'All Laid Out in My Green Velour'

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In comments, last week, we were discussing how the Black Arts movement--and Larry Neal in particular--anticipated hip-hop. As a college kid, I read umpteen essays about the meaning of the Black Aesthetic. What I took from all of that was the notion of writing about black people in a way that reflected their particular language, world-view and life rhythms. Hip-hop--at its best--tries to speak to black people in that way, but with a specific attention to those characteristics as applied to the young, urban and the mostly male. 

The point isn't one against universalism, indeed I think the universal is often found in the details. When you listen to a song like T.R.O.Y you hear rhythms and language which the black community takes as it own, along with a narrative that rings true for many African-Americans. But at the same time, it's themes are quite universal and many of the experiences are not specific to black people. The dialect is black. The broader message, not so much.

That approach--speaking in one's native tongue--pushed me through my memoir. If anything I wanted to make it more particular. I wanted to speak not just in a "black" dialect, but in my own particular black dialect. If Led Zeppelin could mash Tolkien with Robert Johnson, then I could try an mash Gary Gygax with Nas.

At any rate, I learned how not to measure myself in sonnets from Larry Neal. He was the first poet I read (though surely not the only one in existence) to implictely assert that poetry came from the people, that it was indiginous to our natural rythms of speaking--not something programed into us at universities.

After the jump, I offer his poem "Poppa Stoppa Speaks From His Grave." Again, the dialect is black. The theme, not so much.

Poppa Stoppa Speaks From His Grave

Remember me baby in my best light,
lovely hip style and all;
all laid out in my green velour
stashing on corners
in my boxcar coat--
so sure of myself, too cool for words
and running down a beautiful game.

It would be super righteous
if you would think of me that way sometimes;
and since it can't be that way,
just the thought of you digging me that way
would be hip and lovely even from here.

Yeah, you got a sweet body, baby,
but out this way, I won't be needing it;
but remember and think of me
that way sometimes.

But don't make it no big thing though;
don't jump jive and blow your real romance.
but in a word, while you high-steppin and finger-popping
tell your lovin man that I was a bad
motherfucker till the Butcher cut me down.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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