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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Of the young poets who sought to forge out a new set of values to deal with this reality, Don L. Lee is probably

 the most widely read. his goal is to make the concept of a national black literature a reality, to become a "culture

stabilizer," retrieving the values blacks have lost, realizing that "The rejection of that which was/is ours has

been the basis for the acceptance of that which is someone else's." 



Books by Don L. Lee/Haki Madhubuti

Think Black  / Black PrideWe Walk the Way of the New World  / Directionscore: Selected and New Poems  /  To Gwen with Love

Dynamite Voices I: Black Poets of the 1960s  /  Book of Life  /  From Plan to Planet  /  Enemies: The Clash of Races

Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks  / Killing Memory, Seeking Ancestors  / Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous?

Why L.A. Happened: Implications of the `92 Los Angeles Rebellion  / Claiming Earth: Race, Rage, Rape, Redemption

 Million Man March/Day of Absence: A Commemorative Anthology

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Amistad 2  Edited by John A. Williams and Charles F. Harris

Vintage Books, February 1971,  p. 297


From A Black Perspective: The Poetry of Don L. Lee

By Paula Giddings



Out of the Sixties emerged a group of black poets with a new vision. With a new pair of eyes given to them by Malcolm X, and a neoteric sense of self transfused into them by Imamu Amiri Baraka, they were armed with the wisdom that comes from having looked on destruction. It was a wisdom that permeated their forming sensibilities, which were seared with the heat of Birmingham bombing, weary from the futility of the Sit-Ins and damp from the river of blood which began to systematically sweep north, having high tides in California and Chicago. . . .

Of the young poets who sought to forge out a new set of values to deal with this reality, Don L. Lee is probably the most widely read. his goal is to make the concept of a national black literature a reality, to become a "culture stabilizer," retrieving the values blacks have lost, realizing that "The rejection of that which was/is ours has been the basis for the acceptance of that which is someone else's." An acceptance that he feels has made "negro" synonymous with a reflection of another man's fantasy, a nonetity, a filthy invention.

Lee's Poetry

If we peer deeply into the center of Don Lee's poetry, we can see a force kneading at its core, like hands kneading a part of the body that tingles with the threat of 'going to sleep." that force is a concern for survival. Black survival. A survival which is spiritual as well as physical, concrete, as well as sinking deeply into the present. "two poems" (from black pride), still one of his most popular and powerful pieces, illustrate this:

Two Poems

(from "Sketches from a Black-Nappy-Headed Poet")

last week

my mother died/

& the most often asked question

at the funeral;

was not of her death

or of her life before death


why was i present with/out


tie on.

I ain't seen no poems top a .38

I ain't seen no stanzas brake a honkie's head.

I ain't seen no metaphors stop a tank.

I ain't seen no words kill

& if the word was mightier than the sword

pushkin wouldn't be fertilizing russian soil/

& until my similes can protect me from a night stick

i guess i'll keep my razor

& buy me some more bullets.

At first the two poems seem to have a eclectic relationship to each other. But both express the idea of the accouterments of life--whether they come in the form of a tie or a poem--becoming more important than the essence of that life itself. The second half of the poem especially illuminates the perspective from which Lee writes. it is a perspective colored by violence that must be reacted to as a "black man who happens to be a poet, not a poet who happens to be black." He is cognizant that poetry is preventive medicine and in the in the event of an imminent threat to existence (physical or spiritual) poetry must be abandoned in favor of direct action. . . .

One Sided Shoot-Out

  (for brothers fred hampton & mark clark,

   murdered 12/4/69 by chicago police at 

  4:30 AM while they slept)

only a few will really understand:

it won't be yr/momma or yr/brothers & sisters or even me,

we all think that we do   but we don't.

it's not new   and

under all the rhetoric the seriousness is still not serious.

the national rap deliberately continues, "wipe them nigger out."

(no talk do it, no talk do it, no talk do it, notalknotalk do it)


& we.

running circleround getting caught in our own cobwebs,

in the sense old clothes, same old words, just new adjectives

we will order new buttons & posters with; "remember fred" & "rite-on mark."

& yr picture will be beautiful & manly with the deeplook/ the accusing look

to remind us

to remind us that suicide is not black

the questions will be asked 7 the answers will be the new clichés.

but maybe,

just maybe we'll finally realize that 'revolution" to the realworld

is international 24hours a day and that 4;30 AM is like 12:00 noon,

it's just darker.

but the evil can be seen if u look in the right direction.


were the street lights out?

did they darken their faces as in combat?

did they remove their shoes to creep softer?

could u not see the whi-te of their eyes,

the whi-te of their deathfaces?

didn't yr/look-out man see them coming,    coming,    coming/

or did they turn into ghostdust and join the night's fog?

it was mean.

& we continue to call them "pigs' 'motherfuckas" forgetting what all

black children learn very early: "sticks & stones may break my bones

                                                           but names can never hurt me."


it was murder.

& we meet to hear the speeches/ the same, the duplicators.

they say that which is expected of them.

to be instructive or constructive is to be unpopular (like: the leaders only

sleep when there is a watchingeye)

but they say the right things at the right time, it's like a stageshow:

only the entertainers have changed

we remember bobby hutton.    the same, the duplicators


the seeing eye should always see.

the night doesn't stop the stars

& or enemies scope the ways of blackness in three bad shifts a day.

in the AM their music becomes deadlier.

this is a game of dirt.


only black people play it fair.

