Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work (Rhino WordBeat)
Reviewed by Greg Beets, Fri., Feb. 18, 2000
Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work
(Rhino WordBeat)This 2-CD collection of black poets from the 20th century (almost all of them American) takes the listener on a journey through the evolution of the black literary tradition while emphasizing the common threads linking past to present. Langston Hughes' 1926 poem "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" begins the album by using the Euphrates, Nile, Congo, and Mississippi rivers as metaphors for the longevity and timelessness of African history. Having established its consciousness, the album then traces the injustice of slavery and Jim Crow through poems less than 100 years removed from the Civil War. Poems such as James Weldon Johnson's "We to America" and Claude McKay's "If We Must Die" (published in 1919, when lynchings were at their peak) are strong enough on paper, but hearing the two poets read these works aloud in the pre-civil rights era is especially stirring. While white poets often explored the language of modernism at this time, black poets utilized more conventional rhyme and meter schemes -- their elocution is often academic in tone, as if to prove their intellectual mettle to a doubting white establishment. Not all of the 75 poems included focus on the struggle for civil rights; the strength of families is another predominant theme in poems such as Nikki Giovanni's "Nikki-Rosa" and Etheridge Knight's "The Idea of Ancestry." Humor can also be found in Al Young's 1968 Black nationalism satire, "A Dance for Militant Dilettantes," and Wanda Coleman's 1983 paean to freeway culture, "I Live for My Car." Hughes reappears on a 1958 recording with jazz great Charles Mingus reading from Montage of a Dream Deferred. The hybrid of music and jazz-informed verse becomes incendiary when hip-hop forebears the Lost Poets perform "Run Nigger." The set also includes better-known material such as Gil Scott-Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" and Public Enemy's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos." Although both songs are rightfully celebrated, they stick out like token concessions to a marketing angle in the context of this collection. If hip-hop is modern poetry, why isn't more included here? While Our Souls ... does an admirable job of aurally illustrating the development and thematic interconnections spanning 100 years of black poetry, you would never know it from the ho-hum packaging and hard-to-read font used for the otherwise informative liner notes. Instead of aiming for Sunday morning talk show prestige, Rhino could've done these poets a favor by making this collection more accessible and appealing to casual listeners (and readers). As it is, Our Souls ... is unlikely to resonate far beyond established literary circles. And that's a shame.