Legacies links for October 17, 2022: Black Poetry Day

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Portrait of Black poet Phillis Wheatley
Phillis Wheatley was captured in West Africa and spent most of her short life (1753–1784) as an enslaved person in New England. The publication of her book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (London, 1773), was a literary event on both sides of the Atlantic and she remained a popular poet (especially among abolitionists) well into the 19th century. Some recent scholarship has emphasized the philosophical sophistication she brought to her work. image source: Metropolitan Museum of Art

October 17 has been celebrated as Black Poetry Day since 1985. The date marks the birth of Jupiter Hammon (b. 1711), who is usually identified as the first published Black poet in America (1761). This seems like a good excuse to dip into the rich tradition of African American verse—a powerful tool for reckoning with slavery and the afterlives of slavery. An excellent place to begin is James Weldon Johnson’s classic anthology, The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922); then visit the Library of America’s comprehensive website, Lift Every Voice: A Nationwide Celebration of 250 Years of African American Poetry.

While it’s hard to pick favorites, we like the poetry of Phillis Wheatley, James Weldon Johnson, Arna Bontemps, Langston Hughes, Etheridge Knight (the subject of an engaging public humanities initiative at CIC member Butler University), and Tracy K. Smith.

Bonus links:

  • Turning to another form of cultural expression: We recently learned that Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin was also a significant figure in New York’s early-music revival scene of the 1950s–1960s, even recording an album in 1952 that paired “Elizabethan Songs & Negro Spirituals.” (The album was re-released this year as part of a compilation, Bayard Rustin—The Singer [Spotify link].) See Loren Ludwig, “Making Art and the Fight for Freedom,” Early Music America (September 19, 2022): LINK.
  • James D. Richardson, “Have We Chosen to Forget our Abolitionist Ancestors, Too?,” History News Network (October 9, 2022): LINK. The author discusses the nearly-forgotten history of his own ancestors, White abolitionists who helped found Huston-Tillotson University (an HBCU that serves as a Partner in the CIC Legacies network). “We didn’t just lose our memory—we buried it in a graveyard of white Christianity. The religious motivations of my ancestors would be almost unrecognizable in the dominant conservative white Protestant Christianity of today.”
  • “Magellan Project takes political science major south to study slavery,” Washington & Jefferson College (October 14, 2022): LINK. An independent study program at CIC member Washington & Jefferson College supported one student’s research trip to four Southern states to “study … how historic institutions in cities built on slave labor educate the public about slavery and its impact on present day America.”