The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America/Chapter 8
NEGRO ART AND LITERATURE
|||How the tragic story of the black slave has become a central theme of the story of America and has inspired literature and created art.|||
The Negro is primarily an artist. The usual way of putting this is to speak disdainfully of his “sensuous” nature. This means that the only race which has held at bay the life destroying forces of the tropics, has gained therefrom in some slight compensation a sense of beauty, particularly for sound and color, which characterizes the race. The Negro blood which flowed in the veins of many of the mightiest of the Pharaohs accounts for much of Egyptian art, and indeed Egyptian civilization owes much in its origin to the development of the large strain of Negro blood which manifested itself in every grade of Egyptian society.
Semitic civilization also had its Negroid influences, and these continually turn toward art as in the case of black Nosseyeb, one of the five great poets of Damascus under the Ommiades, and the black Arabian hero, Antar. It was therefore not to be wondered at that in modern days one of the greatest of modern literatures, the Russian, should have been founded by Pushkin, the grandson of a full blooded Negro, and that among the painters of Spain was the mulatto slave, Gomez, Back of all this development by way of contact, come the artistic sense of the indigenous Negro as shown in the stone figures of Sherbro, the bronzes of Benin, the marvelous hand work in iron and other metals which has characterized the Negro race so long that archaeologists today, with less and less hesitation, are ascribing the discovery of the welding of iron to the Negro race.
Beyond the specific ways in which the Negro has contributed to American art stands undoubtedly his spirit of gayety and the exotic charm which his presence has loaned the parts of America which were spiritually free enough to enjoy it. In New Orleans, for instance, after the war of 1812 and among the free people of color there was a beautiful blossoming of artistic life which the sordid background of slavery had to work hard to kill. The "people of color' grew in number and waxed wealthy. Famous streets even today bear testimony of their old importance. Congo Square in the old Creole quarter where Negroes danced the weird "Bamboula” long before colored Cole ridge-Taylor made it immortal and Gottschalk wrote his Negro dance. Camp street and Julia street took their names from the old Negro field and from the woman who owned land along the Canal. Americans and Spanish both tried to get the support and sympathy of the free Negroes. The followers of Aaron Burr courted them.
“Writers describing the New Orleans of this period agree in presenting a picture of a continental city, most picturesque, most un-American, and as varied in color as a street of Cairo. There they saw French, Spaniards, English, Bohemians, Negroes, mulattoes, varied clothes, picturesque white dresses of the fairer women, brilliant cottons of the darker ones. The streets, banquettes, we should say, were bright with color, the nights filled with song and laughter. Through the scene, the people of color add the spice of color; in the life, they add the zest of romance.”
Music is always back of this gay Negro spirit and the folk song which the Negro brought to America was developed not simply by white men but by the Negro himself. Musicians and artists sprung from the Louisiana group. There was Eugene Warburg who distinguished himself as a sculptor in Italy. There was Victor Sejour who became a poet and composer in France, Dubuclet became a musician in Bordeaux and the seven Lamberts taught and composed in America, France and Brazil. One of the brothers Sydney was decorated for his work by the King of Portugal. Edmund Dede became a director of a leading orchestra in France.
Among other early colored composers of music are J. Hemmenway who lived in Philadelphia in the twenties; A. J. Conner of Philadelphia between 1846-57 published numbers of compositions; in the seventies Justin Holland was well known as a composer in Cleveland, Ohio; Samuel Milady, known by his stage name as Sam Lucas, was born in 1846 and died in 1916. He wrote many popular ballads, among them “Grandfather’s Clock Was Too Tall For The Shelf.” George Melbourne, a Negro street minstrel, composed Listen to the M!ocking-Bird,” although a white man got the credit. James Bland wrote “Carry me Back to Ole Virginny”; Gussie L. Davis composed popular music at Cincinnati.
