Negro Poets and Their Poems/Chapter 1
NEGRO POETS AND THEIR POEMS
THE NEGRO'S HERITAGE OF SONG
As an empire may grow up within an empire without observation so a republic of letters within a republic of letters. That thing is happening today in this land of ours. A literature of significance on many accounts, and not without various and considerable merits. Its producers are Negroes. Culture, talent, genius—or something very like it—are theirs. Nor is it "the mantle of Dunbar" they wrap themselves in, but an unborrowed singing robe, that better fits "the New Negro." The list of names in poetry alone would stretch out, were I to start telling them over, until I should bring suspicion upon myself as no trustworthy reporter. Besides, the mere names would mean nothing, since, as intimated, this little republic has grown up unobserved in our big one.
It may be more for the promise held forth by their thin little volumes than for the intrinsic merit of their performance that we should esteem the verse-makers represented in this survey of contemporary Negro poetry. Yet on many grounds they should receive candid attention, both from the students of literature and the students of sociology. Recognition of real literary merit will be accorded by the one class of students, and recognition of new aspects of the most serious race problem of the ages will be forced upon the second class. Justification enough for the present survey and exhibition will be acknowledged by all who are earnestly concerned either with literature or with life.
Perhaps, unconsciously, in my comments and estimates I have not steadfastly kept before me absolute standards of poetry. But where and when was this ever done? Doubtless in critiques of master poets by master critics, and only there. In writing of contemporary verse, by courtesy called poetry, we compromise, our estimates are relative, we make allowances, our approvals and disapprovals are toned according to the known circumstances of production. And this is right.
If the prospective reader opens this volume with the demand in his mind for novelty of language, form, imagery, idea—novelty and quaintness, perhaps amusing "originality", or grotesqueness—let him reflect how unreasonable a similar demand on the part of English critics was a century ago relative to the beginnings of American poetry. Were not American poets products of the same culture as their contemporaries in England? What other language had they than the language of Shakespeare and Wordsworth, Keats and Tennyson? The same is essentially true of the American Negro—or the Negro American, if you choose. He is the heir of Anglo-Saxon culture, he has been nurtured in the same spiritual soil as his contemporary of the white race, the same traditions of language, form, imagery, and idea are his. Everything possible has been done to stamp out his own African traditions and native propensities. Therefore, let no unreasonable demand be laid upon these Negro rhymers.
Notwithstanding, something distinctive, and something uniquely significant, may be discerned in these verse productions to reward the perusal. But this may not be the reader’s chief reward. That may be his discovery, that, after all, a wonderful likeness rather than unlikeness to the poetry of other races looks forth from this poetry of the children of Ham. A valuable result would this be, should it follow.
Before attempting a survey of the field of contemporary verse it will advantage us to cast a backward glance upon the poetic traditions of the Negro, to see what is the present-day Negro poet’s heritage of song. These traditions will be reviewed in two sections: 1. Untaught Melodies; 2. The Poetry of Art. This backward glance will comprehend all that was sung or written by colored people from Jupiter Hammon to Paul Laurence Dunbar.
I. Untaught Melodies
The Negro might well be expected to exhibit a gift for poetry. His gift for oratory has long been acknowledged. The fact has been accepted without reflection upon its significance. It should have been foreseen that because of the close kinship between oratory and poetry the Negro would some day, with more culture, achieve distinction in the latter art, as he had already achieved distinction in the former art. The endowments which make for distinction in these two great kindred arts, it must also be remarked, have not been properly esteemed in the Negro. In other races oratory and poetry have been accepted as the tokens of noble qualities of character, lofty spiritual gifts. Such they are, in all races. They spring from mankind's supreme spiritual impulses, from mankind's loftiest aspirations—the aspirations for freedom, for justice, for virtue, for honor and distinction.
That these impulses, these aspirations, and these endowments are in the American Negro and are now exhibiting themselves in verse—it is this I wish to show to the skeptically minded. It will readily be admitted that the Negro nature is endowed above most others, if not all others, in fervor of feeling, in the completeness of self-surrender to emotion. Hence we see that marvelous display of rhythm in the individual and in the group. This capacity of submission to a higher harmony, a grander power, than self, affords the explanation of mankind's highest reaches of thought, supreme insights, and noblest expressions. Rhythm is its manifestation. It is the most central and compulsive law of the universe. The rhythmic soul falls into harmony and co-operation with the universal creative energy. It therefore becomes a creative soul. Rhythm visibly takes hold of the Negro and sways his entire being. It makes him one with the universal Power that Goethe describes, in famous lines, as “at the roaring loom of time, weaving for God the garment thou seest him by.”
But fervor of feeling must have some originating cause. That cause is a conception—the vivid, concrete presentation of an object or idea to the mind. The Negro has this endowment also. Ideas enter his mind with a vividness and power which betoken an extraordinary faculty of imagination. The graphic originality of language commonly exhibited by the Negro would be sufficient proof of this were other proof wanting. No one will deny to the Negro this gift. Whoever has listened to a colored preacher's sermon, either of the old or the new school, will recall perhaps more than one example of poetic phrasing, more than one word-picture, that rendered some idea vivid beyond vanishing. It no doubt has been made, in the ignorant or illiterate, an object of jest, just as the other two endowments have been; but these three gifts are the three supreme gifts of the poet, and the poet is the supreme outcome of the race: power of feeling, power of imagination, power of expression—and these make the poet.
1. The Spirituals
As a witness of the Negro's untutored gift for song there are the Spirituals, his "canticles of love and woe," chanted wildly, in that darkness which only a few rays from heaven brightened. Since they afford, as it were, a background for the song of cultured art which now begins to appear, I must here give a word to these crude old plantation songs. They are one of the most notable contributions of any people, similarly circumstanced, to the world's treasury of song, altogether the most appealing. Their significance for history and for art—more especially for art—awaits interpretation. There are signs that this interpretation is not far in the future. Dvorak, the Bohemian, aided by the Negro composer, Harry T. Burleigh, may have heralded, in his "New World Symphony," the consummate achievement of the future which shall be entirely the Negro's. Had Samuel Coleridge-Taylor been an American instead of an English Negro, this theme rather than the Indian theme might have occupied his genius—the evidence whereof is that, removed as he was from the scenes of plantation life and the tribulations of the slaves, yet that life and those tribulations touched his heart and found a place, though a minor one, in his compositions.
