JAMES WELDON JOHNSON
PREFACE to THE BOOK OF AMERICAN NEGRO POETRY
There is, perhaps, a better excuse for giving in Anthology of American Negro Poetry to the public than can be offered for many of the anthologies that have recently been issued. The public, generally speaking, does not know that there are American Negro poets--to supply this lack of information is, alone, a work worthy of somebody's effort.
Moreover, the matter of Negro poets and the production of literature by the colored people in this country involves more than supplying information that is lacking. It is a matter which has a direct bearing on the most vital of American problems.
A people may become great through many means, but there is only one measure by which its greatness is recognized and acknowledged. The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of the literature and art they have produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art. No people that has produced great literature and art has ever been looked upon by the world as distinctly inferior.
The status of the Negro in the
Is there likelihood that the American Negro will be able to do this? There is, for the good reason that he possesses the innate powers. He has the emotional endowment, the originality and artistic conception, and, what is more important, the power of creating that which has universal appeal and influence.
I make here what may appear to be a more startling statement by saying that
the Negro has already proved the possession of these powers by being the
creator of the only things artistic that have yet sprung from American soil and
been universally acknowledged as distinctive American products. These creations
by the American Negro may be summed up under four
heads. The first two are the Uncle Remus stories,
which were collected by Joel Chandler Harris, and the "spirituals" or
slave songs, to which the Fisk Jubilee Singers made the public and the musicians
of both the
The other two creations are the cakewalk and ragtime. We do not need to go
very far back to remember when cakewalking was the rage in the
The influence which the Negro has exercised on the art of dancing in this
country has been almost absolute. For generations the "buck and wing"
and the "stop-time" dances, which are strictly Negro, have been
familiar to American theater audiences. A few years ago the public discovered
the "turkey trot," the "eagle rock," "ballin' the jack," and several other varieties that
started the modern dance craze. These dances were quickly followed by the
"tango," a dance originated by the Negroes of Cuba and later
Any one who witnesses a musical production in which there is dancing cannot fail to notice the Negro stamp on all the movements; a stamp which even the great vogue of Russian dances that swept the country about the time of the popular dance craze could not affect. That peculiar swaying of the shoulders which you see done everywhere by the blond girls of the chorus is nothing more than a movement from the Negro dance referred to above, the "eagle rock." Occasionally the movement takes on a suggestion of the now outlawed "shimmy."
As for Ragtime, I go straight to the statement that it is the one artistic
production by which
For a dozen years or so there has been a steady tendency to divorce Ragtime
from the Negro; in fact, to take from him the credit of having originated it.
Probably the younger people of the present generation do not know that Ragtime
is of Negro origin. The change wrought in Ragtime and the way in which it is
accepted by the country have been brought about
chiefly through the change which has gradually been made in the words and
stories accompanying the music. Once the text of all Ragtime songs was written
in Negro dialect, and was about Negroes in the cabin or in the cotton field or
on the levee or at a jubilee or on
Ragtime music was originated by colored piano players in the questionable
Ragtime music got its first popular hearing at
The earliest Ragtime songs, like Topsy, "jes' grew." Some of these earliest songs were taken
down by white men, the words slightly altered or changed, and published under
the names of the arrangers. They sprang into immediate popularity and earned
small fortunes. The first to become widely known was "The Bully," a
levee song which had been long used by roustabouts along the
Later there came along a number of colored men who were able to transcribe
the old songs and write original ones. I was, about that time, writing words to
music for the music show stage in
In the beginning, and for quite a while, almost all of the Ragtime songs that were deliberately composed were the work of colored writers. Now, the colored composers, even in this particular field, are greatly outnumbered by the white.
The reader might be curious to know if the "jes'
grew" songs have ceased to grow. No, they have not; they are growing all
the time. The country has lately been flooded with several varieties of
"The Blues." These "Blues," too, had their origin in
you will know you are listening to something which
belonged originally to
As illustrations of the genuine Ragtime song in the making, I quote the
words of two that were popular with the Southern colored soldiers in
Mah mammy's lyin' in her grave,
Mah daddy done run away,
Mah sister's married a gamblin' man,
An' I've done gone astray.