Coming to our day we remember that the Anglo-African Samuel Coleridge-Taylor received much of his inspiration from his visits to the American Negro group; then comes Harry T. Burleigh, perhaps the greatest living song writer in America. Among his works are “Five Songs” by Laurence Hope; “The Young Warrior,” which became one of the greatest of the war songs; “The Grey Wolf” and “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors.” His adaptations of Negro folk-songs are widely known and he assisted Dvorak in his “New World Symphony.” R. Nathaniel Dett has written “Listen to the Lambs,” a carol widely known, and “The Magnolia Suite.” Rosamond Johnson wrote “Under the Bamboo Tree” and a dozen popular favorites beside choruses and marches. Clarence Cameron White has composed and adapted and Maud Cuney Hare has revived and explained Creole music. Edmund T. Jenkins has won medals at the Royal Academy in London. Among the colored performers on the piano are R. Augustus Lawson, who has often been soloist at the concerts of the Hartford Philharmonic Orchestra; Hazel Harrison, a pupil of Busoni; and Helen Hagen who took the Sanford scholarship at Yale. Carl Diton is a pianist who has transcribed many Negro melodies. Melville Charlton has done excellent work on the organ.
Then we must remember the Negro singers, the “Black Swan” of the early 19th century whose voice compared with Jenny Lind’s; the Hyer sisters, Flora Batson, Florence Cole Talbert, and Roland W. Hayes, the tenor whose fine voice has charmed London, Paris and Vienna and who is now one of the leading soloists of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
The Negro has been one of the greatest originators of dancing in the United States and in the world. He created the “cake walk” and most of the steps in the “clog” dance which has so enthralled theatre audiences. The modern dances which have swept over the world like the “Tango” and “Turkey Trot” originated among the Negroes of the West Indies. The Vernon Castles always told their audiences that their dances were of Negro origin.
We turn now to other forms of art and more particularly literature. Here the subjects naturally divides itself into three parts: first, the influence which the Negro has had on American literature,—and secondly, the development of a literature for and by Negroes. And lastly the number of Negroes who have gained a place in National American literature.
From the earliest times the presence of the black man in America has inspired American writers. Among the early Colonial writers the Negro was a subject as, for instance, in Samuel Sewall’s “Selling of Joseph,” the first American anti-slavery tract published in 1700. But we especially see in the influence of the Negro’s condition in the work of the masters of the 19th century, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Greenleaf Whittier, James Russell Lowell, Walt Whitman, Julia Ward Howe, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lydia Maria Child. With these must be named the orators Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, John C. Calhoun, Henry Ward Beecher. In our own day, we have had the writers of fiction, George U. Cable, Thomas Nelson Page, Thomas Dixson, Ruth McEnery Stewart, William Dean Howells, Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
It may be said that the influence of the Negro here is a passive influence and yet one must remember that it would be inconceivable to have an American literature, even that written by white men, and not have the Negro as a subject. He has been the lay figure, but after all, the figure has been alive, it has moved, it has talked, felt and influenced.
In the minds of these and other writers how has the Negro been portrayed? It is a fascinating subject which I can but barely touch: in the days of Shakespeare and Southerne the black man of fiction was a man, a brave, fine, if withal overtrustful and impulsive, hero. In science he was different but equal, cunning in unusual but mighty possibilities. Then with the slave trade he suddenly became a clown and dropped from sight. He emerged slowly beginning about 1830 as a dull stupid but contented slave, capable of doglike devotion, superstitious and incapable of education. Then, in the abolition controversy he became a victim, a man of sorrows, a fugitive chased by bloodhounds, a beautiful raped octoroon, a crucified Uncle Tom, but a lay figure, objectively pitiable but seldom subjectively conceived. Suddenly a change came after Reconstruction. The black man was either a faithful old “Befoh de wall darky worshipping lordly white folk, or a frolicking ape, or a villain, a sullen scoundrel, a violator of womanhood, a low thief and misbirthed monster. He was sub-normal and congenitally incapable. He was represented as an unfit survival of Darwinian natural selection. Philanthropy and religion stood powerless before his pigmy brain and undeveloped morals. In a “thousands years”? Perhaps. But at present, an upper beast. Out of this today he is slowly but tentatively, almost apologetically rising—a somewhat deserving, often poignant, but hopeless figure; a man whose only proper end is dramatic suicide physically or morally. His trouble is natural and inborn inferiority, slight by scientific measurement but sufficient to make absolute limits to his possibilities, save in exceptional cases. And here we stand today. As a normal human being reacting humanly to human problems the Negro has never appeared in the fiction or the science of white writers, with a bare half dozen exceptions; while to the white southerner who “knows him best” he is always an idiot or a monster, and he sees him as such, no matter what is before his very eyes. And yet, with all this, the Negro has held the stage. In the South he is everything. You cannot discuss religion, morals, politics, social life, science, earth or sky, God or devil without touching the Negro. It is a perennial and continuous and continual subject of books, editorials, sermons, lectures and smoking car confabs. In the north and west while seldom in the center, the Negro is always in the wings waiting to appear or screaming shrill lines off stage. What would intellectual America do if she woke some fine morning to find no “Negro” Problem?
