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Arts & Life

Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey On Poetry, Race And Understanding

Caleb Rainey, March on Washington 2020
Courtesy of Caleb Rainey
Caleb Rainey at the 2020 March On Washington in Washington, D.C.

Originally from Columbia, Missouri, Caleb “The Negro Artist” Rainey has made an impressive mark on the Iowa poetry scene.

He’s been an active force in spoken word performance and has made his way across much of the Midwestern United States. He was named Best Poet/Spoken Word Performer in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City in 2020. He also created a high school program called IC Speaks, nurturing a community of young, spoken word poets in Iowa City.

Since graduating from the University of Iowa, he has published two poetry collections, “Look, Black Boy” (2017) and “Heart Notes” (2019). Since this interview occurred, “Look, Black Boy” has won the North Street Book Prize in the poetry division. Rainey recently had a conversation about "Look, Black Boy" with IPR's Charity Nebbe.

Interview highlights

On the origin of his name, “The Negro Artist”
I read Langston Hughes’ essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain” at the same time that I was deciding who I was as a person. I was in seventh grade. I knew I wanted to be a writer. But then I was also trying to figure out what it meant to be a writer and to be a Black boy, and what that looks like. And Langston Hughes’ essay talks about how some artists want to take away their race from being an artist. They want to be ‘just an artist,’ says the Negro artist to Langston Hughes, and Langston Hughes says ‘No, you are a Negro artist, you always will be a Negro artist, and there is beauty in that...’ Langston Hughes spoke to me and it stuck with me since then. I think about it often, and now it's my name because I just couldn’t get away from that idea, and it seemed to liberate me, and that was really important to me.

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On what he hopes when people hear his name
It depends on the space, but what I really want is every time I say my name, for the audience to have to think and reflect on what it is that their relationship is with race. With the phrase 'negro,' which is eerily similar to other things and also dated, and it's this idea that they have to decide. Am I going to call him that? How do I feel that he calls himself that? What do I think right now? And it’s a kind of roundabout way for us to start a conversation that I feel is necessary all of the time... This is my name. If you choose not to talk about it, that says something to me.

On the title, “Look, Black Boy”
It’s that duality of going, hey there are two white people across the room saying, 'look at that Black boy.' And then there is me as the poet, as the writer saying, 'look, Black boy, this is how your life is going to be. This is what you are dealing with. The cards you’ve been dealt.' That is one of my favorite things about this collection, my own title. Simply because I love that duality because that is a lot of my life, trying to figure out what has been given to me or what is assigned to me, which is my race and how other people perceive that, and how I’m going to have to perceive that myself.

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On giving his poetry a home through self-publishing
To be very frank, I wrote a lot of these poems, and I had them edited, and I decided, I think I want to get an MFA. When I attempted to get an MFA, I did not get accepted. I said, "well, I think my poems are still good," and rather than working through a publishing situation where I send this out to a publisher, I said "These poems are ready. And I want them now. And I know people need to hear them." I was also worried about timeline. I don’t want to take too long with poems that I think are timely. So that is really what happened. I said "I have these poems, and I have been performing them on stages for so long that they felt ready, and they felt like they needed a home, and so I needed to give them a home."

On his accomplishments since publishing
I have had two big moments so far since this book has come out, which is being the number one new release in African American poetry on Amazon, and then also the idea of my mom holding my book.... That was powerful for me.

Katelyn Harrop produced this interview for broadcast. Monica Starr edited this interview for podcast format and adapted this interview for the Web. It has been edited for clarity.