Whenever I learned about the Harlem Renaissance poets in grade school, I always heard the same names: Langston Hughes and Paul Laurence Dunbar. While I would grow to enjoy their works, part of me wished that I could have learned about more poets besides them. Now, author, poet, and journalist Nikki Grimes has released Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance to fill that large gap in my—and others’—education.
One of the most unique aspects of the book is its format, in which a poem by an unsung Black woman from the Harlem Renaissance is followed by an original poem by Nikki Grimes and an illustration by a Black woman visual artist. Each poem by Nikki Grimes utilizes the “Golden Shovel method,” a technique originating with the poet Terrance Hayes and inspired by poet Gwendolyn Brooks. In this volume, the form involves Grimes’s taking one line from a poem by a Black woman from the Harlem Renaissance and using the words to make a new poem. The result is a wonderful way to pay tribute to the poets of bygone times and bridge the past and present. All the poems and artwork are featured in three sections: “Heritage,” “Earth Mother,” and “Taking Notice.”
In “Heritage,” Black women past and present aim to instill the next generation with Black pride. A particular set of poems I enjoyed from this section are “I Am Not Proud” by Helene Johnson and “Having My Say” by Nikki Grimes. Together, these poems show that Black women can and should be vocal because of their skin tone, rather than in spite of it. A notable line from Grimes’s poem reads, “For me, boldness is a requirement that came / as part of my Black girl package / along with my sass, and bodacious hip swing!” Following these poems is an illustration by Shada Strickland that is just as bold, featuring a Black girl courageously standing on top of a large old-fashioned pink record player as a Black woman in a nearby window turns the handle.
The section “Earth Mother” is exactly as it sounds, featuring poems about Black women’s relationship to the earth and the natural world. One notable set of poems is “Rondeau” by Jessie Redmon Fauset and “Tara Takes on Montclair” by Nikki Grimes. Both poems involve Black women reveling in the beauty of nature, with tantalizing imagery. The line that stands out the most in both poems is, “I joyous roam the countryside / look here the violets shy abide.” These poems are accompanied by a pretty illustration by Daria Peoples Riley that has a Black girl in white surrounded by purple violets.
Finally, the section “Taking Notice” features poetry and artwork that gives voice to people and experiences that often go unseen and heard. A powerful set of poems from this section includes “Flag Salute” by Esther Popel and “A Mother’s Lament” by Nikki Grimes. Popel’s poem displays the anti-Black brutality present in America’s past, underscoring it with a sardonic take on the Pledge of Allegiance. Meanwhile, Grimes’s brief poem echoes Popel’s sentiment to reflect on the present as she reckons with the ancestral blood spilled in America’s name. Taking both poems to greater heights is April Harrison’s collage-like illustration of a Black women shedding a tear as she watches a slave trip sail away.
Although the majority of the poems work especially well as pairs, there are also some poems that shine well individually. One that stood out to me was “Jehovah’s Gesture” by Gertrude Parthenia McBrown, which likens nature’s turbulence to boisterous jazz musicians. Another, “Seeing” by Nikki Grimes, pays tribute to the resilience and magic that poor and low-income mothers find and provide. Whether you read the poems in pairs or individually, there are many layers and different interpretations to be discovered.
All in all, Legacy is a triumphant collection of poetry and visual art that gives Black female Harlem Renaissance poets a chance to shine. It pulls them out of history’s shadows and into the light of the present day, with Grimes’s poems and Black women illustrators as a beacon. Not only can a new generation of younger readers learn these poets’ names, but adult readers can appreciate them, too.