Yes, I've done gone astray, po' boy,
An' I've done gone astray,
Mah sister's married a gamblin' man,
An' I've done gone astray, po' boy.
These lines are crude, but they contain something of real poetry, of that
elusive thing which nobody can define and that you can only tell is there when
you feel it. You cannot read these lines without becoming reflective and
feeling sorry for "
Now, take in this word picture of utter dejection:
I'm jes' as misabul as I can be,
I'm unhappy even if I am free,
I'm feelin' down, I'm feelin' blue;
I wander 'round, don't know what to do.
I'm go’n lay mah haid on de railroad line,
Let de B.& 0. come and pacify mah min'.
These lines are, no doubt, one of the many versions of the famous "Blues." They are also crude, but they go straight to the mark. The last two lines move with the swiftness of all great tragedy.
In spite of the bans which musicians and music teachers have placed on it,
the people still demand and enjoy Ragtime. In fact, there is not a corner of
the civilized world in which it is not known and liked. And this proves its
originality, for if it were an imitation, the people of
Of course, there are those who will deny that Ragtime is an artistic production. American musicians, especially, instead of investigating Ragtime, dismiss it with a contemptuous word. But this has been the course of scholasticism in every branch of art. Whatever new thing the people like is pooh-poohed; whatever is popular is regarded as not worth while. The fact is, nothing great or enduring in music has ever sprung full-fledged from the brain of any master; the best he gives the world he gathers from the hearts of the people, and runs it through the alembic of his genius.
Ragtime deserves serious attention. There is a lot of colorless and vicious imitation, but there is enough that is genuine. In one composition alone, "The Memphis Blues," the musician will find not only great melodic beauty, but a polyphonic structure that is amazing.
It is obvious that Ragtime has influenced and, in a large measure, become our popular music; but not many would know that it has influenced even our religious music. Those who are familiar with gospel hymns can at once see this influence if they will compare the songs of thirty years ago, such as "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," "The Ninety and Nine," etc., with the up-to-date, syncopated tunes that are sung in Sunday Schools, Christian Endeavor Societies, Y.M.C.A.'s and like gatherings today.
Ragtime has not only influenced American music, it has influenced American life; indeed, it has saturated American life. It has become the popular medium for our national expression musically. And who can say that it does not express the blare and jangle and the surge, too, of our national spirit?
Any one who doubts that there is a peculiar heel-tickling, smile-provoking, joy-awakening, response-compelling charm in Ragtime needs only to hear a skillful performer play the genuine article, needs only to listen to its bizarre harmonies, its audacious resolutions often consisting of an abrupt jump from one key to another, its intricate rhythms in which the accents fall in the most unexpected places but in which the fundamental beat is never lost, in order to be convinced. I believe it has its place as well as the music which draws from us sighs and tears.
Now, these dances which I have referred to and Ragtime music may be lower
forms of art, but they are evidence of a power that will some day be applied to
the higher forms. And even now we need not stop at the Negro's accomplishment
through these lower forms. In the "spirituals," or slave songs, the
Negro has given
It is to be noted that whereas the chief characteristic of Ragtime is rhythm, the chief characteristic of the "spirituals" is melody. The melodies of "Steal Away to Jesus," "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," "Nobody Knows de Trouble I See," "I Couldn't Hear Nobody Pray," "Deep River," "O, Freedom Over Me," and many others of these songs possess a beauty that is--what shall I say? poignant. In the riotous rhythms of Ragtime the Negro expressed his irrepressible buoyancy, his keen response to the sheer joy of living; in the "spiritual" he voiced his sense of beauty and his deep religious feeling.
Naturally, not as much can be said for the words of these songs as for the music. Most of the songs are religious. Some of them are songs expressing faith and endurance and a longing for freedom. In the religious songs, the sentiments and often the entire lines are taken bodily from the Bible. However, there is no doubt that some of these religious songs have a meaning apart from the Biblical text. It is evident that the opening lines of "Go Down, Moses,"
Go down, Moses,
'Way down in Egypt land;
Tell old Pharaoh,
Let my people go.
have a significance beyond the bondage of
The bulk of the lines to these songs, as is the case in all communal music, is made up of choral iteration and incremental repetition of the leader's lines. If the words are read, this constant iteration and repetition are found to be tiresome; and it must be admitted that the lines themselves are often very trite. And, yet, there is frequently revealed a flash of real primitive poetry. I give the following examples:
Sometimes I feel like an eagle in de air.
