African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

Clara Ann Thompson, "Songs from the Wayside" (Full Text) (1908)

Editorial Note by Amardeep Singh: 

Collection of Poems by Clara Ann Thompson. Self-published in Rossmoyne Ohio in 1908. 

Clara Ann Thompson was born, possibly in 1868, in Rossmoyne, Ohio. Both of her parents were formerly enslaved people. According to Mary Anne Stewart Boelcskevy, she was a member of the YWCA, the NAACP and was active in the Baptist Church. While her collection, Songs from the Wayside was self-published, some of her poems were anthologized in prominent collections, including the Walter Clinton Jackson/Newman Ivey White collection An Anthology of Verse by American Negroes (1924).

This collection contains a significant number of poems using Black vernacular English, referred to at the time as "dialect poetry." Dialect poetry was quite popular in the time, as many writers were influenced by the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, who published several volumes of dialect poetry starting in the 1890s. However, for some writers and critics in the 1910s and 20s the use of dialect would be considered passe.

* * * 

Memorial Day


Go;--for 'tis Memorial morning--
Go with hearts of peace and love;
Deck the graves of fallen soldiers;
Go, your gratitude to prove.

Gather flow'rs and take them thither,
Emblem of a nation's tears;
Grateful hearts cannot forget them,
In the rush of passing years.

Strew the flow'rs above their couches,
Let thy heart's affection blend,
With the dewy buds and blossoms,
That in fragrant showers descend.

Strew the flow'rs above the heroes,
Slain for loving friends and thee;
Canst thou find a better off'ring,
For those sons of liberty?

While the buds and blooms are falling,
Earnest hearts are asking,--Why--
In a tone, though low and gentle,
Yet, as ardent as a cry,--

'Why must precious lives be given,
That our country may be free?
Is there not a nobler pathway
To the throne of liberty?

'Can we choose no nobler watch-word,
Than the ringing battle-cry,
Harbinger of strife and bloodshed,
Must we sin, that sin may die?

'Long ago, to far Judea,
Came the blessed Prince of Peace;
Shall we ever heed His teaching,
That these wars and feuds may cease?'


Jimmy’s Pet Superstition


Teacher, Jimmie's toe is bleedin';
Stumped it, comin' down the road;
I jest knowed that he would do it,
'Cause he went an' killed a toad.

Teacher, you jest ought to see it;
Oh, the blood's jest spurtin' out!
You won't ketch me killin' toad-frogs,
When I see them hoppin'bout.

"Oh, now, Johnny, that's all nonsense!
I told you sometime ago,
That the killing of a hop-toad
Wouldn't make you hurt your toe;

"Who told you that silly story?"
Grandma said that it is so;
She's much older than you, teacher,
An' I guess she ought to know.

"Come, now, Johnny, don't be saucy;"
Teacher, grandma did say so,
An' she says:'You No'thern cullud,
Don't b'lieve nothin' any mo'.

'Cause you say there ain't no speerits,
'Tain't bad luck to kill a cat,
Dog a-howlin' ain't no death-sign,
An' you've made me b'lieve all that.

But I jest can't b'lieve this, teacher,
'Cause I'm 'fraid to -- Don't you see?
Bet you wouldn't b'lieve it either,
Ef you went barefoot, like me.


The saddest day will have an eve,
The darkest night, a morn;
Think not, when clouds are thick and dark,
Thy way is too forlorn.

For, ev'ry cloud that e'er did rise,
To shade thy life's bright way,
And ev'ry restless night of pain,
And Ev'ry weary day,

Will bring thee gifts, thou'lt value more,
Because they cost so dear;
The soul that faints not in the storm,
Emerges bright and clear.




He prayed for patience; Care and Sorrow came,
And dwelt with him, grim and unwelcome guests;
He felt their galling presence night and day;
And wondered if the Lord had heard him pray,
And why his life was filled with weariness.

He prayed again; and now he prayed for light;
The darkness parted, and the light shone in;
And lo! he saw the answer to his prayed--
His heart had learned, through weariness and care,
The patience, that he deemed he'd sought in vain.




A doubt crept into a heart one day;
The brave heart said: "Twil be gone tomorrow;'
Ah, little it knew!
For it steadily grew,
Till it covered that heart with a pall of sorrow;
And there came at length, a darksome day,
When the hope of life seemed gone for aye.

A ray of light, in a darkened heart;
Yes, only a ray, but it grew more bright,
And it steadily spread,
Through darkness and dread,
Till it flooded that heart with a glorious light;
And a soul gave thanks to its God, above;
The light was a Savior's guiding love.



A youth, with proud heart, pure and strong,
And eye with hope aflame,
Goes forth to join the busy throng,
And win success, and fame.
He presses on, with eager feet,
Adown the sunny way;
As yet, he knows naught of defeat,
And to the struggling ones he meets,
Gives little sympathy.