But the sister art of poetry may anticipate music in the great feat of embodying artistically the yearning, suffering, prayerful soul of the African in those centuries when he could only with patience endure and trust in God—and wail these mournfullest of melodies. Some lyrical drama like “Prometheus Bound,” but more touching as being more human; some epic like “Paradise Lost,” but nearer to the common heart of man, and more lyrical; some “Divina Commedia,” that shall be the voice of those silent centuries of slavery, as Dante’s poem was the voice of the long-silent epoch preceding it, or some lyrical “passion play” like that of Oberammergau, is the not improbable achievement of some descendant of the slaves.
In a poem of tender appeal, James Weldon Johnson has celebrated the "black and unknown bards," who, without art, and even without letters, produced from their hearts, weighed down with sorrows, the immortal Spirituals:
O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?
Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?
So begins this noble tribute to the nameless natural poets whose hearts, touched as a harp by the Divine Spirit, gave forth “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” and “Nobody Knows de Trouble I See,” “Steal Away to Jesus,” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll.”
Great praise does indeed rightly belong to that black slave-folk who gave to the world this treasure of religious song. To the world, I say, for they belong as truly to the whole world as do the quaint and incomparable animal stories of Uncle Remus. Their appeal is to every human heart, but especially to the heart that has known great sorrow and which looks to God for help.
It is only of late their meaning has begun to dawn upon us—their tragic, heart-searching meaning. Who in hearing these Spirituals sung to-day by the heirs of their creators can doubt what they meant when they were wailed in the quarters or shouted in wild frenzy in the camp-meetings of the slaves? Even the broken, poverty-stricken English adds infinitely to the pathos:
I’m walking on borrowed land,
This world ain’t none of my home.
We'll stand the storm, it won’t be long.
Oh, walk together children,
Don’t get weary.
My heavenly home is bright and fair,
Nor pain nor death can enter there.
Oh, steal away and pray,
I’m looking for my Jesus.
Oh, freedom! oh, freedom! oh, freedom over me!
An’ before I’d be a slave,
I'll be buried in my grave,
And go home to my Lord an’ be free.
Not a word here but had two meanings for the slave, a worldly one and a spiritual one, and only one meaning, the spiritual one, for the master—who gladly saw this religious frenzy as an emotional safety-valve.
In certain aspects these Spirituals suggest the songs of Zion, the Psalms. Trouble is the mother of song, particularly of religious song. In trouble the soul cries out to God—“a very present help in time of trouble.” The Psalms and the Spirituals alike rise de profundis. But in one respect the songs of the African slaves differ from the songs of Israel in captivity: there is no prayer for vengeance in the Spirituals, no vindictive spirit ever even suggested. We can but wonder now at this. For slavery at its best was degrading, cruel, and oppressive. Yet no imprecation, such as mars so many a beautiful Psalm, ever found its way into a plantation Spiritual. A convincing testimony this to that spirit in the African slave which Christ, by precept and example, sought to establish in His disciples. If the Negro in our present day is growing bitter toward the white race, it behooves us to inquire why it is so, in view of his indisputable patience, meekness, and good-nature. We might find in our present régime a more intolerable cruelty than belonged even to slavery, if we investigated honestly. There is certainly a bitter and vindictive tone in much of the Afro-American verse now appearing in the colored press. For both races it augurs ill.
But I have not yet indicated the precise place of these Spirituals in the world’s treasury of song. They have a close kinship with the Psalms but a yet closer one with the chanted prayers of the primitive Christians, the Christians when they were the outcasts of the Roman Empire when to be a Christian was to be a martyr. In secret places, in catacombs, they sent up their triumphant though sorrowful songs, they chanted their litanies
Like the volcano’s tongue of flame
Up from the burning core below—
The canticles of love and woe.”
So indeed came the Spirituals of the African slave. These songs might in truth, to use a figure of the old poets, be called the melodious tears of those who wailed them. An African proverb says, “We weep in our hearts like the tortoise.” In their hearts—so wept the slaves, silently save for these mournful cries in melody. Without means of defense, save a nature armored with faith, when assailed, insulted, oppressed, they could but imitate the tortoise when he shuts himself up in his
By Meta Warrick Fuller shell and patiently takes the blows that fall. The world knew not then, nor fully knows now—partly because of African buoyancy, pliability, and optimism—what tears they wept. These Spirituals are the golden vials spoken of in Holy Writ, “full of odors, which are the prayers of saints”—an everlasting memorial before the throne of God. Other vials there are, different from these, and they, too, are at God’s right hand.
A Negro sculptor, Mrs. Meta Warrick Fuller, not knowing of this proverb about the tortoise which has only recently been brought from Africa, but simply interpreting Negro life in America, has embodied the very idea of the African saying in bronze. Under the title “Secret Sorrow” a man is represented as eating his own heart.
The interpretation in art of the Spirituals, or a poetry of art developed along the lines and in the spirit of those songs, is something we may expect the black singers of no distant day to produce. Already we have many a poem that offers striking reminiscences of them.
2. The Seculars
But other songs the Negro has which are more noteworthy from the point of view of art than the Spirituals: songs that are richer in artistic effects, more elaborate in form, more varied and copious in expression. These are the Negro’s secular songs and rhymes, his dance, play, and love-making songs, his gnomic and nursery rhymes. It is not exaggeration to say that in rhythmic and melodic effects they surpass any other body of folk-verse whatsoever. In wit, wisdom, and quaint turns of humor no other folk-rhymes equal them. Prolific, too, in such productions the race seems to have been, since so many at this late day were to be found.
