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,…