If you dive head first into the cesspool of black urban culture, through the flotsam and jetsam of bling-bling jewelry, designer sneakers, and “Free Mumia” T-shirts–through the Ebonic endearments of “ni**a” and “ho” and “dawg”–and if you struggle down past the snarling, muttering studio-menace of gangsta rappers and the haunch-spreading, butt-bouncing images of “empowered” womanhood–and then if you plunge deeper, past conspiracy theories about the LAPD and O.J., about CIA agents and crack, and about Jewish scientists and AIDS–and if you descend deeper still, past the toxic notion of black authenticity as the absence of white virtue, you arrive at last at the thickest, rankest muck at the very bottom, the foulest exemplar of what’s killing African Americans literally and symbolically–which is roughly where you encounter HBO’s Def Poetry.
The new season of the series began last weekend with little changed from the pathetic formula of seasons past. The show is hosted by a thin carafe of Afrocentric pride known as Mos Def. He opens each episode by mumbling a few barely audible lines from a traditional poem, then declaring their author a def poet and cueing the intro–as in, “William Butler Yeats, def poet, let’s git it goin’.”
So what is a “def poet”?
The main requirements are pent up rage, a potty mouth, and a throbbing sense of your own persecution at the hands of the great American “them”–a convenient abstraction that stands for racism, sexism, and homophobia for starters, but which also encompasses corporate capitalism, the criminal-justice system, and the military-industrial complex, and which, in more general terms, always connotes the pervasive spirit of corruption, conformity, hypocrisy, and violence by which each def poet feels personally oppressed. Roughly half the poets are black. The other half consists of a grab bag of defiant losers of various ethnicities, sexualities, and geographies whose utter sameness derives from a determination to equate their individual struggles with the historical Capital-S Struggle of African Americans. Boiled down to its essence, a def poem reads: “F*** you, America, for what you’ve done to me, and f*** you for what you’ve done to my people, and oh, yeah, by the way: f*** you for what you’re still doing, every day, to black people.”
It’s questionable whether many def poets would recognize the reference, but the underlying theme is that poets are indeed, in Shelley’s phrase, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The def engagement with politics, however, is limited to a loud, whiny, rapid-fire, ceaselessly maudlin recounting of wretched hardships; thus do the black poets demonstrate their racial solidarity, and thus do the non-black poets, in effect, attain the status of honorary African Americans. (The latter phenomenon is eerily reminiscent of Eminem’s notorious claim, several years ago, that his mother was a crack-smoking welfare cheat. Say what you want about Em, but he understands street cred; he knows what counts as authentically black.) Raised consciousness, for def poets, means the realization that white America is always actively working to thwart the dreams of blacks. Thus, Sunday night’s episode opened in typical style with a young black man reciting a poem called “Knock-knock.” In it, he describes how his idyllic childhood was interrupted by the arrest, for no apparent reason, of his father; he visits him in prison, finds him in “a room of windows and brown faces,” and is brokenhearted, but years later he gathers strength by imagining the voice of his dad telling him he “must learn to knock for himself . . . Knock-knock down the doors of racism and poverty that I could not! / Knock-knock down the doors of opportunity for the lost brilliance of the black men who crowd these cells!”
He was followed onto the stage by a young woman of mixed ancestry who read a poem titled “White,” in which she relates how, when she was a child, she slipped in and out of racial identities until at last she learned, after a homeless woman insulted her, that she would always be a “ni**er” in the eyes of white people. The full truth of her blackness eluded her, however, until she entered college, moved into an all-black dorm “bearing Malcolm’s name,” slowly gained the acceptance of her darker-skinned sisters, and, glancing down, finally recognized that “these are the hands that built the pyramids.” The entire process, she cleverly notes, has been one of “remembering . . . re-member-ing”–in other words, reclaiming her membership in the community of black women.
Next came a young Hispanic man with a goatee and a Ross-on-Friends-circa-1996 haircut, who wore a T-shirt with a phonetic spelling of “Palestine” and who read a poem called “As With Most Men.” Predictably, the poem exposes the emotional posturing of American males who absorb, as children, a militaristic ethos but who fear intimacy, who are trained to look Death in the eye and yell “Bring it on, motherf*****!” and who are thereafter, quite naturally, willing to commit unspeakable atrocities: “During the 1970s the U.S. government forcibly sterilized an estimated 50 percent of the indigenous population of America’s Midwest / Can you say ‘biological terrorism’? / In the global war against terror, maybe testosterone is the real terrorist.” He then cites the U.S. military’s “sex crimes throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas” and asks when we will “stop looking towards the Muslim world for misogyny” and focus instead on “Madrid, Montreal, New York, Los Angeles.” He concludes that a woman should never be blamed “no matter what she does”; the blame should always go to the men “who have emotionally and physically raped her” and to “these corporations whose images tell her they hate her.”
Every episode of Def Poetry features an acclaimed older poet–past guests have included Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez–whose presence serves as an inadvertent reminder of the critical power of white liberal guilt to confuse doggerel with genius, to insist that hackneyed sob stories told in sub-Hallmark verse are aesthetically redeemed by the thought that the writer has likely lived a hard life. This week, the def laureate was Oscar Brown Jr., who recited his mercifully short poem “Children of Children”: “The children of children are trapped by dark skin / To stay in and play in a game no one wins. / The children of children while still young and sweet / Are damned and programmed for future defeat.”
Yeah, I think the Lorax did it.
Williams was followed by an especially angry young black man who warned, “This nation thrives off misery, ni**as! . . . they take a ni**a’s dreams and write them off on their taxes . . . they pumping that poison and creating an illusionary parade.” The evening then concluded with hip-hop has-been MC Lyte reciting a poem about how she was cruelly cast aside by the corporate-controlled, profit-driven rap industry.
Def Poetry might be minimally amusing–in the same way, I imagine, Stepin Fetchit routines were once minimally amusing–if not for the fact that the spectacle constitutes a perfect verbal x-ray of the victimization-equals-validity mindset that continues to retard the social, intellectual, and economic progress of many African Americans. People who believe their collective identity is predicated on their individual failures will come to regard any sustained success as a betrayal–which is why so many black college students nowadays are riddled with guilt and driven, consciously and subconsciously, to screw up and drop out.
It’s a slow, subtle cultural suicide. Def Poetry is simultaneously its nadir and its apotheosis.