There's poet Reginald Harris looking directly at us. Is it the second just before a wonderful smile? There's Nikky Finney and her flowing locks. Cornelius Eady greets us in mid laugh. Oh, and check out the joyous open-mouthed laugh or shout of Patricia Spears Jones. Or, the way Kelly Norman Ellis looks and smiles in our direction. And then Tyehimba Jess, turned somewhat to the side, but looking at us. Like with the image of Eugene B. Redmond, Jess wears one of his signature hats.
Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin (W. W. Norton & Company, 2016) edited by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr constitutes a notable moment in the visual history of African American poetry. We have hundreds, no, thousands of books by African American poets, but relatively few widely available photographic images of the writers, at least in book form.
Photographer Victoria Smith trains her camera lens on 43 prominent poets, and we're better because of it. See presents Amiri Baraka, Camille T. Dungy, Evie Shockley, Sterling Plumpp, Toi Derricotte, Quincy Troupe, and more in the images. They're remarkable outstanding photographs, offering intimate portraits of poets we've read closely over the decades.
I'm very much aware that we can and should write more about the actual writings of poets. I spend considerable amounts of time doing just that. At the same time, as a kind of cultural historian, I've also recognized how texts beyond the linguistic texts shape our reading experiences. And, well, photographs matter. In this case, photographs of black poets matter.
I first began thinking seriously about the photographic documentation of black poets in 2003, as I encountered the more than 100,000 photographs in Eugene B. Redmond's collection. His images of Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and many others caught my attention, and I became aware that in addition to being poets, they and many others were notably photogenic.
While Redmond's photographs captured most of my attention, I was also aware of the images of writers in I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women who Changed America (1989) by Brian Lanker and African American Writers: Portraits and Visions (2001) by Lynda Koolish. Smith's images correspond with those books, and she goes even further back.
Remember those author portraits done by Carl Van Vechten? His images of various prominent artists came to mind as I thought about these wonderful images in Of Poetry and Protest. Yet, here, the poets have their own, modern and contemporary histories. I've enjoyed reading the poems and photographs in this book.
• Of Poetry and Protest and its aesthetic forces
• Amiri Baraka's presence in Of Poetry and Protest