All the Songs We Sing, edited by Lenard D. Moore, is a vibrant and vocal celebration, as stated in the subtitle: Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Carolina African American Writers’ Collective. The Carolina African American Writers’ Collective (CAAWC) began in 1995 with monthly workshops held in homes, and has continued and thrived for 25 years. Members have published books, won recognition, and participated in panels, readings, and multiple collaborations. While this collection is not comprehensive, it does include voices from a variety of generations and renown, voices sharing diverse stories and forms that speak of a greater collective Carolina identity. Moore writes in the introduction: “With our fabric, we weave, as if making a tapestry of North Carolina that extends beyond borders… And yet, we also write about the United States and the global community. Every day we live an often painful history. But we must rise above it.” This collection carries these tensions — both regional and global, histories of trauma beside moments of human celebration and connection. On behalf of these CAAWC writers, these diverse voices not often amplified for audiences in mainstream American culture, Moore says: “In these stories/songs, we hope you will learn something about our origin, real and metaphorical.”
This multi-genre collection is separated into three sections: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Poems fill the majority of the pages in a range of styles and forms, creating conversations with historical African Americans from past to present day. Emmett Till calls out more than once. Michelle Obama “First brown lady” dazzles in multiple poems, described as a living “Black Barbie” by celeste doaks. The juxtaposition of past and present literally becomes colorful questions and impressions as L. Teresa Church describes: “Michelle Obama’s green-gloved hands/cradle Lincoln’s/red-cased Bible/this winter day.” In “The Interrogation of Harriet Tubman” by Lenard D. Moore, the narrator asks haunting questions of the Underground Railroad leader, wounded by trauma, doubting its end and Tubman’s deliverance, causing the reader to ask more questions as well. Trauma, determination, and belonging are themes that haunt these poems. In “Archeologist”, Carol Boston Weatherford imagines a farmhand carving a bone button for his beloved who sews it to her only dress “hoping they are never separated”. The narrator in “I Am Black & Comely” by L. Lamar Wilson references the Song of Solomon and questions the King James translation, asking, “O will we ever know how beautiful we are?” “When I Thought of Racism” by Diane Judge starts with lynchings and ending with a contemporary reference to 2012: “When I thought of racism/I did not know to think/of a hoodie, rainbow candy, tea”.
The CAAWC fiction writers depict images of intense relationships with unpredictable endings. Relationships are complex and complicated. Relationships survive the context of wartime and the everyday tensions of American life through time. Histories extend through the centuries. The first two stories feature young women shaping their futures through their own agency despite overwhelming cultural and personal forces against them. “I don’t know what the right thing is,” confides the title character in Angela Belcher Epps’ story “Sophia”. But relationships are also a refuge, as an African American soldier cares for orphaned Vietnamese children during war in the aptly named “Sanctuary” by Sheila Smith McKoy. CAAWC fiction writers highlight the tensions and stress of caregiving, and the weight of responsibilities, relationships, and families. Yet nurturing is also a positive theme. “That’s all I want to do. Dig, plant, grow” says the narrator of “On the Border” who ends up caring for an unwanted bird while healing from trauma and reading the Burpee seed catalog. The final story, “Tuck Hughes,” also describes the power of time and trauma, and the lasting impact of relationships in life.
Camille T. Dungy’s essay “From Dirt” opens the nonfiction section depicting an intimacy and understanding of food and nourishment, “simultaneous legacies of trauma and triumph,” including a line of seed passed down from the 1838 Trail of Tears, and ancestors carrying okra in their hair and peanuts hidden on their bodies through the Middle Passage and then to American soil. “People who came long before us carried the source of a new kind of flourishing through desolation most of us care not to fully comprehend.” The following essay, “Perennials” by Angela Belcher Epps ends with reflection on “the cord of continuity” found in gardening after her mother passes away “Her presence persisted as new life, growth, beauty”. Other essays continue the theme of perseverance, resilience, growth, and joy, as a writer who has lost her sense of smell states, “I just remind myself that while part of me is gone, so much more remains.”
All the Songs We Sing is a rich collection of voices, acknowledging trauma of the African American experience while also celebrating the resilience and the refuge of relationships, relationships with the natural world and relationships with family and friends. In the poetry section alone, there are moments of beauty featuring tulips, daffodils, cornfields, peach trees, cold, sweet water, and honeysuckle. Nature is a form of refuge for CAAWC writers. Relationships with seeds and nature carry hope and history. And while relationships can be traumatic, marked by violence and loss, relationships can also heal, nurture, and shelter growth. Through the written word, through collective history and identity, CAAWC writers interrogate the past, question historical figures, connect with ancestors, celebrate progress in the present, grieve injustice, building bridges of strength and identity into the present. The CAAWC writers speak of lynchings, loss, and violence existing alongside shelter and sanctuary, connection and care, glimpses of beauty. These writers from Carolina share their stories with this “cord of continuity” from the past quarter-century extending into the future of the 21st century. As Carole Boston Weatherford writes in her poem “Isaac Copper I’: “When you are the only one who knows,/You tell somebody; you show someone./You remember for those who might forget./You pass it down.”
Julie Jeanell Leung received her MFA from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in a number of publications, including Bellingham Review, Blue Lyra Review, and Grist: The Journal for Writers. Her essays have been selected as a Finalist for Best of the Net and as a winner of the Living Earth Nonfiction Prize. Julie lives with her husband on an island near Seattle where she volunteers as a citizen scientist and counts sea stars on the rocky shores.