The Vintage Book of African-American Poetry
Edited by Michael S. Harper and Anthony Walton
Vintage, $14 (paper)
In his 1964 essay on the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Ralph Ellison asked: "What's inside you, brother; what's your heart like? What are your real values? What human qualities are hidden beneath your idiom?" Michael Harper and Anthony Walton, editors of the new Vintage Book of African-American Poetry, suggest a sweeping answer to these questions: "the centuries-long struggle for identity of African Americans in this country is not just a part of who we are, it is who we are." And they propose to interpret the distinctive idioms of African-American literature in terms of that long struggle.
Harper and Walton have produced an extraordinary collection, the best anthology of African-American poetry I have encountered. They are fine editors, and have gathered poetry of the highest caliber. They approach their matter genealogically. Through their introduction and biographical prefaces to each individual poet, they provide a sense of lineage within black poetic history. And, beginning with poets from the eighteenth century and continuing through selected contemporary writers, they provide a comprehensive and critical look at that lineage. Thee anthology does not follow fashion, current or otherwise, and though a number of notable poets and poems are omitted, the selections do not seem arbitrary.
Despite their abilities, richness, and diversity, the writers featured in this anthology have typically been excluded from the larger literary canon. The exploration of the history of black poetry in the introduction underscores the connections between the evolution of this poetry and the conventional canon. American culture, the editors argue, has been developed in the "flux of appropriation and contrast from and with the margins of society." Thus, in deciding which poets to include, Harper and Walton choose poets who have internalized the white canon, the work of their black predecessors, and cultural influences on both sides of the racial divide. From the eighteenth century through the Harlem Renaissance and into the present, black poets have appropriated formal versification while at the same time using dialect and calling upon the folk traditions of spirituals and the blues. Trapped by audience expectations based on the spectrum of these traditions, they have found their voices despite a crucible of conflicting cultural demands. This anthology reflects these voices, and marries a sense of lineage and inherited tradition to a reverence for poetic technique.
The anthology starts with selections from eighteenth- and nineteenth-century poets: Phillis Wheatley, Jupiter Hammon, George Moses Horton, George Boyer Vashon, James M. Whitfield, and Frances E. W. Harper. Wheatley's work was influenced by British poetry, but her debt to Pope does not entirely disguise her emergent voice. Jupiter Hammon's poems reveal not only his incredible ear but also his religious affiliations and his allegiance to traditional hymns and rhetorical patterns. While acknowledging that the socio-historical importance of this earlier poetry sometimes exceeds its intrinsic value, the editors also emphasize the remarkable achievements of writers like Harper, Whitfield, and Vashon, who wrote when African Americans faced slavery and extreme physical, social, and educational deprivation. My students love Harper's poetry; they continually overlook its sentimentality and focus on its powerful emotional appeal. And they appreciate the abolitionist perspective expressed in the ironic opening lines of Whitfield's poem "America":
America, it is to thee,
Thou boasted land of liberty,—
It is to thee I raise my song,
Thou land of blood, and crime, and wrong.
These poets were succeeded in postbellum America by Paul Laurence Dunbar, James Weldon Johnson, Anne Spencer, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and William Stanley Braithwaite. This later work, according to Harper and Walton, reflects a literary shift, a turn to more personal, autobiographic poetry. As the editors suggest, "The autobiographical element, the quest for self-discovery and voice characteristic of the American Renaissance launched by Emerson and exemplified in Frederick Douglass's Narrative, did not enter African American poetry until after the Civil War." The "more intricate and personal literary journeys" of these poets reflected a "changed national aesthetic," as well as the post-Reconstruction social situation, when blacks' hopes collapsed in the face of Jim Crow laws. To address personal and public identity, they cite Dunbar's poem, "Sympathy," in which he identifies himself as a "caged bird":
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart's deep core….
This poem references not only slavery, but also Dunbar's particular situation as a writer trying to appeal to both whites and blacks, never feeling entirely certain he had given voice to the real imperatives that lay behind his own poetry.
A later group of poets inherited an established literary tradition. The Harlem Renaissance writers and their contemporaries in the 1920s and '30s—Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Bennett, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Sterling Brown—were modernists in their experimentation with form, focus on issues of identity and irony, and use or creation of myth. Meanwhile, contemporary African American poetry—Harper and Walton mention Jay Wright, C. S. Giscombe, Rita Dove, and Harper himself—relies on historical references and circumstances as the subjects of poems. The Black Arts movement, the social and political assertion of black pride and a black aesthetic during the 1960s, is represented by the work of Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, and Haki Madhubuti. Baraka's "Black Art" concludes:
We want a black poem. And a
Let the world be a Black Poem
And Let All Black People Speak This Poem
Harper and Walton take special notice of Robert Hayden, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sterling Brown, whom they revere as this tradition's greatest masters. They compare Brooks's visionary apprehension of black life in Chicago's South Side to the work of Chaucer, Dante, and Joyce, and make a valuable comparison of Brown's use of folk myth with that of Yeats. Brown's achievements—his use of a "wholly invented language" and the force of his narratives about the mythic Slim Greer—recommend that readers of poetry in this country come to terms with him as a figure alongside Williams, Stevens, and Eliot.
