Kevin Young


African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song

  • October 2020
  • Library of America
  • Hardcover
Buy online

Winner of the Best Poetry Award from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association
One of New York Times critic Parul Sehgal's "Top 10 Books of 2020"
A New York Times Book Review "Best Poetry Book of 2020"
One of The Atlantic's "15 Best Books of 2020"
An Esquire "Best Book of 2020"
One of Good Morning America's "Favorite Books of 2020"
One of Barnes & Noble's "10 Best Poetry Books of 2020"
One of Chicago Tribune's "10 Best Books of 2020"
One of Shelf Awareness's "10 Best Nonfiction Books of 2020"
One of O, The Oprah Magazine's "20 Best Books of 2020"
One of TIME's "100 Must-Read Books" of 2020
A Lit Hub "Best Book of 2020"
A New York Times Editors' Choice selection

An Esquire Best Book of Fall 2020
One of The Week's Fall 2020 Recommendations
A TIME Most Anticipated Book of 2020
One of the Washington Post's Fall 2020 Recommendations
One of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Fall 2020 Recommendations

A literary landmark: Kevin Young presents the biggest and best anthology of Black poetry ever published, gathering 250 poets from the colonial period to the present

Only now, in the 21st century, can we fully grasp the breadth and range of African American poetry: a magnificent chorus of many voices, some familiar, others recently rescued from neglect. Discover, in these pages, how an enslaved person like Phillis Wheatley confronted her legal status in verse and how an antebellum activist like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper voiced her own passionate resistance to slavery. Read nuanced, provocative poetic meditations on identity and self-assertion stretching from Paul Laurence Dunbar to Amiri Baraka to Lucille Clifton and beyond. Experience the transformation of poetic modernism in the works of figures such as Langston Hughes, Fenton Johnson, and Jean Toomer. Understand the threads of poetic history—in movements such as the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances, Black Arts, Cave Canem, Dark Noise Collective—and the complex bonds of solidarity and dialogue among poets across time and place. See how these poets have celebrated their African heritage and have connected with other communities in the African Diaspora. Enjoy the varied but distinctly Black music of a tradition that draws deeply from jazz, hip hop, and the rhythms and cadences of the pulpit, the barbershop, and the street. And appreciate, in the anthology's concluding sections, why contemporary African American poetry, amply recognized in recent National Book Awards and Poet Laureates, is flourishing as never before.

Reviews & Praise 

Monumental and rapturous. . . . The book feels like a powerful volume of American history, in which poets beginning with Phyllis Wheatley, the country’s first published Black poet, comment on their times. . . . Here is the birth of jazz, the Scottsboro trial, the murder of Emmett Till, the Vietnam War, the murder of Malcolm X, the killings of Michael Brown, Rekia Boyd, Sandra Bland. . . . It is overwhelming to contemplate the variety and history contained in this volume. The poems gathered here have the force of event. They were written as acts of public mourning, and as secrets; they are love poems and bitter quarrels. They are prized company.

Parul Sehgal, New York Times, "Top 10 Books of 2020"

One of the most exciting anthologies I’ve opened in years, this volume collects work from the earliest days of the African-American poetic tradition . . . through Emancipation, the Harlem and Chicago Renaissances, the Black Arts Movement and the Dark Room Collective, and bringing us into the 21st century. . . . A wonderful reference, a wonderful gift.

—Elisa Gabbert, New York Times Book Review, "The Best Poetry of 2020"

This vast anthology gathers voices both canonical and overlooked to build an implicit but unassailable case that Black poetry is central to American literature.

New York Times Book Review, "New & Noteworthy"
The year's most revelatory book. . . . Superbly edited by Kevin Young, this astonishing collection runs from Phillis Wheatley . . . to such present day luminaries as Terrance Hayes and Claudia Rankine.
John Powers, Fresh Air
Simply, a landmark. It’s easy to read that as hyperbole, and yet Young, a major poet himself . . . spent six years assembling what amounts to an overwhelming, and often fun, thousand-page refocusing of our literary legacy. Legends and laureates are well represented . . . but where this collection excels is adding centuries of the lesser-known greats whose work was steady and remarkable, sometimes made furtively, sometimes with a touching thankfulness for ancestors. Together, it’s a kind of history of American history — jazz, Emmett Till, slavery — but also a celebration of arts movements. . . and a lively conversation across decades. . . . It’s addicting, and refreshing, and no doubt, the sort of holiday treasure a family hands down for generations.
Chicago Tribune, "The 10 Best Books of 2020"

A document both breathtaking and inspiring, historical and personal.