It comes not within the scope of this anthology to include any of these folk-rhymes of the elder day, but a few specimens seem necessary to indicate to the young Negro who would be a poet his rich heritage of song and to the white reader what essentially poetic traits the Negro has by nature. It was “black and unknown bards,” slaves, too, who sang or said these rhymes:
Oh laugh an’ sing an’ don’t git tired.
"We’s all gwine home, some Mond’y,
To de honey pond an’ fritter trees;
An’ ev’ry day’ll be Sund’y.
Pride, too, and a sense of values had the Negro, bond or free:
My name’s Ran, I wuks in de san’;
But I’d druther be a Nigger dan a po’ white man.
Gwinter hitch my oxes side by side,
An ’ take my gal fer a big fine ride.
After a description of anticipated pleasures and a comic interlude in dialogue, the ballad from which these two couplets are taken concludes with that varied repetition of the first stanza which we find so effective in the poems of art:
I'd druther be a Nigger, an’ plow ole Beck,
Dan a white Hill Billy wid his long red neck.
Song or rhyme was, as ever, heart’s ease to the Negro in every trouble. Here are two rhymes that “pack up” and put away two common troubles:
She writ me a letter
As long as my eye.
An’ she say in dat letter:
Dem whitefolks say dat money talk.
If it talk lak dey tell,
Den ev’ry time it come to Sam,
It up an’ say:“Farewell!”
Going to the nursery—it was the one room of the log cabin, or the great out-of-doors—we find the old-time Negro’s head filled with a Mother Goose more enchanting than any printed and pictured one in the “great house” of the white child:
W’en de big owl whoops,
An’ de screech owl screeks,
An’ de win’ makes a howlin’ sound;
You liddle woolly heads
Had better kiver up,
Caze de “hants” is comin’ ’round.
A, B, C,
Doubled down D;
I’se so lazy you cain’t see me.
A, B, C,
Doubled down D;
Lazy Chilluns gits hick’ry tea.
Buck an’ Berry run a race,
Buck fall down an’ skin his face.
Buck an’ Berry in a stall;
Buck, he try to eat it all.
Buck, he e’t too much, you see.
So he died wid choleree.
But it is in the dance songs that rhythm in its perfection makes itself felt and that repetends are employed with effects which another Poe or Lanier might appropriate for supreme art. A lively scene and gay frolicsome movements are conjured up by the following dance songs:
CHICKEN IN THE BREAD TRAY
“Auntie, will yo’ dog bite?”—
“No, Chile! No!”
Chicken in de bread tray
A makin’ up dough.
“Auntie, will yo’ broom hit?”—
“Yes, Chile!” Pop!
Chicken in de bread tray;
“Flop! Flop! Flop!”
“Auntie, will yo’ oven bake?”—
“Yes. Jes fry!”—
“What’s dat chicken good fer?”—
“Pie! Pie! Pie!”
“Auntie, is yo’ pie good?”—
“Good as you could ’spec’.”
Chicken in de bread tray;
“Peck! Peck! Peck!”
Juba dis, an’ Juba dat,
Juba skin dat Yaller Cat. Juba! Juba!
Juba jump an’ Juba sing.
Juba cut dat Pigeon’s Wing. Juba! Juba!
Juba, kick off Juba’s shoe.
Juba, dance dat Jubal Jew. Juba! Juba!
Juba, whirl dat foot about.
Juba, blow dat candle out. Juba! Juba!
Juba circle, Raise de Latch.
Juba do dat Long Dog Scratch. Juba! Juba!
Out of the pastime group I take a rhyme that is typically full of character, delicious in its wit and proverbial lore:
FATTENING FROGS FOR SNAKES
You needn’ sen’ my gal hoss apples,
You needn’ sen’ her lasses candy;
She would keer fer de lak o’ you,
Ef you’d sen’ her apple brandy.
W’y don’t you git some common sense?
Jes git a liddle! Oh fer land sakes!
Quit yo’ foolin’, she hain’t studyin’ you!
Youse jes fattenin’ frogs fer snakes!
In the love songs one finds that mingling of pathos and humor so characteristic of the Negro. The one example I shall give lacks nothing of art—some unknown Dunbar, some black Bobbie Burns, must have composed it:
SHE HUGGED ME AND KISSED ME
I see’d her in de Springtime,
I see’d her in de Fall,
I see’d her in de Cotton patch,
A cameing from de Ball.
She hug me, an’ she kiss me,
She wrung my han’ an’ cried.
She said I wus de sweetes’ thing
Dat ever lived or died.
She hug me an’ she kiss me.
Oh Heaben! De touch o’ her han’!
She said I wus de puttiest thing
In de shape o’ mortal man.
I told her dat I love her,
Dat my love wus bed-cord strong;
Den I axed her w’en she’d have me,
An’ she jes say, “Go long!”
In a very striking way these folk-songs of the plantation suggest the old English folk-songs of unknown authorship and origin—the ancient traditional ballads, long despised and neglected, but ever living on and loved in the hearts of the people. This unstudied poetry of the people, the unlettered common folk, had supreme virtues, the elemental and universal virtues of simplicity, sincerity, veracity. It had the power, in an artificial age, to bring poetry back to reality, to genuine emotion, to effectiveness, to the common interests of mankind. Simple and crude as it was it had a merit unknown to the polished verse of the schools. Potential Negro poets might do well to ponder this fact of literary history. There is nothing more precious in English literature than this crude old poetry of the people.
There is a book of rhymes which, every Christmas season, is the favorite gift, the most gladly received, of all that Santa Claus brings. Nor so at Christmas only; it is a perennial pleasure, a boon to all children, young and old in years. This book is Mother Goose’s Melodies. How many “immortal” epics of learned poets it has outlived! How many dainty volumes of polished lyrics has this humble book of “rhymes” seen vanish to the dusty realms of dark oblivion! In every home it has a place and is cherished. Its contents are better known and more loved than the contents of any other book. Untutored, nameless poets, nature-inspired, gave this priceless boon to all generations of children, and to all sorts and conditions—an immortal book. As a life-long teacher and student of poetry, I venture, with no fear, the assertion that from no book of verse in our language can the whole art of poetry be so effectively learned as from Mother Goose’s Melodies. Every device of rhyme, and melody, and rhythm, and tonal color is exemplified here in a manner to produce the effects which all the great artists in verse aim at. This book that we all love—and patronize—is the greatest melodic triumph in the white man’s literature.
