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For Harper, history and mythology are related.  The mythologies of white supremacy, for instance,

 is marred by the history it engenders,  rigidly encasing humanity in static categories.

harper.jpg (39838 bytes)


Books by Michael Harper

Songlines in Michaeltree: New and Collected Poems  / Every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep: An Anthology of African American Poetry Since 1945

The Vintage Book of African American Poetry / The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown / Images of Kin

Dear John, Dear Coltrane / Debridement / Honorable Amendments / Chant of Saints / Healing Song for the  Inner Ear /

Hear Where Coltrane Is Cassette / History Is Your Own Heartbeat / Nightmare Begins Responsibility / Rhode Island: Eight Poems

Selected Poems / Song: I Want a Witness / Photographs: Negatives: History as Apple Tree

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Michael S. Harper

Poet Scholar, University Professor


Michael S. Harper—born in Brooklyn, New York, to Walter Warren Harper, a postal worker, and Katherine Johnson Harper, a medical stenographer—earned a B.A. and M.A. from what is now known as California State University, and an M.F.A. from the University of Iowa. In 1951, his family moved  to a predominantly white Los Angeles neighborhood filled  with racial tension which was traumatic enough to "make" him a poet. The extensive record collection of his family would eventually profoundly affect Harper's poetry. Though in high school Harper wrote a few poems, he had not yet considered writing as a career option.

In 1955, Harper enrolled at Los Angeles City College, and then Los Angeles State College, which he attended until 1961, during which time he was also employed as a postal worker. He says that his life began here. The experiences of other postal workers, which they shared freely, and his own experience of segregated housing at the Iowa Writer's Workshop formed the foundation of Harper’s assessment of America as a schizophrenic society. Nonetheless, Harper credits his years at Los Angeles State, where he read John Keats's letters and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, for preparing him for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which he began in 1961.

After a year there, Harper taught at various schools, including Pasadena City College (1962), Contra Costa College (1964-1968), and California State College (now University, 1968-1969).

While at Iowa, the only black student in both his poetry and fiction classes, Harper lived in segregated housing, which  influenced his thinking  and further demonstrated the schizophrenia of American society, a mode of thinking that separates and opposes, contrary to what Harper sees as a holistic universe where humanity is a reflection of the universe, and the universe is a reflection of humanity. This philosophical perspective served as a basis for Harper's aesthetics themes and strategies, which include music, kinship, history, and mythology.

For Harper, history and mythology are related.  The mythologies of white supremacy, for instance, is marred by the history it engenders,  rigidly encasing humanity in static categories. Harper's writings manipulate old European and American myths and create new ones. His first poetry volume was Dear John, Dear Coltrane (1970).  For Harper, Coltrane, whom Harper knew, is both the man and his jazz. Harper included the music of poetry as a means to affirm and articulate suffering in black life and culture, to gain from it and survive it.

Here, as in Harper's later volumes, the rhythms of black music replaces the metrics of traditional English without sacrificing craft. Coltrane becomes the link. Harper devotes a section of the volume to poems about his own kin; his family become continuities of humanity, linking personal and collective history. 

History Is Your Own Heartbeat  (1971) won for Harper the Poetry Award of the Black Academy of Arts and Letters. This volume focuses on Harper's family, rather than musicians.  Song: I Want a Witness (1972) uses the religion of blacks as a subtext for its meditations on history, while, in the second section, Harper dialogues with William Faulkner’s short story "The Bear." With a further emphasis on family, Harper published the limited edition Photographs: Negatives: History as Apple Tree (1972). 

In Nightmare Begins Responsibility (1975), Harper continued his variations on kinship, history, the wholistic universe, and an individual's responsibility. Song: I Want a Witness and Debridement  (1973) had dealt with the same material as his 1975 volume and felt by some to be Harper’s richest volume. Here Harper used poems to address kinship in a jazz-blues idiom; and as a means of dealing with the death of his friend Ralph Albert Dickey. Images of Kin (1977) won Harper the Melville-Cane Award and a nomination for the 1978 National Book Award. Three other volumes, Rhode Island: Eight Poems  (1981),  Healing Song for the  Inner Ear (1985), and a limited edition entitled Songlines: Mosaics (1991) have also been published.

Michael S. Harper

As a poet, scholar, and teacher, Harper's reputation  by the mid 1970s was firmly established.  He won a number of other award, including the National Institute of Arts and Letters Creative Writing Award (1972), a Guggenheim fellowship (1976), and a National Endowment for the Arts grant (1977), and an American specialist grant in 1977, which  allow him trave to Ghana, South Africa, Zaire, Senegal, Gambia, Botswana, Zambia, and Tanzania. Such overseas adventures influenced his thinking and writing. Writers Gayl Jones, Melvin Dixon, and Anthony Walton were Harper students.

Harper edited The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown  (1980); he is co-editor with Anthony Walton of The Vintage Book of African American Poetry  (2000) and Every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep: An Anthology of African American Poetry Since 1945 (1994), and with Robert B. Stepto of Chant of Saints: A Gathering of Afro-American Literature, Art, and Scholarship (1979).

He was the first Poet Laureate of the State of Rhode Island (1988-1993) and has received many other honors, including a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation and a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Award. Michael S. Harper is University Professor and Professor of English at Brown University, where he has taught since 1970. He lives in Barrington, Rhode Island.

Presently, Michael S. Harper, is a Brown University Professor of 19th- and 20th-Century British and American Poetry; Poetry Theory; African-American Literature; African Literature; Yeats, Ralph Ellison, Robert Hayden and Sterling A. Brown.

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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Behind the Dream

The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation

By Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly

I Have a Dream.” When those words were spoken on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, the crowd stood, electrified, as Martin Luther King, Jr. brought the plight of African Americans to the public consciousness and firmly established himself as one of the greatest orators of all time. Behind the Dream is a thrilling, behind-the-scenes account of the weeks leading up to the great event, as told by Clarence Jones, co-writer of the speech and close confidant to King. Jones was there, on the road, collaborating with the great minds of the time, and hammering out the ideas and the speech that would shape the civil rights movement and inspire Americans for years to come.—Palgrave Macmillan

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The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story

of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government

By Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer

American democracy is informed by the 18th century’s most cutting edge thinking on society, economics, and government. We’ve learned some things in the intervening 230 years about self interest, social behaviors, and how the world works. Now, authors Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer argue that some fundamental assumptions about citizenship, society, economics, and government need updating. For many years the dominant metaphor for understanding markets and government has been the machine. Liu and Hanauer view democracy not as a machine, but as a garden. A successful garden functions according to the inexorable tendencies of nature, but it also requires goals, regular tending, and an understanding of connected ecosystems. The latest ideas from science, social science, and economics—the cutting-edge ideas of today—generate these simple but revolutionary ideas: (The economy is not an efficient machine. It’s an effective garden that need tending. Freedom is responsibility. Government should be about the big what and the little how. True self interest is mutual interest.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 10 May 2012




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Related files: The Quotable Michael Harper  Michael Harper Bio   What is Black Poetry?