But soon the dark clouds gather' round,
The storm breaks overhead,
The wild winds howl, the rain comes down,
The lightning flashes red.
But when, the last cloud swept away,
The sun shines out again,
The youth emerges from the fray,
With softened heart, and sympathy,
The afterglow of pain.

A maiden, full of life and love,
Goes singing on her way;

To measured strains her light feet move,
And joyous is her day.
A transient shade comes o'er her face,
When told some tale of pain,
But soon a bright smile fills its place,
The song that slackened, for a space,
Goes lightly on again.

But hark! the song at last is still;
The smiles are changed to tears;
Dark, troubled thoughts, her young heart fill,
And doubts, and gloomy fears.
"Ah me!" we say, "her song is o'er,
And 'twas a joyful strain,"
But list! the maiden sings once more,
A sweeter song than e'er before,
The afterglow of pain.

'Tis thus, 'tis thus, the infant dies,
The parents look above;
False friends deceive us on the way,
We seek the Greater Love.
And so the threads of grief, that run
Through life, may prove our gain;
The noblest deeds that e'er were done,
The sweetest songs that e'er were sung,
Are afterglows of pain.




If thou shouldst return with the sweet words
of love,
So earnestly spoken that day,
Methinks that thy words, this sad heart would
For my pride has melted away;
And I've learned how true was the heart that
I spurned,
And I've longed for the face that never returned.

If thou shouldst return to claim me thy bride,
How gladly thy fate would I share;
How gladly I'd spend my whole life at thy
How honored I'd feel to be there;
Oh, I've learned to revere the heart that I
And I long for the face that never returned.


If thou shouldst return, ah, vain is the dream!
I'll cherish the fancy no more;
Though dark and forsaken my pathway may
I'll press bravely on as before;
And trust in the One who forgives our
And heals the deep wounds that our wayward-
ness makes.




Come right in this house, Will Johnson!
Kin I teach you dignity?
Chasin' aft' them po' white children,
Jest because you wan'to play.

Whut does po' white trash keer fah you?
Want you keep away fum them,
Next, they'll be-a-doin' meanness,
An' a-givin' you the blame.

Don't come mumblin' 'bout their playthings,
Yourn is good enough fah you;
'Twus the best that I could git you,
An' you've got to make them do.

Go'n' to break you fum that habit,
Yes, I am! An' mighty soon,
Next, you'll grow up like the white-folks,
All time whinin' fah the moon.

Runnin' with them po' white children--
Go'n' to break it up, I say!--
Pickin' up their triflinn' habits,
Soon, you'll be as spilte as they.

Come on here, an' take the baby--
Mind now! Don't you let her fall--
'Fo' I'll have you runnin' with them,
I won't let you play at all.

Jest set there, an' mind the baby
Till I tell you --You may go;
An'jest let me ketch you chasin'
Aft' them white trash any mo'.



She said she forgave me;
I looked in her eyes,
And knew that her words were true;
For one blissful moment,
I felt my hopes rise,
And sought I, my vows to renew.

But, something I missed,
In her calm, steady, gaze,
Caused the love words to die, e'er they came;
For, though her kind heart,
So freely forgave,
Still, I knew that it was not the same.

For, once, that pure heart,
Was all, but my own;
Well I knew, how it quickened its beat,
How those sweet, gentle, eyes,
With a soft luster, shone,
At the sound of my coming feet.


But little I valued
The pearl I had found,
And carelessly cast it away,
For one, whose gay laugh
Proved a meaningless sound,
And whose heart was all vanity.

And when I returned,
For I'd learned her true worth,
As I sadly gazed in her eyes,
I knew that her love
Had died at its birth,
I had lost forever, my prize.




"Holy, holy, holy!" the choir chants sweet
and low,
And earnest hearts are lifted up in prayer;
The organ's mellow cadence peals solemn,
soft, and slow,
And God is with His people, gathered there.

"Holy, holy, holy!" they bow before His will;
The pastor's tones rise solemnly o'er all:--
"The Lord is in His temple, let all the earth
be still;"
A deep calm regins throughout the sacred hall.

"Holy, holy, holy" Who would not humbly bow,
Before such holiness, such love divine?
And leaving pride and folly, join with His
people, now,
In faithful worship, at so pure a shrine.


"Holy, holy, holy!" their full hearts swell
As o'er and o'er they hear the soft refrain;
And when, the service ended, the choir rings
out 'Amen',
A hundred voices mingle in the strain.




Well, we went down town a-shopping,
My brother and sister and I;
'Twas just two days before Christmas,
With Ev'rything yet to buy.

There were gifts for nieces and nephews,
And trinkets for sister and me,
There were sweets for the Christmas dinner,
And things for the Christmas tree.