Of like merit and certainly no less are the folk rhymes and songs, both the Spirituals and the Seculars, of the Negro. Their art potentialities are immense. Well may the aspirant to fame in poetry put these songs in his memory and peruse them as Burns did the old popular songs of Scotland, to make them yield suggestions of songs at the highest reach of art.
II. The Poetry of Art
But another heritage of song, not so crude nor yet so precious as the Spirituals and the Folk Rhymes has the Negro of to-day. That heritage comes from enslaved and emancipated men and women who by some means or another learned to write and publish their compositions. Although the intrinsic value of this heritage of song cannot be rated high, yet, considering the circumstances of its production, the colored people of America may well take pride in it. Its incidental value can hardly be overestimated. In it is the most infallible record we have of the Negro’s inner life in bondage and in the years following emancipation. Never broken was the tradition from Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley, in the last half of the eighteenth century, to Paul Laurence Dunbar and Joseph Seamon Cotter, in the end of the nineteenth, but constantly enriched by an increasing number of men and women who sought in the form of verse a record of their sufferings and yearnings, consolations and hopes.
1. Jupiter Hammon and Phillis Wheatley
Jupiter Hammon was the first American Negro poet of whom any record exists. His first extant poem, “An Evening Thought,” bears the date of 1760, preceding therefore any poem by Phillis Wheatley, his contemporary, by nine years. Following the title of the poem this information is given: “Composed by Jupiter Hammon, a Negro belonging to Mr. Lloyd, of Queen’s Village, on Long Island, the 25th of December, 1760.” With this poem of eighty-eight rhyming lines, printed on a double-column broadside, entered the American Negro into American literature. For that reason alone, were his stanzas inferior to what they are, I should include some of them in this anthology. But the truth is that, as “religious” poetry goes, or went in the eighteenth century—and Hammon’s poetry is all religious—this Negro slave may hold up his head in almost any company.
Nevertheless, the reader must not expect poetry in the typical stanzas I shall quote, but just some remarkable rhyming for an African slave, untaught and without precedent. “An Evening Thought” runs in such stanzas as the following:
Dear Jesus give thy Spirit now,
Thy Grace to every Nation,
That han’t the Lord to whom we bow,
The Author of Salvation.
From “An Address to Miss Phillis Wheatley, Ethiopian Poetess,” I take the following as a representative stanza:
While thousands muse with earthly toys,
And range about the street,
Dear Phillis, seek for heaven’s joys,
Where we do hope to meet.
“A Poem for Children, with Thoughts on Death,” contains such stanzas as this:
’Tis God alone can make you wise,
His wisdom’s from above,
He fills the soul with sweet supplies
By his redeeming love.
Two stanzas from “A Dialogue, Entitled, The Kind Master and the Dutiful Servant,” will show how that poem runs:
Then will the happy day appear,
That virtue shall increase;
Lay up the sword and drop the spear,
And Nations seek for peace.
Then shall we see the happy end,
Tho’ still in some distress;
That distant foes shall act like friends,
And leave their wickedness.
Jupiter Hammon’s birth and death dates are uncommemorated because unknown. Unknown, too, is his grave. But to his memory, no less than to that of Crispus Attucks, there should somewhere be erected a monument.
Since Stedman included in his Library of American Literature a picture of Phillis Wheatley and specimens of her verse, a few white persons, less than scholars and more than general readers, knew, when Dunbar appeared, that there had been at least one poetic predecessor in his race. But the long stretch between the slave-girl rhymer of Boston and the elevator-boy singer of Dayton was desert. They knew not of George Moses Horton of North Carolina, who found publication for Poems by a Slave in 1829, and Poetical Works in 1845. Horton, who learned to write by his own efforts, is said to have been so fond of poetry that he would pick up any chance scraps of paper he saw, hoping to find verses. They knew not of Ann Plato, of Hartford, Connecticut, a slave girl who published a book of twenty poems in 1841; nor of Frances Ellen Watkins (afterwards Harper) whose Poems on Miscellaneous Subjects appeared in 1857, reaching a circulation of ten thousand copies; nor of Charles L. Reason, whose poem entitled Freedom, published in 1847, voiced the cry of millions of fellow blacks in bonds.
2. Charles L. Reason
Thus bursts forth Reason’s poetic cry, not unlike that of the crude Spirituals:
O Freedom! Freedom! Oh, how oft
Thy loving children call on Thee!
In wailings loud and breathings soft,
Beseeching God, Thy face to see.
With agonizing hearts we kneel,
While ’round us howls the oppressor’s cry,—
And suppliant pray that we may feel
The ennobling glances of Thine eye.
The apostrophe continues through forty-two stanzas, commemorating, with appreciative knowledge of history, the countries, battle fields, and heroes associated with the advance of freedom. After an arraignment of civil rulers and a recreant priesthood, the learned and noble apostrophe thus concludes:
Oh, purify each holy court!
The ministry of law and light!
That man no longer may be bought
To trample down his brother’s right.
We lift imploring hands to Thee!
We cry for those in prison bound!
Oh, in Thy strength come! Liberty!
And ’stablish right the wide world round.
We pray to see Thee, face to face:
To feel our souls grow strong and wide:
So ever shall our injured race
By Thy firm principles abide.
By some means or other, self-guided, the North Carolina slave, George Moses Horton, learned to read and write. His first book, Poems by a Slave, appeared in 1829, and other books followed until 1865. Like Hammon, and true to his race, Horton is religious, and, like Reason, and again true to his race, he loves freedom. I choose but a few stanzas to illustrate his quality as a poet:
Alas! and am I born for this,
To wear this slavish chain?
