ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Dear John, Dear Coltrane was a compilation of poems written over ten years: they were

struggles with maintaining a kind of hold on discipline and on one's stylistic controls

 with voice, with idiom, with line, with imagery, with the consistency of diction.



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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The Quotable Michael Harper


"In the beginning I never found poems in the American literary pantheon about the things I knew best. I decided that I would at least do my part and try to put some of those poems in there. At the time I was reading black American literature, mostly in anthologies. I didn't know about Sterling Brown. If I had, I would have taken a different approach..."

"In the 60s the critical thing in discovering the work of people who had preceded me was going to the folk archives of the San Francisco Library and listening to a recording of Sterling Brown and Robert Hayden. Not only did I get a chance to follow that up by reading their poems in books and anthologies, but I also heard their voices. That transformed a lot of things for me. I realized there was a musicality, a certain kind of artistic rigor that I hadn't heard before." (Gulf Coast, p. 8, 9)

In 1970, Dear John, Dear Coltrane, Harper's first collection of poems, was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press. It had been a submission for the University sponsored U.S. Poetry Prize. "Of the three judges for the Pittsburgh Prize in 1969...[Gwendolyn] Brooks liked my book enough to fight for it, and write me about it...When Gwendolyn Brooks writes to you, and you've never met her, praising your book, and fighting to see it published, it gives you a boost in confidence." (Callaloo, p. 787)

The book would bring him national recognition when nominated for the National Book Award.

"Dear John, Dear Coltrane was a compilation of poems written over ten years: they were struggles with maintaining a kind of hold on discipline and on one's stylistic controls with voice, with idiom, with line, with imagery, with the consistency of diction...The title poem is a eulogy for a musician I loved greatly." (Arts in Society, p. 470).

At about the time that History went to press, Harper came to Brown University as Associate Professor of English. "My first year in residence was 1971; I had had a year's leave in Illinois, written another book, been nominated for several awards, taken my family to Ireland to see the landscape of Yeats. My honors seminar in Yeats was taught with the intensity of the elect and the evangelical. We lived off Highway 44 in North Dighton, Massachusetts, on sixteen acres in a 200-year-old house; it looked like Uncle Tom's Cabin. There were cranberries. The neighbors kept their distance. We waited for the birth of our daughter while I taught classes and wrote..." (Brown Alumni Monthly '83, p 48).

Nightmare Begins Responsibility was published in 1975. It not only contains several sections of poems relating to his family, but also a wonderful section dedicated to Howard University Professor Emeritus Sterling A. Brown. Brown was Harper's inspiration, mentor, and friend. "Sterling always accused me of getting him out of his rocking chair when he was quite content to stay there..." (Callaloo, p. 797)

"I began to think about [the anthology that became Chant of Saints] in 1975 with the 50th anniversary of Survey Graphic, the magazine that became The New Negro. [Co-editor Robert Stepto and I] agreed that Sterling [A. Brown] was a seminal figure, a pioneer in black literature; certainly his Negro Caravan is a classic. Stepto culled Sterling's poems and came up with our title, Chant of Saints." (Callaloo, p. 797-99)

In 1979, Brown University sponsored a "Ralph Ellison Festival" celebrating the work of the author of Invisible Man, Shadow and Act and other works. "Ellison showed me that the artistic process is, in part, intellectual, that it conditions the process of the mind...He taught me to have courage in my own insights, and in the sacredness of technique." (Ploughshares, p. 20-21)

"Inman Page...was the first black graduate of Brown [Class of 1877].

And he was the principal of the school that Ralph Ellison went to as a kid - Frederick Douglass High School in Oklahoma ... That was how we got Ellison to come to Brown, his allegiance to Inman Page and to Page's daughter, Zellia Brogue, who taught Ellison high school." (Forum, p. 449) As part of the festival, Ellison was presented with a watercolor study of his mentor by the artist, Richard Yarde.

1983 brought Harper the academic recognition earned with more than 20 years of teaching: he was appointed the Israel J. Kapstein Professor of English at Brown University. Interviewed at the time, Harper said the chair "brings a greater responsibility on my part to be a good teacher because Kappy was a great teacher. And I have a greater responsibility to remain an artist and to use the time that I have well and to nourish myself to keep the creative juices flowing.

In the 1990s Harper was the recipient of many awards, including an honorary degree from Notre Dame College.


He was also awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters from Coe College. The Coe College events later made up a special section of the 1991 issue of Callaloo: A Journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters. It includes a series of essays by Harper's friends and former students, each of whom remembered him in special (if telling) ways:

From Robert Stepto: "When I think of Michael the teacher, I think of phrases like, 'where is the bibliography?' or. 'Where are the pages?' or, 'Ok, you got stuck; on what page did you get stuck?'...the follow-up line goes like this: 'Oh, I see; you got stuck on page two. Let me see page two. Oh, you don't have it. You threw it away. Well, let me see page one, your first paragraph. You don't have that? Let me see now: you had an assignment; it is not done; you got stuck on page two; you don't have page two or even page one. I think we're going to have to call your Mama. Let me have the number - or have you lost that, too?'" (p. 803)

From Anthony Walton: "I'll never forget my first serious talk with him. He stared at me with his Crazy Horse on a bad day glare...and said, matter-of-factly, 'Boy, I'm gonna teach you things you ain't gonna understand for 10 or 20 years.' During that session he also demolished my most accomplished and favorite poem to that point; asked me in a cryptic and menacing way if I knew anything about the Civil War; told me that he thought I had it in me to write a good book someday but that it was up to me, not him; waved me out the door with a brusque, 'Go on. Boy, you gonna spoil my lunch.'" (p. 808)

In 1994, Michael Harper and co-editor Anthony Walton published Every Shut Eye Ain't Sleep: An Anthology of African American Poetry Since 1945. [The anthology] "is dedicated to the achievement of Sterling A. Brown, as a poet and folksayist, scholar-teacher, and pioneering wordsmith in a dynamic American lexicon, especially the laconic meditations and metaphysics extant in folkspeech as the underbelly of the nation's lexicon."

"I am connected to Coltrane, to Charlie Parker, to Billie Holliday, to Bessie Smith, to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and to all the master musicians who operate in our tradition, to expand it, carry it on, refine it, enliven it, and make it consistent with the aspirations, the human aspirations, of the people in the particular context in which they live, where the music is a vibrant kind of exponential factor directed toward their desires, toward their dreams, their visions of themselves as irreducible spirits." (Arts in Society, p. 469)

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 - Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark
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#3 - Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane
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#16 - The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

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#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


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#4 - Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper
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#6 - Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey
#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 - The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 - The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 - Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can't Commit  by RM Johnson

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#18 - A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 - John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 - Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 - Age Ain't Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 - 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino
#23 - Chicken Soup for the Prisoner's Soul by Tom Lagana
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#25 - Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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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

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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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ChickenBones Store (Books, DVDs, Music, and more)






update 11 March 2012




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