Kevin Young, editor: African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song (LOA/Library of America, 2020)
“This is the difficult miracle of Black poetry in America: that we persist, published or not, and loved or unloved: we persist.” – June Jordan in her 1985 essay The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America; or, Something like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley
Covering 250 years of ‘struggle and song’, Kevin Young’s anthology presents 246 poets from pioneering Phillis Wheatley in the colonial period to the present. At some 1170 pages, including 968 pages of poetry, it is the most comprehensive and ambitious up-to-date anthology of African American poetry we have, with extensive biographical notes, notes on individual poems, note on the text & acknowledgments, and an index of poets, titles, and first lines.
The poetry itself is divided into eight linked sections: One: “Bury Me in a Free Land” (1770-1899), Two: “Lift Every Voice” (1900-1918), Three: “The Dark Tower” (1919-1936), Four: “Ballads of Remembrance” (1936-1959), Five: “Ideas of Ancestry” (1959-1975), Six: “Blue Light Sutras” (1976-1989), Seven: “Praise Songs for the Day” (1990-2008), and Eight: “After the Hurricane” (2009-2020), paying tribute to the poets who wrote the poems in which these lines appear.
(If you are not familiar with (all of) the poetic lines above, the Index at the back of the book will help you identify the poems/poets – look for From the Dark Tower, though – , with the exception of Robert Hayden’s Ballad of Remembrance, not reprinted here).
Journey towards freedom. The Black experience in America can be described as a ‘journey towards freedom’, politically and poetically, a testimony to the persistence of African Americans.
There is a world of difference between a young slave girl, Phillis Wheatley, writing an ode To His Excellency General Washington, who would become the first president of the United States, a slaveholder who would eventually free his slaves, and Elizabeth Alexander’s Praisesong for the Day, her 2009 inaugural poem for Barack Obama, the first African American president elect.
“It is this election of the first Black president… that helps bring the book full circle,” Young writes.
Poetically the distance travelled seems just as great. Formally, and to a large extend in terms of subject matter, Wheatley like her contemporaries took her inspiration and examples from classicism and the Bible, and from her reading of British poets like John Milton and Alexander Pope.
Contrast this with Young’s description of the newest generation(s) of African American poets: “They … employed what may still best be called the hip-hop aesthetic – an ability to draw from any source, white or Black or beyond, from outerspace to innervisions, from television shows to Black psychics and the blues … a vernacular in search of new forms, and new forms that that took up the vernacular …, setting out to capture the new energy afoot.” Yet “Black to the bone.”
Moments, movements, and figures. But let us look at some of the key issues in the development of African American poetry over these 250 years addressed in Kevin Young’s introduction.
“Black poetry has always lived beyond books,” Kevin Young writes. And the first known poem by a person of African descent in North America is Lucy Terry’s Bars Fight. Composed orally in 1746, first mentioned in print in 1819 but not given a title and published till 1855. But it was only with Phillis Wheatley that an entire tradition of African American poetry began to emerge, Young choosing as a title for his intro The Difficult Miracle – see epigraph above – in tribute to Wheatley.
“Archival work is essential to this project, and indeed to the literature,” Young writes, archives created by or about African Americans, like the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, named for Puerto Rican scholar and collector Arthur Alfonso Schomburg (1874-1938).
And among the items Young has found in the archives and prints in the anthology are some never before published young girls’ jump rope rhymes transcribed by poet Lucille Clifton.
Paul Laurence Dunbar’s work at the turn of the century “creates and constitutes the first modern Black poetry” in a Black dialect that he perfected and made popular even as he preferred his verse in standard English, while Fenton Johnson’s prose poems “inaugurate a modernist moment.” There is Langston Hughes’ introducing the rich African American vernacular to poetry and his jazz poems, James Weldon Johnson’s use of religious oratory in his God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, Russell Atkins’ experimental concrete verse, and other formal innovators.
What’s in a name? There is the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s, but what of the period in between, 1936 to 1959, section Four of this anthology? “The work of these poets has too often fallen by the wayside,” Kevin Young writes.
The Black Chicago Renaissance would cover the work of Gwendolyn Brooks, but not that of Melvin B. Tolson or Robert Hayden. And there is Margaret Walker, the first Black poet to win the Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1941 – and the only one for nearly seventy years afterwards. In fiction it would account to some degree for Richard Wright, but not Ralph Ellison or James Baldwin. Yet looking at just the few names mentioned here, the period is clearly very important.
Writing collectives have always been crucial to African American poetry, and Kevin Young mentions several: New York City’s Umbra Poets Workshop founded in the early sixties, the Boston-based Dark Room Collective of which Young himself was a member, Joanne V. Gabbin’s long lived “Furious Flower” initiative (the Furious Flower Poetry Center, conferences, and anthologies), and Cave Canem, founded by poets Toi Derricote and Cornelius Eady, that has now nurtured African American poets and poetry for more than two generations, and others.
