Carver: A Life in Poems

Carver: A Life in Poems


This is a history text, written in poetic language. . . .There is a poem

about Carver in his job as a young washerman; about his first awful look

 at a lynching; another about his unassuming nature; yet another about  

him and his best friends, and they are white men who love him. 



George Washington Carver

 Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson

A Letter of Discovery by Sandra L. West


Friends, I must tell you this. On January 29th, Black History Month opened at Newark Public Library (NPL). The title of the exhibition is Dear & Glorious Physician: The History of Black Doctors, Nurses, and Hospitals in Newark and Places Just Beyond the River. Mrs. Wilma Grey, Director of NPL, introduced me on this opening night.  She told the audience that I had just been hired in October and that already she could see changes in the library. Well, I have to turn that around. The library has changed me. I am reading books that I would have never read before, and feeling them deep into my bones.

 I am not reading more—because curating takes so much energy and time—but I am reading books that I would have never before picked up. And, these books are having such an impact on me. These books I will never forget. Sometimes when I am riding the bus to work I close my eyes and retrace the beautiful words I have read the night before. These books have touched me deeply. They have given me so much strength. The messages are implanted in my consciousness. And, I fairly float on the language!  The Ben Carson Story. The Green Collar Economy. And now, Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson.

The cover of the latter is drawn deep with humility: young George Washington Carver, somber and quiet in a photo. My peanut-loving mother called him The Peanut Man. I have a renewed interest in him because I recently learned—while researching Dear & Glorious Physician—about the history of Newark’s Kenney Memorial Hospital, for black patients, and its founder, Dr. John Kenney. Kenney had worked at Tuskegee and had been personal physician to both Booker T. Washington and Carver. Also, I was mentoring a young poet—who has since died at age 36—and I was researching poetry retreats for him and came across one administered by Marilyn Nelson. I had never heard of her before but oh, I know her now. 

This is a history text, written in poetic language. What a wonderful way to teach. There is a poem about Carver in his job as a young washerman; about his first awful look at a lynching; another about his unassuming nature; yet another about him and his best friends, and they are white men who love him. 

It seems that George Washington Carver was born a slave, his mother was owned by Susan and Moses Carver. The mother died or fled and left two orphans: George and his brother Jim.  Susan and Moses were childless. They took the boys in and raised them as their own. This relationship, as felt and imagined by Nelson, is astounding.

One of my favorite poems speaks to this very point in young Carver’s life:    

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Prayer of the Ivory-Handled Knife

 Susan Carver, 1871

Father, you have given us,

instead of our own children, your

and Mary’s orphans, Jim and George.

what would you have us make

of them? What

kind of freedom

can we raise them to?

They will always be strangers

in this strange, hate-filled land.


Jim is a big help to Moses:

Thank you for their joined laughter

like morning mist over new-plowed fields.

And our little plant-doctor:

Now he’s crushing leaves and berries

and painting sanded boards.

Thank you

for his profusion of roses

on our bedroom wall,

for his wildflower bouquet

in the sitting room,

his apples and pears beside the stove.


He ran out before breakfast,

saying he’d dreamed last night

of that pocket knife he’s been

asking us and praying for.

A few minutes later he ran back up

from the garden, calling

Aunt Sue! Aunt Sue!

He’d found it in a watermelon,


exactly as he had dreamed.

Seemed like he all but flew

into my arms.

Oh, Father, gracious Lord:

How shall I thank you?

Source: Carver: A Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson.

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George Washington Carver (January 1864– January 5, 1943), was an American scientist, botanist, educator, and inventor whose studies and teaching revolutionized agriculture in the Southern United States. The day and year of his birth are unknown; he is believed to have been born before slavery was abolished in Missouri in January 1864. Much of Carver’s fame is based on his research into and promotion of alternative crops to cotton, such as peanuts and sweet potatoes. He wanted poor farmers to grow alternative crops both as a source of their own food and as a source of other products to improve their quality of life. The most popular of his 44 practical bulletins for farmers contained 105 food recipes that used peanuts. He also created or disseminated about 100 products made from peanuts that were useful for the house and farm, including cosmetics, dyes, paints, plastics, gasoline, and nitroglycerin. Wikipedia

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Marilyn Nelson (aka Marilyn Nelson Waniek) was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and comes from a long line of teachers on her mother’s side. Her father was a career Air Force officer who wrote poetry and plays. Marilyn grew up on air bases all over the country and wrote her first poem at age 11. She earned her BA from the University of California, Davis, and holds postgraduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania (MA, 1970) and the University of Minnesota (Ph.D., 1979) and honorary doctorates from Kutztown University in Pennsylvania and Simpson College in Iowa. Her many poetry books include Fortune’s Bones: The Manumission Requiem (2004), Carver: A Life in Poems (2001),  A Wreath for Emmett Till (Houghton Mifflin, Spring 2005), The Cachoiera Tales and Other Poems (2005), The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997), Magnificat: Poems (1994) The Homeplace (1990), Mama’s Promises (1985), and For the Body (1978). BoydsMillsPress

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Announcing the 2012 Frost Medalist Marilyn Nelson

6 January 2012

The Poetry Society of America is honored to announce that Marilyn Nelson is the 2012 recipient of the organization’s highest award, the Frost Medal, presented annually for “distinguished lifetime achievement in poetry.” Previous winners of this award include Wallace Stevens, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Marianne Moore, and Charles Simic, who was the 2011 recipient.

