Black History, Black Words, Black Lives

February is Black History Month, which seems like a good time to highlight some of the new materials we have by and about African-Americans and their lived experiences. Eva S. ’18 writes about some of the stuff we’ve gotten recently.

Of Poetry and Protest: From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, edited by Philip Cushway and Michael Warr

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech, editor Philip Cushway and poet Michael Warr created a collection of poems from African-American writers.  This is not just a collection of poetry; beautiful pictures of the poets, photographed by Victoria Smith, as well as carefully chosen images from the Black Panther Party until today provide a glimpse into the African-American experience in a tangible, multifaceted way over time.  Thomas Sayers Ellis’ poem “The Identity Repairman” highlights the changing language surrounding people of color that symbolizes African-American advancement in society.  His poem begins with “AFRICAN: I am rooted./Ask the land./ I am lyric./ Ask the sea.” and ends hauntingly with “AFRICAN-AMERICAN: “Before I was born,/ I absorbed struggle./ Just looking/ at history hurts.”

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images  The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, edited by Jesmyn Ward

Inspired by James Baldwin’s speech The Fire Next Time, Jesmyn Ward has compiled a powerful collection of essays and poems called The Fire This Time, which takes a contemporary look at the racial tensions that have underscored our country’s history for centuries.  In her introduction, Ward asserts that “We cannot talk about black lives mattering or police brutality without reckoning with the very foundation of this country.”  It is with this simple and honest, yet incredibly complex statement that the stories of current black writers unfold to reveal the reality of people of color in a society still dealing with the aftermath of slavery.  However, Ward’s book also gives hope to the reader and to the authors.  She says, “I believe that there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words.  That sharing our stories confirms our humanity.”

 

The Black Panthers: Portraits from an Unfinished Revolution, edited by Bryan Shih and Yohuru Williams

Despite the efforts of the FBI to silence and demonize the Black Panther Party during their height in the 1960’s, this collection allows the stories of everyday, working-class members of the Party to share their stories of bravery.  Bryan Shih, a photojournalist, illuminates the voices of these members with thoughtful portraits, full of grace.  Yohuru Williams, a historian, enriches the experience with the social context of the time.  Flipping through the collection, the weathered faces of the former members stand out with their clear, strong gazes and unfazed expressions.  Their stories are equally strong and sometimes unbelievably horrifying and difficult.  Throughout the book, however, the sense of justice that these men and women carry with them brings a greater purpose to the book than only their stories.  As Melvin Dickson, a crucial member of the Party and co-founder of the Commemoration Committee for the Black Panther Party, said, “That’s what makes the legacy of the Black Panther Party matter- that we loved beyond ourselves.”

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