Collections of African-American verse celebrate beauty of brown-skinned world


February 25, 1994|By Molly Dunham Glassman | Molly Dunham Glassman,Sun Staff Writer

The merits of Black History Month are open to debate. Does it imply that African-Americans are not part of our history the other 11 months of the year? Does the same hold true for women, who get their own month in March?

Such packaging does help reinforce the misguided notion that it's OK for Anglo-Saxon white males to continue to play the leading roles in history books, as long as there are chapters set aside about "acceptable" blacks and women.

On the other hand, at least more books about African-Americans and women are being published -- rushing off the presses for release in February and March. Here are four books of verse worth checking out, including works by Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni that are being reissued for discovery by a new generation.

* "The Dream Keeper and Other Poems" was the only collection for young people written by Hughes (1902-1967). To the original 59 poems, editors have added seven in a handsome new volume illustrated by Brian Pinkney (Knopf, $12, 96 pages, all ages).

Each spread includes a scratchboard illustration by Mr. Pinkney, whose award-winning work includes "The Ballad of Belle Dorcas," "Sukey and the Mermaid" and "The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural." The book ends with a note from storyteller Augusta Baker, a friend of Hughes' who shared these poems with children as a librarian in Harlem in the late 1930s.

It is a volume I can picture 50 years from now, its binding bent and its pages worn, propped in a place of honor among a family's hand-me- down treasures.

Hughes' syncopated rhythms and his blues are timeless. Here are lullabies and spirituals, songs of hope and poems of despair. This is "Song":

Lovely, dark and lonely one,

Bare your bosom to the sun.

Do not be afraid of light,

You who are a child of night.

Open wide your arms to life,

Whirl in the wind of pain and strife,

Face the wall with the dark closed gate,

Beat with bare, brown fists --

And wait.

* "ego-tripping: and other poems for young people," by Nikki Giovanni, illustrated by George Ford (Lawrence Hill Books, $14.95, 54 pages, all ages) was first published in 1973. This new edition adds 10 poems to the original 23 and includes a fine introduction by Newbery Medal winner Virginia Hamilton.

Share this with children who will wonder how a woman was rapping 20 years ago. Let Ms. Giovanni stir memories of Black Panthers and Afros, of "Jerry Butler, Wilson Pickett, the Impressions, Temptations, mighty mighty Sly . . ." And then read the end of "nikka-rosa":

and I really hope no white person ever has cause

to write about me

because they never understand

Black love is Black wealth and they'll

probably talk about my hard childhood

and never understand that

all the while I was quite happy

* Ms. Giovanni celebrated that childhood in "Knoxville, Tennessee," a 1968 poem that has become a picture book, illustrated by Larry Johnson (Scholastic, $14.95, 32 pages, all ages).

Mr. Johnson's oil paintings capture the bright green heat of a summer Sunday, grown-ups gossiping at tables under the trees at the church picnic, girls playing double-Dutch and running barefoot in the grass, and, finally, Grandmother tucking into bed one tuckered-out little girl.

* "Brown Honey in Broomwheat Tea" is a new collection of poems by Joyce Carol Thomas, illustrated by Floyd Cooper (HarperCollins, $15, 32 pages, all ages). Ms. Thomas won the National Book Award for the novel, "Marked By Fire." Mr. Cooper has illustrated "Grandpa's Face" and "Chita's Christmas Tree," among others.

Here are 12 poems, each accompanied by a full-page painting done in a soft oil wash. They are warm, filled with images of nature in browns and bronzes, as in this excerpt from "Cherish Me":

I sprang up from mother earth

She clothed me in her own colors

I was nourished by father sun

He glazed the pottery of my skin.

* Patricia McKissack, who has won numerous awards for books ranging from "The Dark Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural" to "Mirandy and Brother Wind" will present two free programs of storytelling next month. She will perform from 6:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. March 15 at Goucher College's Kraushaar Auditorium, and during the same hours March 16 at Randallstown High School, 4000 Offutt Road.

Greetings & Readings bookstore is providing funding for the performances and will offer books for sale, which Ms. McKissack will autograph. Tickets are available, starting Tuesday, at Baltimore County and Carroll County public libraries, and at Greetings & Readings, Loch Raven Boulevard and Taylor

Avenue, Towson. Call (410) 887-6127.

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