A Final Thought On Common


From fools honoring Ted Nugent one day and then railing against the thuggism of Common the next, to those who believe themselves the authority on what is and isn't poetry, I really believe Cornelius Eady told us all we needed to know about this some years ago:

Why Do So Few Blacks Study Creative Writing?

Always the same, sweet hurt,
The understanding that settles in the eyes
Sooner or later, at the end of class, 
In the silence pooling in the room.
Sooner or later it comes to this,

You stand face to face with your
Younger face and you have to answer
A student, a young woman this time, 

And you're alone in the class room
Or in your office, a day or so later,
And she has to know, if all music
Begins equal, why this poem of hers
Needed a passport, a glossary,

A disclaimer. It was as if I were...
What? Talking for the first time?
Giving yourself up? Away? 
There are worlds, and there are worlds,
She reminds you. She needs to know
What's wrong with me? and you want

To crowbar or spade her hurt
To the air. You want photosynthesis
To break it down to an organic language.
You want to shake I hear you
Into her ear, armor her life

With permission. Really, what 
Can I say? That if she chooses
To remain here the term
Neighborhood will always have 
A foreign stress, that there
Will always be the moment

The small, hard details
Of your life will be made
To circle their wagons?

I tell everybody that I am, at my core, a failed rapper. But I am also a failed djimbe drummer. And perhaps most importantly, I am a failed poet. Eons ago when I thought I was destined for Iowa, this piece was essential to me. Ultimately, it wasn't the lack of a glossary that doomed me, it was lack of talent. Indeed, living in Washington, and being around Howard, I had the  luxury of knowing a lot of African-American poets who were simply better. But still, so much of this was true of what I saw in my earliest workshops.

And it's true of what we see in a certain sector of our country--There are worlds and there are worlds. And its true of our president being made to present his papers--The small hard details/Of Your life will be made/To circle their wagons. 

But it isn't true of the country as a whole. As surely as I spent the week laughing at Fox News, laughing at Karl Rove, laughing at what "ain't poetry," I know that I was not laughing alone. Hip-hop helped make that so.

The culture wars are over. We win.
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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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