Yusef Komunyakaa, whose surname he took from his grandfather, a West Indian refugee of West African ancestry, was born in 1947 in Bogalusa, Louisiana. Growing up in a rural southern town, Komunyakaa was the eldest son of five children whose father was an illiterate carpenter who drove his wife from the household as a result of his abuse. Komunyakaa’s childhood memories of segregated Bogalusa, including his family’s intimate customs and frequent tensions played out against a social backdrop of sharply demarcated color lines, became the subject matter of many of Komunyakaa’s later poems.
The town’s close proximity to New Orleans, only about seventy miles to the north, also instilled in the young Komunyakaa what was to be a lifelong passion for jazz and blues. The poet remembers that in the family home, the radio was always playing, and this music had a great influence on his subsequent work.
A graduate of the city’s Central High School, Komunyakaa joined the army in 1965 and served a tour of duty in Vietnam, where he earned the Bronze Star for his frontline reporting for the military newspaper The Southern Cross. In some ways, this foreign land reminded Komunyakaa of home: Like the sharecroppers of southern Louisiana, the peasants of Vietnam struggled to make a living in a landscape smothered in vegetation. The poems that came out of Komunyakaa’s Vietnam experience are noteworthy for their insight into both warring factions—the Americans and the...
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