Deprived of all created bliss,
Through hardship, toil, and pain?
How long have I in bondage lain,
And languished to be free!
Alas! and must I still complain,
Deprived of liberty?
******Come, Liberty! thou cheerful sound,
Roll through my ravished ears;
Come, let my grief in joys be drowned,
And drive away my fears.
A female poet of the same period as Horton wrote in the same strain about freedom:
Make me a grave wher’er you will,
In a lowly plain or a lofty hill;
Make it among earth’s humblest graves,
But not in a land where men are slaves.
Like Horton, she lived to see her prayer for freedom answered. Of the Emancipation Proclamation she burst forth in joy:
It shall flash through coming ages,
It shall light the distant years;
And eyes now dim with sorrow
Shall be brighter through their tears.
This slave woman was Frances Ellen Watkins, by marriage Harper. Mrs. Harper attained to a greater popularity than any poet of her race prior to Dunbar. As many as ten thousand copies of some of her poems were in circulation in the middle of the last century. Her success was not unmerited. Many singers of no greater merit have enjoyed greater celebrity. She was thoroughly in the fashion of her times, as Phillis Wheatley was in the yet prevalent fashion of Pope, or, perhaps more accurately, Cowper. The models in the middle of the nineteenth century were Mrs. Hemans, Whittier, and Longfellow. It is in their manner she writes. A serene and beautiful Christian spirit tells a moral tale in fluent ballad stanzas, not without poetic phrasing. In all she beholds, in all she experiences, there is a lesson. There is no grief without its consolation. Serene resignation breathes through all her poems—at least through those written after her freedom was achieved. Illustrations of these traits abound. A few stanzas from Go Work in My Vineyard will suffice. After bitter disappointments in attempting to fulfil the command the “lesson” comes thus sweetly expressed:
My hands were weak, but I reached them out
To feebler ones than mine,
And over the shadows of my life
Stole the light of a peace divine.
Oh, then my task was a sacred thing,
How precious it grew in my eyes!
’Twas mine to gather the bruised grain
For the Lord of Paradise.
And when the reapers shall lay their grain
On the floors of golden light,
I feel that mine with its broken sheaves
Shall be precious in His sight.
Though thorns may often pierce my feet,
And the shadows still abide,
The mists will vanish before His smile,
There will be light at eventide.
How successfully Mrs. Harper could draw a lesson from the common objects or occurrences of the world about us may be illustrated by the following poem:
A rock, for ages, stern and high,
Stood frowning ’gainst the earth and sky,
And never bowed his haughty crest
When angry storms around him prest.
Morn, springing from the arms of night,
Had often bathed his brow with light,
And kissed the shadows from his face
With tender love and gentle grace.
Day, pausing at the gates of rest,
Smiled on him from the distant West,
And from her throne the dark-browed Night
Threw round his path her softest light.
And yet he stood unmoved and proud,
Nor love, nor wrath, his spirit bowed;
He bared his brow to every blast
And scorned the tempest as it passed.
One day a tiny, humble seed—
The keenest eye would hardly heed—
Fell trembling at that stern rock’s base,
And found a lowly hiding-place.
A ray of light, and drop of dew,
Came with a message, kind and true;
They told her of the world so bright,
Its love, its joy, and rosy light,
And lured her from her hiding-place,
To gaze upon earth’s glorious face.
So, peeping timid from the ground,
She clasped the ancient rock around,
And climbing up with childish grace,
She held him with a close embrace;
Her clinging was a thing of dread;
Where’er she touched a fissure spread,
And he who’d breasted many a storm
Stood frowning there, a mangled form.
A Truth, dropped in the silent earth,
May seem a thing of little worth,
Till, spreading round some mighty wrong,
It saps its pillars proud and strong,
And o’er the fallen ruin weaves
The brightest blooms and fairest leaves.
The story of Vashti, who dared heroically to disobey her monarch-husband, is as well told in simple ballad measure as one may find it. I give it entire:
She leaned her head upon her hand
And heard the King’s decree—
“My lords are feasting in my halls;
Bid Vashti come to me.
“I’ve shown the treasures of my house,
My costly jewels rare,
But with the glory of her eyes
No rubies can compare.
“Adorn’d and crown’d I’d have her come,
With all her queenly grace,
And, ’mid my lords and mighty men,
Unveil her lovely face.
“Each gem that sparkles in my crown,
Or glitters on my throne,
Grows poor and pale when she appears,
My beautiful, my own!”
All waiting stood the chamberlains
To hear the Queen’s reply.
They saw her cheek grow deathly pale,
But light flash’d to her eye:
“Go, tell the King,” she proudly said,
“That I am Persia’s Queen,
And by his crowds of merry men
I never will be seen.
“I’ll take the crown from off my head
And tread it ’neath my feet,
Before their rude and careless gaze
My shrinking eyes shall meet.
“A queen unveil’d before the crowd!—
Upon each lip my name!—
Why, Persia’s women all would blush
And weep for Vashti’s shame!
“Go back!” she cried, and waved her hand,
And grief was in her eye:
“Go, tell the King,” she sadly said,
“That I would rather die.”
They brought her message to the King;
Dark flash’d his angry eye;
’Twas as the lightning ere the storm
Hath swept in fury by.
Then bitterly outspoke the King,
Through purple lips of wrath—
“What shall be done to her who dares
To cross your monarch’s path?”
Then spake his wily counsellors—
“O King of this fair land!
From distant Ind to Ethiop,
All bow to thy command.
“But if, before thy servants’ eyes,
This thing they plainly see,
That Vashti doth not heed thy will
Nor yield herself to thee,
“The women, restive ’neath our rule,
Would learn to scorn our name,
And from her deed to us would come
Reproach and burning shame.
“Then, gracious King, sign with thy hand
This stern but just decree,
That Vashti lay aside her crown,
Thy Queen no more to be.”
She heard again the King’s command,
And left her high estate;
Strong in her earnest womanhood,
She calmly met her fate,
And left the palace of the King,
Proud of her spotless name—
A woman who could bend to grief
But would not bow to shame.