In 1950 Gwendolyn Brooks was the first African American writer to win a Pulitzer Prize. It would be another thirty-seven years before the Pulitzer was awarded to another Black poet, Rita Dove.
Since then Pulitzers have been coming at a steadily increasing frequency: Yusef Komunyakaa in 1994, Natasha Trethewey 2007, Tracy K. Smith 2012, Gregory Pardlo 2015, Tyehimba Jess 2017, and Jericho Brown 2020. Brooks, Dove, Trethewey, and Smith have served terms as US Poets Laureate, Maya Angelou, Elizabeth Alexander and Amanda Gorman as Inaugural Poets, many more recognized by other prizes, awards, fellowships, appointments, and other honors.
No anthology can ever be ‘definitive’, not even an anthology of this scope (aside from the ever present issue of copyrights). First of all you will notice (because other anthologies include this material) that Young has left out the “Black and Unknown Bards” – see James Weldon Johnson’s poem – of the spirituals, and folk songs, ballads, and blues, the spoken and sung poetry of the Black vernacular tradition, what Kevin Young calls vernacular “orature,” and that many of the poets included in this anthology themselves reference over and again.
Young does include the poetry of poet-songwriters Andy Razaf and Gil Scott-Heron. And the importance of Black music to the tradition is evident. Young mentions that Billie Holiday, and the “new sound” of Eric Dolphy and the early departed John Coltrane on the poetry of the 1960s was profound: “ain’t no tellin/ where the jazz of yo/songs/ wud have led us” – Sonia Sanchez. Add Amiri Baraka, Jayne Cortez, Bob Kaufman, Sterling Plumpp and other Black Arts-era poets.
Due to space constraints Young has “reluctantly” excluded the rich Black tradition of verse for young people. (Next year he will publish his own first volume of poetry for children, Emile and the Field, a lyrical picture book illustrated by Chioma Ebinama, following in the footsteps of poets like Countee Cullen, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, and Nikki Giovanni).
Then there is the problem of African American poetry written in languages other than English, especially French and Spanish, reminding us that the first anthology of Black poetry ever published in the United States is Les Cenelles: Choix de poésies indigènes from 1845 by free creoles of color from Louisiana, edited by Armand Lanusse – Young includes four poets/poems in translation.
Two other poets in translation also included are the great Cuban poet Nicolas Guillén (1902-1989) and Puerto Rican born Julia de Burgos (1914-1953) of Spanish Harlem, testifying to the important influence of Caribbean poetry and literature on mainland U.S. literature – and vice versa.
Publishing opportunities are essential to any literature. The 1920s was a time when ‘the Negro was inVogue,” according to Langston Hughes. Of the 60s Young writes: “The revolution may not have been televised, but for a time in the 1960s it appeared it might be poeticized.” There was a bonanza of anthologies of African American poetry and literature, and independent Black publishers like Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press and Haki R. Madhubuti’s Third World Press.
Kevin Young’s contribution to the anthology is Money Road, a meditation on Emmett Till, one name only in “African American poetry’s roll call of ongoing victims of racist violence.”
As a vote of confidence in the future of African American poetry, in the last section, “After the Hurricane” (2009-2020), Kevin Young presents 34 emerging poets with a single poem each.
TODAY’S POETS are both published and praised, if perhaps not always loved, and this anthology is part of a national celebration: Lift Every Voice: Why African American Poetry Matters, presented by the Library of America and the New York Public Library’s renowned Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, see the website www.africanamericanpoetry.org.
UFI // 25 June 2021
The editor. When LOA asked Kevin Young (1970-) to research and edit this anthology, he was still director of the Schomburg Center (2016-2020). The author of twelve books of poetry and the editor of several other volumes, including Giant Steps: The New Generation of African American Writers (2000), Blues Poems (2003), and Jazz Poems (2006), since January 2021 he is the director of the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Juneteenth. Young dates his Introduction Juneteenth 2020. Since 1865 African Americans have celebrated June 19 to commemorate the end of slavery, Texas on that day being the last state forced to observe Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation issued some two-and-a-half years earlier.
In June 2021, Congress passed a law making Juneteenth a national, federal holiday.
NOTE: This is article fifty that I am posting on my website, www.africanamericanliterature.net.
Poets portrayed so far are: Johari Amini/Carolyn M. Rodgers/Angela Jackson (one article), Russell Atkins, Gwendolyn Brooks, Sterling A. Brown, Cheryl Clarke, Thomas Sayers Ellis, James A. Emanuel, Nikki Giovanni, Amanda Gorman, Bob Kaufman, Keorapetse Kgositsile, Yusef Komunyakaa, Naomi Long Madgett, devorah major, Harryette Mullen, Sterling Plumpp, Dudley Randall, Claudia Rankine, Quincy Troupe, Margaret Walker, and Phillis Wheatley.
See also Camille T. Dungy’s Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, Kalamu ya Salaam’s I Am New Orleans: 36 Poets revisit Marcus Christian’s definitive poem, and Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry.
UFI | 06/25/2021