African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song

With 670 poems arranged into eight sections and a scholarly yet accessible introduction by editor Kevin Young (Brown: Poems; Book of Hours)--a National Book Award finalist (Blue Laws), the poetry editor of the New Yorker and newly named director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture--African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song is one impressive collection.

The "successive eras can give a sense of the steady march and percussive drum circle of poetry," Young writes. Indeed, to trace just one example of the complexity of Black experience in the U.S., one can begin with James M. Whitfield's 1853 poem "America" in the opening section ("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"). His words reverberate with Carrie Williams Clifford's "America" in 1911 ("What has he done to merit your fierce hate?/ I charge you, speak the truth; for know, his fate/ Irrevocably is bound up with yours/ For good or ill, as long as time endures") and with Joshua Bennett's 2018 poem "America Will Be" (after Langston Hughes)--in which the poet's father "somehow still believes in this grand/ blood-stained experiment still votes still prays that his children might/ make a life unlike any he has ever seen."

Young includes poems to lovers, to children, to nature and home, poems celebrating "good times," poems of grief. "The African American experience," he writes, "is a central part of the nation's chorus." This is a book to be passed from hand to hand, generation to generation. --Jennifer M. Brown, senior editor

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