Those last stanzas are quite as noble as any that one may find in the poets whom I named as setting the American fashion in the era of Mrs. Harper. The poems of this gentle, sweet-spirited Negro woman deserve a better fate than has overtaken them.
5. James Madison Bell and Albery A. Whitman
Although this is not a history of American Negro poetry, yet a brief notice must be given at this point to two other writers too important to be omitted even from a swift survey like the present one. They are J. Madison Bell and Albery A. Whitman.
Bell, anti-slavery orator and friend of John Brown’s, was a prolific writer of eloquent verse. His original endowments were considerable. Denied an education in boyhood, he learned a trade and in manhood at night-schools gained access to the wisdom of books. He became a master of expression both with tongue and pen. His long period of productivity covers the history of his people from the decade before Emancipation till the death of Dunbar. Bell’s themes are lofty and he writes with fervid eloquence. There is something of Byronic power in the roll of his verse. An extract from The Progress of Liberty will be representative, though an extract cannot show either the maintenance of power or the abundance of resources:
O Liberty, what charm so great!
One radiant smile, one look of thine
Can change the drooping bondsman’s fate,
And light his brow with hope divine.
His manhood, wrapped in rayless gloom,
At thy approach throws off its pall,
And rising up, as from the tomb,
Stands forth defiant of the thrall.
No tyrant’s power can crush the soul
Illumed by thine inspiring ray;
The fiendishness of base control
Flies thy approach as night from day.
Ride onward, in thy chariot ride,
Thou peerless queen; ride on, ride on—
With Truth and Justice by thy side—
From pole to pole, from sun to sun!
Nor linger in our bleeding South,
Nor domicile with race or clan;
But in thy glorious goings forth,
Be thy benignant object Man—
Of every clime, of every hue,
Of every tongue, of every race,
’Neath heaven’s broad, ethereal blue;
Oh! let thy radiant smiles embrace,
Till neither slave nor one oppressed
Remain throughout creation’s span,
By thee unpitied and unblest
Of all the progeny of man.
We fain would have the world aspire
To that proud height of free desire,
That flamed the heart of Switzer’s Tell
(Whose archery skill none could excell),
When once upon his Alpine brow,
He stood reclining on his bow,
And saw, careering in his might—
In all his majesty of flight—
A lordly eagle float and swing
Upon his broad, untrammeled wing.
He bent his bow, he poised his dart,
With full intent to pierce the heart;
But as the proud bird nearer drew,
His stalwart arm unsteady grew,
His arrow lingered in the groove—
The cord unwilling seemed to move,
For there he saw personified
That freedom which had been his pride;
And as the eagle onward sped,
O’er lofty hill and towering tree,
He dropped his bow, he bowed his head;
He could not shoot—’twas Liberty!
Whitman, a younger contemporary of Bell’s, is the author of several long tales in verse. Like Bell, he wrote only in standard English, and like him also, shows a mastery of expression, with fluency of style, wealth of imagery, and a command of the forms of verse given vogue by Scott and Byron. Both likewise write fervently of the wrongs suffered by the black man at the hands of the white. Thus far they resemble; but if we extend the comparison we note important differences. Bell has more of the fervor of the orator and the sense of fact of the historian. He adheres closely to events and celebrates occasions. Whitman invents tragic tales of love and romance, clothing them with the charm of the South and infusing into them the pathos which results from the strife of thwarted passions, the defeat of true love.
A stanza or two from Whitman’s An Idyl of the South will exemplify his qualities. The hero of this pathetic tale is a white youth of aristocratic parentage, the heroine is an octoroon. He is thus described:
He was of manly beauty—brave and fair;
There was the Norman iron in his blood,
There was the Saxon in his sunny hair
That waved and tossed in an abandoned flood;
But Norman strength rose in his shoulders square,
And so, as manfully erect he stood,
Norse gods might read the likeness of their race
In his proud bearing and patrician face.
The heroine is thus portrayed:
A lithe and shapely beauty; like a deer,
She looked in wistfulness, and from you went;
With silken shyness shrank as if in fear,
And kept the distance of the innocent.
But, when alone, she bolder would appear;
Then all her being into song was sent
To bound in cascades—ripple, whirl, and gleam,
A headlong torrent in a crystal stream.
Only tragedy, under the conditions, could result from their mutual fervent love. The poet does not moralize but in a figure intimates the sadness induced by the tale:
The hedges may obscure the sweetest bloom—
The orphan of the waste—the lowly flower;
While in the garden, faint for want of room,
The splendid failure pines within her bower.
There is a wide republic of perfume,
In which the nameless waifs of sun and shower,
That scatter wildly through the fields and woods,
Make the divineness of the solitudes.
After such a manner wrote those whom we may call bards of an elder day.
6. Paul Laurence Dunbar
He came, a dark youth, singing in the dawn
Of a new freedom, glowing o’er his lyre,
Refining, as with great Apollo’s fire,
His people’s gift of song. And, thereupon,
This Negro singer, come to Helicon,
Constrained the masters, listening, to admire,
And roused a race to wonder and aspire,
Gazing which way their honest voice was gone,
With ebon face uplit of glory’s crest.
Men marveled at the singer, strong and sweet,
Who brought the cabin’s mirth, the tuneful night,
But faced the morning, beautiful with light,
To die while shadows yet fell toward the west,
And leave his laurels at his people’s feet.
—James David Corrothers.
Less than a generation ago William Dean Howells hailed Paul Laurence Dunbar as “the first instance of an American Negro who had evinced innate distinction in literature,” “the only man of pure African blood and of American civilization to feel Negro life æsthetically and express it lyrically.” It is not my purpose to give Dunbar space and consideration in this book commensurate with his importance. Its scope does not, strictly speaking, include him and his predecessors. They are introduced here, but to provide an historical background. The object of this book is to exhibit the achievement of the Negro in verse since Dunbar. Even though it were true, which I think it is not, that no American Negro previous to Dunbar had evinced innate distinction in literature, this anthology, I believe, will reveal that many American Negroes in this new day are evincing, if not innate distinction, yet cultured talent, in literature.
