Jake Adam York, a poet and civil rights scholar who was a visiting fellow at Emory’s James Weldon Johnson Institute last year, has died today at the age of 40. You can read more about him at his personal site.
York’s poetry and research were intimately bound. A great deal of his works were elegies for the lives lost in the Civil Rights movement, drawn from archives York gathered at Emory’s Manuscripts, Archives and Rare Books Library. In addition, students in the Creative Writing department praised him lavishly as a teacher.
I only heard him speak once at Emory, and my memories are somewhat spotty. He described his efforts to theorize an “ethical formalism,” inspired by a personal compulsion to work through his history as a white Southerner. (He had cause to suspect some of the KKK members in the archive were his relatives.) York was already planning a major sequence of poems to be launched in 2018 for the 50th anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr. Among the poems he read that day was “Letter to Be Wrapped around a 12-inch Disk,” a tender memory of discovering Afrika Bambaataa (one of the fathers of hip-hop) as a teenager in Alabama which is also a sort of manifesto for his craft.
As well as his three books of poetry, to which he referred collectively as Inscriptions for Air, York published numerous works in print and online journals, including a Thanksgiving food column at the Washington Post.