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New anthology shares Black poetry’s history of ‘struggle and song’
In 250 years of Black poetry, the act of writing is itself a form of protest.
It isn’t just representing the history of struggle, “it’s also enacting it and resisting it,” said poet Kevin Young.
By the time Young had completed a new anthology of Black poetry this year, Black Americans had been facing a pandemic that deepened the inequalities stacked against them. Police violence wouldn’t cease, and protests against racial injustice were stretching into the summer. It was — it is — an extraordinary moment, but not a new pain. Such feelings have been captured in generations of poems as writers responded to threats to their personhood.
In his introduction, Young writes that Black poets “wrote from a world they made and a world that, at times, seemed designed to distract at best, to dis or destroy at worst.”
Yet the new 1,000-page anthology, “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song,” front loads the pairing of resistance but also joy that’s found right in the title.
The starting point for the anthology is a 1773 piece from Phillis Wheatley, whose earliest work is older than the United States itself, Young noted. When the colonies wouldn’t publish her poems, she turned to a publisher in England to get her work printed instead.
From there, the anthology is filled with names well-known in the rich, expansive tradition of Black verse — Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks and Paul Laurence Dunbar among them — but also poets who may have been overlooked.
Kevin Young, who edited a new anthology of Black poetry, reads Angelina Weld Grimké’s poem “The Black Finger.” Video by PBS NewsHour
No book of poetry from Angelina Weld Grimké was published during her lifetime, though her poems did appear in newspapers and other publications in the 1920s. Since then, she has often been grouped with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance of the same era, however, the new anthology points to her works that predate that artistic movement — a mention of her 1916 anti-lynching play “Rachel,” love poems written to a woman in the 1890s. In “Rosabel,” Weld Grimké, a Black lesbian, can’t fully profess her love: “Winds, that breathe about, upon her, / (Since I do not dare) / Whisper, twitter, breathe unto her / That I find her fair.” Young notes that there’s still work to be done to recover poetry from women who were excluded or overlooked during the era, like Weld Grimké and her love poems, which wouldn’t have been embraced by the publishing world of the day.
The anthology also makes room for Afro Latina voices, like Julia de Burgos, a Puerto Rico-born journalist and a pioneering force in the 1960s Nuyorican poetry movement in New York, who often wrote her poems in Spanish. In “Ay, Ay, Ay de la Grifa Negra,” which is presented in English in the anthology, she asserts her Black heritage: “Black of pure tint, I cry and laugh / the vibration of being a black statue.”
Young, who was named the new director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in September, spoke with the NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown about crafting an anthology of poems that converse with one another, and the new renaissance of Black poetry that is unfolding today.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you take this anthology on? What was the hope for you?
The Library of America does such beautiful books, such authoritative books of American authors, and it seemed high time to have an African American volume. And they approached me about it. I’ve been carrying around, like many poets, an anthology in my head, and especially of great African American writers. Some of them are well-known, like Langston Hughes or Gwendolyn Brooks, and some are lesser known. And I really want to see them talking to each other in one volume and having that long conversation. That’s how I think of the tradition in some ways, starting with Phillis Wheatley coming to the present and everything in between, talking to each other about the urgent matters of the day.
Kevin Young reads two poems by Lucille Clifton, choosing them because the poet “writes about history in such a powerful way.” Video by PBS NewsHour
As you were putting it together and looking at poets from all different periods, how much wonder was there, how much surprise was there? How much did it even bring you back to what made you want to first read and then write poetry?
I read so widely when I was younger. I think that’s one of the points of being a young poet is you should read almost everything. And I had great teachers and great chances to read. But I also had to teach myself, especially the Black tradition. And so I wanted something for almost that kid, you know, that person becoming a poet. What would they look at? I want to save them some time, in that I dug into archives. I made some discoveries for me. But that’s what poetry does: It waits for you. I think that there’s something special about it being always available. And it might be tucked away a little bit, but there it is. And I hope there is that kind of discovery that mirrors what I went through both as a younger writer and in doing the anthology.
You used a line from June Jordan in your essay: “This is the difficult miracle of Black poetry in America: that we persist, published or not, and loved or unloved: we persist.” There’s clearly a theme, not only in your introduction, but in reading through a lot of the poems — the requirements of working extra, of persisting to do what you want to do.
I think there is a level of protest almost when a poet sits down, and especially a Black poet, coming from a place where poetry, writing, reading, even literacy was forbidden. Then poetry becomes the ultimate kind of challenge to that, both because it is written down and it is challenging that. But also, you carry it in your body. It’s something no one can take away from you, once you remember and memorize a poem. And the poets, I think, engage it in their own way. Every poet is different, of course. But what I love is this mix of what I call “struggle and song” in the introduction, and then in the subtitle of the book, and knowing that it was 250 years, which I kind of realized as soon as I sat down and started to do it. That’s a quarter millennium. That’s a lot of work. That’s a lot of tradition. And there’s nearly 250 poets who are in their own way wrestling with these kinds of questions of struggle and song. And most of them come down on both, and they united in ways that I think are really particular to African American poetry and really influential in all of American poetry.
Tell me about somebody who had been, perhaps, neglected and that you’re happy to sort of give a new voice to.
