Spanning over two hundred years, Michael Harper's and Anthony Walton's anthology The Vintage Book of African American Poetry produces a vast narration of struggle, love, race, and redemption through the work of fifty poets. The poems not only voice a vision of black identity, but also depict a distinctly American experience. As the editors explain in their introduction:
From the jazz age of the 1920s to the beat 1950s, the politically torn 1960s and '70s, and the turbulent youth culture of today, the American mainstream has turned to black cultural forms to voice its heartache and discontent as well as its hopes and ambitions. The African American poetic tradition has borne witness to that space just out of sight that is the web of personal, social, and biological realities that in the end circumscribes all.
The anthology is arranged chronologically, beginning with classic verse of the slave-born poets Jupitor Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, and concluding with the dramatic monologues of Elizabeth Alexander and poems by Reginald Shepherd. Each poet is introduced with a concise biographical and literary commentary, which provides useful context and understanding.
There are sobering poems about slavery and daily life, fierce political statements, and quiet musings about spirituality and love. Testifying to the powerful bond these writers feel toward their historical and literary ancestry, an extraordinary number of the poems discuss African American history, particularly paying tribute to other African American poets.
The anthology sketches the history of the diverse influences and styles in African American poetry, starting with the merger of folk and English traditions in the work of Paul Laurence Dunbar, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Sterling Brown. The jazz inspired rhythms of the Harlem Renaissance can be heard in poems by Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Countee Cullen. The Black Arts Movement is represented by Sonia Sanchez and Etheridge Knight, while the major American poetry movements are also present in the modernism of Jean Toomer, the experimental and Beat verse of Bob Kaufman and Amiri Baraka, and the postmodern realism of Yusef Komunyakaa.
For additional resources on African American poets, consult In Search of Color Everywhere, edited by E. Ethelbert Miller, illustrated by Terrance Cummings, and published by Stewart, Tabori, & Chang in 1996.