Michael S. Harper Biography


(Poets and Poetry in America)

Michael Steven Harper was born on March 18, 1938, in Brooklyn, New York, and his birth brought with it particular pressures to succeed: He was the first male child of his generation born on either side of the family, and he was delivered at his parents’ home by his grandfather, Roland R. Johnson. His father, Walter Harper, was a postal worker and supervisor; his mother, Katherine Johnson, worked as a medical stenographer. While not wealthy, the Harper family did enjoy a middle-class income that permitted the acquisition of a good record collection, interesting the young Harper in music and serving as a source for his later development as a poet.

At thirteen, Harper and his family, including his younger brother Jonathan and his sister Katherine, moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in West Los Angeles, an area in which several black families were to have their houses bombed in the early 1950’s. Enrolling shortly thereafter in Susan Miller Dorsey High School, Harper was assigned to an industrial arts course of study rather than to an academic one, presumably because he was black, and only his father’s intervention with a counselor reversed the assumptions about his abilities. Suffering from extreme asthma in 1951, Harper spent the summer confined to the house and in the fall refused to undress for gym class, thus failing the class and not making the honor roll. Always having been encouraged to study medicine in the tradition of his grandfather and his great-grandfather John Albert Johnson, an African Methodist Episcopal Church bishop and missionary in South Africa from 1907 to 1916, Harper used the incident to escape from his family’s pressures and to turn his attention from the classroom and his interests in medicine, literature, and history to the ordinary life in the streets and neighborhoods...

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Michael S. Harper Biography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The first son in his middle-class African American family, Michael S. Harper was encouraged to follow the career path of his grandfather and great-grandfather: medicine. An intense interest in the rhythms of language and in exploring the apparent schisms in American society, however, led Harper to his dual vocations of writer and scholar.

In the Harper home, music and poetry were important parts of family life. Poems by Langston Hughes were a familiar presence in Harper’s childhood home. Harper’s parents also owned an extensive collection of contemporary jazz recordings. The poet recalled spending many happy hours listening to, among others, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane.

As an adolescent, Harper was forced into an awareness of racism in America. The family moved from New York to West Los Angeles, where African Americans were the targets of racial violence. During high school, Harper began experimenting with creative writing. In college, he continued writing in addition to working full time for the post office. He later attended the famous Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

As the only African American student in the poetry and fiction workshop classes, Harper endured misunderstanding and prejudice. These experiences motivated him to confront the dualism inherent in being an African American writer. Harper refused exclusive containment in either the African American or in the American category. Rather, he affirmed his identity in both groups.

Harper interrupted his studies at Iowa to enter the student teacher program at Pasadena City College in 1962. He became the first African American to complete the program, and after finishing his courses at Iowa, he accepted an instructorship at Contra Costa College in San Pablo, California. This was the beginning of an extensive and distinguished teaching career, including professorships at Colgate University, Brown University, and Harvard University. In addition to eight volumes of poetry, Harper has contributed to numerous journals and anthologies and has edited several anthologies of poetry.

Michael S. Harper Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Poet and educator Michael Steven Harper was the first son of his middle-class African American parents. He was encouraged to follow family tradition into the practice of medicine, but other influences proved to be stronger. One irresistible influence was music. Harper’s interest became apparent early, stimulated by his parents’ large collection of 78 rpm records. He spent hours in the recorded presence of such musical greats as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane. Poetry also had an important place in the Harper home. Framed copies of Langston Hughes’s poems hung on the walls of the staircase.

When Harper was thirteen, his family moved to West Los Angeles, a predominantly white neighborhood where some black families were targets of racial violence. In high school he began privately experimenting with poetry and then fiction and drama. During his college years he continued writing, along with working full-time for the post office. He received his B.A. from Los Angeles State University in 1961 and enrolled in the Iowa Writers Workshop that winter.

The prevailing approach to literature in the workshop classes was the New Criticism. From this critical perspective, a work is analyzed and evaluated as an artifact; any traditional framework, historical references, or biographical situation of the writer are irrelevant. Harper disagreed with this approach. He considered a work as a delicate balance between its internal and external environments. For Harper, a poem is a microcosm, an individual utterance that reflects a universal emotion or experience.

The only African American student in both the poetry and the fiction classes, Harper experienced misunderstanding and prejudice. These experiences challenged him to explore and come to terms with the dualism inherent in being an African American/American poet. He refused to categorize himself as either/or. Instead, he affirmed his identity in both groups. Consequently,...

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Michael S. Harper Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)
ph_0111226239-Harper.jpg Michael S. Harper Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Michael Steven Harper was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 18, 1938, the son of Walter and Katherine (Johnson) Harper, delivered by his grandfather in the same house in which his mother was also born. He was raised in a family that emphasized education and treasured music, and he met several prominent jazz musicians when he was a young boy and learned to read before starting kindergarten. After his family moved to Los Angeles in 1951, a difficult transition for the thirteen-year-old that resonates in his unique integration of both East and West Coast culture and art, he combined a variety of jobs (postal clerk, aspiring professional football player) with a personally designed program of enthusiastic, eclectic reading, including works of African American poets such as Sterling A. Brown, Langston Hughes, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Harper entered Los Angeles City College in 1955, transferred to Los Angeles State College in the late 1950’s, and graduated with a B.A. from California State College (now, California State University) in 1961. Harper planned to travel abroad after earning his degree to pursue his growing interests in international politics, but as a result of applying for a passport, he was drafted by the military. Instead, he enrolled in the venerated Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He proceeded to a graduate degree in 1963 before entering the M.F.A. program in writing at the University of Iowa.

Harper began to teach in 1964 as an instructor in English at Contra Costa College in Northern California, where, he has said, he felt that “my poetry began to be distinctly my own . . . when I was teaching and able to look at poetry as something I loved to do and probably could do all my life.” He was married in 1965 to Shirley Ann Buffington (divorced 1998), and he took...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Michael S. Harper Biography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In Nightmare Begins Responsibility, Harper explicitly explains his credo as an artist: “These are my first values: Understanding, Conscience, and Ability.” By “understanding,” he means a compassionate appreciation of human suffering, both personal and historic, which remains a fundamental fact for black Americans in a still-racist society and for all human beings in an imperfect world. Harper’s poetry is guided by his determination to find appropriate language to express this pain. By “conscience,” he means the obligations of the artist to transform this understanding into a vision of hope and possibility—to share the inspired creative perspective that results from one’s struggling “through the pain.” By “ability,” he means the responsibility inherent in his capabilities as an artist and the necessity of committing himself completely to their fullest development in his poetry. As Harper succinctly stated in 1995, “The job of the poet is to tell the truth no matter what. . . . What I find more than anything else is that you do not choose art, art chooses you.”