Black Poetry Matters and other Black History Month celebrations at Lehman College

Ron Kavanaugh, founder of One Book, One Bronx
Courtesy of Marcia Wilson/Widevision Photography

When Amanda Gorman read her poem “The Hill We Climb,” at President Joe Biden’s inauguration she became a symbol of Black poets who speak to the urgency and center African American historical perspectives.

An initiative is giving the public an opportunity to learn more about that tradition, which stretches back some 250 years. And Lehman College’s Leonard Lief Library has taken a leading role in the effort.

Titled, “Lift Every Voice: Why African American Poetry Matters,” is a yearlong, nationwide project of the Library of America and The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It engages audiences in an exploration of African American poetry and its relationship to American history, Black Americans’ diverse experiences and the struggle for racial justice.

“Libraries are very focused right now on making sure they represent the communities they serve and finding ways to diversify their collections so that people see themselves and hear their own voices,” said Leonard Lief librarian Robert Farrell.

Lehman’s involvement with Lift Every Voice began in early 2020, when Farrell contacted Ron Kavanaugh, a past collaborator and the founder of One Book One Bronx and its parent organization the Literary Freedom Project, about applying for one of the 50 Lift Every Voice grants awarded to libraries, museums and nonprofit cultural institutions to host public programs.

“One of the things that we’re committed to at the Literary Freedom Project is developing programs that engage the community directly,” Kavanaugh said. “When Robert approached me, I immediately started thinking in the context of how this would work with One Book One Bronx, and how we could fit that in with what we do week to week.”

Apart from the anthology’s release event at the Schomburg Center, Lehman is the only venue in New York City that was chosen to host Lift Every Voice programming. Throughout February, Leonard Lief Library, in partnership with One Book One Bronx, a community book club and discussion group, will co-sponsor a series of events that call attention to the achievements of contemporary African-American, Afro-Latinx and Afro-Caribbean poets.

The two decided to focus on Black language and music, a core theme of Lift Every Voice, using a conversation with the poet Tyehimba Jess, who will perform parts of his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Olio,” to anchor the series. The book weaves in sonnet, song and narrative to examine African American performers’ lives before and after the Civil War up to World War I. A reading group will gather throughout the month to discuss “Olio” in anticipation of the event.

Among a wide range of discussions, performances and readings, the series, which is also receiving support from the CUNY Center for the Humanities includes events with Philadelphia Poet Laureate Trapeta B. Mayson, Chicago poet Tara Betts and the poetry group The Last Poets.

“It’s an honor that we were selected to do this,” Farrell said of the series. “I’m just over the moon with the quality of programming that we’ve been able to pull together.”

Although Farrell and Kavanaugh would have preferred in-person events, the virtual format necessitated by the pandemic has some upsides. For one, it enabled them to expand their audience and bring in guests from across the country.

“You have to be committed to the idea that there are people out there that want to be connected to books and literature if they can just find a place or a space that reflects who they are,” Kavanaugh added.

For a schedule of events go to onebookonebronx.com/lifteveryvoice.

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