Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

“So under the spell of the reefer I discovered a new analytical way of listening to music. The unheard sounds came through, and each melodic line existed of itself, stood out clearly from all the rest, said its piece, and waited patiently for the other voices to speak. That night I found myself hearing not only in time, but in space as well. I not only entered the music but descended, like Dante, into its depths. And beneath the swiftness of the hot tempo there was a slower tempo and a cave and I entered it and looked around and heard an old woman singing a spiritual as full of Weltschmerz as flamenco, and beneath that lay a still lower level on which I saw a beautiful girl the color of ivory pleading in a voice like my mother’s as she stood before a group of slaveowners who bid for her naked body, and below that I found a lower level and a more rapid tempo and I heard someone shout:

“‘Brothers and sisters, my text this morning is the “Blackness of Blackness.” ’”   –Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

This extract is available to read at Penguin Books.

Edward Smyth Jones, “Harvard Square” (1910)

“I would like to submit one last example of a writer of color who turns to Dante in a moment of personal crisis. Consider the case of Edward Smythe Jones, who ‘in his over-mastering desire to drink at the Harvard fountain of learning tramped out of the Southland up to Cambridge. Arriving travel-worn, friendless, moneyless, hungry, he was preparing to bivouac on the Harvard campus his first night in the University city, when, being misunderstood, and not believed, he was apprehended as a vagabond and thrown into jail. A poem, however, the poem which tells this story, delivered him. The judge was convinced by it… and set him free to return to the academic shades’ (Kerlin 163-64). The poem called ‘Harvard Square’ ends on this note: ‘Cell No. 40, East Cambridge Jail, Cambridge, Massachusetts, July 26, 1910.’ But the familiar scenario of a black man harassed by the police and thrown in jail for no discernible reason is transformed into a magical encounter with the muse. The divine goddess of inspiration comes to the poet’s aid with a brief lesson in literary history in which she compares his fate to Dante’s — ‘I placed great Dante in exile’ — suggesting that she has now done the same to Jones. Dante’s actual banishment from Florence sheds light on the figurative exile of Jones: the Negro in the white man’s world; the southerner in the North; the backwoodsman in the ‘University city’; the autodidact amidst the hypereducated; and the would-be Dante at the very center of Dante’s American home.”   — Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African-American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2011), pp. 201-202

An excerpt of the poem “Harvard Square” is printed below. You can access the full poem, in Jones’s collection The Sylvan Cabin, on Project Gutenberg, as well as the volume by Kerlin cited above.

“Weep not, my son, thy way is hard,
Thy weary journey long—
But thus I choose my favorite bard
To sing my sweetest song.
I’ll strike the key-note of my art
And guide with tend’rest care,
And breathe a song into thy heart
To honor Harvard Square.

“I called old Homer long ago,
And made him beg his bread
Through seven cities, ye all know,
His body fought for, dead.
Spurn not oppression’s blighting sting,
Nor scorn thy lowly fare;
By them I’ll teach thy soul to sing
The songs of Harvard Square.

“I placed great Dante in exile,
And Byron had his turns;
Then Keats and Shelley smote the while,
And my immortal Burns!
But thee I’ll build a sacred shrine,
A store of all my ware;
By them I’ll teach thy soul to sing
A place in Harvard Square.”   — Edward Smyth Jones, “Harvard Square” (1910)

Dante Micheaux wins 2019 Four Quartets Poetry Prize for Circus

“Congratulations to Dante Micheaux who has been awarded the prestigious Four Quartets Poetry Prize for his 2018 collection, Circus.

[. . .]

“Circus was selected as the winner by judges Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Carmen Giménez Smith, and Rosanna Warren, whose citation reads: ‘How right that this poet’s first name should be Dante. For his Circus is a Comedy: a savage comedy, lacerating dialects, fingering wounds, looking for loves right and wrong in the crevices of history and of humiliated bodes. And yet, and yet. His language exults, triumphs, and freely rummages in the treasuries of the Bible, Baudelaire, Whitman, Eliot, Baraka, and Mahalia Jackson, taking what it needs, making it his sovereign own, a wrested blessing. Congratulations, Dante Micheaux, on your astonishing Circus.'”   — Dan Sheehan, Lit Hub (May 1, 2019)

