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As someone who was
interviewed for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on the black spoken-word scene in Washington, D.C. (“Slamming Open-Mike Poetry, 8/2), I think there are things we should all remember when we discuss the important issues that his article inspires.
What the current spoken-word scene is doing for Washington, D.C., in terms of its literary reputation is unclear. That is why the debate Coates has brought to the forefront again is truly necessary. All black writers in D.C. should assess the value and validity of the current spoken-word scene in the black community in terms of whether it is truly precious to the African-American literary tradition that has been nurtured in D.C. for the past 100 years. It is truly paramount that we not let personal issues cloud our judgment and prevent the important debate that Coates has brought forth to be dismissed.
Washington has a rich cultural legacy of black poetry that includes Jean Toomer, Sterling Brown, May Miller, Georgia Johnson, Gaston Neal, Reuben Jackson, Kwelismith, and Ethelbert Miller. Paul Lawrence Dunbar lived and wrote here for many years, and Langston Hughes was discovered here while he labored downtown as a busboy. The spoken-word scene would want to live up to that tradition if it wants to be respected and thought of as contributing to that legacy.
More importantly, the tradition that the current spoken-word scene is following is all about poetry that is loving, respectful, insightful, cultural, creative, passionate, political, personal, progressive, and directly interested in the ongoing struggle of black people in America. Much of what you hear at many of these black “open mike” venues is the very antithesis of that tradition; therefore, it seems foolish to argue that somehow the current spoken-word scene is making a valuable commitment to the black literary tradition at this time.
I challenge the poets of the current open-mike scene to dig down deep within themselves, “go to the woodshed,” as Kenneth Carroll urged, and begin to produce work that reflects the rich black literary tradition that is Washington, D.C. If the criticism Coates and many others in the article articulated was painful, the only way to make them eat their words is to accept the challenge and take the necessary steps that will make the black spoken-word scene take on a more serious demeanor. Do it with commitment and dedication to the writing craft and with an understanding that you can be part of a wonderful tradition that should never be disrespected or forgotten. Let that be your goal.
The African-American Guild