"Adoff had begun collecting Black literature in the late 1950s, and that pursuit dovetailed with his observation that the ethnically diverse students in his classrooms were exposed to racist textbooks and didn’t have access to books and magazines that accurately reflected their experiences. Wanting to address that, he shared his favorite poems and works by Black writers with the kids. Once, Adoff recruited a friend—an editor at Macmillan—to make photocopies of some poems so he could distribute them to his class. The friend was impressed by the selections and suggested Adoff meet with the editor-in-chief about turning them into a book. The result was his first anthology, I Am the Darker Brother: An Anthology of Modern Poems by Negro Americans, published by Macmillan in 1968. Of his passion for curating collections like this one, Adoff told Something About the Author, 'I want my anthologies of Black American writing to make Black kids strong in their knowledge of themselves and their great literary heritage—give them facts and people and power. I also want these Black books of mine to give knowledge to White kids around the country, so that mutual respect and understanding will come from mutual learning. We can go beyond the murders and the muddles of the present.'"
His anthologies, I Am the Darker Brother and My Black Me were particularly pivotal for my own reading of African American poets for young people. I wrote about this on my blog ages ago in this post: I AM THE DARKER BROTHER. He also impressed me with his unique approach to form with very little punctuation and generous spacing which he called “shaped speech.” And hearing him read aloud from his work was always a powerful experience with his staccato rhythms and distinctive gravelly voice. I have a previous blog post that features a Video of Arnold reading from ROOTS AND BLUES. In this talk, he also advocated for reading any/every poem three times:
- first simply for information (like reading a work of nonfiction),
- secondly for meaning (what is the poem/poet saying), and
- thirdly for nuance (how does the poem work, make you feel, do what it does).
Janet (Wong) and I were lucky to collaborate with Arnold on several projects-- he was always generous in contributing a poem and helping us spread the word. Here's one poem he wrote for one of our Poetry Friday anthologies that shows you his distinctive approach.