Coming now to the slowly swelling stream of a distinct group literature, by and primarily for the Negro, we enter a realm only partially known to white Americans. First, there come the rich mass of Negro folk lore transplanted from Africa and developed in America. A white writer, Joel Chandler Harris, first popularized “Uncle Remus” and “Brer Rabbit” for white America; but he was simply the deft and singularly successful translator—the material was Negroid and appears repeatedly among the black peasants and various forms and versions. Take for instance the versions of the celebrated tar-baby story of Joel Chandler Harris. C. C. Jones took down a striking version apparently direct from Negro lips early in the 19th century:
“ ‘Do Buh Wolf, bun me: broke me neck, but don’t trow me in de brier patch. Lemme dead one time. Don’t tarrify me no mo.’ Buh Wolf yet bin know wuh Buh Rabbit up teh. Eh tink eh bin guine tare Bur Rabbit hide off. So, wuh eh do? Eh loose Buh Rabbit from de spakleberry bush, an eh tek um by de hine leg, an eh swing um roun’, en eh trow um way in de tick brier patch fuh tare eh hide and cratch eh yeye out. De minnit Buh Rabbit drap in de brier patch, eh cock up eh tail, eh jump, an holler back to Buh Wolf: ‘Good bye, Budder! Dis de place me mammy fotch me up,—dis de place me mammy fotch me up.’ An eh gone before Buh Wolf kin ketch um. Buh Rabbit too scheemy.”
The Harris version shows the literary touch added by the white man. But the Negro version told by Jones has all the meat of the primitive tale. Next we note the folk rhymes and poetry of Negroes, sometimes accompanying their music and sometimes not. A white instructor in English literature at the University of Virgina says: “Of all the builders of the nation the Negro alone has created a species of lyric verse that all the world may recognize as a distinctly American production.”
T. W. Talley, a Negro, has recently published an exhaustive collection of these rhymes. They form an interesting collection of poetry often crude and commonplace but with here and there touches of real poetry and quaint humor.
The literary expression of Negroes themselves has had continuous development in America since the eighteenth century. It may however be looked upon from two different points of view: We may think of the writing of Negroes as self-expression and as principally for themselves. Here we have a continuous line of writers. Only a few of these, however would we think of as contributing to American literature as such and yet this inner, smaller stream of Negro literature overflows faintly at first and now evidently more and more into the wider stream of American literature; on the other hand there have been figures in Ameri can literature who happen to be of Negro descent and who are but vaguely to be identified with the group stream as such.
Both these points of view are interesting but let us first take up the succession of authors who form a group literature by and for Negroes.
As early as the eighteenth century, and even before the Revolutionary War the first voices of Negro authors were heard in the United States. Phyllis Wheatley, the black poetess, was easily the pioneer, her first poems appearing in 1773, and other editions in 1774 and 1793. Her earliest poem was in memory of George Whitefield. She was honored by Washington and leading Englishmen and was as a writer above the level of her American white contemporaries.
She was followed by Richard Allen, first Bishop of the African Methodist Church whose autobiography, published in 1793 was the beginning of that long series of personal appears and narratives of which Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slavery” was the latest. Benjamin Banneker’s almanacs represented the first scientific work of American Negroes, and began to be issued in 1792.
Coming now to the first decades of the nineteenth century we find some essays on freedom by the African Society of Boston, and an apology for the new Negro church formed in Philadelphia. Paul Cuffe, disgusted with America, wrote an early account of Sierra Leone, while the celebrated Lemuel Haynes, ignoring the race question, dipped deeply into the New England theological controversy about 1815. In 1829 came the first full-voiced, almost hysterical, protest against slavery and the color line in David Walker’s Appeal which aroused Southern legislatures to action. This was followed by the earliest Negro conventions which issued interesting minutes; two appeals against disfranchisement in Pennsylvania appeared in this decade, one written by Robert Purvis, who also wrote a biography of his father-in-law, Mr. James Forten, and the other appeal written by John Bowers and others. The life of Gustavus Vassa, also known by his African name of Olaudah Equiana, was published in America in 1837 continuing the interesting personal narratives.
In 1840 some strong writers began to appear. Henry Highland Garnet and J. W. C. Pennington preached powerful sermons and gave some attention to Negro history in their pamphlets: R. B. Lewis made a more elaborate attempt at Negro history. Whitfield’s poems appeared in 1846, and William Wells Brown began a career of writing which lasted from 1847 until after the Civil War. He began his literary career by the publication of his “Narrative of a Fugitive Slave ” in 1847. This was followed by a novel in 1853, “Sketches” from abroad in 1855, a play in 1858, “The Black Man” in 1863, “The Negro in the American Rebellion” in 1867, and “The Rising Son” in 1874. The Colored Convention in Cincinnati and Cleveland published reports in this decade and Bishop Loguen wrote his life history. In 1845 Douglass’ autobiography made its first appearance, destined to run through endless editions until the last in 1893. Moreover it was in 1841 that the first Negro magazine appeared in America, edited by George Hogarth and published by the A. M. E. Church.
In the fifties James Whitfield published further poems, and a new poet arose in the person of Frances E. W. Harper, a woman of no little ability who died lately; Martin R. Delaney and William Cooper Nell wrote further of Negro history, Nell especially making valuable contributions of the history of the Negro soldiers. Three interesting biographies were added in this decade to the growing number; Josiah Henson, Samuel C. Ward and Samuel Northrop; while Catto, leaving general history came down to the better known history of the Negro church.
In the sixties slave narratives multiplied, like that of Linda Brent, while two studies of Africa based on actual visits were made by Robert Campbell and Dr. Alexander Crummell; William Douglass and Bishop Daniel Payne continued the history of the Negro church, and William Wells Brown carried forward his work in general Negro history. In this decade, too, Bishop Tanner began his work in Negro theology.
Most of the Negro talent in the seventies was taken up in politics; the older men like Bishop Wayman wrote of their experiences; Sojourner Truth added her story to the slave narratives. A new poet arose in the person of A. A. Whitman, while James Monroe Trotter was the first to take literary note of the musical ability of his race. Robert Brown Elliott stirred the nation by his eloquence in Congress. The Fisk edition of the Songs of the Jubilee Singers appeared.
In the eighties there are signs of unrest and conflicting streams of thought. On the one hand the rapid growth of the Negro church is shown by the writers on church subjects like Moore and Wayman. The historical spirit was especially strong. Still wrote of the Underground Railroad; Simmons issued his interesting biographical dictionary, and the greatest historian of the race appeared when George W. Williams issued his two-volume history of the Negro Race in America. The political turmoil was reflected in Langston’s Freedom and Citizenship, Fortune’s Black and White, and Straker's New South, and found its bitterest arraignment in Turner’s pamphlets; but with all this went other new thought: Scarborough published “First Greek Lessons”; Bishop Payne issued his Treatise on Domestic Education, and Stewart studied Liberia.
In the nineties came histories, essays, novels and poems, together with biographies and social studies. The history was represented by Payne’s History of the A. M. E. Church, Hood’s “One Hundred Years of the A. M. E. Zion Church, Anderson’s sketch of Negro Presbyterianism and Hagood's Colored Man in the M. E. Church; general history of the older type was represented by R. L. Perry’s Cushite and of the newer type in E. A. Johnson's histories, while one of the secret societies found their historian in Brooks; Crogman’s essays appeared and Archibald Grimke’s biographies. The race question was discussed in Frank Grimke’s published sermons, social studies were made by Penn, Wright, Mossell, Crummell, Majors and others. Most notable, however, was the rise of the Negro novelist and poet with national recognition: Frances Harper was still writing and Griggs began his racial novels, but both of these spoke primarily to the Negro race; on the other hand, Chesnutt’s six novels and Dunbar’s inimitable works spoke of the whole nation. J. T. Wilson’s “Black Phalanx,” the most complete study of the Negro soldier, came in these years.
