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

James D. Corrothers, Poems included in "The Book of American Negro Poetry" (1922)


To be a Negro in a day like this
  Demands forgiveness. Bruised with blow on blow,
Betrayed, like him whose woe dimmed eyes gave bliss
  Still must one succor those who brought one low,
To be a Negro in a day like this.

To be a Negro in a day like this
  Demands rare patience--patience that can wait
In utter darkness. 'Tis the path to miss,
  And knock, unheeded, at an iron gate,
To be a Negro in a day like this.

To be a Negro in a day like this
  Demands strange loyalty. We serve a flag
Which is to us white freedom's emphasis.
  Ah! one must love when Truth and Justice lag,
To be a Negro in a day like this.

To be a Negro in a day like this--
  Alas! Lord God, what evil have we done?
Still shines the gate, all gold and amethyst,
  But I pass by, the glorious goal unwon,
"Merely a Negro"--in a day like this!


He came, a youth, singing in the dawn
  Of a new freedom, glowing o'er his lyre,
  Refining, as with great Apollo's fire,
  His people's gift of song. And thereupon,
This Negro singer, come to Helicon
  Constrained the masters, listening to admire,
  And roused a race to wonder and aspire,
  Gazing which way their honest voice was gone,
With ebon face uplit of glory's crest.
  Men marveled at the singer, strong and sweet,
  Who brought the cabin's mirth, the tuneful night,
But faced the morning, beautiful with light,
  To die while shadows yet fell toward the west,
  And leave his laurels at his people's feet.

Dunbar, no poet wears your laurels now;
  None rises, singing, from your race like you.
  Dark melodist, immortal, though the dew
  Fell early on the bays upon your brow,
And tinged with pathos every halcyon vow
  And brave endeavor. Silence o'er you threw
  Flowerets of love. Or, if an envious few
  Of your own people brought no garlands, how
Could Malice smite him whom the gods had crowned?
  If, like the meadow-lark, your flight was low
  Your flooded lyrics half the hilltops drowned;
A wide world heard you, and it loved you so
  It stilled its heart to list the strains you sang,
  And o'er your happy songs its plaudits rang.


O'er all my song the image of a face
  Lieth, like shadow on the wild sweet flowers.
  The dream, the ecstasy that prompts my powers;
  The golden lyre's delights bring little grace
To bless the singer of a lowly race.
  Long hath this mocked me: aye in marvelous hours,
  When Hera's gardens gleamed, or Cynthia's bowers,
  Or Hope's red pylons, in their far, hushed place!
But I shall dig me deeper to the gold;
  Fetch water, dripping, over desert miles,
  From clear Nyanzas and mysterious Niles
Of love; and sing, nor one kind act withhold.
  So shall men know me, and remember long,
  Nor my dark face dishonor any song.


Ever and ever anon,
  After the black storm, the eternal, beauteous bow!
Brother, to rosy-painted mists that arch beyond,
  Blithely I go.

My brows men laureled and my lyre
  Twined with immortal ivy for one little rippling song;
My "House of Golden Leaves" they praised and "passionate fire"--
  But, Friend, the way is long!

Onward and onward, up! away!
  Though Fear flaunt all his banners in my face,
And my feet stumble, lo! the Orphean Day!
  Forward by God's grace!

These signs are still before me: "Fear,"
  "Danger," "Unprecedented," and I hear black "No"
Still thundering, and "Churl." Good Friend, I rest me here--
  Then to the glittering bow!

Loometh and cometh Hate in wrath,
  Mailed Wrong, swart Servitude and Shame with bitter rue,
Nathless a Negro poet's feet must tread the path
  The winged god knew.

Thus, my true Brother, dream-led, I
 Forefend the anathema, following the span.
I hold my head as proudly high
 As any man.


One does such work as one will not,
  And well each knows the right;
Though the white storm howls, or the sun is hot,
  The black must serve the white.
And it's, oh, for the white man's softening flesh,
  While the black man's muscles grow!
Well I know which grows the mightier,
  _I_ know; full well I know.

