The Sweet Breath of Life: A Poetic Narrative of the African-American Family by Ntozake Shange, edited by Frank Stewart Atria Books, October 2004 $29.95, ISBN 0-743-47897-5
It has been close to 50 years since The Sweet Flypaper of Life, that marvelous collaboration between Langston Hughes and the photographer Roy DeCarava was published to great acclaim. Over the years, black photographers have produced significant collections devoted to black life and yet, only now with The Sweet Breath of Life has the Hughes/DeCarava template come back into use. With the poetry of Ntozake Shange and by members of the Kamoinge Workshop including Frank Stewart, the book's editor, The Sweet Breath of Life seems more like a commemoration of an idea than a vital testament to the African American spirit as it is lived now.
Part of the problem is that Shange's poems, which range from the powerfully made to the very slight, directly respond to the photographs in such a manner that they feel more like journalism than poetry. Equally troubling are the photographs. I think Stewart and the workshop contributors were aiming for a kind of timeless family album, but often the pictures come across as outdated.