and This Golden Era of Black Excellence

by J.B. Borders

Brenda Marie Osbey’s latest book is an astounding
tribute to hard-fought battles and historic victories.

The Obama presidency has ended, of course, but the Age of Obama is still with us. Michelle Obama’s memoir, “Becoming”, is a chart-topping tale of the blossoming of an average working-class Black girl into a woman of extraordinary achievement, including being the partner of the first Black president of the United States of America.

But more important than the monumental accomplishments of the Obamas themselves is the quantity and variety of Black Excellence that has been unleashed on the world in the past ten or so years. Not that we didn’t have outsized Black achievers before Obama swept onto the international stage, we did – from Jackie Robinson to Muhammad Ali, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Toni Morrison, Tiger Woods, Serena Williams, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Douglass, DuBois and others. Lately, however, our high achievers have mushroomed from seemingly all directions in all kinds of industries with almost unimagined impact.

Megan Markle comes to mind immediately, but so does Beyonce’s skyrocketing success over the past decade; Pulitzer Prize-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar; billionaire philanthropist Robert Smith; new Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch; philanthropic executive Elizabeth Alexander; athlete Stephen Curry; filmmaker Jordan Peele; novelists NK Jemisin, Colson Whitehead, Paul Beatty and Jesmyn Ward; current U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith, former Poet Laureate Natasha Tretheway and genre-changing verse-makers Claudia Rankine and  Tyehimba Jess; the Black Panther movie franchise; painter Kerry James Marshall and the legacy of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.

New Orleans, too, has its own roster of contemporary Black Excellers in the arts who have blossomed in the Age of Obama: musicians Jon Batiste, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and composer Courtney Bryan; actor Wendell Pierce; poet Clint Smith; photographers Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, Eric Waters and Gus Bennett; and, most recently, novelist Maurice Carlos Ruffin and 19-year-old filmmaker Phillip Youmans. They are all doing brilliant work.

But when the cultural history of this period is written, it may well be recorded that no one produced more substantial and excellent work during this shining time than poet/essayist Brenda Marie Osbey, a native New Orleanian and former Louisiana poet laureate (2005-2007). In 2015 LSU Press released Osbey’s “All Souls: Essential Poems”, an acclaimed collection representing more than 40 years of publishing in the world’s leading literary outlets.

She has now followed this outstanding book with a special commemorative publication that puts on full display the many tools she has mastered as a narrative poet who builds works rooted in historical research while packing an often-devastating emotional wallop.

1967: On the Semicentenary of the Desegregation of the College of William & Mary was specially commissioned by the nation’s second oldest institution of higher learning. Founded in 1693 in Williamsburg, Virginia, it wasn’t until the fall of 1967 (after decades of pushing and prodding) that three African-American young women – Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer, and Karen Ely – were permitted to enroll in the College of William & Mary and reside on campus “without apparent incident,” signifying “the full integration of the university,” according to official records.

Of course, Black people had long been present on the grounds of William & Mary before Briley, Strafer and Ely matriculated there. There had been generations of enslaved workers on the campus “performing every manner of personal service to every white on the place/ their labor providing the income providing the scholarships/ of the wealthy young men whom they served”.  Their roles hardly changed after Emancipation. In 1951, however, Hulon Willis became the first black student to be admitted to the university, though he was not allowed to reside on campus. Five years later, he left with a master’s degree in Education. Indeed.

As part of her commission, Osbey has composed a magisterial poem in three sections – cantos – that details the essential history of the College of William & Mary, named for the British King William of Orange (1650-1702) and his wife, Mary II (1650-1694). She then goes on to place the university’s founding in the larger story of the English conquest of Algonquin lands in the seventeenth century, seized and won through brutal wars between 1610 and 1646. Importantly, this place the English called the Virginia colony is where captive Africans out of Angola were forcibly brought ashore in 1619, thus beginning a long pattern of exploitation and suppression of black people in this nation. 

Osbey goes on to outline the long legal struggle to force admittance of blacks in white educational institutions across the land at all levels, and the price girls and boys who were the first to actually break down those barriers paid.

She reminds us of the obvious: that “landmark cases are won, have been won always/ on the lives of people/ not only individuals and parties and classes bringing suit/ also families’ lives/built over time/ of intimacy and need/ and the dream of something called “better”/ something called “right”.” And then she goes deeper and wider before homing in on the state of the Black American Freedom Struggle in 1967, the Age of Black Power, and the opening of a new battlefront on the campus of William & Mary.

The commission of “1967: On the Semicentenary of the Desegregation of the College of William & Mary” can be seen as an attempt at atonement and healing for that university. Osbey first read the work publicly on the campus in a program on September 14, 2017. The school has now produced a special commemorative publication of the opus. Like the poem, this publication also has three sections: an introduction by poet/professor Hermine Pinson of the College of William & Mary (a driving force behind the commission); the poem itself; and a special glossary Osbey prepared to ensure all readers can understand the many allusions and references in the work. 

The glossary alone is a stupendous feat, a treasure trove of explanations, information and insights, including military and social history from the seventeenth through the twentieth century; a recapitulation of several relevant civil rights cases that laid the groundwork for the desegregation of the university; and the state of Black Power in 1967 when Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against the war in Vietnam, Muhammad Ali refused induction in the U.S. Army, Nina Simone released “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free” and Detroit, Newark and a hundred and fifty other cities burned, were looted and endured major protests against racial injustice during a long and deadly summer.

Reading through these entries also draws the reader back to the poem for re-readings and new revelations.

Pinson’s introduction likewise does a masterful job of analyzing the poem and explicating some of Osbey’s brilliant craft. The New Orleanian’s work is squarely in the tradition of the late great Robert Hayden, mining the history of the African diaspora to fashion powerful poetic statements. Like Hayden, Osbey loves burying herself in archives and reading through old historical documents and ephemera to find and distill some vital but overlooked truth.

“Skilled at embedding language from selected historical documents and reports within the poem’s narrative,” Pinson observed, “Osbey also possesses a critical eye and ear for the usage, style and syntax of the period. She delivers a narrator and characters who speak, think and write language characteristic of the historical eras represented. The result is a balance of literary density and historical heft.”

In “1967” we see an extraordinarily gifted writer working at the height of her powers in the service of a righteous cause. I was fortunate enough to be the first reader of this work and to witness it being created line by line, stanza by stanza and canto by canto. I may be biased, but I think any reader will be astounded by the enormous erudition, lyricism, storytelling, irony and gratitude that infuse this work. It’s a loving homage to our humanity and to our unrelenting drive to overcome any and all dangers on the path to justice and equity. 

“1967” is also now a part of the official history of the College of William & Mary forever more. Three hundred years from now, new researchers may come across it in the university’s archives and be able to place it in this broader time, the dawning days of this golden era of Black Excellence – when such varied achievements became commonplace, routine, expected. Those future investigators will also be able to appreciate how this age reflects on an even earlier time in 1967 when some vital seeds for this current flowering started sprouting, when “it was a good year…/ to take up one’s blackness and test it and taste it and find it not at all wanting.”

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