The Vintage Book of African American Poetry

African American PoetryI was very excited about reading this book, and it started off strong. The introduction to both the book as well as the 50 poets included in this anthology were excellent. I was completely surprised by the slave poetry, having in my mind a depiction of slavery and illiteracy going hand in hand, which was not necessarily the case in the 18th century, though it quickly became so, as ignorance is one of the greatest weapons of oppression. One thing that has always been baffling to me is the spread of Christianity among slaves. Simone Weil, visiting Portugal in the 1930’s writes:

There the conviction was suddenly borne in upon me that Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves, that slaves cannot help belonging to it, and I among others.

Phillis Wheatley, one of the first authors included in this anthology and the first African American to publish a volume of literature, was kidnapped at the age of nine. She later writes this poem, titled “On Being Brought from Africa to America,” calling her kidnapping and subsequent enslavement, a mercy of all things, because it was the means by which she met God:

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their color is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.

It has always seemed both strange and beautiful to me that slaves should adopt the religion of their oppressor. That despite the brutal beatings and rapings and lynchings, as the hypocrite opens his mouth, they are captivated by the beauty of God. The suffering Jesus was true even when introduced by a liar. The God willing to enter shame, enslaved to the Father’s will, was irresistible.

Like all anthologies, I discovered some authors whose poems I loved and many I didn’t care for. The slave poetry and that of the Harlem Renaissance were my favorites. The poems in this anthology do carry a common thread, found in the subtitle to the book: 200 years of vision, struggle, power, beauty, and triumph. (Though I would say struggle and beauty were the two most pervading themes.)

From this anthology I enjoyed a renewed love for the greats: Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. But I also discovered a new love for James Monroe Whitfield, Frances E.W. Harper, Georgia Douglas Johnson, Gwendolyn Bennett, Robert Hayden, and Lucille Clifton, all of whom I hope to read more of, and soon.

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