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Tolu’ A. Akinyemi’s “Black Does Not Equal Inferior” Invokes the Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance

Tolu’ A. Akinyemi’s “Black Does Not Equal Inferior” Invokes the Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance

Tolu’ A. Akinyemi’s “Black Does Not Equal Inferior” Invokes the Spirit of the Harlem Renaissance | Afrocritik

Akinyemi’s poetry is poignantly evocative. The poignancy is reflective of the relative subject matter he pursues; and evocative in his simple diction, which levitates the propensity of his message — the major preoccupation of his creative agency.

By Nket Godwin 

One voice (in the canon of diasporic literature) pervades the poems in Tolu’ A. Akinyemi’s  Black Does Not Equal Inferior, the voice of the Harlem Renaissance which started in 1918 in the New York town of Harlem. In this collection, Akinyemi writes, not only to reinstate (and, as such, reinvigorate) what was started in Harlem in the 20th century, but also in solidarity with its ideology — the emancipation and glorification of the black race. Filled with that (Harlem) consciousness, from the first poem, which begins and ends with the statement: I wish this can be your favourite poem/verse”, Akinyemi leans on the (almost-cyclical) experiences of black Africans, their relationship with their white landlords, which, as he portrays, is stifled by racism.

The poems in this collection are filled with the voices of Harlem black writers like Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, James Weldon Johnson, Langston Hughes, and even Maya Angelou, whose poetry is cued from the same (Harlem) spirit. A critical look at the tone and mood underlying his poems in Black Does Not Equal Inferior shows Akinyemi’s leaning toward the revolutionary awakening of 20th-century black poetry. 

The poems, hence, bear the lyrichood of  the Harlem poems, characterised by the tone of exultation and glorification of the black race. For instance, the tone of panegyric in Hughes’ “To the Black Beloved” underlies the tone of Akinyemi’s “Black and Beautiful”. In the former, we read: Ah, my black one/thou art not beautiful/yet thou art a loveliness surpassing beauty”. In the latter, we read: “Glorify your shade of black/revel in its beauty/don’t you forget that you’re black and beautiful”. Also, the voice of Angelou’s “Still I Rise” is evoked in Akinyemi’s “Black and Unique”. In the latter, one reads: 

I wish you can rise above the tides of hate

And the contraptions of oppression

I wish you can see, through the dawning of each day,

That you’re black and unique.     

In Angelou’s’ “Still, I Rise”, one reads:

You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt,

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

In the former’s tides of hate is the latter’s bitter, twisted lies;” in you’re black and unique is Angelou’s still, I rise— both write toward the resoluteness of the Black spirit in the face of racism and racial inferiority complex. Also implicit in Akinyemi’s poem is the revolutionary tone of McKay’s “If We Must Die”, although where the latter proposes guerilla revolutionary awakening, the former proposes a sort of Negritudist-ideological consciousness of not being cowered by white supremacist complex, rather the need to recognise and glorify one’s blackness. 

For Akinyemi, “these cries — (for indeed, the black race decries injustice and the history of its perpetuity) — come from the pangs of racism” (“Black Voices”, 6). He notes that, as early as the Harlem days, “black boys suffer miscarriages of justice/before they become just numbers in prison” (“Black Boy: Hollow Vibes”, 10).      

The history of such perpetuity spurs the poems in Black Does Not Equal Inferior. Blacks in the US took to social media and the streets, with the hashtag: #blacklivesmatter, a development that was further accentuated by the gruesome maiming of George Floyd, a black American, by a white police officer, in 2020. The sad story of Floyd is but one among the myriad of unjust treatment of blacks.

Black Does Not Equal Inferior (Paperback) | Wellesley Books

Taking recourse to such historical perpetuity, Akinyemi, like the Harlem predecessors, uses his poetry to amplify the voices of blacks against discrimination. The poems here are proof that Akinyemi, being a black man himself resident in Europe, is not just an adjudicator of racial liberation, but a revolutionary, who knows what is at stake and what to do about it. He knows that, as one whose instrument of resistance is poetry, he must write the times. This obligation underpins the message in the poem, “Black Girl: Stinking Hair”, one of the poems with which he proposes what, to borrow the poet, Umar Abubakar Sidi’s phrase, can be considered a black “poetry manifesto”. Concerned about what should be contained in such a manifesto, he (Akinyemi) writes: “how do I write a sad poem for the three-year-old girl with the stinking hair/ her hair’s scent makes her white friends want to puke?/How do I erase the teacher’s voice/laminated in the innermost parts of her heart?” In the manifesto of the black poet, then, just as in the Harlem days, Akinyemi proposes the strive for an ‘alter-narrative:’

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Show her the glory of her hair

And the beauty of her skin

Hoping that through these pages

She finds her healing (27).

Here, Akinyemi lays bare the purpose of his writing — to give blacks justice and glorify their heritage by showing that black is not mythical, rather, “it is the skin gods are housed in”.

However, in these “sad notes” against “prejudiced labels”, Akinyemi does not spare the blacks where they are to be critically spanked. For instance, as one who writes to right, he does not gloss over the shortcomings arising from Africa’s inability to have a common postcolonial united front as a result of ethnic, religious, political and economic differences. For him, then, “black unity”, which was once flaunted as the watchword of Pan-Africanism, “is a mirage/an imaginary permutation”. In the poem, “Black Unity I”, he laments, “black brotherhood was buried in the backyard/for a bag of rice, and five litres of oil—that’s dinner served”.  Here, Akinyemi critiques the economic shortcomings of postcolonial Africa which culminates in the detrimental reliance on her former colonial masters —the West. It is this desire for a “bag of rice” and “litres of oil” which, partly, results in neocolonialism, in spite of the clamour for decolonisation.

Akinyemi’s poetry is poignantly evocative. The poignancy is reflective of the relative subject matter he pursues; and evocative in his simple diction, which levitates the propensity of his message — the major preoccupation of his creative agency. But, herein lies the weakness of his poetry, for, unlike other art forms, sacrificing the form of poetry for its content is detrimental not only to the artistic particularity of the whole creative process, but the inherent (almost inevitable) wobbling of the content. 

This is why what is supposed to be the significant urgency of his subject matter in Black Does Not Equal Inferior, in the current postcolonial narrative, cannot be lauded without recourse to the artistic limpness of the language with which they are rendered — language, being a more significant agency of poetry, should’ve equally been given attention to in his bid to delivering a message. It seems, then, that unlike the Harlem poets, like  Hughes and McKay, whose poetry were steeped in the traditional form (and lyrichood) of the ‘Negro spiritual’, Akinyemi’s poetry cannot be associated with the same source as those whose thematic heritage he uplifts. Even so, it portrays the atrophy of stylistic nuance in this particular collection.

Nket Godwin is a poet, literary critic/essayist and book reviewer. His works have appeared on Afrocritik, African Writer magazine, The Nigeria Review, Konyashamrumi, Lionandlilac Magazine, Eboquill, Best Poet of the Year, 2020 Anthology published by Inner Child Press, US, How to Fall in Love Anthology, HaikuNetra magazine, etc. He writes from the city of Port Harcourt, Rivers State. He tweets with the handle: @nketgodwin96.

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