Askia Muhammad Toure

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Askia Muhammad Toure

Askia Muhammad Abu Bakr el Toure 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.[1]

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.[2]

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. DuBois 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.[3]

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 Toure. 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 Toure.[4]