S.A., and Larry Neal and Amiri Baraka’s Black Fire, and shows how, prior to the Black Arts Movement, many experimental, avant-garde, and postmodern African American poets were anthologized. Neilsen argues that these anthologies announced to the world “a vital network” of black experimental and postmodern poets, who had been published in small-press journals and booklets, such as Free Lance, Dasein, and Floating Bear, but now “had taken to the stage of American letters.” American and African American readers who were not aware of these journals and booklets would think “that the poetries of the Black Arts Movement had emerged fully formed in the immediate wake of the Civil Rights movement.” But the precursors and forerunners to many of the postsixties Black Arts poets had been published in the small-press journals and booklets.

Experimental, innovative and postmodern African American poets did not only draw their inspiration from many of the same [End Page 399] sources (Lorca, black music, William Carlos Williams, Olson, Stein’s departure from referentiality, surrealism, psychovisuality, African American vernacular stylings) but also from each other. The innovative poets both “shared in the poetic revolutions subsequently canonized as the Black Mountain School, the New School, the Beats, and the San Francisco Renaissance and initiated revolutionary programs in poetics of their own that would have importance for later developments among white writers.”

But when Neilsen examines current literary histories and current editions of major anthologies by Heath, Harper, Norton, and McGraw-Hill, which are used daily in classrooms throughout the country to teach American literature, he notes ironically how, since the Black Arts Movement, there has been an expansion of the course and print space dedicated by mainstream anthologies and critical literary histories to examinations of black literature. But this expansion, he argues...

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