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Critique and Joy

African American poetry, from Phillis Wheatley to hip hop

September-October 2021

Composite illustration of African American poets Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar

Left to right: Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the background: On Virtue, written in 1766 by Phillis Wheatley

Photomontage illustration by Niko Yaitanes


Left to right: Phillis Wheatley, Melvin B. Tolson, Dudley Randall, Gwendolyn Brooks, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Laurence Dunbar. In the background: On Virtue, written in 1766 by Phillis Wheatley

Photomontage illustration by Niko Yaitanes

It was not until 1855—the same year an unknown poet named Walt Whitman published Leaves of Grass—that a once-famous Black poet, Phillis Wheatley, finally appeared in print in the United States. An international sensation when her 1773 collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral was first published in Britain, Wheatley had been kidnapped earlier in life from Senegal, and enslaved in Boston, where her fame as a literary prodigy flared briefly and then faded rapidly: she died in penury.

If Wheatley’s importance as a perspicacious foremother of Black American poetry took another 200 years to begin to be acknowledged, the full and foundational role of Black poetry as it undergirds all American poetry is also still in the process of being recognized—as is, it must also be said, the cultural importance of poetry itself. The unforgettable performance by Amanda Gorman ’20 at the Presidential Inauguration was a break-out moment not only for Black poetry or American poetry but for all poets and poetry, and perhaps the best illustration in our time of the test Whitman set for poets: “the proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”


Kevin Young
Photograph by Leah L. Jones/National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian Institution

The fascinating fact that Wheatley and Whitman first saw print in the same year in this country is one among many I learned from Kevin Young’s introduction to his Library of America anthology, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song. His implicit juxtaposition of the two as co-founders of American poetry got me thinking about how poets demonstrate and secure value within their cultures; and, too, how cultures circulate, and secure for posterity, their poets’ wisdom.  

I waited weeks for a copy of Young’s anthology, the initial print run having—tellingly—sold out. When I finally received the compendious volume, I could see why, and for months I’ve been dipping in frequently for refreshment, edification, and surprise. Although anthologies sometimes get a bad rap among academics, as creator and host of PBS’s anthology-style Poetry in America television series (from the archives of which come the videos embedded in this article online), I cherish the anthology format for the diversity of materials it gathers, and for how it nurtures a sophisticated kind of understanding that passes through pleasure into respect. The most popular anthologies are substantial harvests, promising inexhaustibility. In anthologies, as Young ’92 writes, we find the poems that we “pass around, carry in our memory, and literally inscribe in stone.” 

 

Poetry’s cumulative, as well as collective, uses, and, indeed, the importance of the cumulative to the collective, are both vital to Young, and so he naturally invokes his predecessor, James Weldon Johnson, who, in 1922 compiled The Book of American Negro Poetry, the first important anthology of Black poetry. In the preface, Johnson asserted that “the final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced.” Of course, Johnson’s community then was deprived of nearly all tools for civic participation, and the work of forging and preserving peoplehood had to be carried forward by cultural forms—especially those, like the spiritual, emerging straight from the experience of slavery. Johnson’s own predecessors saw the importance of these forms. Writing in 1845 about those still enslaved, Frederick Douglass identified these songs as more powerfully expressive than “whole volumes of philosophy,” and in 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois, A.B. 1890, Ph.D. ’95, went further, identifying the spiritual as “the sole American music...the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas.” He staked not only Black futures, but the entirety of America’s future, on the resources of that song, a “gift” that people give their nation, a touchstone of moral and aesthetic value. 

Opera singer Davóne Tines ’09 performs the spiritual, “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel”

Courtesy of Poetry in America/poetryinamerica.org

 

Young’s book naturally opens, then, with a section called “Bury Me in A Free Land,” featuring Phillis Wheatley’s poems composed for public occasions. Wheatley’s mastery of Homer, Virgil, British neoclassical verse, and the doctrines of Congregational Christianity led to invitations to address students at Harvard and to read and publish her poems in Britain. In “To the University of Cambridge, in New-England,” Wheatley had adjured students to “Improve your privileges while they stay,” but she risked the greatest of these—to remain in Britain as a free person—to return to America, lending her voice—including her incisive, if necessarily veiled, critique—to the emerging language of independence. In “To the Right Honorable William, Earl of Dartmouth,” Wheatley minced no words in explaining her political ardor to British America’s colonial Secretary of State: “Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song, / Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,” the answer is obvious: who knows better than one by “cruel fate...snatch’d” from home and family how to value “Freedom” and deplore “Tyranny”? Going perhaps even further in her poem of 1775 addressed to General George Washington, Wheatley subtly exposed glib revolutionary rhetoric to irony, even sarcasm. Surely it is not only the English King who will “Lament thy thirst of boundless power too late.” 

