Friday, June 30, 2017

Poetry Friday with a review of I, too, sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry

Many of us take education for granted. It does not occur to us that being able to go to school and university is a privilege. Not that long ago, African Americans were not allowed to learn how to read and write, and even when the doors of schools were finally open to them, the education that they received was mediocre at best.

Luckily for us many African Americans found their voices in spite of racism, segregation, and inequality. They learned how to read and write, they went to school, they put up with all kinds of privations, and they created marvelous stories and poetry. Today's poetry title is a celebration of African American poetry, and the book is packed with poems that delight the ear and excite the mind.

I, Too, Sing America: Three Centuries of African American PoetryI, too, sing America: Three Centuries of African American Poetry
Catherine Clinton
Illustrated by Stephen Alcorn
For ages 9 and up
Houghton Mifflin, 2017, 978-0544582569
The slaves who were brought to America were subjected to unspeakable cruelties. Deprived of their family members, their community, their history, their culture, and their language, they were cut off from everything that was familiar. After being sold, they (and many of their descendants) were denied the right to learn how to read and write, but countless creative African Americans found ways to bring glorious language into their lives through song. Then there were those who learned how to read and write in secret; others were lucky enough to be working for enlightened people who allowed them to become educated.  
   In this wonderful book, readers will encounter the stories and the writings of African American poets, beginning with those who were brought to the United States as slaves, and ending with poets who are creating poems for present day readers.
   The collection begins with the story of, and a poem written by, Lucy Terry. Lucy was born in Africa, sold into slavery, and then she went to live in a community in Massachusetts that was greatly affected by an Indian raid which took place on the twenty-fifth of August in 1746. Lucy wrote about the raid in her poem Bars Fight, in which she memorializes the people who died in the attack. The poem was passed down orally from person to person for generations until it was published in 1855.
   Phyllis Wheatley, who was born in the Gambia, was special in that she was greatly supported in her writing journey by the people who bought her. She learned to read and write English, and was only fourteen when her first verse was published. She went on to learn Latin, and a patron helped her find a London publisher for her collection of verse. Phyllis even made the journey across the Atlantic so that she could meet some of her admirers in England. Her poem Liberty and Peace captures her belief in “the principals that fuels the American Revolution and the antislavery movement…”
   We go on to meet George Moses Horton, who, unlike Phyllis, was denied an education and so he wrote his poems in his head. He shared his writings with students who were studying at the nearby University of North Carolina. George’s patrons wanted to buy his freedom but his master refused to allow this. George did find a way to learn how to write, and in all he wrote three volumes of poetry. In his poems George often openly spoke about the “agony of bondage and the desire for liberty” which we can see for ourselves when we read his poem On liberty and slavery. The poem is an appeal that is heartfelt and powerful.
   Other poets whose stories and poems appear in this collection include W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Margaret Walker, Maya Angelou, and Nikki Giovanni.
   Readers of all ages will be captivated by this extraordinary collection. We get to know each poet a little by reading their biographies, and then get to experience their writing through their poems. It is interesting to see how the styles and subject matters in the poems changed as the years went by, and to see how the poems were influenced by what was happening in the world at the time when they were written.

1 comment:

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