Through cogent and illuminating short biographies for each poet—comparing, say, Jupiter Hammon with his contemporary William Cowper or demonstrating Dunbar's admiration of Keats—the editors introduce readers to this poetic world. The biographies characterize identifying elements, pointing out how Anne Spencer's poems, for example, are "internal and meditative," how they "encompass personal and existential, rather than social concerns; race is rarely her explicit subject." One can see the influence of Dickinson in the four-line "Neighbors":
Ah, you are cruel;
You ask too much;
Offered a hand, a finger-tip,
You must have a soul to clutch.
The biographies also provide background and tie these writers to one another in a way that conveys a sense of an evolving tradition. And to underscore the central moments in that tradition, theVintage Book includes extensive numbers of poems in certain cases: fifteen by Sterling Brown, fifteen by Langston Hughes, eleven by Gwendolyn Brooks, and nine by Robert Hayden. The choices for Brown include three Slim Greer poems. Slim, a classic Trickster figure, passes for white. "Slim Greer" presses on the crux of white fears—as Slim is courting a white woman, his art on the piano reveals his true identity:
Heard Slim's music—
An' then, hot damn!
An' Slim said, Ma'am?
The anthology also includes a number of classic poems that yield fresh meanings with each new reading: Countee Cullen's "Yet Do I Marvel"; Langston Hughes's "Harlem Sweeties" and "Theme for English B"; Robert Hayden's "Ice Storm," "Those Winter Sundays," and "A Plague of Starlings"; Margaret Walker's "Molly Means" and "October Journey"; Gwendolyn Brooks's "The Bean Eaters," "Sadie and Maud," and "Of De Witt Williams on His Way to Lincoln Cemetery"; Etheridge Knight's "Idea of Ancestry" and "Dark Prophecy: I Sing of Shine"; Michael Harper's "Last Affair: Bessie's Blues Song"; Yusef Komunyakaa's "February in Sydney"; Rita Dove's "Parsley"; and Elizabeth Alexander's "The Venus Hottentot." Hayden's "A Plague of Starlings" handles its materials with subtlety. After we learn the workmen on the Fisk campus are shooting the "noisy and befouling" starlings in the magnolias, we read the multiple implications of the fourth stanza as comment on a continuing wound, which is race:
Mornings, I pick
my way past death's
on campus lawns
Still, there are several poems not in this anthology that I miss: Toi Derricotte's "Blackbottom," because of its revelations about class issues, and Knight's "Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminal Insane." Among poems by poets not represented in this collection, I miss Jayne Cortez's "Rape," with its deliberately shocking language, and Afaa Weaver's "My Father's Geography," because of its contrasts between European and American treatments of blacks and its expression of a father's longing for Africa:
At a phone looking to Africa over theMediterranean,
I called my father, and, missing me, he said
"You almost home boy. Go on cross that sea!"
I also miss the subtlety and humor of Clarence Major's "Frenzy," which animates the sexual life of the female kiwi bird.
In general, the editors favor a more traditionally literary poetry—one that expresses anger in subtle ways. Less refined writers, like Audre Lorde and Sonia Sanchez, are represented by a limited number of poems. But even those who criticize that focus will likely find that the Vintage Book is a major advance over earlier anthologies. Dudley Randall's Black Poets (1971), for example, is now outdated, and Clarence Major's The Garden Thrives (1996) offers many more poets but fewer (and less-known) poems. Still other anthologies are tailored to a more specific purpose, like Kevin Young's Giant Steps (2000), which includes poetry, fiction, and non-fiction and spotlights a younger generation of writers, all born after 1960. And this anthology will introduce readers to the achievements of Raymond Patterson's "Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Blackman" and Sherley Anne Williams's "Letters from a New England Negro." Patterson's imitation and play off of Stevens's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" is a brilliant rendering of internal crisis:
We are told that the seeds
Of rainbows are not unlike
A blackman's tear.
The final, 26th section, reads:
At the center of Being
Said the blackman,
All is tangential.
Even this laughter, even your tears.
More broadly, this volume maintains a distinctive vision of poetry in the African American tradition. It reminds us that we deprive and deceive ourselves by continuing to value and judge one particular aesthetic over another, rather than being open to many different creative possibilities, incorporating these plural voices into the canon, and teaching Brown side by side with Yeats. Divisions based on color gradations should not circumscribe our ability to read and teach literature. The poetry relegated to canonical margins (or overlooked entirely) is not simply African American, it is America's poetry. This anthology records the fulfilled promise of Phillis Wheatley: her successors have joined in the tradition of poetry written in English, "th' angelic train." This openness to possibility is reflected in Reginald Shepherd's "Slaves," whose conclusion closes the book.
… You would say that all along
I chose wrong, antonyms of my own face
lined up like buoys, but there is another shore
on the far side of that wind. Everything is there,
outside my unhealed history, outside my fears. I
can see it now, and every third or fourth wave is clear.