There’s so many, but I think Angelina Weld Grimké, who’s really a tremendous poet. She comes from this abolitionist family and a really interesting background herself. But then she also is writing across a large span. She’s usually thought of as a Harlem Renaissance poet, if she’s considered, and I’m glad she’s been recovered in some ways. But some of her most exciting work was written in the 1890s, where she wrote love poems to a woman. She was always writing, but never published a book except for a play. And so we missed that book of poetry, which I think we still kind of gravitate toward as the sign of a poet arriving. But I think she’s arrived in this [anthology] terrific.
There are voices like that were neglected. There are whole periods, right? You were talking about the earliest couple of sections of the book here. We will know some names, but not too many.
I think that was one of the acts of recovery. The Library of America is so great at connecting that kind of field work. Let’s call it the “archive to the public.” And for me, that’s what I do, day in and day out, directing the Schomburg Center [for Research in Black Culture]. One of the great things about being in charge of the Schomburg Center, part of the New York Public Library, is being able to say, “Hey, let’s grab this book.” And it comes mysteriously from my wonderful librarians in just a few minutes. And so having that breadth of poetry was really important.
Poet Kevin Young reads part of his poem “Money Road,” which was partly inspired by the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi. Video by PBS NewsHour
But there’s a group of poets, for instance, in the 19th century called “Les Cenelles.” And these were Black Creole poets who published the first anthology of African American poetry in 1845. Very little known, usually not included. But Langston Hughes translated them. They were impactful to the tradition. And so it’s important, I think, to include them and recover them. The nineteen-teens were a very thin time for publishing of all kinds. But there was this rich Black print culture going on, of people publishing church publications or starting their own press. People like Fenton Johnson, James Weldon Johnson, Alice Dunbar-Nelson. And, you know, I think we think of that as a long time ago. But the 1980s, for instance, is a very thin time in terms of the publication. You know, there’s poets writing, poets doing a lot of things. But you’d be surprised how few poets published, certainly with major houses. People were still doing their own thing and making it work. But it’s a time after the richness of the Black arts movement that we don’t see as many poets getting published in the same way or getting new books. We’re in a renaissance now. And so, it can be hard to remember that there was a time when it was a little harder. And so I think it’s important to see these waves and to see the richness that we’re in right now.
I was also thinking about what emerges, both in your essay and then in reading through, the role of collectives, the role of groups, the role of movements of people working together. They had to [work together], maybe, because poets and writers often get to know each other and work together in the absence of a publishing industry. And you yourself have experienced that, right?
I was in a thing called the Dark Room Collective, which grew out of the late ’80s in Boston. By the time I joined, it was a little like I didn’t realize I was in. And then suddenly I published. They said, “Why didn’t you mention the Dark Room?” I said, “Oh, I didn’t know I was a member.” And in a weird way, it’s because collectives are kind of formed of just people hanging out, you know, and getting to know each other and sharing a vision that kind of develops together. But the Dark Room had a formal process of becoming in the late ’80s. It was going to James Baldwin’s funeral at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, which is just up the street here in Harlem, and going there and realizing they didn’t want a Black elder to die without having met them. And so it created this collective in order to do that. But I think collectives are really important because they can really shape and change. And that’s often how we think of them, whether it’s the impressionists or something like that. These are groups of people who know each other and then start to form identities and start to write through that. The late ’80s, I think, were, again, a kind of dry time in terms of publishing, and the Dark Room really lit a spark in some ways that changed. Some people have said it has helped with the current renaissance and I leave that to others. But certainly there’s a number of poets — Natasha Trethewey, Tracy K. Smith, who were in the collective with me — who’ve gone on to win Pulitzers and become poets laureate.
Talk about where we are now. I mean, the prizes certainly are there — and that is one sign — and the sheer number of books by Black poets. What do you see happening?
I think there’s two things. One is a kind of delayed recognition, frankly, that these poets have been writing many times for a long time. But also, it’s the work of generations of people, I think, fighting to have their aesthetics established and understood and recognized. But I also think there is something about Black poetry having engaged the personal and the political, and not seeing them as so far apart for generations. I think across the anthology you see the ways that Black poets are writing about struggle, as well as struggling to write and making their writing known. And I think we’re in a time when it becomes clear that poetry has to do that. It has to think about what’s going on around us. And Black poetry has been influential as providing a model for how to do that in many different ways, but I think in ways that consider the present moment. I see that in my job as the poetry editor of The New Yorker, where I see people trying to wrestle with what’s it mean to be in quarantine or what’s it mean to experience loss on such a great scale that we are right now, and then also addressing those twin pandemics of racism and COVID-19. I think that’s a really important thing that Black poets have led the way in.
You have to make very clear, tough decisions about your criteria and the way you divide up the book. I see how you did it into these eight periods. How hard was that? What were the toughest things you had to wrestle with?
I mean, one of the toughest things is realizing that I wasn’t the youngest generation anymore. (laughs) That was a tough moment of realizing that there was this great, younger generation, which was wonderful, really. I want to have experimental poets, as well as formal poets. I really wanted to have women, poets who were nonbinary. I mean, I really want to represent the diversity of African American life and poetry. But it wasn’t that it was hard. That’s part of the process. And what excitement to discover a new poet, but new to you. These poets have been writing for a long time, and I hope that’s what happens for readers. And someone like Langston Hughes could fill an entire book this long and does, someone like Gwendolyn Brooks, too. And those were the hardest choices, was to really come down to the gems of those people, but also to realize that every space saved was another space for a younger writer who was doing something really interesting and different right now.
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