Booker T. Washington’s work began with his address at Atlanta in 1895, “Up From Slavery” in 1901, “Working with the Hands” in 1904, and “The Man Farthest Down” in 1912. The American Negro Academy, a small group, began the publication of occasional papers in 1897 and has published a dozen or more numbers including a “Symposium on the Negro and the Elective Franchise” in 1905, a “Comparative Study of the Negro Problem” in 1899, Love’s “Disfranchisement of the Negro” in 1899, Grimke’s Study of Denmark Vesey in 1901 and Steward’s “Black St., Domingo Legion” in 1899. Since 1900 the stream of Negro writing has continued. Dunbar has found a successor in the critic and compiler of anthologies, W. S. Braithwaite; Booker T. Washington has given us his biography and Story of the Negro; Kelly Miller’s trenchant essays have appeared in book form and he has issued numbers of critical monographs on the Negro problem with wide circulation. Scientific historians have appeared in Benjamin Brawley and Carter Woodson and George W. Mitchell. Sinclair’s Aftermath of Slavery has attracted attention, as have the stu dies made by Atlanta University. The Negro in American Sculpture has been studied by H. F. M. Murray.
The development in poetry has been significant, beginning with Phyllis Wheatley. Jupiter Hammon came in the 18th century, George M. Horton in the early part of the 19th century followed by Frances Harper who began publishing in 1854 and A. A. Whitman whose first attempts at epic poetry were published in the seventies. In 1890 came the first thin volume of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, the undoubted laureate of the race, who published poems and one or two novels up until the beginning of the 20th century. He was succeeded by William Stanley Braithwaite whose fame rests chiefly upon his poetic criticism and his anthologies, and finally by James Weldon Johnson, Claud McKay who came out of the West Indies with a new and sincere gift, Fenton Johnson, Georgia Johnson and Jessie Fauset. Joseph S. Cotter, Jr., Langston Hughes, Roscoe C. Jamison and Countee Cullen have done notable work in verse. Campbell, Davis and others have continued the poetic tradition of Negro dialect.
On the whole, the literary output of the American Negro has been both large and creditable, al though, of course, comparatively little known; few great names have appeared and only here and there work that could be called first class, but this is not a peculiarity of Negro literature.
The time has not yet come for the great development of American Negro literature. The economic stress is too great and the racial persecution too bitter to allow the leisure and the poise for which literature calls. “The Negro in the United States is consuming all his intellectual energy in this gruelling race-struggle. And the same statement may be made in a general way about the white South. Why does not the white South produce literature and art? The white South, too, is consuming all of its intellectual energy in this lamentable conflict. Nearly all of the mental efforts of the white South run through one narrow channel. The life of every southern white man and all of his activities are impassably limited by the ever present Negro problem. And that is why, as Mr. H. L. Mencken puts it, in all that vast region, with its thirty or forty million people and its territory as large as half a dozen Frances or Germanys, “there is not a single poet, not a serious historian, not a creditable composer, not a critic good or bad, not a dramatist dead or alive.” On the other hand, never in the world has a richer mass of material been accumulated by a people than that which the Negroes possess today and are becoming increasingly conscious of. Slowly but surely they are developing artists of technic who will be able to use this material. The nation does not notice this for everything touching the Negro has hitherto been banned by magazines and publishers unless it took the form of caricature or bitter attack, or was so thoroughly innocuous as to have no literary flavor. This attitude shows signs of change at last.
Most of the names in this considerable list except those toward the last would be unknown to the student of American literature. Nevertheless they form a fairly continuous tradition and a most valuable group expression. From them several have arisen, as I have said, to become figures in the main stream of American literature. Phyllis Wheatley was an American writer of Negro descent just as Dumas was a French writer of Negro descent. She was the peer of her best American contemporaries but she represented no conscious Negro group. Lemuel Haynes wrote for Americans rather than for Negroes.
Dunbar occupies a unique place in American literature. He raised a dialect and a theme from the minstrel stage to literature and became and remains a national figure. Charles W. Chesnutt followed him as a novelist, and many white people read in form of fiction a subject which they did not want to read or hearken to. He gained his way unaided and by sheer merit and is a recognized American novelist. Braithwaite is a critic whose Negro descent is not generally known and has but slightly influenced his work. His place in American literature is due more to his work as a critic and anthologist than to his work as a poet. “There is still another role he has played, that of friend of poetry and poets. It is a recognized fact that in the work which preceded the present revival of poetry in the United States, no one rendered more unremitting and valuable service than Mr. Braithwaite. And it can be said that no future study of American poetry of this age can be made without reference to Braithwaite.”
