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African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song (A Library of America Anthology)

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Notes From Black Reads

A deep, beautiful and comprehensive overview of African American poetry from 1770 to the present day. You could literally teach a years-long seminar built around this book. In 1,000+ pages, editor Kevin Young acknowledges in his engaging and moving introduction that page constrictions required him to leave out “verse for young people,” “folk songs and ballads,” as well as longer prose poems. That’s OK. That just means we have additional volumes to look forward to.

A literary landmark: the biggest, most ambitious anthology of Black poetry ever published, gathering 250 poets from the colonial period to the present

Across a turbulent history, from such vital centers as Harlem, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, Black poets created a rich and multifaceted tradition that has been both a reckoning with American realities and an imaginative response to them. Capturing the power and beauty of this diverse tradition in a single indispensable volume, African American Poetry reveals as never before its centrality and its challenge to American poetry and culture.

One of the great American art forms, African American poetry encompasses many kinds of verse: formal, experimental, vernacular, lyric, and protest. The anthology opens with moving testaments to the power of poetry as a means of self-assertion, as enslaved people like Phillis Wheatley and George Moses Horton and activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper voice their passionate resistance to slavery. Young’s fresh, revelatory presentation of the Harlem Renaissance reexamines the achievements of Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen alongside works by lesser-known poets such as Gwendolyn B. Bennett and Mae V. Cowdery. The later flowering of the still influential Black Arts Movement is represented here with breadth and originality, including many long out-of-print or hard-to-find poems.

Here are all the significant movements and currents: the nineteenth-century Francophone poets known as Les Cenelles, the Chicago Renaissance that flourished around Gwendolyn Brooks, the early 1960s Umbra group, and the more recent work of writers affiliated with Cave Canem and the Dark Room Collective. Here too are poems of singular, hard-to-classify figures: the enslaved potter David Drake, the allusive modernist Melvin B. Tolson, the Cleveland-based experimentalist Russell Atkins. This Library of America volume also features biographies of each poet and notes that illuminate cultural references and allusions to historical events.

ISBN-13: 9781598536669

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Library of America

Publication Date: 10-20-2020

Pages: 1170

Product Dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.80(d)

Kevin Young is Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and poetry editor of The New Yorker. He has previously served as curator of the Raymond Danowski Poetry Library at Emory University and director the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library. Young is the author of many books, including Brown, Bunk, Blue Laws, and Jelly Roll. Among the anthologies he has edited are Blues Poems, Jazz Poems, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief & Healing, and, for Library of America, John Berryman: Selected Poems.

Read an Excerpt

From the introduction: The Difficult Miracle

This is the difficult miracle of Black poetry in America:
that we persist, published or not, and loved or unloved: we persist.
—June Jordan

For over 250 years, African Americans have written and recited and published poetry about beauty and injustice, music and muses, Africa and America, freedoms and foodways, Harlem and history, funk and opera, boredom and longing, jazz and joy. They wrote about what they saw around them and also what they dreamt up—even if it was a dream deferred, derailed, or outright denied. In sonnets and anthems, odes and epics, Black poets in the Americas confronted violence and indifference, legal barriers to reading and writing, illegal suppression of voting rights, and outright threats to their personhood, livelihood, and neighborhoods. They wrote from a world they made and a world that, at times, seemed designed to distract at best, to dis or destroy at worst. For African Americans, the very act of composing poetry proved a form of protest.

In this they were participating in a long line of creation, spanning back to the enslaved “Black and Unknown Bards” of the Negro spirituals, who transformed traditions and invented language to describe and change their conditions—and to take pleasure and power in their own inventiveness. African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song captures a quarter-millennia of Black poetry in the Americas from Phillis Wheatley to the present day. Whether we consider that timespan to consist of what June Jordan calls “the difficult miracle of Black poetry in America,” what Amiri Baraka names “the changing same,” or the pleasure that Toi Derricotte invokes when she says “joy is an act of resistance,” this anthology provides a comprehensive look at the centuries of song and struggle that make up African American verse, a legacy that is fruitful and large enough to barely be contained in one volume.

Black poetry has always lived beyond books. If Wheatley was first to publish a volume—one she had to go to England to find support for—then the first poem of record by a person of African descent in North America is Lucy Terry’s “Bars Fight.” Composed orally in 1746, the poem was passed around for generations till first mentioned in print in 1819 and printed in full in 1855, the same year as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Poet Jupiter Hammon published several of his works, often pious, in newspapers and other outlets, starting in 1760; he was the first African American to published poetry in a magazine. But it wasn’t till Wheatley that an entire tradition coalesced, and fully began—with her poems addressed to British royalty and then-General Washington, contemplating creativity and creation and a freedom she ultimately would write herself into.

