Carmen L. Phelps: Visionary Women Writers of Chicago's Black Arts Movement (University Press of Mississippi, 2013)

The ‘visionary women writers’ that are the focus of Carmen L. Phelps’s reconsideration of the Black Arts Movement (BAM) in Chicago are poets Johari Amini (1935-) and Carolyn  M. Rodgers (1940-2010), and the poet, novelist, playwright, and biographer Angela Jackson (1951-).

Even as they would later on dance to different drummers, leaving quite different legacies, their early careers were closely intertwined through their involvement with leading organizations, institutions and key figures of Chicago’s Black Arts Movement:

Chicago’s OBAC, the Organization of Black American Culture, its workshops, and its journal, Nommo; Hoyt W. Fuller, editor of Negro Digest/Black World; poet, editor and educator Don L. Lee/Haki R. Madhubuti’s Third World Press (TWP) and Black Books Bulletin. And somewhere in the background, or perhaps we should say back of it all, Chicago’s great Pulitzer Prize-winning poet laureate, Gwendolyn Brooks, her workshops, her support for the poets, and her example.  

Johari Amini. After an Introduction, in her first two chapters Phelps writes on BAM more generally and OBAC more specifically, before she devotes a chapter to each of the three poets, beginning with Johari Amini and her first two chapbooks of poetry, Images in Black (1967) and Black Essence (1968), both published by Third World Press.  

Phelps’s critique of Images in Black calls our attention to the importance of the Black Power iconography of the movement. And there is the very word Black, capitalized, reflecting a new interest in an Africa in the process of decolonization (beginning with Ghanaian independence in 1957) and nation-building. On the front cover of her first book only, the poet is still calling herself Jewel C. Latimore, but encouraged by her publisher she would change her name to the Swahili Johari Amini (Don L. Lee himself would soon become Haki R. Madhubuti).

Between 1967 and 1972, Johari Amini published just five small chapbooks of poetry, Let’s Go Somewhere (1970) with an introduction by Gwendolyn Brooks. Then she stopped writing, or at least she stopped publishing new volumes of poetry, today largely forgotten by most readers.

But not by her mentor and publisher. She had been a co-founder of Third World Press, and worked in various capacities on Haki R. Madhubuti’s several enterprises, including Black Books Bulletin and The Institute of Positive Education. And in Haki R. Madhubuti’s latest volume of poetry, Taught by Women: Poems As Resistance Language (Third World Press, 2020), as the first of his epigraphs he quotes Johari Amini: “brothers, brothers/ everywhere and / not a one/ for sale.”

Richard Guzman, too, remembers. In his 2006 Black Chicago anthology (see below), he writes: “… she wrote some of its (BAM’s) most beautiful, experimentally vernacular, and hard-edged poems.”

Carolyn M. Rodgers. She was the third founder in 1967 of Third World Press, the publisher of her first two chapbooks of poetry: Paper Soul (1968, with a foreword by Hoyt W. Fuller) and Songs of a Black Bird (1969), containing some of the signature poems of the Black Arts Movement.

Among the poems that Phelps reads are the autobiographical Jesus Was Crucified and It Is Deep, often anthologized, examining the complex relationship between the poet and her mother: “My mother, religious-negro, … / … is very obviously,/ a sturdy Black bridge that I/ crossed over, on.”

Her next two books, How I Got Ovah: New and Selected Poems (1975, foreword by Angela Jackson) and The Heart As Ever Green (1978), were published by a mainstream publisher, Anchor Books/ Doubleday. “It wasn’t a pleasant experience but a learning one,” Rodgers later recalled. Even as How I Got Ovah sold quite well, Doubleday never put out the second one in paperback.

By 1980 Rodgers had virtually disappeared from the literary scene, self-publishing her books through her own Eden Press, distributed only via a Chicago, Illinois, P.O. Box. In an essay from 1990, Amiri Baraka (quoted by Phelps) had this to say about her new poetry : “… Carolyn Rodgers, although she has gone heavily into the church… is still capable of stunning poetry.”

Carolyn M. Rodgers resurfaced only when Richard R. Guzman asked her to write the foreword to his anthology, Black Writing From Chicago: In the World, Not of It? (Southern Illinois University Press, 2006). The four poems that he selected for the anthology come from her “two remarkable chapbooks,” We’re Only Human (1996) and A Train Called Judah (1998). “These contain some of the best poetry of her life and deserve as much recognition as any of her other work.”

A passage from the poem Sheep that Phelps also reads, suggests a possible reason for her self-isolation: “with the one arm that i/ have managed to salvage from/ the ravishing effects of bursitis.”

Rodgers next participated with Angela Jackson and another Chicago poet, Sterling Plumpp, in a panel discussion in 2007 at Northwestern University, Illinois, on “the past and continued legacies of BAM and OBAC.” And when she passed away at 69 Jackson wrote an obituary in the journal Callaloo (Vol. 33, No. 4, 2010): “The Blackbird Flies: Remembering Carolyn M. Rodgers.”

Angela Jackson. All three poets considered here were active members of OBAC, the Organization of Black American Culture, one of the longest surviving BAM institutions, with its workshops not only for writers, but also for playwrights, actors and directors, musicians, and visual artists.

