In Unison, Ad Libitum
African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle + Song
Kevin Young, editor of African American Poetry, titled his introduction to this anthology, “The Difficult Miracle.” The title to Young’s introduction is taken from a June Jordan quote: “This is the difficult miracle of Black poetry in America: that we persist, published or not, and loved or unloved: we persist. “
This anthology will inform a new generation of readers and scholars.
The biographical notes, note on the texts and acknowledgment sections are indelible. Young writes, “Black Poetry has always lived beyond books.” To learn that the poem “Bars Fight” was transmitted from generation to generation orally from 1746 when it was first composed by Lucy Terry until it’s publication in 1855–same year as Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” is a powerful illustration of the permanence of Black poetry. There are 246 Black poets published in this volume, from Phyllis Wheatley to Jericho Brown.
There are poets linked to Kansas in this collection including Langston Hughes, Frank Marshall Davis, Gwendolyn Brooks, Gary Jackson and Kevin Young. Frank Marshall Davis, born in Arkansas City, Kan attended Kansas State University and has three poems anthologized. Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks each with sixteen poems. Gary Jackson, born in Topeka and a graduate of Washburn University, has a poem entitled Kansas from “Missing You, Metropolis” (2010).
As I continue to explore my own history, I am empowered to see Afro-Carribean poets included in this volume like Julia de Burgos, Pedro Pietri, Nicholás Guillén and Elizabeth Acevedo. This is a conversation Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and Cubans need to have more openly. For those of us whose parents relocated to the ‘mainland,’ that is the United States of America, we need to ask ourselves, at what point did we begin only identifying as Hispanic or Latino? Why have so many of us not embraced the complexity that is our origin stories? And what effect has that had on America’s own self-identity. I see Young’s inclusion of these poets and the like as an invitation to discuss the diversity and interwovenness of Black and Brown poetry. And though we share common time, Young informs us that for a quarter of millennium, African American poets have been singing American history from an intercultural voice not a monocultural one like the rest us.
I think about the first and last lines of “I, Too” by Langston Hughes: “I, too, sing America” and “I, too, am America.” To know that Hughes’ poem is a direct response to Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” further informs me of the erasure and exclusion Black voices overcome. Whitman, one of America’s most influential poets, did not include their struggle in one of his most popular songs. While he was receiving fanfare for “Leaves of Grass,” Lucy Terry’s song had already been sung for over a century. Her words floating in the air for generations before landing on a page–that is truly miraculous.
Diverse voices continue to write songs about lived experiences in America, today. Each adding to the song book that is American Poetry. Young has provided a bridge for that to occur harmoniously. I wonder what Hughes would have thought about a poem like, “I, Too, Sing América” by Dominican-American poet, Julia Alvarez. She is not anthologized in “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song,” but I know she is part of this choir because every voice is lifted with definitive inclusion by Young, and that, too, is remarkable.