This book is organized in eight linked sections. Section One: Bury Me in a Free Land (1770-1899) features a rich array of poets, from Wheatley to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, all of whom encountered (and wrote against) bondage in some way. Section Two: Lift Every Voice (1900-1918) considers poets from Paul Laurence Dunbar on, and the advent of the New Negro, including W.E.B. DuBois, novelist, poet, and anthologist James Weldon Johnson, poet and playwright Angelina Weld Grimké, and publisher and poet Fenton Johnson, whose prose poems inaugurate a modernist moment. Section Three: The Dark Tower (1919-1936) focuses on the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, especially what James Weldon Johnson in his introduction to Sterling Brown’s Southern Road in 1932 called the “Younger Group” of Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, Hughes, Toomer, and Brown—a list notably missing any of the terrific women writers of the time, from Gwendolyn B. Bennett, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Anne Spencer, and the neglected by nearly all quarters Mae V. Cowdery, all robustly represented here. Indeed, this Dark Tower argues in its selections for women writers and LGBTQ voices sometimes ignored, and for a Renaissance that stretches from Paris to Philadelphia to D.C. to the American South and Caribbean.

Section Four: Ballads of Remembrance (1937-1959) takes us through the Chicago Renaissance of Gwendolyn Brooks and other poets of the wartime and postwar period, considering the period between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement. The results consider place across the land—from Alabama to Cleveland to New Orleans—and poets whose work too often falls by the wayside. This includes everyone from Beat poet Bob Kaufman to Margaret Walker, the first Black person to win the Yale Younger Poets Prize (and the only one for nearly 70 years afterwards).

The second half of the book charts the ongoing boom in Black poetry, starting with the Black Arts Movement featured in Section Five: Ideas of Ancestry (1960-1975). This intense artistic and political outburst could fill, and has filled, many anthologies, but stands out for its foment in a short, intense period—from Amiri Baraka to Sonia Sanchez—much like the Harlem Renaissance before it. By expanding the period beyond the revolutions and unrest of the 1960s, we discover other poets who wrote alongside the movement, including Jay Wright and Michael S. Harper and Audre Lorde, who continued the work (and outlook) in the decades after, often shaped by Black Arts freedoms but also embracing a multitude of influences. The following Section Six: Blue Light Sutras (1976-1989) continues with poets like Ai, who almost exclusively wrote persona poems, as well as Pulitzer Prize-winners Rita Dove and Yusef Komunyakaa, or Sherley Anne Williams and Christopher Gilbert—all of whom wrote in personal ways about history and its music. These artists came to see that recognizing a multitude of influences, and capturing an array of voices, meant something deeply Black too.

The book ends with what is arguably another, more current renaissance, an explosion of talent and culmination of tradition that began appearing in the early 1990s. Sections Seven: Praisesongs for the Day (1990-2010) and Eight: After the Hurricane (2011-2020) consider what appears now two generations of “furious flowering”—borrowing a phrase from Gwendolyn Brooks that became the name of the important festivals and poetry center formed by scholar JoAnne Gabbin in 1994. One is tempted to say that over these last two decades we are newly in a time of writing collectives, but this would be ignoring the presence, going back through time, of June Jordan’s Poetry for the People in the 1990s, the Umbra Group in the 1960s, the Black Opals or Saturday Evening Quills of the 1920s, or even groups like Les Cenelles in the nineteenth century. Yet, this tradition found a newfound form in the Dark Room Collective, whose emergence in the late 1980s after the funeral of James Baldwin helped galvanize the current moment and eventually included Natasha Trethewey and Tracy K. Smith, two Pulitzer Prize-winning poets who have also served as U.S. Poets Laureate. They have been joined, in just the Pulitzer alone, by Tyehimba Jess and Gregory Pardlo—representative of increased and overdue recognition African American excellence. As a kind of coda, this book’s final, eighth section can only hope to provide a representation and overview of our current moment and mood, whose vibrancy and varied voices follow in the footsteps of the hundreds of years (and pages) before. One selection per poet can merely hint at the new songs being written, the struggles always underway, and those yet to come.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“This indispensable anthology will define the Black tradition for a new generation of students and scholars, and for everyone who loves good poetry. Its blend of the personal and the political reveals the sublime power of the written word, in slavery and freedom, to inspire, to protest, and to transcend.” —Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

“This is a historic achievement. Kevin Young has given us the most expansive anthology of African American poetry to date, magnificent in its breadth and scholarly in its depth. Including the well-known and the forgotten, this astonishing collection casts the widest net possible, making it evident that so much of the center of American poetry is Black poetry. I am grateful for this book because it gives me hope: genius will survive and sing truths.” —Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings

“Superbly thoughtful and authoritative, this volume is an exceptional accomplishment. Kevin Young has rightly chosen many poets and many styles, from Phillis Wheatley to right now, in celebration of an incandescent tradition with many interwoven strands. Here is a book to teach and learn from and read and re-read, to pick through and to re-discover: a revelation even for readers who thought they knew Black poetry.” —Stephanie Burt, author of Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems