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Because most African American poetry imagines social pasts, presents, and futures, most of this verse can be described as political poetry. What Cary Nelson says of political poets in general applies to many African American poets in particular: “historical contingency,” the mutability of society, “is the very marrow of their work” (5). From the beginning of the twentieth century to the 1960s, African American political poetry was often engaged with the southern Jim Crow regime that rose after the end of Reconstruction and with this regime’s northern counterpart, some features of which survive today in ostensibly race-neutral law and institutional practice. With the rise of Jim Crow came new Black institutions, among them literary magazines (e.g., The Colored American Magazine, The Voice of the Negro, The Horizon, and The Crisis) and literary societies (e.g., the Bethel Literary and Historical Association and the Boston Literary and Historical Association), and many of the new Black cultural institutions opened spaces where Black intellectuals could resist Jim Crow.
This chapter explores Ellison’s critical engagement with the black cultural radicalisms of the Black Power era (c. 1965-75). The chapter’s main focus is Ellison’s response to the writer-activist Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones). For Ellison, the work of 1960s black radicals was an unwarranted, even unprincipled refusal of the promise of American cultural pluralism, a promise that blacks themselves had long struggled mightily to fulfill. But Baraka’s generation had reckoned seriously with pluralism; it was not simply Black Power’s other. Indeed, a number of Baraka’s contemporaries embraced Ellison’s pluralist interventions as a usable black past.
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