Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance by Nikki Grimes – The Beginning of an Era – Review by Maggie Bokelman
I don’t recall any year as eagerly anticipated as 2021. But how to celebrate? Parties are out—at least, the usual sort. And while virtual gatherings have their merits, we’re all a bit tired of screens. This might be the perfect year to ring in with poetry: poetry that connects and inspires us; poetry that pays tribute to the past while re-envisioning the future. Fortuitously for would-be revelers, Nikki Grimes’ Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance (published by Bloomsbury) drops in January, just a few days after the famous Times Square Ball. Grimes, the author of more than 75 books, is the winner of multiple awards and honors for her work, including the Children’s Literature Legacy Award and the Alan Award. Legacy is a both a reason and a way to celebrate 2021—and many new years to come.
Marketed as the follow-up to One Last Word: Wisdom from the Harlem Renaissance, to my mind Grimes’ Legacy is really more like the main course succeeding a tantalizing appetizer. In her dedication, Grimes commends Tonya Bolden, Carole Boston Weatherford, and Cheryl Hudson for their “commitment to rescue, and celebrate, female Black voices from the past.” Grimes unequivocally deserves the same accolade herself. With Legacy, Grimes not only amplifies, but re-imagines for a new generation, the sparkling eloquence of long underestimated and under-represented African-American women.
In Legacy, as in One Last Word, Grimes uses the Golden Shovel form to construct new poems from the rich heritage of Harlem Renaissance poetry. Invented by Terrance Hayes, the Golden Shovel form requires the poet to end each line with a word from an existing poem (or stanza or line from a poem) in such a way that the original material can be read vertically down the right-hand side of the page. The poems in Legacy are presented in pairs, with each of Grimes’ poems coupled with the Harlem Renaissance poem that inspired it. Themes of female empowerment and the importance of community echo throughout both the original poems and Grimes’ inventive remixes. Each poem can stand on its own, but Legacy is best appreciated when its three parts, “Heritage,” “Earth Mother,” and “Taking Notice,” are read in order. Bookending the entire collection are poems narrated by a Black girl struggling to find her place and her power; these poems serve as a loose framing device. Just as Legacy, and Grimes herself, is inspired by strong Black women, so too is the young narrator: “They lift me / from the smallness / of other’s / expectations,” she declares.
Grimes is a wizard at maximizing impact while minimizing word count. She never obfuscates, and her work is highly accessible to young readers. Her skill at wringing meaning from a single word is on full display in “Room for Dreams,” inspired by Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “I Sit and Sew.” The narrator in Dunbar-Nelson’s poem rails against her own powerlessness as she is permitted to do nothing but sew, a task relegated to women. In her remix, Grimes uses the word “sew” to mean “complete” in the phrase “sew up meeting minutes.” But even though Grimes has used a different meaning for “sew,” her usage harkens back to Dunbar-Nelson’s poem, for Grimes’ narrator is also chafing against traditional women’s work. However, while Dunbar-Nelson’s narrator sees little chance to escape her lot, Grimes’ narrator proceeds to take agency, gleefully claiming that she would prefer to “sew discord”: a play, of course, on the expression “sow discord.” It’s an especially apt turn of phrase because women, especially African-American women, have long found ways to transform sewing into creative and rebellious acts. Sewing discord, indeed!
Grimes is also a master at evoking sensual imagery. Her description of a girl’s “blue-black body, skin purpling / toward midnight” is particularly arresting. She also uses color to great effect in “Brown Poems,” in which she urges young people to “Set your daydreams down in indelible ink, visions brown / as your skin, rich as the hue of you. Write chocolate poems!” Imagery relating to flying and breaking boundaries is effectively repeated throughout a number of poems. “Decide which piece of sky you want to own / and make your flight plans,” a mother advises her daughter. (That quote might end up on a poster in our library!) And in the book’s concluding poem, the narrator feels “a quiet unfolding of feathery limbs / emerging from bone and skin” as she claims her power.
Accompanying the pairs of poems are museum-worthy illustrations by an astonishingly talented assemblage of artists, all Black women, including Ekua Homes, Elizabeth Zunon, Vashti Harrison, and Jan Spivey Gilchrist. These unique works of art complement the poetry by offering an additional, nuanced depiction of the beauty and multiformity of young Black girls and their experiences. The book’s backmatter includes biographies of each artist, as well as of each featured Harlem Renaissance poet.
Readers of Legacy are likely to be inspired to try their own hands at Golden Shovel poetry. In my work as a librarian, I have found that young people enjoy having a springboard for their imaginations, but do not like to be overly constrained. The Golden Shovel form offers inspiration while allowing plenty of room for inventiveness. The gorgeous illustrations in the book can spark creativity as well.
Resolve to celebrate the lives and words of Black women by reading and sharing Legacy: Women Poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Here’s to hearing more from Nikki Grimes and other bold, brilliant Black women, past, present, and future.
(Please note that this review is based on an advanced reader copy with sample artwork included.)
Maggie Bokelman is the librarian at Eagle View Middle School in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She has served as an adjunct instructor at Penn State Harrisburg and Millersville University teaching children’s and young adult literature, and frequently presents at library and academic conferences. Maggie enjoys reading, talking about books, and writing about books, and is lucky enough to work at a school filled with book-loving kids and staff members. She has a master’s degree in Children’s Literature from Hollins University. When she’s not curled up with a book or at her keyboard, Maggie enjoys pilates and visiting far-flung family and friends. Find Maggie on Twitter @mbokelman, or visit her blog at https://librarianwithaview.wordpress.com.