If you’re looking this summer to get a firmer grasp of African-American life and culture, these four intensely dynamic, wide-ranging books, enriched by vital, memorable language and compelling vision, can’t be beat.
Collected Poems by Robert Hayden
This is a book I come back to time and again—a seminal work that illuminates African-American life and history with concision, craft, and eloquence and never fails to inspire me. A longtime professor at Fisk University and a former consultant to the Library of Congress (a precursor to the U.S. Poet Laureate position), Hayden (1913–1980) was the author of nine revered books of poetry. Among his eclectic subjects: black history, bullfighting, runaway slaves, Paul Robeson, Claude Monet, zinnias, jazz, the Holocaust, space travel, and arctic exploration. Envisioning slave ships as “shuttles in the rocking loom of history … / their bright ironical names / like jests of kindness on a murderer’s mouth,” Hayden’s polyphonic masterpiece “Middle Passage” remains the definitive, indeed the iconic poem on the Atlantic slave trade: “Voyage through death / to life upon these shores.”
Some of the most esteemed poems in the African-American canon are in this collection: “Runagate Runagate,” Hayden’s stirring homage to fearless Harriet Tubman (“woman of earth, whips carred / a summoning, a shining”); “Those Winter Sundays” his indelible portrait of his stoic, laboring father (“What did I know, what did I know / of love’s lonely and austere offices?”); as well as his most renowned and recited poem, “Frederick Douglass”: “When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful / and terrible thing, needful to man as air / usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all, / when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole, / reflex action; when it is finally won, when it is more / than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians.”
In the ’60s and ’70s, Hayden’s elegant, relatively traditional work was rather unfairly pitted against the aesthetics of the Black Arts movement. But his steady craftsmanship and far-seeing vision, rooted in the fortitude and unassailable integrity of African-Americans, have stood the test of time.
The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness by Kevin Young
Like Duke Ellington’s fabled Harlem-bound A train, Kevin Young’s The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness propels us across a vivid panorama of African-American history, creativity, and struggle with a lightning-brisk brilliance and purpose. Here’s what happens when an acclaimed poet (and former DJ) makes his first foray into nonfiction: madcap manifesto and rhapsodic reportage create a blend of scholarship and memoir that tackles cultural and personal history in one breath. Moving deftly between genres, Young discusses key African-American literary luminaries, including Paul Lawrence Dunbar, Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Zora Neale Hurston, alongside revered and charismatic musicians such as James Brown, Danger Mouse, Lauryn Hill, and Tupac. Considering the potency of rap music, Young suggests “It ain’t a question of using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, but of what you do with your skills, taking your beats and rhythms from anywhere.”
Seeking “underground railroads of meaning,” Young goes far beyond just being a documentarian of American black identity—he shows us how black identity is indispensable to American culture: for instance, discussing modernism, he posits “the change, the roar, the very swing in ‘Anglo’ culture, might well be said to be exactly this too-often-invisible African-American influence.” With its heady cultural collage and crisscrossing discourse, The Grey Album—a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism and the winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize—is an exhilarating and impassioned work of black literary and cultural criticism, unlike any other; an inspired book that deserves to be savored and celebrated.
Jazz by Toni Morrison
The follow-up to Toni Morrison’s acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, Beloved, and the book that led Morrison to garner the Nobel Prize, Jazz is both vivacious and masterly, a powerhouse work in its own right—one that merits renewed attention. Set in alluring Jazz Age Harlem in its heyday, the novel begins spectacularly (“He fell in love with an eighteen-year-old girl with one of those deepdown, spooky loves that made him so sad and happy, he shot her just to keep the feeling going”), framing a blatant crime of passion as first an irresistible item of gossip and frivolous conjecture, then as serious detective work into youthful misbehavior and middle-aged folly. Yet by the book’s truly surprising and jubilant end, we’ve been privy to so many revealing layers of history and motive that our initial perceptions of the tabloid crime, the desperate but determined 1920s characters (“caught midway between was and must be”), and even jazz-loving Harlem itself are thoroughly upended. The narrator (who could be a meddlesome god, an eavesdropping private eye, a compulsive storyteller, or just a garden-variety busybody) remains piquant and anonymous throughout the story’s complex unfolding, becoming an increasingly questionable witness, so that the propelling chapters become a kind of keen meditation on the distance between glamor and grit, between what’s profound and genuine and what’s convenient projection.
