Imani Perry is having a moment in the limelight, and we hope she’s relishing every minute of it. When she first came to our offices to talk about her biography on Lorraine Hansberry, Looking for Lorraine, we knew it was going to be special. Fast forward to this year’s PEN/America Awards, and we delighted in seeing just how special her book is. She won the PEN America/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for biography!
By Imani Perry | Lorraine was frustrated by some critical evaluations of the play, even as she understood them. She was particularly frustrated that Walter Lee’s “ends” were read without complication. They were deliberate and clearly shaped by Irish playwright Sean O’Casey, the WPA Negro in Illinois project’s publication Black Metropolis, and Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which she considered an essential companion to the writings of Karl Marx. Walter Lee’s yearnings were a manifestation of Veblen’s theory of desire in a capitalist society, one that cut across class and caste. Her mastery of full characters, her sensitivity to speech and personality so that the characters never read as types, made the politics invisible to so many. But Lorraine intended to correct that.
There’s nothing like cooking a good meal to bring people together. What better way than with the recipes in the late Ntozake Shange’s If I Can Cook/You Know God Can? Shange’s eclectic tribute to Black cuisine and culture is one of the first two books in our new Celebrating Black Women Writers series. This season, we launched this series to reissue and repackage timeless titles “to share essential voices with a new generation of readers in a celebration of Blackness, Black womanhood, Black women, and all the contributions they bring to the page,” as our editorial assistant Maya Fernandez said. Several of us got together to prepare some of the meals for a potluck lunch at the office. And reader, let me tell you: It was delicious! Here are comments from some of our staff about their experiences with Shange’s recipes.
By Richard Blanco | Seventeen suns rising in seventeen bedroom windows. Thirty-four eyes blooming open with the light of one more morning. Seventeen reflections in the bathroom mirror. Seventeen backpacks or briefcases stuffed with textbooks or lesson plans. Seventeen good mornings at kitchen breakfasts and seventeen goodbyes at front doors. Seventeen drives through palm-lined streets and miles of crammed highways to Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School at 5901 Pine Island Road.
By Helene Atwan. In 2003, having miraculously convinced Mary Oliver and her tough-minded agent and partner, Molly Malone Cook, to return to Beacon as a publishing home, Mary, Molly and I hit something of a brick wall. Our shared vision was to publish a second volume of New and Selected Poems (Beacon had published the first volume in 1997, and it had won the National Book Award).
With an introduction by Bettye Collier-Thomas | “One Christmas Eve” was published in Opportunity in December 1933. The editor noted, “Langston Hughes, just returned from a lengthy stay in Russia, turns his hand to the short story and shows a growing mastery of that medium.” Prior to going to the Soviet Union in 1932, Hughes, at the insistence of the noted educator Mary McLeod Bethune, travelled throughout the South reading to mainly black audiences. Listening to the stories of black Southerners, and personally experiencing segregation and discrimination at every turn, Hughes became inspired to write this story.
This year’s Human Rights Day marks the seventieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights—the perfect day to reflect on the US’s treatment of the immigrant community. And let me tell you: It’s going to be a stark reckoning. Just look at some of this year’s headlines. Many migrant families are still separated. Border patrol agents fired tear gas at migrant families at the US-Mexico border to disperse them. This is inhumane treatment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaims the “inalienable rights which everyone is inherently entitled to as a human being—regardless of race, color, religion, sex, language, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” That’s not what we’re seeing. Where are the inalienable rights for this community?
By Linda Schlossberg | Like many white Americans, I read To Kill a Mockingbird in junior high and loved it. Published in 1960, Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning novel is told from the point of view of young Scout, whose father, the lawyer Atticus Finch, defends a black man falsely accused of rape. Scout’s innocent and appealing voice is an accessible vehicle for discussing race relations, and the novel has become a staple of school curricula. Gregory Peck won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Atticus in the 1962 film. The novel’s previously unpublished and controversial sequel, Go Set A Watchman, hit bestseller lists a few years ago. And Aaron Sorkin’s highly-anticipated Broadway adaptation, produced by Scott Rudin and starring Jeff Daniels, is certain to sell out. It’s no wonder that Mockingbird, published almost sixty years ago, emerged the winner of PBS’s The Great American Read television series, where viewers could vote, American Idol style, for their favorite novel.
As so many cultural leaders note in the tribute obituaries we’ve linked to below, Ntozake Shange was a completely original, breathtaking artist. From the time she embraced the name gifted to her by Ndikko and Nomusa Zaba, a name which meant “she who comes with her own things/who walks like a lion,” Ntozake Shange launched headlong into her program to electrify dance, poetry, and theatre. Even when her own movement became limited, she kept her focus and worked whenever she could. We were working with her on a book to be called Dance We Do: A Poet Looks at African American Dance.
