Yet Do I Marvel

Yet Do I Marvel: Jericho Brown

What's African American about African American Poetry?

African Americans write it. I don't mean to get all Miranda Priestly on y'all, but…

That's all.

Okay. I'll say a little more.

Even African Americans who claim they don't write African American poetry will say yes to being published in African American poetry anthologies and say "thank you" when told they've won some African American poetry prize. This, of course, invites readers to view their work as—you guessed it—African American poetry.

That's it. That's all. Really.

Well…I imagine some African Americans could say no to the publications and the money, but these were offered because, whether they like it or not, they wrote an African American poem. I guess that might make them angry since that is exactly what they were trying NOT to do.

Too bad for them.

Now I'm done.

Oh yea, I just remembered something. Since so many people so willfully don't want to know, I should probably add that there are very many kinds of African American people from very different backgrounds. Some eat chicken, some eat gnocchi, some eat both, etc. This makes for very many African American poets writing about very different kinds of subjects in too many ways for me or anyone to ever pin down. Our tradition is a really big phat one.

But don't get too excited. While writing about black people is probably of use to you, poems about black people are not necessarily African American poetry. African Americans write African American poetry. Did I say that already?

What else? Hmm…

I wouldn't advise not taking the money. The little notoriety your black ass will get for announcing you don't write African American poetry won't pay any of your bills, and it won't stop anybody from referring to your poetry as African American poetry once you're dead. It also won't get rid of the fact that you've spent time wondering whether or not there is anything African American about your poetry and/or hoping that there isn't. (The time you've spent doing this is actually time you spent writing African American poetry since only African Americans are capable of spending their time in this way.)

And no, this is not an invitation for you to tell me that you're not black but your children are, you insensitive bastard. While sleeping with African Americans is a great idea, you're poetry is not African American poetry because of it.

And don't bring your smartass over here with "but we're ALL of African descent." I promise you this ain't the time for it. Yes, race is only a construction, but America is still the building.

I think I've finished now. That question was about as exciting as it always is. Glad I could help.

Now since I've answered the question at hand and since I'm here typing, I might as well write just a little bit about something else…

What you think about African American people—what you see when you see us, how you view our history as American history—probably has a lot to do with how well you read African American poems. If you ain't interested in the aforementioned phat tradition of African American folk, then you are probably not a good reader. If African American people being any one particular way is important to you, then there are some really good African American poems out there that you'll never be able to love.

Poor thing.

Also, if you don't know whether or not you write African American poetry, the answer can be found using this simple mathematical equation:

1.) Count the number of times you think you are African American in a period of 30 years.

2.) Multiply that number by the number of poems you've written.

3.) If your answer is three or above, then, yes, you write African American poetry.

(Use of this equation requires a small fee made through a paypal link found at

Yes, struggling with how African American your poetry is or is not while being African American is as African American as your poetry can get. That's what's African American about it.

I hope next year the Poetry Society of America asks poets of every ethnicity how they feel about African American people, how they see themselves in relation to African American people. I hope the year after that the Poetry Society of America asks only nonblack poets what's African American about American poetry and that they publish the answers with a survey of how many African American poetry books are owned by white American poets. I hope the year after that the Poetry Society of America asks white poets what is white about white American poetry.

Now that this is done I can go back to saying black.

That's all. I swear.

Published 2014.

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