A special two-hour program broadcast on the Fourth of July, “The American Crisis” features readings from the Revolutionary era, contemporary poetry on national identity, and an impassioned profile of Phillis Wheatley, the first African American poet—and arguably the first truly American poet. The episode is narrated by Heather Perry.
Frank Buczolich reads selections throughout from the title work “The American Crisis,” a series of articles by the political pamphleteer Thomas Paine. Sarah Torbeck reads Abigail Adams’ famous “Remember the ladies” letter, an early American example of feminist writing, and Phil Kasper reads her husband John Adams’ retort.
Tony Brewer reads two poems from the Beat Generation, “I Am Waiting” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti and “America” by Allen Ginsberg.
The centerpiece of the episode is “The Difficult Miracle of Black Poetry: Something Like a Sonnet for Phillis Wheatley,” a slightly abridged version of the essay-profile by June Jordan. Renee Reed gives voice to a stunning evocation of what it meant for Wheatley, brought to the Colonies as a seven-year-old African and sold as a slave, to create herself as a poet within the tradition of white English literature.
“The American Crisis” includes a segment on the African American astronomer and surveyor Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806). Doug Storm reads a letter to Thomas Jefferson written by Banneker on racial justice, elegantly rebuking the author of the Declaration of Independence for perpetuating the institution of slavery while articulating the cause of freedom. The companion piece to the letter is the poem “Benjamin Banneker Helps to Build a City” by Jay Wright, read by Cynthia Wolfe, from his epic volume of verse Transfigurations. The segment in introduced with “Enlightenment,” by the multiracial poet Natasha Trethewey, which finds parallels between Jefferson’s contradictory attitudes toward slavery and the relationship of a white father and his black daughter.
The first Native American to publish in English, the Mohegan Christian convert Samson Occom (1723–1792), is represented by the opening of his memoir, in which he recalls the life of his people before the coming of Christianity. Martin O’Neill reads. Abenaki and French-Canadian poet Cheryl Savageau’s pointedly humorous “graduate school first semester: so here I am writing about Indians again” is read by Erin Livingston, who also reads examples of Phillis Wheatley’s poetry.
The episode closes with “lady liberty” by the Nuyorican poet Tato Laviera, who was born in Puerto Rico and died in New York in 2013, after a period of ill health and marginalization that included time spent in a homeless shelter. Cynthia Wolfe reads Laviera’s hopeful “lady liberty,” as well as the episode’s opening poem, “Of History and Hope” by Miller Williams, and “The History of America” by the Jewish feminist poet Alicia Ostriker.
The soundtrack for this episode features various works by the American composer Charles Ives (1874–1954), who has been described as “optimistic, idealistic, fiercely democratic … a Yankee maverick … among the most representative of American artists,” including:
selections from the album Ives: A Set of Pieces by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra (Deutsche Grammophon, 1999)
“They Are There! (Fighting for the People’s New Free World),” performed by Kronos Quartet, from their album Black Angels (Nonesuch, 1990)
the Presto movement of Ives’ Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano, performed by the Beaux Arts Trio on their album Beaux Arts Trio: Fifty Year Celebration in Music (Phillips, 2004)
Additional music in the episode:
Stanley Friedman, Sonata for Trumpet and Piano: Variations on “The Morning Trumpet,” performed by Eric Berlin and Nadine Shank on the album Calls and Echoes: American Sonatas for Trumpet and Piano (MSR Classics, 2013)
Larry Hoffman, Blues Suite for Violoncello, Movements I and II, performed by Kristin Ostling on the album Works of Larry Hoffman: Contemporary American Music (After Click, 2011)
John Adams, “American Berserk”, performed by Nicolas Hodges, from the album Road Movies (Nonesuch, 2004)
“Trumpet, Flute, and Little Drum,” from Tzotziles: Psalms, Stories and Music (Sub Rosa/Le Coeur du Monde: 1999), a documentary field recording of a people descended from the Maya culture
Fireworks sound effects from Freesound.org were created by HerbertBoland, atomwrath, bmlake, and others.
“The American Crisis” was produced, written and edited by Cynthia Wolfe, with assistance from Heather Perry, Sarah Torbeck, and Doug Storm.
Executive producer: Joe Crawford
Theme music: The Impossible Shapes