- A Black Arts Poetry Machine: Amiri Baraka and the Umbra Poets by David Grundy
Beginning in the mid-2000s, a succession of scholars produced works on the Black Arts Movement. Tony Bolden, Melba Joyce Boyd, Cheryl Clarke, James Smethurst, Kalamu ya Salaam, and several others published treatments on the era and its many contributors. This overall critical discourse expanded and deepened our knowledge of one the most enduring and explosive artistic enterprises in Black literary history.
David Grundy’s A Black Arts Poetry Machine: Amiri Baraka and the Umbra Poets extends the scholarly assessments on the Black Arts era, but with a twist. Rather than concentrate primarily on the works produced during the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, Grundy examines the literary and cultural activities that preceded and crucially influenced what would become known as the Black Arts Movement. Previous studies have mentioned the significance of the arts group Umbra in passing, citing how its members would later make memorable contributions to Black Arts. Grundy, however, offers in-depth, illuminating treatments of works by some of its members.
Amiri Baraka’s name appears in the subtitle, and he is referenced throughout the book. Nonetheless, Grundy moves well beyond this one looming figure, offering analyses of writings, editorial practices, and organizing activities of various other Umbra members such as David Henderson, Ishmael Reed, Calvin C. Hernton, Lorenzo Thomas, Askia Touré, and Tom Dent. Grundy is especially interested in highlighting their connectivity as a defining practice and aesthetic of the Umbra group. Their association has sometimes been overlooked or downplayed for various reasons.
The extensive analyses of select poems by Baraka, Henderson, Hernton, Dent, and Thomas constitute one of the major contributions of this project. There are relatively few book-length studies on Black poetry, and even fewer examinations of the figures, notwithstanding Baraka, that are highlighted here. Even the analysis of Baraka’s poems breaks new ground by acknowledging him as a prominent Umbra artist-activist and at the same time showing how he learned invaluable lessons from the group. Grundy’s examinations of these poets’ work provide insight into their artistry and establish their places within American and African American literary histories.
A Black Arts Poetry Machine, it is worth noting, is more than a book of poetic interpretation. What Grundy has produced here also stands out as both literary and cultural history. His opening chapter focuses on the political activism of the group [End Page 345] On Guard for Freedom, which participated in protests following the murder of Patrice Lumumba in 1961. Members of On Guard in turn formed the core of Umbra. In retrospect and through Grundy’s helpful work, Umbra was evidently serving as a kind of Black Arts prototype by merging political activism and literary production. The poems focusing on Lumumba that Umbra members were composing were a blueprint for the proliferation of Malcolm X poems published during the late 1960s and the ’70s. The prose and verse produced by Umbra also reflected a sense of internationalism among creators. The interest and expressed sympathies with Congolese and Cuban political struggles shaped an expansive world view apparent in the works of Umbra membership.
A recognition that this group paved the way for subsequent artists and movement is crucial. “By ignoring and distorting the recent histories out of which the Black Arts emerged, particularly in New York,” notes Grundy, “we receive a history of black aesthetic radicalism which downplays its origins in collective struggle and debate.” The Black Arts Movement is generally recognized, sometimes reluctantly, as a major reason why American institutions have readily embraced African American poets during the twenty-first century. Yet, as Grundy’s study clarifies, On Guard and then Umbra did indispensable work that further paved the way for Black Arts.
In fact, Grundy, citing the work of Cheryl Higashida, points out that Rosa Guy and Maya Angelou, who participated in protests at the United Nations, met with and positively influenced the political awareness of Malcolm X. Somehow, the contributions of these Black women and others have...