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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

James A. Emanuel, 92; poet who wrote often of racism

NEW YORK — James A. Emanuel, a poet, educator, and critic who published more than a dozen volumes of his poetry, much of it after his frustration with racism in the United States helped motivate him to move to France, died Sept. 27 in Paris. He was 92.

His death was confirmed by his nephew Jim Smith.

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Dr. Emanuel, who grew up in Nebraska, wrote prolifically and to steady approval for more than half a century, but he is not as well known as many of the writers who share space with him in anthologies of African-American literature. Geography and an inclination to stand apart played a role.

In the 1960s he taught at City College in New York, where he started the first class on black poetry, wrote academic studies of Langston Hughes and other black writers, and mentored young scholars, including the critic Addison Gayle Jr.

Even as his reputation grew, he became increasingly frustrated with racism in America. When European universities began offering him teaching positions in the late ’60s, he accepted. By the early ’80s, after the death of his only child in Los Angeles, he had vowed never to return to the United States. He never did.

He wrote often of racism, including in an early work, “The Negro”:

Never saw him.

Never can.

Hypothetical,

Haunting man.

Eyes a-saucer,

Yessir bossir,

Dice a-clicking,

Razor flicking.

The-ness froze him

In a dance.

A-ness never

Had a chance.

Naomi Long Madgett, a poet and the founder of Lotus Press, which published many of his works, said Dr. Emanuel was masterfully precise, careful to leave room for readers to participate. “Some poets don’t know when a poem should stop,” Madgett said. “It’s much harder to write a short poem than it is to write one that just rambles on and on. James Emanuel knew what to say and what to leave out.”

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James Andrew Emanuel was born in Alliance, Neb. His father, Alfred, died when he was young. His mother, Cora, was a schoolteacher and a driving force in his life who tended to keep to herself.

“Buzzards fly in droves,” she often told her son, recalled a family friend, David L. Evans. “But the eagle flies alone.”

Dr. Emanuel served in the Army from 1942 to 1946, spending two years as the secretary to General Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the Army’s first black general. He graduated from Howard University in 1950 and received his master’s from Northwestern in 1953. He earned his doctorate in English and comparative literature from Columbia while he was teaching at City College, starting as an English instructor in 1957 and retiring as a professor in 1983.

In 1967 he published his first book, “Langston Hughes,” a close analysis of that poet’s work adapted from his doctoral thesis. “He wrote with great insight and skill about Langston Hughes, and appreciated his genius when many other academics didn’t,” Arnold Rampersad, a professor at Stanford who has written an acclaimed biography of Hughes, wrote in an e-mail.

In 1968, Dr. Emanuel and Theodore L. Gross edited “Dark Symphony: Negro Literature in America,” and Dr. Emanuel published his first book of poetry, “The Treehouse and Other Poems.” More than a dozen other books followed, most of them poetry, including “Black Man Abroad,” in 1978; “Whole Grain: Collected Poems, 1958-1989,” in 1991; and “The Force and the Reckoning,” a blend of autobiography, poems, essays, and other writing, in 2001.

His poem “Deadly James (For All the Victims of Police Brutality)” was about the death in 1983 of his only child, James A. Jr. The circumstances of the death are unclear, but Dr. Emanuel said his son committed suicide after being beaten by “three cowardly cops.”

“I never speak of it,” he said in a 2007 interview for the website Cosmoetica.

Dr. Emanuel’s marriage to the former Mattie Etha Johnson ended in divorce. No immediate family members survive.

Dr. Emanuel was a meticulous worker and archivist.

“Multiple drafts of a given poem frequently reveal not only the creative process through alterations and corrections but also indicate the day, time, and location of composition as well as sources of inspiration, such as newspaper articles, opera tickets, photographs and restaurant receipts,” the Library of Congress, where he donated his papers in the late 1990s, noted in a summary.

His correspondence includes exchanges with the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the novelist Ralph Ellison, and the scholar Houston A. Baker.

In his later years, Dr. Emanuel claimed to have invented a new form of literature: the jazz haiku, stanzas of 17 syllables he read to the accompaniment of jazz music. Like the music, they felt improvisational even as they respected structure:

Four-letter word JAZZ:

naughty, sexy, cerebral,

but solarplexy.

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