African American Poetry in the Age of the New Jim Crow

Here's a new collection of in-your-face poetry by Reginald Dwayne Betts that comes highly recommended by the likes of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the renowned Harvard Professor, and Patricia Smith, the four-time National Poetry Slam winner.

"Bastards of the Reagan Era" makes bodacious claims on readers, from the title of the book itself, to the title poem which goes on for sixteen pages and that shows that the long poem, which rarely if ever appears in the pages of "The New Yorker," isn't dead.

Betts' book also shows that while the Age of the New Jim Crow has led to the incarceration of tens of thousands of young black men for minor drug offenses it has not silenced a whole generation. Indeed, "Bastards" speaks for a vast underclass.

The brief biographical note at the back of the book says that Betts is a student at Yale Law School and that President Obama appointed him to the Coordinating Council of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. That's all true, and, while Betts knows a great deal about delinquency, justice and injustice, his expertise in those matters doesn't come from law school or government service.

Born in 1980, just in time for the Reagan Eighties to begin, and raised in Washington, D.C., Betts and a friend stole a car when they were teens, waved a gun as though they were gangsters, took the driver's credit card, and went to the Pentagon City mall where police officers arrested them. From 1999 to 2005, Betts served six years in prison, completed a high school degree and discovered that he loved to read and write.

In 2009, he published a memoir entitled "A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison." A year later, his first volume of poems, "Shahid Reads his Own Palm," appeared in print.

In "Bastards of the Reagan Era," the poems seem to rise majestically from bullet-ridden streets, bloody jail cells and from a whole world that looks, feels and smells like a gigantic graveyard for black men. A poet of crime and its punishments, both spiritual and physical, Betts writes as though he's a witness to drug deals gone from bad to worse and as a big black, young target for police officers and prison guards eager to cuff, strip-search, beat and punish.

Crack cocaine is all over the pages of this book, which unfold like a movie filmed in the shadows and that brings to mind gripping films such as "Boyz n the Hood" (1991) and "Menace II to Society" (1993) that woke white middle class Americans to life in inner cities in places such as Los Angeles.

Betts' poems humanize and empathize. They radiate a sense of bitterness, tenderness, anger, love and sadness as when he writes, "Prison/ has taken the place of freedom, even in his dreams."

The first poem in the book is about the gestation and birth of his two sons, Micah Michael Zamir, and Miles Thelonious Betts. It ends with a bang: "the shotgun is/ what we aim at the world that threatens, / & I scoop you in my arms,/ & you are calling us. Again."

The author might be a Yale law student but he's not yet out of the hood. Maybe he'll never graduate from the streets that have defined much of his character and that animate his art.

The last poem in the book, "What We Know of Horses," which is divided into six parts, ends on a note of loss and acceptance with the line, "I am the one/ domesticated, a broken horse."

The nine-part, "Bastards of the Reagan Era," which occupies the heart of the book, looks at the 1980s stripped of its glamor. It also looks back at the turbulent 1960s as a time of lost African American heroes, such as Huey P. Newton and Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers and when dreams "Went up in smoke, the revolution dead."

Most of Betts' phrasing is memorable, as when he writes of "this mural of blood" and "the chaos of early pregnancy." The poet repeats certain words such as "cages," "crazy," and "prisons" that acquire an incantatory power as though repeating them might free all the bastards of the locked up behind bars and locked out of the American dream.

Betts' book ought to be read in hoods, prisons, and suburbs, too, where white teenagers think it's cool to listen to rap and to be black.

"Bastards of the Reagan Era" might save lives. It exudes intensity and authenticity and prompts self-reflection and self-exploration. Eldridge Cleaver and Huey P. Newton would dig it. James Baldwin and Richard Wright would welcome it into the field of African American literature.