Monday, May 30, 2011

150+ Years of Antislavery Poems by Black Poets

Well, Memorial Day, especially given its historical roots, seems like as good a day as any to think about aspects of the ongoing history of black poets writing about slavery and liberation. (The following, I'm sure, is only a partial list of works). 

In her 1854 volume Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, a free-born black woman from Baltimore, wrote in her poem “The Slave Mother” about witnessing the painful and horrifying separation of an enslaved mother and her child. Harper’s book also contained the antislavery poems “Bury Me in a Free Land” and "The Slave Auction."

Shortly after Frederick Douglass’s death in 1895, Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote poems paying tribute to the courageous and respected ex-slave. Dunbar’s “Frederick Douglass” appeared in his volume Lyrics of Lowly Life (1896) and his sonnet “Douglass” appeared in Lyrics of Love and Laughter (1903).

In 1921, Langston Hughes’s poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” appeared in The Crisis and in Literary Digest. The speaker of the poem travels great distances through time and space including a moment when likely as a slave he "heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln / went down to New Orleans.”

Over subsequent decades, Hughes would allude to slavery and struggles for liberation in his work. Like Dunbar, he also wrote a tribute poem to Douglass.

In 1942, Robert Hayden won the Hopwood Award, a literary prize for students at the University of Michigan, for a developing project The Black Spear, which included poems about slavery and liberation.

By the late 1940s, Hayden had composed and published versions of his poems “Frederick Douglass,” “The Ballad of Nat Turner,” “Runagate Runagate,” and “The Middle Passage,” which he would revise and re-publish over the years.

With the increased publication of anthologies during the black arts era of the 1960s/70s, Hayden’s poems and works about slavery by other poets, including Alvin Aubert, Lance Jeffers, Dudley Randall, Margaret Walker, and younger “new black poets” were beginning to circulate widely.

In 1976, Ishmael Reed opens his novel Flight to Canada with a humorous poem “Flight to Canada” by his highly intelligent and witty protagonist Raven Quickskill.

In 1989, Elizabeth Alexander’s poem “The Venus Hottentot” was published in the journal Callaloo; the poem was published in book-form in 1990 in Alexander’s volume The Venus Hottentot.

In 1993, Lucille Clifton selected Kevin Young’s collection of poems Most Way Home as a National Poetry Series winner. The collection was officially published in 1995 and included Young’s poem “Reward,” written as a letter to a newspaper from the first-person perspective of a slave-owner, Elizabeth Young, seeking the capture of her two of runaway slaves.

In 1996, Lucille Clifton’s short yet powerful poem “slaveship,” which depicts the first-person experiences of enslaved people being transported aboard ships named Jesus, Angel, and Grace of God, appeared in her volume The Terrible Stories.

In his poem "Wise 1" from Wise, Why's, y's : The Griot's Song Djeli Ya (1996), Amiri Baraka alludes to the circumstances of black enslavement when he writes of "enemies" who "won’t let you / speak in your own language / who destroy your statues /  & instruments" and "who ban / your oom boom ba boom."

Among other poems, Cave Canem II: 1997 Anthology includes Tyehimba Jess's "when I speak of blues be clear," which touches on slavery as well as concepts related to African American history, migration, music, and culture.  

The first decade of the 21st century has given rise to an even wider range of poets concentrating on slavery and struggles for liberation. Vievee Francis and Tim Seibles have written poems from the first-person persona perspective of Frederick Douglass.

Thylias Moss's slave moth (2004), Quraysh Ali Lansana's They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems (2004) and Frank X. Walker's Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York (2004) and When Winter Come: The Ascension of York (2008) are entire volumes comprises of works from the perspective of enslaved people, their captors, and ex-slaves.

Elizabeth Alexander’s Antebellum Dream Book (2001) contains her poem "Nat Turner Dreams of Insurrection" and her book American Sublime (2005) contains an extended series about the Amistad slave slave revolt.

Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem's First Decade (2006) contains, in addition to other works, a powerful poem by Opal Palmer Adisa "Peeling Off the Skin" about Nat Turner. 

In 2007, Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard (2006) won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. The volume’s title poem was a sequence of sonnets written from the perspective of an ex-slave turned Union soldier during the Civil War.

The June 9, 2008 issue of The Nation includes Kamau Brathwaite's poem "Belov├Ęd," where one figure expresses love for another one while traveling, or worse, transported along the terrible Middle Passage.   

In 2011, Evie Shockley’s volume the new black included previously published and new poems focusing on Douglass, and Kevin Young’s Ardency provides a book-length treatment of the Amistad slave revolt.

Related:
Poems about slavery and struggles for liberation

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