Askia M. Touré
(b. 1938), poet, community activist, lecturer, and educator.
Askia M. Touré, in his multifaceted roles as poet, community activist, lecturer, and educator, is recognized as one of the original articulators of the Black Arts movement, an artistic and political movement that exhorted black artists to slough off what Touré termed “the white plaster” of their “negroness” and ultimately bring about the cultural, political, and physical liberation of all black Americans. From the late 1960s through the mid 1970s, he served in various capacities: as a contributing editor for the magazine Black Dialogue, as an editor at large for the Journal of Black Poetry, and as a staff writer of Liberator Magazine and Soulbook with famed activist-playwright Amiri Baraka and fellow poet-activist-critic Larry Neal. Effecting a coalescence of poetic vision and social service, Touré has continued to combine his passion for poetry and his zeal for a politics of black sociocultural empowerment in the tradition of Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks and in a way that few “community poets” (griots) have been able to realize as successfully.
Born Rolland Snellings in Raleigh, North Carolina, on 13 October 1938, Touré moved with his father, mother, and younger brother to Dayton, Ohio, in 1944. While a student at Dayton's Roosevelt High School from 1952 to 1956, he poetically expressed himself not as a writer, but as a singer. An accomplished crooner of 1950s doo-wop melodies, Touré, instead of cutting a record deal with King label, opted for a three-year stint in the air force. From 1956 to 1959, Touré, as an air force enlistee, served under what he called “apartheid basic training conditions, defending a country where [he] couldn't even eat in a restaurant.”
In 1960 Touré came to New York to study painting at the Arts Students League. A frequenter of Louis Micheaux's Black Nationalist Bookstore on the corner of 125th Street and 7th Avenue, Touré was literally a stone's throw from and within earshot of Black Muslim activist Malcolm X and his outdoor sermons. “Brother Malcolm” and then-fledgling writers of the pre-Black Arts magazine Umbra such as Calvin C. Hernton, Ishmael Reed, Lorenzo Thomas, Tom Dent, and David Henderson perhaps inspired Touré's pen more than his paintbrush, and in 1963 Touré coauthored with Tom Feelings and Matthew Meade Samory Touré, an illustrated biography of a nineteenth-century African freedom fighter.
In the late 1960s, with the Black Arts movement's political burgeoning into the Black Power movement, Touré continued actively writing and working in Harlem. In 1970, black-run Third World Press published his long poem Juju: Magic Songs for the Black Nation, which pays homage to saxophonist John Coltrane. Three years later, Touré published Songhai! A collection of poems and sketches that came out of novelist John O. Killens's writers workshop at Columbia University, Songhai! reflects Touré's Afrocentric vision and his Islamic affiliation as a Sunni Muslim.
In 1974 Touré left a New York of personal, religious, and artistic turbulences for Philadelphia, carrying an intense commitment to community activism. Touré, along with the African People's Party, organized Philadelphia's black and poor communities against the alleged excesses of Mayor Frank Rizzo and the police department's attacks on the radical religious sect MOVE. Touré continued teaching, organizing, and writing into the 1980s, and his work culminated in From the Pyramid to the Projects: Poems of Genocide and Resistance, a collection of poems for which he won the American Book Award in 1989. The book, which recounts the horrors of white supremacy and the wonders of black resiliency, was the first American Book Award winner that has as its theme black genocide.