A Bold Anthology Shows How R-I-G-H-T and W-R-I-T-E Come Together in Black PoetryHistorians in the News
tags: Smithsonian, African American history, poetry, literature, NMAAHC
Black lives matter. This is not a statement for debate. For poet and essayist Kevin Young, who in January will become director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, poets have been at the forefront of bringing this message to the world. Black literary traditions have long documented and fueled the matter of black life, the determination and right to survive unfettered and with joy.
In her formative essay “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry in America or, Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley,” June Jordan tells us that the “miracle of Black poetry in America: is that we persist, published or not, loved or unloved: we persist.”
This too is the difficult miracle of blackness, that, as Young says, “we persist, we resist, we triumph, we celebrate, we stumble, we get back up.” June Jordan’s words serve as an impetus for Young’s new collection, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, whose introduction, is aptly titled “The Difficult Miracle.”
Young emphasizes this unwavering persistence in his capacious anthology from Phillis Wheatley to Jamila Woods, across centuries of luminous verse. The extensive, but nowhere near exhaustive, collection offers spirited intergenerational conversations that reveal the testimony of poetry and allows readers to deepen connections with familiar writers and build an affinity for unfamiliar names and ever important messages of their work.
African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song shows “all those who have the audacity to breathe while Black—has only given Black poetry, intimate with struggle, more urgency to sing of.”
Kevin Young is the author of 13 collections of poetry and essays and nine edited volumes. He is currently the director of the Schomburg Center in New York, but will leave that role for the Smithsonian. In this recent interview, he discusses his new anthology, why black poetry matters, and his vision as the museum’s new director.
Can you speak to the urgency of this collection, and the rich history of black poetry?
Black poetry has been important for 250 years and that is really one of the points of the anthology, and why I hope it is a sweeping anthology, that starts with Phillis Wheatley and goes to the present… I really thought it was important to show that quarter millennium span of the tradition. One of good poetry’s fascinating qualities is that it is both timely and timeless.
I was giving a reading at an Atlanta-based event, and I read some of “On Imagination” by Wheatley and it just seems so relevant. She talks about being unbound—the imagination unbound, and that’s a metaphor, of course, but it’s also not a metaphor. It’s about the binding of slavery and enslavement that she was currently writing under. We are all seeking that unbounded quality, and that African American poetry has really paved the way, focusing on the imagination as a liberatory force but also on words and language and the music of the moment.
That moment is always now. “Now is the time” as Charlie Parker would say. Sometimes there’s that happenstance where something comes out right when it seems relevant. Now, it was never irrelevant. It’s just that in this current moment—I was struck even, editing and finishing writing the introduction. I finished on Juneteenth this year, which was really in the middle of the uprisings, the unrest, the rebellion, if you will, and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder and in the wake of other police killings and extrajudicial killings—I was struck by how poets are often first to talk about that.
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