The leading light of OBAC was the editor of Negro Digest/Black World, Hoyt W. Fuller. And NOMMO: A Literary Legacy of Black Chicago, 1967-1987 (OBAhouse, 1987), an anthology of the OBAC writers workshop, edited by Carole A. Parks, is dedicated to Hoyt Williams Fuller.

Calling Jackson “a central, if mysterious, presence on Chicago’s poetry scene,” Guzman picks just one poem: Journey to Africa – Hoyt W. Fuller, 1923-1981. The poem’s last line: “… and all these roads be/ luminous,” becoming the title of her 1998 collection of Poems Selected and New.

Angela Jackson’s early poetry is found in two chapbooks. VooDoo/Love Magic (TWP, 1974) begins with the playful title poem: “I’m gon put a hex on you/ work some voo-doo magic/ on/ yo mind./ I’mma mess with you./ … You cain’t help yourself./ Baby/I’m gon own your Soul./”

The Greenville Club (1977) is hard to find, but some of its poems are reprinted in And All These Roads … Let us look at other evenings, printed in the A House of Extended Families section.  

Jackson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, and she remembers:

“other evenings when we called/ ourselves ladies/ of leisure/ too cute for doing dishes and/ washing and sweeping and cooking/ chores like our mama did for life/ being too much women/ grown and fine we decorated/ the streets/ flirted and jived/ til the sun blinked a warning/ about work to be done/ before the old girl/ arrived.”

Phelps reads several other poems from Voodoo/Love Magic and The Greenville Club. She mentions later volumes like Dark Legs and Silk Kisses: The Beatitudes of the Spinners (TriQuarterly Books, 1993), a book length sequence of poems, and the much overlooked Solo in a Boxcar Third Floor E (Obahouse, 1985), some of its poems reprinted in And All These Roads …, only in passing.

Angela Jackson and her family would seek new opportunities in Chicago, and her first novel, the American Book Award winning Where I Must Go (Northwestern University Press, 2009), set in a fictive Eden University in the post-Civil Rights era, is inspired in part by her own experiences as an undergraduate at Northwestern, black college students on a predominantly white campus running into trouble not only on campus but in town, mocked by local blacks at the Great Zimbabwe Club: “Welcome, my young brothers and sister, down from the halls of Whiteness.”

Phelps calls the novel “a jarring, imagistic narrative of innocence lost and lessons learned.”

BAM theory. While I concentrate here on the three poets/authors, Phelps is equally focused on BAM theory (Carolyn M. Rodgers’s main contribution would be the essay Black Poetry – Where It’s At, published in Negro Digest, 1969, and elsewhere), and how the poets situated themselves within the movement even as they ‘paradoxically’ (a favorite Phelps term) expanded its boundaries.

Here we should maybe take note of scholar Fahamisha Brown’s notion, quoted by Phelps: “Writing and making poetry remains a highly idiosyncratic art … each poet makes the tradition new.”  

Phelps places the Black Arts Movement in the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, concentrating on the early volumes – with the exception of Carolyn M. Rodgers’s Eden Press-poems and Angela Jackson’s 2009 novel Where I Must Go in what she calls in chapter six their “Postrace Black Art.”

Another way of looking at it would be to talk about the ‘Black Arts-era and beyond’. A whole generation of poets were influenced by the Black Arts Movement, even those who did not subscribe to a more narrow definition of what constituted Black Art. Neither did they stop writing.

In a book of only 164 pages, there are just about as many ‘Works Cited’ according to the list at the back of the book. And on every other page Phelps will write something like: “So-and-so’s analyses is useful here,” without always having enough space to fully explain just how it might be useful.

But Carmen L. Phelps has real insights of her own, and even if a longtime reader of African American literature, reading Phelps you will learn something new about BAM  and three important, if understudied women poets of Chicago’s Black Arts Movement. 

UFI // 18 May 2021     

Postscript. Since 2013, when Carmen L. Phelps’s book came out, Angela Jackson has added considerably to her body of work and reputation. 

It Seems Like a Mighty Long Time (TriQuarterly Books), a strong new book of poetry, the first in seventeen years, came out in 2015. A ‘mighty long time’, indeed! In fairness, in the meantime she finished the novel Where I Must Go, discussed above, some forty years in the making.

In 2017 TriQuaterly published Roads, Where There Are No Roads, a sequel to Where I Must Go.

That same year she became a biographer of her mentor, Gwendolyn Brook – see the Reading Black article A Surprised Queenhood in the New Black Sun: The Life and Legacy of Gwendolyn Brooks.

The poetic Comfort Stew (Northwestern University Press, 2019) is her first published play.

Finally, in 2020 Angela Jackson was appointed the fifth Illinois Poet Laureate, like Carl Sandburg (1962-67) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1968-2000) before her, becoming perhaps less mysterious and even more central to Chicago’s poetry scene, to paraphrase Richard R. Guzman.

And she is not finished. Not yet. For starters, TriQuaterly Books has announced a new volume of poetry, More Than Meat and Raiment, ready for publication sometime next year, 2022.