In Search of Color Everywhere: A Collection of African-American Poetry.
Ethelbert Miller, director of Howard University's African American Resource Center, is a writer who feels that poetry has power. In "Art Is a Long Way from This Moment," included in his First Light: New and Selected Poems, Miller is very clear about the necessity of invention: "if i didnt make up these poems / would you believe my life." And "Incantation" suggests how poems encode our personal and collective histories, simultaneously and paradoxically revealing who we really are while showing us at our best:
let all poems speak and address themselves
let each phrase like hair on a head
comb itself back madame walker style
let the love poems wear gardenias
let the political poems wear suits the way muslims did
during the days of elijah
let the poems be fruitful and multiply
In his wonderfully rich anthology in Search of Color Everywhere: A Collection of African American Poetry, Miller has attempted--quite successfully--to do just that. Rich it is, indeed--like Godiva chocolate--but In Search of Color Everywhere is also good for you. Haki R. Madhubuti has noted the "formidable but quiet manner" of Miller's own poetry, and that trait is immediately evident in his editing of this anthology.
Literary-anthologies generally fit into one of three categories. Some such as high school and college textbooks, or Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps's The Poetry of the Negro, 1746-1965--attempt to create a selective archive of all work of value within an historical period. Others are more overtly polemical, intending to introduce the reading public to a particular literary school or a new generation of writers. In this way the advent of Imagism and the Modernists was announced in The New Poetry (1917), edited by Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson, while Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925) launched the Harlem Renaissance. Donald Allen's The New American Poetry, 1945-1960 may have been the most successful such volume since Locke's; it made the prevailing academic style of the 1950s seem moribund and effectively changed the American poetic landscape. The most recent entry in this category is In the Tradition: An Anthology of Young Black Writers (1992), edited by Kevin Powell and Ras Baraka. The third category--which provides us with the earliest examples of the anthologist's activity and the word itself, from the Greek anthologia `gathered flowers'--is the collection intended (like the fifth century B. C. Shih Chinq or Book of Odes compiled by Confucius) to harvest the wisdom of the people and the soul of a nation. Such an exercise is based on the belief that the experience of ages is carefully preserved in the linguistic time capsules we have always called "songs." E. Ethelbert Miller's ambitious and beautiful book is conceived as a new expression of this time-honored model.
In Search of Color Everywhere is intended to be a kind of map of the African American community. "This book," Miller writes in a brief introduction, "will take you into the church, barber shop, beauty salon, and kitchen, places where African Americans come to laugh, swap stories, and tell their `lies' with joy and fun. We are a warm and loving people when our circle is unbroken." This circle of culture and community is, of course, precisely what is created and maintained by poetry--whether transmitted orally, in classrooms, or in books like this one. Miller's editorial focus--indebted, it seems, to some of the concepts of Sterling A. Brown, and perhaps to a nostalgic view of what functions as the center of African American life raises some questions but also gives the anthology a definite coherence. Included here are some of the true classics of American literature written by African Americans: Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Gwendolyn Brooks's "The Mother," "The Creation" from God's Trombones by James Weldon Johnson, and Margaret Walker's "For My People." It is clear to the reader who finds them in this book that, while accessible to and beloved by many people, these poems are specifically addressed to African American audiences. One of the delights of this anthology is the conversation Miller creates among the poems themselves--Dunbar's well-known "When Malindy Sings" is on a page facing Harryette Mullen's extraordinary poem "Saturday Afternoon, When Chores Are Done," which uses a modern idiom to examine the relationship of mothers and daughters--a literal binding together of heritage and personality accomplished through the homely ritual of plaiting hair. Both poems celebrate a human beauty that is natural and innate, but Mullen pointedly reminds us that culture--on every level--is something that must be seriously attended:
you are learning what I am learning:
to gather the strands together
with strong fingers, to keep what we do
from coming apart at the ends.
In The Negro in American Culture (1956), Margaret Just Butcher, following an outline devised by Alain Locke, made a useful distinction between works inspired by African American vernacular culture and what she called "poetry of the literary tradition." Though Miller is well aware of the very good reasons for such a critical rubric, he is also familiar with Stephen E. Henderson's assertion in Understanding the New Black Poetry that much of our contemporary literary work is grounded in the forms of African American music. Thus Miller considers the lyrics of songs to be bona fide poems, and selections such as Gil Scott Heron's "Winter In America," Thomas A. Dorsey's "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," and Weldon J. Irvine, Jr.'s "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black" reveal themselves--in print--to be as powerful as any self-consciously "literary" poem.
Unlike other anthologists Miller does not place these song lyrics in a separate section; indeed he eschews both genre categorization and chronology, organizing this book thematically in sections titled "Freedom," "Celebration of Blackness," "Love Poems," "Family Gatherings," "Healing Poems," "Rituals: Music, Dance and Sports," and "American Journal" (which, devoted entirely to Robert Hayden's magnificent long poem of the same title, functions as an epilogue). As with any anthology, every reader could probably cite a particular poem or poet that she feels Miller should have included, but the 120 writers represented testify to the incredible wealth and variety of the African American poetic legacy. A more serious omission is the lack of a page of even cursory biographical notes on contributors. To be specific, In Search of Color Everywhere presents several fine poets whose work should be much better known--writers such as Tim Seibles, Nikki Finney, Lenard D. Moore, Kevin Young, Lamont B. Steptoe, George Barlow, and the late Lance Jeffers. The appearance of these poets next to Yusef Komunyakaa and Rita Dove, Michael S. Harper and Amiri Baraka, Maya Angelou and ntozake shange--and, of course, their great and widely anthologized predecessors--should encourage readers to seek out their books. But even readers willing to sift through the fine print of copyright permissions to find the titles of these books will not always be rewarded.
Terrance Cummings's illustrations and devices--recalling the work of Winold Reiss and Aaron Douglas in Locke's The New Negro--are superb; and the overall design of the book (by Nai Y. Chang and Jim Wageman) makes it one of the most impressive examples of graphic design in years. But even though the editor wants you to keep this book in close proximity and in clear view, it's not a "coffee table book." The artwork does not overwhelm the reader but tastefully complements and highlights the poems. Everything about this book, in fact, proclaims the editor's belief that it is the poetry that really matters. And in this era of overwrought critical theorizing, this is a very useful suggestion. Perhaps Miller's editorial principle is most succinctly stated in "Last Instructions," a touching epitaph by a young poet named Garth Tate who died in 1992:
he was a poet and
this time he was black
and next time there's just no
telling how he may come
It is not that our time or place, or race, is an accident; but the fact is that poetry, in its true power, emanates from a source beyond such reckonings and ultimately reaches farther than even the poet's most ambitious imaginings. In Search of Color Everywhere is a marvelous mirror that reminds us of that always puzzling mystery that prompts the struggle to speak.
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1997|
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