We felt there was pleasure before us,
When we cheerfully boarded the train,
But we found 'twas only business,
Ere we reached our home again.

The streets were crowded with people,
And at last when we reached the stores,
There was such a mass of shoppers,
We could scarcely pass through the doors.

We forced our way to the counter,
This bitter truth to learn--
That others were there before us,
So we must await our turn.

At last it came, and we purchased,
And then--'twas enough to derange!
We had the self-same experience,
Awaiting our parcels and change.


'Twas the same at ev'ry counter;
'Twas the same at ev'ry store;
Just pushing and crowding and waiting,
And seemingly, nothing more.

Well, after much taxing of patience,
Our Christmas shopping was done,
And laden with many parcels,
We gladly started for home.

But the crowd had almost doubled,
When we came out on the street,
And, but for the good-will of Christmas,
We'd have lost our tempers complete.

It seemed that half of the city,
Had come out a shopping, that day,
While half stood at the show windows,
To look, and to block the way.


We tried to rush -- it was useless,
Of course we missed our train,
Then waited an hour for another,
And at last we reached home again.

And now, a few words of counsel,
I would kindly give, by your leave,--
Don't put off your Christmas shopping,
Till the day before Christmas eve.




I sat in the door of our cottage,
One golden autumn day,
And the breezes stirring the tree-tops,
Were as soft as those of May.


But looking away to the woodland,
Through hazy autumn air,
The red and gold of the forest leaves,
Proclaimed the frost-touch there.

The grass was still green in the pasture,
Where soft-eyed cattle trod,
And down in the deep, sheltered valleys,
Were asters and golden rod.

But I knew the merciless frost-king,
Would come with might, erelong,
And blast all the green things remaining,
And still the sweet bird-song.

So my heart drank in the warm beauty,
Of that soft autumn day,
With a wistful love for ev'rything,
So soon to pass away.




My Saviour, let me hear Thy voice tonight,
I'll follow Thee, I'll follow Thee;
The clouds that overhang my way, obscure
the light,
And all is dark to me.

I'd hear Thy voice above the tempest's shriek;
I'll follow Thee, I'll follow Thee;
And though my sight be dim, my spirit weak,
I'll trust, though naught I see.

I'd feel Thy arm, supporting in the dark;
I'll follow Thee, I'll follow Thee;
For Thou canst fan to flame, faith's sinking
And seal my loyalty.


I shall not sink, dear Lord, When Thou'rt my
I'll follow Thee, I'll follow Thee;
Though lashed by heavy waves, on ev'ry side,
I'm safe, when Thou'rt with me.




'Tis Lent, the holy time of fast and prayer;
Of meditation and repentant tear;
When saints bow humbly 'neath the cross
they bear,
Treading the path of duty, without fear.

But one remains within her quiet room,
And looks with sadness, out upon the town;
Lent brings her nothing, to dispel the gloom,
That hovers o'er her path, and bears her

What matter, if the bells chime sweetly, now,
Calling the many worshipers to prayer?
No holy light breaks o'er that clouded brow,
She does not care to mingle with them,


Into her life, the hand of Death has come,
Bearing her truest, best beloved, away;
And now, her heart, all wretched and forlorn,
Is crying out to Death, incessantly:--

"Oh Death! give back my best beloved again;
Give back my own, thou heartless, tyrant,
Seest thou my bleeding heart, all rent in twain,
And carest thou not, that thou hast done
this thing?"

'Tis Easter morn; the lenten fast is o'er;
A risen Savior bids the glad world sing;
The grave is open; Death has pow'r no more,
For Christ has robbed him of his deadly sting.

The church is crowded with a happy throng;
O'er banks of flow'rs, the softened sunbeams
The choir bursts forth, in glad, triumphant,
"Oh earth, rejoice! The Lord is ris'n today."


A dark-eyed girl comes slowly down the aisle,
Her face marked deep, with bitterness
and pain;
The choir is singing joyfully, the while,
"Rejoice, rejoice! for death has ceased to

The maiden lists the song, half bitterly,--
"Well may they sing, they've never wept
in vain,
They've ne'er had cause to ask, unceasingly,
'Where shall I find my lost beloved again."

But listen! one is singing all alone;
Her rich voice, welling up so full and clear,
Throbs ever, with a sad, sweet, undertone,
Telling, she, too, has met some trial here.

And now her voice sinks soft as falling dew;
Now rising high, it seems to pierce the dome;
The undertone e'er throbbing sweet and true--
She, too, has suffered, but has overcome.


She sings today, that some o'erburdened
May find that light that shines within her
The maiden listens--ah! the hot tears start,
And melts the ice, that o'er her heart has

The thoughtless ones gaze at her, wond'ringly;
'How can she weep, when all the world
is bright?'
While others gaze, with kindly sympathy,
Knowing her heart has found the Easter



'How'd I solve de Negro Problum?'
Gentlemen, don't like dat wo'd!
'Mind me too much uv ol' slave times,
When de white man wus de lo'd.

