Title of works: "On
the Subway" and "Jones Comin' Down"
by Abiodun Oyewole
Yes, I'm a griot, in short, yes. And I strive to be a better griot every time I write, because really what the poet does, what the griot does, he simply just exposes you to things that are there in your face that you just don't recognize. You know. And as poets our job is to take what is a regular day, a normal situation that we've kind of taken for granted, and reshape it and actually give it back to the people in a way that they haven't seen it before.
Q & A with Abiodun Oyewole
How did you begin writing poetry?
I was dipping and dabbing into writing poetry in French because that was my exotic language of choice. That was basically lovey-dovey stuff, you know, kissy-huggy stuff -- it wasn't really that political and punchy. I was developing some skills in writing and it came real natural. It wasn't like somebody said, "You should be a poet." I never took it seriously. I didn't see it as anything really big and important. I was raised in Queens and read some poetry on stage in Harlem. That was frightening. You got to understand Queens was infinitely soft, soft at that time. It's gotten harder now because of hip-hop.
What prompted the formation of the Last Poets?
The group was inspired by the birthday of Malcolm X, actually. We had a celebration in Mount Morris Park in Harlem. That park was called Mount Morris Park years ago, and it's been renamed and it's now called Marcus Garvey Park because Marcus Garvey made a very big impression in Harlem. And so, in honor of his work in Harlem, the park has been changed in his name. But back in the day, in 1968, on May 19th, which is the birthday of Malcolm X, we came together.
Why the name The Last Poets?
We called ourselves The Last Poets because we were saying this is the last time you are going to get a chance to hear the message before the revolution comes. So we were looking forward to a revolution, we were looking forward to a change. And that revolution wasn't necessarily just with guns. Violence was a part of it, but we were also saying that the basic hub of the revolution was a cultural change. We were going to stop buying into the American ideal as the way of life for us because it was not working. And another thing that's very, very important to recognize: The Last Poets were a group that was exclusively talking to black people. We weren't trying to speak to the world outside of ourselves. We felt then, as I feel now, that the problem that we have exists with us, and that if we are going to change stuff, it's going to be changed by us -- because it's really kind of a chump person to blame somebody else always for your problem. So The Last Poets was a group that was trying to bring about a change, and we call that change "revolution."
What was it like riding the subway when you wrote this "On the Subway?"
Once upon a time, you could take the D Train or the A Train up to 59th Street -- the train was very well-integrated. It looked like Martin Luther King's dream, you know, you got black people, white people, everybody's crowded on the train. But when the train stopped at 59th Street, white folks got off, because the next stop was 125th Street, and it became a black train, totally. And it was kind of exciting because sometimes, I recall, folks would be cool up until 59th Street. And when we got to 59th Street and the train started going through the tunnel to get to 125th, it would be a party. I mean, it was like a whole attitude, everything changed because we were going home.
How did you write "Jones Comin' Down?"
We actually spent the night in a shooting gallery in Brooklyn, right here in Brooklyn. That was a place where junkies would go to shoot their drugs, and they call it a shooting gallery. I was told by an older poet that if you really want to be a poet, you must experience what you write about. I was not going to shoot drugs. I don't like needles. But I wanted to write about the situation. So if you are not going to actually be in that scene, the best way to get to it is to go and watch the people who are doing it and get the experience maybe vicariously from them. Because I wasn't going to mess up my body with needles -- that seems kind of crazy.
We went to this abandoned building on Utica Avenue, some place, and went inside. I watched some brothers shoot the drugs. Many of them had collapsed the veins in their arms, and many of them had collapsed the veins in their legs. I saw a brother shooting up the drug in [the other guys'] necks -- you got the big vein there. We stayed there the whole night. In the morning, when we left, I didn't even know it was morning. It was an amazing experience. We walked out of the place and it was dawn; that's why the poem starts out like it does.
Information about key references
Pronounced "gree-oh," this West African term refers to traditional storytellers, oral historians, and teachers who use poetry and music to convey information. Abiodun Oyewole and The Last Poets are considered modern day griots.
Spoken word is a contemporary art form that involves live poetry performance with internal rhyming, vivid imagery, and high-impact political and emotional lyrics. Abiodun and The Last Poets are spoken-word artists who, according to Amiri Baraka, were the early rappers before hip-hop developed as a popular and political musical style.
Black Arts Movement
Often described as the aesthetic counterpart to the Black Power movement of the late 1960s, the Black Arts movement signaled a break from the traditional African American literature of protest and petition. Writers and other artists began to focus primarily on "social engagement," attacking assimilationist views, promoting Black pride, and encouraging independent publishing. The Black Arts movement saw the birth of many literary institutions such as the Harlem Writers Guild, the New Lafayette Theatre, and the Umbra literary group. Writers and poets associated with the movement include Ishmael Reed, Amiri Baraka, and The Last Poets.
Suggestions for applying other theories to "On the Subway" and "Jones Comin' Down"
The poems in this program offer rich imagery. Teachers can have students perform "think alouds" as a reader response to this poetry. The poetry should evoke images in the students' minds as they read. The teacher can direct them to record and comment upon these images as a way of teaching about the content of the work.
In an inquiry approach, students examine specific references (such as "125th Street"), or more general ideas (such as revolution), and explore them across time. Questions about the changing nature of Harlem, or about revolution in different countries throughout history, can move the inquiry toward a consideration of Oyewole's poetry as both a critical tool and a historical artifact. In addition, students can explore the relationship between musicality, performance, and ideas in "On the Subway" and "Jones Comin’ Down" or in the work of other spoken word artists.
A cultural studies exploration might entail reading the works of several poets of the Black Arts movement and doing a comparison of the work of the Last Poets and those other artists. One can also explore the development of hip-hop music, beginning with the spoken-word performances of The Last Poets.
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