Du Bois would later name this critical perspective—afforded to Wheatley by her position outside—“double consciousness,” and this double consciousness is a through line in the Black American poetic tradition. As Du Bois argued, the very experience of exclusion and invisibility that weighs on psyches and on communities may also sharpen the tools of “second sight,” tools of irony, double entendre, and humorous release. From Wheatley to today’s Evie Shockley—who pulls back the veil on lynching by embedding the first line of the protest song “Strange Fruit,” acrostic style, in her poem “you can say that again, billie”—and on through the dozens of well-aimed poetic takedowns of racism, racists, and what they say, Young’s anthology abounds in poems whose devastating gravity is carved only more deeply by coruscating wit. 


Evie Shockley reads her poem, “you can say that again, billie”
Courtesy of Poetry in America/poetryinamerica.org

Critique informed by second sight is one theme running through this anthology, but Young is just as concerned with communicating the joy of the Black tradition, and in exposing readers to the many flexible forms—especially blues—that develop pain into pleasure, sadness into mirth, “struggle” into “song.”The anthology’s second section, “Lift Every Voice,” explores the relationship of Black poetry to oral arts and to vocal performance. Young gives first honors, as Weldon Johnson did, to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s dialect poetry, whose impeccable musicality—and warmth—paved the way for other performed poetries to follow. Dunbar’s virtuoso rhyme and textured storytelling imbue straitened lives not just with dignity, but with gusto and personality, in poems devoted to the pleasure of babies, the boon of a day off, or, as in “A Negro Love Song,” the fun of courting and flirting:  


Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. recites Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “A Negro Love Song”
Courtesy of Poetry in America/poetryinamerica.org

Put my ahm aroun’ huh wais’,
  Jump back, honey, jump back.
Raised huh lips an’ took a tase,
  Jump back, honey, jump back.
Love me, honey, love me true? 
Love me well ez I love you?
An’ she answe’d, “’Cos I do”—
  Jump back, honey, jump back. 

In the twentieth century, the African American dominance of popular recorded music, from ragtime to blues and jazz, vastly expanded the repertoire of Black poets who wrote for the page, but, in fact, also opened up the possibilities for poets of all genres. Langston Hughes famously transposed blues idiom, bebop rhythms, big band fanfare, and the feel of improvisation onto the page, and his influence paved the way for Black Arts poets like Sonia Sanchez to recharge the tame genre of the poetry “reading” with new immediacy and risk, by treating the page as a springboard for virtuoso vocal performance. Thus, the second half of this anthology includes literally dozens of poems that offer homage to or that emulate the sounds of Black music, but that also establish beyond a doubt the role played by Black poets and Black musicians in transforming American and world culture. Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “February in Sydney,” beginning— 


Poet Sonia Sanchez scat-sings Langston Hughes’s “Harlem”
Courtesy of Poetry in America/poetryinamerica.org

Dexter Gordon’s tenor sax
plays “April in Paris”
inside my head all the way back 
on the bus from Double Bay... 

 —reminds us that jazz transformed and de-provincialized American culture, bringing it to Paris in the ’20s, and around the world in the ’50s. Without jazz and blues, there is no Allen Ginsberg chanting in a coffee house; without Howlin’ Wolf, no Mick Jagger or Eric Clapton. 

The Black poet’s concern with history and accountability is another of the anthology’s themes, one that is particularly important in the sections “Ballads of Remembrance” and “Ideas of Ancestry.” African American poets have consistently served as chroniclers, telling the history of struggle from the Middle Passage through the Great Migration, from the slave coffles to segregation. Poets like Melvin B. Tolson establish the original and formative role of Black Americans in American history from its beginnings—

Black Crispus Attucks taught
                                                    Us how to die
Before white Patrick Henry’s bugle breath
Uttered the vertical   
                                              Transmitting cry
(“Dark Symphony”)

 —while poems relaying “incidents” constitute something like a subgenre in the anthology and in the overall tradition. African American poetry today perforce continues what Young calls the “roll call of ongoing victims of racist violence”: 

We peered from the windows, shades drawn, 
at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree, 
the charred grass still green. Then 
we darkened our rooms... 

