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From The Reader Bookshelf… The Vintage Book of African-American Poetry

Written by Maisie Jeynes, 4th November 2021

As part of our ongoing work around The Reader Bookshelf, we've asked staff to share their thoughts about some of the inspirational texts in the collection.

This week, Erin Carlstrom, one of our Teaching and Learning Leaders, explores The Vintage Book of African American Poetry  edited by Michael S. Haper and Anthony Walton.



Words by Erin Carlstrom

Like many, I've been taking a serious look at my personal library over the last year with an intention and responsibility to broaden the authors on my shelves with The Vintage Book of African American Poetry being one of the first new additions. It's one thing to work to learn about the facts and structures that create history, it's another to connect through lived experience. I've found this collection from our Walking the Earth bookshelf to be an important resource and source of comfort over this last year--getting to the heart of individual experience and feeling, of as the cover says, '200 years of vision, struggle, power, beauty, and triumph from 50 outstanding poets.'  It's the variety that has been especially powerful to me, to see the unique perspectives and voices of these authors collected together gives such a rich bouquet of feeling and understanding.

Here are just a few snippets of the poems that I've kept returning to over this last year, ranging from the narrative 'Vincent Oge' by George Boyer Vashon, which tells the story of Vincent Oge and his fight for Haitian independence, and opens:

There is, at times, an evening sky —
The twilight's gift — of sombre hue,
All checkered wild and gorgeously
With streaks of crimson, gold and blue; —
A sky that strikes the soul with awe,
And, though not brilliant as the sheen,
Which in the east at morn we saw,
Is far more glorious, I ween; —
So glorious that, when night hath come
And shrouded it in deepest gloom,
We turn aside with inward pain
And pray to see that sky again.

And moving to James Monroe Whitfield's 'America' published in 1853 but still frighteningly relevant now:

They never thought, when thus they shed

Their hearts' best blood, in freedom's cause,

That their own sons would live in dread,

Under unjust, oppressive laws:

That those who quietly enjoyed

The rights for which they fought and fell,

Could be the framers of a code,

That would disgrace the fiends of hell!

Could they have looked, with prophet's ken,

Down to the present evil time,

Seen free-born men, uncharged with crime,

Consigned unto a slaver's pen, --

Or thrust into a prison cell'

To the beautiful description of an 'October Journey' by Margaret Walker that makes my heart ache:

I want to tell you what hills are like in October

when colors gush down mountainsides

and little streams are freighted with a caravan of leaves

I want to tell you how they blush and turn in fiery shame and joy,

how their love burns with flames consuming and terrible

a glowing caldron full of jeweled fire;

the emerald earth a dragon's eye

the poplars drenched with yellow light

and dogwoods blazing bloody red.

Or the familiar need to prove myself that is in George Moses Horton's poem 'George Moses Horton, Myself':

I feel resolved to try,

My wish to prove, my calling to pursue,

Or mount up from the earth into the sky,

To show what Heaven can do.

I loved reading this collection over the last year, and I know it will continue to be a source of great feeling and a staple on my bookshelf moving forward.

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