Biography of James A. Emanuel

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James Emanuel
Born(1921-06-15)June 15, 1921
Alliance, Nebraska, USA
DiedSeptember 28, 2013(2013-09-28) (aged 92)
Paris, France

James Emanuel (born June 15, 1921 – September 28, 2013) was a poet and scholar from Alliance, Nebraska. Emanuel, who is ranked by some critics as one of the best and most neglected poets of the 20th century, published more than 300 poems, 13 individual books, an influential anthology of African American literature, an autobiography, and more. He is also credited with creating a new literary genre, jazz-and-blues haiku, often read with musical accompaniment.


Born in Nebraska in 1921, Emanuel was raised in the state. He spent his early years in the western United States where he worked at a variety of jobs. At age twenty he joined the United States Army and served as confidential secretary to the Assistant Inspector General of the U.S. Army Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. After his discharge, he did his undergraduate work at Howard University and obtained graduate degrees from Northwestern University (M.A.) and Columbia University (Ph.D.). He then moved to New York City, where he taught at the City College of New York (CUNY), where in the 1960s he taught the college's first class on African-American poetry and mentored future scholars such as Addison Gayle Jr.

Emanuel also worked as an editor, with his first editorial project being the publication of a collection of poetry by Langston Hughes, whom Emanuel considered his mentor.

As the years passed Emanuel became frustrated with the state of racism in America. When he was offered teaching positions at universities in Europe in the late 1960s, he moved overseas. When his only child, James A. Emanuel, Jr., committed suicide in Los Angeles two decades later after being beaten by, in Emanuel's words "three cowardly cops," he vowed never to return to the United States.

Emanuel eventually taught at the University of Toulouse (as a Fulbright scholar in 1968–1969), at the University of Grenoble, and at the University of Warsaw. He lived in Paris, France at the time of his death.



Emanuel was a published poet, scholar, and critic. As a poet, Emanuel published more than 300 poems and 13 individual books. Emanuel has been called one of the best, and most overlooked, poets of his time. Critics have put forward several reasons for Emanuel's poetry being neglected by the larger literary world, including the fact that Emanuel wrote more traditional poetic forms, that he left the United States, and the fact that he refused to take part in the politically correct world of Black academia.

Emanuel is also credited with creating a new literary genre, jazz-and-blues haiku, which he has read to musical accompaniment throughout Europe and Africa. For this creation he was awarded the Sidney Bechet Creative Award in 1996. He was also awarded the Dean's Award for Distinguished Achievement in 2007 from Columbia University's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and has also been honored with a John Hay Whitney Award, a Saxton Memorial Fellowship, and a Special Distinction Award from the Black American Literature Forum.

Criticism and letters

In addition to his poetry, Emanuel also edited (with Theodore Gross) the influential anthology of African American literature Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America. The anthology, published in 1968 by Free Press, was one of the first major collections of African American writings. This anthology, and Emanuel's work as an educator, heavily influenced the birth of the African American literature genre.

In 2000 a collection of Emanuel letters and writings were placed in the United States Library of Congress. Included in the letters were correspondence with Gwendolyn Brooks, Ralph Ellison, Benjamin O. Davis, Ossie Davis, W. E. B. Du Bois, and many others.

Emanuel also edited five Broadside Critics books (1971–1975) and wrote a number of critical essays. His other published works include a memoir, The Force and the Reckoning, published in 2001.


  • Langston Hughes (New York: Twayne. 192 pp.)
  • Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America with Theodore L. Gross (New York: Free Press. 604 pp.)
  • The Treehouse and Other Poems (Detroit: Broadside Press. 24 pp.)
  • Panther Man (Detroit: Broadside Press. 32 pp.)
  • How I Write/2 with MacKinlay Kantor and Lawrence Osgood (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 256 pp.)
  • Black Man Abroad: The Toulouse Poems(Detroit: Lotus Press. 76 pp.)
  • A Chisel in the Dark (Poems Selected and New) (Detroit: Lotus Press. 73 pp.)
  • A Poet's Mind (New York: Regents. 85pp.)
  • The Broken Bowl (New and Collected Poems) (Detroit: Lotus Press. 85 pp.)
  • Deadly James and Other Poems (Detroit: Lotus Press. 82 pp.)
  • The Quagmire Effect
  • Whole Grain: Collected Poems, 1958–1989 (Detroit: Lotus Press. 396 pp.)
  • De la rage au cœur with Jean Migrenne and Michel Fabre (Thaon, France: Amiot/Lenganey. 173 pp.)
  • Blues in Black and White
  • Reaching for Mumia: 16 Haiku
  • Jazz from the Haiku King
  • The Force and the Reckoning

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