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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(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.


(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,...

(The entire section is 827 words.)