You may bury me in de East,
You may bury me in de West,
But I'll hear de trumpet sound
In-a dat mornin'.
I know de moonlight, I know de starlight;
I lay dis body down.
I walk in de moonlight, I walk in de starlight;
I lay dis body down.
I know de graveyard, I know de graveyard,
When I lay dis body down.
I walk in de graveyard, I walk troo de graveyard
To lay dis body down.
I lay in de grave an' stretch out my arms;
I lay dis body down.
I go to de judgment in de evenin' of de day
When I lay dis body down.
An' my soul an' yo soul will meet in de day
When I lay dis body down.
Regarding the line, "I lay in de grave an' stretch out my arms," Col. Thomas Wentworth Higginson of Boston, one of the first to give these slave songs serious study, said: "Never, it seems to me, since man first lived and suffered, was his infinite longing for peace uttered more plaintively than in that line."
These Negro folk songs constitute a vast mine of material that has been neglected almost absolutely. The only white writers who have in recent years given adequate attention and study to this music, that I know of, are Mr. H. E. Krehbiel and Mrs. Natalie Curtis Burlin. We have our native composers denying the worth and importance of this music, and trying to manufacture grand opera out of so-called Indian themes.
But there is a great hope for the development of this music, and that hope
is the Negro himself. A worthy beginning has already been made by Burleigh,
Cook, Johnson, and Dett. And there will yet come great Negro composers who will take this music and
voice through it not only the soul of their race, but the soul of
And does it not seem odd that this greatest gift of the Negro has been the most neglected of all he possesses? Money and effort have been expended upon his development in every direction except this. This gift has been regarded as a kind of side show, something for occasional exhibition; wherein it is the touchstone, it is the magic thing, it is that by which the Negro can bridge all chasms. No persons, however hostile, can listen to Negroes singing this wonderful music without having their hostility melted down.
This power of the Negro to suck up the national spirit from the soil and
create something artistic and original, which, at the same time, possesses the
note of universal appeal, is due to a remarkable racial gift of adaptability;
it is more than adaptability, it is a transfusive quality. And the Negro has exercised this transfusive quality not only here in
Is it not curious to know that the greatest poet of
The fact is fairly well known that the father of Dumas was a Negro of the
When Peter the Great was Czar of Russia, some potentate presented him with a full-blooded Negro of gigantic size. Peter, the most eccentric ruler of modern times, dressed this Negro up in soldier clothes, christened him Hannibal, and made him a special body-guard.
I know the question naturally arises: If out of the few Negroes who have lived in France there came a Dumas; and out of the few Negroes who have lived in England there came a Coleridge-Taylor; and if from the man who was at the time, probably, the only Negro in Russia there sprang that country's national poet, why have not the millions of Negroes in the United States with all the emotional and artistic endowment claimed for them produced a Dumas, or a Coleridge-Taylor, or a Pushkin?
The question seems difficult, but there is an answer. The Negro in the
But, even so, the American Negro has accomplished something in pure literature. The list of those who have done so would be surprising both by its length and the excellence of the achievements. One of the great books written in this country since the Civil War is the work of a colored man, The Souls of Black Folks, by W. E. B. Du Bois.
Such a list begins with Phillis Wheatley. In 1761
a slave ship landed a cargo of slaves in
Phillis Wheatley has never been given her rightful
place in American literature. By some sort of conspiracy she is kept out of
most of the books, especially the text-books on literature used in the schools.
Of course, she is not a great American poet--and in her day there were
no great American poets--but she is an important American poet. Her importance,
if for no other reason, rests on the fact that, save one, she is the first in
order of time of all the women poets of
It seems strange that the books generally give space to a mention of Urian Oakes, President of Harvard College, and to
quotations from the crude and lengthy elegy which he published in 1667; and
print examples from the execrable versified version of the Psalms made by the
Here are the opening lines from the elegy by Oakes, which is quoted from in most of the books on American literature:
Reader, I am no poet, but I grieve.
Behold here what that passion can do,
That forced a verse without Apollo's leave,
And whether the learned sisters would or no.