Marilyn Nelson was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on April, 26, 1946. She is the author or translator of fourteen books, including The Homeplace (1990) and The Fields of Praise: New and Selected Poems (1997), both of which were finalists for the National Book Award. Her numerous children’s books include, Carver: A Life in Poems  (2001 ) which received the Flora Stieglitz Straus Award and the Boston Globe/Horn Book Award. It was also a National Book Award finalist, and was designated as both a Newbery Honor Book and a Coretta Scott King Honor Book. Her young adult book, A Wreath for Emmett Till, also won the 2005 Boston Globe–Horn Book Award and was also designated a 2006 Coretta Scott King Honor Book, a 2006 Michael L. Printz Honor Book, and a 2006 Lee Bennett Hopkins Poetry Award Honor Book.  Her honors include two NEA creative writing fellowships, the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, an A.C.L.S. Contemplative Practices Fellowship, the Department of the Army’s Commander’s Award for Public Service, and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Nelson is a professor emerita of English at the University of Connecticut; was founder/director and host of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small non-profit writers’ colony (2004-2010) and held the office of Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut from 2001-2006.

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How I Discovered Poetry

                                        By Marilyn Nelson 

It was like soul-kissing, the way the words filled my mouth as Mrs. Purdy read from her desk. All the other kids zoned an hour ahead to 3:15, but Mrs. Purdy and I wandered lonely as clouds borne by a breeze off Mount Parnassus. She must have seen the darkest eyes in the room brim: The next day she gave me a poem she’d chosen especially for me to read to the all except for me white class. She smiled when she told me to read it, smiled harder, said oh yes I could. She smiled harder and harder until I stood and opened my mouth to banjo playing darkies, pickaninnies, disses and dats. When I finished my classmates stared at the floor. We walked silent to the buses, awed by the power of words.

Source: PoetrySociety

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Sandra L. West, a member of The Harlem Writers Guild, published a memoir What’s In A Name, Ghana Mae Jane?  in the Spring/Summer 2005 edition of Obsidian III: Literature of the African Diaspora. Co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, the first encyclopedia devoted to the movement, West is a Contributing Writer to Contemporary American Women Poets: An A-Z Guide. West teaches African American Literature at Rutgers University

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Life on Mars

By Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith, author of Life on Mars has been selected as the winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In its review of the book, Publishers Weekly noted the collection’s “lyric brilliance” and “political impulses [that] never falter.” A New York Times review stated, “Smith is quick to suggest that the important thing is not to discover whether or not we’re alone in the universe; it’s to accept—or at least endure—the universe’s mystery. . . . Religion, science, art: we turn to them for answers, but the questions persist, especially in times of grief. Smith’s pairing of the philosophically minded poems in the book’s first section with the long elegy for her father in the second is brilliant.” Life on Mars follows Smith’s 2007 collection, Duende, which won the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets, the only award for poetry in the United States given to support a poet’s second book, and the first Essence Literary Award for poetry, which recognizes the literary achievements of African Americans.

The Body’s Question (2003) was her first published collection. Smith said Life on Mars, published by small Minnesota press Graywolf, was inspired in part by her father, who was an engineer on the Hubble space telescope and died in 2008.

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A Wreath for Emmett Till

By Marilyn Nelson; Illustrated by Philippe Lardy

This memorial to the lynched teen is in the Homeric tradition of poet-as-historian. It is a heroic crown of sonnets in Petrarchan rhyme scheme and, as such, is quite formal not only in form but in language. There are 15 poems in the cycle, the last line of one being the first line of the next, and each of the first lines makes up the entirety of the 15th. This chosen formality brings distance and reflection to readers, but also calls attention to the horrifically ugly events. The language is highly figurative in one sonnet, cruelly graphic in the next. The illustrations echo the representative nature of the poetry, using images from nature and taking advantage of the emotional quality of color. There is an introduction by the author, a page about Emmett Till, and literary and poetical footnotes to the sonnets. The artist also gives detailed reasoning behind his choices. This underpinning information makes this a full experience, eminently teachable from several aspects, including historical and literary—School Library Journal  / Winner of 2012 Frost Medal / Murders of Till  / The Shocking Story

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 5 March 2009




Home  Fifty Influential Figures 

Related files:  We Are A Dancing People  Leslie Garland Bolling   Wendy Stand Up with Your Proud Hair!  Coming of Age in 1960s Newark    Carver: A Life in Poems

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