James A. Emanuel: Whole Grain: Collected Poems, 1958-1989 (Lotus Press, 1991)
III: Their greetings mocked us:/ Rastus, Sambo, Shine – and boy. Men they did not greet.// IV: We said “Sir” sometimes:/ “Sir Charles,” ”Sir Honkie,” and then/ the big lie: “the Man.” – From Racists Remembered.
Born in Nebraska, James A. Emanuel (1921-2013) left home at 17, served in World War II as private secretary to Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., America’s first black general, going on to earn degrees at Howard University, Northwestern and Columbia, teaching at City University of New York 1957-1983, and after encounters with American racism left the U.S.A. permanently for France in 1984.
Two personal catastrophes are the poetic subjects for White-Belly Justice: a New York Souvenir, on his “day in court denied – NOT GRANTED” by a racist court, and Deadly James (For All Victims of Police Brutality) on his son’s suicide after being beaten by “three cowardly cops” in 1983.
Before leaving America, James A. Emanuel had made a name for himself as a literary scholar. His Langston Hughes (Twayne, 1967) was praised by Hughes biographer Arnold Rampersad: “My book had mistakes. His didn’t.” And Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (The Free Press, 1968), co-edited with Theodore L. Gross, and still in print, was the first comprehensive anthology of African American Literature since The Negro Caravan in 1941. And he was proud to have been the editor of the five volumes in the Broadside Critics Series (1971-75).
Whole Grain is dedicated to “Dudley Randall and especially for Naomi Long Madgett, publishers who kept me going as a poet”. Randall’s Broadside Press published The Treehouse (1968) and Panther Man (1970), Emanuel’s first two volumes of poetry, with polished gems like For Malcolm, U.S.A. and Emmett Till – and The Negro (“The-nezz froze him,/../ A-ness never/ Had a chance.”).
His first book for Lotus Press, Black Man Abroad: The Toulouse Poems (1978), came after a period of writer’s block, broken by a friend’s little girl pointing her finger at French words in her picture book and insisting he learn words like clé (key) – see For Alix, Who Is Three.
As visiting professor at the University of Toulouse 1971-1973, he started a lifelong friendship with Marie-France Plassard, his guide in Toulouse and future travelling companion in Europe, Africa and Asia, and her family who ‘took him in’ and made their estate his second home, giving him their hospitality and a large room for writing. He also taught at universities in Grenoble and Warsaw.
His poems in Black Man Abroad and the other Lotus Press volumes: A Chisel in the Dark (1980), The Broken Bowl (1983), Deadly James and Other Poems (1987), and now Whole Grain, marked a turn to free verse and often longer forms, and contain many of my own favorites:
The Quagmire Effect (at the Old Folks’ Home); Scarecrow: the Road to Toulouse; The Birdpeople; Officer Liz and the Poem; Worksheets, Flat No. 9; Old Black Men Say; Between Loves: a Train from London; Eric, at the Blythe Road Post Office; The Boat Basin, Years Later – many with surrealistic elements, explaining perhaps his easy friendship with Ted Joans, the self proclaimed ‘Black Surrealist Griot’ – see The River of Ted Joans (for his Paris Birthday, 1987) , who’s profile as a person and a poet seems on the surface almost the exact opposite of James A. Emanuel’s.
JAMES A. EMANUEL battled all his life with what he called the self-appointed ‘blacker-than-thou’ group, framers of the ‘Black Blacklist’ – (see the satire The Blacklist: Dialogue in a Harlem Bar in The Force and the Reckoning, mentioned below).
He was not in two seminal books on African American literature, The Norton Anthology of African American Literature (1997) or The Oxford Companion to African American Literature (1997). He felt that he should have been, and he was bitter about the lack of recognition. After all, he had been an ‘elder’, an ‘ancestor’, a pioneer in the discipline of Black Studies at major American universities emerging in the 1960s, teaching a course on African American poetry at CUNY’s City College as early as 1966.
After Whole Grain came JAZZ from the Haiku King (1999, a return to Broadside Press no longer run by Randall) and The Force and the Reckoning (Lotus Press, 2001), with A Force in the Field – a long autobiographical sketch – , selected poems and some new ones arranged by decade, poetic drafts, travel notes, a photographic supplement, and a biographical summary.
(The Library of Congress, where Emanuel left the bulk of his papers, noted in 2000 that he was a ‘meticulous worker and archivist’, documenting the creative process and corrections on multiple drafts of a given poem in great detail – see the poetic drafts in The Force and the Reckoning for confirmation!)
With JAZZ from the Haiku King, with translations into French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Russian, and artwork by his friend and artistic collaborator since 1990, the Belgian engraver Godelieve Simons, he turned late in life – like his fellow exile Richard Wright – to the haiku form. His innovative jazz and blues haikus reinvigorated him as a poet, and performing them with jazz musicians, they brought him new attention from readers and critics alike.
Fortunately, James A. Emanuel lived a long life, for recognition did come: The Sidney Bechet Creative Award 1996 (for his jazz haikus), a Special Distinction Award from the Black American Literature Forum, and the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Achievement from Columbia University in 2007. And best of all: several major anthologies of American poetry do include his poems.
And when he died in Paris, where he had lived for almost thirty years, The New York Times eulogized him under the – somehow too reductive – headline James A. Emanuel, Poet Who Wrote of Racism, Dies at 92. He did write about race. And about many other things as well.
A better headline might have been: James A. Emanuel, Poet Who Fled American Racism, Dies in Paris at 92. Because Paris freed him to concern himself with matters beyond American racism.
UFI | 03/27/2019