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Askia Touré Biography - Early Life, Developed Poetic Voice, Found Political and Religious Identity, A "Griot"

black african poetry editor

1938—

Poet, editor, activist

Askia Muhammad Abu Bakr el Touré is one of the founding members of the black arts movement of the 1960s and 1970s. As a poet, editor, and activist, Touré helped define a new generation of black consciousness that sought to affirm through the arts the community's African heritage as a means to create an uplifting and triumphal identity for the modern black experience. Touré is the author of several books of poetry and has been published in numerous anthologies.

Early Life

Touré was born as Rolland Snellings on October 13, 1938, in Raleigh, North Carolina, to Clifford R. and Nancy (Bullock) Snellings. He spent his early childhood, along with his younger brother, in La Grange, Georgia, where he lived with his paternal grandmother until the age of six. At that time he moved with his family to Dayton, Ohio. Although he spent the remainder of his childhood in Ohio, he made frequent trips back to North Carolina and Georgia to visit relatives, and the South had a profound influence on his early poetic images.

Touré wrote his first poem in the seventh grade, but after his teacher insisted that he could not have been the actual author of the work, he was duly dissuaded from further writing at the time. He attended public school and graduated from Dayton's Roosevelt High School in 1956. By that time Touré had begun singing in nightclubs, imitating the doo-wop style of popular 1950s groups such as the Ravens and the Platters. Although he considered heading straight into the music business, after graduating Touré decided instead to join the Air Force, serving from 1956 to 1959.

Upon his discharge from military service, Touré headed to New York, and from 1960 to 1962 he studied visual arts at the Art Students League of New York. In 1963 Touré, working with illustrator Tom Feeling and artist Elombe Brath, helped produce a brief, privately published illustrated history of Samory Touré, who resisted French colonialism in Guinea in the 1800s and was the grandfather of Sékou Touré, former president of Guinea who successfully led his country's struggle for independence from the French in the 1950s. This publication marked the beginning of his life-long interest in the history of Africa.

Developed Poetic Voice

In 1962 Touré began providing illustrations to Umbra magazine, whose staff included several prominent poets, authors, and activists. Here, in this company he began to focus on his poetry and to develop his own poetic style. Turning first to W.E.B. De Bois for inspiration, Touré's influences eventually came from a broad range of writers, including Irish poet William Butler Yeats, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes, among others. Ultimately, Touré found his poetic home in the rhythm, phrasing, and tonality of black music, with particular homage paid to the jazz saxophone of John Coltrane.

During the early 1960s Touré solidified his growing role as a leader of the emerging black arts movement by working with several new black arts publications. From 1963 to 1965 he served on the editorial board of Black America, the literary arm of the black nationalist Revolutionary Action Movement (RAM). For the following two years he was on the staff of Liberator Magazine, and then he served as an associate editor on the staff of Black Dialogue, which had begun publication in the spring of 1965. Eventually the Journal of Black Poetry (now Kitabu Cha Juai) emerged from Black Dialogue, Touré was named editor-in-chief. Through all these forums, Touré sought to redefine black identity and strengthen the movement against racial injustice and oppression.

Touré was deeply affected by the assassination of Malcolm X on February 21, 1965. In response he joined with influential scholar Larry Neal to found the newspaper Afro World, which went to press just one week after Malcolm X's death. That spring Touré, again partnering with Neal, took the black arts movement to the streets of Harlem by organizing the Harlem Uptown Youth Conference. They invited artists from the Black Arts Repertoire Theatre School to perform music, poetry, and plays in the blocked-off streets of Harlem. Among the many Harlem-based artists, Touré performed some of his own poetry in this massive block party. This event spawned the creation of Harlem's Black Arts School.

Found Political and
Religious Identity

As Touré's poetic voice matured, so did his political life. In 1965 he helped author the Student National Coordinating Committee's Black Power position paper that, among other things, called for the creation of black-led political groups across the United States. Touré married Dona Humphrey in June of 1966, and the following year rejoined Black Dialogue as an associate editor. He shook the black nationalist movement by printing a caustic letter denouncing LeRoi Jones (also known as Amiri Baraka), a prominent leader in the movement. Touré challenged Baraka for what he saw as Baraka's antiwhite bias and a failure to provide positive images of the African-American culture.

Shortly thereafter Touré moved to San Francisco and became active in RAM. He also taught African history at San Francisco State University, which eventually established the country's first Africana Studies program to be housed at a major university. During this period Touré came under the influence of the Nation of Islam and converted to the faith in 1970, changing his name from Rolland Snellings to Askia Muhammad Abu Bakr el Touré. In the midst of this tumultuous period of his life, Touré's marriage suffered severe strain, and Touré and Humphrey divorced shortly after the birth of their son, Tariq Abdullah bin Touré.

At a Glance …

Born Rolland Snellings on October 13, 1938, in Raleigh, NC; changed name to Askia Muhammad Abu Bakr el Touré, 1970; son of Clifford R. and Nancy (Bullock) Snellings; married Dona Humphrey, 1966 (divorced); married Helen Morton Hobbs (Muslim name, Halima), 1970 (divorced); married Agila; children: (first marriage) Tariq Abdullah bin Touré; (second marriage) Jamil Abdus-Salam bin Touré. Education: Attended Art Students League of New York, 1960-62. Military service: U.S. Air Force, 1956-59. Religion: Muslim.

Career: Staff member, Umbra magazine, 1962-63; member of the editorial board, Black America, 1963-65; cofounder, Afro World newspaper, 1965; staff member, Liberator Magazine, 1965-66; associate editor, Black Dialogue; editor-in-chief, Journal of Black Poetry (now Kitabu Cha Juai); poet, essayist, artist, editor, activist, and lecturer in African history, black studies, and creative writing.