The sonnet to Dunbar which stands at the head of this section was composed by a Negro who was by three years Dunbar’s senior. His opportunities in early life were far inferior to Dunbar’s. At nineteen years of age, with almost inconsiderable schooling, he was a boot-black in a Chicago barber shop. I give his sonnet here—other poems of his I give in another chapter—in evidence of that distinction in literature, innate or otherwise, which is rather widespread among American Negroes of the present time. Dunbar himself might have been proud to put his name to this sonnet.
When this marvel, a Negro poet, so vouched for, appeared in the West, like a new star in the heavens, a few white people, a very few, knew, vaguely, that back in Colonial times there was a slave woman in Boston who had written verses, who was therefore a prodigy. The space between Phillis Wheatley and this new singer was desert. But Nature, as people think, produces freaks, or sports; therefore a Negro poet was not absolutely beyond belief, since poets are rather freakish, abnormal creatures anyway. Incredulity therefore yielded to an attitude scarcely worthier, namely, that dishonoring, irreverent interpretation of a supreme human phenomenon which consists in denominating it a freak of nature. But Dunbar is a fact, as Burns, as Whittier, as Riley, are facts—a fact of great moment to a people and for a people. For one thing, he revealed to the Negro youth of America the latent literary powers and the unexploited literary materials of their race. He was the fecundating genius of their talents. Upon all his people he was a tremendously quickening power, not less so than his great contemporary at Tuskegee. Doubtless it will be recognized, in a broad view, that the Negro people of America needed, equally, both men, the counterparts of each other.
It needs to be remarked for white people, that there were two Dunbars, and that they know but one. There is the Dunbar of “the jingle in a broken tongue,” whom Howells with gracious but imperfect sympathy and understanding brought to the knowledge of the world, and whom the public readers, white and black alike, have found it delightful to present, to the entire eclipse of the other Dunbar. That other Dunbar was the poet of the flaming “Ode to Ethiopia,” the pathetic lyric, “We Wear the Mask,” the apparently offhand jingle but real masterpiece entitled “Life,” the incomparable ode “Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,” and a score of other pieces in which, using their speech, he matches himself with the poets who shine as stars in the firmament of our admiration. This Dunbar Howells failed to appreciate, and ignorance of him has been fostered, as I have intimated, by professional readers and writers. The first Dunbar, the generally accepted one, was, as Howells pointed out, the artistic interpreter of the old-fashioned, vanishing generation of black folk—the generation that was maimed and scarred by slavery, that presented so many ludicrous and pathetic, abject and lovable aspects in strange mixture. The second Dunbar was the prophet robed in a mantle of austerity, shod with fire, bowed with sorrow, as every true prophet has been, in whatever time, among whatever people. He was the prophet, I say, of a new generation, a coming generation, as he was the poet of a vanishing generation. The generation of which he was the prophet-herald has arrived. Its most authentic representatives are the poets that I put forward in this volume as worthy of attention.
Dunbar’s real significance to his race has been admirably expressed not only by Corrothers but in the following lines by his biographer, Lida Keck Wiggins:
Life’s lowly were laureled with verses
And sceptered were honor and worth,
While cabins became, through the poet,
Fair homes of the lords of the earth.
So it was. But “honor and worth” yet remain, to be “sceptered.” Such poems as these few here given from the choragus of the present generation of Negro singers will suggest the kind of honor and the degree of worth to which our tribute is due.
ERE SLEEP COMES DOWN TO SOOTHE THE WEARY EYES
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
Which all the day with ceaseless care have sought
The magic gold which from the seeker flies;
Ere dreams put on the gown and cap of thought,
And make the waking world a world of lies,—
Of lies most palpable, uncouth, forlorn,
That say life’s full of aches and tears and sighs,—
Oh, how with more than dreams the soul is torn,
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
How all the griefs and heartaches we have known
Come up like pois’nous vapors that arise
From some base witch’s caldron, when the crone,
To work some potent spell, her magic plies.
The past which held its share of bitter pain,
Whose ghost we prayed that Time might exorcise,
Comes up, is lived and suffered o’er again,
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
What phantoms fill the dimly lighted room;
What ghostly shades in awe-creating guise
Are bodied forth within the teeming gloom.
What echoes faint of sad and soul-sick cries,
And pangs of vague inexplicable pain
That pay the spirit’s ceaseless enterprise,
Come thronging through the chambers of the brain,
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
Where ranges forth the spirit far and free?
Through what strange realms and unfamiliar skies
Tends her far course to lands of mystery?
To lands unspeakable—beyond surmise,
Where shapes unknowable to being spring,
Till, faint of wing, the Fancy fails and dies
Much wearied with the spirit’s journeying,
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes,
How questioneth the soul that other soul,—
The inner sense which neither cheats nor lies,
But self exposes unto self, a scroll
Full writ with all life’s acts unwise or wise,
In characters indelible and known;
So, trembling with the shock of sad surprise,
The soul doth view its awful self alone,
Ere sleep comes down to soothe the weary eyes.
Ere sleep comes down to seal the weary eyes,
The last dear sleep whose soft embrace is balm,
And whom sad sorrow teaches us to prize
For kissing all our passions into calm,
Ah, then, no more we heed the sad world’s cries,
Or seek to probe th’ eternal mystery,
Or fret our souls at long-withheld replies,
At glooms through which our visions cannot see,
Ere sleep comes down to seal the weary eyes.
A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in,
A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,
A pint of joy to a peck of trouble,
And never a laugh but the moans come double;
And that is life!
A crust and a corner that love makes precious,
With the smile to warm and the tears to refresh us;
And joy seems sweeter when cares come after,
And a moan is the finest of foils for laughter:
And that is life!
ODE TO ETHIOPIA
O Mother Race! to thee I bring
This pledge of faith unwavering,
This tribute to thy glory.
