Friday, January 19, 2018

MLK Week: Black American Poets I Love

In honor of Dr. King's birthday earlier this week, I'm making book lists.  Tune in every day all week for a new list of books related to race in America, mostly  YA and MG fiction, mostly backlist, and mostly looking at the black/white issue. Tuesday I shared YA titles that deal with life as an African American teen in today's United States. Wednesday I put together a list of historical fiction for MG readers. Yesterday I shared some 20th century classics and pop fiction novels. Today we're on to:

African American Poets of Note

You were blown away by Kwame Alexander's The Crossover. You occasionally dabble in some Mary Oliver or Billy Collins, or go old school with Robert Frost and e. e. cummings. You know that one Gwendolyn Brooks poem ("We real cool...") and a few pieces of Langston Hughes, but you realize African American poets probably have more to say than that. Have I got some poets for YOU!

Langston Hughes--yep, he's the obvious one, but did you know "What Happens to a Dream Deferred" is actually part of a whole jazzy poem cycle? I didn't. 

Gwendolyn Brooks has a lot of great poems you might not know too.  I just read one about abortion and one about the woman who falsely accused Emmet Till of coming on to her, and both left me in chills.

Nikki Giovanni 
"...I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they'll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was happy." 
Robert Hayden is the author of a poem I never associated with African American poets, but I've long loved his poem about "love's austere and lonely offices," but for something a little tougher, check out "Middle Passage."

Pamela Sneed is a New York professor and poet known for spoken word poetry. I've only been able to track down a couple of her poems, but they are electric, angry, and smart.

Lucille Clifton wrote about her hips, imagined a one-sided conversation between Lucifer and God, and gave voice to the black man dragged to death behind a car by KKK members in 1998. I especially like her poem "I Am Accused of Tending to the Past," in which she confronts the idea that people should just let all that old stuff go.  

Kwame Dawes is from Ghana via Jamaica and Canada, but has taught in South Carolina since 1992. Coffee Break takes a poignant turn, and "Train Ride" made me look up the Scottsboro boys. (Spoiler: a complete miscarriage of justice.) It's from his collection, Wisteria, which is his poetic rendering of a series of interviews he did in South Carolina of older black women looking back on their lives.

Donovan Livingston had a Harvard graduation speech/spoken word poem go viral in 2016. I didn't know this when I happened to see him doing a poetry reading at my local library. Have I mentioned how much I love my library? I loved his educator's slant as he addresses the school-to-prison pipeline and the true potential of children.

I can't let this list close without mentioning Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde and bell hooks. I read some of their collected works long, long ago. Lorde and hooks are brilliant, but their poetry is more challenging to "get" than the poets I'm focusing on. 

Stay tuned tomorrow for my final post: works by African American authors that I am DYING to read. 

I was introduced to several of these poets by Nikki Giovanni's wonderful collection The 100 Best African American POemts (but I cheated).  It inspired me to dig deeper into some of the writers whose poems really struck me, whether I'd heard of them before or not.

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