One of Morrison’s empathetic, elucidating feats is that she helps us to consider the phenomenon of the Harlem Renaissance, with its carousing rent parties and speakeasies, its go-for-broke soundtrack (“clarinets and lovemaking, fists and the voices of sorrowful women”) as something akin to cultural puberty, a full-blown adolescent stage of African-American culture, one in which the uptown descendants of freed slaves could claim at last not only an un-bossed self but also a spirited, romantic self, free to risk foolishness and heartbreak. Despite the razzle-dazzle of a music-laden Harlem on the rise, for this generation of hopeful urban dwellers, delivered from the crushing South, “a wave of black people running from want and violence,” the daunting past is never too far behind: ghosts of deprivation, slavery, and denigrating Jim Crow, of grim race riots and the First World War, of heavy childhood trauma and betrayal haunt the “hep,” supposedly “happy-go-lucky” Harlem Renaissance of the novel. For instance, the dead girl at the novel’s center, Dorcas Manfred, who perishes at a dance party, refusing to “finger” her avenging lover, is the precocious child of parents lost in the savage East St. Louis riots of 1917.
Among its myriad strengths and treasures, Jazz contains some of the most expert, gorgeous, bull’s-eye passages about city life in American literature (“Daylight slants like a razor, cutting the buildings in half. In the top half I see looking faces and it’s not easy to tell which are people, which the work of stonemasons”) and closes with a generous and ecstatic paean to married love that is as sublime as a Shakespeare sonnet: “It’s nice when grown people whisper to each other under the covers. Their ecstasy is more leaf-sigh than bray. …They are remembering while they whisper the carnival dolls they won and the Baltimore boats they never sailed on. The pears they let hang on the limb because if they plucked them, they would be gone from there, and who else would see that ripeness, if they took it away for themselves? How could anybody passing by see them and imagine for themselves what the flavor would be like?”
Like the liberating, wayfaring music of Charles Mingus, Jazz has an intricate, improvisatory quality that lets us, through exhilarating twists and turns, arrive at a Harlem we never anticipated, a cityscape that feels newborn, startling, and freshly imagined.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine
Given the theater of excessive force we’ve witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri, New York, and elsewhere, it’s hard to imagine a more timely or needed volume than Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, in terms of its prowess in addressing the insidious nature of racist behavior and acts that don’t leave “visible damage.”
We know the grim, unmistakable message of lynched bodies and lifeless teenagers left in the street, but what about the effect of relentlessly enforced hierarchy on our souls? In Citizen, racism (slavery’s legacy) is both the spell and the curse we must undo.
In prose poems that have the immediacy of a diary, Rankine steadily leads us through an everyday maze of psychic and emotional hazard, a social minefield where instances of racism and erasure erupt, with little or no warning. The sections on blatantly racist incidents in the career of the irrepressible tennis great Serena Williams are especially pertinent in conveying what it means to be a black body, especially a famous one, “in a white space.” Rankine makes clear that a vicious territorial imperative is at work in the racist insistence that people of color be eternally ghetto-bound, city-bound, and earthbound; the poet limns how swiftly the racist mind can go into reflexive shock and delusion when it witnesses a black body in an “unaccustomed” place.
Rankin’s artful use of the second person brings the damage and spiky nature of racism close to us. She grounds these racial humiliations (“Did she really just say that? Did I hear what I think I heard? Did that just come out of my mouth, his mouth, your mouth? The moment stinks”), these shocking moments, in the abraded body and senses, so that we know how profoundly these “micro-aggressions” are driven into the flesh and memory.
To put forth its urgent social and ethical concerns, the book eschews some of the traditional tools of poetry, such as music and lineation, in favor of powerful juxtaposition, silence, and purposeful concision: the effect is immersive, experiential, and probing; intimate yet capable of rendering shock, panic, and a menacing, ever-present sense of violation and danger.
Rankine is drawn to conceptual and visual art, video, and film—mediums that can convey a sense of raw truth, emergency, and manifesto. With its interspersed art, Citizen is very much a savvy and unsettling cross-genre work. She provides cogent “scripts,” drawn from searing headlines, ones that use language like incantation or plaintive jazz. This book feels as up-to-the-minute as an intrepid documentary might be in distilling the way we live now.
As we enter a period that feels like the Civil Rights Movement, Part II, I feel immense gratitude and wonder at Rankine’s achievement in confronting painful dimensions of racism (“How difficult is it for one body to feel the injustice wheeled at another?”) that have rendered so many citizens confounded and speechless. In Citizen, Claudia Rankine becomes an inventive, heroic, and true daughter of James Baldwin; like the indispensable activist and writer Baldwin, her unwavering focus and articulate passion help us interpret the fever-chart of our current crisis of prejudice, projection, and cavalier violence. Everywhere on display is Rankine’s unerring moral fire and superb mind venturing into the unspoken, the poisoned landscape of our racially charged past and present in order to find language that clarifies our wounds and leaves us clear-eyed and forever changed.
(A fuller review of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen appeared in the February 2015 edition of The Washington Spectator.)
Cyrus Cassells, a poet and professor of English at Texas State University, lives in Austin.