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Encore: Book expresses still-fresh feelings about a tumultuous year

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Today we revisit the book, "There's A Revolution Outside, My Love." It's kind of a time capsule, an anthology - 40 chapters by 40 writers, described as letters from a crisis. There are essays, poems, letters, and they feature some familiar sounds and images from the last year - protests and ambulance sirens, also pieces called "On The Complex Flavors Of Black Joy" and "Where Is Black Life Lived?" The poet Tracy K. Smith is one of the editors of this collection. She spoke with our cohost, Ari Shapiro, earlier this year when it was released.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Can you tell us about one piece in this collection that when you read it, you understand the moment we're living through in a different way?

TRACY K SMITH: One that's on my mind, which is "The Flavors Of Black Joy" by Michael Kleber-Diggs, which thinks about the weight that - he describes almost like the weight of a stone of living as a Black person in a country that is characterized by anti-Black violence and history. And he also talks about how belonging in Blackness with these conditions is also a source of community. It's a source of allegiance. And he finds in his body and in his imagination and his sense of lineage a form of spacious, beautiful, joyful expression, almost in defiance of all of the pressures of the white gaze that try and confine and constrain Black experience and expression.

SHAPIRO: He explores this metaphor of carrying the stones so beautifully. He writes, it's manageable but wearying. It gets heavier the longer you hold it. You know you can't put it down, so you try to get used to it. From time to time when people notice the stone, when they remember your burden, when it occurs to them that hauling a stone all the time might weigh a person down, when they recognize how unfair it is, you can almost feel seen or validated.

SMITH: Yeah. I also feel - every time I read that and talk about it, I feel like it's really important to say. I don't think he's saying the stone is Blackness. Blackness is not the burden. The burden is what the white gaze does - with the anxiety, apprehension, fear or even guilt that the reality of Blackness raises in the white imagination. And so that dynamic is something that he unpacks very beautifully.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

SMITH: And maybe that's what each of these pieces does, right? It opens up a space for us to name our challenges, our apprehensions, our fears, our anger in some ways but also to begin to articulate something that is about possibility. In many cases, it's about the possibility that opens up when you become courageous enough to claim a brutal history that we belong to.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

SMITH: Layli Long Soldier has an essay that reminds us of how that history has affected Native nations within America. And she even comes to a moment where she says, if you were like me and you tend to skim over historical texts, please stop. Resist that urge, and go back and listen to these voices. And so there's a really beautiful way that we are guided to reconfigure our relationship to place, history and what it means to listen.

SHAPIRO: How did you choose the voices to include in this collection? While there are a lot of Black writers, it's not all African American writers. It's really a panoply of voices.

SMITH: Yeah. Well, we wanted to think about diversity in lots of different ways. And because racial justice is a big part of the vocabulary of this time, we wanted to center the voices of Black writers and writers of color. But we were also thinking about geographic diversity because America is huge, and we lived through this crisis differently depending on where we were. And there's also a desire to think toward different issues. And so, you know, policing and incarceration are policy issues that live here alongside other questions that ask us to think more internally or interiorly. And that felt important to coming to this moment and its many crises from different kinds of depths, if you will.

SHAPIRO: You wrote a piece for the collection called "A Letter To Black America." Will you read the first paragraph of it?

SMITH: Sure.

(Reading) Dear Black America, we are many things, aren't we? We are hair. God, yes, we are hair and song and memory. We are a language so deep it has no need for words. And we are words that feint dart and wheel like birds. Like James Brown, we feel good. Like Fannie Lou Hamer, we are sick and tired. We are fearsome. We are fire. Like God, we are that we are.

SHAPIRO: There are so many emotions packed into that one dense paragraph, including humor. And I was surprised that a letter to Black America in this moment in time would begin by making me chuckle. I mean, why did you want to address Black America, at least right out of the gate, in this particular way?

SMITH: Well, I think that's kind of, like, what we do. I think that the community of Blackness has long understood that humor is a tool of survival, and it's a way of mustering a kind of power and perspective, even in the face of, you know, annihilating forces. And I feel like it tempers what is deadly serious, and it also gives us the ability to say, OK, now we can go there. Let's do the hard work.

SHAPIRO: Of all the things you could have written for this book, why did you choose to write a letter to Black America?

SMITH: It was a summer of so many declarations, so many documents of solidarity, so many manifestos of, you know, determination in terms of, you know, arts organizations and universities and corporations. And I participated in crafting some of those. But I finally said I'm tired of talking to an audience that I presume to be white and explaining or even trying to justify the very logical and natural needs that Black people and people of color have. I want to talk to us. And for me, us is the community of Blackness. And I wanted to speak from a place of joy, gratitude, belief, determination. And I wanted to stir something that I believed to be very fierce and powerful that we daily manage. And so just taking the time to create a different kind of space was really useful for me, and I hope that it also kind of created an invitation for Black readers to claim some of those things in their own terms.

CORNISH: That's Tracy K. Smith, one of the co-editors of the book, "There's A Revolution Outside, My Love: Letters From A Crisis." She spoke with our cohost, Ari Shapiro, earlier this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.