Of McKay’s poems, Max Eastman writes that it “should be illuminating to observe that while these poems are characteristic of that race as we most admire it—they are gentle, simple, candid, brave and friendly, quick of laughter and of tears—yet they are still more characteristic of what is deep and universal in mankind. There is no special or exotic kind of merit in them, no quality that demands a transmutation of our own natures to perceive. Just as the sculptures and wood and ivory carvings of the vast forgotten African Empires of Ife and Benin, although so wistful in their tranquility, are tranquil in the possession of the qualities of all classic and great art, so these poems, the purest of them, move with a sovereignty that is never new to the lovers of the high music of human utterance.”
The later writers like Jean Toomer, Claud McKay, Jessie Fauset and others have come on the stage when the stream of Negro literature has grown to be of such importance and gained so much of technique and merit that it tends to merge into the broad flood of American literature and any notable Negro writer became ipso facto a national writer.
One must not forget the Negro orator. While in the white world the human voice as a vehicle of information and persuasion has waned in importance until the average man is somewhat suspicious of “eloquence,” in the Negro world the spoken word is still dominant and Negro orators have wielded great influence upon both white and black from the time of Frederick Douglass and Samuel Ward down to the day of J. C. Price and Booker T. Washington. There is here, undoubtedly, something of unusual gift and personal magnetism. One must note in this connection the rise and spread of a Negro press—magazines and weeklies which are voicing to the world with increasing power the thought of American Negroes. The influence of this new force in America is being recognized and the circulation of these papers aggregate more than a million copies.
On the stage the Negro has naturally had a most difficult chance to be recognized. He has been portrayed by white dramatists and actors, and for a time it seemed but natural for a character like Othello to be drawn, or for Southerne’s Oroonoko to be presented in 1696 in England with a black Angola prince as its hero. Beginning, however, with the latter part of the 18th century the stage began to make fun of the Negro and the drunken character Mungo was introduced at Drury Lane.
In the United States this tradition was continued by the “Negro Minstrels” which began with Thomas D. Rice’s imitation of a Negro cripple, Jim Crow. Rice began his work in Louisville in 1828 and had great success. Minstrel companies imitating Negro songs and dances and blackening their faces gained a great vogue until long after the Civil War. Negroes themselves began to appear as principals in minstrel companies after a time and indeed as early as 1820 there was an “African company” playing in New York. No sooner had the Negro become the principal in the minstrel shows than he began to develop and uplift the art. This took a long time but eventually there appeared Cole and Johnson, Ernest Hogan and Williams and Walker. Their development of a new light comedy marked an epoch and Bert Williams was at his recent death without doubt the leading comedian on the American stage.
In the legitimate drama there was at first no chance for the Negro in the United States. Ira Aldridge, born in Maryland, had to go to Europe for opportunity. There he became associated with leading actors like Edmund Keene and was regarded in the fifties as one of the two or three greatest actors in the world. He was honored and decorated by the King of Sweden, the King of Prussia, the Emperor of Austria and the Czar of Russia. He had practically no successor until Charles Gilpin triumphed in “The Emperor Jones” in New York during the season 1920-21.
Efforts to develop a new distinctly racial drama and portray the dramatic struggle of the Negro in America and elsewhere have rapidly been made. Mrs. Emily Hapgood made determined effort to initiate a Negro theatre. She chose the plays of Ridgeley Torrence, a white playwright, who wrote for the Negro players “Granny Maumee'’ and “The Rider of Dreams,” pieces singularly true to Negro genius. The plays were given with unusual merit and gained the highest praise.
This movement, interrupted by the war, has been started again by the Ethiopian Players of Chicago and especially by the workers at Howard University where a Negro drama with Negro instructors, Negro themes and Negro players is being developed. One of the most interesting pageants given in America was written, staged and performed by Negroes in New York, Philadelphia and Washington.
