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Friday, February 19, 2016

Thoughts on Race: The Poet-Professor and The College Sophomore


This month our book club choice was Americanah by Chimanda Ngozi Adichie. Americanah is a sweeping novel which explores, among so many other things, identity, race and the nature of love. Our book club discussion was heartfelt and revealing, but seemed to only scratch the surface.

I never even got to mention Robert Hayden.

Somewhere in my late teens, while researching in my college library, I came across a book of poems that someone had left on the table. In typical procrastination mode, I remember flipping through the book and falling in love with the poem Those Winter Sundays by Robert Hayden. I wasn't familiar with Hayden but there was was no internet then, no immediate access to information— I made a copy of the poem but must have pushed aside any curiosity about the poet and buckled down to my research project. 

Last week, while reading Americanah, I came across an allusion to Hayden. Since I didn't recognize the name, I googled him and discovered that he was a black poet born in a poor neighborhood in Detroit, the first African American to be appointed consultant to the Library of Congress. I wondered if I was familiar with any of his poems. 

One click and our beautiful age of technology transported me to the beige Formica table on the pristine second floor of the Montclair State library. I had just spread out my papers when I noticed the poetry anthology and thumbed through it.  

Those Winter Sundays touched a poignant chord in my emerging recognition of love's austere and lonely officesDismissing the poet's fear of chronic angers, I thought of my own father. His smooth, gentle hands didn't bank fires, but he did wake early to leave for work in the city, often staying until the last bus brought him home. Like the poet, I had never thanked him.  

While issues surrounding race, equality and what it means to be American continue to be discussed and debated, decades ago, an African-American poet-professor and a white bell-bottomed college sophomore proved what we are still struggling to learn— that which is deepest and most tender inside us transcends the cracked-but-far-from-crumbling-walls I wish I could tear down.