All Poetry to the People! Black Arts Movement Poetry as Public History
12 December 2019 – Mary Rizzo
Editor’s Note: This is the first post in a three-part series on Baltimore’s Chicory Revitalization Project.
Following the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965, black visual artists, writers, dancers, musicians, actors, and poets conceptualized themselves as part of the Black Arts Movement, a black nationalist political and aesthetic project. Some individuals, like author Amiri Baraka, became famous, but the movement was also built by thousands of amateur artists and networks of community centers, publishing houses, bookstores, theaters, and magazines. Most are gone. Many have been forgotten. In this post, I explore how public historians can use Chicory, a recently digitized Black Arts Movement poetry magazine originally published by the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore from 1966 through 1983, to address African American history, urban history, and the history of the 1960s and 1970s.
Described as “the magazine for people who don’t like to write but have something to say,” Chicory published the mostly unedited poetry and artwork of working-class African Americans, many of them teens or children. While researching my book on cultural representations of Baltimore, I came across a reference to Chicory and went to Pratt to take a look. In the first issue, I read, “Going Home,” written in 1966 by a black teenager about harassment by the police.
As “Going Home” suggested, little had changed for many African American young people in Baltimore since that time. Inspired by the political and ideological commitments of the Black Arts movement, over the course of 146 issues, Chicory captured what regular folks in Baltimore thought about the world in a tumultuous moment marked by urban uprisings, civil rights and Black nationalism, political turmoil, and anticolonialist movements. Realizing its public history past and future potential, I began working with the magazine’s former editors, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, local community organizations, and educators on the Chicory Revitalization Project, a multifaceted digital and public humanities project to explore the power of poetry to spur civic dialogue about place, identity, and social justice.
As historians Andrea Burns and Ian Rocksborough-Smith have argued, the Black Arts movement was part of a black public history movement. Chicory, named after the hardy plant that can grow even in difficult conditions, came about through a partnership between the Enoch Pratt Free Library, librarians Evelyn Levy and Thelma Bell, and five editors (Sam Cornish, Lucian Dixon, Augustus Brathwaite, Melvin Brown, and Everett Adam Jackson) who were employed by the library.
The residents of Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods supplied the artwork and poetry for its pages. Chicory was part of the library’s efforts to break down the barriers keeping working-class people of color from coming to their institution (sound familiar?). It was successful enough that when federal funding was cut, the library kept Chicory going. The editors even published an anthology of poems from Chicory in 1969 as Chicory: Young Voices from the Black Ghetto. They creatively worked with the community, from offering free writing workshops to devoting an issue to works by inmates at the Maryland House of Corrections after a riot there. Editors also captured overheard conversations on the street as “street chatter.” For the community, Chicory was a platform to broadcast their ideas. It was, in the words of the first issue, “Baltimore’s Own Magazine.”
This fascinating resource made me wonder: how can we incorporate locally-produced work like Chicory into our classrooms, museums, historic sites, and research and put them in conversation with hegemonic narratives of history we find in government documents, official reports, and media accounts that dominate the telling of most of American history? How can we use poetry for public history? Poetry is extremely popular today, especially with young people of color. Through the evocative, personal narratives in poems, public historians can connect with new audiences.
Take the urban uprisings that rocked many cities in the 1960s, for example—a topic that might be raised at African American history or city museums, or in exhibits dealing with that supposedly golden era of rebellion. It’s easy to find photos of National Guard troops supposedly sheltering from sniper fire or images of stores aflame. Created in the context of that moment, politicians and the news media used these images to tell stories about out-of-control rioters and looters who are brought back to law and order through the actions of police or National Guard forces. Where do we find the perspectives of African Americans living in these cities? A publication like Chicory is one place.
In the September 1969 issue of Chicory, a 12-year-old girl named Carol wrote about her experience of the riot. As political leaders and police fought over whether black radicals, police brutality, or poverty caused the uprising, she is more to the point: “the riot was started by a white person killing Martin Luther King, Jr.” We wouldn’t expect a young girl to have a sophisticated political analysis, but this statement reminds us that the proximate cause of the riot was justified anger at the murder of another black civil rights leader. She describes the presence of the National Guard as terrifying, particularly their way of enforcing the curfew imposed on the city. “The little children” would be taken “down to the Civic Center,” while “they will take the teenagers somewhere else.” Through the language of poetry, a child offers her experience of this historical event, letting us feel her emotions and see through her eyes.
Adults writing in Chicory also discussed the riot, raising issues like what to call it. The Kerner Commission Report, the official federal analysis of these events, called them “disorders,” suggesting a kind of illness. Yet a poem by Donald Grafton Gwynn from the June 1968 issue of Chicory suggests, “We like to call it a black revolution. I think it is not yet a revolution but a rebellion. The whites want to call it anarchy. It might well be a bit of all three.” In this short statement, Gwynn shows that there is no monolithic African American perspective. He reveals to readers the debates within the black community about the meaning of these events.
As Bob Weyeneth argued in his 2014 NCPH presidential address, by “pulling back the curtain” for public audiences on how historians interpret the past, we can show that there are multiple historical narratives competing for ascendance.  As a public historian, I could imagine asking a tour group or classroom to compare the language of the Kerner Report with the poem and then asking them who they think the “you” refers to when Gwynn writes, “This is the whole truth, the universal truth/Whether you want to hear it or not, and you probably don’t./It’s the history and the meat of revolution.” By pairing these sources, we can pull back the curtain on how historians interpret history and how sources matter in shaping interpretation.
~Mary Rizzo is the associate director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives at Rutgers University-Newark. She is the author of Come and Be Shocked: Baltimore Beyond John Waters and “The Wire” (2020) and Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle (2015).
 Robert R. Weyeneth, “What I’ve Learned Along the Way: A Public Historian’s Intellectual Odyssey,” The Public Historian 36, no. 2 (May 2014): 9-25.