Charles Gilpin had been trained with Williams and Walker and other colored companies. He got his first chance on the legitimate stage by playing the part of Curtis in Drinkwater’s “Abraham Lincoln.” Then he became the principal in O’Neill’s wonderful play and was nominated by the Drama League in 1921 as one of the ten persons who had contributed most to the American theatre during the year. Paul Robeson and Evelyn Preer are following Gilpin’s footsteps.
There is no doubt of the Negro’s dramatic genius. Stephen Graham writes:
“I visited one evening a Negro theatre where a musical comedy was going on—words and music both by Negroes. It opened with the usual singing and dancing chorus of Negro girls. They were clad in yellow and crimson and mauve combinations with white tapes on one side from the lace edge of the knicker to their dusky arms. They danced from the thigh rather than from the knee, moving waist and bosom in unrestrained undulation, girls with large, startled seeming eyes and uncontrollable masses of dark hair.. A dance of physical joy and abandon, with no restraint in the toes or the knees, no veiling of the eyes, no half shutting of the lips, no holding in of the hair. Accustomed to the very aesthetic presentment of the Bacchanalia in the Russian ballet, it might be difficult to call one of those Negro dancers a Bacchante, and yet there was one whom I remarked again and again, a Queen of Sheba in her looks, a face like starry night, and she was clad slightly in mauve, and went into such ecstacies during the many encores that her hair fell down about her bare shoulders, and her cheeks and knees, glistening with perspiration, outshone her eyes. . . . I had seen nothing so pretty or so amusing, so bewilderingly full of life and color, since Sanine’s production of the ‘Fair of Sorochinsky’ in Moscow.”
Turning now to painting, we note a young African painter contemporary with Phyllis Wheatley who had gained some little renown. Then a half century ago came E. M. Banister, the center of a group of artists forming the Rhode Island Art Club, and one of whose pictures took a medal at the Centennial Exposition in 1876.
William A. Harper died in 1910. His “Avenue of Poplars” took a prize of $100 at the Chicago Art Institute. William Edward Scott studied in Paris under Tanner. His picture “La Pauvre Voisine” was hung in the salon in 1910 and bought by the government of the Argentine Republic. Another picture was hung in Paris and took first prize at the Indiana State Fair, and a third picture was exhibited in the Royal Academy in London. Lately Mr. Scott has specialized in mural painting. His work is found in ten public schools in Chicago, in four in Indianapolis and in the latter city he decorated two units in the City Hospital with 300 life sized pictures. In many of these pictures he has especially emphasized the Negro type.
Richard Brown, Edwin Harleston, Albert A. Smith, Laura Wheeler and a number of rising young painters have shown the ability of the Negro in this line of art; but their dean is, of course, Henry Ossawa Tanner. Tanner is today one of the leading painters of the world and universally is so recognized. He was born an American Negro in Pittsburgh in 1859, the son of an African Methodist minister; he studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and be¬ came a photographer in Atlanta. Afterward he taught at Clark University in Atlanta. In all this time he had sold less than $200 worth of pictures; but finally he got to Paris and was encouraged by Benjamin Constant. He soon turned toward his greatest forte, religious pictures. His “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” was hung in the salon in 1896 and the next year the “Raising of Lazarus” was bought by the French government and hung in the Luxembourg. Since then he has won medals in all the greatest expositions, and his works are sought by connoisseurs. He has recently received knighthood in the French Legion of Honor.
In sculpture we may again think of two points of view,—-first, there is the way in which the Negro type has figured in American sculpture as, for instance, the libyan Sybil of W. A. Story, Bissell’s Emancipation group in Scotland, the Negro woman on the military monument in Detroit, Ball’s Negro in the various emancipation groups, Ward’s colored woman on the Beecher monument, the panel on the Cleveland monument of Scofield, Africa in D. C. French’s group in front of the Custom’s House in New York City, Calder’s black boy in the Nations of the West group in the Panama-Pacific exhibition and, of course, the celebrated Shaw monument in Boston. On the other hand, there have been a few Negro sculptors, three of whom merit mention: Edmonia Lewis, who worked during the Civil War, Meta Warrick Fuller, a pupil of Rodin, and May Howard Jackson, who has done some wonderful work in the portraying of the mulatto type.
