African American letters has had at least two notable zeitgeists: the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and the ’60s Black Arts Movement. Each period produced noteworthy anthologies, such as James Weldon Johnson’s bellwether The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922) and Amiri Baraka’s incendiary Black Fire (1968). Today, there is another African American literary renaissance afoot, which could be dubbed the post-soul movement, and poet Kevin Young has edited an impressive anthology of 26 emerging poets, fiction writers, and essayists called Giant Steps (named after the John Coltrane album). Young’s contributors take polemic and pop culture as givens, and don’t pay W.E.B. Dubois’s dual consciousness no never mind. Hence, Dr. Funkenstein and Hart Crane are more than fair game as these scribes skillfully explore themes as varied as history, homosexuality, and migration.
In the poem “Hush Yo Mouf,” a surreal homage to beatnik Bob Kaufman, protean scribe Thomas Sayers Ellis—not unlike Pablo Neruda in The Book of Questions—uses epigrammatic and quirky turns of phrase to great effect. Many of the other poets—such as Elizabeth Alexander and Terrance Hayes—deftly negotiate the private and the prominent. Anthony Butts and John Keene, however, strike some off-key notes with work that at times feels opaque and emotionally limp.
There is nothing half-cocked about the robust and satirical fiction of contributors Randall Kenan and Colson Whitehead. In “Now Why Come That Is?” Kenan hurls the reader into the improbable universe of pragmatic white Southern businessman Percy Terrell, who is constantly flummoxed by a hog that is on some ol’ now-you-see-me, now-you-don’t backwoods tricknology. The sardonic social commentary of Whitehead’s “The All-Night Bodega of Souls” mirrors Kenan’s jocular tone. Whitehead, however, situates his smug protagonist, J. Sutter, in an inner-city netherworld replete with late-night corner-store escapades. And while writing about the slave forts in “Singing Sankofa,” Daniel Jerome Wideman challenges our assumptions about historical nonfiction with passages that are at turns febrile, poetic, and dreamlike. Unfortunately, Young should have let a few other contributors crawl before they took such “giant steps.” For example, Anthony Walton’s excavation of his father’s Southern past, “From Mississippi,” reads like a Q&A in a solemn fanzine. But the majority of Giant Steps‘s post-soul riffs linger in the ear long after the book is back on the shelf.