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Ellington Was Not a Street

by Ntozake Shange

Publishers Weekly : At once personal and universal, Shange's poem, "Mood Indigo" (published in her 1983 poetry collection, A Daughter's Geography), serves as the narrative for this elegiac tribute to a select group of African-American men who made important contributions to 20th-century culture. Nelson (Big Jabe) ingeniously sets the events in the home of the narrator, depicted as a curious, winning girl in oil paintings that strongly evoke the period and mood as the renowned visitors start to gather in her convivial, well-appointed house. Presented without punctuation, apostrophes or capital letters, the affectingly wistful verse flows freely and lyrically: "it hasnt always been this way/ ellington was not a street," it begins. Paul Robeson hangs his hat on a coat rack, emphasizing the man's larger-than-life presence and tall, athletic stature ("robeson no mere memory") while "du bois walked up my father's stairs" with the aid of a cane. Nelson conveys the learned man's advancing years but, once seated on the couch, Du Bois exudes wisdom and dignity. The volume culminates in a group portrait of Duke Ellington, percussionist Ray Barretto, jazz great Dizzy Gillespie and Dr. Kwame Nkrumah, former president of Ghana, among others; this collective image drives home the point that these legendary figures were contemporaries who defined an era. Brief concluding biographical sketches tell readers more about these engaging personalities and may well lead to further reading. This is truly a book for all ages, lovely to behold and designed to be revisited. All ages. (Jan.)

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