History and Healing

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

As Harper’s poetic career continued to develop, the implications of history gradually began to inform the major part of his subsequent volumes, including History Is Your Own Heartbeat (1971), Photographs, Negatives: History as Apple Tree (1972), Song: I Want a Witness (1972), Debridement (1973), and Nightmare Begins Responsibility (1974).In these collections, historical events such as the founding of Rhode Island by Roger Williams (“History as Apple Tree”), the abolitionist movement (“History as Cap’n Brown”), and the Vietnam War (the John Henry Louis poems in “Debridement”) are deeply invested with social as well as personal meaning, as Harper renders the politics of African American history into poetic meditations about the nightmarish reality of the American Dream. In these poetic meditations, in addition to the language of jazz music, Harper employs the language of medicine and photography as his new metaphorical idioms to broaden his rhetorical range. A new point of departure is similarly found in the next book, Images of Kin: New and Selected Poems (1977),which incorporates the practice of the “honoring of kin” central to African American culture. In part a retrospective collection, this volume also introduces materials exemplifying the emerging theme of healing that serves to unify the rest of Harper’s poetic output for years to come.

Harper’s ninth book, Healing Song for the Inner Ear (1985), is an experiment with elegy organized around certain themes. The text is divided into five sections, with personal history as the central theme. Continuing in the...

(The entire section is 679 words.)