While Plato's Republic sets out to firmly establish strict rules for
poets and their art for the benefit of his State, his approach comes off
as extremely oppressive towards hiding and presenting a specific type of
truth. He begins this fascist dialogue by stating what types of stories
poets should be allowed to tell: "So first of all we must supervise the
making of myths, and accept the good ones, but reject the bad" (Republic
16). This concept of what is "good" or "bad" for society is extremely
dangerous as it leads to a type of moral censorship that can potentially
deny any sort of truth that the "[are] the opposite of those we think
[...]" (Republic 16).
Bearing this potential danger in mind, a spoken word poem like “A Black
American” by Smokey Robinson would fall under the “bad” paradigm that
Plato has set up for the perfect State as it delves deeply into the
patchy history of African Americans in the United States. If the leaders
of the United States followed Plato’s example of selective story
telling, Robinson might be denied the right to describe a beginning
aspect of the African American Diaspora:
Since those first ships arrived here from Africa that came across the sea
There were already Black men in this country who were free.
And as for those who came over on those terrible boats
They were called “nigger” and “slave”
And told what to do and how to behave. (8-12).
As any educated person knows, the United States’ successful birth as a
State did not come without its share of trials, tribulations, and sins.
Of course for Plato, denying the telling of this darker aspect of
history serves a greater good: “If we want our future guardians to
believe that hating one another is the worst evil […] If somehow we are
to persuade them that no citizen has ever quarreled with any other, and
that it is wrong to do so, we must make old men and women tell children
stories to that effect from the start, and poets must be compelled to
tell them similar stories when they grow up” (Republic 17). The
concept of the greater good for the State then becomes detrimental to
any sort of Utopian society as it denies the basic and universal tenet
of any just society: liberty. The liberty to say what you want, think
what you want, and most importantly, learn what you want.
Plato’s earnest desire for the perfect State is marred by his
moralistically driven dictatorship. For it is Plato’s morals that
dictate how “good” any creative subject is for his State and it is this
flaw that should scare any freedom loving individual. If Plato argues
that“[…] it’s appropriate for the rulers of the State […] to tell lies
involving enemies or fellow citizens for the benefit of the state […]”
(Republic 28), then we are given no choice but to reject that philosophy
and like Robinson tell whatever stories we want.
Plato. “The Republic”. Trans. Murray, Penelope and Dorsch, T.S.
Classical Literary Criticism. London: Penguin Books, 2004.
Robinson, Smokey. “A Black American.” Def Poetry Jam: Season 3. HBO. 16
May 2003. <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgDvuuaQ2VQ>