James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village” (1955)

James Baldwin, photographed by Carl Van Vechten, 1955

“For this village, even were it incomparably more remote and incredibly more primitive, is the West, the West onto which I have been so strangely grafted. These people cannot be, from the point of view of power, strangers anywhere in the world; they have made the modem world, in effect, even if they do not know it. The most illiterate among them is related, in a way that I am not, to Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Aeschylus, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, and Racine; the cathedral at Chartres says something to them which it cannot say to me, as indeed would New York’s Empire State Building, should anyone here ever see it. Out of their hymns and dances come Beethoven and Bach. Go back a few centuries and they are in their full glory—but I am in Africa, watching the conquerors arrive.”   –James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” from Notes of a Native Son (1955)

Read the full essay here.

Martin Luther King, Jr., on Nonviolence (March 31, 1968)

“It is no longer a choice, my friends, between violence and nonviolence. It is either nonviolence or nonexistence. And the alternative to disarmament, the alternative to a greater suspension of nuclear tests, the alternative to strengthening the United Nations and thereby disarming the whole world, may well be a civilization plunged into the abyss of annihilation, and our earthly habitat would be transformed into an inferno that even the mind of Dante could not imagine.   Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Address delivered at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. (March 31, 1968)

Read the full transcript at the website of the King Institute, Stanford University.

The image above comes from here, courtesy of the DC Public Library.

Langston Hughes, “Harlem’s Bitter Laughter” (October 2, 1948)

“Harlem, the world’s largest urban Negro community, can sometimes laugh at the dog-gonest things. But its laughter is often a bitter laughter — the kind of laughter that, I imagine, reverberates through Dante’s hell when the devil suddenly slips on his own hot pavements and burns his sitter-downer.”   –Langston Hughes, “Harlem’s Bitter Laughter” (October 2, 1948), cited in Langston Hughes and the Chicago Defender: Essays on Race, Politics, and Culture (1942-62), ed. Christopher C. De Santis (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1995), pp. 113-114

“I Have Wasted My Life,” Justin Phillip Reed (2020)

The poem “I Have Wasted My Life” by American poet and essayist Justin Phillip Reed invents the neologism “alighieried”: “No, / I alighieried down this sunken navel / to also cape for waste.” Read the full poem on Poetry Daily here (featured on January 23, 2020).

Contributed by Silvia Valisa (Florida State University)

How a Museum Reckons With Black Pain (2016)

A woman passes a display depicting the Mexico Olympic protest during a media preview at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, U.S., September 14, 2016. The museum will open to the public on September 24. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES. - RTSNR10

A woman passes a display depicting the Mexico Olympic protest during a media preview at the National Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington, U.S., September 14, 2016.

“The Smithsonian’s new memorial of African American history and culture is at once triumphant and crushing.” […]

“The descent and ascent achieve an effect similar to Dante’s harrowing journey in Inferno, and the walk upwards through Reconstruction, Redemption, the civil-rights movement, and into the present day is a reminder of the constant push and pull of horror and protest.”    –Vann R. Newkirk II, The Atlantic, September 23, 2016

Contributed by Pamela Montanaro

John Sayles, Brother from Another Planet (1984)

brotherfromanotherplanet-new

The main character, an escaped slave from another planet, meets a character who calls himself “Virgil,” a rastafarian who speaks in verse and helps guide The Brother through a dark moment.

LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, “The System of Dante’s Hell” (1965)

“[T]he function of writing about Dante and the control over access to the part of the tradition that Dante inhabits can liberate the black writer. At least it liberates LeRoi Jones, turning him into a new man with a new name, Amiri Baraka, whose experimental literary project culminates in The System of Dante’s Hell in 1965. Dante’s poem (specifically in the Sinclair translation) provides a grid for the narrative of Baraka’s autobiographical novel, and at the same time the Italian poet’s description of hell functions for Baraka like a gloss on many of his own experiences. [. . .] Baraka uses Dante first to measure the growing distance between himself and European literature, then, paradoxically, to separate himself totally from it. His Dante is a marker of separation rather than integration.” — Dennis Looney, Freedom Readers: The African-American Reception of Dante Alighieri and the Divine Comedy (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2011), pp. 105-106