I climbed the creaky steps to Pegasus' Used Poetry section and quickly scanned the shelves. My impromptu journey precipitated by an otherworldly fall day: high summer warmth, cerulean sky, everything dappled in sunlight; a quest to secure gifts (I always buy books); and a desire to shed an upsetting social media moment.
Looking for particular things—specific volumes of Komunyakaa, Milosz, and Hirshfield—and nothing in particular—recently discovered authors and titles that tickled or perplexed me—my eyes tracked left to right with practiced precision. Amidst the pencil-thin, glossy spines, I spotted something thicker. Older. Hardcovered, with a faded, sage-colored jacket. The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontemps. My heart skipped. I grasped the volume, quickly flipping through brittling, ecru pages. Forget new car smell; nothing beats old book smell. Copyright 1949 by Langston Hughes and Arna Bontempts. 429 pages. $10.00, written in light pencil on the top right corner of the first page. Surely a mistake: an original 1949 volume? A gift for me. I clutched the book to my chest, afraid some arm would swoop down, snatch it up, tag it $150.00, and lock it in the rare book case.
It's not just that this is a first edition, edited by Hughes—who transformed my understanding of American history and shaped my love of poetry—and Bontempts—Harlem Renaissance luminary, writer, scholar, and grandfather of and inspiration to a friend of mine. I have books by both writers. Granted, not first editions.
It's not just that African American literature was the focus of my graduate work and resides at the heart of my teaching. I already imagined additions to my course reader.
It's not just that I love books, especially old books, especially hard-covered, old poetry books. But to find this volume on this day felt special, an alignment of literary planets, a golden thread pulled though the last few hours.
Earlier, while scanning Facebook, I noticed a Poetry Foundation post, "5 Powerful Poems by Black Poets." Apparently, October 17 is Black Poetry Day (who knew?), and Poetry Foundation used the occasion to promote work by and to broaden readers' knowledge of an array of Black Poets. Aah, a poetic pause to enjoy work by Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Kwame Dawes, Danez Smith, and Staceyann Chin--a poet new to me. Yes, Virginia, there are other black poets besides Langston Hughes and luminous Maya Angelou. Black Poetry Day marks the birthday of Jupiter Hammon, the first published African American poet. Born into slavery in 1711, Hammon used the schooling and library access allowed him to write poetry. Additionally, the post made a poignant statement about the marginalization of Black poets: how few (four) have been named Poet Laureate (even Langston Hughes, the unofficial Poet Laureate of Harlem, never held the position), and how poetry remains largely the terrain of old, white men. Quelle surprise!
Swept up in the poems and amening the post, I then made a classic blunder: I read readers' responses, all of which were of the color-blind, post-racial ilk: poetry has no color, we are all human beings, why can't Langston Hughes simply be a good poet who happens to be Black?
My poetic pleasure plummeted, and my Sicilian pulse pressure rose. "What the f**k! Did you people even bother to read the post?" I said in my Italian, non-inside voice, shocking an undergrad happening by. Typically, I would simply grumble to myself or complain to a colleague or friend, but after having had the "yes, race matters" conversation one too many times recently, I responded to the poetry-and-humans-have-no-color thread with a too-long, and, ok, slightly didactic diatribe. Yes, Langston Hughes is a great poet (and essayist), but his race IS inexorably tied to his writing and to the ways in which he is positioned, how he is read/not-read. Do the terms dominant discourse, master narrative, and racial mountain ring any bells? Have you actually read Hughes? I promptly closed Facebook, re-read Brooks' "We Real Cool," left lunch uneaten, email unanswered, and headed to Pegasus.
The anthology is a treasure: 147 poets, spanning pre-Revolutionary years to the mid 1940s. And two supplementary sections, works by selected Caribbean poets and by white poets "who have written about Negroes and Negro life"—Whitman, Whittier, Sanburg and others. In their introduction, Hughes and Bontempts explain that poems by "others are included only when they touch the subject directly. . . ." Talk about resisting hegemony and centering Black experience. Hughes and Bontemps deploy "otherness" before its currency in critical studies decades later. And I was only on page vii! Admittedly, I was gleeful about the ironic placement of the "Tributary" section in the back of the Anthology, the spot most often relegated to the art/writing/history of "others": people of color, women, gays, and lesbians. The master discourse marginalized.
Then, the treasure within the treasure. The diamond ring in the Cracker Jack box. A 3" x 2" pearl.
Found, between pages 204-205, a small black and white photo of a woman, maybe mid-20s—forlorn and resigned—staring straight at the camera. Appearing too old to be dressed as she was—in a young girl's sailor-style blouse and a plaid skirt, her bob adorned with poofy white cap. She dwarfed the school-room huts behind her. To her left, a water fountain. Written in hesitant cursive atop of the photo, "O Mazell," and below "sis at school." My inner Miss Marple sprang to action: Who is this doleful woman? Is she a white? Black? The name suggests a Jewish woman. The photo appears to be from the 1930s, but where was this taken? The landscape could be the Great Plains, the Central Valley, the Mississippi Delta. I began to spin scenarios, shape narratives from the snippet of history I held. I wanted to know more, to make meaning. Grabbing journal and pen, I began to muse. Like Miss Marple, the mystery wrapped it self around me like a shawl, and I imagined deciphering clues while sipping afternoon tea. Or, in my case, Frappato.
Even the picture's placement felt magical. Pressed between M. Carl Holman's "Letter Across Doubt and Distance" and "And On This Shore," a lone woman emerges from a poetic landscape of reserve and reach, misgiving and margin. Mysterious and ripe for literary inquiry. Move over Jane Marple.
A bit of sleuthing in the anthology's richly-detailed "Biological Notes" and via the internet brought M. Carl Holman to life. Born in 1919 in Minter City, Missouri, Holman attended Lincoln University and University of Chicago, where he received his MA in English. Won the Fiske Poetry Prize. He taught at Lincoln, Hampton University, earned a second MA in Fine Arts from Yale, and later taught at Clark College. A prolific poet, playwright, and editor, Holman helped found The Atlanta Inquirer, served as the Deputy Director of the Civil Rights Commission, and headed the National Urban Coalition, where he forged educational and work opportunities for Black and Latino communities. He advocated preparing girls and children of color to succeed in mathematics and the sciences—well ahead of current initiatives expanding access to STEM majors.
Holman, more than simply a poet who happened to be Black. On tap for my next lunch quest, a trip to Doe Library to continue unearthing.
Sometimes our journeys are focused; their end goals clear and attainable. More often, the journeys themselves are the gifts. Discoveries made along the way chart our path, shape, and change us. Irritating "all-poets-matter" comments on a Facebook post led me to a pearl: the mysterious O Mazell. Holman. The Poetry of the Negro 1746-1949. Treasures upon treasures. Treasures within treasures. Discovered on a cerulean day that felt like a poem—lush, nuanced, significant—moving seamlessly across words and worlds.
Luisa Giulianetti, a California Bay Area native, works as an administrator and writing instructor at UC Berkeley, where she enjoys teaching and helping students develop their writerly voices. She often incorporates her first languages, Italian and Sicilian, into her work. Luisa's graduate work was in 20th Century African American literature. She is published in Brilliant Corners (forthcoming), Feile-Festa, Lily Literary Review, The Owl, Sediments Literary-Arts Journal, The Sun, and Tule Review.