Friday, March 22, 2013

Was Oral Expression Better?

During a 1978 interview with Kimberly W. Benston, Amiri Baraka discusses his development as a writer:

"I condemned black writing because black writers all wanted to style
themselves after the white bourgeoisie. I felt that what they wrote wasn't
actually black literature in the first place; it was an imitation. 
Which was true, to a certain extent.What I, of course, did not look at 
was the class structure operating behind black writing. So 
then I said that the reason that black music is strong is because it was 
directly black, it was coming from black people, there wasn't a whole lot 
of fakery or trying to make believe they were really white middle-class 
folks playing an instrument... So at times it looks as 
though I'm just putting down black literature, when in reality I was trying 
to make a very exact class analysis of why this middle-class black literature 
was weak, why black music was strong"

I find this statement in his interview extremely interesting.  He is correcting a past error in which he criticized black literature while supporting certain types of white literature. His main mistake was the he did not clarify that he was acknowledging class structures more than anything.  Black literature is imitating the white-middle class traditions of writing, whereas black music was uniquely black and did not involve any sort of imitation. 

I am interested in this topic because it loosely coincides with a class discussion I had in my Language in Society and Culture class.  In this linguistics class I am reading a book on African American Vernacular English (AAVE) or "spoken soul" as it is sometimes called.  In my discussion we began to talk about black writing and a classmate made a point that expression for the black community is mostly oral.  For example, a very distinct characteristic in AAVE is the use of preaching as well as rhythm in speech.  My TA mentioned that the problem with writing is that characteristics of rhythm and intonation are completely lost on the page.  These are the very characteristics which can make AAVE unique from mainstream white speech.

Of course, the discussion around AAVE is fraught with controversy. Many people do not want to acknowledge it and others want to declare it as a separate language.  Then of course there is the question of who speaks AAVE? Certainly it is not spoken by all African Americans and it is not always exclusively spoken by African Americans either. 

The reason a discussion of AAVE is relevant to this interview with Amiri Baraka is that he is making the point that black literature is often "white" in the same way that American English can be viewed as white or black. In society, AAVE can be a marker that you belong in the group. Conversely, writing similarly to a middle-class white person may put you in that group with middle-class whites.  Meanwhile, Baraka believes that music is directly black and is therefore more legitimate.  Using spoken soul in theater, poetry, or music is a marker of identity in a way that may not be conveyed as freely or clearly in writing. 

In class on Tuesday we began by discussing how theater and poetry are two primary mediums during the black arts movement. Theater and poetry are great for many reasons, including the fact that they can engage audiences or evolve quickly. This interview as well as the discussion over AAVE seems to point that oral expression also provided many other benefits during the black arts movement.  I am curious about what you think about Amiri Baraka's criticism of black writing? Do you think oral art such as music, poetry, or theater carry strength because the use of AAVE?  Do you think it is easier to seem more authentically a part of black culture by using some mediums over others (for example, writing styles are often from white traditions, but poetry is improvised and allows for unique expression)?


  1. Amanda, you bring up an interesting topic. I do believe Baraka's criticism are true to an extent, that black literature holds an element of white structure because often editors and publishing boards were dominated by whites and therefore, could force the author to rewrite his or her novels to cater to a wider white audience. But then his criticism makes me wonder though, what is black literature? I've read novels by the works of Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Richard Wright, and while reading them, I never got the impression that they were styled to imitate white literature (but I'm white, so this could explain it) or that it was weak for that matter.
    Certainly, I do think oral art carries strength through the use of AAVE because one can hear emotions and tones that are otherwise left out in writing, and just these sounds are enough.
    I'm not sure if it's easier to seem more authentically a part of black culture by using some mediums over others, but there are propensities to choose certain mediums over others. I notice that speeches and sermons are much more revered by the black community than by the white community.

  2. I think that this post ties in well to our previous discussions of art and authenticity. An important point that I want to make in response to your question about the strength of black poetry and music is that artistic expression is always up for interpretation. Sometimes what a song lyric means to a song writer will not translate as the same thing to its listener. While you can argue that something is then lost in its intended meaning, one of the best parts of music is that it can mean so many different things to so many different people. Obviously a certain element is lost in translation when a poem is read from a piece of paper rather than from the mouth of its author, but art helps to exercise the mind of the receiver. During the Civl Rights Movement artistic expression pushed the envelope of society, it made people question justice and equality- it made people stand up and act. Oral expression may be better, but it does not diminish the value of a piece of art.


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