I know the pangs which thou didst feel,
When Slavery crushed thee with its heel,
With thy dear blood all gory.
Sad days were those—ah, sad indeed!
But through the land the fruitful seed
Of better times was growing.
The plant of freedom upward sprung,
And spread its leaves so fresh and young—
Its blossoms now are blowing.
On every hand in this fair land,
Proud Ethiope’s swarthy children stand
Beside their fairer neighbor;
The forests flee before their stroke,
Their hammers ring, their forges smoke,—
They stir in honest labor.
They tread the fields where honor calls;
Their voices sound through senate halls
In majesty and power.
To right they cling; the hymns they sing
Up to the skies in beauty ring,
And bolder grow each hour.
Be proud, my Race, in mind and soul
Thy name is writ on Glory’s scroll
In characters of fire.
High ’mid the clouds of Fame’s bright sky
Thy banner’s blazoned folds now fly,
And truth shall lift them higher.
By Meta Warrick Fuller
Thou hast the right to noble pride,
Whose spotless robes were purified
By blood’s severe baptism,
Upon thy brow the cross was laid,
And labor’s painful sweat-beads made
A consecrating chrism.
No other race, or white or black,
When bound as thou wert, to the rack,
So seldom stooped to grieving;
No other race, when free again,
Forgot the past and proved them men
So noble in forgiving.
Go on and up! Our souls and eyes
Shall follow thy continuous rise;
Our ears shall list thy story
From bards who from thy root shall spring,
And proudly tune their lyres to sing
Of Ethiopia’s glory.
WITH THE LARK
Night is for sorrow and dawn is for joy,
Chasing the troubles that fret and annoy;
Darkness for sighing and daylight for song,—
Cheery and chaste the strain, heartfelt and strong,
All the night through, though I moan in the dark,
I wake in the morning to sing with the lark.
Deep in the midnight the rain whips the leaves,
Softly and sadly the wood-spirit grieves.
But when the first hue of dawn tints the sky,
I shall shake out my wings like the birds and be dry;
And though, like the rain-drops, I grieved through the dark,
I shall wake in the morning to sing with the lark.
On the high hills of heaven, some morning to be,
Where the rain shall not grieve thro’ the leaves of the tree,
There my heart will be glad for the pain I have known,
For my hand will be clasped in the hand of mine own;
And though life has been hard and death’s pathway been dark,
I shall wake in the morning to sing with the lark.
WE WEAR THE MASK
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh, the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
7. J. Mord Allen
In the year of Dunbar’s death (1906), J. Mord Allen published his Rhymes, Tales, and Rhymed Tales. The contents are mainly in dialect, dialect that possesses, as it seems to me, every merit of that medium. There is great felicity of characterization, surprising turns of wit, quaint philosophy. In a later chapter I will give a specimen of Mr. Allen’s dialect verse, here two standard English poems. In both mediums his credentials are authentic, no whit less so than even Dunbar’s. Only the question arises why his muse became silent after this one utterance—for he was at the time but thirty-one years old. Perhaps poetry did not go with boiler-making, his occupation. Because of the date of his one book I place him here with Dunbar, and there are yet other reasons.
Mr. Allen affords but two standard English poems, the first and the last of his book. Such a fact marks him as of the elder day, though that day be less than a score of years agone. The concluding poem of his book has a sweet sadness that must appeal to every heart whose childhood is getting to be far away:
“Eeny meeny miny mo.”
Ah, how the sad-sweet Long Ago
Enyouths us, as by magic spell,
With that old rhyme. You know it well;
For time was, once, when e’en your eyes
Saw Heaven plainly, in the skies.
Past twilight, when a brave moon glowed
Just o’er the treetops, and the road
Was full of romping children—say,
What was the game we used to play?
Yes! Hide-and-seek. And at the base,
Who first must go and hide his face?
Remember—standing in a row—
“Eeny meeny miny mo”?
“Eeny meeny miny mo.”
How fare we children here below?
Our moon is far from treetops now,
And Heaven isn’t up, somehow.
No more for sport play we “I spy”;
Our “laying low” and “peeping high”
Are now with consequences fraught;
There’s black disgrace in being caught.
But what’s to pay the pains we take?
Let’s play the game for its own sake,
And, ere ’tis time to homeward flit,
Let’s get some pleasure out of it.
For death will soon count down the row,
“Eeny meeny miny mo.”
Though of the elder day yet Allen is, like Dunbar, a herald of the generation that is now articulate. In this rôle of herald to a more self-assertive generation, a more aspiring and race-conscious one, he speaks with immense significance to us in this first poem of his book, which, as being prophetic of much we now see in the colored folk of America I permit to close this summary review of earlier Negro poetry:
THE PSALM OF THE UPLIFT
Still comes the Perfect Thing to man
As came the olden gods, in dreams;
And then the man—made artist—knows
How real is the thing which seems.
Then, tongue or brush or magic pen
May win the world to loud acclaim,
But he who wrought knows in his soul
That, like as tinsel is to gold,
His work is, to his aim.
It’s there ahead to him—and you
And me. I swear it isn’t far;
Else, black Despair would cut us down
In the land of hateful Things Which Are.
But, just beyond our finger-tips,
Things As They Should Be shame the weak,
And hold the aching muscles tense
Through th’ next moment of suspense
Which triumph is to break.
And shall we strive? The years to come,
Till sunset of eternity,
Are given to the fairest god,
The God of Things As They Should Be.
The ending? Nay, ’tis ours to do
And dare and bear and not to flinch;
To enter where is no retreat;
To win one stride from sheer defeat;
To die—but gain an inch.
- ↑ Happily a great number of these, about three hundred and fifty, accompanied by an essay setting forth their nature, origin, and elements, are now made accessible in Negro Folk Rhymes, by Thomas W. Talley, of Fisk University; the Macmillan Company, publishers, 1922.
- ↑ We are enabled to give the following poems by the kind permission of Dodd, Mead and Company, the publishers of Dunbar’s works.