Spoutin' roun' about 'My niggahs',
Knockin' us fum lef' to right,
Sellin' us, like we wus cattle,
Drivin' us fum mawn till night,--

Oh, you say, I'm off de subjec';
Am a little off, I see,--
Well, de way to solve de problum,
Is, to let de black man be.

Say, 'you fail to ketch my meanin'?'
Now, dat's very plain to me,
Don't you know, you whites is pickin'
On de blacks, continu'ly?

Jes' pick up de mawnin' papah,
Anywhaur you choose to go,
When you read about de black man,
You may bet it's somepin low.

It's all right to tell his meanness,
Dat's, pervided it is true;
But, why, in de name uv blazes,
Don't you tell de good things too!

No, I ain't a-cussin' either!
Ef my blood wus young an' waum,
Guess I'd sometimes, feel like cussin',
How you whites is takin' on.

Still, I don't hol'wid dat business,
Leave dat, fah you whites to do --
Cussin' an' a-suicidin',
When de whole land b'longs to you.

Den, agin, ez I wus sayin',--
Ef a black man makes a mawk,
Seems you white-folks will go crazy,
Try'n' to keep him in de dawk.

An', ef he don't watch his cornahs,
An' his head ain't mighty soun',
Fust he knows: some uv you white-folks
Done reached up, an' pulled him down.

Whut you say? I'm too hawd on you?
Whut you 'spected me to do,
When you axed me, my opinion?
Tell you somepin' wusn't true?

Co'se dah's some exceptions 'mong you,
An' I ain't denyin' it;
But dah's mighty few, I tell you,
Dat kin say: 'Dis shoe don't fit.'

Yes, you say some blacks is 'on'ry;'
So is many uv de whites;
But de black race mus' be perfec',
'Fo' we git ou' 'equal rights.'

Foreign whites, fum ev'ry nation,
Finds a welcome in dis lan',
Yet, dah seems to be no welcome
Fah de native cullud man.

You don't have to 'tote his skillet,'--
Ez de folks in Dixie say,--
Only, when you see him strugglin',
Don't you git into his way.

Co'se, ef you is got a mind to,
You kin lend a helpin' han',
But de best help you kin give him,
Is, to treat him like a man.

Look at all de great improvement,
He has made since he wus free;
Yet, de white-folks keep a-wond'ring,
Whut's his future go'n' to be.

All time talkin' 'bout his meanness,
An' de many things he lack,
Makin' out dey see no progress,
Doe dey're try'n' to hol' him back.

Oh, it ain't no use in talkin',
Ef you whites would jest play faiah,
All de wranglin' 'bout dis problum,
Soon would vanish in de aiah.

Once dey couldn't find no method,
Dat would put down slavery,
Till it like to split de country,
Den, dey set de black man free.

Dat's de way wid dis race problum:
Ef de white-folks had a min',
Dey could fin' a answer to it,
Like dey did de other time.

Co'se, dah's two sides to dis problum,
An' dah's things de blacks should do,
But I'm talkin' 'bout you white-folks,
And de pawt dat b'longs to you.

'Don't know whaur to place de black man?'
He will fin' his place;-- You'll see!
Like de foreign whites is doin',
When you learn to let him be.

'Den, you feah amalgamation?'
When de black man takes his stan',
Don't you know he'll squar' his shoulders,
Proud, dat he's a Af'ican?

In dis lan', to be a black man,
Isn't called a lucky thing;
An' dat's why some fools among us,
Think it smawt to mingle in.

An' you white-folks isn't blameless,
Some uv you is in dat too,--
Takin' ev'ry mean advantage,
Dat is in yo' powah to do.

But, de race will reach a station,
Whaur de blindes' one kin see,
Dat 'tis good to be a black man,
Jest ez sho', ez sho' kin be.

Den, agin, sometimes I'm thinkin',
Dat dis 'malgamation fright's
Jes' got up by you smawt white-folks,
Keep fum givin' us ou' rights.

Fah, ef now; in all her trials,
Mos' uv us stick to de race,
You know well, we won't fahsake her,
When she gits a honored place.

'Be a nation in a nation?'
Now you're talkin' like a fool!
Whut you mean by '"Plur'bus unyun?--
Many nations 'neath one rule.

Not go'n' back on dat ol' motto,
Dat has made yo' country's name,
Jest because de race you brung here,
Ax you fah a little claim?

Well, I 'spec' I mus' be goin',
Gittin' kinder late, I see;
Guess nex' time 'Ol' Rube' is passin',
Gentlemen, you'll let him be.

Oh, you say, 'you bah no malice,'
Well, I'd ruther have it so,
But I'll hol' up fah my people,
Whethah folks like it or no.


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