There was no need for Urian to admit what his handiwork declared. But this from the versified Psalms is still worse, yet it is found in the books:
The Lord's song sing can we? being
in stranger's land, then let
lose her skill my right hand if I
Anne Bradstreet preceded Phillis Wheatley by a
little over twenty years. She published her volume of poems, The Tenth Muse, in 1750. Let us strike a comparison between the two. Anne Bradstreet was a
wealthy, cultivated Puritan girl, the daughter of Thomas Dudley, Governor of
Bay Colony. Phillis, as we know, was a Negro slave
girl born in
While musing thus with contemplation fed,
And thousand fancies buzzing in my brain,
The sweet tongued Philomel percht o'er my head,
And chanted forth a most melodious strain,
Which rapt me so with wonder and delight,
I judged my hearing better than my sight,
And wisht me wings with her awhile to take my flight.
And the following is from Phillis' poem entitled "Imagination":
Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring through air to find the bright abode,
Th' empyreal palace of the thundering God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind.
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above;
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th' unbounded soul.
We do not think the black woman suffers much by comparison with the white.
Thomas Jefferson said of Phillis: "Religion has
produced a Phillis Wheatley, but it could not produce
a poet; her poems are beneath contempt." It is quite likely that
It appears certain that Phillis was the first
person to apply to George Washington the phrase, "First in peace."
The phrase occurs in her poem addressed to "His Excellency, General George
Washington," written in 1775. The encomium, "First in war, first in
peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen," was originally used in the
resolutions presented to Congress on the death of
Phillis Wheatley's poetry is the poetry of the Eighteenth Century. She wrote when Pope and Gray were supreme; it is easy to see that Pope was her model. Had she come under the influence of Wordsworth, Byron or Keats or Shelley, she would have done greater work. As it is, her work must not be judged by the work and standards of a later day, but by the work and standards of her own day and her own contemporaries. By this method of criticism she stands out as one of the important characters in the making of American literature, without any allowances for her sex or her antecedents.
According to The Bibliographical Checklist of American Negro Poetry, compiled
by Mr. Arthur A. Schomburg, more than one hundred
Negroes in the United States have published volumes of poetry ranging in size
from pamphlets to books of from one hundred to three hundred pages. About
thirty of these writers fill in the gap between Phillis Wheatley and Paul Laurence Dunbar. Just here it is of interest to note that a
Negro wrote and published a poem before Phillis Wheatley arrived in this country from
The poets between Phillis Wheatley and Dunbar must
be considered more in the light of what they attempted than of what they
accomplished. Many of them showed marked talent, but barely a half dozen of
them demonstrated even mediocre mastery of technique in the use of poetic
material and forms. And yet there are several names that deserve mention.
George M. Horton, Frances E. Harper, James M. Bell and Alberry A. Whitman, all merit consideration when due allowances are made for their
limitations in education, training and general culture. The limitations of
Horton were greater than those of either of the others; he was born a slave in
Of these four poets, it is Whitman who reveals not only the greatest imagination but also the more skillful workmanship. His lyric power at its best may be judged from the following stanza from the "Rape of Florida":
"Come now, my love, the moon is on the lake;
Upon the waters is my light canoe;
Come with me, love, and gladsome oars shall make
A music on the parting wave for you.
Come o'er the waters deep and dark and blue;
Come where the lilies in the marge have sprung,
Come with me, love, for Oh, my love is true!"
This is the song that on the lake was sung,
The boatman sang it when his heart was young.
Some idea of Whitman's capacity for dramatic narration may be gained from the following lines taken from "Not a Man, and Yet a Man," a poem of even greater length than "The Rape of Florida."
A flash of steely lightning from his hand,
Strikes down the groaning leader of the band;
Divides his startled comrades, and again
Descending, leaves fair Dora's captors slain.
Her, seizing then within a strong embrace,
Out in the dark he wheels his flying pace;
. . . . .
He speaks not, but with stalwart tenderness
Her swelling bosom firm to his doth press;
Springs like a stag that flees the eager hound,
And like a whirlwind rustles o'er the ground.
Her locks swim in disheveled wildness o'er
His shoulders, streaming to his waist and more;
While on and on, strong as a rolling flood,
His sweeping footsteps part the silent wood.
