Published December 5, 2016

This week’s episode is about the power of poetry, from international icon Maya Angelou to former national poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Natasha Tretheway. Both these poets imbue their work with a consciousness of the powerful impact of race, politics, and history on their lives.

In the Short Listen for this week, we’re looking at Maya Angelou’s Africa with Kenyan scholar Besi Muhonja. She explains how Angelou viewed Africa as a regenerative place for black Americans while remaining deeply conscious of the continent’s history with colonialism. At a time when pan-Africanism was ascendant and American civil rights leaders flocked to newly independent African nations, she captured this optimistic arc of history in her poem Africa:

Thus she had lain
sugercane sweet
deserts her hair
golden her feet
mountains her breasts
two Niles her tears.
Thus she has lain
Black through the years.

Over the white seas
rime white and cold
brigands ungentled
icicle bold
took her young daughters
sold her strong sons
churched her with Jesus
bled her with guns.
Thus she has lain.

Now she is rising
remember her pain
remember the losses
her screams loud and vain
remember her riches
her history slain
now she is striding
although she has lain.

(You can even listen to Angelou herself read the poem, set to a jazz backbeat by Senegalese-American producer Fallou Diop, here.)

Tretheway, too, was touched by the racial politics of her day. The child of an interracial marriage still illegal in the Mississippi of her birth, her poem History Lesson is a particularly poignant reminder of the impact of racist policies on generations of African Americans:

I am four in this photograph, standing
on a wide strip of Mississippi beach,
my hands on the flowered hips

of a bright bikini. My toes dig in,
curl around wet sand. The sun cuts
the rippling Gulf in flashes with each

tidal rush. Minnows dart at my feet
glinting like switchblades. I am alone
except for my grandmother, other side

of the camera, telling me how to pose.
It is 1970, two years after they opened
the rest of this beach to us,

forty years since the photograph

where she stood on a narrow plot
of sand marked
colored, smiling,

her hands on the flowered hips
of a cotton meal-sack dress.

If you want to read up on our subjects for this week’s show, check out The Poetry Foundation. There, you can find everything from an archive of Maya Angelou’s works to readings and analysis from the poets themselves, like this one of Elegy for the Native Guards by Natasha Tretheway:

Spend some time and immerse yourself in poetry — and along the way, take a look at James Madison University’s Furious Flower Poetry Center, who’s retrospective on Maya Angelou was part of the inspiration for this week’s show. They organized a panel on Maya Angelou’s global legacy in advance of the event, and it’s pretty interesting — give it a watch, below:


Learning Experience

Virginia History in Song

What can songs teach us about history?

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