What This Year’s Black History Month Taught Me About Protest and Poetry

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On a recent trip to my local library, I came across the book African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song. Before discovering this recently published anthology, I had not been very excited about this particular visit to the library; I was mainly going to return an overdue book. For the sake of COVID precautions, DC libraries are not currently allowing anyone to enter them. Patrons must return books at the outside slots, and then pick up previously requested books at the door. So I had modest expectations for this trip, where I knew that a book that only mildly interested me was ready for pickup.

After returning the overdue text, I approached the library entrance to pick up my new book. Though I could not enter the library, I did see a display table of works for Black History Month situated inside, right beside the door. One of those books was African American Poetry. I asked the librarian if I could check out that anthology, right then and there–no need for a hold, no need to return at a later time. He said I could. Given all the restrictions this past year, and how logistically difficult things have become, this moment of spontaneity felt like such a breath of fresh, virus-free air! I went home with a book that truly excited me.

I’m still reading African-American Poetry, and it does not disappoint. The book’s editor, Kevin Young, certainly knows his poetry: he’s published several books of poems, and he serves as the poetry editor at The New Yorker. Not only that, but he’s also the new director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, right here in DC. The more I learn about Young and his work, the more I like.

At the beginning of African-American Poetry, Young provides a clear and thorough overview of the time segments covered, which helps to situate the poems in their historical contexts. Starting with 18th-century poet Phillis Wheatley (who, as I’m learning, literally wrote her way to freedom), the book’s collection continues to 2020, and includes contemporary poets such as Danez Smith and Eve Ewing (whose poem “I saw Emmitt Till this week at the grocery store,” also included in this anthology, had just served as a powerful coda to a “Protest and Poetry” class I’ve recently taken).

African-American Poetry is extremely impressive in its breadth and depth, and includes biographical notes on the poets, as well as several indexes for searching poems based on the poems’ first lines and titles. Explaining how African Americans have exercised their creativity even in the face of extreme opposition, Young notes, “for African Americans, the very act of composing poetry proves a form of protest”(xxxix). I suspect this will be an anthology I revisit over and over again.

For now, however, I’ll conclude with words from Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, whose poems are also featured in African American Poetry. As I’m learning, Watkins Harper was a 19th-century journalist, activist, and poet who helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. Given how difficult choirs and collective singing have been this past year, I thought her 1895 poem “Songs for the People” was particularly timely:

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