Askia Touré

2006 EP. NO. 2
THE AUTHOR OF FIVE BOOKS and scores of poems, articles and anthologies, Askia Touré was raised in Dayton Ohio. As a child, he embraced and embodied the folklore and animal tales of the Southern oral tradition from his grandparents and developed a deep appreciation of the writings and language of Paul Laurence Dunbar. It is from these humble beginnings that Touré developed his literary awareness, becoming an artist, poet, essayist and political activist who merged his compassion for justice and African/African American history into artistic expression.

After serving in the United States Air Force, Touré came to New York to pursue a career in the arts. A young visual artist and budding intellectual (as well as a “closet poet”), he attended the Art Students League of New York and met his “Big Brother and mentor,” renown artist and illustrator, Tom Feelings, who took Touré under his wing and immersed him in New York’s budding black arts community. Along the way, Touré would meet artists such as Max Roach, Abby Lincoln, Elombe Brath, Kwame Brathwaite, the Grandassa Models, including master artists Jacob Lawrence and Ernest Crichlow, which he would maintain life-long friendships and collaborate on numerous artistic as well as social projects in the years to come.

As the Civil Rights Movement went into full swing, Touré stepped up his efforts as an artist/activist. He participated in such crucial cultural/political institutions as the Black Arts Repertory Theatre and School (BARTS), the Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM), and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He helped establish Umbra, a collective of young Black writers based in Manhattan’s Lower East Side founded in 1962. Members included Steve Cannon, Tom Dent, David Henderson, Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas, Brenda Walcott and Archie Shepp. Umbra, which produced Umbra Magazine, was the first post-civil rights Black literary group to make a radical impact that established a voice distinct from, and sometimes at odds with, the prevailing white literary establishment. In 1964, Touré and Al Haynes moved to Harlem and formed the nationalist-oriented “Uptown Writers Movement,” which included poets Yusef Rahman, Keorapetse “Willie” Kgositsile from South Africa, and Larry Neal. Accompanied by young “New Music” musicians, they performed poetry all over Harlem.

In 1966, Touré participated in SNCC’s Atlanta Project, where he co-wrote the “Black Power Position Paper,” with writer-activists, William Ware and Donald Stone, presenting his call for “Black Power,” which remains a milestone for inaugurating a national political and cultural era in America. Shortly afterwards, Touré joined Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka at San Francisco State College and helped build one of the first Black Studies Programs in the country, energizing the Black Arts scene in the Bay Area. He worked closely with Marvin X, lawyer William Patterson, Jim Lacey, and others in creating the Huey P. Newton Defense Committee, when Newton was shot and jailed by the police in Oakland, California. He served as editor of Black Dialogue, editor-at-Large of the Journal of Black Poetry, editor of Black America, contributing editor of Soulbook, and staff writer for Liberator magazine.

Touré continued organizing during the second phase of the Harlem Black Arts Movement (1968-1974) in conjunction with Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theater Workshop, the Studio Museum in Harlem, New Lafayette Theater (Bob Macbeth, executive director, and Ed Bullins, writer-in-residence), and Ernie McClintock’s theater, in continuous contact with Baraka’s Spirit House in New Ark (Newark, New Jersey).

While developing and organizing community projects, Touré continued to write and recite his works in public. Critics have noted Touré’s works for its combination of mythic African sensibility, with phrasing rooted in African American popular song (especially R&B and gospel), and a jazz rhythm comparable to John Coltrane and the “free jazz” artists of the 1960s. Touré maintains that he was deeply influenced by poet William Butler Yeats, who helped to bring the Gaelic language and culture back to the Irish people living under the rule of the British; and Chilean poet and politician Pablo Neruda, who wrote epic poems of Latin America that depicted an indigenous nation in continuous struggle against oppression. In that context, Touré has spent the better part of his career creating and perfecting imagery and narrative to produce works in this epic tradition on behalf of African American culture. His poems and essays, widely published in Black Scholar, Soulbook, Black Theatre, Black World and Freedomways, embody the ideology of a people seeking to reclaim their images and history.

During Touré’s post-Black Arts career, he published several poetry collections and lectured extensively, with his published works reviewed in the United States, France, Italy, India and the People’s Republic of China. He was an organizer of the historic Nile Valley Conference (which spearheaded the movement to restore the Nile Valley as the source of Western Civilization) at Morehouse College in 1984; and was a co-founder of the Atlanta Chapter of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations in 1986. His poetry collection, From the Pyramids to the Projects, which merged a mythic African/African American landscape with the historical detail that Touré has always shown in his essays, won the 1989 American Book Award. His works have appeared in numerous anthologies, including: From Totems to Hip Hop: A Multicultural Anthology of Poetry Across America by Ishmael Reed (Thunder’s Mouth Pr.; 2003); Bum Rush the Page, A Def Poetry Jam, edited by Tony Medina and Louis Reyes Rivera (Three Rivers Pr.; 2001); Furious Flower: African American Poetry from the Black Arts Movement to the Present, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin (Univ. of Virginia Pr.; 1999); and In Defense of Mumia, edited by S.E. Anderson and Tony Medina (Writers & Readers Pub.; 1996).

He also contributed to the groundbreaking full-color picture book, Soul Looks Back in Wonder edited by Maya Angelou and illustrated by award-winning and Black Arts Movement artist Tom Feelings (Puffin; 1999), which contained poems from a stellar lineup of contemporary African American authors, including Lucille Clifton, Langston Hughes, Mari Evans and Haki R. Madhubuti. The poems are uniformly uplifting, with affirming messages about the heritage, strength and dreams of African Americans.

Over the years, Touré has been noted by such scholar/artist/activists as Larry Neal, Kalamu ya Salaam, Amiri Baraka, Eugene Redmond and James Smethurst as a major architect of the Black Arts Movement. His literary works and essays have been critiqued over the years, notably by the late Lorenzo Thomas in Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and 20th-Century American Poetry (Univ. Alabama Pr.; 2000), alongside a number of this century’s most important African American poets, including Margaret Walker, Amiri Baraka, Harryette Mullen, and Kalamu ya Salaam. Throughout the book, Thomas demonstrates the continuity within the Afrocentric tradition while acknowledging the wide range of stylistic approaches and ideological stances that the tradition embraces.

In 1996, Touré was awarded the prestigious Gwendolyn Brooks Lifetime Achievement award from the Gwendolyn Brooks Institute in Chicago. In 2006, he was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame of Writers of African Descent, which was sponsored by the Gwendolyn Brooks Institute. His most recent volume of poetry, Dawnsong! The Epic Memory of Askia Touré (Third World Pr.; 1999), is an epic poem using the landscape of Keme (Egypt), Kush (the Nile Valley), ancient gods and goddesses, historical events, heroes and queens as subject symbols, icons or metaphors to establish a whole new language of verse. This volume of poetry was awarded the distinguished Stephen Henderson Poetry award from the African American Literature and Culture Society, an affiliate of the American Literature Association. He is currently completing a number of projects ranging from an independent film to creating a libretto from one of his poems.

Poet, artist, community activist, lecturer, and educator, Askia Touré’s dedication to his people’s plight and to the power of language made his politics and his poetry inseparable. “I’m part of what’s been called the Afro-centric movement,” says Touré, “but I prefer to call it African restoration because I try to restore and resurrect the ancient archetypes of the African people.”

Last updated 2009.

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