African American Poetry In The Library Of America
The United States is blessed with a great and diverse literary tradition with reflection on the American experience and on its efforts and frequent failures to realize its ideals of liberty and equality. This tradition may be at its strongest in poetry. Even though underappreciated by many, our country has produced many poets of high achievement. In furtherance of its mission to present the best of American writing, the Library of America has published large anthologies of American poetry from the 17th and 18th century, two volumes of 19th century poetry, two volumes of 20th century poetry, and a volume of American religious poetry. These volumes make an impressive collection.
The Library of America has now added a vitally important collection to its celebration of American verse in this new anthology of the poetry written by African Americans, "African American Poetry: 250 years of Struggle & Song". From pre-revolutionary times to the present, African Americans have made contributions to poetry which celebrate the beauty of language and creativity and reflect upon their experiences. Kevin Young, currently the Director of the Schomberg Center for Black Culture and the soon to be Director of the Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C. edited this volume and wrote a perceptive and lengthy Introduction to its contents. Young's poem "Money Road" also appears in the volume.
Reading this anthology can be overwhelming in terms of the quality and variety of the poetry and it terms of volume. The book includes the work of 248 poets spread over nearly 1000 pages. The volume also includes Young's introduction, biographical sketches of each poet included in the collection, and notes explaining references that may be unfamiliar to the reader. A strong impression of both change and continuity can be gained by reading through the entire volume while many individual writers are worth spending time with on their own. The book can be approached in different ways: I recommend reading it through a little at a time and reading the poems together with the biographical sketches.
The book includes only published, written poems. A decision needed to be made at the outset to exclude works such as the spirituals, folk poetry, children's poetry, the blues, hip-hop and other more vernacular works. These sources might be explored in anthologies of their own.
The poetry in this volume shows many themes and styles of writing over its 250 year scope. Many poems celebrate individual experience of living and of love and death. Others describe the African American experience in the United States beginning with slavery and through the continued struggle for equality and for treatment as persons. The tone of the poems vary as do individual styles of writing. With the broad scope of the volume it is valuable to look for differences and continuities.
The book is organized into eight sections. The sections are chronological but the works in each section are arranged alphabetically. The sections are grouped into themes, and the work of some poets could fall within more than one section even though each writer appears only once. Some discussion of each section may be useful. Section One, "Bury me in a Free Land 1770 --1899" is chronologically the longest part of the book and begins with Phillis Wheatley. Section Two "Lift Every Voice 1900 -- 1918" includes James Weldon Johnson's famous poem known as the "Negro National Anthem" together with poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, among many others. Section Three, "The Dark Tower 1919 -- 1936" roughly covers the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Bennett, Jean Toomer, and many others, familiar and unfamiliar. Section Four, "Ballads of Remembrance 1936 -- 1959" includes Gwendolyn Brooks, Robert Hayden, and Margaret Walker, among poets who wrote in Chicago and elsewhere.
The poets in Part Five, "Ideas of Ancestry 1959-- 1975" include Lucille Clifton, June Jordan, and Amiri Bakara. Part Six, "Blue Light Sutras 1976-1989" includes poems by AI, Rita Dove, and Yusef Komunyakaa. Part Seven is entitled "Praise Songs for the Day 1990 -- 2008" and the poets include the recent Pulitzer Prize winner, Jericho Brown, Elizabeth Alexander, and Natasha Tretheway. The final part, "After the Hurrican 2009 -- 2020" includes single poems by many contemporary writers including Joshua Bennett, Latasha Nevada Diggs, and Allison C. Rollins.
Each reader will find poems in this volume to love. Some readers may prefer more traditional forms of writing with other readers will like more modernistic themes and poetic forms. There is a wealth of poetry, both familiar and unfamiliar in this collection. Many of the latter sections of the book, in particular, feature winners of the Pulitzer Prize, the MacArthur Fellowship, Poets Laureate of the United States or of various states and cities, and other honors and recognitions.
It is difficult to single out poems in a collection as broad as this anthology. My favorites included poems I already knew well, including Sterling Brown's poem "Ma Rainey" about the great blues singer. I also continue to love Waring Cuney's poem "NO IMAGES" which helped introduce me to African American poetry when I read it in an earlier anthology many years ago.
Kevin Young concludes his Introduction with the observation: "The African American experience, these poets know, is a central part of the nation's chorus, with Black poetry offering up a daily epic of struggle and song". Readers of this LOA volume will find their understanding of the African American experience and of the American experienced enriched through the magic of art and poetry.