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

James Weldon Johnson, "O Black and Unknown Bards" (1917)


    O black and unknown bards of long ago,
    How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
    How, in your darkness, did you come to know
    The power and beauty of the minstrel's lyre?
    Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?
    Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,
    Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise
    Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?
    Heart of what slave poured out such melody
    As "Steal away to Jesus"? On its strains
    His spirit must have nightly floated free,
    Though still about his hands he felt his chains.
    Who heard great "Jordan roll"? Whose starward eye
    Saw chariot "swing low"? And who was he
    That breathed that comforting, melodic sigh,
    "Nobody knows de trouble I see"?
    What merely living clod, what captive thing,
    Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,
    And find within its deadened heart to sing
    These songs of sorrow, love, and faith, and hope?
    How did it catch that subtle undertone,
    That note in music heard not with the ears?
    How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,
    Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.
    Not that great German master in his dream
    Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars
    At the creation, ever heard a theme
    Nobler than "Go down, Moses." Mark its bars,
    How like a mighty trumpet-call they stir
    The blood. Such are the notes that men have sung
    Going to valorous deeds; such tones there were
    That helped make history when Time was young.
    There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
    That from degraded rest and servile toil
    The fiery spirit of the seer should call
    These simple children of the sun and soil.
    O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
    You--you alone, of all the long, long line
    Of those who've sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
    Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.
    You sang not deeds of heroes or of kings;
    No chant of bloody war, no exulting pean
    Of arms-won triumphs; but your humble strings
    You touched in chord with music empyrean.
    You sang far better than you knew; the songs
    That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed
    Still live,--but more than this to you belongs:
    You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.

Published in Fifty Years And Other Poems (1917)
Also published in The Dunbar Speaker and Entertainer (1920)

This page has paths:

This page has tags: