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1992Nonfiction

The Homeplace

Publisher: Louisiana State University Press

Marilyn Nelson Waniek

Marilyn Nelson Waniek

  • Born: 1946

In this quietly provocative and poignant collection of poems, Waniek records the history of her family, beginning with her great-great-grandmother’s experiences as a slave in the South, through her father’s years as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the celebrated group of black aviators who fought during World War II.

Many of these works are based on stories the poet’s mother passed on to her before her death, and Waniek retains the immediacy of this oral legacy through a skillful interweaving of dialect, quotations and first-person narration, and through her matter-of-fact, unadorned speech: “Being black in America / was the Original Catch, / so no one was surprised / by 22: / The segregated airstrips, / separate camps. / They did the jobs / they’d been trained to do.” In consistently moving narratives and adeptly crafted sonnets (Waniek’s attempts at the villanelle and ballad are less impressive), the poet charts her family’s survival in the face of oppression and racial injustice through carefully selected details and an evenhanded tone that avoids emotionalism and elevates personal history to universal experience.

A slim yet compelling collection of poetry that celebrates several generations of a Southern black family with rich and vivid portraits. Great-Uncle Rufus was born a slave, conceived by rape, but raised by his mother with enough love and faith to imbue courage and pride in his own five children. Aunt Geneva dared to love a white man well into her eighties. Waniek’s father, an Air Force navigator, and her “uncles,” the famed Tuskegee Airmen, inspired the poet to look to the sky and ask “. . . how shall I live and work to match your goodness?” This is a worthy addition to any poetry collection, but it’s of particular importance with the recent interest in the airmen and the contribution of blacks in the U. S. military. An excellent work for curriculum use in integrating history and literature.

Marilyn Nelson, who dropped the “Waniek” from her name in 1995, is the author or translator of twelve books. Her honors include two NEA creative writing fellowships, the 1990 Connecticut Arts Award, an ACLS Contemplative Practices Fellowship, a Fulbright Teaching Fellowship, three honorary doctorates, and a fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. Nelson is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Connecticut; founder and director of Soul Mountain Retreat, a small writers’ colony; and the former Poet Laureate of the State of Connecticut. She was born in Cleveland, Ohio.