To appraise rightly this body of art one must remember that it represents mainly the work of those artists whom accident set free; if the artist had a white face his Negro blood did not militate against him in the fight for recognition; if his Negro blood was visible white relatives may have helped him; in a few cases ability was united to indomitable will. But the shrinking, modest, black artist without special encouragement had little or no chance in a world determined to make him a menial. Today the situation is changing. The Negro world is demanding expression in art and beginning to pay for it. The white world is able to see dimly beyond the color line. This sum of accomplishment then is but a beginning and an imperfect indication of what the Negro race is capable of in America and in the world.
Science, worse luck, has in these drab days little commerce with art and yet for lack of better place a word may drop here of the American Negro’s contribution. Science today is a matter chiefly for endowed fellowships and college chairs. Negroes have small chance here because of race exclusion and yet no scientist in the world can today write of insects and ignore the work of C. H. Turner of St. Louis; or of insanity and forget Dr. S. C. Fuller of Massachusetts. Ernest Just’s investigations of the origin of life make him stand among the highest two or three modern scientists in that line and the greatest American interpreter of Wasserman reactions is a colored man; Dr. Julien H. Lewis of the University of Chicago, is building a reputation in serology. There are also a number of deft Negro surgeons including Dr. Dan Williams who first sewed up a wounded human heart. The great precursors of all these colored men of science were Thomas Derham and Benjamin Banneker.
Derham was a curiosity more than a great scientist measuring by absolute standards, and yet in the 18th century and at the age of twenty-six he was regarded as one of the most eminent physicians in New Orleans. Dr. Rush of Philadelphia testified to his learning and ability.
Benjamin Banneker was a leading American scientist. He was the grandson of an English woman and her black slave. Their daughter married a Negro and Benjamin was their only son. Born in 1731 in Maryland he was educated in a private school with whites and spent his life on his father’s farm. He had taste for mathematics and early constructed an ingenious clock. He became expert in the solution of difficult mathematical problems, corresponding with interested persons of leisure.
Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Marquis de Condorcet: “We now have in the United States a Negro, the son of a black man born in Africa and a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable mathematician. I procured him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new Federal City on the Potomac and in the intervals of his leisure, while on that work, he made an almanac for the next year, which he sent me in his own handwriting and which I enclose to you. I have seen very elegant solutions of geometrical problems by him. Add to this that he is a very worthy and respectable member of society. He is a free man. I shall be delighted to see these instances of moral eminence so multiplied as to prove that the want of talents observed in them, is merely the effect of their degraded condition, and not proceeding from any difference in the structure of the parts on which intellect depends.”
Banneker became greatly interested in astronomy. He made a number of calculations and finally completed an almanac covering the year 1792. A member of John Adams’ cabinet had this almanac published in Baltimore. This patron, James McHenry, said that the almanac was begun and finished without outside assistance except the loan of books “so that whatever merit is attached to his present performance, is exclusively and peculiarly his own.” The publishers declared that the almanac met the approbation of several of the most distinguished astronomers of America. The almanac was published yearly until 1802. When the City of Washington was laid out in 1793 under Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, President Washington at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson appointed Banneker as one of the six commissioners. He performed a most important part of the mathematical calculations of the survey and sat in conference with the other commissioners. Later he wrote essays on bees and studied methods to promote peace, suggesting a Secretary of Peace in the president’s cabinet. He “was a brave looking pleasant man with some thing very noble in his appearance.” His color was not jet black but decided Negroid. He died in 1806, with both an American and European reputation and was among the most learned men of his day in America.
- Alice Dunbar-Nelson in Journal of Negro History, Vol. 2, p. 55.
- Washington, Story of the Negro, Vol. 2, pp. 276-7.
- Cf. Benjamin Brawley, The Negro in Literature and Art, New York, 1921.
- Cf. Preface to James Weldon Johnson’s The Book of American Negro Poetry, New York, 1922.
- T. W. Talley, Negro Folk Rhymes.
- Cf. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Negro in Literature and Art (Annals American Academy, Sept., 1913).
- A. A. Schomberg, A Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry, New York, 1916.
- Preface to Claud McKay’s Harlem Shadows.
- Cf. Freeman H. M. Murray, Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture, Washington, D. C., 1916.
- Journal of Negro History, Vol. 3, p. 99ff. Later, Jefferson writing to an American thought Banneker had “a mind of very common stature indeed”.