Awards: Modern Poetry Association award, 1952; Columbia University Creative Writing grant, 1969; American Book Award for Literature, for From the Pyramids to the Projects, 1989; Gwendolyn Brooks Lifetime Achievement Award, 1996; Stephen Henderson Poetry Award, African-American Literature and Culture Society, for Dawnsong, 2000.

Addresses: Office—89 Ruthven Street, Boston, MA 02121; Web sitewww.askiatoure.com.

Returning to New York, Touré immersed himself in the theology and spirituality of Nation of Islam. In 1970 he married Helen Morton Hobbs, a writer and editor, who went by the Muslim name Halima. In the same year Touré published his first collection of poetry, JuJu: Magic Songs for a Black Nation, which included three poems and an essay by Touré. Playwright Ben Caldwell contributed a poem and penned the introduction. Imitating the cadence of black music, Touré's epic poem links the modern black experience with juju, the West African word for magic, which he, in turn, equates with black music. Touré suggests that when all else is stripped away—dress, customs, language, religion—the modern black experience can still be linked to an African past through music.

A "Griot"

During the early 1970s Touré worked with the John Oliver Killens Writers Workshop at Columbia University and taught courses at the Community College of New York. In 1972 he published Songhai!, his second volume of poetry, for which Killens wrote the introduction. Once again Touré undertook a cosmic and epic view that not only sought a return to African roots but also a fulfillment of the modern black experience that results in a triumphal future. His tone is hopeful, uplifting, and revolutionary. Touré's poetry earned him the title of a griot, a storyteller who keeps alive the memories of the people, serving also as a means to approach the future.

By the mid-1970s, shortly after the birth of his son, Jamil Abdus-Salam bin Touré, Touré's second marriage dissolved. His relationship with his mosque had also grown very strained, eventually leading him to break from the community. In 1974 he moved to Philadelphia, where he began teaching courses at the Community College of Philadelphia.

Touré continued to write, lecture, and teach throughout the next three decades. In 1984 he helped organize the Nile Valley Conference at Morehouse College, which sought to reestablish the Nile Valley as the source of Western civilization, and in 1986 he co-founded an Atlanta chapter of the Association for the Study of Classical African Civilizations. In 1990 he published his third major work, From the Pyramids to the Projects: Poems of Genocide and Resistance, which won the American Book Award for Literature.

"Dawnsong" and Beyond

In 1998 Touré caused a stir by writing a poem in defense of exiled Black Panther activist Assata Shakur, who had been living in Cuba since escaping from prison in 1979, where she was serving a life sentence for the murder of a state trooper in a highly publicized and contested case with racial overtones. Reprinted on AfroCubaWeb.com, the poem is a strong statement: "Hands off Assata, Republican witch! This Sista you won't kill or turn into Oprah, hanging out with Uncle Sam. She is ours; this Oya Woman, this Liberations Fighter, this Warrior-queen, this child of Harriet Tubman is ours—the Black Nation's Champion."

Dawnsong: The Epic Memory of Askia Touré, published in 2000, was awarded the Stephen Henderson Poetry award from the African-American Literature and Culture Society. Formulated on the Egyptian and Nubian civilizations along the Nile River, Dawnsong carries the reader through a history that predates slavery by thousands of years from the development of early human history to the triumphant creation of a highly cultured society. Once again using highly imagistic images, Touré's epic poetry depends on the cadence and tonality of jazz to develop a free-flowing verse, uplifting African history and culture and transposing it onto the modern black experience. "I'm part of what's been called the Afro-centric movement," he told Riverdeep.net. "But I prefer to call it African restoration because I try to restore and resurrect the ancient archetypes of the African people."

Touré, who is the artist in residence at Boston's Ogunamaile Gallery, continues to be active in the literary and political world. In 2003 he was working on making his play "Double Dutch: A Gather of Women" into an independent film. He was also collaborating with Boston composers to create a libretto from his epic poem "From the Pyramids to the Projects, From the Projects to the Stars." The Official Askia Touré Web site (www.askiatoure.com) became fully operational in August of 2004, with plans, according to Touré, to develop into a forum for interviews, dialogues, discussions, and political, cultural, spiritual, and historical analyses. Touré also continues to be a sought-after speaker.

Selected writings

Earth: For Mrs. Mary Bethune and the African and Afro-American Women, Broadside Press, 1968.

(With Ben Caldwell) JuJu: Magic Songs for the Black Nation, Third World Press, 1970.

Songhai!, Songhai Press, 1972.

From the Pyramids to the Projects: Poems of Genocide and Resistance!, African World Press, 1990.

Dawnsong! The Epic Memory of Askia Touré, Third World Press, 2000.

Sources

Books

Dictionary of Literary Biography. Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale Group, 1985.

Propaganda and Aesthetics: The Politics of African American Magazines in the Twentieth Century, University of Massachusetts Press, 1991.

Periodicals

African American Review, Summer 2002.

Black Issues Book Review, September 2000.

On-line

"Askia Touré," AfroCubaWeb, www.afrocubaweb.com/askiatoure.htm (September 13, 2004).

"Askia M. Touré: Poet, Activist, Africana Studies Pioneer," The Official Web Site of Askia Toure, www.askiatoure.com (September 13, 2004).

Contemporary Authors Online, www.galegroup.galenet.com (September 13, 2004).

"Reviving the Memory of a People," Riverdeep.net, http://www.riverdeep.net/current/2000/10/100500_askia.jhtml (September 21, 2004).

—Kari Bethel

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