Inside the pages of The Collected Poems of Josie Craig Berry, one will find the measured voice of an educated Oklahoma Black woman, born in 1888, whose poetry and prose may delight, surprise, and most certainly engage readers. Editor J.C. Mish spent fifteen years researching Oklahoma poetry when she uncovered several published pieces by Berry. Struck by Berry’s “mastery of poetics, her wry sense of humor, her Black feminism, and her unwavering and unapologetic insistence on civil rights,” Mish dug for more.
Josie Craig Berry spent time as a teacher, an officer and member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and an active member of at least fifteen women’s clubs for most of her life. She was friend to both Black and White members of the writing community and spent time conducting outreach to bridge the two communities of literati. It’s been her family, however, that managed to collect and present for all time Josie Craig Berry’s magnificent poetic opus, a critical contribution to Black studies and history.
Her poetry is accessible, and often metered, as opposed to free verse, in form. Her wide ranging ability and skill with words come clearly into focus as one examines the annotated bibliography at the back of her book. “A Prayer” appears in The Black Dispatch of September 1920 and is described as having eight iambic tetrameter quatrains (long measure) rhyming ABCB. It is “a prayer that God will become the Guardian of Black people.” These notes may assist readers in an academic setting.
It’s exhilarating when an author sends the reader on a quest to discover something or someone new from history. Her poem “And Death Went Down” is dedicated to James Weldon Johnson, a name unfamiliar to this reviewer. James Weldon Johnson was a Black lawyer, diplomat, and the composer of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Negro National Anthem. For over a decade he served as executive secretary of the NAACP and his song, a call for resilience and hope for Black Americans, has been performed by the likes of Alicia Keyes and Beyonce for various special events. His is a name to remember.
“Long as light comes from the sun,/Long as on earth achievements count/Long as shall stand the rugged mount/So long shall live our Washington.” from “An Ode to (Booker T.) Washington.”
Readers studying Black history, poetry, or who enjoy the challenge of early metric forms of prose will most certainly appreciate this anthology, a collection “created in partnership with Ms. Berry’s descendants, without whose help this book would never exist.” The photos included depict timelessly beautiful black and white family photos from Berry’s life.