It is curious and interesting to trace the growth of individuality and race
consciousness in this group of poets. Jupiter Hammon's verses were almost entirely religious exhortations. Only very seldom does Phillis Wheatley sound a native note. Four times in single
lines she refers to herself as "Afric's muse." In a poem of admonition addressed to the students at the "
Ye blooming plants of human race divine,
An Ethiop tells you 'tis your greatest foe.
But one looks in vain for some outburst or even complaint against the
bondage of her people, for some agonizing cry about her native land. In two
poems she refers definitely to
'Twas mercy brought me from my pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand
That there's a God and there's a Saviour too;
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye
"Their color is a diabolic dye."
Remember, Christians, Negroes black as Cain,
May be refined, and join th' angelic train.
In the poem addressed to the Earl of Dartmouth, she speaks of freedom and makes a reference to the parents from whom she was taken as a child, a reference which cannot but strike the reader as rather unimpassioned:
Should you, my lord, while you peruse my song,
Wonder from whence my love of Freedom sprung,
Whence flow these wishes for the common good,
By feeling hearts alone best understood;
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate
Was snatch'd from Afric's fancy'd happy seat;
What pangs excruciating must molest,
What sorrows labor in my parents' breast?
Steel'd was that soul and by no misery mov'd
That from a father seiz'd his babe belov'd;
Such, such my case. And can I then but pray
Others may never feel tyrannic sway?
The bulk of Phillis Wheadey's work consists of poems addressed to people of prominence. Her book was
dedicated to the Countess of Huntington, at whose house she spent the greater
part of her time while in
A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine
With gold unfading,
Washington! be thine.
Nevertheless, she was an ardent patriot. Her ode to General Washington (1775), her spirited poem, "On Major General Lee" (1776), and her poem, "Liberty and Peace," written in celebration of the close of the war, reveal not only strong patriotic feeling but an understanding of the issues at stake. In her poem, "On Major General Lee," she makes her hero reply thus to the taunts of the British commander into whose hands he has been delivered through treachery:
O arrogance of tongue!
And wild ambition, ever prone to wrong!
Believ'st thou, chief, that armies such as thine
Can stretch in dust that heaven-defended line?
In vain allies may swarm from distant lands,
And demons aid in formidable bands.
Great as thou art, thou shun'st the field of fame,
Disgrace to Britain and the British name!
When offer'd combat by the noble foe
(Foe to misrule) why did the sword forego
The easy conquest of the rebel-land?
Perhaps TOO easy for thy martial hand.
What various causes to the field invite!
For plunder YOU, and we for freedom fight;
Her cause divine with generous ardor fires,
And every bosom glows as she inspires!
Already thousands of your troops have fled
To the drear mansions of the silent dead:
Columbia, too, beholds with streaming eyes
Her heroes fall--'tis freedom's sacrifice!
So wills the power who with convulsive storms
Shakes impious realms, and nature's face deforms;
Yet those brave troops, innumerous as the sands,
One soul inspires, one General Chief commands;
Find in your train of boasted heroes, one
To match the praise of Godlike Washington.
Thrice happy Chief in whom the virtues join,
And heaven taught prudence speaks the man divine.
What Phillis Wheatley failed to achieve is due in
no small degree to her education and environment. Her mind was steeped in the
classics; her verses are filled with classical and mythological allusions. She
knew Ovid thoroughly and was familiar with other Latin authors. She must have
known Alexander Pope by heart. And, too, she was reared and sheltered in a
wealthy and cultured family,--a wealthy and cultured
Horton, who was born three years after Phillis Wheatley's death, expressed in all of his poetry strong complaint at his condition of slavery and a deep longing for freedom. The following verses are typical of his style and his ability:
Alas! and am I born for this,
To wear this slavish chain?
Deprived of all created bliss,
Through hardship, toil, and pain?
. . . .
Liberty! thou cheerful sound,
Roll through my ravished ears;
Come, let my grief in joys be drowned,
And drive away my fears.
In Mrs. Harper we find something more than the complaint and the longing of Horton. We find an expression of a sense of wrong and injustice. The following stanzas are from a poem addressed to the white women of America :
You can sigh o'er the sad-eyed Armenian
Who weeps in her desolate home.
