(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

Walter Dean Myers is an accomplished and prolific writer of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction for young adults. Most of his prize-winning works explore the experiences of urban youth. Myers often turns to Harlem, his hometown, as a source of inspiration and as a setting for his novels and his poetry. In 1997, he published Harlem, a picture book of poetry illustrated by his son Christopher. The book focused on the representative historical journey of many African Americans from Africa to the southern United States, and then north to Harlem.

Here in Harlem: A Poem in Many Voices was published in 2004. It is a collection of fifty-four poems written from the different perspectives of various Harlem residents, each identified by name, age, and occupation. The characters include teachers, ministers, soldiers, students, and an undertaker. Each poem is a snapshot of a particular character's life, told in that character's distinctive voice. Together, the voices reflect the community of Harlem, which in the 1930s and 1940s was the epicenter of African American culture. References to historical figures, such as singer Billie Holliday, writer Langston Hughes, and boxer Joe Louis, appear throughout the poems of Here in Harlem. The poems are illustrated with snapshots from Myers's personal collection of over 10,000 antique photographs and other historical documents.

In the introduction of Here in Harlem, Myers credits the 1915 book Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters as his inspiration. In Masters's collection of some 200 poems, the characters are ghosts who deliver poetic monologues in a fictional Midwestern cemetery. Masters's book became an international popular and critical success. By using the same multi-voiced storytelling technique in Here in Harlem, Myers pays homage to an American classic while recounting the history and culture of his own community.


(Literary Newsmakers for Students)

In the introduction, Walter Dean Myers writes that he began Here in Harlem by imagining "a street corner in Harlem, the Harlem of my youth, and the very much alive people who would pass that corner." Among some of these "much alive" people were the celebrated writers Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen, along with nurses, ministers, teachers, laborers, children, and the elderly. Myers concludes his introduction by paying tribute to the poet W. B. Yeats, who once advised a young Irish playwright to "write about a community that he could truly love, whose people would gladden his heart." For Myers, that community is Harlem, and Harlem itself becomes a character in this book.

The collection actually begins before the introduction, with a poem by George Ambrose, a thirty-three year-old English teacher. Ambrose's poem is reprinted on both the frontispiece and the back page of the book, serving as bookends of sorts. In it, the street corner Myers imagined in his mind comes to life, establishing an important thematic connection to Africa: "My heart must rise and go now, to that / bright Harlem street / Where buildings trued in ragtime and / Congo rhythms meet."

Clara Brown's Testimony: Part I

After Ambrose's poem and Myers's introduction, the first section of Here in Harlem is "Clara Brown's Testimony." Her words are largely in italics, unlike most of the poems by other characters. She also differs from the other characters because she is not given an age when she is first introduced. She addresses the reader in an intimate tone and explains she always talks about Harlem because Harlem is "like an old friend." This section functions as a prologue to the rest of the book, introducing the character, Clara Brown, as the book's unofficial narrator. She presents six testimonies throughout the collection.

Although Here in Harlem is not divided into chapters, Clara Brown's testimonies are each numbered with Roman numerals, like chapters, and mark the passing of time in...

(The entire section is 832 words.)