In his poem “After Avery R. Young,” the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Jericho Brown writes, “The blk mind / Is a continuous mind.” These lines emerge for me as a guiding principle—as a mantra, even—when I consider the work of Black poetry in America, which insists upon the centrality of Black lives to the human story, and offers the terms of memory, music, conscience, and imagination that serve to counteract the many erasures and distortions riddling the prevailing narrative of Black life in this country. Indeed, Black poets help us to consider our past, present, and future not as disparate fragments on a disappearing trail, but rather as a single, emphatic unity: the Was, Is, and Ever-Shall-Be of Black presence and consciousness.
The blk mind is a continuous mind. And language is one site where the continuum of Black life can be perceived, where we can hear ourselves talking to one another across generations, landscapes, and the particularities of circumstance. Indeed, Black poets also hurl their voices across other types of borders to remind us that we are living, sighing, and singing in harmony with others elsewhere and with traditions beyond our own.
I hear a glimmer of this border-spanning continuity in “Dunbar,” Anne Spencer’s 1922 homage to the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar:
Ah, how poets sing and die!
Make one song and Heaven takes it;
Have one heart and Beauty breaks it;
Chatterton, Shelley, Keats and I—
Ah, how poets sing and die!
In the poem, Spencer, speaking as Dunbar, forgoes the Southern Black dialect with which the Black bard is famously associated, for which he was frequently criticized, and to which he sometimes felt uncomfortably obliged. Instead, she aligns him with the idealism, vulnerability, and uncontested authority of England’s Romantic poets. In fact, Spencer’s poem doesn’t bother to argue for Dunbar’s ascension to the Western literary canon; its penultimate line goes so far as to position him firmly within it. In so doing, perhaps the poem seeks not so much to liberate Dunbar from the “one song” or “one heart” of his commitment to Black life, but to remind us that Chatterton, Shelley, and Keats were, similarly, poets of single-minded focus and commitment.
Just as Spencer toggles the frame through which a reader regards Dunbar, the anthology Minor Notes (edited by Joshua Bennett and Jesse McCarthy) invites us to listen anew to voices often occluded by our fixation upon the “headliners” of African American poetry. When I do, I am reminded that the conversation in which Black poets are currently engaged, in the turbulent first quarter of the twenty-first century, began generations and centuries ago when our forebears brought poetic language to the task of pondering and protesting the elusive nature of freedom. George Moses Horton’s apostrophe to the elements in “Praise of Creation” includes these lines addressed to the thunder:
Responsive thunders roll,
Loud acclamations sound,
And show your Maker’s vast control
O’er all the worlds around.
Almost two centuries later, Tyehimba Jess’s poem “What the Wind, Rain, and Thunder Said to Tom” seems to meet Horton’s call with a corresponding response, this time addressed from the elements to mankind:
Become your own full sky. Own
every damn sound that struts through your ears.
Shove notes in your head till they bust out where
your eyes supposed to shine. Cast your lean
brightness across the world and folk will stare
Why is the Black mind a continuous mind? Because the work of freedom is slow. Therefore, our voices must be ever resourceful, traveling forward and backward in time, lending themselves to and beyond our own age in an ongoing collective undertaking.
I like to believe that Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1968 poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland,” in commanding “Live! / and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind,” is seeking in part to tend to and bolster the beleaguered spirit that calls out from Fenton Johnson’s “Song of the Whirlwind”:
Oh, my soul is in the whirlwind,
I am dying in the valley,
Oh, my soul is in the whirlwind
And my bones are in the valley
Angelina Weld Grimké’s early-twenties anti-lynching sonnet, “Trees,” seems also to be directly invoked or reactivated by Brooks’s 1957 poem “The Chicago Defender Sends a Man to Little Rock,” written to mark the backlash, in Little Rock, Arkansas, against the desegregating presence of the Little Rock Nine. Grimké’s poem closes with the following sestet:
Yet here amid the wistful sounds of leaves,
A black-hued gruesome something swings and swings,
Laughter it knew and joy in little things
Till man’s hate ended all. —And so man weaves.
And God, how slow, how very slow weaves He—
Was Christ Himself not nailèd to a tree?
As if to underscore Grimké’s impatience at the slow, slow weaving of both man and God, Brooks’s final lines veer toward the imagery and rhythm of Grimké’s—though perhaps her shortened meter is also an attempt to accelerate the pace of redress:
I saw a bleeding brownish boy. . . .
The lariat lynch-wish I deplored.
The loveliest lynchee was our Lord.
These and other correspondences between poets and across time periods remind me that Black poetry has long occupied itself with the essential work of stewarding a people—and perhaps all people—into the light of freedom. It is a labor of necessity, a struggle under burden. It is also the glorious work of seeding the future.
The blk mind is a continuous mind. Black poets must be awake to their time, attuned to the past, and—in the words of the poet and educator David Wadsworth Cannon, Jr., who was published only posthumously at the behest of family and friends—ever yearning out toward “the pulse of aeons yet to be.”
From the foreword to Minor Notes: Vol. 1, edited by Joshua Bennett and Jesse McCarthy, to be published by Penguin Classics in April.
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