A Q&A with Dominique Christina | I started writing when I was a senior in undergrad. I whimsically elected to take a creative writing course solely because the man who taught the course was a professor I would see on campus walking around in tye-dyed shirts and Birkenstock sandals with uncommercial hair. He was profane and funny, and I thought I would enjoy being in a classroom with him. What I did not know was that his course would change the trajectory of my life. He refused to let me hide in the writing which I fully intended to do. He insisted on authenticity and transparency and confession, and I found myself, for the first time really, having permission to say things I thought I would die with.
By Daisy Hernández | My mother carried me in her arms on my first trip to Colombia. I was eight months old. She stuffed me in a fluffy pink snowsuit, and we took a picture with the pilot. On my second trip, I was a toddler. Mami couldn’t carry me because I wouldn’t let her. Already hell bent on freedom, I scampered up and down the plane’s carpeted aisle as it made its way from New York City to Colombia. On my third trip, I ran away from my mother at the airport in Bogotá, leaving her with the baby sister in the stroller, careening past adults with worried foreheads, and not even stopping when I spotted the men in uniforms, the rifles in their hands. I didn’t know about the civil war or the drug war, and the Avianca flight getting blown up in the air and killing all 107 people onboard was a few years into the future. It was 1982. I barreled toward the line of familiar voices past the doors: my primas and tías and tíos. An uncle who drove a school bus had brought it to the airport filled with everyone to pick us up.
By Emily Powers and Bella Sanchez | Imani Perry’s Looking for Lorraine: The Radiant and Radical Life of Lorraine Hansberry is a watershed biography of the award-winning playwright, activist, and artist Lorraine Hansberry. If people know anything about Lorraine (Perry refers to her as Lorraine throughout the book, explaining why she does so), they’ll recall she was the author of A Raisin in the Sun, an award-winning play about a family dealing with issues of race, class, education, and identity in Chicago. Lorraine’s extraordinary life has often been reduced to this one fact in classrooms—if she is taught at all.
By Rashod Ollison | As the shattered pieces of the marriage settled around her, Mama knelt at the altar of Aretha. She played Amazing Grace, the legend’s landmark 1972 gospel double LP, seemingly every waking hour during the turbulent years of the marriage, the only years I remember. The album often played on Sunday mornings as we got ready for church.
If you’re not diving into the ocean at the beach this season, crack open those books and dive into summer reading! Sometimes you just need a break from the awfulness that has inundated the news and our social feeds. So. Fiction? Nonfiction? What’s your pleasure? We asked our staff members what they’re reading and what they’d recommend. You’ll thank us later.
By Richard Hoffman | Friends ask me, “How was your trip to Prague?” and I tell them that Prague is as beautiful as everyone says. I’m thinking, as I say this, that sometimes, in a world with Instagram, Pinterest, Wikimedia, it becomes harder to experience a place, to have an unmediated encounter with it. I had been worried about that. In the weeks preceding the trip, I avoided the travel books my wife brought home from the library, resisted the temptation to let Rick Steves, via YouTube, walk me through the cobbled squares under towers and domes and historic statuary, and deliberately zoned out when friends who had been there enthused about it. I need not have worried. Prague “in person” is so richly layered and textured, no camera or travelogue could possibly have spoiled it for me.
By Helene Atwan | Like most Americans who care about poetry and literature, I was saddened to learn that Donald Hall died this weekend. We were privileged to publish two of his books of prose: Life Work and Principle Products of Portugal. When I first took over as director of the press in 1995, a poster for Life Work was proudly displayed in our offices, and it made me even happier to be a part of the press. Later, I was fortunate to meet Don and to chat with him about projects, on and off, though never quite lucky enough to publish any new work. His work is a gift to us all. I think often about one line of his, often quoted by a mutual friend, that resonates especially now: Work, love, build a house, and die. But build a house. The house that Donald Hall built is a mansion with room to embrace all readers. He will be missed.
By Richard Blanco: Here, sit at my kitchen table, we need to write this together. Take a sip of café con leche, breathe in the steam and our courage to face this page, bare as our pain. Curl your fingers around mine, curled around my pen, hold it like a talisman in our hands shaking, eyes swollen.
By Helene Atwan: Is it only in April that we’re supposed to appreciate poetry? After all, as this April in New England is proving beyond a doubt, it is the cruelest month. But maybe that’s why we need poetry . . . Now, more than ever, we’ve discovered that we need poetry not just to delight and uplift us, but to teach us, to show us.
National Poetry Month celebrates the power of the word in verse. Condensing language to its most vivid and lyrical effect, poetry speaks straight to the heart, and in verse, poets unveil to us the unseen beauty and terror of our world. There is so much out there to enjoy, but where to start? We reached out to some of our beloved poets to ask them about their favorite poets and poetry collections.
By Brian Clements, Alexandra Teague, and Dean Rader: All three of us are poets and professors. We all also write prose. Our jobs rely on and live in words. And yet, there are no real words to describe our complicated emotions about this anthology. On the one hand, we are grateful that it exists. On the other, we are mortified that it exists. We are pleased these amazing poems and responses are out there in the world; we are horrified there are increased reasons for them to be in this book.