It’s a joy to celebrate African-American History Month: This February, I stumbled onto some great programs on PBS that deepened my understanding of African American contributions to world culture. I also want to review two poetry books recommended to me by poet Marti Palar. So let’s get going!
‘Forgotten Genius’ on PBS
In my endless channel surfing that usually produces nothing but disgust, I was thrilled to find "Forgotten Genius" on Channel 13, our New York public television station. The NOVA episode followed the astonishing career of Dr. Julian Percy (1899-1975), an African American chemist who pioneered the development of steroids. In a long career at Glidden, he developed ways to produce steroids from yams and soy. Then founding his own lab, he discovered new ways to make cortisone affordable—even sacrificing profits in the process. He fought racism at every turn to make this huge scientific contribution and could have done much more had not the culture worked against him. So, the next time your doctor prescribes cortisone, breathe a word of thanks to Dr. Percy.
Ella Fitzgerald too
Did you know that Ella Fitzgerald, aka "the First Lady of Song," grew up in Yonkers? You may be thinking about her as she’s currently on a US postage stamp celebrating Black History Month. In another channel-surfing miracle, I discovered her singing her standards from shows in 1957 and 1963. Stunning in a satin and jeweled gown, she exhibited her awesome scat abilities and, in an amazing moment, imitated Louis Armstrong to perfection. Quincy Jones calls her, along with Louis and Count Basie, "the Bachs and Beethovens of our generation." I heard a lot of Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Williams in my house growing up, and feel like these giants raised me as much as my parents.
Tracy K. Smith, The Body’s Question (Graywolf, 2006)
People say there are two themes in poetry: love and loss. Tracy Smith deals with both expertly in poems nostalgic for her mother, and thoughts of lovers past and present. Poetry, Ferlinghetti says, is like "the shook foil of the imagination," that should "shine out and half blind you." Smith achieves this dazzle in lines from poems such as "Mangoes":
She considers her hands, at restLike pale fruits in her lap. Should she
Gather them in her skirt and hurry
Down the tree in reverse, greedy
For a vivid mouthful of something
Smith weaves strong narratives in expert lyricism that are really a pleasure to read.
Terrance Hayes, Wind in a Box (Penguin, 2006)
Terrance Hayes tackles issues of race unflinchingly in this wonderful book. He has an outrageousness: Imagine four poems with the same title, or whole lines crossed out but left in the poem. Usually such effects cover weak work—but Hayes’s craft is strong. He also inserts a graphic, reflecting the title, on opposing pages throughout the book. Furthermore, he writes about contemporary cultural figures such as Melvin Van Peebles and David Bowie. Here are some sample lines from "Root":
My parents would have had me believe
there was no such thing as race
there in the wild backyard, our knees black
with store-bought grass and dirt,
black as the soil of pastures or of orchards
grown above the graves.
All I can say is "Wow!"
Introducing the book
Thanks to award-winning poet Janet Kaplan for sharing this hilarious video with me:
Deemed one of the 12 most important podcasts by Fast Company, SmArt History
is a new way to enjoy art history:
Wishing everyone imagination that shines like shook foil.
Until next time,