You can mourn o'er the exile of Russia
From kindred and friends doomed to roam.
. . . .
But hark! from our Southland are floating
Sobs of anguish, murmurs of pain;
And women heart-stricken are weeping
O'er their tortured and slain.
. . . .
Have ye not, oh, my favored sisters,
Just a plea, a prayer or a tear
For mothers who dwell 'neath the shadows
Of agony, hatred and fear?
. . . .
Weep not, oh, my well sheltered sisters,
Weep not for the Negro alone,
But weep for your sons who must gather
The crops which their fathers have sown.
Whitman, in the midst of "The Rape of Florida," a poem in which he
related the taking of the State of
Greatness by nature cannot be entailed;
It is an office ending with the man,--
Sage, hero, Saviour, tho' the Sire be hailed,
The son may reach obscurity in the van:
Sublime achievements know no patent plan,
Man's immortality's a book with seals,
And none but God shall open--none else can--
But opened, it the mystery reveals,--
Manhood's conquest of man to heaven's respect appeals.
Is manhood less because man's face is black?
Let thunders of the loosened seals reply!
Who shall the rider's restive steed turn back?
Or who withstand the arrows he lets fly
Between the mountains of eternity?
Genius ride forth! Thou gift and torch of heav'n!
The mastery is kindled in thine eye;
To conquest ride! thy bow of strength is giv'n--
The trampled hordes of caste before thee shall be driv'n!
. . . .
'Tis hard to judge if hatred of one's race,
By those who deem themselves superior-born,
Be worse than that quiescence in disgrace,
Which only merit--and should only--scorn.
Oh, let me see the Negro night and morn,
Pressing and fighting in, for place and power!
All earth is place--all time the auspicious hour,
While heaven leans forth to look, oh, will he quail or cower?
Ah! I abhor his protest and complaint!
His pious looks and patience I despise!
He can't evade the test, disguised as saint;
The manly voice of freedom bids him rise,
And shake himself before Philistine eyes!
And, like a lion roused, no sooner than
A foe dare come, play all his energies,
And court the fray with fury if he can;
For hell itself respects a fearless, manly man.
It may be said that none of these poets strike a deep native strain or sound a distinctly original note, either in matter or form. That is true; but the same thing may be said of all the American poets down to the writers of the present generation, with the exception of Poe and Walt Whitman. The thing in which these black poets are mostly excelled by their contemporaries is mere technique.
Paul Laurence Dunbar stands out as the first poet from the Negro race in the
It has a bearing on this entire subject to note that Dunbar was of unmixed Negro blood; so, as the greatest figure in literature which the colored race in the United States has produced, he stands as an example at once refuting and confounding those who wish to believe that whatever extraordinary ability an Aframerican shows is due to an admixture of white blood.
As a man,
To whom may he be compared, this boy who scribbled his early verses while he
ran an elevator, whose youth was a battle against poverty, and who, in spite of
almost insurmountable obstacles, rose to success? A comparison between him and
Burns is not unfitting. The similarity between many phases of their lives is
remarkable, and their works are not incommensurable. Burns took the strong
dialect of his people and made it classic;
Mention of Dunbar brings up for consideration the fact that, although he is
the most outstanding figure in literature among the Aframericans of the United States, he does not stand alone among the Aframericans of the whole Western world. There are Plácido and Manzano in Cuba; Vieux and Durand in Haiti; Machado de Assis in Brazil, and others still that might be mentioned,
who stand on a plane with or even above Dunbar. Plácido and Machado de Assis rank as great in the literatures
of their respective countries without any qualifications whatever. They are
world figures in the literature of the Latin languages. Machado de Assis is somewhat handicapped in this respect by having as
his tongue and medium the lesser known Portuguese, but Plácido,
writing in the language of
Plácido is in some respects the greatest of all
the Cuban poets. In sheer genius and the fire of inspiration he surpasses his
famous compatriot, Heredia. Then, too, his birth, and his life and his death
ideally contained the tragic elements that go into the making of a halo about a
poet's head. Plácido was born in Habana in 1809. The
first months of his life were passed in a foundling asylum; indeed, his real
name, Gabriel de la Concepcion Valdés, was in honor
of its founder. His father took him out of the asylum, but shortly afterwards
Plácido's sonnet to his mother has been translated
into every important language; William Cullen Bryant did it in English; but in
spite of its wide popularity, it is, perhaps,outside of
The key to the poem is in the first word, and the first word is the Spanish conjunction Si (if). The central idea, then, of the sonnet is, "If the sad fate which now overwhelms me should bring a pang to your heart, do not weep, for I die a glorious death and sound the last note of my lyre to you." Bryant either failed to understand or ignored the opening word, "If," because he was not familiar with the poet's history.