There is another aspect of survival in what Don calls the "realworld" that is not as concrete as keeping a bullet from penetrating a brother's head. The concept of "eye" has a dual vision in his poetry. the first serves as a guard for the physical well-being of the community ("the seeing eye should always see"). The second focus seeks the control of images. For he says that "The eye is always out to define: foresight, and ability to control the images of the world, thus giving the world its prepackaged, canned packet of icons." Icons that black people forced to become subordinate to; that were alien, thus emptying our love of self as we looked at ourselves through alien eyes, which never really was us.

my mother took the

'b' train to the loop

to seek work & was laughed at by

some dumb, eye-less image maker as

she scored idiot on "your" I.Q. test.

Don Lee's Legitimacy

Don Lee's legitimacy as a writer has been established through the black community, thereby enabling him to write uncompromisingly for that community. By the time this essay is published, his books will have sold nearly 250,000 copies to a predominantly black audience. And they were sold without the benefit of mass media reviews, with the exception of David Llorens' article in Ebony and an article in Times magazine. The latter was written in spite of the fact that Lee refused to give the reporter any information and asked that his name not be used in a magazine that has such a dubious re reputation in the eyes of black people. because his success was achieved first through the community and then Broadside press, a black publishing house, Lee possesses a freedom that very few black writers have, or have ever had.

This freedom has aided his evolvement. His first volumes were highly autobiographical with the frequent use of the "I" that gave us insight into the things that shaped his life. But though they were introspective, they were never narrow because the i was a throng of black i's trying to piece together what visible and invisible hands had so carelessly ripped apart, trying to smooth over the rawness of it all. As one begins to understand one's own life, he can become aware of its relationship to others. Thus the inevitable movement from the i to the you in Lee's poetry, and eventually to the consummation of the we and the us.

We're an Africanpeople

hard-softness burning black.

the earth's magic color our veins.

an Africanpeople are we

burning blacker softly, softer.

Of the genesis of the black poet, Lee feels that "these are the stages which are a necessary part of the growth. You start by being very involved with yourself, and then you grow and become a part of the community. So your work moves from that of the personal to that of being an active part of the people. And then you move to a point where you feel that sense of oneness with the community."

White Writers & Critics

White critics have shown themselves to be ignorant of, misunderstand, or refuse to acknowledge the basic traditions that prescribe black art. As a result black artists have been called "propagandists" and 'reverse racists" when they have loosened themselves from the sticky web of art for art's sake to fortify a black nationalist literature. this is why poets like Don. L. lee feel that white critics are incapable of assessing black literature. lee feels that they must look upon black culture as they would any foreign one with its own language, lifestyle, religion, mores, and values. It is not, as many white critics seem to feel, just a dark aberration of their own culture.

This is the same perspective with which Don Lee judges white writers. Although he likes Robert Bly, Kenneth Patchen, and Henry Miller, it is within their own context, as white writers writing for their own people and reinforcing their own culture. But this black writing of course does not benefit the black community, and artists like Don recognize that that which does not edify black survival tends to nullify it.

Black Influences

Don Lee owes little to the forms of white poetry and thought—except perhaps in terms of what he is not about. He does owe much to the story-tellers of the community—brothers and sisters who he says have a sense of folk history that is essential to our self knowledge. he also often talks of the other black writers of his generation who have helped him keep his perspective. But probably the greatest debt is to the writers who have helped to shape his verse of which he writes:

Imamu Amiri Baraka is most important to me in terms of direction and in terms of focus. Robert Hayden in terms of style and craftmanship. Sterling Brown is also very important to me because of the way he can tell a story—in the idiom of the people and with the sound effects. like, each of his poems tells a story in such a way that it became a part of you.

Langston Hughes' simplicity and his use of music as well as Claude McKay's direction and beauty of the language has been very influential in my work. And Countee Cullen showed that one can be effective in using the style of the so-called masters of traditional poetry. I like Cullen's poetry, although he made a lot of mistakes, I think that was one of the tragedies of his life. Jean Toomer in terms of the beauty of the language and his use of it not only in his poetry, but also in his prose—I think that he was very innovative, especially for his time. I personally think CANE borders on being a masterpiece, especially parts which dealt with women.

Margaret Walker of course—especially her book For My People, and Gwendolyn Brooks, choice of subject matter, craftmanship, as well as her personal guidance . . .


The ultimate effect that Don L. Lee, a black man who happens to be a poet, will have is impossible to weigh. But when he finished his reading at that college in New York, I asked him how he felt about the response of the students. "You know what I noticed most of all?" he said, "—they listened."

posted 11 September 2006

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Sex at the Margins

Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry

By Laura María Agustín

This book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work, that migrants who sell sex are passive victims and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest. Laura Agustín makes a passionate case against these stereotypes, arguing that the label 'trafficked' does not accurately describe migrants' lives and that the 'rescue industry' serves to disempower them. Based on extensive research amongst both migrants who sell sex and social helpers, Sex at the Margins provides a radically different analysis. Frequently, says Agustin, migrants make rational choices to travel and work in the sex industry, and although they are treated like a marginalised group they form part of the dynamic global economy. Both powerful and controversial, this book is essential reading for all those who want to understand the increasingly important relationship between sex markets, migration and the desire for social justice. "Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality."—Lisa Adkins, University of London

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The Warmth of Other Suns

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The White Masters of the World

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W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Home   Amiri Baraka Table  Black Arts and Black Power Figures  Marvin X Table

Related Files:  Haki Madhubuti Bio  Haki's Hard Truths  A Response to Hard Truths  Stanley Crouch's Response to Hard Truths   Response to Crouch's "Cliches"   The Poetry of Don L. Lee by Paula Giddings 

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