When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry

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A Year in Reading: Kevin Young

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Did I read this year? Yes. Can I recall what I read? Barely. Reading in 2020 was the promise in March of a short quarantine filled with novels, followed by a long summer of unrest, and ending with another looming lockdown. Today I have stacks of books I mean to get to and far more that I dip in and out of. Luckily poetry can be good for that, and after publishing my anthology of African American Poetry, I was glad to have an anthology like When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through: A Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, edited by Poet Laureate Joy Harjo and others.


At the Schomburg Center where I’ve been director the past 4 years, we put out over the summer a Black Liberation Reading List for Adults and for Young Readers, with specific titles for Kids and Teens. The list encapsulates what a wide range of what our staff, librarians, and Shop leaders see as being important in the field; overall it makes an argument that liberation is larger than history or nonfiction about race, but rather is best represented by Black authors in many genres, from poetry to books about cooking to children’s books. In their rich engagement with the past while looking toward the future, many such Black Liberation books see joy as a revolutionary act, and are ones I’ve turned to this year–including poetry like Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Terrance Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, and Natasha Trethewey’s Monument. Both those writers also released terrific nonfiction books in the past year, powerful meditations on loss and family and influence: Terrance’s To Float in the Space Between and Natasha’s recent Memorial Drive.

In the process of working on a new nonfiction book, I have also turned a lot to biography, often of figures a century ago who endured times not unlike ours that led us into the Roaring Twenties. One author I’ve returned to is Dorothy West, the writer Langston Hughes called The Kid and often referred to as the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance. Her uncollected stories and essays are gathered in The Richer, The Poorer, and her novel The Wedding was a late success written from her family house and writing perch on Martha’s Vineyard and published in her 80s. Reading her reminds me that there’s still time to find the right words, and ultimately reminds me of summer, and looking forward to when it might come again. I’m saving the cocktail books I’ve been reading for then.

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