ThEmes

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“For more than 250 years,” writes poet and scholar Kevin Young in his introduction to the Lift Every Voice Reader, “African Americans have written and recited and published poetry about beauty and injustice, music and muses, Africa and America, freedoms and foodways, Harlem and history, funk and opera, boredom and longing, jazz and joy.” Across a turbulent history, from such vital centers as Harlem, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, Black poets created a rich and multifaceted tradition that has been both a reckoning with American realities and an imaginative response to them. Lift Every Voice encourages participants to reflect upon several humanities themes that emerge from a close examination of this tradition.
 
The project supports moderated discussions in communities across the nation to explore both these themes and other issues as revealed in African American poetry. Within each theme, it offers a sampling of poems ranging from the colonial period to the present to reveal the power of poetry as a means of self-assertion, of preserving and challenging history, and of giving voice to creative genius.

The Freedom
Struggle

African American poets have added their voices—and often their bodies—to the struggle for freedom and racial justice. Poet Kevin Young observes that “for African Americans, the very act of composing poetry proved a form of protest.” What forms and voices does Black protest poetry take on? How does it enrich and complicate our understanding of American ideals of freedom and self-determination?
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Black Identities

Self Assertion
& Self-Protection

African American poets have asserted their
blackness–with joy, with defiance, occasionally with bitterness at the pressure to downplay Black identity or hide it behind a protective mask. How do the voices and personae in African American poetry express the richness, depth, and variety of African American identity? What sorts of expressive (and subversive) freedoms do poetic personae and masks make possible?
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Black Experience
in History
& Memory

The past has been both a subject and a muse for African American poets, who have lamented the foundational trauma of slavery and its legacy even as they’ve celebrated the spirit of endurance, resistance, and grace that has become central to American identity. How do African American poets make use of Black history and experience, including its heroes and its martyrs? Is African American history a source of
symbolic power or a limitation for a poet? Does artistic freedom involve engagement or liberation from the past?
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Black Language
& Music

Black poetry has deep kinship with performance: music, Black preaching, and “code switching” between forms of language and speech. What makes an African American poem African American? How do different poets make use of the links to music (spirituals, blues, jazz, hip-hop), to African cultures, and vernacular language, and to what effects?
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Family &
Community

Ties of family and community are a perennial
subject for poetry. How have they been manifested in the African American poetic tradition? In what ways have African American poets depicted Black communities and their rituals? What is universal in these poems, and what is expressive of the uniqueness of the African American experience?
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