Book Buzz: This Is the Honey

This Is the Honey: An Anthology of Contemporary Black Poets; edited by Kwame Alexander

In 2020, poet Kevin Young, current director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and poetry editor for the New Yorker, published “African American Poetry: 250 Years of Struggle and Song.” Young’s 1,110-page anthology is a comprehensive array of Black poets from 1770’s Phillis Wheatley to 2020’s Mahogany Browne. It belongs on any poetry lover’s bookshelf.

Four years later, Kwame Alexander, a poet, educator and author of children’s books, has come out with “This is the Honey: An Anthology of Contemporary Black Poets.” Alexander’s anthology is less a catalog of poets and more a moment in time. Alexander gathered the 154 or so poems in this book with thoughtfulness and deliberation, hoping to acknowledge and shine a light on the joy and sorrow of the Black experience today through the provocative beauty of this poetry. “It’s an unbridled selfie,” he writes in the introduction. “To marvel at. And reflect.”

The book is divided into six sections, each titled with a clue to the contents: The Language Of Joy, That’s My Heart Right There, Where I’m From, Devotions, Race Raise Rage: The Blackened Alphabet and When I See The Stars: Praise Poems.

As the title indicates, the poets are all contemporary living Black poets, including well-known names like Elizabeth Acevedo, Rita Dove, Ross Gay, Nikki Giovanni, Amanda Gorman, Sonia Sanchez, Tracy K. Smith, Alice Walker, Frank X. Walker and the same Kevin Young who edited the 2020 anthology mentioned above. Some of the poets have fewer awards and accomplishments than these standout writers, but all the poems were selected for their power.

And while Alexander says the poems are “unapologetically matter-of-fact Black,” he invites everyone to find inspiration and to rejoice in the hope this book contains. I would add a caveat that the hope you find in these poems has always come at a cost, and that is not forgotten in these pages.

Jacqueline Allen Trimble describes her mother, dressed to the nines, walking down Dexter Avenue in Montgomery, Alabama, in “The Language of Joy.” With “folks on the street joining in the celebration,” the poem creates a rich and colorful visual worthy of a Broadway musical:

“singing and dancing like a free people up Dexter Avenue, / and don’t think they didn’t know they were walking in the footsteps / of slaves and over auction sites and past where old Wallace / had held onto segregation like a life raft, but this / was not that day.”

Trimble acknowledges the dark history of the South calling out the slave trade and segregationist Gov. George Wallace, but the poem is indeed a tangible celebration of Black Americans who have got their own. The poet delights in centering her mother in the story but the end of the poem shows, once again, how the best of times still can cast a shadow and all you can do is keep on heading home.

Tragic events of the recent past are called out too. Kevin Powell’s poem “Happy,” ends with the date, Thursday, June 4, 2020, and you can infer that Powell wrote the poem two weeks after the death of George Floyd and the day of his memorial service. Frank X. Walker uses the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic to deliver a heartbreaking poem about his mother.

Many of the poems have a musical theme. A roll call of popular Black musicians name-dropped in these poems includes Mahalia Jackson, John Coltrane, Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, Bill Withers, Nina Simone, Otis Redding, James Brown and Beyonce, all gathered in service of the celebration.

Alexander rose to the task of bringing these voices together to tell the important story of the Black experience. All the poets are at the top of their game and the book is immersible, by which I mean you can immerse yourself in the poems, moving from one to the other as in a flowing stream, letting the joy and sadness wash over you in waves.

This is Alexander’s second anthology of Black poetry. His first, “360° A Revolution of Black Poets,” co-edited with New Orleans author and activist Kalamu ya Salaam came out in 1998. That book, according to Alexander, was a “call to action,” and while action is still needed, “This is the Honey” might be described as a call to celebration. Either way, it’s a call to stand up. Ruth Forman’s poem, “Stand” drives home the importance of standing up.

“…but here is the truth / someone will always tell you / sit down / the ones we remember / kept standing”

“This is the Honey: An Anthology of Contemporary Black Poets” is available at Bellingham and Whatcom County libraries and independent bookstores. Alexander will be appearing at Sehome High School at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 10. Tickets are available through Village Books. Info:

Neil McKay is the online experience coordinator for Whatcom County Library System,

(Originally published in Cascadia Daily News, Sunday, April 7, 2024.)