The white man seeks the soft, fat place,
  And he moves and he works by rule.
Ingenious grows the humbler race
  In Oppression's prodding school.
And it's, oh, for a white man gone to seed,
  While the Negro struggles so!
And I know which race develops most,
  I know; yes, well I know.

The white man rides in a palace car,
  And the Negro rides "Jim Crow."
To damn the other with bolt and bar,
  One creepeth so low; so low!
And it's, oh, for a master's nose in the mire,
  While the humbled hearts o'erflow!
Well I know whose soul grows big at this,
  And whose grows small; _I know_!

The white man leases out his land,
  And the Negro tills the same.
One works; one loafs and takes command;
  But I know who wins the game!
And it's, oh, for the white man's shrinking soil,
  As the black's rich acres grow!
Well I know how the signs point out at last,
  I know; ah, well I know!

The white man votes for his color's sake,
  While the black, for his is barred;
(Though "ignorance" is the charge they make),
  But the black man studies hard.
And it's, oh, for the white man's sad neglect,
  For the power of his light let go!
So, I know which man must win at last,
  I know! Ah, Friend, I know!


Dey was hard times jes fo' Christmas round our neighborhood one year;
So we held a secret meetin', whah de white folks couldn't hear,
To 'scuss de situation, an' to see what could be done
Towa'd a fust-class Christmas dinneh an' a little Christmas fun.

Rufus Green, who called de meetin', ris an' said: "In dis here town,
An' throughout de land, de white folks is a-tryin' to keep us down."
S' 'e: "Dey's bought us, sold us, beat us; now dey 'buse us 'ca'se we's free;
But when dey tetch my stomach, dey's done gone too fur foh me!

"Is I right?" "You sho is, Rufus!" roared a dozen hungry throats.
"Ef you'd keep a mule a-wo'kin', don't you tamper wid his oats.
Dat's sense," continued Rufus. "But dese white folks nowadays
Has done got so close and stingy you can't live on what dey pays.

"Here 'tis Christmas-time, an', folkses, I's indignant 'nough to choke.
Whah's our Christmas dinneh comin' when we's 'mos' completely broke?
I can't hahdly 'fo'd a toothpick an' a glass o' water. Mad?
Say, I'm desp'ret! Dey jes better treat me nice, dese white folks had!"

Well, dey 'bused de white folks scan'lous, till old Pappy Simmons ris,
Leanin' on his cane to s'pote him, on account his rheumatis',
An' s' 'e: "Chilun, whut's dat wintry wind a-sighin' th'ough de street
'Bout yo' wasted summeh wages? But, no matter, we mus' eat.

"Now, I seed a beau'ful tuhkey on a certain gemmun's fahm.
He's a-growin' fat an' sassy, an' a-struttin' to a chahm.
Chickens, sheeps, hogs, sweet pertaters--all de craps is fine dis year;
All we needs is a committee foh to tote de goodies here."

Well, we lit right in an' voted dat it was a gran idee,
An' de dinneh we had Christmas was worth trabblin' miles to see;
An' we eat a full an' plenty, big an' little, great an' small,
Not beca'se we was dishonest, but indignant, sah. Dat's all.


So oft our hearts, belovèd lute,
In blossomy haunts of song are mute;
So long we pore, 'mid murmurings dull,
O'er loveliness unutterable.
So vain is all our passion strong!
The dream is lovelier than the song.

The rose thought, touched by words, doth turn
Wan ashes. Still, from memory's urn,
The lingering blossoms tenderly
Refute our wilding minstrelsy.
Alas! we work but beauty's wrong!
The dream is lovelier than the song.

Yearned Shelley o'er the golden flame?
Left Keats for beauty's lure, a name
But "writ in water"? Woe is me!
To grieve o'er flowerful faëry.
My Phasian doves are flown so long--
The dream is lovelier than the song!

Ah, though we build a bower of dawn,
The golden-wingèd bird is gone,
And morn may gild, through shimmering leaves,
Only the swallow-twittering eaves.
What art may house or gold prolong
A dream far lovelier than a song?

The lilting witchery, the unrest
Of wingèd dreams, is in our breast;
But ever dear Fulfilment's eyes
Gaze otherward. The long-sought prize,
My lute, must to the gods belong.
The dream is lovelier than the song.

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