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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School

Critical Pedagogy: Abiodun Oyewole and Lawson Fusao Inada Session Author and Literary Works: Abiodun Oyewole

Abiodun Oyewole

Author Bio

Abiodun Oyewole, known as “Doon” to friends and fans, has been writing poetry and working for social justice for most of his life. He has recorded spoken-word albums and acted as a creative writing consultant. Currently, he writes and teaches poetry at Columbia University. But he is perhaps best known as one of the founding members of The Last Poets, a revolutionary spoken-word group that The New York Times has called “the village elders of rap and a living bridge to the new poetry.”

The Last Poets took the revolutionary pronouncements of South African poet Willie Kgositsile, the self-determination being preached by Malcolm X, and the creative fervor of the Black Arts movement and melded them into rhythmic, political, street poetry. In essence, they created rap. Oyewole has never taken personal credit for it, however. As Rickey Vincent, professor of Black Studies at San Francisco State University points out, “It was really kind of a movement. It was something that was part of the popular culture. The idea of mixing a poetry reading with a revolutionary passion, with an ancient African tradition of truth-telling, and with a griot-style of conga playing; all those things came out at just the right time.”

The Poets’ new spoken word form became enormously popular in Harlem in New York City. They found a loft space there and would perform with the likes of poet Amiri Baraka (then called LeRoi Jones) and musician Sun Ra. The group began to hold political clout; they were suddenly allied with outfits like the Harlem Committee for Self-Defense, the Black United Front, the SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), the SDS (Students for a Democratic Society), and the Black Panthers.

Through the years, Oyewole has recorded new material — notably with his friend and fellow Last Poet Umar bin Hassan — and has become an educator in the community. “Back then, I wanted to see everything burned, I wanted to see riots,” Oyewole has said. “Now, my whole thing is, we have to see how we can be the greatest part of us, which is the healing part of us. This self-empowerment mode is where I’m at. I’d rather that folks learn how to save themselves before they kill themselves. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Synopsis of "On the Subway" and "Jones Comin' Down" by Abiodun Oyewole

“On the Subway” and ” Jones Comin’ Down” both appear on The Last Poets’ first album. Like all of Oyewole’s work, they are politically charged poems, rich with descriptions of African American culture. The recorded versions of these poems are spoken by Alafia Pudim, accompanied by drummer Nilaja. For Oyewole, this rhythmic presentation is almost as important as the words of the poem. He explains: ” All poems must have rhythm. With that understanding, we can develop a better idea of what poetry is, because rhythm is a part of our lives.” In “On the Subway” and “Jones Comin’ Down,” Oyewole uses this poetic rhythm to introduce his audience to new patterns of thought.

Both poems take the form of interior monologues set in dramatic scenes. “On the Subway” describes the thoughts of an African American man on a ride uptown as he copes with a white man’s prejudiced gaze: “I dug the man digging on me / but the dude was hung up / in a mass of confusion / as to who I was.” In the course of the poem, the speaker manages to turn that gaze around; he becomes the powerful eye through which history is written: “He was trying to see / but you see … I know him / I once slaved for him body and soul.” The poem ends with the speaker on his own turf, in full control and able to define himself: “I ask you / shall I save him? Can he be saved? / No! … Next stop / 125th Street!”

For Oyewole, this assertion of one’s right to define oneself is at the core of The Last Poets’ revolutionary politics. “We were dealing with Malcolm’s ideas and his whole concept of self-determination and black nationalism,” he says. “We wanted to be the voice of that. That was the impetus of our existence. I really could not buy Martin Luther King’s program, the idea that we wanted to sit next to them in a luncheonette or a bathroom. You got to build your own toilet. Don’t beg anybody for your friendship. You be who you are. You be respectful unto yourself and every living thing around you. You let them know that you’re not having that.”

Like “On the Subway,” “Jones Comin’ Down” is an interior monologue; it follows the thoughts of a junkie as he prepares to score. As the poem begins, the speaker has just awakened to find himself shivering with the DTs: “Day break / got the shakes / nose runnin’.” As the poem continues, the junkie’s need for his drug and his willingness to hurt people grow more intense; at first he is “feelin’ bad” and thinks he will “pawn my brother’s do rag / to cop me a transparent thin bag.” But as the junkie’s pain increases, so does his destructiveness: “Get my woman to pull a trick… she don’t care she’s on welfare / gonna steal her check and cop me a deck.” And later: “Is that the kid I hear cryin’? … So what if you’re hungry!” The junkie finally scores and pushes his woman out of the house to earn money as a hooker.

The poem is a fierce indictment of drug users, but it is also an indictment of the society that creates them. Oyewole’s junkie, the reader learns, is only partly to blame for his horrifying choices. For The Last Poets, the junkie has been coerced by “a white witch / my timeless bitch / riding a white horse / into my main vein.” The “white witch” here refers to heroin, but it also alludes to white America, the supplier of the drug. That is, the drugs that have brought the junkie so low are not of his own creation; they seem, in part, a curse cast on him by white society. At the end of the poem, the junkie hallucinates that he has joined his white witch: “I see that whore on that horse / Hey! Wait for me! / Cause I’m goin’ to be free! / Free!” In these final, ironic lines, the junkie imagines that the white witch (heroin) will free him from himself. With a quick change of voice, the poet comments on the junkie’s dream of freedom: “Really?”

Audio Clip with Abiodun Oyewole

 

Transcript:
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

Griot
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
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.

Author and Literary Works

Works by the Author

Oyewole, Abiodun. Abiodun Oyewole Plays. Frank Silvera Writers Workshop, 1977.
These plays, including Comments and Sick Slaves, were developed in a workshop setting. Comments is a reply to playwright Ntozake Shange’s Obie Award-winning For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which addresses the struggles of being African American and female.

Oyewole, Abiodun and Umar bin Hassan (with Kim Green). On a Mission: Selected Poems and a History of The Last Poets. New York: Henry Holt, 1996.
This book contains poetry and biographical information on the Last Poets, along with an introduction by author Amiri Baraka.

Oyewole, Abiodun, et al. The Last Poets. NY: Douglas Recording Co, 1970.
This original spoken-word recording includes performances by Oyewole, Alafia Pudim, and Umar bin Hassan.

Oyewole, Abiodun, et al. Stolen Moments: Red Hot + Cool. NY: PolyGramVideo, 1994.
Oyewole, Spearhead, The Pharcyde, The Roots, and Bernie Worrell are just a few of the poets and muscians who headlined this jazz festival to raise money for AIDS treatment and research.

Works about the Author

Katharina Jallow, “Abiodun Oyewole: ’25 Years'” Djembe Magazine, no. 18; October 1996.
http://www.djembe.dk/no/18/32ao.html
This review of Oyewole’s album presents a brief history of the work and influence of The Last Poets.

Last Poets
http://www.math.buffalo.edu/~sww/LAST-POETS/last_poets0.html
This page contains an extensive biography and discography of Abiodun Oyewole and The Last Poets.

Last Poets Interview
http://www.furious.com/perfect/lastpoets.html
This page contains an interview with Abiodun Oyewole.

Oyewole Interview
http://www.writenet.org/poetschat/poetschat_aoyewole.html
In this interview, Oyewole talks about politics, poetry, and life.

KCRW Interview
http://www.kcrw.com/cgi-bin/db/kcrw.pl?
show_code=cc&air_date=2/14/01&tmplt_type=show
Oyewole and Umar bin Hassan speak about their influence in this interview.

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The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School