“I write because I cannot stand by and say nothing, because I strive to make sense of the world I’ve been given, because the soul sings for justice and the song is poetry,” says Natasha Trethewey, the nineteenth poet laureate of the United States, in “Of Poetry and Protest.” Designed for a wide audience, including nontraditional readers of poetry, this is a necessary book for Chicagoan’s imaginations, consciences and coffee tables in a time of danger and cultural flux. It is a thoughtful collection of more than forty of America’s best known black poets, including Illinois and Chicago poets Angela Jackson, Ed Roberson, Haki Madhubuti, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Duriel E. Harris and Sterling D. Plumpp. Their work and personal stories are accompanied by full-page black and white portraits by photographer Victoria Smith.
The anthology points to what underlies black lives and black poetry—oppression. Poets didn’t necessarily aim to write “protest” poetry, but as Amiri Baraka says, “it was simply to continue the tales about our own lives. As long as the oppressed tell their true story, it will carry the edge of protest.” The book is prefaced with essays by Baraka, Jeannine Amber and Harry Belafonte, situating the “presence of death” in a cultural timeline from the Civil Rights Movement to Trayvon Martin’s death.
The book also features historic and contemporary images. The searing photograph of Mamie Till-Mobley clutching the side of her son’s casket is juxtaposed with Cornelius Eady’s poem “Emmett Till’s Glass-Top Casket.” The poignant artwork “Hoodie” by Chris Koehler features opposite “New Rules of the Road” by Reginald Harris. They remind the reader that risk and threat is still never far away for young black men.
For readers of poetry, the book provides a useful map of poetic influences. In their personal narratives, the poets point to Gwendolyn Brooks as a cultural mentor, as well as the legacy of the Black Arts Movement. They also cite spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, hip hop, rap, call and response and the black vernacular as guides to their musicality.
As a quote from President Barack Obama says—reproduced in calligraphy by Ward Schumaker—“Poetry Matters. Poetry, Like All Art, Gives Shape and Texture And Depth of Meaning to Our Lives.” This beautiful book reminds us why. (Toni Nealie)
“Of Poetry and Protest”
Edited By Philip Cushway and Michael Warr
W.W. Norton, 224 pages, $21.95
Toni Nealie is the Literary Editor of Newcity and the author of the essay collection “The Miles Between Me.” A Pushcart Prize nominee, her essays have appeared in Guernica Magazine, Rust Belt: Chicago, The Rumpus, The Offing, Essay Daily, Chicago Quarterly Review, Hobart, Entropy and elsewhere. She worked in magazine journalism, politics and PR in her native New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Singapore and now edits, writes and teaches in Chicago. Find her at toninealie.com and on Twitter @tnealie. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.