THE VINTAGE BOOK OF AFRICAN AMERICAN POETRY
Edited by Michael Harper and Anthony Walton
Vintage, 403 pages, $14 paper
Edited by Kevin Young
Perennial, 364 pages, $15
The Chicago Tribune
20 February 2000
Collecting and editing an anthology of African-American literature is fraught with difficulties and tensions. Because "blackness" is associated with racial stereotype and stigma, to talk about or be involved in the Negro literary tradition has often been viewed as illegitimate. Lamentably, at certain points in the last two centuries, terms and ideas like "black artist" or "black intellectual" have been considered oxymorons, or rarities at best.
During the last century, critics, scholars, writers and readers tried to set the parameters for the American literary tradition in such a way as to be aesthetically and philosophically exclusive. The exclusive quality stems from the demanding standards set by American critics and from the tendency of those critics to give little regard or respect to the literature of African-American writers.
Many literary critics accuse black writers of having political agendas just because they write about race and life experience, whereas white writers have been treated as capable of developing aesthetics free of political motives. Supposedly, because black art has always been tied to representing and affirming the human qualities of African-Americans, those works have not been considered artistic. This suggests that white writers -- Melville and Dickinson, Faulkner and O'Connor, Lowell and Plath, Ashbury and Graham -- can create a personal aesthetic, analyze existential perspective and document human experience without politics, without somehow expressing something about being white Americans. It seems obvious that there is a faulty cog in a critique that suggests, for example, that in the fiction of Twain or Faulkner there is no interest in or analysis of racial identity, or that Lowell's noted imitations of European masters do not make political statements about the construction of literary traditions.
While anthologies have always been arranged to promote the aesthetic sensibilities of black writers, only in 1997 was the standardization of the African-American literary tradition approved when The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature was published. That enormous volume has helped prompt the full acceptance of black literature in American culture. Now there are two new anthologies worth our attention: The Vintage Book of African American Poetry and Giant Steps: The New Generation of African-American Writers.
The Vintage book is important because its editors, Michael Harper and Anthony Walton (both are also accomplished and important writers), have compiled works by the keystone black poets and presented them chronologically, which helps us understand the development of that lineage. Because anthologies are often built by studying other anthologies, the contents of the Vintage volume are not strikingly different from the poets represented in the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature. But rather than rely on the sentimental and roughly shod verse of Phillis Wheatley as the only representation of late 18th/early 19th Century black poetry, Harper and Walton also include rare pieces by Jupitor Hammon, George Boyer Vashon, and Benjamin Banneker. As the editors explain in the introduction, Wheatly, Hammon, Boyer and George Moses Horton are relevant now for becoming published poets while still in bondage. Their remarkable perseverance against the dehumanizing conditions of slavery seems to be tied to their abilities to understand the English poetic tradition and express their humanity through individual poetic imaginations. These poets help establish the artistic range of African-American poets and their long tradition of wedding aesthetic practice to humanist political gesture -- which is why this Harper-Walton anthology is important.
The trouble with this volume, as is the case with most anthologies, is that several important artists do not appear in it. While I cannot argue with the voices presented from the late 19th Century to the mid-20th Century (Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Anne Spencer, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Jean Toomer, Robert Hayden and Gwendolyn Brooks), I question the completeness and focus of a collection that does not include some relative newcomers and historically significant voices to the tradition. Key artists -- such as Black Arts poets Jayne Cortez and June Jordan, inventive formalists such as Quincy Troupe and Wanda Coleman, the critically acclaimed Clarence Major and Ai (Major's Configurations was nominated for, and Ai's Vice won, the 1999 National Book Award in poetry) -- are missing from this volume.
For a better overview of the tradition in the second half of the 20th Century, one might turn to two excellent recent anthologies, Clarence Major's The Garden Thrives and Harper and Walton's Every Shut Eye Ain't Asleep. In Every Shut Eye, Harper and Walton present examples of the formal masters -- Robert Hayden, Jay Wright, Rita Dove; the political firebrands -- Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez; and the verbal magicians -- Yusef Komunyakka and Thylias Moss. Major poets such as Ai, Troupe, Jordan and Major are in that collection, and their poems force reductive categorizations to fall away; a fuller version of the lineage is presented. That anthology shows the abilities of black poets to swing or sing through any formal structure or metrical beat.
The anthology edited by Major points the tradition toward its future in, for example, the poems of Paul Beatty, Claudia Rankine and Kevin Young. Both Harper-Walton books would have benefited from that kind of gesture, the introduction of new, young, underpublished voices. In the Vintage book, the only younger voices we hear from belong to established poets, such as Elizabeth Alexander, Reginald Shepherd and Carl Phillips. Fine poets, excellent wordsmiths, but not necessarily the only voices emerging in African-American literature.
In an attempt to correct the imbalance in African-American literature that is caused by younger, less-established voices being left out of anthologies, Kevin Young has edited Giant Steps. This collection, due out in early March, is filled with fiction, poetry and non-fiction prose of authors born from 1960 to 1972. The range of ideas, aesthetic styles and political perspectives is startling. Although it lacks the satirical poetry and fiction of Paul Beatty and the fine, lucid poems of G.E. Patterson, the volume still boasts a chorus of new and underexposed writers, such as Allison Joseph, John Keene, Natasha Tretheway and Daniel Jerome Wideman.
While there are strong showings by established and exceptional prose stylists like Carolyn Ferrell, Hilton Als, Edwidge Danticat, Anthony Walton and Randall Kenan, I was struck by the high quality of the fiction and essays presented by such up-and-comers as Rebecca Walker, Danzy Senna, Colson Whitehead, Philippe Wamba and the late Joe Wood (Wood, a Village Voice columnist and essayist, disappeared while bird-watching on Mt. Ranier in summer 1999). The heart of the book is best revealed in the pieces by Senna, Wideman and Wood. All three deal with race delicately and precisely -- not as a way to escape confrontation, but as a way to master confrontation, moving past stereotypes of blackness in order to ask more important philosophical questions about history, identity, cultural appropriation, cultural traditions and Americanness.
The poets also grapple with these ideas through a striking range of formal eloquence and lyrical inventiveness. Whether it is a humorous homage to the Afro, as in Terrance Hayes' "Shafro," or a diaspora-spanning riff like Claudia Rankine's "Him," whether it's the verbal geometry of Kevin Young's "Langston Hughes," or a sensuous moan like Allison Joseph's "Learning the Blues," the most polished writers in the volume are surely the poets. Young's orchestration of the collection here is both erudite and funky. The introduction firmly plants Giant Steps in the tradition of The New Negro anthology of the 1920s. Like that anthology's editor, Alain Locke, Young is most interested in showing the writing within the dual contexts of an American and African-American literary tradition. This arrangement will force readers of this book to imagine an American landscape where racial delineation will become too difficult to bother with.
Giant Steps is also the title of John Coltrane's landmark recording from 1960. In his introduction, Young explains that "the voices of Giant Steps are as varied as a jazz symphony and provide an art and future worthy of Coltrane's prophetic title." Young has produced a volume with the range of the best works of a Duke Ellington or a Fletcher Henderson -- the voices, prose pieces and poems riff, restate and improvise off the sonic progressions of each other. To help set the cultural scene from which these works spring and to encourage the connection between the two artistic modes, jazz and literature, Young includes as appendixes to his book a set of discographies of jazz, funk, soul and hip-hop recordings, and a bibliography of influential literary anthologies. Giant Steps will become a landmark because it makes a forward leap toward securing the significance of new black writers within the American literary tradition.