While Plácido's father was a Negro, his mother was a Spanish white woman, a dancer in one of the Habana theaters. At his birth she abandoned him to a foundling asylum, and perhaps never saw him again, although it is known that she outlived her son. When the poet came down to his last hours he remembered that somewhere there lived a woman who was his mother; that although she had heartlessly abandoned him; that although he owed her no filial duty, still she might, perhaps, on hearing of his sad end feel some pang of grief or sadness; so he tells her in his last words that he dies happy and bids her not to weep. This he does with nobility and dignity, but absolutely without affection. Taking into account these facts, and especially their humiliating and embittering effect upon a soul so sensitive as Plácido's, this sonnet, in spite of the obvious weakness of the sestet as compared with the octave, is a remarkable piece of work.
In considering the Aframerican poets of the Latin
languages I am impelled to think that, as up to this time the colored poets of
greater universality have come out of the Latin-American countries rather than
out of the
So I think it probable that the first world-acknowledged Aframerican poet will come out of
This preface has gone far beyond what I had in mind when I started. It was my intention to gather together the best verses I could find by Negro poets and present them with a bare word of introduction. It was not my plan to make this collection inclusive nor to make the book in any sense a book of criticism. I planned to present only verses by contemporary writers; but, perhaps, because this is the first collection of its kind, I realized the absence of a starting-point and was led to provide one and to fill in with historical data what I felt to be a gap.
It may be surprising to many to see how little of the poetry being written by Negro poets today is being written in Negro dialect. The newer Negro poets show a tendency to discard dialect; much of the subject-matter which went into the making of traditional dialect poetry, 'possums, watermelons, etc., they have discarded altogether, at least, as poetic material. This tendency will, no doubt, be regretted by the majority of white readers; and, indeed, it would be a distinct loss if the American Negro poets threw away this quaint and musical folk speech as a medium of expression. And yet, after all, these poets are working through a problem not realized by the reader, and, perhaps, by many of these poets themselves not realized consciously. They are trying to break away from, not Negro dialect itself, but the limitations on Negro dialect imposed by the fixing effects of long convention.
The Negro in the
What the colored poet in the
Negro dialect is at present a medium that is not capable of giving
expression to the varied conditions of Negro life in
In stating the need for Aframerican poets in the
Not many of the writers here included, except
Mr. Braithwaite is the author of two volumes of verses, lyrics of delicate
and tenuous beauty. In his more recent and uncollected poems he shows himself
more and more decidedly the mystic. But 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
Two authors included in the book are better known for their work in prose
than in poetry: W. E. B. Du Bois whose well-known prose at its best is,
however, impassioned and rythmical; and Benjamin
Brawley who is the author, among other works, of one of the best handbooks on
the English drama that has yet appeared in
But the group of the new Negro poets, whose work makes up the bulk of this anthology, contains names destined to be known. Claude McKay, although still quite a young has already demonstrated his power, breadth and skill as a poet. Mr. McKay's breadth is as essential a part of his equipment as his power and skill. He demonstrates mastery of the three when as a Negro poet he pours out the bitterness and rebellion in his heart in those two sonnet-tragedies, "If We Must Die" and "To the White Fiends," in a manner that strikes terror; and when as a cosmic poet he creates the atmosphere and mood of poetic beauty in the absolute, as he does in "Spring in New Hampshire" and "The Harlem Dancer." Mr. McKay gives evidence that he has passed beyond the danger which threatens many of the new Negro poets--the danger of allowing the purely polemical phases of the race problem to choke their sense of artistry.
