James A. Emanuel and the African American Literary Tradition

The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

The personal papers of poet, teacher, editor, and literary critic James A. Emanuel (1921-2013) are available to researchers through the Library of Congress Manuscript Division. Emanuel’s meticulous notes and revisions of his poems, a draft of his autobiography, and materials that chart his connections with other Black writers and poets reside on archival shelves in the company of the papers of other Black intellectuals Emanuel knew or admired—among them Frederick Douglass, Herbert Hill, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes.

Emanuel particularly revered poet, playwright, short story writer, and culture conveyer Langston Hughes (1902-1967), and considered Hughes a mentor and primary inspiration for his own life as a Black poet and writer. His 1967 study, Langston Hughes, was the first major literary and biographical analysis of Hughes. Emanuel based it in part on interviews with the writer in the last years of his life, as well as in reference to Hughes’ long canon of published works. While Hughes rose to prominence in the Harlem Renaissance and New Negro Movement era of the 1920s, Emanuel wrote about him amidst the great societal consciousness-raising of Black Pride activism and the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s.

Black and white photo of Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes, 1942. Jack Delano, photographer. Prints & Photographs Division.

First interview with Langston Hughes, 1960. James A. Emanuel Papers, Manuscript Division.

James A. Emanuel. James A. Emanuel Papers, Manuscript Division.

Emanuel taught for years as a professor at the City University of New York, where he initiated the university’s first class devoted to African American poetry. His study of Hughes was followed soon by the anthology Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America (1968), which he edited with Theodore L. Gross. They produced the collection in a time when the literature of African Americans was rarely taught in classrooms or promoted to a wide reading audience. Their book was particularly intended as outreach to a new generation of rising African American students—as a source of knowledge, pride, and self-worth, and as a corrective medium for healing from traumas of racial discrimination. They also sought to reform intellectual constructions prevalent in the academy that excluded African American writers from prominence or acclaim. The collection began with Frederick Douglass, Charles Waddell Chesnutt, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and W.E.B. Du Bois, and featured among its major authors Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin. Among the female writers represented were Paule Marshall, Margaret Walker, Mari Evans, and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Dark Symphony—whose title and epigram comes from the work of Melvin B. Tolson (“Across barricades of Jim Crowism . . . / We advance!”)—came out in the same year as Emanuel’s first book of published poems, Treehouse and Other Poems (1968), and was soon followed by Panther Man (1970). Emanuel went on to teach and write internationally. He was awarded teaching fellowships in France and Poland, and engaged in reading tours and literary conferences in Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Africa. He often educated his audiences by reading and analyzing the works of other Black poets as well as his own.

His poetry drew from personal experience but also from history and current news, including poems dedicated to the historian John Hope Franklin, the Freedom Riders, Emmett Till, and Juan Romero. Like Richard Wright, Emanuel was attracted to the Haiku form late in his career. He published Jazz from the Haiku King in 1999. Inspired in part by Hughes, who often did his poetry readings in the company of jazz pianists or college glee clubs, Emanuel presented his work in tandem with the sound of the saxophone or other jazz instruments.

Emanuel’s immersion in, and promotion of, the Black literary tradition included appreciation of other living poets, among them Don L. Lee (Haki R. Madhubuti) (b. 1942) and Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000). Madhubuti founded the Third World Press in Chicago in 1967, the same year that Emanuel published Langston Hughes. The press did much to promote Brooks’ career and that of other Black writers, underscoring the importance of creative forums for Black writing necessary for Black poets to thrive. Just as Langston Hughes found an outlet for his work in Crisis magazine, so Brooks published in the Black newspaper The Chicago Defender, and later with Madhubuti’s press. Madhubuti penned a series of commentary poems in tribute to Brooks at various points in her career. That career included receiving the first Pulitzer Prize awarded to a Black writer (in 1950, for Annie Allen), and the fruitful time, in 1985, she spent with the Library of Congress as consultant in poetry, working on the second volume of her autobiography and doing outreach with local schools. Madhubuti’s poem, “Gwendolyn Brooks,” regarding her critical reception by other poets, was published in his collection Don’t Cry, Scream (1969).

Mural painting of Gwendolyn Brooks, Chicago, 2008. Camilo J. Vergara, photographer. Prints & Photographs Division.

James A. Emanuel, notes, 1970 interview with Gwendolyn Brooks. James A. Emanuel Papers, Manuscript Division.

There is confluence between Brooks’ work and Emanuel’s as well. In a July 1970 interview with Brooks documented in the James A. Emanuel Papers, he questioned Brooks about her poem “sick man looks at flowers,” a seven-line poem from A Catch of Shy Fish. He asked her about voice—the “you” and “me” of the poem—and Brooks responded that “the poet speaks at the start; the sick man speaks at the end.” Then he asked a question expressive of his abiding interest in youth as an audience. Did she think “a sixteen-year-old could understand the feelings of an aged sick person like the protagonist of this poem?” “Yes, I think so,” said Brooks. He also asked her how she thought young people could best learn about poetry. She said by reading a lot of it, and writing it themselves. She also noted that she had learned the phrase she used as title for her poem “We Real Cool” from overhearing young girls use it “at a party once, while they were having a good time, and the phrase stayed in my mind.” And she emphasized the importance of meeting the need for young people of high school age to look in poems and be able to find “themselves or their own situations.” This concern continues to be addressed today at the Library of Congress through the work of Jason Reynolds as National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature.

The Brooks poem “sick man looks at flowers” is about a man in pain and waning near death in a situation of confinement and isolation, who beholds the sudden extravagant lush bloom of a red flower in his room. Does the flowering offer a shift in consciousness toward revitalization, joy, and solace; or does it mock his deteriorating state? In 1986-1987, Emanuel penned a similar poem called “Flowers Pop Open.” It is saved in draft form in his papers and was published in his collection Deadly James (1987) and in Whole Grain, his selected works from 1958-1989. Emanuel’s son, James, Jr., committed suicide in 1983 after an incident of police brutality. Emanuel moved to France, where he wrote looking out a Paris window, much as Hughes once did. In “Flowers Pop Open,” he reports awaiting an emergent yellow flower blooming from a window box, and notes its wondrous process of appearance as an antidote to angst. Rivers may flood, lightning may strike, the earthquake may do damage afar, but, he writes, “a lovely magic kept its promise / to the evening air: / a flower popped open / against all logic, / all despair.”

James A. Emanuel, draft, “Flowers Pop Open,” 1986. James A. Emanuel Papers, Manuscript Division.

Further Resources:

  • Peter Armenti, Gwendolyn Brooks. Online Resources Guide. Library of Congress.
  • James A. Emanuel, Whole Grain: Collected Poems, 1958-1989. Detroit: Lotus Press, 1991.
  • Anne Holmes, “We Real Cool: Two Ways,” Library of Congress blog.
  • Langston Hughes, A Langston Hughes Reader. New York: George Braziller, 1958.

One Comment

  1. Mark Higbee
    February 3, 2022 at 9:53 am

    Thank you for this informative post. I do not know of James Emanuel’s work, but I should. His interactions with Gwendolyn Brooks described here are very interesting to learn about.

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