TIME, "100 Must-Read Books of 2020"


A remarkable anthology. . . . Including more than 240 poets, [African American Poetry] moves through eight periods, illustrating the various movements in this vast canon right up to our present moment.
Ron Charles, Washington Post
This monumental volume, assembled by the poet and newly appointed director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is long overdue. It opens with verse, first published in 1773, by Phillis Wheatley, who was sent to America via the Middle Passage and enslaved yet went on to learn English and commence the African American poetic tradition. The late June Jordan described the proliferation of Black poetry in America as “the difficult miracle,” and that miracle receives glorious tribute here.
O, The Oprah Magazine, "The 20 Best Books of 2020"
In this landmark volume, clocking in at a whopping 1170 pages, one of our most talented contemporary poets presents the most ambitious anthology of Black poetry ever published. Beginning in 1770 and culminating in the artistic outpouring emerging through the Black Lives Matter movement, Young spotlights 250 important poets, each situated in an incisive historical and literary framework. Young also takes care to spotlight poetic movements and writing collectives, tracing the influence of creatives on the development of other creatives. Together, these 250 voices, old and new, celebrated and neglected, form a dazzling symphony of talent across generations, making for a breathtaking, expansive canon.
—Adrienne Westenfeld, Esquire, "Best Books of 2020"
The new 1,000-page anthology, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song, front loads the pairing of resistance but also joy that’s found right in the title.... Filled with names well-known in the rich, expansive tradition of Black verse ... but also poets who may have been overlooked.
PBS NewsHour

One of the U.S.’s most talented poets, Kevin Young is the perfect guide to reconstruct the American canon. His sweeping anthology of African-American poetry across U.S. history is an exhilarating collection of voices that have helped shape the country, many of whom never got their full due. By including new forms and overlooked schools, Young’s anthology promises to rewrite the history of American verse.
TIME, "The 42 Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2020"
We are living in a Golden Age of American poetry, and many of the writers who make it so are Black. . . . To read Young’s fabulously well-edited anthology of African-American poetry is to realize how deep the roots of this contemporary flowering are, how much variety and intensity there has been within African-American poetry decade-in and decade-out, since the dawn of the nation. Drawing in blues poets and hard to categorize experimental writers too, Young has made a volume for the ages which has the shock of beauty on every page.
—John Freeman, Lit Hub"Our 65 Favorite Books of the Year"
By turns incendiary and dazzling, African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song . . . comprises more than nine hundred pages of verse by Black writers. . . . The landmark book spans the African American literary tradition, including selections by pioneering Black poets such as Phillis Wheatley and modern luminaries such as Claudia Rankine.
A doorstop at north of a thousand pages, but with Library of America’s signature bible-thin paper stock, this inspiring span of American poetics—from Phillis Wheatley to Jamila Woods to Juneteenth of this year—can somehow still fit comfortably in one’s hand. Because I am a stubbornly linear person, my impulse is to start at the beginning and move steadily toward the end, and the thoughtful chronological delineations of Struggle & Song encourage that impulse. But during weeks like this week, in years like this year, being able to enter this volume midstream and explore it in smaller sessions is a welcome thing. 
—Emily Nemens, Paris Review
This thousand-page collection should be required reading for all Americans. . . . As a whole, it’s singularly comprehensive, and thrilling in its sheer variety. . . . There’s a beauty and inherent import to reading poets collected by era — it creates a conversation between the poet and her place in history, and demonstrates the political nature of even the most apolitical poem. . . .  The collection is a who’s who and offers the best hits, while quietly working to “amend and expand the record."
—Genevieve Walker, San Francisco Chronicle
[African American Poetry] offers spirited intergenerational conversations that reveal the testimony of poetry and allows readers to deepen connections with familiar writers and build an affinity for unfamiliar names and ever important messages of their work.
—drea brown, Smithsonian Online

With 670 poems arranged into eight sections and a scholarly yet accessible introduction . . . African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle & Song is one impressive collection. . . . This is a book to be passed from hand to hand, generation to generation. . . . An extraordinary collection that spans from Phillis Wheatley, the first published African American poet, to the slam poetry of today.
Shelf Awareness, starred review
[A] necessary and unprecedented anthology . . . This ambitious volume offers an impressive variety of styles and aesthetics, juxtaposing different historical moments to provide a rich, panoramic assembly of voices. . . . With this monumental work, Young has provided a lasting contribution to historical preservation and poetry.
Publishers Weekly, starred review

A defining, glorious, and invaluable anthology of African American poetry that reaches back to 1770 and concludes with today’s artistic flourishing in sync with Black Lives Matter. Vitality, beauty, anger, sorrow, humor, and hope all find original, resonant, and consummate expression throughout this expert gathering of works by both celebrated poets and many who will be new to readers, especially women and LGBTQ poets from earlier eras, and all 250 poets are succinctly profiled. Young provides a historical and literary framework in eight chronological sections, each discussed in substantial and enlightening detail in his elegantly composed and dynamic introduction. . . . In this powerhouse anthology, African American poets are clearly in dialogue with each other across generations, sustaining community. Written under siege both obvious and insidious, their poems engage with every aspect of life while tracking the ongoing quest for equality and justice. A profound and affirming pleasure to read.

—Donna Seaman, Booklist, starred review