The recent release of Kevin Young's book of essays had me thinking back on a few different poet-essayists. Langston Hughes, for instance, wrote prose throughout his career. His most known essay remains "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain" (1926).
In addition to being a leading black poet of the late 1960s and 70s, Larry Neal was also a leading essayist of the black arts era. His pieces "Black Arts Movement,""Any Day Now: Black Art and Liberation," and "And Shine Swam On," to name a few, are solid and helped shaped conversations about black artistic expression during the time period. Amiri Baraka published and continues to publish prose, including books Blues People (1963), Home: Social Essays (1965), Black Music (1967), and Digging: The Afro-American Soul of Classical American Music (2009).
Poet Carolyn Rodgers produced a series of articles for Negro Digest / Black World; her most known essay was "Black Poetry--Where It's At." Nikki Giovanni also produced several essays and book reviews during the early 1970s and onward. Eugene B. Redmond published many essays over the years, and his book Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry (1976) is one of our most important critical studies.
Elizabeth Alexander's essay collections -- The Black Interior (2004) and Power and Possibility: Essays, Reviews, and Interviews (2007) -- make her one of the relatively few major contemporary poets to publish books of essays.
And now, we have Kevin Young's book The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness. Even before this recent collection, Young had been revealing his interest in prose with thoughtful introductions to edited collections and a few reviews here and there.