“Spirituals were the blues too. You need a psychiatrist to figure that one out.”—
Dizzy Gillespie (To Be Or Not To Bop).
“I’m not anti-white, I’m just pro-black.” Jack Gibson
(on being called a reverse racist because he didn’t believe Black Radio should start playing more white artists during the late 1970s)
I can say we need a cultural renaissance.
I can say rebirth is the same as birth: a new first time.
I can say America needs Sep Tepy.
I can say we are waiting for Sep Tepy,
But then a remember an old poem,
A standard of “Beat Poetry” from the 1950s
By Lawrence Felinghetti, called “I Am Waiting.”
He was waiting for a rebirth of wonder,
He was waiting for a renaissance of wonder in American culture.
When I first found this poem in the 1980s,
It was still considered contemporary poetry.
“I Am Waiting” seemed very profound when I was 18
And many of us did feel solidarity with this struggle
In the America of Reagan and Bush
And I championed its catalogue form,
Its sonic repetitions that could create a trance
Of public poetry, which was beginning to be called “spoken word”
But it was also very much of its time and culture,
A historical poem, since much had changed in 30 years.
I understood its historical relevance
In terms of what is often called “The New American Poetry”
And the challenges a new generation of writers
Posed to the staid, European cadences and formalism
Of the dominant academic poetry of its time.
One of the things Ferlingetti is waiting for
Is an American culture in which two famous mass-culture icons,
Elvis Presley and Billy Graham, could “exchange roles seriously.”
I felt that. It’s the same need that William Blake felt, and tried to meet,
When he wrote “The Marriage Of Heaven and Hell”
A need to overcome the dualism
Between the so-called sacred and the so-called secular,
Between religion and entertainment,
And even between soul and body, (or at least mind and body)—
This could create the cultural renaissance, the Sep Tepy
But one of the things Ferlinghetti couldn’t really hip me to,
One hunch that Amiri Baraka, another “New American Poet,”
confirmed, was that this Cultural Renaissance, this Sep Tepy,
was actually already happening, and was alive and well,
even in the Post-Slavery Traumatic Syndrome,
in the very Rhythm and Blues music that Ferlinghetti
obviously didn’t know much, or care much, about.
Yes, black people in America were already combining
These two roles in their art and their culture.
They were doing so in African culture before they arrived on these shows,
They were doing this during Slavery
They were doing this during Jim Crow
But had to pretend to divide the two
Or could only be understood as dividing the two
In the eyes of white American Culture.
When Ferlinghetti published this poem,
James Brown was doing it.
John Coltrane was doing it
Chuck Berry was doing it.
Martin Luther King was doing it.
Malcolm X was doing it.
Malcolm compared himself to Billy Graham.
Billy Graham was combining politics and religion.
Black folks knew that white religion
Was always an expression of white politics
Despite the “separation of church and state.”
And black people were always trying to create
A cultural renaissance, a true rebirth,
Of a cultur that understood that
Religion, entertainment, politics and art are one!
A true beginning, a first time—
Even if it had to mean destruction
Of “America as we know it” (Baraka).
This is the beauty of African-American cultural history
That is still unfolding today if not crushed by hostile external forces
That tell us it’s not happening,
That make us feel we need to be waiting
For what is already happening
Or you could be nourishing these seeds
Planted at The East-side Arts Alliance
Or in the Gospel Music of Lenora Johnson
Or in the movement that helped Ras Baraka
Become Mayor of Newark, or local music
And art you will not yet hear in the corporate media
But may hear on KPOO
Or poetry that may be written about in The New York Times
But only by taking away the spirit that actually makes it Sep Tepy,
And not just the wing of a few now scattered isolated individuals
Like a poet-laureate of the nation’s first black president
Who will soon be history
Just like the “Cultural Renaissance” that books
And talking heads of literary history tell us
America actually managed to find
In the great heroic era now enshrined in the
Mostly-white Beat Museum.