(Natasha Trethewey, “Incident”) 

 

But, too, the anthology makes room for other kinds of history, including inventive (often humorous) episodes in Black intellectual and intra-communal history—like Dudley Randall’s sportive, satirical dialogue between “Booker T. and W.E.B.”:

“It seems to me,” said Booker T., 
“It shows a mighty lot of cheek 
To study chemistry and Greek 
When Mister Charlie needs a hand 
To hoe the cotton on his land…”

 “I don’t agree,” said W.E.B.,
“If I should have the drive to seek 
Knowledge of chemistry or Greek, 
I’ll do it. Charles and Miss can look
Another place for hand or cook...”

 

One could easily rely on this anthology as a starting point for exploring, decade by decade, the hopeful watersheds and woeful seasons and setbacks: June 19th, Plessy v. Ferguson, the March on Washington, Hurricane Katrina, and more.  

But history is also, and always, personal, and Black poetry has many ways of underscoring the importance of ancestry. Certain poetic personae emerge as archetypes, representing the perils of the future or the frustration of justice so long deferred. One of the most affecting of these is the young Black boy or girl, navigating their way in a world of peril. Another recurring voice is that of the elder, the figure of experience and gravitas who holds up a lamp in the darkness. Gwendolyn Brooks played this role. Her poems often have the sound of reflections offered by a woman regarding her neighborhood from a second-floor window, recording with sympathy and compassion—and worry—all that occurs below, from the pinched lives of the elderly couples of “The Bean Eaters,” to the tragic ventriloquism of “We Real Cool,” and “The Boy Died in My Alley” with its heartbreaking dedication: “to Running Boy.” 


Poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, playwright Anna Deavere Smith, RI ’92, Doctor of Arts ’21, and poet Li-Young Lee read Gwendolyn Brooks’s “To Prisoners”
Courtesy of Poetry in America/poetryinamerica.org

 

In its last three sections, Young’s anthology showcases the work of poets writing from the 1970s through today. These poets have written with great range and boldness, renewing classic forms and creating new ones. Readers will find inventive approaches to traditional forms, such as the ballad and ghazal, and the innovations of original sensibilities—from those who use the page as a sort of vertical slope, the line breaks like switchbacks that feeling navigates, such as June Jordan; to those who build poems out of what look like square blocks of prose, such as Claudia Rankine; from redactions of historical documents and archival siftings, as in the work of Tracy K. Smith; to the contrapuntal uses of different registers of speech by Alison C. Rollins; and “persona poems” by Rita Dove, Litt.D. ’18, Frank X Walker, and Kamau Brathwaite that lend presence to figures not given voice before. 

But in addition to creating new modes of poetic expression, Black poets have been at the forefront in evolving modes of poetic dissemination. In a way probably not equaled in other American traditions, the formal and even technical innovations of African American poetry have become part of the everyday vocabulary of millions. The repertoire of hip hop—slant rhymes linking ideas within a flow, cadence playing off a measured beat, sampling from disparate sources, and intricate internal rhyme—is only one obvious contemporary example. Maybe even more significant: the new cultural prominence of poetry across a range of communities, especially among youth. That one doesn’t have to “be” a poet these days to want to write and recite poetry is taken for granted in a way that was never the case before.

Black poets of our moment, drawing strength and momentum from their predecessors, are not just transforming American poetry from within but are effecting a major change in the role of the poet in society. It is notable that Young, who was the featured speaker at the 2021 Harvard Alumni Association annual meeting (see harvard.mag.com/comm-kevin-young-21 for an account of his remarks), is author of 15 books, but also that, over the last 20 years, he has provided leadership to several of America’s most important institutions of humanistic outreach, from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and The New Yorker’s poetry desk to the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Public Humanities Initiative, “Lift Every Voice: Why African American Poetry Matters,” of which this anthology is the centerpiece. With African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song, Young, one of the most effective cultural ambassadors and teachers of our time, now reinvigorates the long tradition of the popular anthology and sets a new standard for art’s importance in the civic realm.   

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