Mr. McKay's earliest work is unknown in this country. It consists of poems
written and published in his native
Fenton Johnson is a young poet of the ultra-modern school who gives promise of greater work than he has yet done. Jessie Fauset shows that she possesses the lyric gift and she works with care and finish. Miss Fauset is especially adept in her translations from the French. Georgia Douglas Johnson is a poet neither afraid nor ashamed of her emotions. She limits herself to the purely conventional forms, rhythms and rhymes, but through them she achieves striking effects. The principal theme of Mrs. Johnson's poems is the secret dread down in every woman's heart, the dread of the passing of youth and beauty, and with them love. An old theme, one which poets themselves have often wearied of, but which, like death, remains one of the imperishable themes on which is made the poetry that has moved men's hearts through all ages. In her ingenuously wrought verses, through sheer simplicity and spontaneousness, Mrs. Johnson often sounds a note of pathos or passion that will not fail to waken a response, except in those too sophisticated or cynical to respond to natural impulses. Of the half dozen or so colored women writing creditable verse, Anne Spencer is the most modern and least obvious in her methods. Her lines are at times involved and turgid and almost cryptic, but she shows an originality which does not depend upon eccentricities. In her "Before the Feast of Shushan" she displays an opulence, the love of which has long been charged against the Negro as one of his naïve and childish traits, but which in art may infuse a much needed color, warmth and spirit of abandon into American poetry.
John W. Holloway, more than any Negro poet writing in the dialect today,
summons to his work the lilt, the spontaneity and charm of which Dunbar was the
supreme master whenever he employed that medium. It is well to say a word here
about the dialect poems of James Edwin Campbell. In dialect,
The constant effort in Negro dialect is to elide all troublesome consonants and sounds. This negative effort may be after all only positive laziness of the vocal organs, but the result is a softening and smoothing which, makes Negro dialect so delightfully easy for singers.
Daniel Webster Davis wrote dialect poetry at the time when
It is regrettable that two of the most gifted writers included were cut off so early in life. R. C. Jamison and Joseph S. Cotter, Jr., died several years ago, both of them in their youth. Jamison was barely thirty at the time of his death, but among his poems there is one, at least, which, stamps him as a poet of superior talent and lofty inspiration. "The Negro Soldiers" is a poem with the race problem as its theme, yet it transcends the limits of race and rises to spiritual height that makes it one of the noblest poems of the Great War. Cotter died a mere boy of twenty, and the latter part of that brief period he passed in an invalid state. Some months before his death he published a thin volume of verses which were for the most part written on a sick bed. In this little volume Cotter showed fine poetic sense and a free and bold mastery over his material. A reading of Cotter's poems is certain to induce that mood in which one will regretfully speculate on what the young poet might have accomplished had he not been cut off so soon.
As intimated above, my original idea for this book underwent a change in the writing of the introduction. I first planned to select twenty-five to thirty poems which I judged to be up to a certain standard, and offer them with a few words of introduction and without comment. In the collection, as it grew to be, that "certain standard" has been broadened if not lowered; but I believe that this is offset by the advantage of the wider range given the reader and the student of the subject.
I offer this collection without making apology or asking allowance. I feel confident that the reader will find not only an earnest for the future, but actual achievement. The reader cannot but be impressed by the distance already covered. It is a long way from the plaints of George Horton to the invectives of Claude McKay, from the obviousness of Frances Harper to the complexness of Anne Spencer. Much ground as been covered, but more will yet be covered. It is this side prophecy to declare that the undeniable creative genius the Negro is destined to make a distinctive and valuable attribution to American poetry.
I wish to extend my thanks to Mr. Arthur A. Schomburg, who placed his valuable collection of books by Negro authors at my disposal. I wish also to acknowledge with thanks the kindness of Dodd, Mead and Company for permitting the reprint of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar; of the Cornhill Publishing Company for permission to reprint poems of Georgia Douglas Johnson, Joseph S. Cotter, Jr., and Bertram Johnson; and of Neale & Co. for permission to reprint poems of John W. Holloway. I wish to thank Mr. Braithwaite for permission to use the included poems from his forthcoming volume, Sandy Star and Willie Gee. And to acknowledge the courtesy of the following magazines: The Crisis, The Century Magazine, The Liberator, The Freeman, The Independent, Others, and Poetry: A Magazine of Verse.
James Weldon Johnson